Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Book Stars of 2010

Blogger Elizabeth Bluemle of ShelfTalker (at Publishers Weekly) kindly rounds up the books that have gotten starred reviews in major review sources; I posted about this list 4-5 months ago, but here's her updated version of "The Stars So Far." (Thanks to Betsy Bird of Fuse #8 for the link!) Note that Bluemle provides a list of 6-star books, then 5-star books, 4-star books, etc.

And the 6-star books are...

--A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner
--Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce
--Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan
--The War to End All Wars by Russell Freedman

As Bluemle herself explains, "Starred reviews are excellent guideposts, but they don’t tell the whole story, of course. There are amazing books out there that never receive a starred review but are popular and/or critical favorites nonetheless." It's interesting to compare these starred lists to the books that are getting much of the Newbery chatter (see September 18th post below about that). The twain don't always meet. But between the two groups, you can certainly come up with some terrific books, and that's the real point of all this.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Review of Always Listen to Your Mother by Florence Parry Heide and Roxanne Heide Pierce

Lately, there's been some blog chatter about the new satire in children's books—and we're talking picture books. I suspect this ball got rolling in 1989 with the publication of Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith's The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, along with their triumphant follow-up, The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (1992). Subversive, witty stories are becoming more popular for the picture book crowd, perhaps as much to entertain their parents as to amuse 4- to 6-year-olds. I think we can also give some credit to The Simpsons for educating kids about satire. And then there's the recent wave of paranormals, which is largely attributed to the popularity of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books and movies.

All of which paves the way for Always Listen to Your Mother, a story by Florence Parry Heide and Roxanne Heide Pierce, illustrated by Kyle M. Stone. Then again, Heide has been writing children's books since 1967, including some illustrated by luminaries Edward Gorey, Jules Feiffer, and Lane Smith, and she had the tongue-in-cheek thing down long before the books mentioned above came out. Let's just say, rather, that the time is ripe for a book like this, written by one of the grandmasters (grandmothers?) of smirk and her daughter.

Our story begins with a little boy named Ernest, such a good child! He always, always listens to his mother, so he spends a lot of time doing housework and homework and saying, "Yes, mother." We learn that "Ernest never: spilled, whined, dawdled, talked back, got his own way... or had a good time."

Of course, when new neighbors move in, Ernest asks his mother's permission to go see if they have a child his age he can play with. She says yes because all good mothers "want their children to meet nice children who will be a good influence."

So Ernest rides his bike (the high, old-fashioned penny-farthing kind) across a rather long stretch of terrain to the neighbors' house, which will look suspiciously like a horror story mansion to readers, up to and including the weather overhead.

There is a new boy, and his name is Vlapid. He looks like a cross between Frankenstein's monster and—well, some kind of goblin, with nice gray skin and pointed ears. Only he's shorter. Vlapid also obeys his mother (who may remind you of Elvira and vampires). But his mother's idea of how a child should spend his time is a little different from Ernest's, thank heavens. Her list of "chores" is remarkably vague, and Ernest has the time of his life.

Naturally, Ernest's mother doesn't worry a bit once she hears what an obedient boy the new neighbor child is...

It's all one big joke, but a fun one, and it's wrapped up inside an eerie, antique atmosphere like, um, an elderly beef patty between two early twentieth-century hamburger buns. (My best metaphor ever, no? With its zombie overtones.)

Stone's soft-edged mixed-media illustrations make a nice fit for this clever tale about different parenting styles and what they mean for kids. Just in time for Halloween, but also right on schedule for making family in-jokes about listening to your mother, which is a year-round sport.

A Review of Tell the Truth, B.B. Wolf by Judy Sierra

I always sigh with relief when I see that a picture book with some rhyming action is written by a veteran children's poet. In the case of Judy Sierra, I used to share her book of poems, There's a Zoo in Room 22, with my 1st through 3rd graders back in the days when I taught little kids. Counting Crocodiles is pretty darn good, too. And Beastly Rhymes to Read after Dark has a furry, mottled green cover. Can't beat that!

Tell the Truth, B.B. Wolf is Sierra's follow-up to her 2007 book, Mind Your Manners, B.B. Wolf, both illustrated by J. Otto Seibold. In the first book, B.B. Wolf, who has retired to the Villain Villa Senior Center, is asked to a tea hosted by a children's librarian. He has a little trouble figuring out just how he should behave.

In this new offering, B.B. is again invited to the library, this time to tell the story of how he met the three pigs. As in the first book, other book characters make excellent cameo appearances. My favorites are actually the villains in B.B.'s retirement home: after the wolf worries, "But I wasn't a hero," the witch cackles, "You wanted to eat those little piggies, didn't you?" Rumpelstiltskin suggests, "Put a spin on it," and the crocodile advises him, "Give it a happy ending.... Everyone expects a happy ending these days."

You and your kids will laugh when you hear how B.B. spins it. He was blowing on a dandelion when the first house fell down, and he was trying to teach the little piggie not to play with matches when he accidentally blew down the second house. The wolf's new version of the story doesn't go over very well, though. Every few minutes, someone in the back oinks, "Tell the truth, B.B. Wolf!" (Guess who?)

B.B. incorporates a little song-and-dance routine while he's at it:
Hard luck always follows me,
And trouble is my middle name.
Any time there is a crime,
I'm the one to get the blame.

Plus we get funny remarks from the peanut gallery:
"Isn't that wolf's snout getting longer?" asked Pinocchio.
"I think it is. I think it is," said the Little Engine.

Eventually, B.B. is persuaded to 'fess up and even apologize. In a slightly dada way, he starts thinking of new interpretations for the B.B. in his name. And then he rounds up his friends and does a service project for his porcine victims. (I'll let you find out just what.)

Seibold's distinctive, computer-graphics work has a deliberately 2-D feel; Booklist has called his style "a retro-hip, 1950's look." For example, we get B.B. Wolf's retro plaid suit mixed with hip details like his cell phone. I am also reminded of early Disney cartoons and vintage poster art. (You may know Seibold's artwork primarily thanks to a book co-written with his wife, Vivian Walsh—Olive, the Other Reindeer.)

I suggest you make Tell the Truth, B.B. Wolf a companion piece to your copy of Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith's The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. Believe me, there's room on this planet for both books!

A Review of There's a Princess in the Palace: Five Classic Tales retold by Zoë B. Alley

Maybe you've had a chance to see A Wolf at the Door, the first oversized folk-/fairy tale collaboration by husband-and-wife team Zoë B. and R.W. Alley. This one continues in the same vein, though its pink cover and the word "princess" in the title may give its audience more of a gender bias. But I hasten to inform you that these are not prissy stories. In fact, they're pretty darn funny, and definitely feisty.

You think you know the stories of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, The Frog Prince, and The Princess and the Pea, but you've never seen them done quite like this. Just for example, one of the seven dwarves in this book is female; her name is Bethanne. And the Handsome Prince from stories #2 and #3 has this goofy way of repeating the narration in his lines of dialogue. It's almost as if the Brothers Grimm were stand-up comedians.

Now, in their first such collection, the Alleys tied the stories together with the recurring character of the wolf. Here they use a string of princess descendants plus one recurring character, a witch/evil fairy. Only the evil fairy gets to have a bit more of a personality here, not to mention a comical redemption at the end of the book. She plays the villain in both the Sleeping Beauty story and Snow White. For that matter, the Sleeping Beauty princess, who's a bit of a brat, gets to play Snow White, too! (She tells the prince at the end of SB that she's not quite ready for marriage, then wanders into the forest and pulls a Goldilocks on the seven dwarves.) This princess turns out to be the daughter of Cinderella, the mother of the princess in The Frog Princess, and the grandmother of the girl in The Princess and the Pea. Whew! It's a lot easier to follow in the book, trust me.

The best thing about There's a Princess in the Palace is that it's presented in comic book format, alternating narration with dialogue. The second best is that it includes pop culture commentary along the lines of the movie version of Shrek. Well, nothing so easily dated. For instance, when the Cinderella prince's parents tell him they're going to host a ball so they can find him a bride, he asks, "Don't I have any say in this?" To which the king replies, "Of course not! This is the 15th century!" And his mother remarks, "Our son—such a comedian!" My favorite of these little interpositions has got to be Cinderella's, when she's slaving away in the kitchen: "Why are they always so mean to me? I wish chocolate cupcakes were invented—they would make me feel better!"

Another way the five stories are tied together is by a couple of mice who provide a running commentary, but they are not the Disney mice from Cinderella. They're more like Statler and Waldorf, those two old guys in the balcony on Sesame Street. For example, when bratty Princess Dawn (Sleeping Beauty) says "Daaaaaad!" one mouse observes, "Nice whining!" and the other says, "Yes, very well done!" (Adds Queen Cinderella, "When I was her age, I was sweeping cinders out of fireplaces—but that's another story!")

R.W. Alley's artwork is loose and cartoon-like, his characters warm and ordinary looking—like a cross between Maurice Sendak's people and Bob Graham's. Besides, it will be nice, unnoticeable parent propaganda for your kids to see princesses who don't look like Barbie dolls! I should note that the large trim size, though it may seem a little unwieldy, allows for generous spreads in which the author and illustrator can properly develop each of the five stories within a short span of pages.

The Alleys have a great time with these fairy tales, and you will, too. The Wolf at the Door was a lot of fun, but this team has upped the ante with their second fairy tale outing: There's a Princess in the Palace is just delightful!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

It's Cybils Awards Time (Almost!)

Okay, this is exciting! I'm going to be a Cybils Awards judge in Round 2 for the Middle Grade Science Fiction/Fantasy category. Woo-hoo! Click here for a complete list of this year's judges, also FAQs and other info.

In case you haven't heard, the Cybils are the kidlit blogging community's version of the Newberys. We even have a graphic novel category! Finalists will be announced on January 1 and winners on February 14, 2011.

So what's your part, besides sitting back and rooting for your favorite book? Well, from October 1-15, you'll be able to nominate your picks for the best children's books of 2010. Any reader, blogger, writer, publisher, kid, parent, or miscellaneous humanoid can nominate books for the Cybils. (Though please note that once one person nominates a book, it's in the running; multiple nominations are not necessary.)

Be thinking about your favorites!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Thinking about the Newberys and Caldecotts

So Betsy Bird has written a nice post speculating about the next Newbery and Caldecott winners over at Fuse #8. You should also read the comments to see what other people suggest.

I have not yet read One Crazy Summer, though it's definitely a frontrunner. (Me and my fantasy fixation!) I am pulling for The Dreamer and The Night Fairy for Honor books, assuming OCS is as good as everyone says it is. And of course, I am always up for a Megan Whalen Turner win, yet I worry (as do others) that a book in a series might not get the same respect as a standalone. So we'll see what happens with A Conspiracy of Kings.

While we're at it, let's just acknowledge that Kate Milford's The Boneshaker is one of the best books of 2010, not to mention a superior representative of the wave of new paranormals. Saying it's derivative of Ray Bradbury's work is ridiculous; Bradbury is clearly simply an inspiration, and not the only one. Milford's book stands on its own two creepy feet!

You'll also find some interesting thoughts from Betsy and commenters about how a number of the Newbery candidates seem to border on YA. Looking back, I'd say Lois Lowry's The Giver is a shining example of this sort of thing. Maybe we can call it Merchant-Ivory Syndrome: books with Serious Themes tend to dominate whenever somebody's passing out literary awards. And serious has a way of sounding more mature. (See Betsy's note on humor.)

I have less of a commitment to the Caldecott possibilities this time around. I would love to see Oh No! (Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World) by Mac Barnett and Dan Santat win an award. I just read David Wiesner's Art & Max and wasn't as sold on it as I was on Flotsam, but it's certainly pretty. (And I do applaud the theme of encouraging less-restrained creativity.) Still, I'd probably go with a poetry book like Mirror Mirror or Ubiquitous. But then, I have a poetry bias.

Except that Seven Imp is saying Mirror Mirror doesn't qualify... rats! Here's more Caldecott fun with Jules, who takes a look at Betsy Bird's suggestions, then adds some of her own. Lots of gorgeous art to peruse.

So, what do you think?

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Review of Dirt Road Home by Watt Key

I am a big fan of Watt Key's book, Alabama Moon, so I was happy to discover this sequel. But I will add a cautionary note, one that reflects my experience reading both books: Alabama Moon is middle grade fiction (ages 9-12), while Dirt Road Home is YA (Young Adult, ages 12 and up). Basically, we're talking PG vs. PG-13, mostly because of violence. To put it bluntly, Dirt Road Home has a kind of Lord of the Flies vibe.

That said, it's a good book because Watt Key is a terrific storyteller, and I do love finding out what happens to Moon's friend Hal. If you've read Alabama Moon, you may recall that Moon, a boy raised in the wilderness by a Vietnam vet father who distrusted everybody but especially the government, was placed in a boys' home after his father's death and managed to tame a bully named Hal. At the end of that book, Hal was sent to juvie to finish paying his so-called debt to society. Which is where Dirt Road Home picks up.

Hmm. Perhaps I should say this book is Heart of Darkness for fourteen-year-olds, or even One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest... Here Hal compares the state residence where he met Moon to Hellenweiler Boys' Home (emphasis on the "hell"):
You would never hear an adult call Hellenweiler a prison. It was always referred to as a "boys' home." But to look at the one-story cinder-block compound from the outside, there was no question what the place was modeled after. I had an idea what I'd find on the inside as well, and it wouldn't be pretty. I already had the feeling that Pinson had been a preschool compared to this place. This was a high-security jailhouse to lock down eighty bad boys.
Hal's first worry isn't how awful his new home will be; it's whether he'll be able to keep his temper and stay out of trouble so he won't be stuck in this place forever.

But soon he has other worries, because Superintendent Fraley has a dark, contemptuous approach to running Hellenweiler. He actually references Golding's classic in his orientation speech to Hal, then goes on to say:
You see, they tell me to educate the boys. To reform them. But this is just political talk to our fine citizens. Feel-good talk, if you will. In reality this place is a sort of human landfill that you hide on the outskirts of town. It's nothing more than a kennel for dogs that have no hope of being chained. This may sound harsh, but it is simply a reality that you must learn to face. The sooner, the better.
Hal finds out that Fraley has looked the other way, letting the boys form two gangs that brutalize newcomers into joining one or the other. The gangs battle for the Hellenweiler turf, having vicious fights on a regular basis. Hal is determined not to join either of the two gangs because he wants to keep his nose clean and get out fast, but avoiding trouble doesn't mean Fraley will support Hal's goals. In fact, Fraley doesn't want anyone contradicting his cynical convictions about the boys.

Hal is on his own, dealing with pressures and abuse from both gangs, though one more than the other. He sort of befriends one gang leader on the sly. And he wonders about the only other boy who's not in a gang, a huge, shell-shocked kid named Caboose. As the pressure ratchets up, Hal tries to lean on the knowledge that he has friends outside this prison, even an almost-girlfriend, Carla.

But he ends up getting sucked in more than he planned, and violence erupts again and again. Until Hal comes up with his own way of fighting back.

This is not a pretty story, it's a gritty story. It's also a psychological (and sociological) drama focusing on what happens when people live down to our expectations—or struggle to surpass them.

While you don't have to read Alabama Moon to appreciate Dirt Road Home, it does help, although, as mentioned above, the latter is a darker, bloodier tale. Even so, Dirt Road Home ends on a note of hope. As the title implies, Hal's determination not to give up is more powerful than anything someone like Mr. Fraley can throw at him. And, just as Moon rescued Hal from his worst self in the first book, here Hal rescues a couple of other boys from their downward trajectories.

Note for Worried Parents: This book might not be as dark as some of the YA out there, but it's dark enough—it's essentially a prison story for kids. There is gang warfare, including real and threatened violence. Plus just a lot of guy stuff. (I can't see many girls getting into this one!) Oddly, however, there's a sort of parable quality to Dirt Road Home, which may be why it's not quite as rough as it sounds.

A Review of I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore

I was a little baffled by this book until I learned that it was going to come out as a movie in February 2011, directed by Michael Bay of Transformers fame. And then I learned that I Am Number Four was the first in a six-book series penned by James Frey (yeah, that guy) and Jobie Hughes. I immediately had flashbacks to an aborted attempt to read James Patterson's first Daniel X book, wherein I kept looking at the page and seeing cartoon dollar signs instead of words.

Because who doesn't want to cash in on the glorious vats of money known as Twilight, let alone the book-and-movie-buying power of all those 12- to 20-something boys who play video games like it's a religion?

In their honor, I think we need a new term: BOOVIE. That would be a novel-length work written even as the Hollywood producer and the action figure and video game designers get to work. A publishing project that's ultra-planned, a sort of SIM version of a book. I'm guessing it won't surprise you to learn that Hasbro is also involved in this enterprise. (Note: I am differentiating this type of book from movie novelizations, which tend to get less respect and marketing in their own right and often come out just after the movie is released.)

The word "commercial" springs to mind, but you have to understand: it's a term that's only considered pejorative by dusty, bespectacled literary types these days. Publishers are pretty happy to hear it!

Now, does all this snark on my part indicate that a boovie is, by definition, bad? Not necessarily, though I would argue that heavy-hitting commercial planning increases the chances a book will lack heart, as well as a certain independence of spirit.

In the case of I Am Number Four, the writing is fine, though not outstanding. We do get some predictable dialogue and plotting (e.g., SPOILER: By page 15, I was predicting that the boy hero's adult guardian would die in his arms during a big final battle scene with the evil aliens, and I was so right! END SPOILER).

The premise? Nine good-looking teens are sent to Earth for safety after the mortal enemies of their civilization decimate their home planet (Superman times 9!). Now they are being hunted by those enemies. The catch is that the baddies can only kill the kids in numeric order. This sounds really cool as long as you don't think about it too hard—especially considering the convenience of having all nine kids sport special ankle scars that appear one by one to indicate the deaths of the other kids in the group, who are scattered across the planet.

As the title suggests, three of the nine have been killed when our story begins, and hero John Smith (his current alias) is on the move again with mentor Henri. He settles into a small-town high school, where he adopts an unusual dog, clashes with a bully, makes friends with alien invasion conspiracy buff Sam, and falls for a girl named Sarah.

John is on the cusp of developing a set of superpowers, and as they kick in, Henri trains him to use them. Meanwhile, the bad guys start to close in. All it takes is John letting his powers show in public, and his enemies attack in a very big way.

The theme, of course, is how John deals with feeling like an ordinary kid while having to acknowledge his legacy and his destiny.

I Am Number Four is not a bad book, and it achieves its goal of appealing to the video game-playing, Transformers-watching crowd rather handily. Still, six books? I dare these guys to step it up and make the series more interesting and unpredictable! They might want to start by watching old Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes.

FYI: The movie version of I Am Number Four will star tall blonde dude Alex Pettyfer, who also stars in the movie versions of Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider spy series and Alex Flinn's book, Beastly. Outside of the Twilight cast, he appears to be the go-to guy for YA film adaptations these days.

Note for Worried Parents: There's some bullying and a lot of video game-type violence involving evil aliens. Plus orphans.

A Review of Black Hole Sun by David Macinnis Gill

Here's another book I bought just because I liked the author's last book so much. That previous book would be Soul Enchilada, whose occasional plot glitches are completely overcome by Gill's mad writing skills and his even madder characters and YA voice.

Soul Enchilada is a semi-satirical paranormal set in the Southwest, featuring a funny, sarcastic Latino-Black girl. (See my review in last summer's "Scary YA Extravaganza.") The new book takes place on a future Mars, where governments have risen and fallen, leaving behind the shreds of civilization, including our guy Durango. This kid's backstory alone is more interesting that half the books out there, and believe me, it's not dumped on readers—you have to fit the pieces together as you go along.

By the way, check out the cover blurb from the hottest YA writer on the planet. No, not Stephenie Meyer; Suzanne Collins! She says, "Rockets readers to new frontiers...action-packed."

There's a pop culture feel, let alone a wish-fulfillment feel, to this book in some ways: Durango is ex-military and has an Artificial Intelligence implanted in his head to help him out. He is also a good-looking guy and chicks love him. But Gill doesn't get carried away with Durango's appeal. It ends up merging into the plot and even being the source of some humor when Durango, like most teenage boys, doesn't read the signals he gets from the opposite sex very well. As for the AI and the military training, that ends up being part of this kid's painful backstory.

You may notice that Durango tells someone early in the book that he is 8.5 years old. I looked that up so you won't have to: a Martian year is about 687 days, which means the boy is nearly 16 in Earth years.

This author's Mars is a brutal place, where food is scarce and Durango takes jobs for his little team of mercenaries that are all too likely to get them killed—and don't pay well, either. The new gig requires Durango and his buddies to defend a group of miners in a formally abandoned mine in the southern polar region from a group of mutant cannibals. (This feels more realistic than it sounds, trust me!)

Black Hole Sun is written in a kind of insider's shorthand, which gives it a strong sense of immediacy but does require the reader to work a little to get in sync. The effort pays off when you wind up feeling like you really are crawling along mine shafts, waiting to get your throat ripped out by the Drӕu. Yes, there are hand grenades, also alien slime. But there are quieter interactions, as well. Here's a sample, in which Durango is trying to keep his cool around his lieutenant, a girl he figures he shouldn't have feelings for because he needs to be a professional and a leader. She's meditating, and she asks him what's wrong...
How can I tell her, I woke up last night and you weren't here, so I went to look for you and was shanghaied by a suzy who first tried to jump me, then wanted to slug me. And that now, as I feel you next to me, your head held just so, your eyes closed, your lips slightly parted, I have trouble holding my breath, much less holding my chi.
"Just tired," I say.
"Ah." She says, and lets my lie hang in the air, like burned incense.

Gill doesn't just write terse action, he builds complex characters. The members of Durango's team are a rag-tag lot, especially self-styled swashbuckler Fuse and his large, touchy, not-so-bright sidekick, Jenkins. Then there's the rich old client who wants her kidnapped daughter rescued, but not her kidnapped son. She wants a lot more than that, as it turns out. Or we meet the vicious leader of the Draeu and discover her unexpected connections to Durango's past. The miners, too, are keeping secrets, and the story ends with an ethical cliffhanger which, even so, is still a side note compared to Durango's personal journey. At least for now.

About my only complaint is a quibble: the essentially interior dialogue between Mimi the AI and Durango is given in quote marks, just like everybody else's. To me, that implies that other people can hear it, though of course they can't. I would have liked to see the lines set in italics to distinguish them from the spoken dialogue. Then again, the nice thing about these exchanges is their humor, which livens up a dark story.

Now, there's been some talk about the lack of sci-fi in kidlit lately, and a recent crop of books has appeared to fill the void. But this one is the most purely hardcore yet, merging dystopia with aliens and a hopeful-yet-hopeless hero's journey. An unabashedly boy book, Black Hole Sun reeks of dirt, bravado, ice, blood, treachery, and near misses. Gill's tale of an abandoned Mars colony of the future is noir disguised as action-adventure. Durango makes a fitting hero for our new millenium, which, quite frankly, is jam-packed with an uneasy mix of optimism and despair. A lot like this book.

No offense to Pittacus Lore, but Black Hole Sun is the real deal.

Note for Worried Parents: This one is definitely for teens, probably 14 and up unless you have a serious sci-fi fan who's a year or two younger. The violence is pretty intense, though it moves at a fast clip—I did mention cannibalism, right? A few sideways references to sex, nothing major. Mature themes overall in that Black Hole Sun is quite bleak.

Update: I visited David Macinnis Gill's blog and discovered this clever book trailer for Black Hole Sun.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Review of Scumble by Ingrid Law

When Ledger Kale's dad speculates about the boy's savvy, the magical gift kids in his family inherit on their thirteenth birthday, he talks about running fast. The man doesn't seem to realize that Ledger will feel like his dad won't be happy if his savvy turns out to be something else. But no one could have guessed what a tough savvy Ledger would get: making all kinds of man-made constructions fall apart without even touching them. Starting with a stopwatch, then a stranger's motorcycle—and that's before everyone gathers for his cousin's wedding and Ledger makes all hell break loose.

On top of Ledger's general humiliation and the fear that he'll hurt someone, he has to deal with a witness, a girl named Sarah Jane. And not just any witness: even though Sarah Jane is about his age, she's a pint-sized tabloid reporter, publishing her own news of the weird in her small town. The town where Ledger gets dumped once things get really bad. He's right there on his uncle's ranch with a couple of his older cousins whose powers are so out-of-control that they're social misfits. For the summer, at least, his little sister stays with him, but Ledger suspects she'll be going home without him at the end of August. His savvy is just too dangerous.

So Ingrid Law begins Scumble, a companion book to her Newbery Honor-winning 2008 debut, Savvy. Once again, we get a small-town Americana setting, colorful characters, and the coming-of-age feel of a kid dealing with the onset of a surprising magical power.

A couple of secondary characters provide some of the book's best subplots. First and foremost, there's Sarah Jane, who has secrets of her own, but is too busy digging up dirt on Ledger to notice. It doesn't help that the girl's father, Noble Cabot, hates Ledger's entire family and is trying to take Uncle Autry's farm away. (True to form, Law makes the family ranch a genuine bug farm.) Then there's a junkyard owner who might indirectly help Ledger with the difficult business of learning to scumble—or control—his savvy. And Ledger's little sister Fedora is sneaking around with his young twin cousins, who are fun characters in their own right. Perhaps most poignant of all is the presence of Rocket, whom you'll remember as Mibs's older brother in Savvy. Despite his own uneasy exile, he reaches out to give Ledger a little much-needed mentoring.

Of course, Ledger has two key objectives in this story: one is to learn to scumble his savvy, and the other is to stop Sarah Jane from printing his family's secrets in one of her tabloids. Later in the book, he adds "save the family farm" to his list.

I will just mention that you may, like I did, spend chapter after chapter waiting for Ledger to destroy his uncle's Bug House! But the threat actually comes from another direction, Noble Cabot's enmity, until finally the Bug House and Uncle Autry's happiness are at risk. At which point Sarah Jane and Ledger work together in surprising ways to stop Mr. Cabot. (Law touches very lightly on the age-appropriate attraction Ledger feels for his all-too-appealing nemesis, the blonde-braided Sarah Jane.)

And let's not forget Law's way with words. Try this paragraph on for size, when Ledger ventures into enemy territory; that is, Sarah Jane's house:
A fly buzzed in the window, breaking the stillness that choked the room. The housekeeper dispatched the bug with three swift smacks of her alien-invasion tabloid—ka-thwap! ka-thwap! ka-thwap!—busting the silence into smaller and smaller fragments. Then she pointed the tabloid my way, making it clear that I would share the fly's fate if I stepped out of line.

Law's setting will be more familiar to readers this time around, and in that sense, this book for middle graders may not be quite as striking as Savvy. But Scumble is told with a sure and friendly hand, making it the kind of book you will spend happy hours reading. And then, I'm guessing, you'll find yourself picturing one of Ingrid Law's terrific secondary characters getting his or her own story in Book 3.

Update: Summer Oh (daughter of writer Ellen Oh) has posted a charming interview with Ingrid Law on Enchanted Inkpot.

A Review of Thresholds by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

You know how when you're in an airport these days, you hear an announcement every few minutes that tells you not to carry strange packages for anyone? And of course, haven't you seen a few movies or TV episodes in which an innocent person gets caught up in a heist or a spy game by carrying the wrong briefcase or grabbing the wrong suitcase?

Thresholds is a lot like that. A new girl named Maya has an encounter with a stray fairy, a miniature being she at first thinks is a large moth. (It smells of cinnamon and carnations.) Artist Maya sketches the creature, which seems drawn to her. The next morning, she has another unique encounter, this time with her neighbors, a cluster of odd, gypsy-like kids who live in the apartment building (or huge house) next door. They say something oblique that makes her think the fairy came from their house. Then one of them asks her if she is chikuvny. New girl Maya, who has recently lost her best friend to cancer, wonders if she will be able to make friends with her neighbors. But two of the three snub her, and all of them seem secretive.

Later that morning, Maya runs into another strange boy who also thinks she is chikuvny and asks her the way to the portal. This boy seems very ill. She says she isn't, but later on he grabs her and—here's where we get the package—basically gives her some very special stolen goods to care for. Whereupon Maya ends up learning about her secretive new neighbors, after all.

Thresholds is clearly an introduction to a series and to a particular sci-fi/fantasy version of the world(s), so in some ways, it feels like the first few chapters of a much longer book. Hoffman is rightly known for her intriguing premises, and this one bodes well for the books to come. There's a hint of Diana Wynne Jones here—I'm especially reminded of some gypsies in one of Jones's books who literally travel between alternate worlds in their little horse-drawn caravan. (One character catches a ride with them.)

Maya is a perfectly nice main character, though her grief sometimes seems like it belongs in a different story. Other characters are intriguing, as well, especially the kids in the neighbors' strange household and their Yoda-like grandfather. A boy from school at first seems thuggish, but helps Maya out of a bind and also gets caught up in this adventure. Hoffman uses her appealing cast and the stolen object to start world-building, including giving us a glimpse of the "gypsy" kids' enemies.

You may find that the neighbors' house, AKA the Janus House Apartments, is practically a character in its own right, one of those fantasy spots where the inside is far bigger than the outside and is full of unusual sights and smells:
There was a dark maze beneath the Janus House Apartments. Other corridors branched off from the one they were walking. The air changed as they passed by. Sometimes warmer, sometimes colder, it carried scents of cooking, incense, roses, electricity, fire, and many things she'd never smelled before. Everywhere there was the scent of fairy dust. Chikuvny.
Rounded doorwarys opened off the corridor on either side, but most of them were curtained shut. Maya heard strange voices and unknown languages through some of the curtains and felt heat radiating through others. One curtain was crusted with ice crystals. Another seemed woven of glass strips.

While Thresholds raises as many questions as it answers, it does make for a solid middle grade series launch. I suspect Book 2 will really be able to soar by sending Maya and her friends out on a road trip to another world or two. (Note: I was trying to decide if this is sci-fi or fantasy. But why choose? It truly appears to be both, what with the aliens and the fairies.)

A Review of The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May & June by Robin Benway

When they were little girls, sisters April, May, and June had magical powers. But since people aren't supposed to have magical powers, they blocked their gifts out and forgot about them. Until now, when life has thrown them a curveball in the form of their parents' separation and a move to a not-always-friendly new high school.

I think my favorite thing about this book is the way the girls hassle each other using their powers—and attempt to protect themselves against each other's capabilities. Oldest child April can see the future, May can disappear, and June can read minds. This author makes the very wise choice of letting the sisters take turns narrating the story, which has the added benefit of demonstrating the pros and cons of each girl's gift.

Even more interesting is the way Benway envisions each girl using her power. April goes around trying to save the world from its destiny, being a bossy, strung-too-tight eldest sister. May, who's kind of anti-social, uses her invisibility gift to hide from people. And June—ah, June. This freshman clotheshorse is definitely the author's most obnoxious and smile-worthy creation. When she realizes she can read people's minds, June listens in on their thoughts at school to see what they think of her outfits. And uses various bits of information she gleans to manipulate the popular girl of her choice into becoming her friend. It's all very conniving, but then, it makes sense for someone June's age, with her priorities.

Unfortunately, April sees a vision of a car accident in their future right about when June starts hanging out with a bad crowd. So April starts using her gift and plain old guesswork to try to prevent the vision she's seen, fearful of losing her sister. What she actually ends up doing is making June feel really hostile and take evasive action. May ends up caught in the middle.

Meanwhile, each sister is getting to know a boy. April keeps seeing locker buddy Julian as a distraction from her mission to save her sisters, then uses him for the mission, not admitting to herself that she's started to fall for him. May develops a love-hate relationship with her new history tutor, Henry. And then—well, okay, not so much June. Her platonic crush is on Mariah, her newly acquired, edgy/cool/depressed friend. It's fun to read June's chapters and realize that she's not nearly as starry-eyed about the party scene as she lets her sisters think.

Did I mention that all three girls look after each other using their powers? (This despite the fact that they're not speaking to each other for part of the book!) Here's an example showing that even vain little June loves her sisters. Having finished manipulating the popular girl, June heads for the girls' bathroom because May's hiding out in there being miserable:
I watched as she went over to the sink and started to wash her hands. Not the worst idea, that was for sure. "I heard you," I said. "You were, like, all yell-y in your brain, so I came to save you. Too bad my cape's at the drycleaner's; I would have gotten here faster."
Superhero humor: It never gets old.
"Oh yeah?" May splashed cold water on her face. She wasn't even listening to me, I could tell, and she looked a little bit like this deer we once saw in our backyard, all knobby knees, shaky limbs, and big eyes.
"Yeah," I replied. "So who's Henry?"

This author has a clever teen voice (all three of them!), and her book has heart. The ending's a little soap opera-ish, but it's also such a nice affirmation of the love between these three sisters that I think you'll find yourself saying, "Aww." And liking The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May & June very much.

Note for Worried Parents: This is a book for teens, so it's about high school concerns like dating and there are a few oblique references to sex, also (in a fairly negative way) some drinking. But it is pretty wholesome overall, and its focus on three sisters' struggles to stand by each other makes it a hopeful read.

Friday, September 3, 2010

A Review of How to Grow Up and Rule the World by Vordak the Incomprehensible

The other three books I'm reviewing this week are all somber, medievalish European fantasies, but I can't resist throwing this one into the mix. It is, quite simply, nuts. And I mean that in a good way!

Meet Vordak the Incomprehensible, the creation of lesser mortals Scott Seegert (author) and John Martin (illustrator). In his first book, Vordak addresses young readers with aspirations of supervillainy and world domination, although he regularly reminds them that they will never actually be as great as he is because no one possibly can be!

Yep, Vordak is a megalomaniac. He dedicates the book to himself, for example: "To me, without whom not a single one of my glorious accomplishments would have been possible." Then, in addition to Acknowledgments (of a sort), he offers Condolences:
I would like to take this opportunity to offer my sincere condolences to any other authors who have the misfortune to be releasing a book this year. As you are well aware, there is only so much attention to go around, and my book will rightfully be receiving the lion's share of it. Just so we are clear on this, I don't want to hear any whining.

Vordak is an expert at the kinds of things kids who like video games, fart jokes, and books along the lines of Diary of a Wimpy Kid will greatly appreciate. Vordak really covers the bases, offering advice on everything from supervillain costumes to how not to talk to your arch-nemesis in clichés.

His suggestions about lairs are especially good, beginning with the "Starter Lair," AKA your bedroom. Vordak includes an "Evil Lair Gradual Upgrade Chart" to show how he began his own career by turning his bedroom into a lair (using saved-up birthday money), next remodeling a tree house (financed by money earned mowing lawns) before moving on to a converted garage (paid for by bagging groceries at Smart Mart). Oh, and then there's Lair #4, a Geosynchronous Doomsday-Class Orbiting Space Station. Vordak financed that one as follows: "Received $100 billion ransom from the League of Nations after threatening to use my inconceivable evaporation ray to completely drain the Atlantic Ocean."

Of course, Vordak has additional lair ideas, ranging from "The Abominable Abandoned Waterfront Factory" to "The Dastardly Deserted Amusement Park." He even offers readers "Four Signs You May Have Outgrown Your Current Lair." E.g., "You have to add a card table to the end of your Conference Table of Iniquity in order to seat everyone."

And wait till you see Vordak's take on superheroes. Here we get my favorite chapter title: "SUPERHEROES—Noble Upholders of Justice or Big, Fat, Stupid Jerks?" A running joke is that supervillains always put superheroes in "diabolically clever yet extremely slow-acting death traps." (Vordak complains that this tends to give the superheroes time to escape, but cites regulation 71b of the Superhero/Supervillain Official Rules of Etiquette.) Keep an eye out for the three reasons superheroes bother having sidekicks around, too.

Then there's Vordak's advice on writing ultimatums. Note that his author's bio states, "[Vordak's] previous writing includes his half of witty repartee with various Superheroes as well as numerous ultimatums to world leaders."

Seegert has a marvelous time playing with comic book, TV, and movie tropes about supervillains. He writes Vordak's voice with consistent arrogance, all the while keeping up a tongue-in-cheek tone. (Vordak reminds me just a little of Doctor Drakken, the main supervillain in the Kim Possible TV series.) The icing-on-the-cake touch to this book is that Vordak toys with his reader as he goes, pulling the kind of page-turn pranks on them that only a supervillain or an 11-year-old boy would dream up.

Considering the simplicity of the Vordak character's design (his face partly obscured by his evil helmet), John Martin's art is surprisingly effective. The illustrator depicts all manner of costumes and weapons and lairs, not to mention visual in-jokes, with clean cartoon lines, complementing the text perfectly.

Now, can you tell this is the kind of book you might be driven to read aloud to your relatives every few minutes, till they finally bellow, "Stop it! Just let me read the whole thing when you're finished, all right?"

With that in mind, I'll quit quoting already and point out that your 8- to 13-year-old son will probably get a real kick out of this book. And you might, too!

Note for Worried Parents: If you have a sense of humor, no problem. Because the worst this book could inspire your child to do is tease his sister for a few days and hang a few jokingly dire signs on his bedroom door.

A Review of Plain Kate by Erin Bow

The language of this book is so poetic than when I finally finished and read the author's bio, I was utterly unsurprised to learn that she is a published poet. But it's not just the language that reads like a poem. The story itself has a kind of poetic grace that harks back to the bards and ballads of medieval Europe, or maybe to the retelling of those tales, say, in Tennyson's poem, "The Lady of Shallot." If this tale is romanticized, however, it's only in the sense of being stylized; Plain Kate is a tale well suited to the age of the Black Death, and in fact, one key plot feature is a vengeful, magically induced plague.

Not just Kate, but Plain Kate, this girl in medieval Russia (or some Slavic country!) barely manages to survive after the death of her father, a wood carver. For one thing, even though she is a talented carver herself, the guild of carvers sends a man to take over her father's business and home, leaving her living in the tiny street stall where her father used to sell his work.

Even so, Plain Kate is getting by until the arrival of a strange man named Linay who offers to buy her shadow in exchange for granting her a wish. When Plain Kate turns him down, he proceeds to use his magical powers to frame her in the eyes of the villagers as a witch, a charge they're all too willing to accept.

Knowing she will die without some kind of assistance, Plain Kate agrees to sell her shadow to Linay. In return, he gives her supplies and the companionship she longs for in the unexpected form of her cat being able to talk. Telling her cat to keep his mouth shut, Plain Kate manages to convince the Roamers (gypsies) to let her join them on their journey out of town. But despite her uneasiness about what Linay has done, she hasn't the slightest inkling of the ramifications of him getting his hands on her shadow—not just for herself, but for the entire countryside. Because Linay is mad with grief, and he's determined to get revenge on the people who hurt him.

Plain Kate makes friends with a Roamer girl named Drina, but soon Linay's dark magic causes still more trouble, and Kate realizes she must actively try to stop him. There's a rusalka involved, and that changes everything. [Wikipedia definition: "In Slavic mythology, a rusalka was a female ghost, water nymph, succubus or mermaid-like demon that dwelled in a waterway."]

I'll stop there, but suffice it to say that you'll spend much of the book hating Linay for making Plain Kate's already difficult life a real hell for his own purposes.

The best thing about this book is its graceful language and melodically dark tone. On a lighter note, the second-best thing is Bow's characterization of Plain Kate's cat! Taggle is both selfish and loyal, also matter-of-fact. Completely cat-like. Here's one of my favorite bits, after Taggle accompanies Plain Kate on horseback:
"That," proclaimed the cat, squirming down into her lap, "was awful. The jouncing. The rearing! The mud. I have decided that we will not travel again by horse." When she didn't answer, he poked her with his damp nose, and rubbed her thumb with the corner of his mouth. "Look, I'm still damp. Fuss over me."

But I mentioned the poetry of Bow's language, which is part of what makes Plain Kate such an atmospheric story. This is a small sample, after Linay has begun to make it look like Plain Kate is practicing witchcraft on the villagers:
The next day there was no catch—or no catch of fish. Old Boyar brought in three boots. Big Jan caught a dead dog. On the next day the nets were wholly empty. The whole week there was no catch, and the grain barges didn't come, and rain fell like a long fever.
Then Boyar took a punt upriver into the fog banks, and the next day the boat came back drifting. Boyar was lying on the deck like a king of old, not dead but sleeping—an unnatural sleep from which he could not be woken.

Note the beauty of those two metaphors, "rain fell like a long fever" and "lying on the deck like a king of old." (And yes, there are more!)

The rusalka is far more terrifying than the latest crop of vampires in teen fiction, especially since the author builds the horror gradually and shows the ghost's connection to Linay and other characters in the story. In many ways, Plain Kate is a tragedy about grief and vengeance, with more dead bodies than Hamlet.

Bow fumbles a little at the end, trying to decide who to save, who not to save, and how, but I think when you finish Plain Kate, you'll feel as I did—clamoring for this poetic new fantasy author to tell us another tale.

Note for Worried Parents: Plain Kate is a book for teens, with mature themes including prejudice and persecution (even witch burning), death, sorrow, and revenge. There's also some evil magic. Plain Kate's tone is fairly dark throughout, although it is a lovely book and ends on a somewhat hopeful note.

P.S. What a great year for cover art! Plain Kate's jacket illustration is almost as pretty as my favorite so far, Ellen Potter's The Kneebone Boy.

Oops! Forgot to tell you about an interview with Erin Bow at Enchanted Inkpot this week! And take a look at this review at Charlotte's Library.

A Review of No Such Thing as Dragons by Philip Reeve

This is the mind that came up with the Darkling Plain Chronicles, dystopian YA steampunk books in which entire cities roam a devastated future Europe on enormous tractor feet, devouring lesser towns. Also the mind that created a humorous steampunk middle grade sci-fi series, starting with Larklight. But Reeve's new book is arguably more influenced by another of his books, Here Lies Arthur, in which he re-imagines the legendary king as a brutal, conniving man made noble only by the storytelling abilities of Mrrdin (Merlin), a trickster bard. In other words, Reeve married the Arthurian legend to the vicious reality of life in the Middle Ages, in which kings and noblemen were originally bandits and warlords, raping and pillaging their way across the land. (Note: In a similar vein, a recent study showed that a high percentage of individuals in Russia and western China share a common genetic marker, thought to come from Genghis Khan and his sons.)

So what does this have to do with Reeve's new middle grade novel, No Such Thing as Dragons? Well, here again Reeve deals with con men and the origin of legends in the context of the realities of life in the Middle Ages. He gives us Brock, a knight in rusty armor who goes from village to village conquering dragons—or rather, the fear of dragons (as one of his more educated and cynical clients puts it). Somewhere along the way, Brock purchases a young mute boy named Ansel, who comes to believe the pseudo-knight's assurances that dragons aren't real.

Until at last they come to a little village high on the mountainside, where the sly villagers have already sacrificed a young girl to appease the dragon they claim roosts up on the icy peaks. Accompanied by another con man posing as a friar, the dragon fighting team goes up the mountain, planning to pretend to vanquish the beast and then claim the spoils of victory.

To Brock's astonishment, there really is something up there. But here again, Reeve imagines what might be the real thing—not the sentient, romanticized creature of fairy tale fame, but a vicious and terrifying animal. The little group suffers as they confront the creature, even as they must battle the bitter wintry conditions on the highest slopes.

There's an adventure here, but Reeve seems just as interested in character, if not more so. He wants to know why Ansel is mute, and whether the boy will ever speak again. He wants to think about how a man like Brock might have good in him as well as ill. He wants to consider the fear of the villagers as well as their communal ruthlessness in response to that fear. He wants to show us unlikely feats of courage, although not precisely the ones you would expect. And that, more than the plot itself, is what makes this a very good book.

In addition, No Such Thing as Dragons offers us the joy of reading the work of a talented wordsmith. Reeve's language is delicious. Here's a sample in which he describes a medieval painting. Note the gentle satire, aimed at the romance of the artist's depiction:

Riding north with Brock, Ansel remembered the painting of St. George he'd seen in the big church in town. The saint had been all in armor, but bareheaded, with a golden halo balanced jauntily on his curls. The poor princess he'd come to save had a wide white forehead and yellow hair, and she looked surprisingly calm for someone who'd been sent out into the wilds as dragon food. She wore cloth-of-gold, and she carried a bunch of tall white lilies, perhaps as a sort of garnish. As for the dragon itself, Ansel recalled that it had looked like a bald green chicken with a lizard's head and the wings of a bat. Its wide-open mouth was vermilion red, and so was the blood that uncurled like red fern fronds from its breast as it leaned helpfully onto the point of the saint's lance.
He wondered if St. George had had a boy to serve him, and if so, why the boy had not been in the picture. Was it that he was just not important enough? Or was it, perhaps, that he was in the beast's belly?

Yes, Ansel's worth caring about. And what beautiful language! (The garnish line alone is worth seventeen bucks.) As if Reeve weren't talented enough, he provides the interior illustrations for the book, too, elegant little pen-and-ink pieces that start each chapter.

I also like the way Reeve includes common tropes about dragons, but gives them his own spin, making, for example, their reputation for hoarding treasure more of a magpie characteristic than a human one.

Plus, the author does intense things with setting, using the snowstorms and glaciers, rockslides and freezing nights on the mountain to pummel his characters—and his readers. Like the dragon, the mountain is unforgiving and utterly inhuman, yet natural. The cathedral scene, with its evocation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and even, dare I say, King Kong, is another wildly successful use of setting.

No Such Thing as Dragons is a short book at 186 pages, but it's well worth it: a compact, well-told tale combining the best of historical fiction with a sprinkling of fantasy, besides touching on themes like freedom and even animal rights. Reeve gives us a story that feels entirely true, up to and including its (non-)title character.

Note for Worried Parents: This book is for middle grade readers, but it does have a couple of horrific descriptions of a man and a horse being devoured by a monster, also various scenes of peril, some hard-hearted villagers, and a couple of con artists. The overall message is one of kindness, courage, and hope, however, as exemplified by the main character, Ansel.

FYI: Image above is of UK cover art, which I happen to prefer.

Update: Read another review at Charlotte's Library!

A Review of The Crowfield Curse by Pat Walsh

The Crowfield Curse has already gotten attention from awards committees, and I can see why. It's the best depiction of a child's life in medieval Europe since Karen Cushman's books, as well as another powerful blending of historical fiction and fantasy.

The year is 1347, and William Paynel has lived at a poor abbey since his parents died, working odd jobs in return for scant room and board. What he doesn't know is that the abbey is keeping secrets—at least, not until Will ends up with a secret of his own. Will comes across a creature caught in a trap in the forest and frees it, then brings it to Brother Snail to heal. Only this isn't a fox or a squirrel; it's a hob, a creature of the fay. The hob, whom Brother Snail and Will call Brother Walter with gentle humor (since the fay cannot give their names), begins to trust his two rescuers and adapt to life at the abbey. Fortunately, none of the abbey's other inhabitants know he's there.

Walsh peoples her book with colorful and eerie characters, including an angry ex-soldier named Brother Martin who runs the kitchen and a canny woman from the village, Dame Alys, who goes about with a white crow on her shoulder. There is also a forbidding, haunted spot in the forest, Whistling Hollow.

As it turns out, the hob is only the first strange visitor to come to the abbey. Soon after his arrival, Master Bone and his odd servant arrive, paying handsomely for the privilege of rooms at the abbey. It seems there is something unusual buried nearby, and the two have come looking for it.

The mystery deepens, with Will learning more than he ever thought he would about beings of darkness and light, about music and harm and healing of many kinds. In time, he discovers that his future is linked to the fay and their ways, whether he likes it or not.

In broad strokes, this plot may sound more like typical fantasy than it is. Once you read The Crowfield Curse, you find that Walsh has a way of building a mystery with a near-gothic feeling of suspense, never forgetting the power of her setting and the ways of medieval England. Her fay are more real and more grim than those you may have encountered in half a dozen YA paranormals recently, and her young hero and the other monks are gritty with the poverty and superstitions of their time. Here's an excerpt, in which William comes across simple Peter digging a grave:
William looked down into the dark scrape at his feet. "Whose grave is this?" he asked.
"It's for Abbot Simon."
William stared at him in shock. Abbot Simon was dead? Shouldn't the passing bell be ringing? "When did he die?"
Peter shook his head. "He's still alive. Prior Ardo thought it would be wise to dig the grave before the ground freezes again, just to be ready."
"Why isn't he being buried in the chapter house?" William asked, puzzled. It was where all of Crowfield's abbots were buried. William had glimpsed the stones marking the graves through the doorway, carved with crosses and letters and set amongst the red and white floor tiles.
Peter shook his head again. "Abbot Simon wanted to be out here, in the sunlight and air, not laid beneath cold stone in the darkness."
William opened his mouth to say that the abbot would hardly be in the light wherever he ended up, and that it surely wouldn't matter much one way or the other, but thought better of it.

And then we get something more magical, like this:
The fox walked forward. It hesitated by the water's edge for a moment, then crossed the stream, stepping quickly and seeming to barely touch the water. It walked up the slope toward the hut. William's first instinct was to go back inside and bar the door, but the hob stood his ground, so William did not move.
The fox stopped a few paces away. Close enough that William could see its eyes were not the usual golden brown of a fox's eyes, but a pale winter blue. In that moment he knew who the animal really was.
The air around the fox shimmered like a heat haze rising from warm stone. Afterward William could not remember if he had seen the animal's body actually change shape and grow, but one moment he was staring at a fox, and the next he was looking into the strange, cold eyes of the fay Shadlok.

As the book comes to a close, the buried secret takes on an entirely new meaning, as does the presence of Master Bone and his servant at the abbey. We also learn that Will's story is just beginning.

In fact, I felt just a little distracted by allusions to the next book in the last few chapters, but only because they interrupted the magic of Walsh's storytelling. The Crowfield Curse was such a well-made book that I expected it to round off more completely and smoothly, like a polished stone. But this is scarcely a complaint in another regard, which is that I'm pleased to look forward to reading a second book about William Paynel and his dealings with the fay.

Although I have to add, the snowy setting was so powerful that if the next book takes place in high summer, it will be a shock to the system!

Note for Worried Parents: There's talk about the grim realities of the Middle Ages here, along with some scary fay creatures. But The Crowfield Curse is appropriate for most readers in the 9-to-12 crowd.

Also: Another beautiful cover!