#BookReview: Grayling’s Song by Karen Cushman

#BookReview: Grayling’s Song by Karen Cushman

Grayling's SongGrayling’s Song by Karen Cushman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers

Coming June 2016!

middle grade fantasy

Grayling’s mother is a local wise woman that folks come to for ailments and problems. One day a mysterious magic roots her mother, and all of the other wise folk, to the ground, slowly turning them into a tree. And her grimorie, her book of spells and potions, has been taken. She sends Grayling to find it. But Grayling has no skills, powers, or real knowledge of her own. Or does she? She meets up with a band of powerful folk who haven’t been changed yet and they figure out how to save her mother, and all of the other wise folk. Grayling learns that perhaps she has some power after all… the most important of which is courage.

Though I wasn’t immediately grabbed by this one like some of her other titles, Cushman has done it again. It had a slow start and had some used themes, but in the end I really loved Grayling’s Song. This title set in an alternative medieval England, I always feel confident that the historical aspects of Cushman’s books are grounded in research . The mother-daughter relationship can be a difficult one and this does a great job of exploring it. Though Grayling doesn’t have a lot of confidence because her mother has called her feeble minded for many years, she ends up shining under pressure but not without much self-reflection and frustration. I also appreciate that, in the end, her mother treats her success as a matter of fact, saying that she knew we could handle herself, else why would she have sent her?

I think many mothers and daughters will be able to relate to this relationship. I would love to see this as part of a middle-grade Mother-Daughter book club reading. I think much discussion and personal growth would come from it.

Thanks to Edelweiss for this advanced readers copy!

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Book Review: The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough

Book Review: The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough

The Game of Love and DeathThe Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books

ya, fantasy, magical realism

Henry and Flora. Chosen at birth to be players in an ill-fated game by Love and Death. Worlds apart in Depression-era Seattle, Flora is an African American jazz singer and pilot. Orphaned as a young girl, she yearns to be among the clouds but is tethered to earth by the need to care for her grandmother. Henry is also an orphan but in a much more stable situation as a white boy with a wealthy adopted family, a job, and a college scholarship. As characters, Love and Death tug on strings to find out who will win the game? With our players live and have love or lose and both perish?

I read this as part of a YA for Adults bookclub at my local library, though that category is questionable. I wonder if this might actually be more appropriate as “New Adult”, a genre that I haven’t gotten into yet.

I thought the writing was beautiful most of the time, but I slogged through this. A lot of that probably has to do with the fact that December is such a busy time I didn’t have any good pockets of time for reading a lot. I kept coming back to it, but it was slow going. Everyone in our book club reported the same thing, too.

I had a hard time caring about Love and Death. If I am going to be reading about star-crossed lovers, just let me read about star-crossed lovers. I don’t need some meaningless “game” and puppet-masters. And yet, Love and Death are actually who this book is about, right? Flora and Henry remain fairly static as far as characters go… and we know star-crossed bit is familiar. Death certainly gets the most movement as a character.

All that said, young readers will get a lot out of this book. There is much to chew on between the racial, class, social justice, and historical aspects. And it certainly is a new take on the star-crossed lover tale. I would have loved this book as a tween after getting my fill on the film Romeo + Juliet.

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Book Review: Vampies Don’t Wear Polka Dots by Debbie Dadey

Book Review: Vampies Don’t Wear Polka Dots by Debbie Dadey

Vampires Don't Wear Polka Dots (The Adventures of the Bailey School Kids, #1)Vampires Don’t Wear Polka Dots by Debbie Dadey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

publisher: Scholastic

middle grade fantasy

A class of third grade students at Bailey Elementary School are getting a new teacher after they ran off Mrs. Deedee. They get Mrs. Jeepers, an woman from Romania that wears a strange green brooch that seems to glow when she rubs it. Over the course of the book, the students learn more about her which makes them question whether or not she is a vampire. But surely not, right? I mean, vampires don’t wear polka dots.

As I have recently said, I am getting to know several middle grade series that I am aware of but haven’t read before. This beginning of the Bailey School Kids series was… fine. There is nothing really remarkable going on here but for a child who loves a series, familiar characters, mystery, and fantasy, they will probably gobble this up.

My main problem is that it includes stereotypes. Romania is a real country with people that probably want to be known for more than Dracula and their “strange accent”. I have been looking at books for kids with an eye on diversity and representation and that really stuck out to me and made me uncomfortable. So while this series might be alright for some, I might try to find a good middle grade series that does a better job in that regard. I remember really loving Sachar’s Wayside books when I was young and wondered how those would read to me today as I attempt to examine through a diversity lens. Would those be a good alternative, although there are fewer books to the series? Perhaps I should revisit those soon!

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Book Review: Dinosaurs Before Dark by Mary Pope Osborne

Book Review: Dinosaurs Before Dark by Mary Pope Osborne

Dinosaurs Before Dark (Magic Tree House, #1)Dinosaurs Before Dark by Mary Pope Osborne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

publisher: Random House

middle grade fantasy

Obviously aware of the Magic Tree House series, I hadn’t actually read any of them until now. I am visiting several popular middle grade series that came after the time I would have read them as a youth.

Brother and sister, Jack and Annie, discover a mysterious tree house filled with books. After looking at a book about dinosaurs and casually making a wish, they are whisked away to the prehistoric past. They use the book they found to learn about all of the dinosaurs they encounter. After being spotted by a Tyrannosaurus rex, they figure out how they got there and are able to quickly get back to their own time.

I found the first in this series enjoyable. I didn’t feel any gender stereotypes were used here, the sister often showing more bravery than her older brother. I love that it puts an emphasis on books as a tool for learning, enjoyment, and adventure. It is an exciting way to introduce a subject (in this title it is dinosaurs, but in the next it is the Middle Ages) to new readers. I plan to read more into the series to see if this holds true.

MagicTreeHouse.com offers lots of bonus material such as games and resources for teachers and parents. There are often nonfiction titles to accompany the titles in the fictional series providing more information on each subject.

This hefty series is incredibly popular and has a big following. I look forward to getting more familiar with it so that I can recommend these to our eager, new readers.

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Book Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Book Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night CircusThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publisher: Doubleday

fantasy, Alex Award, audiobook

In her debut novel, Morgenstern creates a mystical circus that arrives without warning and is only open at night. Le Cirque des Rêves lives up to its name filled with black and white stripped tents filled with the stuff dreams are made of: an ice garden, a wishing tree, and a cloud maze you can float through. Fierce followers called rêveurs trail the circus’ every move enjoying the sites unknowingly while this amazing backdrop is also the setting for a challenge to the death between two illusionists. Hand picked and trained from a young age, Celia and Marco are pitted against each other by their instructors. But perhaps they are too perfectly picked for each other because their feelings get in the way of their challenge.

My only complaint is that Morgenstern spends so much energy on building atmosphere that some substance is lacking. Other than some last minute information from one of the instructors, we don’t get much of an explanation for the challenge though it seems to continually end very badly for the unwitting players. However, I was completely caught up in her beautiful world building so I don’t like to complain about it too much.

If you enjoy magical mystery such as Harry Potter, Circus Mirandus, or Stardust, you will definitely enjoy this book. I can also highly recommend the audiobook read by Jim Dale. Listening to him describe the sights, sounds, and smells of the circus actually caused me to stop what I was doing and go get some caramel popcorn at one point. His voice is delicious… I will pretty much listen to anything he reads. That is actually what prompted me to listen to this when I did.

This is also a great transitional book from “YA” to “adult” fiction, although it seems pretty clear that those terms don’t mean much anymore. In fact, it won the Alex Award from ALA, books written for adults that would appeal to teens.

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Book Review: Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray

Book Review: Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray

Lair of Dreams: A Diviners NovelLair of Dreams: A Diviners Novel by Libba Bray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bray’s follow up to The Diviners continues following Evie and friends in the turmoil that followed the Pentacle Killer. After Evie reveals her powers to the press, being a Diviner is the latest trend. Evie becomes known as The Sweetheart Seer, has her own fans and radio program, and is on the outs with Will and Jericho. But things are far from jake as a sleeping sickness in Chinatown causes panic and suspicion. Mystery continues to shroud the melting pot.

Bray does a great job of writing diverse characters. Her plot is allegorical, using fictional situations to highlight very real social issues, both historical and current including racism, clashing cultural differences, homophobia, stereotypes, oppression, gender, and disability.

I had come to like Evie in Diviners but I really disliked her in Lair of Dreams. It was hard to think of her as the same character, really. Here she was extremely shallow. Though she was still a major character, her internal dialogue seemed power hungry, boy crazy, and selfish. Perhaps that was Bray’s way of having Evie deal with the things she went through in Diviners or maybe she just needed to pull back from Evie to let the other characters breathe and grow. Either way it was disappointing.

January LaVoy as narrator of the audiobook from Listening Library has a stunningly wide vocal range. Her vocal interpretation was spot on for many characters. I didn’t care for some of her male voices and found them distracting but overall, she definitely added depth to the story.

Unless a series is really compelling, I don’t make it past the first book. Many times I feel like I “get it”. Though a bit slow at times, this was an interesting middle book and I look forward to seeing how she wraps this up.

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Book Review: The Diviners by Libba Bray

Book Review: The Diviners by Libba Bray

The Diviners (The Diviners, #1)The Diviners by Libba Bray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publisher: Little, Brown & Company

YA, suspense, horror, historical fantasy

It is the Roaring ’20s and Evie is a typical 17 year old flapper. She loves to drink gin, dance, and be the center of attention in her cloche hat and string of pearls. Disgraced by a scandal in her hometown, she is sent to live in New York City with her Uncle Will who runs The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult. Evie is ready to live it up under the nose of her professorial Uncle who gets pulled in to consult on some sicko murder cases by the police. She has an amazing power that lets her “read” objects that she touches, be it a glove, a ring, or the shoe buckle of a dead girl. She also gets pulled into the investigation and proves to be quite brave, resourceful, and resilient surprising everyone around her, including herself. She and a band of others work together to take down an evil as old as time. They all have their own agendas, problems, or secrets.

Starting out a shallow, wandering teen, Evie is a great character that really develops over the course of the book. Despite all of the fantastical and horrific events taking place, she is figuring out who she is and what she holds important.

Another great character is Memphis, a young black boy living with his younger brother and oppressively religious aunt. His mother died and his father has been getting settled for many years now and “will send for them soon”. He and his little brother Isaiah also have powers that they have to hide for fear of someone crying Devil. As with Evie, he struggles with some regular issues that a young black man in the 20s might expect to deal with on top of other fantastical issues. We see him struggle, try to be brave, fall in love, and question the religion that surrounds him.

Throughout, Bray has some biting commentary on religion and the American dream. One of the final chapters in the book called The Man in the Stovepipe Hat shows this particularly well:

“In the towns, there were Main Streets of the sort that lined the halls of hazy, fond memory. A church steeple. Barbershop. Ice cream parlor. Town square and a public green perfect for picnicking. Butcher. Baker. Candlestick maker. … In the courthouse under a wheezing ceiling fan, the women’s fingers busied themselves with needlepoint – HOME SWEET HOME, GOD BLESS AMERICA – and their husbands fanned themselves with folded newspapers as an argument droned on about whether man had been fashioned in the image of a master craftsman, wound with a key at the back and set into motion to play his part in a mysterious destiny, preordained, or had crawled from the mud and trees of the jungles, cousin to the beasts, an evolutionary experiment of free will let loose in a world of choice and chance. No verdict was reached.”

Bray’s big theme seems to be how suggestible people are whether it be through religion, advertising, journalism, or trends. One of the chapters is even called People Will Believe Anything.

I am not normally drawn to horror, but I thought this was a really interesting read. Despite being about 600 pages, I read it in about 3 days. Part teenagers with powers, part history, part coming of age, part mystery, part social commentary, and part horror, this really has something for just about everyone. Lots of suspense and Bray’s writing is haunting and poetic at times. I look forward to Lair of Dreams, a sequel, and the 2nd book in what I can only assume will be a series.

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