Tuesday, August 9, 2022

A Pinch of Magic

A Pinch of Magic
by Michelle Harrison
Recommended Ages: 12+

The middle Widdershins sister, Betty dreams of getting off the island of Crowstone and seeing the world. But her Granny, who runs a run-down tavern called the Poacher's Pocket, keeps a short apron-string on her and the other girls, Fliss and Charlie. One night when Betty attempts a daring escape, Granny brings her home with the aid of a teleporting carpet bag. No longer can she be kept in the dark about her family's secret: Each of the three girls is heir to a magical object – the traveling bag, a mirror of spying and a set of nesting dolls that can turn people invisible. But they are also heirs to a family curse that keeps any female born or married into the Widdershins family from leaving the island chain of the Misty Marshes. It all goes back, somehow, to a woman more than 100 years ago who threw herself to her death out of a prison tower on the day she was to be hanged for sorcery. But the upshot of it is, if the girls cross outside the boundaries of Crowstone and its island neighbors of Repent, Lament and Torment, three things will happen: (1) A stone will fall out of the tower; (2) They will be driven bonkers by the cawing of crows inside their heads; and (3) They will die at sunset.

Betty is devastated by the news that she is trapped for life in Crowstone. But a clue in Granny's laundry leads the girls to hope there may be a way to break the curse that nobody has tried in 100 years. Unfortunately, to find out what it is, they have to spring an inmate from the prison on Repent. And when they do, things go wrong that doom Fliss and Charlie to a cursèd fate if Betty doesn't actually break the curse by the end of the day. This will mean continuing to rely on the help of an escaped convict who has already proven unreliable, listening to a bitter old informer's story about the reason for her family's gifts and curse, and pursuing her sisters and their captor into forbidden territory – which means Betty's life, too, is now at stake.

The sisters' adventure forces them to face up to shameful facts about their family history and guilty knowledge about themselves – such as the destructive power of envy. More subtly, it's also a study of how women can feel trapped in their role, how folks in a rural community can be sacrificially kind on one level and unforgivingly judgy on another, and maybe how a small change can completely rewrite reality. Trimmed around the edges with humor, wild adventure and spooky atmospherics, it has at its heart an emotionally deep family drama that challenges readers to imagine a multi-generational tragedy and the possibility of making it better.

This is the first book of of a series that Michelle Harrison's website dubs the "Widdershins Adventures." Its sequels to-date are A Sprinkle of Sorcery, A Tangle of Spells and A Storm of Sisters. Harrison is also the author of the four-book "13 Treasures Trilogy," the "Midnight Magic" trilogy (featuring a magical cat named Midnight), the spooky novel Unrest and The Other Alice, in which characters from an author's notebook come to life.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Silent (but Deadly) Night

Silent (but Deadly) Night
by Jo Nesbø
Recommended Ages: 10+

Doctor Proctor (Victor to his French cook, Juliette, with whom he is quite close) is a zany inventor who lives and Oslo and tests many of his inventions with the aid of a couple of neighborhood children – a nice girl named Lisa and an outrageous little red-haired imp named Nilly. Among the strange things he has brewed up, or collected from other mad scientists, are the fart powder prominently featured on this book's cover, which can clear your front walk of snow in an instant or (if you aim with expert precision) carry you to a nearby rooftop; and also time soap, which in bubble bath form enables you to get lathered up, think about a place and time, and instantly arrive there and then. We won't go into silly things like a nuclear-powered car, an invisible boomerang, a self-knotting tie and whatnot. We have to stick to what's important.

What's important, in this wacky adventure, is saving Christmas. You see, the King of Norway has sold Christmas to a greedy department store magnate, who decrees that nobody can have Christmas unless they spend at least 10,000 crowns (about $1,000 in today's U.S. dollars) buying stuff they probably don't need at his stores. Now, I'm sure we all sympathize with everyone's desire to support local business and ensuring the royal palace's basement is mold-free, but the sad fact is, the newly appointed Christmas police are ruining the holiday for a lot of people who can't afford to blow $1,000 on a shopping spree. You probably don't have to use your imagination too hard on that concept. But Doctor Proctor and friends make it their mission to save Christmas for everybody.

How do they go about it? Well, the answer to that would take longer to write than I plan to spend on this review. So I suggest you just get the book. I founded it in a local bookshop, but because they didn't have any other books in the series, it's the only installment I've read. You could try online. But for a taster, I might mention that they track down the real Santa Claus (who isn't as jolly as you'd think), hook up a team of jet reindeer, outfly a missle-that-can't-miss (can't missile?), and have a variety of hilarious mishaps and run-ins with the bungling Christmas police, the bumbling king (whose tagline seems to be "Booooring!"), and a variety of Oslo landmarks. If you're not familiar with a lot of Oslo landmarks, that last cartegory might not be as hilarious to you as it is to speakers of the book's original language. But I'd hazard to guess that even American kids (and adults) will feel their ribs tickled by the adventure's irreverent approach to many cultural sacred cows – like a fountain in the middle of town lit so that it looks like it's spraying pear-flavored soda, or the monarchy, or the military, or Father Christmas, or holiday shopping, or the Finnish language (which nobody understands but that sounds angry when read aloud), and much, much more. I mean, I've not even gotten to the vampire giraffe cuckoo clock, but I'm out of time so you're on your own.

It's a book with kid appeal that has a streak of adult naughtiness shot through it, from the potty humor surrounding fart powder to the professional gross-out of Nilly's mom's constipation, all the way beyond that to a Santa who's used his downtime to sow his wild oats around the world. There's the nursery-level appeal of finding out what reindeer say ("møø") as well as the sci-fi wonderland of a Santa's workshop where the elves have been replaced with robots. And mixed in with it all is a taste of Norwegian culture, which calls the day before Christmas Eve "Little Christmas Eve" and Ascension Day the thematically appropriate sounding Kristi Himmelfart.

Jo Nesbø is the author of 12 "Harry Hole" crime novels in the burgeoning genre that has been introduced to me as Nordic Noir. I actually wrote an article about Nordic Noir once that was translated into French for a literary review in France, and it intrigued me to see that the French version preserved the alliteration as Polar Polaire. Anyway, the one book in the Harry Hole series that I've read, and that was also released in the U.S. as a movie (that I know of), is No. 7, The Snowman. This book, meanwhile, is No. 5 in the "Doctor Proctor's Fart Powder" series, which begins with a book by that title and continues with Bubble in the Bathtub (a.k.a. Time-Travel Bath Bomb), The End of the World. Maybe (a.k.a. Who Cut the Cheese?), The Great Gold Robbery (a.k.a. The Magical Fruit) and this book. Nesbø, described by Fantastic Fiction as a Norwegian musician, songwriter and economist, is also the author of Headhunters, The Son, Blood on Snow, Midnight Sun and The Kingdom. According to the very fine print on the copyright page of this book, it was translated into English by Tara Chace.

EDIT: Oh, my goodness. There's already a movie based on Doctor Proctor's Fart Powder.

Thursday, August 4, 2022

322. Sermon on the Mount Hymn

Here, less than 24 hours after an epic hymn paraphrasing a single passage of Scripture, is another of about the same length. I'm sure it's not as good, despite the fact that I've been brainstorming on it for much longer. Months, even. I mean, the Hebrews 11 Hymn that I wrote in the wee hours of this morning grew out of a thought I had last Sunday. But I'm tired of the thunder and lightning endlessly crashing and flashing between my ears, so out this hymn comes at last. I'm recycling a 16th century Bohemian Brethren melody called SINGEN WIR AUS HERZENS GRUND for it; I previously used it for a youth encouragement hymn in Edifying Hymns. And lo:

When He saw the multitudes,
Jesus, sitting on the mount,
Gathered His disciples round,
Speaking the Beatitudes.
Son of God and Son of Man,
Servant of God's saving plan,
His great discourse so began.

Not as men does Jesus bless—
Favoring the poor and meek,
Those who peace and mercy seek,
Hungering for righteousness;
Those who mourn, the pure in heart,
Persecuted for His part—
Bucking custom from the start.

Jesus styled us who believe
As our age's salt and light:
Seasoning the world aright,
That God's grace men may perceive.
Without faith, He says, the world
Would as flavorless be hurled,
Man's salvation unrevealed.

Jesus came not to destroy,
But fulfill, the Word of God.
Till the world ends, not one jot,
Not one dot will pass away
Till He has all things fulfilled,
For the sinner scourged and killed,
And God's law in us instilled.

Without righteousness, He said,
Even more without a flaw
Than the teachers of the law,
None His kingdom's gate will thread.
How can man his way correct?
Only Christ, without defect,
Can our righteousness perfect.

He said, lest men trust the Law,
And suppose "You shall not kill"
To be easy to fulfill,
Even wrath and insults raw
Slay men in our hearts and damn.
Lest this guilt our souls condemn,
Jesus bids, make peace with them.

Lest in outward chastity
We should place our pious trust,
He said gazes full of lust
Are at heart adultery;
And from swearing on God's name
Jesus would our lips restrain:
Rather, 'yes' and 'no' speak plain.

Turn the other cheek, Christ said,
Nor seek vengeance for your hurt;
Robbed of jacket, give your shirt,
Nor from borr'wers turn your head.
Forced to walk a mile, go two;
Love your foes; good service do
Those who hate and mistreat you.

Do your alms, your fasts and prayers
Not for men's admiring gaze
But to God, by secret ways.
Neither store up, by your cares,
Things that vanish or decay,
Or that thieves can snatch away,
But on heav'n your treasure stay.

Of the eye, Christ's teaching mark:
Be it good, you'll fill with light;
Bad, how clouded were your sight!
Save us, Lord, from vision dark!
And since none can serve two lords,
Loosen mammon's strangling cords,
Tied to hollow, brief rewards!

He says, fret not how to live,
What to eat or drink or wear;
Trust God, who with Father's care,
Knows how much and when to give.
But seek first His kingly grace
And His righteousness embrace;
All these things will come apace.

Judge yourself before you judge;
Pluck the roofpeak from your eye,
Then your brother's speck decry.
And if you would not begrudge
Any good your children need,
Trust your Father will indeed
Asking, seeking, knocking heed.

Enter by the narrow gate,
For the way to hell is broad
And full many walk that road,
While the gate to life is strait
And few find its toilful way.
Watch for wolves in sheep's array,
Who would lead God's lambs astray.

Yes, Christ says, you'll know their fruits;
Look in them for no good thing,
Lest you feel the thistle's sting.
With false teaching at their root,
They are fit to be cut down,
In the blazing furnace thrown,
And God's vine the better grown.

Even some who own His name,
Christ says, will remain outside
When at last He's glorified.
They'll cry, "Lord, Lord," all the same;
"Did we not work signs for You?"
To His "You I never knew"
None can answer or review.

Therefore, let us keep His word,
Being built as on a rock,
Proof for every storm and shock;
Lest, dismissing what we've heard,
As a fool who built on sand,
We see all we've schemed and planned
Overthrown upon the strand.

When these sayings were complete,
How the people were amazed
And His forceful teaching praised!
We too see, in figures neat,
Christ becoming what we need
In His being, word and deed:
Both our Pattern and our Creed.

Brethren, let us ask the Lord,
Diligently seek the Son,
Knock for the Proceeding One—
One God, endlessly adored—
Who no treasure will deny
Those who on His word rely
When He gathers us on high.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

321. Hebrews 11 Hymn

This is a paraphrase of a chapter (and change) of the Bible that has impressed me with its tight argument since I was a little kid. And I was just thinking, when looking at hymn selections for a couple of Sundays in which portions of this chapter come up in the readings, that a hymn like this might be pretty handy ... give or take how horrendously long it is. I suppose you could break it up into segments to go with an extended study or sermon series on this section of Hebrews. It includes Hebrews 12:1-2 and a doxology at the end. EDIT: I struggled to find an existing tune that I thought would pair well with this hymn. In the wee hours, I sketched out an original tune for it that will, by and by, be known as BY FAITH.

By faith, the substance of our hope,
Things not yet seen we own;
By faith, the saints who passed before
A good account have known;
And that God's unseen word has framed
The worlds, by faith is shown.

By faith, what Abel sacrificed
God savored more than Cain's,
And by commending Abel's gift
His righteousness proclaims.
Thus even Abel, being dead,
A living voice obtains.

By faith was Enoch taken up,
And so he never died.
That God was fully pleased with him
Such honor testified;
Yet without faith one cannot be
Before God justified.

Apart from faith, God is not pleased;
The thing cannot be done.
Apart from faith, all works are sin,
And lost is everyone;
For He who seeks the Lord must know
He saves us through His Son.

By faith one Noah, warned of things
Divinely strange and dark,
Was moved with godly fear to build
A life-preserving ark,
And so condemned the world, and gained
Faith's justifying mark.

By faith did Abram heed the call
To tent in foreign lands,
Expecting an inheritance
From God's almighty hands;
By faith his dead flesh sired a tribe
As countless as the sands.

In faith the fathers died, assured
A promised land was theirs,
Seen from afar but entered not,
As pilgrims in the earth;
A better city they now seek,
A land of heavenly worth.

Again, when tested, Abraham
Prepared his son to slay,
Convinced that God would raise him up,
So faithful is His way.
By faith, the latter fathers, too,
Breathed blessings in their day.

By faith, two parents saved their child
Despite the king's command;
Raised in the palace, Moses then
Forsook the king's right hand
And chose with them to suffer who
Looked for the promised land.

By faith, he hazarded the wrath
Of Egypt's dreaded king;
He kept the feast, the sprinkled blood,
Lest Israel feel death's sting,
Then led them through the sea dryshod,
Th'oppressor smothering.

By faith, the walls of Jericho
Fell, and Rahab was spared.
And must we also mention how
The faithful judges fared?
Must every king and prophet
With this precept be compared?

They conquered realms, worked justice, reaped
Rewards, stopped lions' maws,
Quenched fire, escaped the sword, grew strong
And bravely waged their cause,
Turned hosts to flight, and women's sons
Restored from out death's jaws.

Eyes on the resurrection, they
Bore witness, bearing pains;
They suffered scorn and scourging, bore
Imprisonment and chains;
Stoned, sawn in two, beheaded, they
By faith made no complaints.

Condemned to destitution, poor
And weak, they did not swerve,
But walked in desolations, dens
And caves, with holy nerve.
By faith, they were a treasure that
The world did not deseve.

All these, by faith imprinted with
A faultless, holy name,
Did not receive the promise till,
In Christ, a Better came,
That we and they together should
By faith perfection claim.

Since such a cloud of martyrs swirls
Around us, brethren, let
Us lay aside the vices that
Would catch us in their net,
And run with perseverence in
The race before us set;

And fix our eyes on Jesus, who
Begins and ends our faith,
Who for the joy before Him bore
The cross, the shame of death,
And sits at God's right hand, the throne
All powers fall beneath.

To God the Father, whom the Son
Reveals, a hymn we raise,
As to the Spirit, who with them
Is One, bring endless praise
Through Jesus Christ, the Author and
Perfecter of our faith!

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Belly Up

Belly Up
by Stuart Gibbs
Recommended Ages: 11+

Despite its deceptively juvenile cover design, the sleuth in this mystery is a mature-for-his-age 12-year-old named Teddy, who lives at a zoo/theme park called FunJungle where his mom does gorilla research and his dad shoots wildlife photos. Brought up in the wild, he's still got a wild streak in him, frequently putting him on the outs with park security – such as when he arms the chimps with water balloons so they can fight back against zoo guests throwing stuff at them. He definitely has a higher opinion of animals than of people. And so, when the park's head vet suspects foul play in the death of Henry the Hippo – FunJungle's mean, unwisely chosen mascot – it's murder as far as Teddy is concerned.

To be sure, Teddy didn't think much of Henry in life. In death, however, he sets out to solve his murder, whether or not anyone at the zoo cares to know who done it. He's aided by Summer, the park's owner's daughter, a celebrity kid whose every move makes it into the tabloids. But it's hard to tell whom to trust when everyone seems to have a motive to kill the hippo, and other animals are mysteriously dying as well. The closer Teddy gets the truth, the more danger he finds himself in, as first one dangerous animal and then another is set loose when he's around. By the time he cracks the case, everyone will be after him, leading to disaster at a hippo's funeral, a madcap chase through SafariLand and a desperate race to get the evidence to Summer's dad.

The vividly drawn setting and unusual victim elevate this book above your common or (zoological) garden murder mystery. Teddy's a sharp kid who's up to outrageous adventures, with a witty narrative voice and an irrepressible attitude that make him a fun character to follow. Also, he has the coolest parents, and they mix professionally with a wide range of quirky characters, from the public relations wonk who tells the press that a hippo is a whale on legs to the vet's assistant who names every large animal that comes to the zoo including the ill-fated Carl the Capybara and Alistair the Anaconda. It's a tale that makes the Texas sunshine seethe with intrigue on multiple levels, and fills the shadowy corners with chilling dangers. My only complaint is that I'd have read it sooner if the cover art hadn't made it look like a little kids' book. Actually it's right on target for my mental age.

This is the first of going on eight books in the FunJungle series, followed (so far) by Poached, Big Game, Panda-monium, Lion Down, Tyrannosaurus Wrecks, Bear Bottom and the upcoming Whale Done, set for release in February 2023. Gibbs is also the author of the "Last Musketeer," "Moon Base Alpha" and "Charlie Thorne" trilogies, the "Spy School" series, and Once Upon a Tim.

Monday, August 1, 2022

The Black Phone

Thanks to a movie called Nope playing in area movie theaters, I actually had the following conversation with myself a week ago: "Are any movies playing in the area that look good?" "Nope." "OK, I'll stay home and read, then." Ha, ha. I was still thinking about seeing Nope this past weekend, but when it came time to decide, I decided on The Black Phone after all. I had watched online trailers for both movies and I guess the concept for The Black Phone thrilled me a bit more.

The movie takes place in the Denver area in 1978, when people's phones hung on walls, plugged into a jack, and had handsets connected to the receiver by a curly cord. A phone like this hangs on the wall of the soundproofed basement where Finney finds himself after he becomes the sixth victim of a serial kidnapper, abuser and murderer of teenage boys, known in the local press as the Grabber. The phone's cable (connecting it to the jack) has been cut, but that doesn't stop it from ringing now and then, and when Finney answers it, he hears the voices of the Grabber's previous victims giving him tips about how to survive. Meanwhile, his sister Gwen (who sometimes has dreams that come true) is also dreaming about the five kids the Grabber grabbed before Finney, and each dream brings her closer to being able to identify the house where her brother is being held.

The Grabber plays a sick game with these kids, and in a way, Finney is the perfect victim because when it comes to schoolyard bullies, he never fights back. But as the ghost of his best friend (the previous victim) points out, he's also a tough kid who takes a beating and gets back up. He just needs to nerve himself to fight because his dead buddy is relying on him to live.

Perfect victim, maybe, but he's also the Grabber's most troublesome one, drawing blood when he's snatched off the street (none of the others managed that), very nearly escaping (he gets heartbreakingly close), and finally ... well, telling would spoil it for you. In his fear and in his low point of despair, Finney has a vulnerability that'll go to your heart. Most of the time, however, he is remarkably calm and he really works hard to survive.

In a similar paradox, Gwen often seems like such a sweet, fragile thing, but boy! does she have a mouth on her, as seen when she cusses out the cops who grill her over a dream in which she saw images of one of the kidnaps including details the police never released to the public. She doesn't hold back from Jesus, either, going from humbly praying for a helpful revelation to (at one point) rudely challenging him to prove He exists. Her search for her missing brother runs parallel to his ghost-guided preparation for a final opportunity to either escape or die -- and neither proceeds in a straight line.

It's an emotionally wrenching thriller with enough jump scares, ghostly apparitions and one really icky on-screen murder to keep it just inside the "horror" box. The exquisite creepiness of the Grabber doesn't hurt. It's also weirdly uplifting in the sense that you see the hero kid, Finney, trying all the dead kids' suggestions in the hope that they'll get him out of there, but none of them turn out as he expects or hopes. It's only at the point where he completely gives up that it starts to become clear exactly how each of their hints will help him survive.

Based on a short story by Stephen King's son, Joe Hill, the movie is directed by Scott Derrickson, who also helmed such pictures as The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister and Doctor Strange. The movie casts Ethan Hawke against type as the creepoid; he manages to project a broad range of expression (all within the parameters of a terrifying psycho) while most of the time covering his face in one of a few horrible masks, which is why it's worth paying for an A-lister in a role like this. His coked-up brother, Max, is played by James Ransone of The Wire, Sinister and It Chapter Two, with a manic innocence (his eyes really are an asset) epitomized by the Grabber's line, "He was an idiot, but he was my idiot." The hero kids' abusive, drunk father is played by Jeremy Davies, a.k.a. Upham in Saving Private Ryan, Charles Manson in Helter Skelter and Dickie Bennett in Justified -- accomplishing, as he frequently does, the feat of making you loathe him and pity him at the same time.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Finney's escape attempt and its agonizing conclusion. (2) Fighting lessons via phone with a ghost. Actually, the whole scene in which Robin talks Finney into fighting to survive was the tear-jerking heart of the movie. (3) The moment Max looks at the bulletin board where he's been following the Grabber investigation (thinking his help will be valuable to the police) and you see the penny drop in his eyes. Actually this movie is pretty good at showing what its characters are thinking without a word of dialogue, like Gwen wondering whether what she's seeing is real, or Finney's crush/science lab partner hearing the news that he's been snatched. But you've gotta admit that playing the scene where a doofus comes out of his mental haze long enough to realize, "You know what? My brother could be the Grabber," is an acting assignment that's worth the inconvenience of taking an axe in the head (oops, spoiler).

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Worst Witch 6, 7 & 8

The Worst Witch to the Rescue
by Jill Murphy
Recommended Ages: 10+

Despite having been put down as the worst witch at Miss Cackle's School for Witches since she began, Mildred Hubble arrives in an upbeat mood for the summer term of her third year. For one thing, she has come up with a really creative spell for her holiday project, which she knows will impress her often exasperated form-mistress, Miss Hardbroom. For another thing, she discovers a real aptitude for art, giving her hope of not always being the worst student in every subject. But it doesn't even take her nemesis, Ethel Hallow, until lunch on the first day of term to ruin both happy prospects for Mildred, thanks to a couple of mean-spirited tricks (one of which actually crosses the line into cheating) that will obliterate any hope you may still cherish that the two girls will ever grow into friends.

Add the fact that Ethel's sneaking friend, Drusilla, discovers that Mildred is secretly harboring an illegal pet in her dorm room, and the stage is set for a heartbreaking term for Mildred – and that's if she doesn't get expelled. Thank goodness for a temporarily talking toad, knocking on Mildred's door at just the right time. Otherwise, things might not go well for a certain tortoise up a tree, and Mildred may lose her chance to get a fair shake.

This is the sixth of eight "Worst Witch" stories written and illustrated by the late Jill Murphy. For those who are struggling to tell one book from another in the series, this is the one where Ethel starts to get a little of what she deserves, and perhaps a turning point in Mildred's progress from "worst witch" to a student even Miss Hardbroom might someday be proud of. If there's hope for her, there may be hope as well for any kid who struggles in school. And it couldn't happen to a more warm-hearted and courageous little witch.

The Worst Witch and the Wishing Star
by Jill Murphy
Recommended Ages: 10+

During her fourth year at Miss Cackle's School for Witches, the teachers give "worst witch" Mildred some new responsibility, perhaps in the hope of maturing her a little. And they've got to admit, she takes her duties as East Wing Lantern Monitor very seriously. But one night during her rounds, she rescues a dog and begins hiding him in her room as yet another forbidden, secret pet. Star, as she names him, even proves to be a better broom balancer than Mildred's adorable but useless cat, Tabby. The pair secretly begin practicing aerial acrobatics, with an excellent effect on Mildred's slow-to-develop flying skills.

If you're wondering what could ruin it, you must be new to the series because, of course, the answer is Ethel Hallow, Mildred's nemesis – a horrible, snobby, entitled, jealous sneak of a girl who could give witches a bad name. Incapable of leaving Mildred alone to enjoy anything or do well in any subject, Ethel smokes out Mildred's doggy secret and interferes in her lantern monitoring in a way that just happens to sink the school's chances of winning a talent contest against other magic schools, for which the prize is a new swimming pool. Now half the school hates Mildred because they blame her for ruining their act, and the other half hopes she'll win the contest for them with her last-minute dog-and-broomstick show.

This is the seventh of the eight "Worst Witch" chapter books by the late Jill Murphy. So by now, it shouldn't be spoiling anything to point out that she wouldn't be Mildred if she didn't somehow turn disaster into triumph and worst-witchdom into heroism. With a gentle spirit, a streak of mischief, and a firm grasp of the difference between right and wrong, she's the kind of underdog (no pun intended) many kids will sympathize with and root for.

First Prize for the Worst Witch
by Jill Murphy
Recommended Ages: 10+

Mildred Hubble, the worst witch at Miss Cackle's School for Witches, has somehow made it to the summer term of Year Four, the year during which first prizes are awarded and the head girl is named because Year Five is all about studying for the Witches' Higher Certificate exams. Between Mildred and her best friends, Maud and Enid, only one of them hopes to win anything at the end of the term – Maud is hoping for a first prize in Team Spirit – but everyone knows all the serious prizes will go to Mildred's nemesis, Ethel Hallow. And also, there's never been a Hallow at the school who didn't end up as head girl. Mildred's just hoping to continue flying with her acrobatic dog, Star, and work hard to prove that she isn't always the worst witch.

Hardly surprising, if you've followed the series so far, Ethel isn't content to let Mildred have even that. She and her toadie, Drusilla, arrange to have Star's previous owners – Mr. and Mrs. Brilliantine, who run a small circus – show up at the school to claim their dog. It's an entertaining scene in which you might realize that no one from the non-magical world has appeared in the series till now. Of course it wrecks Mildred, emotionally and academically, to have Star taken away from her. But slowly, she and Enid and Maud concoct a scheme to get Star back – a scheme that incidentally involves a couple other circus animals, some zany enchanted objects and a transportation spell that goes hilariously wrong. Will they succeed or will the whole caper end in disaster? Don't just guess. Grab the book, or better yet, the box set.

This book represents the end of an eight-book, 44-year project by Jill Murphy, a British children's author and illustrator who passed away in 2021. Perhaps sadly, it leaves to our imagination what Mildred Hubble would have gotten up to during her final year at Miss Cackle's School for Witches. But seeing the "worst witch" named Head Girl going into that last year also brings the series to a pretty satisfying conclusion. It's nice how things like that work out sometimes.