Sunday, February 16, 2020

Insignia

Insignia
by S.J. Kincaid
Recommended Ages: 13+

+++ REVIEW IN PROGRESS +++

This is the first book of the Insignia series, which also includes Vortex and Catalyst. S.J. Kincaid is also the author of the Diabolic series (The Diabolic, The Empress), whose third book (The Nemesis) is due for release in August 2020.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Smoke and Summons

Smoke and Summons
by Charlie N. Holmberg
Recommended Ages: 13+

+++ REVIEW IN PROGRESS +++

This is the first of (currently) three books in the Numina series by an author from a family that gives boyish names to girls. The sequels are Myths and Mortals and Siege and Sacrifice. Other titles by Holmberg include Followed by Frost; Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet; The Fifth Doll; Veins of Gold; The Will and the Wilds; Spellbreaker and the (currently) four-book Paper Magician series, half of which I've read and my enthusiasm for which led me to this book.

The Fire Chronicle

The Fire Chronicle
by John Stephens
Recommended Ages: 11+

Kate, Michael and Emma aren't orphans, but they haven't seen their parents in over a decade. Moving from orphanage to orphanage, they are pursued by a race of creatures they unaffectionately call "screechers," harassed by the minions of an evil sorcerer named Dire Magnus, and menaced by a half-giant named Rourke who seems like what Hagrid might have become if he were bald, Irish and evil. Kate possesses the Emerald Atlas, one of the three Books of Beginning that control all of creation; it enables her to travel through time. A prophecy looms over them all, hinting that they will bring together all three Books. Even with an eccentric wizard (Dr. Pym) and a powerful warrior (Gabriel) devoted to helping them, the kids don't have a moment's peace.

After the screechers' latest attack, Kate has become separated from her younger siblings, going back in time to 1899 – shortly before the magical world went into hiding. In the snowy streets of New York City, she gets entangled with the destiny of a very special boy. Meanwhile, back in the 21st century (ugh, time travel!), Michael and Emma share a hair-raising, tomb-raiding adventure, traverse Antarctic snowfields and steamy jungles, and face such terrifying creatures as the consequences of Michael's betrayal (in their previous adventure) on Emma's heart and mind. And also, a dragon.

So, it's a scary, hazardous adventure for all three kids and many other people besides. The future of the world depends on them, on how they rise to the terrifying occasion and show courage, loyalty and love. Whether they're exploring a picturesque historical period or trespassing in the land of the dead, exposing frauds and traitors or trying to turn the course of history, they're really special kids. Michael doesn't know his own courage. Emma has a knack for trouble but also a touching vulnerability. Kate has been strong for both of them, but now finds herself in heartbreaking danger. And they're mixing it up with dwarves, trolls, elves, and other magical creatures in a battle between good and evil in which, it is hinted, the three siblings may be unwitting pawns of a sinister agenda.

It's hard not to hang on every turn of their fortunes, and to sense dreadful and exciting things to come as Michael becomes master of a Chronicle that knows the heart of every living person – a responsibility that tests his strength to the limit and threatens to overwhelm who he is – and as it becomes clear that Emma is destined to grapple with the awful Book of the Dead.

This is the second book of the "Books of Beginning" trilogy, sandwiched between The Emerald Atlas and The Black Reckoning. Stephens is a TV producer and writer known for his work on Gossip Girl, The O.C., Gilmore Girls and Gotham.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Some Kind of Happiness

Some Kind of Happiness
by Claire Legrand
Recommended Ages: 11+

Finley Hart, 11, has never met her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins on her father's side until now. But her parents are having marital trouble, and while they try to work things out, they decide to let her spend the summer with the close-knit Harts.

This proves to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, most of them accept her quickly, and the other kids willingly join her in turning the forbidden woods behind their grandparents' house into an imaginary kingdom – the Everwood, a magical place Finley has been writing about in her journal for years. They also make friends with the three Bailey boys on the wrong side of the river. On the other hand, no one in the family will open up about what came between them and Finley's father. The defining characteristic of being a Hart increasingly seems to be the keeping of secrets, even at the risk of doing more harm than good. As Finley pushes the boundaries of what her grandparents will and won't tolerate, she becomes a party to more and more secrets, and moves ever closer to one central secret that could blow the whole family to pieces.

Meanwhile, Finley has her own secret – a shame she refuses to talk about, even when her grandparents make her visit a psychologist. She is ashamed of the fact that whatever reasons she may have for being happy, she is often unhappy – so very unhappy that there seems to be a weight on her chest, holding her down. She has blue days, when she can't seem to get out of bed. She has moments when she loses herself to fear. Sometimes, even escaping to the Everwood isn't enough.

This is part story about family secrets, part portrait of a child struggling with mood and anxiety issues, and partly the type of adventure that can only happen when a very imaginative child is turned loose on a bit of countryside dotted with atmosphere and history, and joined by playmates who are willing to get into the spirit of the thing. It is a heartbreakingly human tale that really, literally, made me cry. Specifically, I remember the spigots opening when Finley reads aloud to her grandfather a list of things she loves about her dad – how she hesitated at the last item and, at Grandpa's insistence, read the final item ("he looks like Grandpa") – and how that affected him. It is a passionate story that rises to an emotionally powerful climax when Finley finally opens up about all the family's secrets, including her own. And it is a beautifully written, perfectly crafted book by an author who obviously has it all going on in head and heart.

This book was on a list of titles recommeded by an acquaintance whose taste and judgment I have learned to trust. It did not disappoint. Legrand is also the author of the Empirium trilogy (Furyborn, Kingsbane and Lightbringer) and the young readers' novels The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, The Year of Shadows, Winterspell, Foxheart and Sawkill Girls.

Wundersmith

Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow
by Jessica Townsend
Recommended Ages: 10+

This tale of a special school, with courses of study for kids with both mundane (non-magical) and arcane (magical) talents or "knacks," immediately begs comparison with all the other magical schools I've read books about. After all, my online book-boosting career was largely inspired by the question "What should I read next after wearing out J.K. Rowling's books about Hogwarts?" I've tallied up at least least 15 different books or book series featuring something like a school for witchcraft and wizardry,1 plus several other training programs for fantasy careers.2 While we're answering questions, Question 2 would be "Why would you want to read more books like this?" That answer is easy: Because they're often very good, and we love them. Question 3: "But surely, there has to be something that sets this particular school of magic apart from the rest?" Answer: That's why I'm reviewing it, dummy.

This is the sequel to Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow. A third book in the series, titled Hollowpox: The Hunt for Morrigan Crow, is scheduled for release in August 2020. Previously, we followed the adventures of an 11-year-old girl named (like, duh) Morrigan Crow as she escaped certain doom in her native Wintersea Republic and became a permanent guest of the sentient Deucalion Hotel, in the Free States city of Nevermoor. Never heard of the Free States? Neither had Morrigan until then. Now, instead of being regarded as a cursed child and blamed for everything that goes wrong, she has made the cut to be accepted in the very exclusive training academy for the Wunder Society. The other eight members of Unit 919 (as her class is designated) are supposed to be her brothers and sisters, loyal companions for life. The school is supposed to prepare her to use her knack for the betterment of Wunsoc, Nevermoor and the Free States. But in her first year at the school, none of these promises are made good.

I spent a lot of time, while reading this book, feeling angry on Morrigan's behalf. It really sizzled my sardine to see her shunned by her classmates (with one or two exceptions), banned from studying the interesting subjects everyone else was taking and, instead, allowed to take only one or two classes – one of which was basically designed to put her down and keep her down. The reason for all this is that, instead of a knack like the other kids (such as cookery or martial arts or dragon riding), Morrigan has the ability to summon Wunder itself – that invisible stuff that powers all the magic and technology in her world. She is a Wundersmith, and according to the reptilian Prof. Onstald, Wundersmiths are capable only of "missteps, blunders, fiascos, monstrosities and devastations."

Once again, Morrigan is deprived of the support of her guardian and sponsor, explorer and hotelier Jupiter North, for most of the year while she is bullied by older students, blackmailed by someone unknown, browbeaten by Onstald, lied to and lied about, and mostly deprived of the education and the sense of belonging Wunsoc promised her when she joined. Even in the course of an eventful year full of strange and dangerous adventures, puzzles, spectacles and singularities (two other things Wundersmiths prove capable of), Year 1 at the Wunsoc school is kind of a downer. Also, she finds herself in grave danger, experiences betrayal, and comes face-to-face once more with the previous Wundersmith, Ezra Squall, who is bad enough to give them all a bad name and who now seems perilously close to returning to full power.

Nevertheless, Morrigan's second adventure is one well worth following. Her world is strange and new, full of beautiful magic and disturbing horrors. Her school includes a fascinating mix of both, including a two-faced Study Mistress whose transition from Murgatroyd (mistress of arcane studies) to Dearborn (mistress of the mundane) is perhaps the most chilling touch throughout the book. Morrigan also enjoys the warm friendship and full acceptance by a number of people, which helps make it all worthwhile. At times, their antics cracked me up – I mean into loud laughter. Her climactic encounter with the enemy is really spectacular. And although the reason her first year was such a living hell ultimately proves to be part of something bigger, the lingering resentment I felt at the end of the book is a sign that (a) Morrigan Crow is a better person than I am, and (b) I really care about her. So I expect to see her again.



1I'm thinking of the following series (in quotes) and individual books (in italics): Academ's Fury by Jim Butcher; The Wizard Heir by Cinda Williams Chima; "Young Wizards" by Diane Duane; "The Magickers" by Emily Drake; "Finishing School" by Gail Carriger; "Magisterium" by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare; The Magicians by Lev Grossman; A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin; "The Tapestry" by Henry H. Neff; "Children of the Red King" by Jenny Nimmo; selected "Discworld" titles by Terry Pratchett; "Scholarly Magics" by Caroline Stevermer; "Arucadi" by E. Rose Sabin; "Septimus Heap" by Angie Sage; "Ashtown Burials" by N.D. Wilson.

2Examples include Pennyroyal Academy by M.A. Larson; Princess Academy by Shannon Hale; School for Sidekicks by Kelly McCullough; Sidekicked by John David Anderson; Munchem Academy by Commander S.T. Bolivar III; Pilfer Academy by Lauren Magaziner; Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks; The School of Fear and The League of Unexceptional Children by Gitty Daneshvari; and arguably (though I haven't read them) Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead and The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Nevermoor

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow
by Jessica Townsend
Recommended Ages: 10+

Morrigan Crow is a cursed child. Born on the last day of the last year of the last 11-year age, she is destined to die on her 11th birthday. Meanwhile, everyone in the city of Jackalfax blames their bad luck, misfortunes and disasters on her. Even her family doesn't seem to care for her; they seem relieved that her time is almost up – especially her politician father, who has never shown her a calorie of warmth. Then comes Bid Day, when her father drags her along to a ceremony where grown-ups bid on children her age, offering them apprenticeships or some form of education. Some kids never get a bid; most get no more than one; now and then, a child gets two bids. To her father's horror, Morrigan gets four bids – including one from a reclusive industrialist named Ezra Squall, offering to make her the most powerful person in the world. But it's a dashing, ginger-bearded stranger named Jupiter North who swoops in on the night Morrigan is supposed to die, saves her from the Hunt of Smoke and Shadow, and whisks her off to a whole new world.

Actually, the city of Nevermoor is just another part of Morrigan's weird, Wunderful world – the main city of the Free States, where people from her native Republic are not generally allowed. Jupiter, a member of the League of Explorers and owner of the magical Deucalion Hotel, tells Morrigan she isn't cursed. Instead, he says, she has some kind of "knack" – somewhere between a mad talent and a magical gift. He wants to sponsor her application to the Wunder Society – Wunsoc for short – an elite group devoted to protecting the Free States from various threats, and whose initiates are trained at a special school. Hundreds of kids her age apply every year, but only nine are accepted. To make the cut, Morrigan simply has to make it through four grueling trials and prove that she has a knack that is useful and good. Only, other than the curse (whose existence she still believes on a deep level), Morrigan doesn't think she has a knack; and whenever she counts on him for help, Jupiter disappears on some mission of great importance.

Clearly, there is a crisis brewing in the marvelous city of Nevermoor. Something is amiss with the Wunder – the invisible stuff that powers all the magic and technology in the world. Accidents are happening in the Wunderground (a subway powered by magic). Guests and repairmen at the Deucalion keep complaining about a ghost that walks through walls. Morrigan and her slowly growing circle of friends gradually realize that the real threat behind the scenes is Ezra Squall, the city's last Wundersmith, who was banished 100 years ago after committing monstrous acts. Squall wants something from Morrigan – perhaps a way back into Nevermoor – while she just manages to hang on through one trial after another and elude attempts by the Stink (the city's police force) to arrest her as an illegal alien and deport her back to Jackalfax and her doom.

Morrigan's world is full of quirks, horrors and delights. Her year-long quest to be accepted into Wunsoc brings her in contact with some strange creatures and colorful people – from a giant, talking cat to a boy who wears an eye patch to avoid seeing too much. She makes friends with a mischievous young dragon rider. She makes frenemies with a mesmerist whom no one else can seem to remember, even moments after meeting her. She makes flat out enemies, too, in the competition to qualify as a Wunsoc initiate. Then there are the residents in the hotel, including an opera singer whose voice charms small animals, a dwarf vampire (pardon, actually a vampire dwarf), and the Deucalion itself, which behaves like a living thing. The heroine confronts bullying, cheating, superstition, scapegoating and prejudice. Her attitude toward all this – a unique blend of enthusiastic acceptance and dry sarcasm – adds to the fun.

But running right through the whole "if your application to Hogwarts involved a super-competitive, year-long series of tests and practical demonstrations" concept is a Voldemort-like menace, a villain so vile that it's risky to speak his name in public. Squall means to use Morrigan as a pawn in his comeback plan, and what this teaches her about herself fuels her niggling doubts and her underlying loneliness. This thread holds the otherwise somewhat episodic plot together like pieces of popcorn and cranberries strung on a fishing line – which reminds me: They have Christmas in Nevermoor, Saint Nick and his flying reindeer and all. Whatever the Wundersmith has in mind adds a layer of thriller-chiller to an otherwise mostly lighthearted series of magical adventures ranging across a vibrant cityscape that will come to life inside an imaginative reader's head.

What happens if and when Morrigan makes it into the Wunsoc training program is another story – or rather, a whole series of them. This debut novel by an Australian author is the first book of the Nevermoor or Morrigan Crow series. Book 2 is Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow, and Book 3, Hollowpox: The Hunt for Morrigan Crow, is due to be released in August 2020.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

El Deafo

El Deafo
by Cece Bell
Recommended Ages: 10+

In this graphic novel by an author mainly of children's picture books, Cece Bell narrates her own emotionally complex journey from losing her hearing at age 4 to finding friendship and acceptance in fourth grade. Dependent on a bulky hearing aid to help her keep up with mainstream school classes, Cece yearns for friendship and secretly dreams of being a super-powered hero named El Deafo. Meantime, she struggles against anything that makes her feel different from other kids.

Her adventures include a pajama party where she feels left out as soon as the lights go out (after which she can't read anybody's lips), being picked last when her gym class is splitting into kickball teams (she can never understand what everyone is yelling at her), having a crush on the mischievous boy across the street, and almost losing her best friend over a poke in the eye.

It's a funny, intelligent, deeply felt account of a girl's experiences growing up hard of hearing. The one discouraging thing about the book, in my opinion, is the pains the author takes in her afterword to emphasize that her book is only about her own experience and isn't intended to represent all the things other hearing-impaired people may go through. I just think it's sad that we live in a world where someone can't tell her own story without having to issue such a disclaimer.

But the story itself isn't sad at all. It's actually a joyful account of a girl whose family, friends and teachers (for the most part) supported her as she strove to be as normal as possible under challenging circumstances, and it gives young readers a vivid, fun-to-read opportunity to put themselves in the place of someone whose low hearing level affects their life in ways many of us might not expect.

Cece Bell's picture-book titles include I Yam a Donkey, Rabbit and Robot and Ribbit, Bee-Wigged, Itty Bitty, Smell My Foot!, You Loves Ewe! and the upcoming Egg or Eyeball?, due for release in March 2020.