Friday, October 24, 2008

Four Book Reviews

The Fairies of Nutfolk Wood
by Barb Bentler Ullman
Recommended Age: 10+

Since her parents' divorce, Willa has been caught up in a whirlwind of change. Change upsets her. She picks at her food, suffers bouts of nausea, and has strange dreams. One of those dreams prompts Willa and her mother to move away from the city and try something new in the country with its woods and mountains.

Soon they find a little fixer-upper home to make their own. Something draws Willa to the place, even. Is she dreaming? Is she seeing mirages? Or are there, perhaps, sparkly little people living in dollhouse-sized huts in the woods along Wicket's Road?

Willa isn't sure whether to believe in the Nutfolk or not. But she hears stories of them - little fairy people of a distinctively American type - from the elderly neighbor who takes care of her when Ma is at work. As she gets caught up in the mystery and magic of the Nutfolk, Willa starts to forget about the anxiety that twists her insides. She makes a friend. She shares a secret. She has an adventure with magic in it (maybe). And she starts to feel better.

This is a gentle, homey romp "behind nature's magic." It is touched by real-world problems that may make your heart ache, including the death of loved ones, alcohol abuse, family conflict, depression and anxiety, aging, and loneliness. But it is also warmed by hard work, a sun-dappled glen, inspired art work, courage, friendship, love, and a little bit of magic. It is a rare story in which fairies provide comfort and healing in an all-American setting. And the fairy magic is only part of the reason to cherish this gentle, charming book.

The Little Broomstick
by Mary Stewart
Recommended Age: 10+

I paused while reading Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave to relish this chilling little romp through a child's world of magic. Apart from her Arthurian Saga, Stewart is mostly known for books that blur the line between romance novels and supernatural thrillers. But in the midst of all that yucky grown-up stuff we also find a few magical tales for the young, such as Ludo and the Star Horse, A Walk in the Wolf Wood, and this book. You may have to search used booksellers for it. It's worth the trouble.

The adventure comes to a plain little girl named Mary Smith, one dull summer when she is staying with her elderly aunt in Shropshire. While mooching dispiritedly around the garden, Mary meets first an intelligent black cat, then a rare and magical flower, and finally an enchanted broomstick. Such a spirited little broomstick!

Before you can say boo! Mary has experienced her first terrifying, exhilirating broomstick ride. This takes her to the steps of a school of witchcraft quite unlike Hogwarts. And though it really is all a mistake - though Mary is only, by accident, a witch for a day - her arrival at Endor College proves as fateful for the school as for her.

The craft taught by Madam Mumblechook and Doctor Dee is strange and sinister. When Mary realizes what they are up to, she mounts a brave rescue mission. Aided by a boy she has just met, Mary races to escape from the magical world in a hair-raising chase involving brooms, wands, a book of spells, and a multitude of enchanted creatures.

For all we know, J. K. Rowling's creation of Hogwarts may have been influenced by this pint-sized thriller. Fast paced, laced with droll wit, and complete with a broomstick advertisement from Harrods, this delicious confection will satisfy anyone with a taste for Harry Potter.

Enna Burning
by Shannon Hale
Recommended Age: 12+

Here is the second of The Books of Bayern, a magical thriller-romance series that started with Goose Girl. If you have read that book, then you will already know the heroine of this one.

Two years after Princess Isi's fairy-tale marriage to Prince Geric of Bayern, happily-ever-after isn't looking so good. The prince's brother has died, so the royal couple is under more pressure than ever to produce an heir. But instead of having babies, Isi has problems. Her gift of wind-speaking has turned into a curse. Unable to control or filter out the voices in the wind, Isi is beginning to lose her mind.

Meanwhile, back in the forest, Isi's best friend Enna has problems of her own. Her brother Leifer discovers a buried scroll that teaches him how to control fire by magic. Suddenly this gentle forest lad is dangerous and hard to control. Just when it seems he may set the kingdom ablaze, news that the neighboring kingdom of Tira has invaded Bayern gives him a channel for the power that blazes within him. But the heat of battle proves too much for Leifer. And now Enna, desperate for a way to connect with her lost brother, takes up the vellum scroll and learns fire-speaking herself.

This decision could cost Enna everything. While she hopes she can help Bayern win the war - even believes that she must - a burning desire begins to consume her. It changes her, making her a stranger to her closest friends. And finally, it puts her and all of Bayern in deadly jeopardy when a charismatic Tiran officer captures her and tries to seduce her. Instead of being Bayern's last hope to drive the invaders out of their land, Enna may become the Tiran's ultimate weapon to destroy Bayern. At stake are her life, her sanity, and her ability to control the inferno within - plus everything and everyone she loves.

Enna Burning is the rare sequel that matches, if not surpasses, the quality of the original. Veering out of the sub-genre of novelized fairy tales, it delves deeper into a remarkable fantasy world in which certain people have amazing gifts: the gift of speaking to animals, to the elements of air and fire, and to the hearts of other people. Once again, author Hale shows us some of the exciting, and often terrifying, ways such gifts can be used. She shows us the horror of war, the cost of power, the agony of grief and guilt, and the confusing muddle of feelings that may be love. She crafts passages of exquisite suspense, gut-wrenching horror, and mystical eeriness; yet she also manages to include moments of romantic tenderness and comic relief.

In short, this book shows a compelling writer in full command of her craft, speaking to us as magically as her gifted characters speak to the elements they command. Once you read it, you will be on fire to pick up the third Book of Bayern, River Secrets.

River Secrets
by Shannon Hale
Recommended Age: 12+

This third of The Books of Bayern focuses on a character who provided comic relief in both Goose Girl and Enna Burning. Razo, the short and slight forest lad with the expressive face and the upright-sticking hair, has been chosen as one of Bayern's Own - the 100 personal bodyguards of King Geric - and apart from his friendship with Queen Isi, no one knows why. He isn't a good fighter with the sword or javelin. He can't win a fair wrestling match. All he seems to know how to do is eat, make jokes, and get into trouble. He has scars all over his body to show for it. And yet, when Captain Talone announces his hand-picked team to accompany the new Ambassador to Tira, Razo is one of them.

Even Razo comes to question this decision during the gruelling journey to the Tiran capital city of Ingridan and the tense, volatile weeks after their arrival. Some in Tira are unhappy about the end of the late war with Bayern. There are groups in Ingridan who want to go to war again. Some of them will try using assassination to get their point across. Everywhere Razo turns, he seems to be running onto the point of a knife or getting himself attacked by hostile Tirans.

Meanwhile, someone is leaving a trail of charred corpses lying around in places that throw suspicion on the Bayern delegation. Razo shares these suspicions, knowing that another member of their mission - his friend Enna - has the magical gift of fire-speaking. She has burned people in the past, though only during the war. Could she be burning again?

As Razo investigates this mystery, he gradually recognizes his own gifts that make him valuable to the diplomatic mission. Razo is a deadly slingshot, a capable spy, and in some ways a more effective ambassador than the Lady Megina who officially speaks for Bayern. He befriends the city's strange, lonely prince. He engineers a change in local fashion and public opinion. He spots clues no one else would notice. And against all odds, funny little Razo becomes a dashing hero in the eyes of a young Tiran lady with her own strange secret to protect.

If you read the first two Books of Bayern, you may have spotted Razo as a character who seriously deserves to have his own story. Here it is, with bucketloads of danger, mystery, intrigue, and action - and a generous serving of romance. Everything Razo does, says, or thinks will endear him to you, from the moments of levity he is always ready to provide to the troubled thoughts and soul-searching he does. You'll think you're cheering for the underdog until he discovers (and you with him) what he is capable of. And when you learn that Razo plays a major role in the fourth book in this series, titled Forest Born, you will surely add it to your wish-list.

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