Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Shorter Musings (MG Fantasy)

Here are some shorter musings on some recent MG Fantasy reads.

Angel and Bavar by Amy Wilson
Writing a retelling of Beauty and the Beast for a MG audience is no mean feat, yet Wilson pulls it off brilliantly here. The themes of "Beauty and the Beast" are such that making them both palatable and relatable for this age bracket is a challenge. In this version the "beast" is a young boy born to fight monsters and hold them back from humanity thanks to a family curse and ancestors who didn't know when enough was enough. The "beauty" is a young girl who can see the magic and is drawn in due to the trauma of her past. Angel and Bavar team up to try and find a way to stop the monsters forever and allow Bavar to live a more normal life. They are drawn to each other out of loneliness and a shared trauma, but they build a real friendship from that and make a great team. This is a retelling that works on every level, and I really enjoyed it.

The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
The Book of Boy takes place in the medieval era. It is a story about Boy who goes on a pilgrimage with a strange man who seems to see to the core of everyone he meets and is on a strange quest. From a literary perspective, this is an excellently well-written book. Murdock manages to maintain her medieval language style, which is not always an easy task when writing from a modern perspective. It is definitely a credit to her craft and a plus for readers who enjoy being fully immersed in a setting. I just was not the audience for this book. I don't like medieval style or era fiction in general, and the style of the writing was more of an annoyance to me than anything. I also figured everything out in the first two chapters. (I am NOT saying this is a flaw with the book or the writing. The intended audience will not. I'm just an adult with an extensive experience in this subject area so...). For me, it did diminish my personal enjoyment as I couldn't invest much interest in the characters after that. I don't like books on that particular subject either. I guess I can see from a sentence level writing perspective why it was given a Newbery Honor, but I was largely underwhelmed and can't say I will be talking it up to many students. This book will require a particular reader.

The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone by Jaclyn Moriarty
This was cute. It has a rather old-fashioned feel to it in many ways, but just enough that it will still appeal to MG readers who aren't into that as much. The story in many ways is absurd, but in a delightful way that is sure to appeal to its target audience. How many 11 year olds wish they could go on an adventure all by themselves like Bronte? I like how the adults weren't at all okay with this turn of events in most cases, and that there was an explanation for why Bronte had to travel alone. She was still well looked out for. The book is full of fantastical creatures, pirates, magic, and all sorts of zany situations that gives Bronte experience and wisdom. It looks like this will be the first in a series. I'm not sure I would want to read beyond this volume, but I will definitely be recommending it to my middle schoolers.

Ogre Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
Ogre Enchanted is a prequel to Ella Enchanted. It follows a young healer named Evie who is turned into an Ogre by Lucinda. This is Evie's punishment for refusing a marriage proposal from her best friend Wormie. Honestly, I found the story to be rather slow in many places, and it was hard to not roll my eyes frequently at both the way Evie talked and at her antics as she believes herself to be in love with a person she meets as an ogre. I admit it didn't help knowing who that person was. I do wonder how readers who are experiencing the world of Frell for the first time in this book will feel about the world and characters. Unfortunately, I can't undo my years long love of Ella Enchanted and view it as its own thing.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Merci Suárez Changes Gears

I adore Meg Medina's YA novels. I feel like all of them (especially Burn Baby Burndo not get the love and accolades they fully deserve. I was so excited when I discovered she was writing a MG novel. The switch from YA to MG is not as easy as it would first appear, but Medina also has two delightful picture books to her name, so I knew she had the range. I was over the moon when she won the Newbery even though I had not yet read Merci Suárez Changes Gears. It couldn't have happened to a better author. Now that I have read the book, I know it won on its merits.

Merci is a 6th grader at a private school in southern Florida. Unlike the majority of her classmates, Merci doesn't take fancy vacations or have a big house or own a boat or two. She is a scholarship student. Her family is hard-working, but definitely not rich. Merci works hard and is smart, but knows she doesn't compare to her older brother in the genius department. Merci loves to play soccer, spend time with her Lolo, and paint for her family's business. Her life suddenly has a lot of confusing changes as she starts 6th grade, has to take on some community service she is disinterested in, and has family drama she doesn't quite understand.

Merci is an excellent character. She is the perfect book version of a 6th grader. She is so perfect it was easy to lose sight of the fact that she was a book character. She makes some poor decisions, acts on impulse, doesn't see herself or others clearly, avoids some responsibilities, and feels things strongly. There are points in the book when she's not necessarily likable, but there was never a point when I wasn't completely on her side. Even when she was being her most dramatic or petty, I understood her motivations and emotions so well. And my anger was directed at the people who were causing her emotions. I can only imagine how much more invested in her life reader's in the target audience will be. I loved how Merci's problems were so fully relatable too. Middle school is a time of massive transition for everyone. Friendships shift as do adult expectations of you. It is often sudden and doesn't take into consideration all the hormonal shifts happening at the same time. Medina uses this to showcase Merci's struggles not only with school changes but also at home. Her brother is a senior, so he will be leaving soon. Her grandfather is acting strange: forgetting things, wandering off, and falling more. All the adults in Merci's family are worried and stressed, which is, of course, affecting Merci too. Especially as no one is explaining anything to her.

What really sets this novel apart is the community aspect of it. Merci is always in a tight community. Her school community is small, and there is quite a bit of forced (and natural) camaraderie there. Her family is her most important community though. Merci lives in a house next to her grandparents' house which is next to the house of her Tía and two young cousins. As she says toward the end, she lives in her house but the rest is sort of flexible. There is no knocking. The food in one house is food for everyone. The closeness of the family is shown in all of its hard moments and its wonderful, strong ones.

The school part of the book was particularly strong for me. As a teacher, I could actually see all these kids as real people who I could see interacting in the ways kids actually act. A lot of contemporary MG books dealing with realistic elements in schools have an almost after school special feel about them. Like the adults writing them are seeing kids' interactions through the long lens of their memories and not seeing them as they are now. Medina gets the way kids actually interact and all the layers of and webs of their social interactions. It isn't simple. Sixth grade is a time when for various reasons friendships undergo a major shift. Often it isn't so clear cut and simple as, "this person was my friend and now they'r not". Merci is trying to fit in, to find her place at this school she's already been at a year. The shifting dynamics everyone is undergoing makes that more of a challenge. Medina  faces the complexities of MG social interactions head on with realism and true heart.

I will be enthusiastically  recommending Merci Suarez Changes Gears to all my students.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

TTT: Favorite Book Couples

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly themed blog hop created by The Broke and the Bookish and now hosted at That Artsy Reader Girl.

This Week's Topic: Favorite Couples in Books

The Valentine's Week TTT is always a conundrum for me. I love romance and the whole psychology behind the process of "falling in love", so I write about my favorite love stories often. My favorites being this one and this one. I wondered if doing one more would just be superfluous, but I honestly couldn't resist. I also think favorite couple can be different than love story (which is often what I write about). Many times a love story ends with the formation of a couple, and you don't actually get to see the pair be a couple and handle the world together. Although. of course there is crossover.

The King and Queen of Attolia (Queen's Thief Series)
Sometimes talking about these books can be so frustrating. Almost everything is a major spoiler. And yet, this is my favorite love story of all time and therefore I want to talk about it all the time. One of the many many things I love about books 3-5 in this series (and will hopefully be true of book 6 as well) is that we get to see the King and Queen function as a married couple and all that encompasses. I love couples who stand by each other and face down outside obstacles together. 

And speaking of...

Peter and Harriet (Lord Peter Mysteries)
Same here. I like that Sayers took us beyond the final moment of them getting together in Gaudy Night (though that is my favorite book in the series) to see them actually function as a couple with the romantic aspect finally settled between them. 

Christopher and Millie (The Chrestomanci Chronicles)
The first book I read in the series was Charmed Life (and I do recommend starting there). I read it as an adult, which probably accounts for why I was far more intrigued by the relationship between the married couple in the book than the conundrums of the young characters. Imagine how delighted I was to discover there was a whole book about how they met. Their relationship is really the foundation of all of the books. Millie grounds Christopher in a way absolutely nothing or no one else could. Imagining what he would be like as the Chrestomanci without her is scary stuff. And guys, his last life* is kept in her wedding ring. I mean...that's about as romantic as it gets. Imagine the trust that entails. (*Errr...long explanation for that. Just read the books. I promise you won't regret it.)

Kate and Christopher (The Perilous Gard
These two are such absolute perfect foils for each other. He is emotional and given to dramatic gestures. She is calm and practical. They work so well together though, and it is absolutely lovely that their bond is forged through intellectual and emotional collection as they literally can not touch each other through most of the book. 

Charlie Eason and Eugene Parsons (Earth Bound)
This is a romance novel, so things are not completely resolved in the coupledom of these two until the end of the novel. HOWEVER, we do get to see them function as team throughout the book. Recently the authors gifted us with a tiny snippet of their life post book too and it was everything I ever wanted for them. I could honestly read an entire collection of them doing the most mundane, domestic things together. They are both hyper-intelligent and hyper-driven, but they work together beautifully. So many jagged edges that fit together perfectly. 

Maggie and Will and Justine and Adrian (Spymaster Series
This is a two for one. Two amazing very different couples in one series. The Forbidden Rose is the third book in the series, but the first one I read. (I recommend that.) This is where we get the story of Maggie and Will and how they met, but also how well they work as a partnership. The rest of the series just confirms that. They are the best of parents and continue to be relationship goals as they get older. The Forbidden Rose also introduces the series ultimate OTP (in my opinion), Justine and Adrian. In that book we get to see how they meet as young teens. The Black Hawk is their story. However, if you read the entire series, you discover glimpses and snippets of information about them. They are more broken and more complicated than Will and Maggie, but ultimately the way they work through all that with a friendship that never should have happened as their foundation is really quite inspiring. (Note: I don't really like the first two books in the series except for what we see of Adrian and Justine. However, the rest of the series, including the novellas, is top-notch.)

Jaime Corey and Dominique Richard (Amour et Chocolat Series)
Jaime and Dom get together rather early in the book, and we do get to see them function as a couple, taking on interfering relatives and their own demons as they figure out how to make that work. Additionally we get to see them together in later books in the series as well. What I love so much about these two is that they are perfectly willing to admit they need help because they each have issues. They love therapy and talk about it a lot. Basically every time one of the other characters in the series comes to either of them in a fit of angst, the response eventually is, "Have I mentioned how much we love our therapist." And just...that is really great. Because more couples would be successful if they just admitted relationships are work and sometimes they require outside help. Sometimes loving yourself is work that requires outside (professional) help, and that's kind of the first step to a functioning relationship anyway.

 Lainie Graham and Richard Troy (London Celebrities Series)
Again, this is one of those romance couples who comes up in all the subsequent books in the series and also has cute little snippets about them you can read via the author's website. And they are adorably, snarkily perfect. Reading their actual book you get to see them be a couple too as they are fake dating through most of it. (And who doesn't love a good fake dating turned real dating romance? If you tell me you don't, I won't believe you. Does not compute.)

Knife and Paul (Faery Rebels)
Oh these two. I don't want to say too too much because spoilers. I love their bond. I love how their story unfolds. I love that in the subsequent books we get to see them as adults with a working marriage where there are problems and hardships, but boy do they still love each other. 

Friday, February 8, 2019

Future Favorites Friday 2-19

I take the 2nd Friday of every month to highlight some upcoming releases I am looking forward to that I hope are Future Favorites. Feel free to do your own post, just please link back to my blog and tell me about your post in the comments.

We know how I feel about Stephanie Burgis. This is the 2nd book in the Hardwood Spellbook Series. I adored Snowspelled and can not wait to get my hands on this one.

Cassandra Harwood scandalized her nation when she became the first woman magician in Angland. Now, she's ready to teach a whole new generation of bright young women at her radical new school, the Thornfell College of Magic…

Until a sinister fey altar is discovered in the school library, the ruling Boudiccate sends a delegation to shut down Thornfell, and Cassandra’s own husband is torn away from her.

As malevolent vines slither in from the forest and ruthless politicians scheme against her, Cassandra must fight the greatest battle of her life to save her love, her school, and the future of the young women of Angland.

Release Date: February 25, 2019 by Five Fathoms Press

In my recent review of From Twinkle, With Love, I talked about how Sandhya Menon was no an automatic read for me. Her newest book looks set to be my favorite of hers yet due to the plot synopsis and the fact that it is Ashish's story.

Ashish Patel didn’t know love could be so…sucky. After he’s dumped by his ex-girlfriend, his mojo goes AWOL. Even worse, his parents are annoyingly, smugly confident they could find him a better match. So, in a moment of weakness, Ash challenges them to set him up.

The Patels insist that Ashish date an Indian-American girl—under contract. Per subclause 1(a), he’ll be taking his date on “fun” excursions like visiting the Hindu temple and his eccentric Gita Auntie. Kill him now. How is this ever going to work?

Sweetie Nair is many things: a formidable track athlete who can outrun most people in California, a loyal friend, a shower-singing champion. Oh, and she’s also fat. To Sweetie’s traditional parents, this last detail is the kiss of death.

Sweetie loves her parents, but she’s so tired of being told she’s lacking because she’s fat. She decides it’s time to kick off the Sassy Sweetie Project, where she’ll show the world (and herself) what she’s really made of.

Ashish and Sweetie both have something to prove. But with each date they realize there’s an unexpected magic growing between them. Can they find their true selves without losing each other?

Release Date: May 14, 2019 by Simon Pulse

This is a debut author, so I don't really know that much about it other than it looks as cute as all get out.

Siblings Meg, Will, and Ariel Griffin are off on an adventure! They can’t wait to spend a week vising their eccentric aunt and her giant, tongue-drooling Newfoundland dog in England. But when they finally arrive, they’re faced with a few local secrets that stir up more than a little trouble.

Add in some very peculiar lights, strange new friends, a police chase and some stampeding sheep, and the Griffin kids are in over their heads—literally. Apparently this town has a ghost problem and the three children must race to solve the mystery before the ghosts take something that doesn’t belong to them.

Release Date: March 5, 2019 from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

What are some upcoming titles you hope will become favorites on your shelf?

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Cover Reveal: The Princess Who Flew with Dragons by Stephanie Burgis

Regular readers of this blog know how much I love dragons, strong-willed heroines, and political intrigue. Stephanie Burgis has a series that combines all three exquisitely with the added bonus of frequent chocolate references.

I am so pleased today to reveal the cover of the third installment of the series.

Isn't beautiful? I love everything about it from the use of light to Sofia's expression and every detail in between. (I don't know how Stephanie always manages to have the most perfectly gorgeous covers for her books, but she does.) Peter Antonsson is the artist. Thank you Peter for gifting us with this.

Jacket copy: 

Perfect for fans of Shannon Hale, this girl-powered fantasy follows a smart young princess determined to save her kingdom.

Princess Sofia of Drachenheim is sick of being used for her older sister’s political gains. At twelve years old, she’s already been a hostage to invading dragons and a promised future fiancé to a wicked fairy. Her only comfort lies in writing letters to her pen pal and best friend--Jasper, a young dragon whom she's never even met.

When Sofia's older sister sends her on a diplomatic mission to far-off Villenne, she's meant to play the part of a charming, smiling princess. But when an accident leads to her exile from the city, Sofia is free to wander as she pleases for the first time in her life. And when Jasper's food-mage sister Aventurine turns him into a human boy, Sofia thinks life can't get any better. Until… the legendary ice giants of the north attack, trying to reclaim the territory that they lost centuries ago. With the dragons and royals frozen in ice, can Sofia and Jasper save their families and kingdom?

Another enchanting and strong-hearted fantasy, set in the same world as The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart and The Girl with the Dragon Heart

Coming November 5, 2019

The first two books in the series are favorites of mine. They are The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart and The Girl with the Dragon Heart. You have plenty of time until November to pick them up if you haven't! 

There they are all together. I can't wait until the new one is on my shelf with the others. 

Monday, February 4, 2019

Sweep: The Story of a Girl and her Monster

I saw buzz start to build around Sweep: The Story of a Girl and her Monster by Jonathan Auxier start to build several months ago. Now that I've read it for myself, I completely understand why so many people were talking about it.

"We save ourselves by saving others."

In Victorian London Nan lives a life of danger where she could die any day. She is a sweep-one of those unfortunate children who earn a pittance of money climbing up chimneys to make them clean and safe. Fortunately Nan is good at her job. But even being good at her job doesn't mean she has a good life. She is apprenticed to a harsh master and is haunted by dreams and memories of her Sweep-the man who raised her until she was six, taught her the trade, and then disappeared one night leaving her with nothing but a small clump of charcoal to remember him by. One day when a job goes horribly wrong, her little lump of char saves her life. Nan finds herself alive and awake in an attic with a small golem newly born and trembling in a corner. Now Nan finds new purpose in her life as she finds a way to take care of this new life she is responsible for. As Nan does this, she learns more about herself, her Sweep, and the world around her.

In many ways Nan is the perfect MG hero. She is smarter and better-the exceptional child that stands out to the adults who come in contact with her and are paying enough attention. Like she is destined for something. What is  different about Nan in terms of her role as a MG hero is that she is the sort that gets comfortable in a situation and is perfectly willing to stay there as long as she is surviving. That is what she spends the majority of the novel doing. Just surviving. It's not a very meaningful existence-which is the entire point and Auxier made it well. Nan consumes things and doesn't much care for the long-term consequences. She doesn't think about tomorrow-just today. Even once the monster, who she names Charlie, comes to life, that is slow to change. But as Nan begins to care more and more for Charlie, she begins to understand the importance of connection, planning for the future, and community. There is a boy who sells used good named Toby whose feelings she has always been negligent with. As a result of her adventures with Charlie, Nan allows Toby into her life more. Because Charlie needs certain things, she makes connections with others to get them. In doing so Nan begins to see that the world is more than what is just in front of her. It is an excellent character journey.

The story is told with flashbacks to stories of Nan and the Sweep from when she is little. Each story is a piece to the puzzle of who she is and who Charlie is and how he came to be. Toby has some pieces of that puzzle as well. It is an intriguing read and there was enough action that the book is engaging and difficult to put down from beginning to end. The themes of community and what we owe each other as humans are not always subtle, but they are always delivered in a way that is perfect for where they are found in the plot. The whole concept of the golem is executed in a way I've never seen before, and Charlie is, to me, the best part of the book.

So yes, I enjoyed this. And yes, I see why it was getting so much buzz. Yet there was also a part of me that was slightly removed from it all. I think it's partly because Nan was rather uninspiring as a character (which I get is the point, but it still caused a level of removal from the emotion for me). Also it's partly knowing where it all had to go in the end and so not wanting to get too invested. That's one of the drawbacks of being an adult reader. This is one of this books that could possibly change a kid and haunt them for life in the best possible way though.

Friday, February 1, 2019

January 2019 Stats

I appear to be back. I remain hopeful. I enjoyed reading this month, and I read A LOT. I'm not quite ready to start throwing confetti in celebration yet as I had a good January last year too. This one was even better though. Here's hoping February is as successful!

The Favorites (3 New Reads, 3 Rereads)

A look at my January Reading in Numbers:

Total: 16
New Reads: 12
Rereads: 4

MG: 4
YA: 6
Adult: 6

Fiction: 14
Non-Fiction: 2
Realistic Fiction: 8
Fantasy/Sci-Fi: 6

On to the next month! Here's a look at my TBR for February: the shelf where all my library and purchased-but-not-yet-read books are and my three most anticipated February Releases.