Category Archives: fantasy

The 2017 Newbery Books

Each year I anticipate the winner and honor books for the Newbery Prize. Past winners have included authors I regularly seek out, like Kate DiCamillo  (Flora and Ulysses). Among my favorite winners are a book about a gorilla (The One and Only Ivan) and Jacqueline Kelly’s The Evolution of Calpernia Tate.  One quote from that tale of an eleven year old budding scientist still rings true: “It was too bad, but sometimes a little knowledge could ruin your whole day…”

This year’s winner and honor books include a fantasy – The Girl Who Drank the Moon -magic is often a theme in Newbery books.  As a fan of “The Canterbury Tales,” I look forward to reading the Honor Book – The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, written by Adam Gidwitz.  Another honor book, Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow found its way into book club discussions, as its theme of bullying and discrimination mirrored present-day angst.  Finally, Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan, completed this year’s winners, with the music of poetry and the rhythm of song telling a story of history.

Read them all – it won’t take much of your time – and you will find satisfying tales written well.  Sometimes a good children’s book can be better than one written for adults.

9781616205676_p0_v4_s192x300   The Girl Who Drank the Moon

This year’s winner of the Newbery Prize – Kelly Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon – delivers other worldly magic – we all need some right now. In a world similar to Shirley Jackson’s famous short story “The Lottery,” one person is sacrificed each year to appease an evil witch and keep the rest of the village safe – for another year.  Unknown to the villagers, the baby is rescued each time by a good witch of the Forest, who safely whisks the child off to a new family in a safer place, while the evil witch, disguised as mother superior in the local convent, thrives on the sorrow and despair of the sacrificing town.

One year the good witch, Xan, who shares her home with an ancient Swamp Monster and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon, keeps the baby.  When Xan accidentally feeds the baby girl light from the moon, instead of the usual fare of stardust, Luna becomes enmagicked with amazing powers.  Xan subdues Luna’s powers until she is thirteen, when she joins forces with her mother, imprisoned all these years in a tower, whose magic changes paper birds into lethal weapons,  and Antain, a young man from the village with a good heart whose baby would be next on the list to be sacrificed.  Of course, evil is defeated and a new world order of hope replaces the misery.

Each minor character has notes of the familiar in everyone’s life.  Antain disappoints his mother’s ambition for him by leaving the head Council and following his own yearning to be a carpenter.  The little dragon never seems to grow up, until a crisis tears away his youthful outlook and forces him to deliver.  The old Swamp Monster offers steady and sage advice and comfort when needed.  But, my favorite character in this story is Ethyne, who knows the evil witch from her days as a novice, before she left to marry Antain.  Ethyne’s outlook is always positive and cheery, with a steady sense of self which she uses to steer both her husband and the despairing villagers as well as her former subservient connections in the Convent.  Ethyne is that voice of common sense who might bring you a cup of tea when you are down, or suggest a plan to overcome your inertia when you need motivation.  She is someone everyone should have as a friend.

Related Review:  Wolf Hollow

 

Spending Time with Twelve Year Olds

Sometimes hanging out with twelve year olds is preferable to adults.

9780345539960_p0_v2_s192x300   Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d

One of my favorite twelve year old sleuths, Flavia de Luce is back – having been expelled from boarding school in Canada.  Alan Bradley’s ninth installment in this mystery series – Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d – returns the precocious girl detective to the old deteriorating family estate at Buckshaw with all the familiar characters from his previous books. Flavia’s sisters still ignore her but her father’s old friend and the family caretaker remains faithful.  Flavia’s father is in the hospital with pneumonia, and her beloved pet hen Esmeralda has been turned into chicken soup. When she finds the dead body of a reclusive old wood carver, the mystery begins.

Clues include an Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstake ticket, a cat, and copies of children’s books by Oliver Inchbald, featuring the adventures of Crispian Crumpet, based on Inchbald’s real life son. With her usual fervor, Flavia does her homework and follows leads to uncover the true identity of the dead wood carver as well as discovering an unexpected detail that solves the case.

Flavia may be twelve years old but she is wise and resourceful, and her antics are fun to follow as she solves the mystery – a pleasant combination of Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie.

 

9781101994764_p0_v3_s192x300  Furthermore

Tahereh Mafi’s fantasy children’s book – Furthermore – focuses on another twelve year old.  Alice lives in the land of Ferenwood, where colors and magic are the local currency.  Sadly, Alice seems to have neither, and after failing a coming of age test because she chooses to dance rather than reveal her true talent, Alice sets off on a quest to find her missing father.

With the help of her sidekick Oliver, she discovers the land of Furthermore, a mixture of Frank Baum’s land of OZ and Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, with a little Harry Potter flavoring – adventure and danger, upside-down rules, twisted logic, paintings to walk through.  With its themes of friendship, family, and self-acceptance, Furthermore offers an escape with a little wisdom.

The adventures in both books get mired down in heavy descriptions and too many self-absorbing examinations by the heroine, which the reader may skip over without losing the threads of the plots.  Both Flavia and Alice are resourceful twelve year olds who are determined and thoughtful – a nice change from adult drama.

 

 

 

 

Elena Ferrante’s The Beach at Night

9781609453701_p0_v1_s192x300  Elena Ferrante’s children’s book The Beach at Night has magic, danger, and adventure, with scary episodes and somewhat raunchy language not usually found in a children’s book. Never fear, the story does have a happy ending.  Best known for her anonymity and her Neopolitan novel series, Ferrante weaves a simple but dark story, reminiscent of the original Grimm fairy tales, about a doll left behind at the beach.

When her father presents the little girl with a cat named Minu, the little doll finds herself abandoned and forgotten.  She is tortured by a mean beach attendant and his rake as they scavenge the night beach for bits of treasure left behind.  Although the main villain is the snarly Mean Beach Attendant of Sunset, the Rake, Fire, and Waves from the Ocean are personified and join in, as the poor doll tries to hang on.

Although the book is listed for children, the illustrations reminded me of Tim Burton caricatures – whimsically scary.  The subtexts of mother-daughter relationships, as well as the horrors of a deserted beach and the stealing of words out one’s mouth, seem targeted more for an adult audience. Adults, especially fans of Ferrante will enjoy the book, but beware – read it yourself first to decide if you want to share it with your young ones.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

9781338099133_p0_v5_s192x300  Scripts can be tricky and the new play – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – offered some challenges in the reading.  The only modern script I remember liking is Lily Tomlin’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe – still among my favorites on my bookshelf.

I’ve always been a fan of J.K. Rowling’s creation of the boy wizard series, buying first editions as soon as published, but I’ve never liked the movies.  Despite the talented actors who grew up with the stories, something about seeing Harry amid all the magical effects on screen did not seem as exciting as reading about him and imagining the possibilities.  In this case, I suspected the reverse – reading the script may not be as satisfying as seeing the play.

Rowling and her fellow writers, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne, deliver a clever addition to the Harry Potter saga, with Harry a faltering forty year old, married to Ginny, with a son named after two memorable characters from the series, Albus Severus.  The disconnect between father and son fuels the plot, and other progeny join the adventure as Harry once again battles the villain Voldemort, but the trick this time is time travel.

Trying to change the past has its consequences, as readers appreciate from so much fiction warning us of its terrors – notably the classic Ray Bradbury story imagining a careless time traveler who changes the present by stepping on a butterfly in the past; nevertheless, Rowling manufactures a new twist on trying to improve the past – with dire results.  The action is fast, despite three trips back to Harry’s childhood, and fans of Harry Potter will enjoy the references to the books series.

The ending is not predictable, offering a moral lesson.  All ends well, with everything and everyone back in place, and good conquering evil, possibly preempting a sequel – or not.  Young Albus seems destined to reinvent the adventures of his father – the book has the subtitle of “Parts One and Two.”

Related Review:  The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

Listening to The Sleeper and the Spindle and The Color of Lightning

 

61sse7fwwcl-1-_sl300_ The Sleeper and the Spindle

Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle is a twist on famous fairy tales Snow White and Sleeping Beauty combining the two with a fervor against evil, and a clever ending proclaiming strength in choosing one’s own fate.  No handsome prince needed to save the day here.

I found the story on my library’s free overdrive audible offerings, listening for about an hour while I walked my cares away.  The cast of voices, narrated by Julian Rhind-Tutt in beautiful British intonation, offers beautifully rendered dialogue accompanied by mysterious music reminiscent of a Tim Burton production.  The sleeping minions guarding the castle turn into whispering zombies, while magic twirls through spider webs and crooked walking canes.

A fun and easy way to while away an hour, with a few well meaning morals and a new  adjustment to “happily ever after.”

9780061690457_p0_v2_s192x300   The Color of Lightning

Looking for Paulette Giles’ National Book Award Finalist, News of the World, led me to her earlier book  – The Color of Lightning – available on the library’s audio offerings.  Never having read this author, I downloaded the book and am already hypnotized by her poetic descriptions of Texas landscape and her sweet atmospheric notes – {a dawn} “of fading stars like night watchmen walking the periphery of darkness and calling out that all is well.”  Soon, however, the somnolent tone is gone, replaced by the horror and misery of the Indian raid, with descriptions of murder and rape, and continuing with their tortured capture.

The main character is based on a historical figure, Britt Johnson, a freed slave who journeys into the Texas Panhandle to rescue his wife and children — abducted not by slave traders but by the Plains Indians.  In her review for the Washington Post, Carolyn See noted “He’s a remarkable man, caught between hostile Indians on one side and racist whites on the other. But the larger story is about the utter failure of the two cultures to understand each other.”

The book is fast-paced and gripping, keeping me alert as I listen for the next – escape? retribution? freedom?    Have you read the book?