The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier

“‘There it waits.  Beyond my strength.  Promise me,’ pleaded the dragon.  ‘Daughter of men, cast my child upon the winds and into the furnace of the earth.  Call the wind to break open the earth and let out the hidden fire.  You must call the wind, and the wind must become fire.  Do you understand?  Swear it to me!'”

Trei is unusual; a refugee and foreign-born inductee into the kajurai, the flying protectors of the Floating Islands. Even some of his classmates are suspicious of him, thinking him a traitor infiltrating the school to learn the secret of dragon magic. His cousin, Araene, is also a bit different, insisting on being educated as a mage, even if it means she must dress as a boy.  However, their unique experiences prove vital when a neighboring country invades, and when the dragons suddenly and mysteriously leave, taking their powerful magic with them. Though they are barely older than children themselves, Araene and Trei must work together to hatch the last fire dragon’s egg and save their country from destruction.

This detailed and captivating fantasy relates the story of two cousins, both new students, who play key parts in saving their home, the  Floating Islands, from both losing the magic that protects it and from being invaded by a powerful neighboring nation.  The chapters alternate, with one being the perspective of Araene, who took refuge in the mage school after her parents were killed in a plague, and the next being from Trei’s perspective, who is studying to be a kajurai.  Though there is much backstory and many plot twists, they are handled masterfully, and it makes this quite an interesting fantasy (after the first three chapters of setup).  This original story had the feel of Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and it was a delightful diversion from final projects. Fire dragons? Floating islands?  Girls who dress like boys in order to go to mage school?  What’s not to love? (Also, isn’t that cover art beautiful?)

Happy Reading!

Neumeier, Rachel. The Floating Islands. Bluefire Books: New York, 2011. 387 pp.  Ages 14 and up.

If you liked this book and you haven’t read A Wizard of Earthseathat would be a great place to start! If you loved the dragon element, another great classic is Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series.  I promise, you’ll love them!

Author’s website: http://www.rachelneumeier.com/

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Beauty by Robin McKinley

“He made a noise somewhere between a roar and a bark, and after an anxious minute, I decided it was probably a laugh. ‘You do not believe  then?’ he inquired.

‘Well-no’ I said, hesitantly, wondering if this might anger him. ‘Any number of mirrors have told me otherwise.’

‘You will find no mirrors here,’ he said, ‘for I cannot bear them: nor any quiet water in ponds.  And since I am the only one who sees you, why are you not then beautiful?'”

Hi, friends!  I promise I didn’t forget you.  It’s just that, when you’re in library school, and reading books about cataloging and coding and reference materials, it sucks all of the time away for reading things you actually want to read.  It seems a little unfair-after all, I went away to school because all I want to do is share books with others, and school gets in the way, big-time, of all that sharing.  So, I’m really sorry.  And I have a stack of good books to tell you about, ok? Actually, this one is on my list of Extra Super Favorites, and has been since I was a teenager myself.  Here’s the story:

Beauty is the self-appointed black sheep of the family.  Awkward and broken-out, she is embarrassed by her nickname and feels ungainly in comparison to her beautiful older sisters.  She takes refuge in reading, riding her horse, and offering pragmatic advice to her sisters. Life isn’t unpleasant for the girls.  However, when her father’s sailing fleet is lost at sea, and the family’s fortune with it, they are forced to leave their city home for the distant country.  Their new home is backed by a forest, eerily empty of wildlife, and the townspeople still pass around rumors of magic…or at least something being “not quite right”.  It is said that once you lose sight of the borders of the forest, it is impossible to find your way home again.

On the way home from a trip to the city, Beauty’s father is lost in a blizzard.  Snow-blinded, he stumbles into the forest and wanders for hours, eventually coming upon a castle.  There, his horse is tended to, and he is provided with food and dry clothing, but his host is mysteriously absent.  When leaving, he picks a single rose-Beauty’s only request for a gift from the city-and is confronted by an enormous, dark beast.  The beast demands either his life, or that he surrender one of his daughters, who must then go and live at the castle.  He gives the man leave to go home to his family and make a decision.  After some deliberation and many protests on the part of her family, Beauty volunteers to go in her father’s place.  And then, you know the story.  The beast, the castle, the magic.  It’s all here, and the parts that have been changed have been changed for the better.

All right, I confess.  I have an obsession-bordering on devotion-with the fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast.  I’ve read so, so many retellings, and here, friends: I give you the very best one.  Here’s why:  Robin McKinley’s writing is superb.  The story is lush and dark, just like a fairy tale should be.  Furthermore, nothing breaks my heart more than when Beauty magically transforms into a gorgeous princess at the end of the story, or worse, she is preternaturally beautiful from birth and there is no discussion of her personality at all.  I can’t give the ending away, but in this story, Beauty is not beautiful.  (I apologize for the cover of the paperback.  I wanted to show you, so that if you saw it in the library or the bookstore, you’d recognize it, but the girl on the cover doesn’t resemble the Beauty in the book).  Instead, the readers (and the Beast) love her for the merits of her character: her quick wit, love for reading, and practical nature.  She’s strong, capable, and independent.  Coupled with a retelling that retains the spirit of the original, but doesn’t just parrot it back to readers, this book is so lovely.  I’ve read it more times than I can count.  And the quote I gave you at the beginning?  I’m pretty sure I’ve had it memorized since I was fifteen.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.robinmckinley.com/

If you liked this one, you might want to try Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, or Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy.  They are stellar!

McKinley, Robin.  Beauty. Harper & Row: New York, 1978. 247 pp.  Ages 14-18.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

“You aren’t allowed out of the graveyard…because it’s only in the graveyard that we can keep you safe.  This is where you live and this is where those who love you can be found.  Outside would not be safe for you.  Not yet.”

In the dark of night, a man named Jack waits in the shadows and efficiently kills an entire family–all but the toddler, who had crept out of his crib during the night.  The man desperately needs to kill the toddler; his fate rests on the death of the boy.  However, the little one wanders away into the night, and into a nearby graveyard.  When the spirits of his parents cry out to the ghosts of the cemetery and beg for them to protect him, they accept.  Thus, Nobody Owens becomes a ward of the graveyard.

He’s raised by ghosts and learns their ways, including feats like Dreamwalking and Fading.  They bring him books and food from the outside world, and warn him (just like normal parents) not to talk to people he doesn’t know.  See, the man who killed his family is still alive and hunting for him.  He’s only safe within the confines of the graveyard.

The story proceeds in episodes; each one can stand alone as a great short story, but they can also be woven together into a captivating narrative.  While reading it, I kept thinking that the tone of the book reminded me a little of Eva Ibbotson, with a playful eye towards subjects like witchcraft, and a little like Audrey Niffenegger, with her stories about crumbly, mossy graveyards.  It’s a really distinct voice; a little dry humor mixed with some elements of the underworld.  Love it, love it! I can’t wait to share this book.

I learned that Gaiman was inspired by his own son, as he pedaled his tricycle around the cemetery.  He said he started writing chapter four, and that the rest of the story took almost a decade to be born.  I really think born is the right word here, too, because while you’re reading, you are coming across all of these sort of unrelated-seeming tales, and then they all wind together into this perfect ending.  When you get to the ending, you see how everything was leading perfectly to the conclusion, and it seems so holistic and perfectly formed.

Oh, and pictures! Did I mention the illustrations?  The book is interspersed with the black and white illustrations of Dave McKean.  It’s a touch that reminds me of the Harry Potter books, a nice surprise waiting for you between the pages.  Everything combines into something really special, which is why it’s not surprising that this book won the super trio of a Newbery and Carnegie medal, plus a Hugo award.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website:  http://neilgaiman.com/

Gaiman, Neil. The Graveyard Book. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.  307 pp. Grades 6-9.

I mentioned them in the post, but if you like this book (and you’re a fan of books for middle schoolers), try any of Eva Ibbotson’s stories, such as Which Witch or Island of the Aunts.  They’re fun, have an irreverent and light tone to them that’s similar to this one.  For adults, try Gaiman’s Neverwhere or Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry. I read that book before I started blogging, but it’s a ghost story about twin girls in a haunted flat in London.