The Magical Animal Adoption Agency: Clover’s Luck by Kallie George

clover's luck“Going into the Woods to chase her bird was one thing.  Going to apply for a volunteer position was quite another.  Who would run an animal adoption agency in the Woods?  Weren’t beasties supposed to be the only creatures that lived here?”

Clover was supposed to be a lucky girl.  After all, isn’t her name the luckiest of names?  But all the charms and finger-crossing in the world can’t change things:  she’s actually terribly unlucky.  When her canary escapes, it’s just her luck that she flies into the forest, a forest that Clover has already heard is full of beasties.  But still, Penny was her bird, and Clover has to take care of her!  So she ventures into the woods after her flyaway pet, and discovers a place full of the most fantastic pets she has never heard of before.

When she sees a posted flyer seeking volunteers at the Magical Animal Adoption Agency, Clover knows it’s the place for her.  She begins volunteering, and is soon feeding squashed flies to magical toads and trying to avoid being toasted by a baby dragon, who’s still learning to control his fiery breath.  When the owner of the agency is unexpectedly called away, Clover is left in charge of the magical animals.  There’s a lot to do! Not only do all the creatures need food and care, but she also has to make sure the people coming in to adopt her precious animals are good families who will treat the animals well.  When a sneaky witch almost spoils everything, Clover has to save the day-and she learns that she’s not as unlucky as she thought.

Fairy ponies! Baby dragons! Enchanted mood toads! It was enough to get me to review this book, even though it’s for an audience a bit younger than I typically review for.  This one’s for the under third-grade crowd, or those kids who can’t get enough glitter fairies.

If you like this one, why not try:

The Imaginary Veterinary #1: The Sasquatch Escape

Sarah’s Unicorn

The Candy Fairies Series

The Enchanted Files #1: Diary of a Mad Brownie

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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/

Half World by Hiromi Goto

“WANTED: For having appallingly become with child and risking the Half Lives of all citizens of Half World.  Fumiko and Shinobu Tamaki are considered pregnant and extremely dangerous.  Last seen seeking passage into the Realm of Flesh.  They must be caught and the pregnancy must be terminated.  Under no circumstances must a child be born in the Half World.

All sightings are to be reported to Mr. Glueskin at the Mirages Hotel. Creatures found harbouring the fugitives will be treated with perpetual cruelty, psychological, emotional, and physical.”

The three ancient realms have been thrown out of balance, dooming those in the nightmarish Half World to a life of perpetual suffering under the chilling reign of Mr. Glueskin, with no possibility of moving from the Realm of the Flesh to that of the Spirit.  Also lacking hope of ever moving into the Spirit Realm, those in the earthly Realm of the Flesh become destructive and violent.   It has continued in this way for millennia.

Everyone is waiting for a baby, the baby that will save them all.

When Melanie’s mother disappears, Melanie learns of the prophecy, and understands that she is that baby.  She and her mother were granted passage from the Half World into that of the Flesh, but only for fourteen years.  After that time, her mother had to return, or else risk the torturous death of Melanie’s father, who had to stay behind.  Melanie must venture into the horrors of the Half World, find her family, and restore balance to the Realms.

This innovative fantasy enthralled me; I finished the book in five hours.  While the plot appears formulaic at first glance, I promise you, it’s the good kind of formula: the one that brought us Lord of the Rings and The Odyssey.  Furthermore, the mythic base is embellished with a cast of unforgettably ghoulish horrors that feel as though they’ve been transplanted from a Bosch painting.  Seriously, Mr. Glueskin is a literary monster rivaling the Crooked Man, and the nightmarish tableau of the Half Realm is truly a horrible place.  This ALA Best Book also won the Canadian Sunburst Award for Literature of the Fantastic, and both awards are richly deserved.  This is a great starter book for readers who would like to explore more fantasy books, but are put off by the elaborate backstories that sometimes characterize the genre.

Happy Reading!

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

Half World website (it’s pretty!): http://www.halfworld.ca

Goto, Hiromi.  Half World. Illus. Jillian Tamaki. Puffin: Toronto, 2009. 230 pp. Ages 14 and up.

Read this one first before you decide to read it out loud, ok?  It’s a perfect story for sharing, but the monsters are quite dreadful, and not for the faint-hearted.

If you liked this book, you might want to explore Neil Gaiman.  His book Neverwhere is a great place to start! Other read-alikes are Malinda Lo’s Huntress and Rick Riordan’s Lightning ThiefIf you loved the beautiful illustrations, you should check out the graphic novel Skim, also the work of artist Jillian Tamaki.

 

Princess Ben by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

“Every fairy tale, it seems, concludes with the bland phrase ‘happily ever after’. Yet every couple I’ve ever known would agree that nothing about marriage is forever happy.  There are moments of bliss, to be sure, and lengthy spans of satisfied companionship.  Yet these come at no small effort, and the girl who reads such fiction dreaming her troubles will end ere she departs the altar is well advised to seek at once a rational woman to set her straight.”

Ben’s parents were assassinated and she ends up as a charge of Queen Sophia, who is determined to shape Ben into the image of proper royalty.  This means diets, dancing, needlework, and genteel conversation, and Ben wants none of it.  As a result of her truculence, Ben is relegated to a locked tower.  Rather than give in to despair or decide to comply meekly,  she begins teaching herself magic.  At night, she practices her craft, trying to gain enough skill to escape.  Her secret lessons are put into use when the kingdom is threatened by a neighboring country, and the fate of the nation rests on her knowledge and skills.

I am constantly searching for fairy tale retellings that do not favor beauty over character, and uphold marriage as the ultimate goal for young women, and I’ve finally found one!  Ben is overweight, though the descriptions of her body are neutral, rather than shaming, and her body never approaches the stereotypical ideal throughout the course of the novel.  (I am always heartbroken when authors begin with a character who is not traditionally beautiful, but she transforms during the story, leaving us with the ultimate message that being conventionally pretty is still necessary for a happy life.)  Even though Ben is taken captive and spends two months as a prisoner of war on a starvation diet, she never becomes slender; I like this nod to the idea of a set weight point for each body, and the acknowledgment that diets do not work.  (Did you know that only five percent of all dieters are able to keep the weight off permanently?  But if businesses can use advertisements to make women feel ashamed of their bodies, they will still spend lots of money on diet products, even if 95 percent of them will not be able to lose weight long-term.)

Furthermore, Ben discusses her marriage with the most straightforward feminist speech that I’ve ever read in a young adult book, and I am so grateful to the author for it!  This book is a treasure: it strikes the right balance of magical fairy tale elements, well-rounded characters, and creative plotting, and the message it sends about beauty and self-reliance is refreshing.  Look for dragons, political intrigue, a hilarious commentary on the odiferous nature of adventures, and a reversal of the kiss-the-unconscious-princess-and-love-will-wake-her-up trope. Though Ben does seem overwhelmingly, unilaterally grumpy and spoiled in the first sections of the book, she develops into a multifaceted, realistic character in the second half of the book, and it’s worth pushing through the crankiness.  Final awesome thing?  The full title of the book: Princess Ben: Being a Wholly Truthful Account of her Various Discoveries and Misadventures, Recounted to the Best of her Recollection, in Four Parts.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.catherinemurdock.com/cm/home.html

Murdock, Catherine Gilbert. Princess Ben. Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 2008. 344 pp. Ages 14-18.

If you liked this book, I think you’d love the graphic novel Castle Waiting, for the strong feminist message.  If graphic novels aren’t your thing, though, you would probably like Beauty, Fairest, Everor Ella Enchanted. There are so many good books out there for readers who love fairy tales, but are disheartened by the beauty myth present in so often in them!

The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman

“‘What do you have, then?’ I asked.

‘Oh, spindles and straw and beans and tears.  A glass coffin. A golden egg.  A number of things.  The Grimms were serious and thorough collectors, and of course we’ve added to the collection a great deal over the years, objects associated with other fairy tale and folklore traditions.  I’m especially proud of our French holdings-we have the best collection outside the Archives Extraordinaires in Paris.'”

Elizabeth has a new job as a page at the New York Circulating Materials Repository.  It may sounds stuffy, but it is far from it! The Repository is a very special lending library for objects of all kinds, including magical ones collected by the Brothers Grimm.  Patrons can visit and borrow anything from chess sets and egg cups to magical table settings that offer never-ending food and the slippers of the Twelve Dancing Princesses (though, I don’t know why they’d be useful, as the soles are all worn through).   For the most part, Elizabeth’s  job is straightforward-she puts items in their proper places and helps patrons find what they need.  However, when a coworker begins acting suspiciously, and magical objects are being replaced with clever fakes, Elizabeth decides to act, in order to protect the collection.  She’s not sure whom she can trust, but she knows she has to do something to solve the mystery and prevent the Grimm treasures from being lost forever.

I’ll admit it-I’m terribly jealous of Elizabeth’s job! Not only does she get to do things like speaking to the magic mirror of Snow White, she even earns borrowing privileges for the Grimm Collection.  Wouldn’t you love to take home a mermaid comb or try out some seven-league boots?  The descriptions of the magical objects were the best part of this book; I even learned about fairy tales I’d never heard of before (the Spirit in the Bottle, anyone?).  The library sounds like my idea of paradise; there’s even a special science fiction object collection, and a magical indoor forest.  The plot is original, and the details won’t disappoint you.

I waited a long time to review it, though; there were just a few things that concerned me about this otherwise lovely book.  First, a positive: there is a very diverse cast of characters in this text.  Elizabeth’s friend Marc is black, and her other friend, Anjali, is Indian.  While I dearly, passionately love to see racial diversity in young adult literature, there was something about the way the characters were presented that made me feel uncomfortable.  On the one hand, it was refreshing to see a cast of characters that wasn’t all white.  On the other hand, the repeated mentions to characters’ races made the text seem as though it was too conscious of its own diversity-at times, I felt like I was unable to focus on the story, or see the characters as having other qualities outside of their ethnicity.  Sometimes, the text seemed to be exoticizing Marc and Anjali; Marc turns out to be an African prince, while Anjali is an Indian princess, and there is a lot of focus on the maxims of Marc’s tribe, for example, and Anjali’s exotic beauty.  When a story presents “outsiders”, or characters from another culture, but does so in a way that draws a lot of attention to the differentness of those characters, it can be patronizing.   Furthermore, I felt that Marc’s characterization was stereotypical; he was a basketball star, which isn’t negative in itself, but I would like to see authors presenting us with images of young black men involved in other activities besides sports.

With that said, I do not think this is an intentionally prejudiced book.  I only wanted to draw attention to the way race was treated in the story.  When you’re reading, you can start thinking about how minority characters are described: are the characters well-rounded, rather than being flat or reduced only to their race?  Do descriptions of the character seem to align with common stereotypes, or is he or she treated as an individual?  The way race, gender, and any other identity categories are presented in the media can contribute to stereotypes, and that’s why I felt I had to bring it up.  If every African American character we read about is a basketball player, it limits our perceptions of them -what about African American chemists?    Is it awesome that Shulman had such diverse characters?  Absolutely!  However, if we are moving to an ultimate goal of eradicating prejudice, it would have been more effective to have a diverse cast without dwelling on their respective differences and how exotic and interesting they are because of their ethnicity.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website:pollyshulman.com

Shulman, Polly. The Grimm Legacy. Puffin: New York, 2010. 325 pp.  Ages 11-15

This is a creative story with skillful fairy tale references and creative details.  If you’d like more on fairy tales, try A Tale Dark and Grimm.  You could also try any of the books by these authors: Eva Ibbotson, Shannon Hale, and Gail Carson Levine! Here’s a nice list of good books in the genre from Goodreads, too.  This is one of my favorite genres and I’m always hunting for more like this, so I’ll keep you posted!

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

” ‘Can I ask a question?’ said Richard.

‘Certainly not,’ said the marquis. ‘You don’t ask any questions. You don’t get any answers. You don’t stray from the path. You don’t even think about what’s happening to you right now. Got it?’

‘But-‘

‘Most important of all: no buts,’ said de Carabas. ‘And time is of the essence. Move.’

…Richard moved, clambering down the metal ladder…feeling so far out of his depth that it didn’t even occur to him to question any further.”

Richard is a decent guy,  a mild-mannered fellow with an undistinguished office job.  His life is on track: he is engaged to a beautiful (if somewhat intimidating) woman, enjoys time with his friends, and generally doesn’t make waves.  However, it all changes when he stumbles on the bleeding body of a young woman one night and knows that the only decent thing to do is to stop and help her.

When Richard stops to assist the girl, his whole world shifts and he is tumbled into the underworld of London.  This isn’t just the sewer-underground-metro London, though; it’s a whole new plane of existence.  This strange and threatening tunnel-world is populated with frightening beasts, tricksters, a thriving market economy, and a host of memorable characters, including a huntress who specializes only in the biggest and most dangerous animals, a marquis who barters in favors, and an angel.

Richard has no choice but to go forwards, deep into the underbelly of London.  After he stops to help the injured girl, no one in his former life even recognizes him anymore.  The only way out is in, and so, Richard embarks on a quest leading him through the depths of the underworld, facing a maze of filthy tunnels, nightmarish dark, and chilling characters.

If I had to classify this book, I would say it’s is a dark urban fantasy.  It’s not inaccessible, like sometimes true fantasies can be, though.  Richard is just an ordinary, somewhat bewildered nice guy, and so you learn about this new, Dark London along the way, just like he does in the story.  It’s an intricate plot, but easy enough to follow, and very interesting.  I love the dark, gritty feel of the underworld, especially as observed by Richard, who is quite pitiable.   He actually reminds me of Arthur Dent in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, one of my favorite books.  It’s a similar idea: a nice, ordinary guy gets sucked into an unbelievable adventure and has to cope with all the accompanying unpleasantries.  Come to think of it, that actually encapsulates the plots of a great number of books out there, from The Odyssey to Alice in Wonderland.  And speaking of Alice, there are a number of references to the Lewis Carroll story tucked away in this book, which I thought was a fun surprise.

This book is the current One Book, One Chicago selection. I love Chicago, and its great library system!  I was there recently, and every time I go, I pick up the One Book selection.  I think it’s such a well-done program, and I’d love to implement it in my own library some day.  If you’re interested, here’s the link:

http://www.chipublib.org/eventsprog/programs/onebook_onechgo.php

This is an older book, and has been made into a miniseries for British television.  I think I’ll actually check it out; I really enjoyed this book.  Also, if you’re in the area, he will be speaking on Tuesday, April 12.  I would love to see him! Click for the  schedule of library events for One Book, One Chicago:

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.neilgaiman.com (Check out that amazing hat he’s wearing!)

Gaiman, Neil. Neverwhere. Harpertorch, New York: 1996. 370 pp.  Ages 15 and up.

If you liked this book, you might want to try John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things or The Gates.  They’re both dark fantasies that still have strong connections to reality, so they are very accessible, even to the non-fantasy-reader.  However, they are really for the 16 and up crowd.  If you’re a little younger than that, you might try The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, or The House Eaters by Aaron Polson.