The Glass Town Game by Catherynne Valente

Information

Goodreads: The Glass Town Game
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: Sept. 2017

Summary

Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne Brontë have spent countless hours imagining stories in the room at the top of the stairs.  Now, however, Charlotte and Emily must go off to school–where their two older sisters died from fever.  But just as it seems separation is inevitable, they find themselves in a magical world where the Duke of Wellington still fights Bonaparte.  Even stranger, the world seems to be the one they themselves have created and it is populated with their toys.  At first they imagine they can stay there forever.  But when Branwell and Anne are kidnapped, the siblings realize that this world may be out of their control.

Review

Catherynne Valente is one of my favorite authors.  She possesses a talent for creating whimsical worlds and for writing breath-taking prose.  For her to write a fantasy based on the juvenilia of the Brontë siblings is thus a dream come true.  And The Glass Town Game does not disappoint.  It takes readers to a magical land where toy soldiers come to life, words are surprisingly literal, and romance and danger intermingle.  Any fan of fantasy will be sure to enjoy it, but fans of the Brontës may also be surprised at how engrossing Glass Town can be.

A caveat before we begin: hardcore fans of the Brontës who feel that any imaginative work based on their lives and writings is a desecration will probably not be amused. The playfulness of a land where Brown Betsys are actual women, “Old Boney” is made of bones, and the Duke of Wellington rides a lion made of water may be lost on these individuals.  I delighted in the creativity and the oddity of it all–but if you’re looking for madwomen in the attic or a brooding Rochester, you may be disappointed.  This is first and foremost a fantasy–one with nods to the writings of the Brontës and one based on their lives–but still a fantasy.

But, oh, what a fantasy!  I wish I could return to Glass Town already!  It may be full of danger and death and deception, but it also has the handsome Duke of Wellington and the alluring Lord Byron.  Jane Austen, Marie Antoinette, and a host of other historical characters intermingle with women made of flowers and of metal, luggage that can come to life, and a potion that raises people from the dead.  The “real” and the fantastic coexist in the chummiest way.  It makes you believe in magic all over again.

And the Brontës are excellent guides through this new land.  You just have to fall in love with them, from the moment you learn about the stories they create and the way they wish they could bring back their dead sisters and avoid potentially sharing the same fate.  Glass Town is bizarre, but so, so much better than those terrible boarding schools!  But the Brontës do not really feel sorry for themselves.  Not for long.  They are brave and bold and daring–and maybe just dishonest enough to get themselves out of Glass Town alive.  Even Branwell, who typically comes off as annoying loser in these types of tales, is sympathetic.  He wants to be bold and bright.  He wants to be admired.  He just…isn’t.  He’s too self-absorbed to really be the type of man anyone could depend upon.

If you have already read Valente, you will not need my recommendation to read her again.  If you have not, you are missing out.  She is one of the best fantasy writers out there today, one whose prose is as magical as her worlds.  So whether you enjoy fantasy or Valente or the Brontës–pick up this book.

5 stars

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The Fog Diver by Joel N. Ross

Information

Goodreads: The Fog Diver
Series: The Fog Diver #1
Source: Library
Published: 2015

Summary

Years ago the Fog rose.  Humanity escaped to the highest peaks in order to avoid its deadly embrace.  Now Chess and his salvage crew live in the slums in one of the only two pockets of civilization said to be left.  They spend their days steering their raft through the air while Chess dives into the Fog to find items to sell.  But Chess hides a secret.  And the evil Lord Kodoc is looking for him.

Review

The Fog Diver is a fun, fast-paced read set in a fascinating world where humanity has built their last hold-outs on the highest mountain peaks.  There they hide from the Fog that covers the earth–Fog that has the ability to kill.  Only the most daring venture into its depths to scavenge for the food and riches that remain.  And Chess our protagonist is one of the  most daring.

The book opens in an action-packed scene that follows Chess as he explores the earth below.  He’s a little full of himself, but he’s good enough at his job that readers might feel he really can’t be blamed.  And he’s joined by a crew equally skilled and equally compelling from Hazel his fearless captain to Bea their genius mechanic.  They’re all orphans (of course) but they have formed a family.  Readers may be hard pressed not to cheer them all along.

The Fog Diver is a satisfying middle-grade fantasy with an original world, likable characters, and plenty of action.  (Actually, it reminds me slightly of Castle in the Air with its ship-filled skies and its lovable if fierce pirate crews.)  If you’re looking for an entertaining way to pass the afternoon, this might just be the book for you.

4 stars

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier

Information

Goodreads: Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes
Series: Peter Nimble #1
Source: Library
Published: 2011

Summary

Blinded as a baby, ten-year-old Peter Nimble now lives as a thief.  Then one day he is given the opportunity to rescue a kingdom ruled by a tyrant usurper.  Armed with a box that contains three pairs of magical eyes, Peter and his new friends will go on a quest to do the impossible.

Review

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes is a story that delights in stories.  From the opening pages when it plays readers’ knowledge of tropes to its little nod to the storytelling tradition in the form of a ship called the Scop, the book announces its interest in announcing the importance of stories.  It can sometimes feel a little heavy-handed and not always relevant thematically.   However, it still feels interesting.  The book is part novel, part oral story.  It wants to take on the form of the stories it celebrates.

Notably, the book often takes time away from the plot for the author to speak to the reader or for the author to provide background information in a way that feels reminiscent of a story told aloud.  In oral stories there is not time to introduce large chunks of information over a period of time, nor to make it livelier by making it form a part of a dialogue.  Instead, oral storytelling allows the storyteller to explain the current state of affairs and how it got there.  It also allows the storyteller to look ahead and explain future consequences or events.  Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes occasionally works in this format, stepping away from the quests and the battles and the thievery simply to talk.  It feels…weird.  The novel and the oral story do not really fit together.  And yet I cannot help but admire Jonathan Auxier for trying.

When the book is being a novel, it is full of action.  Peter and his friends are on a quest to topple a tyrannical usurper, sometimes with trickery and sometimes with cold steel.  There is a lot of blood–this is an upper middle-grade book for sure, and probably not for younger readers.  But the story succeeds where it does because it refuses to condescend to its readers.  Courage requires sacrifice.  Battles mean death.  But sometimes, the book suggests, there are battles that are worth the cost.

I admire Jonathan Auxier’s The Night Gardener much more.  It seems more structurally sound and very expertly brings on the chills.  Still, it is interesting to read Auxier’s debut novel.  It bears his signature–the dark matter, the compelling world.  His style simply needed a little time to mature.

3 Stars

Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

Halloween Books 2017


Information

Goodreads: Serafina and the Black Cloak
Series: Serafina #1
Source: Library
Published: 2015

Summary

Serafina lives hidden in the basement of the Biltmore Estate along with her pa.  He says the rich folk who live above must never know she exists.  But then one night Serafina witnesses the Man in the Black Cloak kidnap a child.  And soon the children of Biltmore are disappearing one by one.  Along with her new friend Braeden, Serafina must find a way to stop a deadly evil before it’s too late.

Review

Serafina and the Black Cloak is a deliciously creepy middle-grade adventure.  Set at the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, it follows the adventures of a girl who can run faster, walk more quietly, and see farther in the dark than any regular human.  And so she hides herself in the basement, afraid lest her strangeness make others shun her.  Until the day she witnesses the Man in the Black Cloak engulf a child.

Admittedly, books where children mysteriously disappear in the night are not terribly uncommon.  And older readers will likely understand Serafina’s past fairly quickly and uncover the identity of the villain as soon as he appears.  Still, Serafina and the Black Cloak proves an engrossing read.  Perhaps it is because Serafina and her friend Braeden are so likable.  Perhaps because the story is just so delightfully scary.  Either way, its predictable plot does nothing to harm it.  Nor do the parts of the book that, quite frankly, just do not make any sense.

I read the book at a fast pace, so I was willing to overlook the fact that Serafina starts out talking like her father and then suddenly seems to possess a more educated diction than he does. I  was willing to overlook the fact that Serafina somehow wants everyone to believe that she found a bunch of people who had “wandered off” and “gotten lost” eleven miles away.  I was willing to overlook that the ending was full of too many happy coincidences to be believable.  For me, the book was entertaining.  Why destroy the fun by wanting it to make sense?

4 stars

Ghost Doll and Jasper by Fiona McDonald

Halloween Books 2017


Information

Goodreads: Ghost Doll and Jasper
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2012

Summary

When a drop of stardust touches a doll she comes to life.  Along with her new friend Jasper the alley cat, Ghost Doll will attempt to find a home.  But an evil scientist wants the stardust she possesses.

Review

This illustrated novel seemed to be just the type of charming friendship story I would love.  A doll come to life and a street cat with a heart of gold team up, first to find the doll a home  and then to defeat an army of super-powered rats.  And…when you read the summary like that, it suggests precisely why the book fell flat for me.  The elements do not seem to mix and the prose never convinced me that they should.

The narration of the book does not really flow, but instead reads much like a bullet point list of events that occur.  Oftentimes, the transitions and connections between the bullet points are missing, so it is not quite clear why characters suddenly gained new knowledge or what is motivating the characters.  This makes it difficult to feel invested in the story because the writing threatens to jar readers out of it.  It does not help that two distinct stories seem to be happening: one where a dolly simply wants a home and another one with an evil scientist who somehow communicates with rats offers them super serum in exchange for help finding stardust.  Nothing is explained, either.  Readers must simply accept that the scientist wants stardust for some reason, that he talks to rats, that the rats have a need for an army, and so forth.

Events in the book become increasingly ridiculous.  Yes, an army of super-powered rats is silly, but this is fantasy and, done right, it might actually be very impressive and scary.  However, the smaller moments threaten the reader’s suspension of disbelief.  A few very fortunate coincidences combined with a random rat plot to blow up a bunch of characters not even involved in the action make it feel like the story lacks a clear trajectory.  What exactly are we supposed to be caring about?  What are we supposed to be anticipating?

The illustrations are quite lovely and I wish the story had lived up to them.  However, ultimately I was left regretting that a story about a doll and a cat could not be as wonderful as such a story ought to be.

3 Stars

The Apprentice Witch by James Nichol

Information

Goodreads: The Apprentice Witch
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: July 2017

Summary

After failing her witch assessment, Arianwyn is assigned as an apprentice witch to the village of Lull, on the boundary of a great magical forest.  She’ll have to practice hard to get ready for the retest.  Fortunately, Lull is full of demons to be banished and a creeping hex that sickens the inhabitants.  On second thought, Lull might be a little more than an apprentice witch can handle.

Review

The Apprentice Witch is a fairly standard middle-grade fantasy.  A young witch fails the test she needs to graduate–all while it is pretty obvious she is the most powerful witch at her school–and then is sent away to prove her worthiness.  She finds herself assigned to a small village that, on first glance, seems boring.  On second glance, it is full of mysteries.  Mysteries so big, only the most powerful of witches could confront them.  Unfortunately, her beautiful and snotty nemesis is there to make everything more difficult.

Because The Apprentice Witch is such a standard middle-grade fantasy, I have no strong feelings about it.  It is a fun and pleasant read.  The characters are likable.  The setting is appropriately quaint.  The mystery is appropriately mysterious.  The story advances in the expected manner, with the expected twists and turns.  Anyone who has read a few middle-grade books will know precisely how everything turns out.

The ending of The Apprentice Witch leaves room for a sequel.  However, though I enjoyed the story, I do not feel particularly attached either to the world or to the characters.  I can see many children eagerly following the continued adventures of Arianwyn, but I can also see myself choosing a different book instead.

3 Stars

The Crooked Sixpence by Jennifer Bell, Illustrated by James Mountford

Information

Goodreads: The Crooked Sixpence
Series: The Uncommoners #1
Source: Library
Published: January 2017

Summary

When Ivy and Seb’s grandmother falls and is rushed to the hospital, the two return to their home only to find police armed with toilet brushes trying to arrest them.  The two go on the run and, in the process, stumble into the secret underground world of Lundinor where ordinary objects have quite uncommon uses.  But an old evil is reemerging and Ivy and Seb will have to uncover their family’s past in order to defeat it.

Review

I wanted to love The Crooked Sixpence because it sounds like just the type of quirky middle-grade adventure I would enjoy.  Eleven-year-old Ivy and her fourteen-year-old brother Seb stumble into the secret city of Lundinor where people trade objects that have unusual uses.  Yo-yos can be used as weapons, lemon juicers as lights, and belts as levitation devices.  However, ultimately the book fell flat for me.

About the first 100 pages read like a series of info dumps, one after the other.  First, the teenage boy Ivy and Seb team up with must explain the world of Lundinor and the idea of uncommon objects.  Then Ivy conveniently walks past a store where a man is lecturing a group of children on some of the laws and traditions of Lundinor.  And so it goes.  And yet, even after 100 pages of this, I still felt a little disoriented and like I didn’t fully understand the rules of the world!

Furthermore, too much in the book relied on coincidence for me to be able to swallow the story.  Time and again Ivy and her brother simply stumble into the people and places that will further plot.  First, Ivy ends up on the doorstep of her grandmother’s old friend.  Then they foolishly reveal their circumstances to a stranger and find out she used to work for their great-grandfather and can provide pertinent information.  Then they conveniently find a place no one else could find for decades.  Then, through sheer stupidity, Seb destroys property only to reveal objects that are the answer to a question no living person can answer.  What are the odds for any of this, much less all of it?

Other problems made reading the book seem a bit of a chore.  The plot is fairly predictable.  Most will be able to identify one of the main villains upon their first appearance in the story.  And the characters never really seem to come alive or to form meaningful relationships with each other, so it’s difficult to feel invested in them or their friendships.  In the end, the part I enjoyed most were the illustrations, which are beautiful and quirky and make the book feel much more exciting than I thought it was.  The last 50 pages or so finally picked up and were full of action.  But I don’t know if 50 pages are enough to convince me to read the sequel.  I’d rather just look at Mountford’s art portfolio.

3 Stars