Malice in Ovenland by Micheline Hess

malice-in-ovenlandINFORMATION

Goodreads: Malice in Ovenland
Series:  Malice in Ovenland Vol. 1
Source: Purchased
Published: 2016

SUMMARY

Lily Brown is expecting to spend the weekend completing the list of chores her mother left–but then she finds a tunnel leading from the back of the oven to a strange new world.  Who are the Oven Frites?  And why do they think Lily’s responsible for their recent grease drought?  Can Lily escape their prison and find her way home?

Review

The clever play on the title of Alice in Wonderland suggests that Micheline, much like Suzanne Collins in her Gregor the Overlander series, is rethinking children’s fantasy so it can star protagonists from the city.  And, of course, Hess is also featuring a girl who looks like many young readers, but who may not often appear in literature–a girl with brown skin, frizzy hair, and glasses.  Lily Brown is the fantasy heroine many have been waiting for.  Adventures aren’t just for Alice anymore!

It’s pretty cool that Lily can find adventure right in her own kitchen.  Unfortunately, however, though the characters are engaging, the artwork delightful, and the plot full of action, the premise is also…a little heavy-handed.  The story revolves around the anger of the Oven Frites when they learn no grease drips from the Browns’ oven anymore because Lily’s mom is cooking healthier meals.  But the Oven Frites don’t want to eat fruits and vegetables.  They want their fried, fatty foods back!

If you can get past the healthy eating message, the book is quite delightful.  There is some good material in here involving a haunted prison cell, a trio of elite Oven Frite rangers, and a charming traitor to the Oven Frites.  They may be kind of standard elements, but they work.  And sometimes a solid fantasy is all you really need.

[As an aside, Micheline Hess has also appeared on some panels and spoken about her art and Black women in comics.  Search her name and you can find her speaking at the Schomburg Center, with Black Enterprise, etc.]

4 starsKrysta 64

Witch Switch by Sibéal Pounder

Witch Switch

Information

Goodreads: Witch Switch
Series: Witch Wars #2
Source: Gift
Published: February 27, 2017 (USA), 2015 (UK)

Summary

Tiga Whicabim is settling in to the witchy, glitzy world of Ritzy City. Peggy is Top Witch, and Tiga is enjoying life at the Brews’ house with Fluffanora. But when Fran the Fabulous Fairy visits Linden House and finds Peggy has gone – leaving behind only a note to say she is ‘AWAY WITH THE FAIRIES’ and has left the evil Felicity Bat in charge – the girls realise something is very wrong. And then witches all across town start to disappear. Tiga and Fluffanora set out to investigate and discover an old, unsolved Sinkville mystery that might just be the key to it all.

Review

I absolutely loved Witch Wars, so I was excited to continue following the adventures of Tiga, Peggy, and Fluffanora in Witch Switch.  The series is a silly one, always upbeat and quirky even when  the heroines are in a bit of danger, and it’s a great choice for those looking for a fun and lighthearted read.

I admit that Witch Switch did not impress me quite as much as Witch Wars.  The story does not seem quite as cohesive as Book 1, and I think it’s missing a bit of the glamour of the reality TV premise that helped Witch Wars come alive.  There’s also a lot of revisiting characters and places, rather than the novelty of seeing them for the first time.  However, Tiga and her friends do delve a bit more into some of the seedier parts of town, which does add something new to the book.

Furthermore, the book is still immensely entertaining.  It’s part mystery, part adventure, and always a bit on the cleverly ridiculous side, which is just what I love.  The plot is not too obvious, which I find is sometimes a problem with middle grade mysteries, and while Pounder does give reasonable hints and leads, there’s also a nice element of surprise. It’s also cool to see a focus on friendship in all of this, particularly as the focus here switches from Peggy (she is missing, after all) to Fluffanora.

In my review of Witch Wars, I said that my only complaint about the book was that there were not enough cats.  After all, apparently witches adore cats, but somehow they were not really present in Witch Wars.  Witch Switch definitely picked up the slack on this matter and provided me with plenty of cats including, dare I say, wearable cats.  I am all about the cat fashion that Witch Switch proposes.

This is a great installment in the series, and I am eagerly looking forward to getting my hands on Book 3.  (And on Pounder’s new series, which will feature mermaids!)

4 stars Briana

The Princess and the Page by Christina Farley

The Princess and the Page

Information

Goodreads: The Princess and the Page
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: March 28, 2017

Summary

Keira has no idea that her family are Word Weavers, who can make stories real by using a magical pen.  All she knows is that her mom hates stories; only lists, facts, and the “the truth” are allowed in their home.  So when Keira stumbles across a beautiful pen hidden in her parents’ bedroom, she takes it and begins to write a fairy tale,  But she has no idea what her words will unleash or the danger she will find herself in.

Review

Magical pens and stories springing to life sound like the perfect middle grade fantasy, so I was excited to read this one.  Who wouldn’t want the stories they put on the page to take on a life of their own?  Unfortunately, The Princess and the Page did not capture my attention the way I thought it would, and I closed the covers with some disappointment.

I thought the prose jarringly clunky and unsophisticated in general, and I considered DNFing because of it. I’ve talked about before how I think that many modern authors simply do not have great prose (Sorry!), but there’s neutral prose and prose that’s grating; Farley’s leans toward being the latter, and this is one thing I really cannot stand in books.  It’s also one thing that an editor cannot really fix for you, short of hiring a ghostwriter to redo all your sentences.

However, I continued powering through, only to discover that the book also contains one of my other least favorite things: ridiculous sounding pseudo Middle English. Farley lays it on thick, and the result is cringe-worthy.  The medieval character (technically French, but the book is in English so….) runs about spouting gems like this: “Thou art most certainly not what I was expecting, but that is nary a worry…Come hither!”  Worse, Farley is not consistent with the grammar.  (Seriously, Middle English has actual grammar rules you should look into if you want to emulate it.)  So the character says “Dost thou” but “thou can” instead of “thou canst.”  I simply couldn’t take a character who speaks like this seriously.  Think of writing medieval dialogue like writing accents in fiction; you want to give readers a taste of it, not write a character who sounds like a hilarious stereotype.

Beyond these issues, I was not a huge fan of the plot.  There are aspects of it that are interesting, since Keira has to deal with a story she wrote coming to life.  It also has a great setting, a mysterious castle in France, and the glamorous set-up that Keira has won an all expenses paid dream vacation there.  However, the novel is meant to be part mystery, as it takes Keira and her friends a while to figure out what’s happening in the castle, how the actions are related to the story she wrote, who is responsible for certain actions, etc.  The issue is that Farley relies on the trick of artificially withholding information in order to create suspense.  For instance, readers are never told how Keira’s fairy tale actually goes, so they have to wait for actions to happen in the text and Keira to reveal pages later that real life is mirroring her tale.  This also means the story is sometimes choppy because it’s not always clear what is going on.

There are things that I like about The Princess and the Page, but since I considered DNFing a couple times due to the prose and the jumpy plotting, I decided to give it two stars.  It has a pretty high overall rating on Goodreads, however (books about stories always seem to be a hit), so others might enjoy it even though I did not.

Briana

The Crystal Ribbon by Celeste Lim

The Crystal Ribbon

Information

Goodreads: The Crystal Ribbon
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: January 31, 2017

Official Summary

In the village of Huanan, in medieval China, the deity that rules is the Great Huli Jing. Though twelve-year-old Li Jing’s name is a different character entirely from the Huli Jing, the sound is close enough to provide constant teasing-but maybe is also a source of greater destiny and power. Jing’s life isn’t easy. Her father is a poor tea farmer, and her family has come to the conclusion that in order for everyone to survive, Jing must be sacrificed for the common good. She is sold as a bride to the Koh family, where she will be the wife and nursemaid to their three-year-old son, Ju’nan. It’s not fair, and Jing feels this bitterly, especially when she is treated poorly by the Koh’s, and sold yet again into a worse situation that leads Jing to believe her only option is to run away, and find home again. With the help of a spider who weaves Jing a means to escape, and a nightingale who helps her find her way, Jing embarks on a quest back to Huanan–and to herself.

Review

This book, starting with the summary but continuing throughout the text itself, fixates so much on the idea that protagonist Jing has a “powerful destiny” that I was expecting an entirely different story from the one I got. People harp on Jing’s name and how it means “crystal” and how she’s fated for great things. I thought this was going to be an epic fantasy adventure where Jing is some type of Chosen One, a hero who changes the course of the world. Instead, it’s about Jing’s personal journey of finding inner strength, not even necessarily to do earth-shattering things, but just to have a life she’s happy with. This isn’t a bad plot, but, as I said, it is far from what I had been led to expect.

Because of my expectations, I thought the book was going to be structured differently than it is, and I wait a long time for the plot to reach a climax or for Jing to discover her great destiny. The plot, however, is fairly episodic, and it plays out pretty much in the way the jacket summary describes: Jing is sold off to be a young bride/babysitter to her three-year-old husband, then she’s sent off to an ever worse life, then she plans her escape. The book is fairly episodic in this way, though it does have a sort of “there and back again” structure to tie it altogether.

The historical aspects and the Chinese cultural aspects are incredibly interesting. It does seem a little heavy-handed at time, as the characters have to repeatedly explain what words mean, what certain objects are, what the local customs are, etc., but I probably would have been lost without a lot of these explanations, so I’ll admit that they’re probably necessary for a lot of readers, though I did think sometimes the info dumps distract from the story. I’m not sure there’s an easy solution here, however, and I’m sure the author and editor went back and forth on this issue a lot.

The characters are perhaps the stars of the novel. The “bad” characters come off a bit caricaturish in their unmitigated cruelty and apparent delight in doing anything nasty, sometimes just for the sake of nastiness, but protagonist Jing is multi-faceted, as are most of the other characters. I particularly enjoyed how Jing comes to see people in different lights as she gains more experience in the world. The jing (which often take the form of animals) are great fun to read and learn about.

This is a solid book, a nice look at Chinese history and one girl’s personal journey to fight for her own happiness.

Briana

The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine

The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre

Information

Goodreads: The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre
Series: The Two Princesses of Bamarre 0.5
Source: Purchased
Published: May 2, 2017

Official Summary

In this compelling and thought-provoking fantasy set in the world of The Two Princesses of Bamarre, Newbery Honor-winning author Gail Carson Levine introduces a spirited heroine who must overcome deeply rooted prejudice—including her own—to heal her broken country.

Peregrine strives to live up to the ideal of her people, the Latki—and to impress her parents: affectionate Lord Tove, who despises only the Bamarre, and stern Lady Klausine. Perry runs the fastest, speaks her mind, and doesn’t give much thought to the castle’s Bamarre servants, whom she knows to be weak and cowardly.

But just as she’s about to join her father on the front lines, she is visited by the fairy Halina, who reveals that Perry isn’t Latki-born. She is Bamarre. The fairy issues a daunting challenge: against the Lakti power, Perry must free her people from tyranny.

Review

Although I have not re-read it in several years, The Two Princesses of Bamarre has always been my favorite Gail Carson Levine book, so I was ecstatic to learn Levine was publishing another book about Bamarre this May.  The slight catch:  This stories takes place many years before The Two Princesses of Bamarre, and the kingdom featured is not quite the one that fans know and love.  In fact, the Bamarre people are subjugated under the Lakti, forced to wear tassels and work only as servants rather than free people, and the beautiful land across the Eskerns is only a dream they have.

This is a book that explores identity and prejudice.  The protagonist is raised as a Lakti and taught to consider the Bamarre beneath her– a people who are weak and unimportant in comparison to the aggressive Lakti.  The story is partially a journey of her coming to realize that was she has been taught may not quite be the truth.  While I was initially tempted to take some issue with the fact the Perry seems able to see the good in the Bamarre only because she is actually Bamarre by birth herself (there’s some nature vs. nurture problem here), some of the other Lakti’s views on the matter also turn out to be complex and changeable, which helped.

The book isn’t bleak, however; there’s plenty of the heart and magic that readers expect from Gail Carson Levine.  There are also a number of allusions to people, objects, etc. that appear in The Two Princesses of Bamarre, though I’m sure I missed some of them due to not having read the book recently.  Expect a fun treasure hunt of allusions if you’re already a Bamarre fan, but don’t worry about recognizing these small nods if you’re not; they’re not crucial to understanding the plot in any way.

I did think the plot lagged in places because Perry has to slow down and do some learning before she can go on to great and exciting things, but overall the book was interesting.  The characters also shine.  Both the Lakti and the Bamarre are complex, and Levine puts great effort into developing and describing their histories and cultures.  No one is one-dimensional in this novel.

I’ve been looking forward to a new Gail Carson Levine book for a while, and this does not disappoint.

4 stars Briana

Disenchanted: The Trials of Cinderella by Megan Morrison

disenchantedINFORMATION

Goodreads: Disenchanted
Series: Tyme #2
Source: Library
Published: Oct. 2016

SUMMARY

Ella Coach’s mother died while working in a factory and now she wants reform for the labor class.  Unfortunately, her father has remarried and their family is trying to climb the social ladder.  But Ella doesn’t want to be a quint and moon over Prince Dash like every other girl at her new fancy prep school.  Dash is a bit strange, anyway, since the Witch’s curse was removed from him.  He is no longer sure what he wants, now that he is no longer cursed to break hearts.  But it’s probably not social revolution.  Meanwhile, Serge,  a jaded Blue fairy godfather, wonders what it would be like to be able to help the kids who need him, not just the ones who can pay.  And his new apprentice Jasper just might show him the way.

Review

Disenchanted is the modern fairy tale retelling I am pretty sure everyone wants, and it’s strange I have not seen anyone else talking about it.  From it’s protagonist of color to its focus on working conditions and a living wage, it encourages its readers to empathize with others and to think critically about their own world.  And let’s not forget it’s also an engrossing story.

Megan Morrison immediately sets the tone of the story by alluding to Cinderella’s dark skin and bronze curls, but otherwise not making a big deal out of it.  Cinderella is not looked down upon in this world because of her skin color, but rather because her family is “new money.”  Similarly, it’s well-known that a few of the guys are crushing on Prince Dash Charming and hope to marry him.  No one sees this as a problem (except for the fact that Dash is straight) and instead they talk with each other about other romantic prospects that might be more realistic for the boys to attain.  Acceptance is the norm in this world, if you’re not talking about class.

The bulk of the story then focuses on Ella’s desire to reform the working conditions for those who labor in the factories that keep the owners of the Garment District prosperous.  She explains the concept of sick leave to another character, explores the exploitation of cheap child labor, and advocates for doing business only with ethical companies.  She explains in simple terms why poor people remain poor, even when there are two working adults in the home, and the devastating consequences when one member of the household becomes ill–lower income but more bills.

Intertwined with these heavy concerns are the stories of Ella, Dash, and Serge.  Ella is struggling to accept that her money  now has money and she is part of a new social class.  She wants to be with her old friends, but may find that she has new power with which to do good.  Dash, meanwhile, might be falling in love with Ella, but the crown is at risk if he does not placate political forces by courting a more suitable match.  And Serge remembers the days when he thought fairies could make a difference.  Now they work only for clients with money and they often do things that trouble his conscience.  Is reform possible for the Blue Fairies?

In some ways, the book seems inspired by the early 20th century and the Triangle Factory in particular, but it’s impossible not to notice that the story also comments on relevant issues today, such as a living wage.  If you’re looking for a bit of social commentary mixed in with your fairy tale romance, look no farther than Disenchanted.

5 starsKrysta 64

If the Magic Fits: 100 Dresses by Susan Maupin Schmid

If the Magic FitsInformation

Goodreads: If the Magic Fits
Series: 100 Dresses #1
Source: Library
Published: 2016

Official Summary

Inside an enchanted castle, there’s a closet—a closet with one hundred dresses that nobody ever wears. Dresses like those need a good trying-on, and Darling Dimple is just the girl to do it. When she tries on Dress Number Eleven, something unbelievable happens. She transforms into the castle’s Head Scrubber! It turns out that each dress can disguise her as someone else. And Darling is about to have an adventure that calls for a disguise or two…or a hundred.

Review

If the Magic Fits is a charming, feel-good adventure that takes readers through a magical castle with a bevy of secrets.  It’s just the type of middle grade novel I enjoy, featuring an imaginative protagonist who’s always up for a challenge and some undercover exploration.

Parts of the novel didn’t entirely make sense to me on a practical level. (There’s a servant in the castle who only irons the princess’s clothes?  And a wardrobe attendant who is also the princesses’s greatest confidante and political advisor? ) However, I was willing to ignore these oddities because they help streamline the plot and make the story fun.  Also, I don’t think these would have been sticking points for me if I had read the book as a child.

However, I do still wish the magical system were a little more sophisticated.  There’s so much room for this to be more fully explored and fleshed out, and it would have strengthened the novel.  I think even as a child I would have been dissatisfied to learn that there’s essentially ONE magic word that controls all the magic in the castle.

The book is also a bit odd in that it’s both character-driven and not. Darling has a lot of grand plans about trying to save her beloved Princess from dastardly schemes, but so much of it seems to come to naught. She runs here and there about the castle, going on mini adventures, and yet she doesn’t accomplish much relating to her main objective. I guess this is realistic, in that an eleven-year-old child (and a servant) may have limited effects on the grand workings of the kingdom, but the beauty of middle grade books is often that they present children as powerful and important. Darling occasionally comes across as impotent, as weeks pass without her achieving anything.

Despite these minor gripes, however, I did find the book entertaining and charming in its simplicity.  There are magic dresses and magic animals.  There are princes and princesses and people with secrets.  There are mysteries and romances and dares.  This strikes me as a bit younger middle grade novel, I think children will love it. A lot of adults will enjoy it too.

4 stars Briana