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

The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home by Catherynne Valente

fairyland-5INFORMATION

Goodreads: The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home
Series: Fairyland #5
Source: Library
Published: 2016

SUMMARY

A Dodo’s egg has restored what was lost to Fairyland, meaning all the dead rulers have retuned to claim the crown for their own!  To prevent them all from slaughtering each other (at least immediately) the Cantakerous Derby is called.  Whoever finds the heart of Fairyland first and reaches the finish line wins–but what is the heart?  And where is the finish line?

Review

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is a magical tale, mostly whimsical, sometimes quirky, just a bit romantic.  It feels original and it feels alive–a difficult feat in a market so full of books.  It seemed only natural that the next few books in the series would not live up that charm.  How could they?  Catherynne Valente seemd so taken with her own complexity and fondness for wordplay that she tangled herself up trying to replicate it.

The final book in the Fairyland series, however, comes very close to recapturing the original magic.  The premise itself is so outrageous it seems that it must succeed.  All the dead rulers of Fairyland resurrected and ready to fight for the Crown?  Let the drama begin!  But despite the huge cast of characters, Valente never loses sight of our protagonist September and her dearest friends.  She takes us along with them for a final whirlwind tour of Fairyland and all its oddities.  It is a fitting farewell.

Admittedly at times, Valente still seems trapped by her own word weaving.  For pages the text will go on, trying to highlight for readers just how eccentric and strange this world can be.  Do you get it? the text asks.  Do you understand how weird and wonderful this is?  Do you see my wordplay?  Do you get it?  Do you get it?  It gets old fast and I regret that I often found myself skipping passages that were unable to contain their descriptive excess.  A little editing would have done much.

But aside from this, the story works very well.  We see new places and visit old ones.  Former characters readers have come to love make their final appearances.  The hint of romance, developed from the start, starts blooming into something a little more.  Our dear September has grown up and she is wise and weary and just a little annoyed that no one takes a seventeen-year-old girl very seriously, no matter how much she has seen and done.  It feels right that we should say good-bye.  It is time to let her fly.

So is it worth it?  If you’ve kept up with the Fairyland series, you won’t regret finishing.  Valente sometimes seems unsure how to end her books, but this one feels complete.  Perhaps not all readers will be satisfied by the ending, but this is Fairyland, after all, and endings there are always bittersweet.

Krysta 644 stars

Monstrous by MarcyKate Connolly

MonstrousInformation

Goodreads: Monstrous
Series: Monstrous #1
Source: Gift
Published: February 2015

Official Summary

The city of Bryre suffers under the magic of an evil wizard. Because of his curse, girls sicken and disappear without a trace, and Bryre’s inhabitants live in fear. No one is allowed outside after dark.

Yet night is the only time that Kymera can enter this dangerous city, for she must not be seen by humans. Her father says they would not understand her wings, the bolts in her neck, or her spiky tail—they would kill her. They would not understand that she was created for a purpose: to rescue the girls of Bryre.

Despite her caution, a boy named Ren sees Kym and begins to leave a perfect red rose for her every evening. As they become friends, Kym learns that Ren knows about the missing girls, the wizard, and the evil magic that haunts Bryre.

And what he knows will change Kym’s life.

Review

Despite being highly predictable (You can probably guess the major plot points from the jacket summary alone), Monstrous is a charmingly engaging book.  Though I would have loved to have been more surprised by the twists the story takes, I firmly believe that being able to enjoy a story when you know what’s going to happen is the mark of a good tale. You know you’ll be able to reread it and still find something to love.  With its captivating characters, a hint of mystery, and a dash of magic, Monstrous fits the bill. I can imagine it becoming a childhood favorite for many young readers.

Though the pacing is arguably slow in the beginning of the novel, with a sharp turn to sudden action at the end, I found myself more immersed in the beginning.  Sure, there is not a lot of “big” action, and it is really clear what major revelation Kym is going to have, it is really engaging to watch Kym simply discover the world.  She loves life, exploring, and people.  It’s almost what would result if L.M. Montgomery decided to write a fantasy novel, and I was really into it.  Though Connolly does put some unique twists on the conclusion of the story, it still reads as more “typical” fantasy fare to me, so the opening is really where the story shines.

Kym is certainly my favorite character, vivacious, brave, and full of curiosity.  However, there are a lot of great fantasy stock characters here for fans of the genre: a kindly king, a page boy who has secrets about the castle, a dragon, an evil minion, and of course the wizard.  Connolly gives them all developed personalities, so they break from being only stereotypes, even as they fill the role.  I do think the wizard could have had more convincing motivations for some of his actions, but perhaps the thing to do is just accept the existence of evil and the idea that power can corrupt.

Monstrous is simply a charming middle grade novel that puts some original touches on favorite fantasy themes.  I usually struggle to think of books that evoke the tone of L. M. Montgomery, but this one gets it just about right with a main character who’s full of life and open to the beauty of the world.  The only reason I’m hesitating to read the companion book, Ravenous, is because I wasn’t a huge fan of  Greta, the new protagonist, in Monstrous.  However, it so far has good reviews, ad Connolly has such an engaging writing style, that I think it will be worth picking up.

4 stars Briana

The Legend of Sam Miracle by N. D. Wilson

Legend of Sam MiracleINFORMATION

Goodreads: The Legend of Sam Miracle 
Series: Outlaws of Time #1
Source: Library
Published: April 2016

SUMMARY

Sam Miracle doesn’t remember much about his past.  He only knows that his arms don’t work now and that the couple who runs the boys’ home told him his parents died in a car crash.  But sometimes he has daydreams that seem so real he can almost believe he was there.  In those dreams, he is the fastest gunslinger in the West and he is on a journey to save his sister.

Then one day a mysterious man arrives, claiming he knows Sam and that it’s his destiny to go back in time to fight an old foe.  Along with his new friend Glory, Sam will return to the West and attempt to put history right.

Review

Over the years I have grown to love N. D. Wilson’s work with its unique dedication to taking the legends and history of American and using them to transform specific geographic locations into places of magic–places of  magic that even an ordinary child can enter.  That, combined with his commitment to writing diverse casts and showcasing a wide array of strong female characters makes Wilson, as a modern writer, something special.  Unfortunately, however, while I enjoyed The Legend of Sam Miracle, I think it does not reach the level of quality that I have come to expect from his work on the 100 Cupboards trilogy and the Ashtown Burials series.

Strikingly, despite Wilson’s gift for creating compelling characters, from Antigone Smith to Arachne, the characters in this book fall flat.  Sam is mostly defined by his memory loss and his penchant for ignoring directions and thus getting everyone into trouble.  Repeatedly.  His sister Millie seems like a spirited character, but barely appears.  Glory, the girl who travels with Sam to the past, barely registered for me as a character at all.  She starts out promisingly as someone with bravery, strength, and a love of independence–and then she sort of fades away.

The lack of characterization connects with some problematic depictions.  Millie, as I have noted, seems like a strong and spirited character–but she has little opportunity to demonstrate that in this book because she only appears a few times in captivity. I have no problem with a female being captive and rescued now and then–Sam is always being rescued in this book because he’s dumb, so Millie can be rescued once if that means in the next book she’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.  She raised her brother after the death of their parents.  She is strong.  But Wilson barely uses that to his advantage here.

Glory also troubles me because she really doesn’t do much in this story.  I’m not sure what her talents are other than having a better memory than Sam, and it’s really not clear why she was taken on this journey.  Yes, she has a lot of perseverance, but why take her of all people on a journey into the past?  I wanted Glory to do something.  She didn’t.

Again, I’m not sure this is a gendered issue because Sam Miracle really doesn’t do anything, either, except constantly put his mission in jeopardy.  Finally he does do something useful–but [Spoiler alert!] it’s because he’s magically enhanced.  And I wonder–is it impressive if you’re the fastest gunslinger in the West if you’re only that way because of magic?  I wanted to see Sam train and really have to work for his skills.  Not have a day or two perfecting control over the magic and then BAM! he’s the best now.

All this means that the most interesting, most skilled, and most detailed characters are the Navajo men who help Sam on his journey.  Father Tiempo can travel through time and this “legend of Sam Miracle” is really his story–he’s the one constantly trying to manipulate events to set history to rights and save the world, while Sam does whatever he wants because he’s a boy and doesn’t care about the world, apparently. Father Tiempo’s brother can talk to animals and heal.  And that brother’s son is a spirited boy who desires to fight evil.  This book is really  about their fight and their sacrifices to save others–but for some reason it’s written around Sam.

Finally, after all this, it seems clear to me that the book should have been written as a stand-alone.  Sam is taken to the past, saves his sister, and fights the bad guy.  The end.  That’s the story.  But suddenly near the close of the book, Wilson decides that to stretch the story out he will scatter seven Horcruxes–sorry, seven gardens–around, so the villain can’t be faced until they are destroyed.  This is totally unnecessary.

At this point, I can’t say I’m very excited about reading two more books of this story unless Glory, Millie, and Father Tiempo receive some better treatment going forward. Sam can do what he wants.  I really don’t care about him, even if he is the protagonist.  Because N. D. Wilson has written so incredibly in the past, I am willing to take a chance and continue with the Outlaws of Time despite the rough start.  But I admit I am incredibly disappointed.

3 starsKrysta 64

The Key to Extraordinary by Natalie Lloyd

Key to ExtraordinaryINFORMATION

Goodreads: The Key to Extraordinary
Series: None
Source: Library
Publication Date: Feb. 2016

SUMMARY

For generations the women in Emma’s family have had dreams leading them to their destinies.  Emma can’t wait for the day her own special path is laid out before her.  But then the dream comes and it leads her to an old buried treasure.  Does Emma really have what it takes to solve the mystery?

Review

Natalie Lloyd has a real talent for writing quirky yet heartfelt stories, ones populated by people who feel real and down-to-earth, even when they live in magical places.  Her debut A Snicker of Magic captured my heart and The Key to Extraordinary has done it again.  This is a rare kind of story, the one kind that, when reading it, makes you feel as if you have a friend.

Categorizing Lloyd’s work can prove difficult and that is part of its charm.  My library stickered this one as “supernatural” because Emma Pearl lives in a bakeshop on the edge of the local cemetery and she is convinced both shop and cemetery are haunted.  However, the ghosts here may or may not be real and, if real, they are more friendly than not–the story is certainly not scary.  Indeed, it is full of fantastic elements from rose petals that fall from the sky during certain summers to vines that capture voices to the hot chocolate Granny Blue makes–hot chocolate that seems to be just a little big magical.  And yet the story is not quite a fantasy.  If anything, maybe it is magical realism.

And just like that Lloyd has you believing in magic.  Hers is so subtle, such a part of the world.  Magical flowers should seem ludicrous, but here they seem right and natural.  Even the hauntings in the cemetery seem as if they could be real.  I cannot help but wonder if her skill in characterization helps to ground the story and make it seem as if could be true.

Lloyd likes to people her stories with characters you feel you could meet, from Emma’s pink scooter-riding aunt to her tattooed Granny Blue.  In other books, these are the people who would embarrass the protagonist.  She would refuse to acknowledge the man with the flower in his beard as her uncle.  She would wish her granny would stop riding motorcycles and knit like other people’s grandmothers.  Her friends would probably make fun of her relatives, too.  But Lloyd accepts her characters as they are, and her characters do, too.  They’re quirky and strange and maybe not the kind who would be invited to a fancy cocktail party, but they are kind and smart and brave.  They’re the type of character you’d actually want to hang out with.

If Lloyd’s magical world and lovable characters weren’t enough, she adds to her list of great story elements by committing herself to diversity.  A Snicker of Magic features a boy in a wheelchair.  The Key to Extraordinary has a girl with a scar across her face and a boy who won’t talk after a traumatic event.  But these are all side notes to the main event, the seeking for treasure and the hope of seeing a ghost.  No messages here about learning to accept those who are different–those who are different are simply people.

Not many authors pull off a sophomore attempt as strong as this.  I can’t wait to read Lloyd’s future books.

5 StarsKrysta 64

The Fairy-Tale Matchmaker by E. D. Baker

Fairy Tale MatchmakerINFORMATION

Goodreads: The Fairy-Tale Matchmaker
Series: Fairy-Tale Matchmaker #1
Source: Gift
Published: October 7, 2014

SUMMARY

Cory Feathering has tried her best to be a Tooth Fairy, the way her mother wants.  But after another terrible night with a low tooth yield and a near encounter with a dog, Cory decides to quit!  Unsure what her true calling is, she begins a series of odd jobs around town.  But the Tooth Fairy Guild does not allow resignations and soon Cory finds herself the victim of a series of escalating crimes.

Review

E. D. Baker writes a light-hearted fantasy that manages to feel low-stakes even as its protagonist Cory Feathering faces a series of crimes from vandalism to kidnapping after she attempts to leave her job at the Tooth Fairy Guild.  She lives in a world populated by fairy tale characters, so as she searches for her new calling, she travels from Miss Muffet’s spider-filled home to the houses of the Three Little Pigs, and even finds herself babysitting Humpty Dumpty and the children of the Old Woman Who Lived a Shoe.  The delight of recognizing old faces in domestic situations makes the book fun and humorous, despite the main narrative of thuggery.  Still, it seems strange that this book was written as a middle-grade.

The political implications of this book should be complicated.  The guilds are clearly corrupt and frequently band together to harass, kidnap, and otherwise injure their former members.  This seems both to be well-known and to be a surprise, for whatever obscure reasons.  Meanwhile, the police force is also clearly corrupt and allows the guilds to do whatever they want; when Cory becomes the victim of a heinous crime the police force can no longer ignore, they refuse to investigate it on the grounds that they have no power over the guilds–but this is glossed over at the end of the book with an unbelievable “Oh dear!  If only we had known we would have stopped it!”  attitude.  The judge in the city also allows the guilds to do whatever they want–but Cory also “fixes” this at the end by telling him that the guilds are no more than gangs.  As if he must not have known!  A lot is going here, but it becomes over-simplified because it’s in a middle-grade book, and apparently we need an easy solution to make everyone feel better about their judicial system at the end.  (There’s also a literal deus ex machina that I won’t delve into, so as not to spoil anyone.)

The concept itself of job hunting also seems unusual for a middle-grade novel.  Yes, Barbie, for example, is a toy with a career who is meant to inspire children to dream big, but somehow the concept of a career…girl? does not quite work here.  Cory must be around eighteen or nineteen if we assume she has recently graduated from high school and has been interning and then training as a tooth fairy.  She has a swinging band that plays in what seem to be exclusive clubs and she works to set up her friends and other career women with eligible men; one of the first things we learn about every new character is their job, from model to successful entrepreneur, so clearly these characters are meant to be adults.  But most of them don’t act it!

Cory, for example, talks and acts like a teenager–a young one.  When replying to a help-wanted ad, she writes simply “Who are you?” to one agency.  When reporting crimes she writes unhelpful notes like “A tooth has been thrown through our window!  Come quick!” or even simply “More vandalism.”  She has the independence of an adult, but the attitude of a child.  Perhaps this is not so unusual in an eighteen-year-old, one who is still living with her mother but saving up to move out, one who has not yet settled on a career.  But the childish tone juxtaposed with the world of famous writers and successful businessmen sits oddly in the book.

Aside from these quibbles, however, the book is an enjoyable middle-grade.  It’s light and predictable, but that’s what one expects from E. D. Baker’s stories.  It’s a nice book–the kind you read at night when you’re tired and don’t want anything too taxing, but do want something fun and amusing.

3 starsKrysta 64