On the Seventh Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me seven swans a-swimming...
I was planning on covering Zoë Marriott's The Swan Kingdom today—it is, after all, based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Wild Swans—but at the last second, I've decided to point you to my old review (well, more semi-coherent gushing than an actual review, realy) of Eva Ibbotson's A Company of Swans. Which is about ballerinas, not swans, but: my list, my rules.
Anyway, if you're a fan of mostly-chaste, mostly-gentle, smart, adorable, swoony historical romances with ultra-likable heroines and ultra-awful antagonists and you HAVEN'T read Ibbotson's romances... well, get to it.
On the Sixth Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me six geese a-laying...
I had a few options for this one—I could have easily gone with Dark Lord of Derkholm or The Goose Girl—but as I hadn't read Goose Chase in years, this series was a great excuse to revisit it. The geese in this book are much like the geese in Dark Lord: intelligent, independent, bossy, hissy, prone to biting, and just plain wonderful.
For the past six months, fourteen-year-old goose girl Alexandria Aurora Fortunato has been kept prisoner in a tower by her two suitors: King Claudio the Cruel of Gilboa and Prince Edmund of Dorloo. Since she combs gold dust from her hair every morning and produces diamonds on the rare occasions that she cries—not to mention being more beautiful than the dawn—they're both magnanimously willing to look past her humble parentage.
The problem is, she doesn't want to marry either of them. King Claudio, for obvious reasons—he didn't just earn his nickname, he revels in it—and Prince Edmund because he's a moron. She's put them off for as long as possible, though, and she's run out of ways to stall.
Clearly it's time to escape.
Oh, Goose Chase. Such a great book. Alexandria is hugely crabby, sometimes snotty and often imperious and bossy—in a good way, though she also handles every situation she's in with aplomb, and it's always clear that she's got a good heart—and her narration is, from the very first sentence, entertaining and funny and enjoyable in every way. Example?
I am a no-nonsense, practical sort of person and I don't expect that I shall care for adventures — certainly I don't think much of the one I'm in at the moment — but I suppose that from now on adventures will be coming my way whether I like it or not.
The story itself weaves in bits from Rapunzel and Cinderella and Diamonds and Toads and The Wild Swans and, of course, The Goose Girl. It's got moments of adventure and romance and everything that you'd expect, but it's also got some moments of pure farce—the time Alexandria spends with the Ogresses is especially fabulous—and it's smart and hilarious. If you're a fan of Howl's Moving Castle and the Dealing with Dragons series and you HAVEN'T read this one, you're in for a huge treat.
On the Fifth Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me five gold rings...
There's only one gold ring in Storm Catchers, but it's important. Thirteen-year-old Ella is snatched from her family's house in the middle of the night, and, fearing for her life, her parents follow the kidnapper's instructions and leave the authorities out of it.
Wracked with guilt—he was supposed to be home with Ella and their three-year-old brother Sammy—fifteen-year-old Fin turns Ella's GOLD RING into a dowsing pendant, and together, he and Sammy attempt to find Ella before it's too late. BUT. There's much more going on than at first glance, and since Ella's kidnapping, Sammy's mysterious imaginary—or is she?—friend has been drawing him into ever-scarier, ever-more-dangerous situations, and there's this old tramp who's been hanging around...
Storm Catchers reminded me a little bit of Susan Cooper—it's set in Cornwall, is totally creepy, and it has that Old Fashioned '70s Adventure flavor—though it's heavier on action than any Cooper I've ever read. There's a little bit of Mary Downing Hahn in here, too: as in Wait Till Helen Comes, there's a ghost girl and a whole lot of crappy behavior on the part of the parents. Fin's father, especially, is absolutely insufferable—he's very open about blaming Fin for Ella's disappearance, even though SPOILER the whole situation has come about due to his own actions a decade ago END SPOILER—and neither parent ever thinks to turn to Fin and say, "IT'S NOT YOUR FAULT. YOU'RE A FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD BOY, CLEARLY NOT A FIGHTER, AND EVEN SMALL FOR YOUR AGE. IF YOU'D BEEN THERE, YOU COULD HAVE BEEN HURT OR KILLED, AND IT'S LIKELY THAT ELLA STILL WOULD HAVE BEEN TAKEN. WE'RE GLAD THAT YOU'RE SAFE." Bowler taps right into that ADULTS ARE UNFAIR NO-NOTHINGS feeling, but some readers are bound to be annoyed that Fin never voices any sort of frustration with any of it. Then again, he's kind of busy trying to find his sister, to keep his younger brother safe, and to figure out what the heck his father is hiding. So maybe he just doesn't have the time for a good old gripe session.
It's a LOT to cram into two hundred pages—kidnapping, ghost, family secrets, big-time betrayal, blackmail, telepathy, magic, and tragic death—so some of it feels somewhat undeveloped, but overall, it's well-written, atmospheric, the action sequences are fast-paced and cinematic, and at points, it's super scary. Fun stuff, and bound to appeal to readers looking for that semi-wholesome (er... there's no romance or major profanity, anyway, though the storyline involves marital infidelity) old-fashioned adventure feel.
On the Fourth Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me four colly birds...
I know, right? I always thought it was 'calling birds', too. But, according to Wikipedia—bastion of accurate information that it is—it was originally 'colly birds', which is another term for blackbirds. And so I chose to read My Name is Mina, David Almond's prequel to Skellig, in which, over the course of the book, Mina keeps an eye on the nesting blackbirds who live in her tree: the place she spends the majority of her time writing and thinking and dreaming.
As it's written in the form of Mina's journal, there isn't a simple, over-arching plot with an easily identified conflict to be resolved, quest to be completed, or problem to be overcome. In it, she describes her day-to-day life with her mother, tells the story of how she came to be homeschooled, and intersperses her commentary with poems and wordplay and ideas for educational exercises that she believes are absent from the traditional classroom experience. She looks at and experiences the world with joy and wonder, takes pleasure in learning new words—so much so that she gets an immense amount of satisfaction (you can totally feel it) in writing out her favorites in BOLD CAPS—and walks through life constantly finding the EXTRAORDINARY in the ordinary.
Her joy and curiosity are both genuine and infectious—when she mentioned learning that a group of goldfinches is called a charm, I was prompted to do some quick Googling about my beloved state bird* and then later, for jigsaw puzzles that feature the work of Paul Klee**—and, though I was briefly concerned that Mina might fall into the ranks of characters like Stargirl and Ida B.***, she didn't. Because her staunch individuality and wide-eyed wonder are tempered with true thoughtfulness, with a determination to understand the world and her place in it, and sometimes, with frustration and anger and grief and a desire to Act Out.
In other words, her voice reads three-dimensional and true, and it was a pleasure to spend my morning with her. In another place, in another time, some of her ideas would have literally been viewed as heresy—at one point, it occurs to her that sometimes it feels that the world we live in could actually heaven, and that we could all be angels; at another, she muses about how the voice of God speaks through the beaks of birds; at another, she thinks about how writing is creation, and how, in a way, that makes the writer a sort of God—but here and now, they come off as purely lovely.
*A group of black-capped chickadees is called a BANDITRY or a DISSIMULATION. Is that not the BEST THING EVER? So perfect.
On the Third Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me three French hens...
Man, and I thought that finding a turtledove-related book was hard. French hens are even more scarce! Therefore, Notes from an Accidental Band Geek is a bit of a stretch: it's about a girl who plays the FRENCH horn, whose nickname is CHICKEN.
Yeah, I know. I said it was a stretch. Anyway.
Elsie Wyatt has a goal: she wants to become the youngest French horn player to ever be accepted into Shining Birches, the preeminent summer music camp. Her father and her grandfather both went there, and in both cases, it was the first major step in the journey towards the first seat in a major orchestra.
The problem is, Elsie missed the necessary audition, so she has to join her high school's marching band—marching band, where you can't even PLAY a French horn!—in order to fulfill Shining Birches 'ensemble diversity' requirement. And so, in addition to dealing with starting high school without any real friends, she has to step out of her comfort zone, socially and musically.
This would be a good pick for fans of Millicent Min, but with the caveat that oftentimes, Elsie is even more difficult to like than Millicent. After all, Millicent is hilarious (granted, often unintentionally, but still), while Elsie is... not. She's so prickly and difficult that it's hard to buy the romance storyline, let alone the other people who take a platonic interest in her, so it's likely that some readers will not take to her.
Elsie aside, though—along with her tempestuous relationships with her friends and her father—the stuff about marching band is both AWESOME and INTERESTING. Dionne does a wonderful job describing marching band culture and explaining the vocabulary and customs without ever letting those descriptions feel inorganic or resorting to didacticism.
Enjoyable, competent stuff, though not one that has me doing backflips.
He was so upset that he threw his arms out and spun around—seriously, it was like something out of Les Mis—and said, "HOW. HOW IS IT POSSIBLE THAT YOU OWN THIS MANY BOOKS, BUT YOU DON'T HAVE THE ONE THAT I WANT?"
On the Second Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me two turtledoves...
Wow. Turtledoves are apparently few and far between in the YA, which is what prompted me to read my first—and based on this one, last—Harry Turtledove ever. To be fair, he usually writes for the adult audience, so it's possible that his regular fare reads differently.
Anyway, Gunpowder Empire is the first book in the Crosstime Traffic series, which is his series written specifically for younger readers. The series has a great premise: scientists discover alternate timelines, which allows Crosstime employees to, you know, cross time to other worlds to trade, snag new technologies, and take advantage of untapped natural resources. Gunpowder Empire focuses on Jeremy and Amanda Solters, Californian siblings from the late twenty-first century who are in the Roman Empire—a version of the Roman Empire that never fell—with their parents for the summer.
Shortly after they arrive, their mother falls ill and is forced to return to their hometime. With their father. And shortly after that, all communications from the 'real world' cease, and Jeremy and Amanda are stuck in Agrippan Rome... maybe forever.
(Why the father didn't just send his kids home with his wife—after all, if they're responsible enough to leave alone in an entirely different timeline, they're probably responsible enough to get their mother on a trans-timeline shuttlecraft and then to a hospital—I don't know.)
It's quite possible that Gunpowder Empire will go over especially well with fans of John Grisham's Theodore Boone series, regardless of age: it's got that same sense of fuzzy nostalgia and tends to gloss over any uncomfortable issues by either providing easy solutions or just not mentioning them. More specifically, it's also similar to Theo Boone in that it's an often-didactic adventure with a distinct avoidance of any profanity or sex that stars amazingly judgmental young protagonists who see issues in black and white, rather than in shades of gray.
A few of my issues:
• The worldbuilding is mostly achieved through conversations like this:
Jeremy: Derisive comment about his mother's love of old technology, followed by a list of all of the new technologies she could have used instead.
Michael (Jeremy's friend): Reply commiserating about same, followed by a list of the difficulties of being the child of a Crosstime employee.
...or through the omniscient narrator, who often provides historical context and commentary followed by a description of Jeremy or Amanda's thoughts on how crappy Agrippan Rome is.
• Based on his behavior and maturity level, I assumed that Jeremy was about twelve until page 88: when I was informed that he was seventeen. A classroom scene, in which the teacher asks questions of high school students that would have made more sense in a middle school setting, added to my confusion.
• It's hugely repetitive. I GET IT: REAL WAR IS NOT LIKE A VIDEO GAME. Also, Amanda can't go to the water fountain without a few sentences about the impossibility of carrying a jug of water on her head, and Jeremy is unable to see animal pelts without a diatribe about the evils of the fur industry. (A diatribe, I should add, that is never tempered by a mention of the fact that this culture doesn't have access to synthetics, mass production, or a lot of the other conveniences that make it easy for us to stay warm bloodlessly.)
• I don't understand why, if these kids are going to be sent to another world by a zillion-dollar corporation, they aren't given any sort of formal training/education about the culture beyond implants that teach them the language. It's possible that my background in anthropology is making me especially twitchy, but Jeremy and Amanda walk around this book constantly bagging on the beliefs and customs of this other world, without any real attempt at understanding anything in a context other than through the filters of their own worldview. It comes off as creepily jingoistic, and as there's never any sort of growth on the part of either protagonist, it seems that that's all portrayed as a good thing. Yecch.