Thorn by Intisar Khanani

thorn

4 out of 5 stars.

I received an ARC of this book.

This is a YA rewrite of The Goose Girl. Princess Alyrra is a shy, abused girl who lives under the thumb of her mother and brother. When a neighbouring kingdom requests her as a wife for their heir, she is nervous, but also anxious to leave home. Her mother sends an unfriendly lady in waiting along. Partway to her new home, Alyrra is attacked by the lady in waiting and their bodies are switched. Alyrra ends up being a lowly goose girl in the kingdom she was supposed to one day rule. She comes to enjoy her new life rather quickly though, and as her appreciation for her new existence deepens, she is going to have to choose whether or not to reclaim her birthright.

The novelty of having a heroine who does not want to fight for what was stolen from her is enjoyable. For Alyrra, being a princess has always meant being bullied and undervalued. Now, as a goose girl, she has friends who appreciate her and she is not pressured to rule or deal with court politics. The only thing that could tempt her back is the moral dilemma of letting a corrupt woman eventually wield political influence.

This retelling incorporates more magic than I expected, but other than that it is a straight retelling of the original. Normally I would dislike something that is so close to the source material, but this fairy tale gets so little attention that it is nice seeing anyone do anything with it.

This story is light on the romance, which I found charming, but really focuses on friendship. For the first time in her life, Alyrra is able to make friends and fit in as a valued member of her community. Those relationships, and what she learns from them, are ultimately what help make her final decision, as opposed to a romantic attachment to one person.

Alyrra is a very passive protagonist, which makes sense for a victim of abuse. I really enjoyed the picture of a princess who enjoys shovelling horse dung and caring for stubborn geese more than wearing silks and ruling, and she does end up finding her own strength in the end. This ends up being a great story for shy young people who are waiting to find their own voices, and a very solid retelling of a more obscure fairy tale.

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

fish in a tree

4 out of 5 trees.

This is a surprisingly mature and poignant look at living with an undiagnosed learning disability for upper elementary students and lower junior high. Ally is a budding artists who cannot read. She has managed to go undetected for years through a combination of acting out/ distracting the teacher and putting in insanely long nights to get her homework done. Every year she has had to change schools and as the grades keep getting harder, her problem grows worse. She also faces bullying from the local clique of mean girls.

Enter Mr. Daniels. He is a young, fun teacher with a genuine gift for helping his students. He wants to help Ally, but she is more used to teachers humiliating and punishing her than trying to help.

This is a really touching story about how it feels to think you are dumb and unteachable until the right teacher comes along. A lot of the story deals with Ally’s self-esteem and emotions as she goes through school unable to do everything the other students do. The years of hurt have built up and now she does her best to disappear.

Throughout the year Ally starts to come out of her shell. Mr. Daniels notices her creativity and cleverness instead of just focusing on her misbehaviour and bad spelling. She also starts to make friends with a couple of other “misfits” in the classroom. Albert is a genius who has trouble relating to people and gets beaten up on the way home on a daily basis. Keisha has a tendency to stand up to the class bullies and wants to become a professional baker. Together, they tentatively start to rebuild the way they see themselves and their classmates.

I really loved Ally’s character. Hunt does a great job of describing how scary it can be to think that something is wrong with you but be to shy to ask for help, and how important an attentive and caring adult can be to a child. I really enjoyed watching Ally get stronger as she realized she is more than just her inability to read.

I found this book very compelling and would be a great read (or read to) anyone with a learning disability who thinks they have nothing to offer. It also has a great anti-bullying message.

Dr. Critchlore’s School for Minions by Sheila Grau

dr critchlore

I received an ARC of this work

3 out of 5 stars.

Most mad scientists and evil overlords tend to have a handy supply of evil minions, capable of a wide range of evil henchmen tasks, to make their lives easier. Have you ever wondered where those minions come from and how they were trained? Turns out there is a school for minions! It takes/ creates/ raises from the dead creatures of all shapes and sizes and enrols them in classes to bring out their henchmen power.

Runt has always lived in the school, ever since his werewolf pack left him on the doorstep. He adores his school and wants to become the best possible minion. Unfortunately, it appears that someone really hates the school and wants it to be destroyed. The new school year starts with a strange video being released of some embarrassing minion activity. Things escalate with other pranks and mischief, until Runt is convinced someone is trying to destroy the school. There is a long list of suspects though. One of the new students is acting suspicious, the headmaster seems to spend a lot of time weeping over soap operas and two of the professors have developed a serious rivalry. Runt is going to have to track down the culprit before his home is destroyed.

I am more than willing to present this book to my book club. I think they will love the action, mystery, and poking fun at fantasy tropes. I found it moved a little too quickly and did not have enough plot and character depth for me, but I can see younger kids adoring this. It is fun and quirky and weird. Some of it is gross, so people who enjoy Captain Underpants style humour may find this amusing.

This book was too young for me to enjoy it completely, but I can see others being a fan of it. If you like books meant for younger audiences, go for it! The premise along makes it worth it.

Dragons at Crumbling Castle by Terry Pratchett

dragons at crumbling castle

3 out of 5 stars.

For loving Terry Pratchett so much (seriously, he is brilliant), I did not enjoy this very much at all. This is a collection of short stories, which, unless extremely good, tend not to be my thing. There is never enough time to get to know the characters and world. It is also illustrated by the same person that did the Roald Dahl books (or someone very similar) and I really hate that style of illustrations. I find it sloppy and unappealing.

This book really only appealed to me as an example of Terry Pratchett’s early writings, and a ruler with which to judge how much he has grown as an author. It does display the early grains of his trademark wit, but everything is fairly unpolished. The stories, even for short stories, are much too short. Everything seems to be over before it has properly begun.

I can see children who like large amounts of whimsy and silliness really enjoying this. Some of the stories are clever and ridiculous. There is a time travelling bus, polite dragons, carpet people (tiny people who live in your carpet) and Santa Claus. Some of it is funny and some of it is weird. I think I just came in expecting something a lot closer to contemporary Terry Pratchett.

Rebels of the Lamp by Peter Speakman

rebels of the lamp

I received an ARC of this book.

3 out of 5 stars.

Parker, his cousin Theo, and their schoolmate Reese manage to uncover a genie and do what any sensible children would do: order him to conjure every possible cool thing imaginable. The adventure turns sour when they discover they are not the only ones interested in Djinn, and there are other magical beings out there who are not so patient and kind as theirs.

This is a standard children’s fantasy. It is nothing to be blown away by, but it is not disappointing either. There is adventure, magic, and a bit of emotion. Some of the writing at the beginning is more than usually clever, but it seems to disappear under the press of action later on. The main characters consist of a troublemaker, a prodigy, and a shy average guy, so most readers will find something to empathize with. The first part of the story is interspersed with diary entries recording the history and creation of the Djinn, which I actually enjoyed more than the story itself. It was neat seeing a creation myth for a creature that is usually just taken to be a given.

The story evolves quickly, with not a lot of character development or world-building going on. It is mainly descriptions of action, with a bit of emotion tied to the home-lives of the characters. Some of the writing is unusually funny, but not constantly throughout. This is going to be a great book for kids that want to fly through a book where something is constantly happening. It does not make you cry, or make you think, but it does entertain. Great summer read or read for a reluctant reader who finds emotions or scenery boring.

Chasing Ravens by Jessica E. Page

chasing ravens

I was given an ARC of this book.

4 out of 5 stars

For those of you who love fairy tales, this one is straight up out of that tradition. Anouk is a young healer with a gift for herbs who has to run away from an undesirable marriage into an adventure straight out of classical Russian fairy tales. Baba Yaga, Koschei the deathless, and the Rusalkas all play a role (if you do not recognize those names, go read some Andrew Lang and check back in after). Anouk’s kindness, determination, and knowledge of herbs are the only things that stand between her village and a brutal war with the trolls.

It is written true to form, with little to no internal dialogue and action taking up most of the text. This book pieces together lots of Russian and Eastern European fairy tale characters which I really enjoyed. The description of the forest and other landscapes was more vivid than you would usually find in fairy tales, but since this is a full-length novel the author had some room to include it without breaking the rhythm or mood of the story. Magic takes place with really no explanation needed, and randomly helping an animal in distress is always a good idea. There is little humour in this book, but lots of imagination and wonder. This is a great contemporary rewrite of the Russian fairytale tradition that really captures the spirit of the original tradition.

I am still unsure whether this is meant for older elementary or junior high students. I guesses elementary just because of the cover design and the age of the protagonist, but I think it could still be a valuable read for older kids (or adults) who love magic and fairy tales. I very much look forward to other books by this author if they are all similar in quality to this one.

The Magician’s Dream by Shawn Thomas Odyssey

the magician's dream

I was given an ARC of this book. This review may contain spoilers of the first two books.

4 out of 5 stars.

This is the third in the Oona Crate Mystery series. The books are a fun mix of mystery, fantasy, and historical fiction. Set in the 1800’s on a street caught in limbo between earth and faerie, Oona learns of the theft of a carbuncle that can bestow fairy-like powers on the wearer and potentially lead to the gates holding all the horrors of Faerie opening. Fortunately, she has some experiencing solving crimes. Unfortunately, the theft could not come at a worse time as Oona is right in the middle of an important magic project and is also trying to make time to hang out with her friend who works at the library. A clue left at the scene of the crime leads her to believe the theft is not unrelated to her father’s murder, so she must take the case, whether she has time to or not.

If you ever wished a Harry Potter novel solely took place in Diagon Alley, then chances are you are going to adore the world Shawn Thomas Odyssey has set up. It is full of people who accept magic as a reality, but still have to go about the everyday task of living. It is cut off from the normal world, but still guards it from evil magic.

In this addition to the series, we really see Oona starting to grow up, as her attentions towards her male friend become more romantic, and she starts to consider the appeal of having another female in the house. She also starts considering gender equality, as word of the women’s rights movement out in the real world starts filtering in. Oona spends some time considering her future and her place in her world.

I enjoy the weird mishmash of three different genres that these books are composed of, because it ends up being a really unique little world of its own. The combination of interesting plot, world, and character development made this a strong third in this series.