Posts tagged ‘Magic’

Egg & Spoon

Egg & Spoon.jpgTitle: Egg & Spoon
Author: Gregory Maguire
Narrator: Michael Page
ISBN: 9781491502167 (audiobook)
Discs/CDs: 11 CDs, 12 hours 51 minutes
Pages: 475 pages
Publisher/Date: Brilliance Audio, c2014. (audiobook) Candlewick Press, c2014 (hardcover)

She is an insane old woman, though Cat, but at least I’m safe in the warmth, and she knows ho to cook. The old woman was ladling pink broth into a bowl whose sides were etched with obscure runes. “Drink up, my dear. I find borscht a wonderful marinade when applied from the inside.” […]
Cat demurred and said, “Who are you really?”
“I’m Queen Victoria. I’m Nellie Bly. I’m Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean — what difference does it make? I’m hungry and I want to eat, so do my bidding.”
“I couldn’t dare take your supper. I have nothing to pay you with.”
“You’re not taking my supper, you’re supplying it.” (141-142)

Gregory Maguire creates a tale reminiscent to the Prince and the Pauper. Even though Ekaterina isn’t a princess, she has many more advantages than Elena, who is essentially starving to death as she tries her best to care for her sick mother after her father has died and her two brothers taken away from home. A lightning strike forces their unlikely meeting, and Elena finds herself in an enviable position when the Ekaterina’s train takes her away from the poverty and towards the Tsar’s palace. She hopes to use that opportunity to reclaim her brother from army conscription, but she doesn’t know that Ekaterina is hot on her trail with her own transportation. In their travels, they realize that Russia might be in more trouble than either girl, and are recruited by the fabled folkloric witch Baba Yaga to solve the problem of melting ice and disappearing magic.

Michael Page’s voice is properly moderated between the high pitched, stereotypical screech of Baba Yaga and the clipped tones of the prince (although he does sound vaguely English and not Russian). Even the two younger girls have slight differences that easily distinguish between the educated Ekaterina and the more rurally raised Elena. The sweeping landscape is described beautifully, and Elena’s situation is especially heart-wrenching when readers realize the troubles behind her meager existence.

Maguire’s tale is less impressive, for if readers are familiar with the story of the prince and the pauper, then they essentially have the plot of the first part of the book. The second half pairs the girls on an adventure to save Russia. It’s discovered that the floodwaters and dampened winter and magic are connected, involving the firebird and ice dragon. I was unfamiliar with the ice dragon legacy, and was intrigued by my introduction to this Russian myth. By the end of the novel, the twist, feel good resolution revealing the cause of the trouble is somewhat moralistic and preachy, encouraging the human race to whine and want less and focus more on reducing the wants of others. It’s an unexpected altruistic message, and while anti-materialists might appreciate the thought, I was disappointed that such a long journey yielded so little action in the conflict.

The magic in the story is supplied by the magic that the girls encounter through their association with Baba Yaga, who has multiple distinguished and unique traits including her unpredictability, attitudinal house which reminds me of Howl’s Moving Castle, sarcastic shape-shifting familiar, and pattern of speech which allude to time travels or future premonitions. She is by far my favorite character in the whole story. I can only imagine the fun Maguire must have had in writing her scenes considering the fun I had reading them. Her nontraditional exclamation “Honey Buckets!” became a term of endearment towards her guests, who while certainly unpredicted are not entirely unwanted, regardless of what she alludes. I find that same sort of unexpected endearment towards her in what ultimately is a overly long, predictable plot. Extreme fantasy and fairy tale/folklore fans might appreciate this exposure of not-often portrayed Russian mythology, but most will probably loose interest before the quest even begins.

A Nearer Moon

A Nearer Moon.jpgTitle: A Nearer Moon
Author: Melanie Crowder
ISBN: 9781481441483
Pages: 150 pages
Publisher/Date: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, c2015.

[…] It was one of Mama’s never-to-be-broken rules:
Don’t go past the bend in the river.
Don’t go below the dam.
Steer far away from the slick.
People said there was a creature that lived beneath the slick lying still as a gravestone on top of the water, a creature that cast a curse on the swamp and sickened anyone who drank it. But Luna didn’t believe in the creature, and she didn’t believe in curses. (10-11)

Luna and her little sister Willow love going out on the water on their pole boat, trying to catch fish in the dam that their village of stilted houses lives over. Only the oldest residents remember the days before the dam mysteriously appeared, stopping the river and turning the bright waters into the treacherous swamp. Luna doesn’t believe in curses until their boat mysteriously dips under the water line and Willow ends up with the swamp sickness. With only weeks until the wasting illness kills her sister and no cure in sight, Luna might have to start believing in magic and miracles.

Told in alternating perspectives, first from Luna’s and then from the view of a water sprite decades prior, it’s at first a little confusing. But very quickly readers will realize that they are similar stories of sisterly bonds and the lengths sisters will go to maintain them. Having just watched My Friend Totoro, the two stories are similar, with an independent pair of sisters who take advantage of the world around them, encounter a magical creature, and have to overcome an illness. Crowder’s writing style and word choice also remind me of Thanhha Lai’s Listen, Slowly, very lyrical and descriptive. Luna’s grandmother at one point “raised her eyes to the ceiling, searching the cobwebbed corners of her mind” which just sounds so poetic.

Luna is a likeable character, who feels guilt over her involvement in her sister’s illness and that it’s her sister and not herself who got sick. She adventures time and again out by herself, or with steady childhood friend Benny by her side, in efforts to cure this disease that everyone else has resigned to the fact that it’s incurable. “It was a supremely stupid thing she was doing. And if the brief history of her life was any indication, if she was set on doing a supremely stupid thing, it was best to have Benny along.” (33) I’m envious of her freedom of movement, as I don’t think my mother would have let me out of her sight after the first attempt, much less the second or third. Any other book would have made Benny and Luna a romantic pairing, but I’m so glad they are just friends here.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the sprite’s side of the story. It proves Crowder’s efficiency with words, that she’s able to so effortlessly squeeze two stories into only 150 pages. Perdita is an adventurous water sprite whose twin sister worries about her never-ending ramblings and roving. She and Luna are a lot alike in their independent and inquisitive natures. The stories start decades apart but they finally catch up to one another in the end. I loved the ending, as (if blog readers will allow me one final comparison) just like in Frozen there really isn’t a bad guy, but only broken hearts that once mended heal everything. A beautifully told story.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.jpgTitle: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
Author: Susanna Clarke
Illustrator: Portia Rosenberg
ISBN: 9781582344164
Pages: 782 pages
Publisher/Date: Bloomsbury Publishing, c2004.

“I have studied histories and biographies of the Aureates to discover how they began,” said Strange, “but it seems that in those days, as soon as any one found out he had some aptitude for magic, he immediately set off for the house of some other, older, more experienced magician and offered himself as a pupil.”
“Then you should apply to Mr. Norrell for assistance!” cried Mr. Honeyfoot, “Indeed you should. Oh! Yes, I know,” seeing that Mr. Segundus was about to make some objection, “Norrell is a little reserved, but what is that? Mr. Strange will know how to overcome his timidity I am sure. For all his faults of temper, Norrell is no fool and must see the very great advantages of having such an assistant!” (222)

Reclusive Mr. Norrell is intent on being the only magician in England, buying up every book on the subject, refusing to take students, even causing the society of magicians to be disbanded in a bet intended to dissuade any potential rivals. But after a more elaborate display of magic, Mr. Norrell finds himself moving to London and years later taking a self-taught pupil named Jonathan Strange. Mr. Norrell rationalizes that if he teaches Mr. Strange, his ideas will be the ones to be spread and there will be no dissenting opinions on the matter. If only it were that easy. As Mr. Strange’s involvement in military matters takes him farther and farther from Mr. Norrell’s influences, he becomes bolder in his practices and disagreements with Mr. Norrell. A feud is afoot, possibly encouraged by forces outside of either magician’s control, one that will impact the lives of others both living and dead.

Clocking in at over 700 pages, this hefty novel is unlike anything I have ever read. Spanning a decade in the lives of the two magicians, the episodic prose is dense, scientific, and old-fashioned in tone and spelling. This is the only novel in recent memory that I have read to include footnotes, especially footnotes that are sometimes so complete they require several pages to conclude. Understandably some parts are more entertaining than others, with huge sections requiring concentration in order to slog through detailed accounts of magical preparation, study, and history. It’s unquestionably one of the most exhaustive backstories of fantastical creation, and the magic invoked by the two main characters is almost incomparable, following the rules outlined in the world building. Some readers may appreciate the thoroughness of the details while others will want to (and most likely will) skip ahead and find the more narrative portions, where the plot progresses more rapidly. An ambitious debut novel certainly, which the back jacket reveals took almost a decade to write, but one that readers need to be in the mood to start and commit to reading, otherwise they may find themselves resenting their efforts to complete the endeavor.

Island of Silence

Island of SilenceTitle: Island of Silence
Series: The Unwanteds #2
Author: Lisa McMann
ISBN: 9781442407718
Pages: 406
Publisher/Date: Aladdin, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, c2012.

“The attack makes it all to clear: Quill is struggling mightily to accept us–more than anyone had imagined. As much as our friend, High Priest Haluki, is doing to make this transition possible, it is still incredibly hard to introduce new ideas into a society that has been so set in its ways for al these years. […] Clearly, we didn’t expect this kind of violent, organized attack. Clearly, we should have.” (156)

The magical secret world of Artime, filled with Quill’s creative outcasts, has been exposed. Quill is reeling from the death of their leader Justine, and Quillians are fleeing the floundering city for what they see as a promising future in Artime. But the privileged Wanteds of Quill are still holding tightly to their old way of life, and will do anything to restore it. On opposite sides of the fight are twin brothers, with Aaron leading a group of rag-tag Wanteds against Alex’s friends in Artime. Alex wants nothing to do with the leadership position that Mr. Today is offering him, but that doesn’t stop his friends from noticing his absences and resenting his opportunity. When the battle finally happens, will his friends be there to support him in his moment of need?

This is a series where it is quite necessary to read them in order. I would also suggest waiting until the third one has been published before reading this one. The ending here is not a tied up in a bow kind of conclusion, and it leaves you with lots of questions. I thought the first book in the series was a nice, free-standing fantasy, but I was proven wrong yet again. Why do these fantasy series have to always have at least one sequel!? The first one I raved over and book talked till I was blue, but this one just didn’t have as much appeal for me.

That’s not to say that McMann didn’t do a good job, because she did. Aaron’s efforts to build an army are realistic, and eerily reminded me of a Hitler-esque character. He wins over his subjects with food and slowly manipulates their feelings of abandonment to feelings of retribution and indignation. He has a lot of luck when he finally initiates his plan, which I also feel is somewhat realistic since revolutions are led by people who are in the right place at the right time. I actually like Aaron’s parts slightly more than Alex’s. It felt like the writing was tighter, and we really dig into the psychology of winning over the people left in Quill. Plus the secrets and spies added intrigue, as your left guessing with Aaron’s point of view who is truly loyal to him.

Playing off those differences, I was also struck by how different the brothers’ actions and ambitions played out. Alex has absolutely no desire to take over for Mr. Today, which I thought was unique to the genre. We always hear about the reluctant hero, but they all typically step up to the plate, no matter how reluctantly, and do what needs to be done. Alex on the other hand shows his cluelessness, relying on others to help him make decisions and maintaining till the end that he has no idea what he’s doing and is not cut out for this job. There is no false bravado there, only scared struggles to be what people need him and expect him to be. And what they need him to be is a figurehead, although Artimeans know that if Mr. Today wanted him to be trained, there must be something special about him, even if they don’t know and Alex certainly doesn’t realize why he was chosen either.

The reason I didn’t LOVE this book as much as the other one is because it didn’t have the same (pardon the pun) magic of discovery. We spend most of the first book learning about Artime and seeing everything it had to offer. (J.K. Rowling did a very good job of introducing new magical things in each book, where we could go “OOOOOH!” and the shiny thing would distract us and pull us in a little more.) In this book, we kind of know how things work already, and very little new things are introduced, so our attention has to be held by the tension of the impending battle. The one very strange thing, the Island of Silence the book is named after, is nonexistent for the first two-thirds of the book, and then it is flung in like a “Hail Mary” football pass before the game ends. When we finally arrive at the battle scene, there’s very little description of it, which is a let down of sorts. We hear about the battle second-hand, since neither Aaron or Alex really see much of it themselves (due to various reasons which I won’t elaborate here).

It will be interesting to see how the author pulls everything together. I honestly don’t know how many books are going to be in the series, but I’m hoping we get more answers in part three instead of a lot of unanswered questions. I think fans of the first one might be disappointed, but I’ll wait to pass judgement until the third book comes out. I might be waiting a while though, as I see two other books for 2013 (a new series and a contribution to the multi-author Infinity Ring series) on Goodreads, but not a third Unwanteds book listed yet.

Liesl and Po

Liesl and PoTitle: Liesl and Po
Author: Lauren Oliver
Illustrator: Kei Acedera
Narrator: Jim Dale
ISBN: 9780449015025 (audiobook), 9780062014511 (hardcover)
Pages: 307 pages
Discs/CDs:  5 CDs, 5 hours and 55 minutes
Publisher/Date: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, c2011.

“I must take his ashes to the willow tree,” Liesl whispered suddenly, with certainty. “I must bury my father next to my mother. Then his soul will move Beyond.” She looked directly at the place where Po’s eyes should have been, if Po were not a ghost, and again Po felt the very core of its Essence shiver in response.
“And you must help me,” Liesl finished.
Po was unprepared for this. “Me?” it said unhappily. “Why me?” (92)

When a ghost appears in Liesl’s attic prison, Liesl asks for help in sending a message to her recently deceased father. The message Po brings back is anything but cheery, as Liesl father insists that he must go home to the willow tree, and that Liesl should be the one to take him there. Liesl steals the container of ashes from the mantle and rushes off to her old house, leaving her wicked stepmother behind. Little does Liesl know that the box she carries does not contain her father’s ashes, but a powerful magic that accidentally got delivered to the wrong address. Soon joined by the “useless” delivery boy called William who is fleeing his angry alchemist master, the three of them are thrust into events that they don’t quite understand, but nevertheless are intent on preventing in their efforts to improve their lives (or in Po’s case it’s death) for the better.

I thought I’d get behind this newest book about a girl and her ghost by Lauren Oliver. It’s narrated by Jim Dale for heaven’s sake, the one who did all those cool voices for The Emerald Atlas and Peter and the Starcatchers not to mention Harry Potter. But for the first time, I wasn’t feeling it with Dale. His attempts at the female voices fell flat to my ears, which I did not anticipate at all, and I didn’t pick up the suspense or excitement that I think this reading could have had.

But maybe he was tempering his voice to match the gray and bleak environment of the story’s setting. Maybe it was the material, because the story itself fell flat for me. Maybe I’m just not cut out for Lauren Oliver. For plenty of other people the story has really resonated with them. After reading the author’s note in the back, I truly wanted the book to resonate with me too. Oliver reveals that she wrote this story “during a concentrated two-month period.”

At the time, I was dealing with the sudden death of my best friend. The lasting impact of this loss reverberated through the months, and it made my world gray and murky, much like the world Liesl inhabits at the start of the story. […] And so my fantasies were transformed into the figure of a little girl who embarks on a journey not just to restore the ashes of a loved one to a peaceful place but to restore color and life to a world that has turned dim and gray.” (309-310)

If she had succeeded in doing this, I would have claimed her attempt a success, and that synopsis of the book makes it sound wonderful, but I didn’t really pick-up on that meaning and depth upon listening to the book. But upon reading the author’s note, I feel like I should have gotten A Monster Calls and instead got Casper.

It’s also meant to be a story of coincidences and mix-ups, but it just seemed like Oliver threw a whole bunch of bumbling characters together and loosely tied their stories to each other in a comedy of errors. Yes, mix-ups and coincidences are sometimes the basis for every story, but do there have to be so many of them in one story? For instance, if Liesl’s step-mother was such an evil woman, why did she bother locking Liesl up in the attic in the first place, an attic window that Will noticed but no one else? The Lady Premiere, the evil lady who ordered up this powerful magic in the first place, feels like a minor general “bad character” with almost no motivation for her actions presented to readers. Why in the world would so many people who have no connection to the events at hand continue to chase after the children? It reminded me towards the end of those old-fashioned black and white movies where the whole town is chasing a dog for no other reason than the dog stole and by this point has eaten a sausage.

Kei Acedera’s black and white drawings are appropriately dark and murky, and I thought Po was very well rendered considering the description of a non-gendered, cookie-cutter child-shaped ghost. In fact, all of the characters were instantly recognizable, and while the facial expressions seemed relatively uniform, the postures told the emotions of the characters very well. For fans of Casper, this mad-cap tale of a ghost and it’s girl will find readers, but while it was an interesting story, it just didn’t do it for me.

Horten’s Incredible Illusions

Title: Horten’s Incredible Illusions: Magic, Mystery, and Another Very Strange Adventure
Series: Stuart Horten #2; Sequel to Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms
Author: Lissa Evans
ISBN: 9781402798702
Pages: 349 pages
Publisher/Date: Sterling Children’s Books, an imprint of Sterling Publishing, c2012.

They looked at each other. “Once you start using magic, it’s very hard to stop,” quoted April, her voice breathy. “It’s another puzzle, isn’t it? Another adventure?”
Stuart closed his hand over the star, and felt the six prongs dig into his skin. His heart was suddenly thumping; he felt both excited and slightly frightened, and he knew from April’s expression that she felt the same. The hunt for Great-Uncle Tony’s workshop had been a wild and exciting chase, sprinkled with danger and magic, and now another quest was beckoning. But for what? What was the prize this time? (37-38)

Stuart and April have just finished solving Stuart’s Great Uncle Tony’s clues about where his secret workshop was. While the legal battle ensues over who the contents rightfully belong to, the local museum takes possession of the tricks found inside, and Stuart and April help catalog them. In the process, they find a mysterious six-pronged metal star and a damaged note encouraging them to use it to become the true “owners of the illusions”. Each of the surviving tricks lead them to a magical world of its own, where they must solve riddles and puzzles in order to get back. But when April’s sisters insist on being involved in the secret and cause problems, it becomes Stuart’s responsibility to save the day and get everyone back home safely.

Another fantastic tale about Stuart and April. I almost wish there were more stories about the two sleuths. And maybe there will be, who knows, but the series is well done as it is and I wouldn’t want the author to drag it out unnecessarily. The challenges that Stuart and April face seem almost tailor-made for their strengths and weaknesses, and when Stuart’s father unknowingly becomes involved, it leads an even bigger impression of the magic being malleable. The sheer variety is impressive, with author Lissa Evans proving that she’s able to craft unique and individual tricks and puzzles.

While Stuart’s father is completely clueless as to what’s going on and Stuart’s more observant mother is sent on a business trip, it’s still extremely humorous to see Stuart interact with him. I think I forgot to mention in my review of the first book, but Stuart’s father writes crossword puzzle clues, and talks like a walking dictionary, which can be very entertaining to read.

His father was looking thoughtful. “Do you think it might aid mutual colloquy if I endeavored to converse in a less polysyllabic manner?” he asked.
“What does mutual colloquy mean?”
“Our conversation.”
“And endeavor means try, doesn’t it?”
“So what you’re saying is, Would it be easier for us to talk if you used shorter words?”
Stuart nodded cautiously. “Well, it might speed things up a bit.” (130)

Not only is the dialogue spot on, but the reactions are accurate too. Even if Stuart’s dad is clueless, the triplets’ parents aren’t, and Stuart is often at the mercy of April, May, and June’s parents regarding where they can go or when they can aid him in his search for clues. All three of the girls try to assert their differences from each other, and I’m thoroughly pleased that they each get their own reactions, talents, and personalities when any other writer would lump them into non-descriptive blobs. It’s also perfectly reasonable to expect May and June to insist on being involved in this hunt, and I appreciate the dynamics between the three that we get to witness. I also liked the fact that Stuart only befriended April in the beginning, further emphasizing the differences between the girls.

Observant and intuitive readers might figure out some of the answers before Stuart, but everyone has plenty to look forward to as the book quickly comes to a climax and satisfying ending. All the loose ends are wrapped up in a bow very neatly. A great choice for a read-aloud in a class room or in a bed-time sharing, I charged through it in about three hours, and anyone who finds anything objectionable about this very family friendly read is looking too darn hard. This rollicking good reading series has found a permanent place on my recommendation list.

Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms

Title: Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms: Magic, Mystery & a Very Strange Adventure
Series: Stuart Horten #1
Author: Lissa Evans
ISBN: 9781402798061
Pages: 270 pages
Publisher/Date: Sterling Children’s Books, c2012.
Publication Date: April 3, 2012 (originally published in 2011 in Great Britain as Small Change for Stuart)

“An entertainer,” answered his father. “A prestidigitator.”
“A what?”
“A magician. He used to do conjuring tricks on stage.”
“A magician??” Stuart repeated. “You had an uncle who was a magician? But you never told me that.”
“Oh, didn’t I?” said his dad vaguely. “Well, I know very little about him. An I suppose it didn’t occur to me that you’d be interested.” […]
“So, what sort of tricks did he do?”
“I’m not sure.”
“And what was he like?”
“I don’t remember him at all, I’m afraid. I was very young when he disappeared.” (12-13)

His father might not think so, but ten-year-old Stuart is VERY interested in his great-uncle Tony, the magician who disappeared without a trace several years after a fire burned his factory. After discovering coins in an old money-box and receiving a mysterious phone call on an obviously broken pay phone, Stuart realizes that these might be clues to where Great-Uncle Tony’s rumored second, secret workshop has been resting, undisturbed for all these years. Dodging the pesky, prying eyes of the identical triplets next door who purport to being reporters isn’t Stuart’s only problem, as his curiosity in his ancestor catches the attention of someone who is just as interested in finding the workshop and claiming the contents.

A highly engaging and thoroughly engrossing debut middle-grade novel by Lissa Evans. Quickly inhaled in less than two hours, time just disappeared (pardon the pun) while reading this compact book (and I’m not just referring to the book or poor Stuart’s small size). I would go so far as to compare this to Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me as it’s mostly realistic fiction with hints of magic/fantasy until you get to the very end where’s there a twist.

While adults are distant and almost nonexistent in the plot, that doesn’t mean they are absent completely, with both Stuart and April’s parents disciplining them for their disobedience, which is more than we see from most parents. Stuart and April have more than enough personality to carry the book, with April’s knowledge and confidence playing nicely against Stuart’s self-consciousness and curiosity, and they’ve both got determination to spare. They ask questions when they need answers, but they are otherwise very self-sufficient in discovering and deciphering the clues and don’t need to rely on adults for assistance.

Speaking of which, I got a little moment of librarian joy that Stuart enlists the help of library archives to solve the mystery, using “old-fashioned” sleuthing skills such as consulting a map, gathering first hand accounts, and examining photographs. The story reads as almost timeless, with only one mention of computers that I can think of. The cover artwork (with no credit that I can find on the book) also seems to play up an older appearance, with the monochromatic illustrations making it look very different from the colorful cover artwork we’ve gotten used to seeing. This might put it at a disadvantage on the shelf, but readers who enjoyed the mechanics of The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick might be pulled in by the title’s promise of “Miraculous Mechanisms”. While probably a shelf sleeper, the availability of the sequel, Horten’s Incredible Illusions: Magic, Mystery & Another Very Strange Adventure (published in September), might help it gather more attention, and the description of book two makes it sound like there are still more adventures to come for Stuart Horten.

Read it before everyone else discovers it, then find yourself recommending it.

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