Tuesday, October 09, 2018

A Trio of Fantasy Books

The books were far better than the trio of SKUNKS that I met on my way to work today! It was 72 out (at an hour Kevin Sands calls "too early for honest folk, too late for brigands and thieves"), and also garbage day, so I passed THREE skunks. They hide in the shadow of the garbage bins, and even though I religiously wear my glasses in the morning, they were hard to see. Two resulted in an awkward jog (with twenty pounds of books on my back!) away from the little critters, and one I avoided by side stepping into the street. Too much excitement!


Easley, Sean. The Hotel Between
September 4th 2018 by Simon Schuster
E ARC from Edelweiss Plus

Cameron lives with his Oma, who works at his school as a substitute teacher, and sister Cassia, who has been challenged all of her life with the complications of spina bifida. His mother is dead, and his father has disappeared, although Oma says he was stolen and didn't abandon them. One day, Cam is coming home from school and see a mysterious building; the Hotel Between. He meets the mysterious Nico, and finds out that the amulet on the necklace he wears that belonged to his father ties him to the place in a strange way. Hoping to find his missing father, he gets more and more involved with the hotel, working there and meeting people like the Old Man and Stripe, who are vaguely evil and mysterious, and almost certainly know more than they are telling. The hotel has a series of doors that connect to different parts of the world and facilitate travel and the "best vacations" that people have ever had-- even if they are not going to remember all of the magical details. The hotel has some problems, however, and is always in danger of having the pins that connect the worlds fail in disastrous ways. Cass is very ill, and Cam believes that the hotel may hold the secret to healing her, and that their father disappeared when trying to figure this out. Will Cam be able to find his father, or will the mysterious hotel hold more grief for him than anything else?
Strengths: There is a lot of great world building going on with the hotel, its mechanics, and the people inhabiting it. It was very clear that while Cam put so much hope in the hotel, he was going to be disappointed, because things were much more complicated than they seemed at first. It's a great concept (a central door to get to a lot of different locations), and the mystery with the parents also worked well and was solved in a very interesting way. My favorite past was probably Oma, in her flowered shirts and khakis!
Weaknesses: Even with all of the action and adventure, there was a strong feeling of sadness and anxiety that overshadowed the fun elements of the book.
What I really think: Something about this cover, and the overall plot, reminded me of Oliver's The Shrunken Head. This is the sort of fantasy that doesn't do particularly well with my readers (who seem to prefer old school medieval fantasies or happier magical realism), so I am debating.

Saunders, Kate. The Land of Neverendings
August 14th 2018 by Delacorte Press
Public library copy

Emily's sister Holly has passed away, and Emily finds herself missing Bluey, Holly's stuffed toy that the two created many adventures around. The toy was cremated with her sister, and she understands this, but she finds herself struggling. Her parents are moving on as best they can, and her father wisely does not mention her sister and her mother has taken a job. Her friends are a bit weird about it, or it could just be the middle grade years. Emily spends time after school with a neighbor who runs an antique store. Ruth lost her son ten years ago, and also is nostalgic for his toys. She and Emily talk a lot  over cups of tea and biscuits, and Emily takes comfort in this. When Emily starts hearing and seeing toys come from the imaginary land of Smockeroon, she worries that she is hallucinating, but Ruth has had similar experiences, especially with a fat black toad of gried showing up. At first, it is comforting to spend time with the beloved (if a bit strange) toys, but things start to take a very dark turn. Ruth is almost killed in a home fire while her spirit is visiting the imaginary world, and Emily must figure out how to deal with her past but also move forward.
Strengths: I very much enjoy Ms. Saunders' work, especially The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop, Magicalamity, and Beswitched,  and she is a very British writer in her use of lots of cups of tea and lots of very good biscuits. (Custard creams for the win!) She also has a way of taking lighthearted topics and making them rather dark, which also seems particularly British to me (think Jacqueline Wilson's books for 8 year olds-- lots more child abuse than US fiction has!) Beloved toys certainly have lots of unplumbed powers, and books about grief are certainly on trend.
Weaknesses: Grief is also incredibly boring, not only to experience but also to read about. I understand where this book came from, and commend Saunders for her efforts, especially this: "Young people weren't supposed to die. When you had a dead young person in your family, it was like joining a weird club that nobody on earth wanted to be a member of." Yes, and that's why it's a best practice to pretend the person never existed, and move on. Since this is hard for young people to do, Emily really should have been in some sort of grief therapy.
What I really think: My students rarely willingly pick up a book about toys-- I think in the US, toys start to be uncool around the age of 6. I just don't see this being read in my library, so I won't purchase it.

Lasky, Kathryn. Den of the Forever Frost 
(Bears of the Ice #2)
October 9th 2018 by Scholastic Press
Copy provided by the publisher

Cubs Stellan and Jytte, along with their cousin, Third, are making their way across Nunquivick (which is in the same world as Ga'Hoole and the Beyond) to try to find their father, Svern, who had fought the evil powers behind the Ice Clock and whom they suspect is now in the Den of the Forever Frost. Their mother, Svenna, is still imprisoned in the headquarters of the Grand Patek and doing calculations about the Ice Clock while also befriending the poor cubs who have been tortured. The cubs meet a wide variety of creatures and come across many dangers in their trek. When they find a tourist area in the Firth of Grundensphyrr and take a tour, they uncover a Roguer plot but also find some clues to lead them to their father, who is fighting Dark Fang. After saving their other cousin, Second (who is now named Froya), they find the Den of the Forever Frost and are told that they are the keepers of the key to the Ice Clock. They are sent on a further quest to talk to the owls.

Readers who enjoy animal fantasy books like Hunter's Warriors books, London's The Wild Ones or Iserles' Foxcraft series will enjoy the detailed world building and in-depth fantasy plot. There are a huge number of incidental but well developed creatures, from talkative wood frogs and helpful ice spiders to the owls and wolves that appear in Lasky's other series.

The land of Nonquivick is also well described, and there is a map in the book. Considering that the cubs are navigating only by the stars, they do quite a good job getting where they want to be! The world building also includes a variety of vaguely Scandinavian words like yoickhynn, nachtmagen, and fyngrot. These are apparently used in other books, according to the Ga'Hool Wikia, so fans of those books will be pleased to see the characters and concepts from the books used again.

There's plenty of action and adventure, villains to be vanquished, and voles to eat as the bears continue their journey to save both their parents and their world.

N.B. If I can read these books and think about them critically despite the fact the bears save wood frogs from freezing but whack and eat voles, I think 7th graders can read an occasional book with a human protagonist without throwing fits. Even football books are easier for me to read than fantasy books with maps and the dreaded talking animals!

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