by Morgan Reeves on July 28th, 2014
I have been looking forward to reading this latest and perhaps last tale from the late and fantastic, Diana Wynne Jones, ever since it was announced. Finished by her sister Ursula, The Islands of Chaldea is a fitting bookend to such a long and varied career. The story begins as Aileen, a young magic user in training, discovers that she doesn’t seem to be all that magical. Devastating news for a girl from a long line of powerfully magical Wise Women of Skarr. Aileen is not given any time to dwell on this as she and her no-nonsense Aunt Beck are sent on a quest by the king of their stony grey island. Their quest is in response to a prophecy, that only a Wise Woman and a man from each of the four Islands of Chaldea will be able to remove the barrier that separates them and reunite them as one kingdom. At the end of the last battle between the islands, Logra was magically sealed off from Skarr, Bernica, Gallis, with the barrier in place for most of Aileen’s life. They set off accompanied by Ivar, an arrogant prince of Skarr, and Ogo, a Logran abandoned during the war.
After an eventful start involving poisoned clothes and a sometimes invisible cat, the companions arrive on Bernica. As they wander through rolling green hills, a traveling monk joins them, bringing with him a bird who may tell the future. After Aunt Beck runs afoul of a queen and her donkeys, Aileen begins to come into her own as a leader. She gets them all safely to Gallis, where spells are sung and a religious order reigns supreme. Here they find the relatives of Aileen’s long lost father, who offer them a way over the barrier to Logra, via hot air balloon. Together with her newly discovered cousin and his size changing dragon, they make it over the barrier only to crash land and be taken prisoner. In the capital, the companions find that the poor Lograns have blamed the barrier on the other three islands, and hope for its removal as much as the rest of Chaldea. Who then put up the barrier in the first place? As a decades long conspiracy begins to unravel, Aileen must become the Wise Woman she was meant to be and bring together the four magical guardian animals of Chaldea to overcome the great evil intent on keeping the islands apart.
A great read for fantasy fans, The Islands of Chaldea is a fantastic coming of age adventure, full of the magical comedy Diana Wynne Jones was best known for.
by Morgan Reeves on June 30th, 2014
Trains, Sasquatches, and a circus make for an exciting combination in this steampunk adventure story from Kenneth Oppel. During the late 1800′s in Canada, Will Everett grows up witnessing the expansion of the continental railroads as the son of the railway company manager. A shy boy with a talent for drawing, he has always wished for adventure, but never seems to find it. Now on the maiden voyage of The Boundless, the longest train ever built, his adventure finally begins, as he witnesses a murder. In order to stay alive and warn his father about the criminal plot, Will disguises himself as part of a circus with the help of an old acquaintance. He teams up with Maren, the highrope walker from his past, and Mr. Dorian, the circus ringmaster who has an agenda of his own. Together, they try to reach the front of the seven mile train before the criminal gang catches them. The journey, full of perils both magical and real, puts Will’s drawing skills and new friendships to the test. As the train reach the snowy mountains, danger finally catches up to the circus trio, and not everyone will escape uninjured.
The only hitch in this otherwise fantastic story, is the present tense narration takes some getting used to for most readers. Overall this is a page turning story bolstered by mild fantasy elements and plenty of detail from a lesser-known period of history, with some edge of your seat moments that lead to a suspenseful climax.
by Morgan Reeves on May 23rd, 2014
Like many children, Kester Jaynes feels powerless, and without much choice in what goes on in his daily life. Kester’s situation is unique in that he is mute; he has no voice. He lives in a world where all of the useful animals and plants have died off due to “red eye,” a terrible plague. Only “varmints,” pigeons, rats, and cockroaches are left alive. Fear of the virus has led to a taboo against touching animals. Food has been replaced by the corrupt Facto corporation with a nutritional slime and the entire human population has been forced to live in cities for their own protection.
Six years ago Kester was kidnapped and brought to live in a home for troubled children, where he is told something is wrong with him. When he starts to hear voices, he thinks he has finally gone crazy. Reality though is even stranger, the voices turn out to belong to a cockroach and pigeons, who help him escape and bring him to a gathering spot of the last surviving animals. These are the last wild; the last living animals and they need Kester’s help. Their leader, a large stag, asks Kester to find them a cure. While Kester feels unprepared for the weight of such a task, he promises to try. He even has an idea of where to start, by finding his way back to his veterinarian father. But traveling with animals that society both covets and fears leads to some dangerous situations. As Kester is forced to make more and more decisions, his self-confidence grows. By the end he has found both his father and his voice, but tensions remain as the cure is not wanted by the food controlling Facto corporation.
Overall an imaginative take on a dystopian world that will strike a chord with kids who are starting to make their own choices.
by Morgan Reeves on April 29th, 2014
Felicity Pickle is a poem catcher, a word collector, and a wanderer longing for a place to call home. When her mother decides to try moving the family to Midnight Gulch, Tennessee, Felicity is hopeful that this might finally be the place where they can settle down. After all, it’s her mother’s hometown, as well as still having just a bit of magic floating around. On her first day at her new school, Felicity makes a new friend, Jonah, who has the not-so-secret occupation of helping people when they really need something. When Jonah suggests she read one of her poems in the school talent show, Felicity agrees, even though she knows she gets stage fright. The family settles in with gruff Aunt Cleo, who shows her softer side in telling stories of the family’s history. It soon becomes apparent that Felicity’s performance in the talent show is the key to shaking off the wandering ways of the Pickle family, which may be tied to a curse tied up in the history of Midnight Gulch. The cast of vibrant characters leap off the page in this middle-grade tale of tangled up history and yes, just a snicker of magic. To cap off the end of National Poetry Month, give this great read about the meaning of family and home a try.
by Morgan Reeves on February 7th, 2014
If you are looking for a fun kids mystery to drive away the winter blues, look no further. Belly Up by Stuart Gibbs is a middle grade romp set against the backdrop of FunJungle, a brand new mega zoo in Texas. When Henry the Hippo, the beloved mascot of FunJungle, turns up dead, 12 year-old Teddy Fitzroy suspects foul play. He soon discovers Henry was not as popular with some of the zoo staff as he was with the adoring public. Teddy’s search for clues takes readers behind the scenes at the zoo, into exhibits and sometimes into danger. As his suspect list grows, it seems like the only people he can really trust are his parents, who support him and believe him, even when other adults dismiss him as just a kid. Help from a new friend and an apparent betrayal leads to a chaotic but satisfying conclusion. Can you figure out whodunit before Teddy?
Poached, a sequel to be released in April, finds Teddy starting the school year as the new kid, with few friends and a knack for getting into trouble. Getting on the wrong side of the school bully seems bad but when the newest animal to FunJungle is koala-napped, Teddy finds himself in real trouble as all the evidence points to him. He’ll need all the help he can get from his friends and parents if he is going to clear his name and catch the real criminal. These mysteries are as funny as they are full of interesting facts about animals and zoos.