Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Middle Grade Fantasy review of The Missing Barbegazi by H.S. Norup

44650388The Missing Barbegazi by H.S. Norup
Format:  ARC Paperback
Publisher:  Jolly Fish Press
Number of Pages:  224
Publishing:  November 12th,  2019
Source:  ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.  

Opening Line: "Tessa aimed her binoculars at the white blanket of new snow, searching for a Barbegazi."

Tessa's Opa (grandfather) shared many stories with her, but her favorite is the one of how he was saved after an avalanche by a Barbegazi.  Everyone in their village believed Tessa's Opa was crazy but not Tessa.  He'd always planned to show her the spot where he was rescued, but now he's gone.  Since then, Tessa and her mother have been caring for her Oma, who lately has become lost after her husband's death.  To make her Oma feel better, Tessa wants to prove that Barbegazi's exist, that her Opa was right.  She has a lot to prove and very little to go on.  

Gawion's twin sister Maeg is missing, presumably lost after an avalanche.   Gawion knows in his gut that's impossible because both of them can ride the snow of an avalanche and his sister could never get buried in the snow.    After a previous bad experience with humans, Gawion's parents forbid him from searching for Maeg anywhere near the human village, and most of all from interacting with them.  Humans are dangerous and not to be trusted.  But, Gawion feels the only way he will be able to help his sister is by getting some answers from the nearby villagers.  After Tessa has a mishap while skiing out of bounds, Gawion comes to her rescue and later they join forces to find Maeg.  They also discover the true reason Maeg's missing, which turns out to be more sinister then they thought, she might've been captured by Professor Bahne from the Institute of Zoology in Zurich who's researching the existence of the Barbegazi.  

The Missing Barbegazi is the debut novel from Danish author, H. S. Norup.  It is set in the wintery backdrop of the alpine mountains and is the tale of a young girl in search of the mythical creature from her Opa's stories.  The Barbegazi are a gnome or dwarf-like creature covered in white fur, with a long beard, and large feet, they live in the freezing cold in shelters covered in snow and help people who become trapped after an avalanche.  Each chapter alternates between Tessa and Gawion and is separated by excerpts from Professor Bahne's book, Habits & Habitats:  A Historic Account of Alpine Elves, with events taking place from December 26th through December 31st.  

Norup credits some of her inspiration for the story from her time living in Switzerland and skiing while her sons took ski race training.  It captures the atmosphere of an Austrian village, swishing on skis, the cable cars and lifts pulling you up the mountainside.  The mention of goulash soup and the use of Oma and Opa to refer to Tessa's grandparents had me nostalgic for Germany.  And maybe because I was thinking about small villages and foods, I personally would have loved more of there inclusion.  I do so love immersing myself in all the sights, sounds and smells of another culture.  The Missing Barbegazi is a very unique story and I quite enjoyed learning about the Barbegazi., especially the snippets between each chapter from the Professor.    

Tessa is a sweet young girl, whose family is grieving the recent loss of her Opa.  She's trying to combat the village's negative views of her Opa while also trying to cheer up her Oma.  Her heart always seems to be in the right place but at the same time, she takes risks.  She's so determined to get answers and despite knowing the dangers of skiing out of bounds on the course, she still forges ahead.  The story isn't filled with fast-paced action, aside from the times she is skiing, and Tessa isn't really in tremendous danger from the professor.  Rather it's a story of Tessa's growth,  from a rash kid to the young girl who takes other's feelings into consideration.  And her coming to the overall realization of what could happen if she proves the existence of Barbegazi.  Which ultimately leaves her questioning whether it's more important to prove everyone else wrong or to know that you're right despite what everyone else thinks?     

Monday, October 7, 2019

MG Fantasy review of The Dragon Warrior by Katie Zhao

The Dragon Warrior by Katie Zhao
Format:  E ARC
Publisher:  Bloomsbury USA Kids
Number of Pages:  288
Publishing:  October 15th,  2019
Source:  Edelweiss Plus

Opening Line:  
"On the eve of the Lunar New Year, the demons invaded."

Twelve-year-old Faryn Liu and her younger brother Alex were born and raised in the Jade Society, home to an elite group of demon fighters in San Francisco's Chinatown.  Ever since their father disappeared four years ago, they've been outcasts, forced into servitude to Mao, the mistress of the Jade Society warriors, while secretly being trained by their grandfather (Ye Ye).  Then one day during the Lunar New Year festival, Faryn encounters a demon as she's returning from an errand, and with the help of Erlang Shen, the God of War she is able to vanquish it.  Faryn doesn't tell anyone about her encounter and instead returns to her responsibilities preparing for the Jade Societies banquet.  

During the celebration, the Fenghuang,  a spear is brought forward and per the legend, whoever lifts it will become the Heaven Breaker or the General of the Jade Emperor's army.  Many warriors make an attempt, but none are considered worthy to wield Fenghuang.  Then, Erlang Shen interrupts the festivities when he comes bearing a proclamation on behalf of the Jade Emperor, with a quest for the new Heaven Breaker in the form of a riddle and a series of tasks that need to be accomplished.  Once the Heaven Breaker has completed their tasks, they are to come to the island of Peng Lai and present themselves to the Jade Emperor and the eight immortals.  Is this the opportunity Faryn has been looking for?  Can she complete the quest and become the Emperor's General on Peng Lai Island, and if she does will she be where her father was headed when he disappeared?

The Dragon Warrior is inspired by Chinese mythology and lore and takes the reader to the Chinatown's of San Fransisco, Phoenix, Chicago, Washington D.C., and New York.  It's a fast-paced adventure, similar to the Lightning Thief in the amount of action and mythology, and sure to be very popular with readers looking for more #ownvoices stories.  I especially enjoyed the inclusion of Chinese words and phrases and how the context made it possible to get the gist of the conversation.  I wish my review copy had the glossary for the pronunciation of certain words, I believe the added details would enrich the reader's knowledge about the culture.  Also perhaps more information on the deities mentioned in the story would be appreciated, cause I sure want to know more about the Gods and Goddesses that Faryn encountered.     

The pacing and action of the story was fantastic.  There are horse-drawn chariots that take Faryn, Alex and a host of other characters on wild rides in the sky, sword fights, demons who conjure wild tornados, mid-air rescues, trap doors and a scene that reminded me of Percy Jackson in the Lotus Casino from the Lightning Thief.  Most of all the story involved a quest to get to the Lantern Festival on Peng Lai Island and Faryn's discovery that the Emperor may have nefarious plans of his own.   Faryn is aided in her quest by the supporting characters of Moli, a friend Faryn had a falling out with, Alex, Faryn's younger brother, and Ren, a boy they meet on their travels who has pure white hair and a few mysteries of his own.   Sprinkled throughout are the advice and teachings from Faryn's grandfather and lovely descriptions of Chinese foods like steamed buns (Bao zi) and spicy noodles that had me eager for more.  

The journey also involved heart to heart moments between Moli and Faryn where they discuss what happened to tear their friendship apart, why Moli shied away from Faryn and wasn't there for her when she was being bullied, and how Faryn needed her after her father disappeared.   Zhao also explores Faryn's feelings of being seen as other within her own community, reveals that one of the characters is of mixed ancestry and whether or not family requires you be related by blood.  All while huge rifts are forming between Faryn and Alex changing their relationship.   And did I mention there are dragons and secret identities?   I highly recommend The Dragon Warrior for its wonderful blend of action, adventure, humor, interesting themes and characters, and lovely Asian mythology and culture.    

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

MG review of Polly and Buster: The Mystery of the Magic Stones by Sally Rippin

39861621. sx318 Polly and Buster:  The Mystery of the Magic Stones by Sally Rippin
Format:  Paperback
Publisher:  First Published in Australia May 23rd, 2018 by Hardie Grant Egmont.
Published in the US:  2019 by Kane Miller, a division of EDC Publishing 
Number of Pages:  296
Source:  Review copy provided by the Publisher
Series: Second book of the Polly and Buster Series

Opening Lines:  "Polly sits at her teacher's kitchen table and thinks about what lies ahead."

Monsters and witches shouldn't be friends,  that's what everyone in Blackmoon Coven believes.  Yet,  Polly and Buster are truly the best of friends, friends who've always protected one another.  They've stood by one another even after the huge misunderstanding that occurred between the witches and the monsters.  Even now as the witches are after Buster because they believe he's dangerous and a threat.    Polly and Buster are more determined than ever to stay together.  To escape from the threat of the witches.  At the beginning of the second book in the series,  Polly and Buster were forced to flee from their home and are now temporarily hiding out with Polly's teacher.  

Meanwhile, the tension between the monsters and witches has been escalating.  Getting closer and closer to an all-out war.  Monsters are taking witches captive and Mrs. Halloway, head of the witches commitee has been trying to get the mayor to have the monsters expelled from the Coven.  Feeling they're the cause of all the problems back home, Polly and Buster venture out toward the Hollow Valley mines looking for some answers.  Six years ago, Polly's father died following a cave-in within the mines.  Since then the mines have been closed, considered too dangerous, rumored to be haunted.  But, Polly's convinced that the magical stones her father gave her shortly before his death have been calling to her, leading her to the mines.   Once inside, she learns the truth, sees for herself what has been protecting the mines, what's been scaring off intruders.  What's been waiting for her.  And why she's the only witch who can cast a powerful enough spell to put the Gorvan, a creature living in the deepest part of the cavern back to sleep.  Can Polly be strong enough to face her own fears and will her magic be powerful enough to protect her family and friends?

As with the first book in the series, Polly and Buster's friendship is the sweetest part of these stories.  Over and over they've demonstrated the importance of standing by your friend, having their back.  Although it took Polly a little while to determine that being with the most popular girl in school wasn't as important as her true friend, she does finally come to that realization and is even more determined to not let anything happen to Buster and that it's her turn to let everyone know just how kind and caring he is.  Intermingled in the plot there is an emphasis on telling the truth.  And when an unexpected ally does come forward telling the truth about how the misunderstanding between monsters and witches took place,  everyone finally has a chance to see that their bias about monsters wasn't founded.  That although Buster is a monster, they have nothing to fear from monsters.  If anything Buster is courageous and actually a hero.  I very much enjoyed reading The Mystery of the Magic Stones with its positive and uplifting messaging.    

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

MG Fantasy review of The Dark Lord Clementine by Sarah Jean Horwitz

43212931The Dark Lord Clementine by Sarah Jean Horwitz
Format:  E ARC
Publisher:  Algonquin Young Readers
Number of Pages:  366
Publishing:   October 1st, 2019
Source:  Edelweiss Plus

Opening Lines: "Clementine Morcerous awoke one morning to discover that her father had no nose."  

The Dark Lord Elithor is under a curse and is slowly "whittling" away.  Clementine is determined to find the person responsible and reverse the curse before there is nothing left of him, but when you're an evil dark lord, you're bound to have made a few enemies.  

For hundred's of years Clementine's father has reigned over Castle Brack unchallenged, but now that he is indisposed,  Clementine must take over the day to day operations of the families estate, including all of the Dark Lord's responsibilities.  Everything from tending to the fire-breathing chickens and grooming the nightmares on the farm,  to performing the Dark Lord's dastardly deeds on the local villagers.  Lord Elithor has been preparing Clementine to take over, training her in the ways of being a proper Evil Lord, but Clementine isn't sure her dark magic skills are fully up to the task.  

At first, Clementine is concerned that she's not living up to the family name, feeling worthless, unsure of how she can help her father.  But, Clementine isn't easily discouraged from searching for answers and a cure for her father's curse.  As the curse takes further hold on her father, the magical charms on the farm and everything within the boundaries of the castle begins to change.  The magical scarecrows stop their chores, the witch in the kitchen has run away and the silence imposed on the farm by her father is weakening leaving the castle open for an attack.  Joining Clemintine on her adventure are an unusual, but humorous mix of characters;  there's Sebastian, a boy from the village who wants nothing more than to be a chivalrous knight,  Darka the unicorn huntress, Dave a book-loving, talking black sheep and Gricken the part grimoire part chicken, whose eggs contain magical spells.  Together they venture into the neighboring woods in search of the curse casting culprit.  

The Dark Lord Clementine has the kind of premise that I so love, with a character who's unpredictable, and not going to behave in a typical way that you'd expect.  I just adored Clementine and the way that she changed throughout the story.  How her search for answers to her father's curse allowed her to explore her own feelings about being the heir of Castle Brack and whether she really had what it takes to follow in her father's footsteps as an evil lord.  She does have all the makings of an evil lord, she's commanding, dignified, proper, but beneath that refined exterior is a girl that is also lonely.  Prior to meeting Darka, Sebastian and Dave, Clementine lived a very solitary life, a life that she no longer wants for herself.  Making new friends has taken on a new importance to her.   It's something that she's not willing to give up.  I so enjoyed the humorous way the story explored good versus evil and how happy thoughts and memories were the special ingredients needed for performing magical spells.  I'm hoping they'll be more stories for the Dark Lord Clementine.      

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

MG Realistic Fiction review of Beverly, Right Here by Kate DiCamillo

43584741Beverly, Right Here by Kate DiCamillo
Format:  Paperback ARC
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Number of Pages: 256
Publishing  September 24th, 2019
Source:  Publisher in exchange for an honest review

Opening Line:  "Buddy died, and Beverly buried him, and then she set off toward Lake Clara."

In 1979 at the age of fourteen, Beverly Tapinski hitches a ride with her cousin Joe Travis out of town after her dog Buddy dies.  Beverly isn't simply running away, this was "leaving,"  an important distinction that she makes at the beginning of the story.  She's run away before, but now she's truly left.  Once she reaches Tamary Beach, Beverly gets her first job bussing tables at Mr. C's fish restaurant and meets Iola Jenkins, a kindly old lady living in the nearby trailer park.   Iola makes a deal with Beverly, in exchange for driving her around in her Pontiac, she'll give her a place to stay.  In order to distance herself from the pain over the loss of her dog, and an alcoholic mother who doesn't seem to care about her, she agrees to help Iola out.   Beverly puts on this tough exterior as if she doesn't care about or need anyone's help, she seems indifferent at first to any help that is offered to her.  What she needs is to immerse herself in her work bussing tables.  Then she witnesses Elmer from Zoom city convenience store being bullied by Jerome and something inside of Beverly stirs, opening her to the new possibility of companionship, comfort and a place where she belongs.  

Beverly, Right Here is the third book in Kate DiCamillo's trio of books that began with  Raymie Nightingale and was followed by Louisiana's Way Home.   I haven't yet read Raymie Nightingale, but after reading Louisiana's Way Home, I knew I wanted to read Beverly's story.  I also plan to go back and read Raymie Nightingale because I really do wish I knew more about Buddy and Raymie.  Beverly feels his loss from the very moment that she buried him near her house with Raymie, but I feel like I missed so much by not having read these books in order, so I'm going to fix that mistake real soon.   

 In her introductory letter to the reader, DiCamillo says that Raymie Nightingale was "about the saving grace of friendship, Louisiana's Way Home was about deciding who you are, and Beverly, Right Here was about acting on the knowledge of who you are.  Together all three books are about the power of community."  For me, that's my take away from her latest book, community.  DiCamillo really has this knack of drawing you in through the characters that she creates and their interactions, they're all so easily relatable and their stories stick with you, draw on your emotions.  There's the simple charm of a young girl who is grieving, so sad over her dog's death, and lonely over her mother's abandonment due to her alcoholism.  And then to have her meet Iola and Elmer and we get to see Beverly's tough exterior begin to weaken.  She moves from these simple short one-word answers that she gives to Freddie (the waitress at the fish restaurant) to the longer more in-depth conversations that she has with Elmer and Iola.  It's the kind of story that I can see myself reading over and over again if only to experience the love and kindness that Iola gives to Beverly again.  

Finally, I love how the events, objects, and people that Beverly encounters at the beginning of the story develop into these lovely scenes later on.  Especially the significance of the passage that Beverly reads in the phone booth and how she ends up sharing it with Elmer.    And although the ending didn't feel complete, it does feel hopeful.  Beverly's future isn't set in stone,  it's what she will make of it.  How she chooses to live it and who she wants to include in her life.  Her future may be uncertain, but she seems to be off to a good start.

Favorite quote from the ARC:

 “Imagine if you hadn’t found my trailer. Imagine if I didn’t need someone to drive the Pontiac. Then me and you wouldn’t’ve become friends, and you wouldn’t know how to dance. Oh, I’m glad I needed you. I’m glad you needed me.”

 “I didn’t really need you,” said Beverly.

 “Yes, you did, honey,” said Iola. 

“Yes, you did,” said Elmer from the back seat. 

“Okay,” said Beverly. “Whatever you people say.”

Thursday, September 12, 2019

MG review of Polly and Buster: The Wayward Witch & the Feelings Monster by Sally Rippin

34535576. sx318 Polly and Buster:  The Wayward Witch & the Feelings Monster 
Format:  Paperback
Publisher:  First Published in Australia June 2017 by Hardie Grant Egmont.
Published in the US:  2019 by Kane Miller, a division of EDC Publishing 

Number of Pages:  280
Source:  Review copy provided by the Publisher
Series: First book of the Polly and Buster Series

Opening Lines:  "Polly Proggett is terrible at spells, which is rather unfortunate when you're a witch."

The weather has been getting much colder so when a request came in to read a story about a young witch and monster who are friends, I eagerly jumped at the chance.  

Polly and Buster are next-door neighbors and secretly the bestest of friends.  Which wouldn't be a problem if witches and monsters were supposed to be friends, but they aren't.  Even their parents have been discouraging them from playing together, so most of the time Buster and Polly don't say anything to one another.   On the way to school, Buster sits at the back of the bus and Polly sits with the witches upfront.  If they ever cross paths, they ignore each other and keep right on walking.  Yet, every day after school they still meet at the top of their favorite tree to reminiscence about their day.  Buster doesn't tease Polly about messing up her spells and Polly is comforting for Buster, he can truly express his feelings with her.  Feelings that cause him to grow when he's happy and shrink when he's sad.  Feelings that seem to match what Polly is feeling.    

Then one day Polly's class takes a trip to the art gallery.  At first, things are going well, Polly and the most popular girl in her class, Malorie seem to be hitting it off talking about drawing and art.  But then they run into Buster's class.  Buster is so surprised to see Polly that he forgets the rule of ignoring each other and waves excitedly while calling out Polly's name.  At first, Polly tries to ignore Buster, pretending she doesn't see or hear him,  which only leads to his feelings getting hurt.  When Buster's feelings are hurt, he starts to shrink and his classmates begin to notice and start to tease him.  Polly becomes so angry by their teasing that she surprisingly unleashes a protective spell, stunning everyone including Polly.  She's never cast a spell before.  Malorie believes that Polly's spell was actually to protect her from the monsters and she begins to tell everyone how Polly saved her from the terrible mean monster.  This leads to a huge misunderstanding between witches and monsters.  What is Polly to do now?  Should she tell everyone that monsters aren't mean, should she tell everyone that she and Buster are really friends?  

Polly and Buster weren't supposed to be friends on account of monsters and witches not getting along.  But their friendship just tugs at your heartstrings.  Polly is insecure about her inability to cast spells, she seems to believe that the reason the words swim across the page for her is due to not focusing as hard as the rest of her classmates.  As a speech pathologist, it was pretty clear to me that she's dyslexic, but for a young reader, this wasn't really explained as clearly as I would've hoped.  Maybe this is addressed in the next book, but I really wished that she would've received some help from her teacher Miss Spinnaker, who reads as a kind and understanding teacher and would've been the perfect person to help Polly with her dyslexia.

And Buster, the kind-hearted feelings monster who illustrates that having and expressing feelings are okay.  That being teased and bullied is not okay and the importance of standing up for your friend.  Although Polly initially was lured by the promise of friendship with one of the popular kids, she begins to realize that Buster's is a friendship worth fighting for.                       

Not only is the story a testament to the power of friendship and the importance of standing up for one another, it also weaves in some pretty heavy topics from the times of segregation and during World War II when the Jewish people were persecuted and forced to wear identifying badges.  Rippin does present these with great care and gears them toward the attended audiences age.  I can really see the story being used for classroom discussions on these topics.  Happily, the author and publisher have included numerous discussion questions, teacher tips and games, and activities on their website for teachers to use in conjunction with telling the story.  I'm looking forward to reading Polly and Buster and The Mystery of the Magic Stones next.      

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

MG Fantasy review of Malamander by Thomas Taylor, illustrated by Tom Booth

Malamander by Thomas Taylor
43679814Format:  E-ARC
Publisher:  Walker Books US  
Number of Pages:  320
Publishing in the US:  September 10th, 2019 
Source:  Publisher via Netgalley

Series: The Legends of Eerie-on-Sea

Opening Lines:  "You've probably been to Eerie-on-Sea, without ever knowing it."

In the summer the town of Eerie-on-Sea is bustling with tourists, but during the winter all of the beachcombers have left and the town is quiet again.   Not far from the pier, you'll find the Grand Nautilus Hotel.  And just shy of the hotel's reception desk,  within a small cubbyhole is twelve-year-old Herbie Lemon, resident Lost-and Founder hard at work matching lost things to their owners.  Then one day Violet unexpectedly comes climbing through his cellar window pleading for Herbie to hide her.  Violet hastily climbs into a trunk while Herbie throws lost coats on top hoping to disguise her location.  Then the manager of the hotel, Mr. Mollusc and a man in a sailor's coat with a large iron boat hook for a hand show up demanding to know where she's hiding.  After searching the room and coming up empty-handed, they leave and Violet returns shortly thereafter requesting Herbie's help once again, this time to find her parents.  When Violet was only a baby, her parents disappeared while staying at the hotel.  Violet was shipped off to an Aunt but is now back looking for answers.  Soon Violet and Herbie set out to uncover any possible clues to their disappearance and somehow become entangled in the local legend of the mysterious Malamander, a monster that is half-man and half-fish.                
Malmander is the first book in the Legends of Eerie-on-Sea series. It's sorta reminiscent of Lemony Snicket and maybe even a little Pseudonymous Bosch, especially The Name of This Book is Secret because of the early caution to "close this book and lock it in a tin box and cast it off the pier."  Advice that I chose to disregard.  When I saw the cover my interest was instantly piqued.  Usually, the fantasy stories I enjoy reading take place in settings where the characters are traipsing through the mountainside, attending magical schools, even within castles and old houses.  Well, I think I've found a new setting to add to the list, a salty seaside town.  Eerie-on-Sea is mysterious and filled with quirky people and places. There's a Book Dispensary where a tophat wearing mermonkey will fill your book prescription and select the book you need to read.  It's also a tad eerie place because it comes with its own legendary monster, the Malamander.  I have to admit that at first, I thought the monster was just this legend created to keep the troublesome kids away from the wreckage of the Leviathan, but it turns out the monster was much more than that.  And certainly more dangerous.     
Malamander is told from Herbie Lemon's perspective and is predominantly about Violet's search for her parents and the monster.  Herbie strikes me as kind, caring and intelligent, with a somewhat mysterious past of his own.  Five years ago he washed up on the shore of Eerie-on-Sea in a crate of lemons, with no knowledge of his past, not even his own name.  The owner of the Grand Nautilus Hotel gave him his name and set him up as the caretaker of the Lost and Foundery.  A job that Herbie takes very seriously.  Now, Violet, she's a wild-haired, brave girl who's ready for adventure.  She's rash where Herbie is more analytical.  But one thing is for sure, Violet is determined to find out exactly what happened to her parents.  Sometimes her choices lead to more danger for the two of them.  As they delve further into the mystery, their quest takes them all over the town of Eerie-on-Sea, even face to face with the legendary Malamander.  And although they don't find all the answers to what happened to Violet's parents, it's still a very satisfying story.  I suspect that some of this will be resolved in future books.   If you're looking for a mystery with a unique setting, quirky people, and lovely illustrations, I'd certainly give Malamander a read.  I certainly can't wait to see what adventures these two have next.