Wednesday, February 20, 2019

MG Fantasy Review of Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

39675426Wundersmith:  The Calling of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend
Format:  Ebook
Publisher: Little Brown Books for Young Readers
Number of Pages: 545
Published:  November 13th, 2018
Source:  Library

Nevermoor:  The Trials of Morrigan Crow is the first book in the Nevermoor series by Jessica Townsend.  It won the 2018 Cybils Award for elementary/middle-grade speculative fiction.  Here's a blurb from the second round judges: 

 "Morrigan has grown up believing she is cursed. Then, on her eleventh birthday, her luck changes when she’s whisked off to the magical city of Nevermoor, and invited to compete to be a member of the Wundrous society.   Readers will assume she makes it through the trials, but Morrigan’s low self-esteem means she herself is doubtful, and so it’s not just her external triumph that makes readers cheer for her.  Thought the good vs. evil plot might seem familiar, there are plenty of unique twists.  The zany world of Nevermoor is wildly original, and the characters are vivid and three-dimensional. Fantasy-loving kids will be hooked by this memorable, magical story, and want the next book right away!"

Nevermoor was one of my top selections for the Cybils finalist's shortlist, so when I saw that Wundersmith (book 2 in the series) was available at the library I didn't hesitate to check it out.  I do however suggest starting with Nevermoor:  The Trials of Morrigan Crow first otherwise you'll miss out on too much of the plot and well book one is fantastic!  So before reading any further, go back and read book one, cause SPOILERS ARE POSSIBLE IN THIS REVIEW!!

Opening Lines:  "Morrigan Crow leapt from the Brolly Rail, teeth chattering, hands frozen around the end of her oilskin umbrella."    

 After having proved themselves in the Trials, Morrigan and her fellow competitors were inaugurated into the Wundrous Society (Wunsoc) and together became Unit 919.  As the newest scholars, they recited an oath to be true and loyal to one another, to see each other as brothers and sisters or family.  Morrigan was thrilled with the prospect of having a family, that is until her "knack" or powers were disclosed and a huge rift developed between the Elders and their Patrons.  The Elders left the decision about continuing as a Unit up to the scholars with the warning that they must not reveal Morrigan's powers, even the Patrons and her teachers had to keep the secret.   Elder Quinn basically told the patrons that their scholar was free to go but to leave their pin at the door.   All nine members decided to stay, not for Morrigan, but rather because they'd worked so hard to get into Wunsoc. 

 The story moves to Unit 919 starting their classes at the Society, yeah magic classes, I'm so in for that.  There are fun names like Opening a Dialogue with the Dead to Stealth, Evasion, and Concealment.  Unfortunately, poor Morrigan gets stuck with taking only one class the History of Heinous Wundrous Acts from Professor Onstad, a half human and half tortoise.  Morrigan spends most of the first part of the story left feeling like the other students don't trust her or are afraid of her and also a bit jealous of their schedules.  And maybe somewhat concerned that she's still cursed.  Professor Onstad's assignments make her feel like she is evil, that she's like Ezra Squall (the last living Wundersmith and villain in the first story).  There was a huge part of me that kept wishing for more interactions with the other members of the unit, their abilities sound really cool. Cadence is a mesmerist, Hawthorne rides dragons,  Anah is the healer, Archan's a pickpocket, Frances a gastronomist, Lambeth a short-range oracle, Mahir's a linguist and Thaddea's the fighter.  Don't get me wrong, some played an integral part in the plot, while others (Archan and Frances) seemed to take the back burner.  I'm hoping in the next book we'll get to see them interacting more as a team or family unit and less untrusting of each other.  

I must admit I also found myself getting kinda annoyed with Morrigan's patron, Jupiter North as all the events were unfolding in her class.  He can be supportive, but also tends to give Morrigan half answers or put her off and it's irritating.  I know as a Witness he has access to all her thoughts, but it seemed he gave her information in piecemeal bits, between running errands and helping out the Society.  I really felt bad for Morrigan, she seemed so isolated and down on herself and disliked how the class made her feel bad about herself.  But Jupiter did completely redeem himself with his pinky promise to find proof for Morrigan that Wundersmith's couldn't have been all bad.  And the conductor, Miss Cherry, and Jack seemed to fill in the blanks for me for Jupiter's absences during the story.  Miss Cherry was a delightful addition, she seemed really sweet, knowledgeable, motherly, kinda protected her cubs and genuinely cared about wanting the kids to be successful.  And  who couldn't love the way Jack lends a sympathetic ear and gives Morrigan a means to call on him in an emergency?  

Morrigan is finally allowed to take another class somewhat later in the story with Unit 919, Decoding Nevermoor:  How to Successfully Navigate the Free States Most Dangerous and Ridiculous City.  This is such a cool class.  Love it!  There's a map or 3D version of the city with all the moving parts you would see in a city including miniature moving people.  Their first task involved determining a route from point A to point B in the city while avoiding and including certain parts of the town.  I loved this because you start to see exactly how whimsical, mysterious and dangerous Nevermoor can be.  There are silly things like the Brolly Rail system and dangerous places like the Ghastly Market to explore.

Within the story, there's also a mystery, well two.  The first when each member of Unit 919 starts getting notes demanding they complete a specific task, which if they refuse to comply with will risk having Morrigan's powers exposed to all of Wunsoc and get them thrown out.  Each task seems to be designed to either make the whole group look bad, is slightly dangerous, humiliating or quite possibly risks fracture them even further.  Yep, the stakes are getting even higher.  The second part of the mystery is the disappearance of a Magnificub, members of the Wundrous Society, and who the mastermind is pulling the strings.  Which all ties back to the Ghastly Market in a scary way.  And lest we forget, there is the villain, Ezra Squall who's intentions have me conflicted, and whose actions can be unsettling, but who I'm still curious about learning more about.   

So yeah, I quite enjoyed Wundersmith, pretty close to my enjoyment of the Trials in the first book.  This one just seemed to really open up the world of Nevermoor and gave Morrigan the opportunity to show off her powers which made me just enjoy her character that much more. Plus, I liked the connections she made with Cadence and of course her continued friendship with Hawthorne.  I'm certainly vested in knowing what happens next.           

Monday, February 18, 2019

The Girl with the Whispering Shadow (The Crowns of Croswald #2) by D.E. Night

42117518The Girl with the Whispering Shadow by D.E. Night
Format:  Paperback
Publisher: Stories Untold, LLC
Number of Pages: 384
Published:  January 23rd, 2019
Source:  Purchased 

Goodreads blurb for The Crowns of Croswald Book#1:  "For sixteen years Ivy Lovely has been hidden behind an enchanted boundary that separates the mundane from the magical. When Ivy crosses the border, her powers awaken. Curiosity leads her crashing through a series of adventures at the Halls of Ivy, a school where students learn to master their magical blood and the power of Croswald’s mysterious gems. When Ivy’s magic––and her life––is threatened by the Dark Queen, she scrambles to unearth her history and save Croswald before the truth is swept away forever."

Opening Lines:  "The air in Belzebuthe was so thick with magic that she felt as if she had to force her limbs through the atmosphere, especially when she had been gone a while."

The second book in the series opens with a prologue shortly after the events of the first book.  Ivy acquired the first of three pieces of the Kindred Stone but was no closer to the location of the two other pieces.  Ultimately, Ivy would like to reunite the pieces of the stones to bring about the destruction of the Dark Queen and her Cloaked Brood.  At the conclusion of the first book, the Dark Queen attacked the students from the Halls of Ivy making it unsafe for Ivy to stay at the school.  Derwin made plans for Ivy to go the town without a name (Belzebuthe), a secret place where she will be safe, away from the eyes of the Dark Queen, and where she might find answers to the possible whereabouts of the final two stones.  Fyn and Rebecca, two of Ivy's closest friends from school try to help her, while a shadow seems to be following her every move. 

The Girl with the Whispering Shadow has that same magical feeling as the first book and I loved how some of the storylines seemed to correlate with things from the Harry Potter series,  well at least it brought things like the Room of Requirements, the Pensieve and the Marauders Map in the Harry Potter series to mind as I was reading.  I'm not sure if that was the authors intent or not, but I so enjoyed reminiscing.  Even with the connections that I felt between the two, each new book in D. E. Night's story and the world as a whole seems to grow and change.  She brings her own twists and  I really do love the atmosphere she created in this book.  The characters feel familiar and I loved reading all the details about the town of Belzebuthe.   Everything from the shops, like the Lie Buries bookstore, which is adorable,  to the food carts that Ivy and her friends frequent eating Cracker Hats and drinking Moonsday Milkshakes.  To the cold wintery feel of the town with its stars glistening above.  She includes so many of elements that I so enjoy reading in my fantasy stories, Ivy's magic classes at the Halls of Ivy, an interesting world with creatures like shades, magic that can be unpredictable, and a budding romance.   But, my favorite new addition was Quogo, the magical game played with two people who each conjure a specter and use a quill and the magic from the specter to duel each other until one person is forced out of the ring.  I also really enjoyed how the Inklink was used to investigate a crime scene, such fun.  I'm really hoping that D.E. Night will write more books in this series and am eager to learn what will happen next.  I'd suggest that you start with the first book in the series as you will be missing out on getting to know the characters, the explanation of the magical system and certain important plot points.  Overall a very entertaining story that I know I will read again.             

Monday, February 11, 2019

MG Historical Nonfiction Review of Lost in the Antarctic: The Doomed Voyage of the Endurance by Tod Olson

37825420Lost in the Antarctic:  The Doomed Voyage of the Endurance  by Tod Olson
Format:  Paperback
Publisher:  Scholastic Inc.
Number of pages: 224
Published:  January 1st, 2019
Source:  Publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Lines:  " The ship didn't stand a chance, and Frank Hurley knew it.  He'd been in the engine room with the carpenter, trying desperately to keep the water out."

The Doomed Voyage of the Endurance is the fourth installment in Tod Olson's Lost series and tells the story of  Ernest Shackleton and his crew who set sail aboard the Endurance in October of 1914 on a voyage through the Weddell Sea to Vahsel Bay.  Once at Vahsel Bay, the men planned to take dog sleds to go another 800 miles overland to the South Pole, while another ship would scout ahead and drop supplies for the men to finish their trek.   Partway through their voyage, the Endurance became trapped in the ice requiring the crew to abandon ship taking nothing but the bare minimum in supplies, the dogsleds, and lifeboats.  This is the story of what happened to them next.  

I really loved the narrative style of Lost in the Antarctic, how it combined the facts and details of the voyage with excerpts from the crews own diaries and journals, as well as photos and illustrations.  There's even a detailed list of the sources in the back of the book.  As I began reading the story, I could only imagine all the challenges the crew would have to endure, especially as their progress was slowed and they had to carve out a path through the ice to even move the ship forward a few feet.   It's a very engrossing survival story that especially illustrates how treacherous Antarctica is.  There's a reason that very little has been explored.  How difficult it must have been to abandon their ship just as winter was approaching, knowing they would have months without daylight and their sources of food were quickly being depleted.  Always in the back of your mind is the thought of what perseverance these men must have had to endure such harsh conditions.  An excellent nonfiction story with just the right amount of historical details, and lighter moments of shared camaraderie where the crew is telling jokes, playing music, even pictures of the crew playing a game of soccer on the snow packed ice.   I'd recommend The Lost series for kids who enjoyed reading the I Survived series of books.   

 Just as I was finishing up my review, I learned that an expedition is getting closer at locating the wreck site of the Endurance How cool would that be if they could somehow recover the ship?  

Friday, February 8, 2019

MG Mystery Review of The Story Pirates Present: Digging Up Danger by Jacqueline West and illustrated by Hatem Aly

42852921The Story Pirates Present: Digging Up Danger by Jacqueline West, illustrated by Hatem Aly and based on the original story idea by Phoebe Wolinetz.
Format:  Ebook
Publisher:  Random House Books for Young Readers
Number of pages: 284
Published:  January 15th, 2019
Source:  Public Library

Synopsis from Goodreads:  " Eliza loves hunting ghosts — too bad she's spending the summer helping her scientist mother study weird plants instead.  But when a mysterious plant goes missing, things go from strange to downright spooky. Eliza is convinced something—or someone—is haunting the plant shop. Is she digging into dangerous ground?"

I first heard about the Story Pirates from listening to some of their podcasts with my kiddo.  I've always liked the idea that each podcast was inspired by stories that kids wrote themselves.  From there, the company has branched out into taking children's story ideas and is now publishing books.  How cool is that kids get help from published authors and their idea becomes a book?  The first book is Stuck in the Stone Age and was written by Geoff Rodkey and Digging Up Danger is the second book written by Jacqueline West and inspired by Phoebe Wolinetz.   I've been a huge fan of Jacqueline West's books for a long time, I adore her writing style, everything from the words she chooses, to her settings and characters.   I knew that I was in for a treat when my hold for this book finally came in at the library.

One of the neat things about this series is how it combined a creative writing tutorial with Phoebe's mystery story idea.  This is done by encouraging the reader to flip forward and backward through the pages of the book as your reading it.  For example, the reader might be reading the initial pages of the story and come to a spooky moment, then they're prompted to flip to the back of the book where they learn about how the author set up this scene.  There are also pieces on crafting your settings, what's needed for an exciting mystery, how stories have a beginning, middle, and end, creating a culprit, even what kind of clues a reader might need.  It's really quite interactive with the flipping of pages and there are even worksheets that ask the reader questions about what things you would find in your setting, who's the one doing the sleuthing? Even tips on how to outline who the suspects are.  There's a whole Mystery Creation Zone with titles like "idea storms" and "detective notebook pages" that ties things back to Phoebe's mystery story idea while encouraging and providing the tools for kids to develop their own mysteries.  

Now I read this as an ebook, so flipping back and forth was pretty easy for me.  Kids might find this a bit more challenging with the physical copy.  I choose to read the whole story and then went back through reading the chapter and the how-to parts at the back of the book.   I just love this idea as a classroom teaching tool in creative writing or for kids who are interested in becoming an author.  Plus Digging up Danger was a very humorous story and a fun mystery to solve that I'm sure children would enjoy reading.      

Thursday, February 7, 2019

MG Steampunk/Fantasy Review of Cogheart by Peter Bunzl

29939780Cogheart by Peter Bunzl
Format:  Paperback
Publisher: Jolly Fish Press
Number of Pages: 368
Publishing:  February 12th, 2019 (first published September 1st, 2016)
Source:  Review copy provided by Blue Slip Media in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Line:  "Malkin pressed his forepaws against the flight deck window and peered out." 

Cogheart is a steampunk middle-grade fantasy adventure set in Victorian times that includes flying airships or "zeps", clockwork pieces that include cogs, wheels, keys and mechanical animals and humans, there are even hybrids of humans and mechanicals.    I've only read a few steampunk books,  A Perilous Journey of Danger and Mayhem by Christoper HealyThe Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann and  The Fog Diver by Joel N. Ross are the first ones to come to mind, but I'm always fascinated to read more and the cover of Cogheart really piqued my interest.  Plus I'm always up for an "adventure story of danger and daring."   Isn't that cover gorgeous though?  Each chapter heading also includes one of these lovely illustrations.        

 The book starts out with a suspenseful prologue aboard The Dragonfly, an airship manned by Professor John Hartman which has just come under attack from a silver war airship.  Seeing no means of escaping, the professor sends his mechanimal Malkin (a pet mechanical fox) on a mission to bring an envelope to his daughter Lily.  As Malkin tries to locate Lily, he is pursued by men in stovepipe hats with silver mirrored lenses.  So yep, lots of danger as he tries to flee their capture and bring his letter to Lily.  

From there the pacing slows down a bit as other characters are introduced, their motivations come into question and we learn more about Lily's father, Professor Hartman's mechanical inventions.  As the events in the prologue were happening, Lily was safely tucked away at Miss Octavia Scrimshaw's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies taking lessons in deportment.  Lily tries to be a good student, but it's evident she has no desire to become a proper lady.  One thing I really liked about Lily was her passion for reading her penny dreadful stories about detectives or pirates, and her desire to have an adventure of her own.   Then Madame Verdigris, the families housekeeper arrives bringing news of her father's ships crash, his disappearance, and that she has been appointed Lily's guardian and will be taking her back to the family home in  Brackenbridge.  Once at home,  Lily begins to have suspicions about Madame Verdigris, especially when mysterious men start lurking around town and the manner in which Madame Verdigris is snooping around the house.  Before too long,  Lily is reunited with Malkin and from her father's letter learns that he had been working on a special invention, something that could revolutionize the mechanical world.   An invention that her father wants her to keep hidden and safe.  With the help of the clockmaker's son and her beloved mechanimal Malkin, Lily makes plans to do just that.  

I quite enjoyed Cogheart.  The story brings up some interesting questions about souls and whether in this case, mechanicals have a soul?  The "mechs" in the story followed a set of rules where they can't hurt humans but can be hurt by them.  So part of the premise included the idea that because some characters believed that mechs don't have a soul or feelings, they can easily be dismissed, replaced, or were expendable.  But Lily saw the mechs as an extension of her family, that they should be protected and treated with respect and dignity.   I really enjoyed Lily's determination and convictions and felt she complemented well with Robert who was not only afraid of heights but less self-assured,  timid, even hesitant about his goals in life.  Together they were brave, loyal and helped each other overcome their fears.  And who couldn't love a mechanical fox, who despite being slightly over-opinionated, curls at your feet and is always eager to protect you when you're in danger.  I'm really looking forward to reading Moonlocket when it releases in the Fall, which is slated to be "a thrilling tale of catastrophe and courage."  

Favorite Line when Robert is talking to Lily about repairing a music box with his father and it goes all wrong, and his father tells him to

 " ...think of it like life:  It looks complicated when you see all the separate pieces, but the purpose of the music box is to play joyful music.  You just have to remember how to fit them together so it will.  The same with life really.  It's just about the living of it.  That's all you have, and all you can do:  live and be happy."  (pg. 354)