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A Twist That Goes Bump in the Night

A Plague of BoglesVictorian London was a nasty place to be if you had the misfortune to be born on the wrong side of the economic divide. It gets worse, however, if you're stuck in a part of town where there's a bogle – nebulous, unpredictable monsters who eat children left alone. Get stuck while sweeping a chimney? There might be a bogle there ready to eat you. Go down to fetch something from the cellar? Better hope that if you're alone, you're really alone. There is only one way to hunt bogles, and that's to bait a trap with a child who must sing with their back to the bogle until the bogle is exposed enough to be killed by a poisoned weapon. As bogles descend upon London, Catherine Jinks has woven a light but effective bit of period horror in A Plague of Bogles.

 

Jem Barbary has his sights set on the prestigious job, at least by the level of unlucky London, job of bogler's boy. He wants to be the bait for Alfred Bunce, London's only remaining bogler, semi-retired. After the events of How to Catch a Bogle, Jem has decided to give up crime. He used to be a pickpocket in a Fagin ring, but he hasn't given up playing whatever angle he can think of. Unfortunately, that seems to involve a whole lot of lying and leading publicity back to people who'd rather keep their heads down. He's also out for revenge against his former mistress, Sarah Pickles.

 

Like a good ghost story, A Plague of Bogles is both scary and fun. London is full of colorful characters trying to survive on a few cents a day. Street patter is used so fluidly that there's a large glossary at the end of the book just to make the dialogue clear. Jem Barbary and all the supporting cast are great characters, wildly flawed but determined. The standout passages, though, go to the bogle hunting. Every single time is a slow boil, impending, but certain, doom creeping up until just the last moment when everything snaps like a mousetrap.

Matt

 
 

The Zoo at the Edge of the World

The Zoo at the Edge of the World

posted by:
April 16, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Zoo at the End of the WorldMarlin Rackham comes from a proud lineage. His father is one of the great explorers, the conqueror and defender of the jungle of South America. Ronan Rackham owns The Zoo at the Edge of the World, a collection of jungle animals built on a temple in British Guiana. Unfortunately for Marlin, he has a severe stutter and can only clearly speak to the animals around him. When his father brings a jaguar out of the jungle, suddenly the animals are able to talk back. Author Eric Kahn Gale asks big questions while crafting a story that is more Heart of Darkness than Doctor Dolittle.

 

Marlin's life isn't easy. His brother is an unmitigated bully. His father is a legend. Everyone thinks he's an idiot because he can't speak. When a powerful duke brings his family to the zoo and a man-eating jaguar is captured for exhibition, Marlin gets caught in the middle of British colonial politics. What is a boy to do when he can't speak, but understands entire sides to the conflicts that no one else is even aware of?

 

The tour program is interspersed regularly, providing a counterpoint to what actually happens in the story at any time. As the zoo goes farther and farther off schedule, the attempt to write puff pieces becomes ludicrous. This is a delightfully dark children’s book recommended for readers of Kipling's The Jungle Book. It's frightening and realistic, and follows the implications of its magic through. In a world where animals can talk across species lines, they still need to eat each other.

Matt

 
 

The Streetwise Hercules

The Streetwise Hercules

posted by:
December 19, 2014 - 8:00am

Cover art for The Blood of Olympus"Seven half-bloods shall answer the call,
To storm or fire the world must fall.
An oath to keep with final breath,
And foes bear arms to the Doors of Death."

 

The Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan is the end, the final book in a five year saga, and the fulfillment of prophecy. Roman mythology and Greek mythology have clashed with each other, with Gods, Goddesses, Titans and the very Earth itself. It's been clear since the beginning that someone was going to die. Would it be Jason Grace, son of Jupiter? Piper, daughter of Aphrodite? Maybe it would be one of the five other heroes, including a returning Percy Jackson and Annabeth Chase. The action is big, the threats are far out there and the characters are still quipping.

 

In a post-Potter world, any number of contenders have stepped up to provide fantastic sagas for the young. Riordan has become the Dean of Children's Mythology. Every page in his books are full of reimagined Greek and Roman (and sometimes Egyptian, and soon to be Norse) mythology that can be quickly and easily digested by new readers. It's by turns hilarious, horrifying, action-packed and zooming along with all the speed of a thriller. There's a potency to The Blood of Olympus that comes from being built on stories that have lasted for thousands of years.

 

This is not a perfect book. Most of the ensemble cast run through their character arcs and just stick around for lack of anywhere else to be. The humor can be patchy. It doesn't matter, because this is smart, imaginative writing that will inspire the next generation. Some of the kids who read this will go on to be archaeologists, mythographers and authors. The rest will have a good time in a world that's grown bigger since they started reading.

 

Matt

 
 

Magic Doesn't Solve Problems

Magic Doesn't Solve Problems

posted by:
July 11, 2014 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Islands of ChaldeaAileen was supposed to become a wise woman like her Aunt Beck, but then she messed up her initiation and spends the following morning in one of those depressions that sucks the joy right out of eating. So maybe it's just as well that she and her aunt are summoned to the castle and sent off on a quest to reopen the sealed land of Logre, which vanished behind a wall not long after Aileen was born. Things go wrong. When Aunt Beck gets herself cursed out of her own stubbornness, it's up to Aileen to take over and deal with all the problems — both large and small — that crop up.

 

When Diana Wynne Jones died in 2011, we lost one of the great fantasy and children's writers of the past century. There's a sense, not just of magic and quests, but of people who actually have to live in a world where curses might mean that every meal has to be spoon-fed, and where the horse isn't a gallant steed but a donkey that gets the cart stuck in the mud sometimes. There's true love, the refutation of childhood crushes and a gentle understanding that people sometimes make the wrong choices when they're alone. It doesn't take center stage, but there's a lot that an older reader will get that a child won't.

 

What makes a Diana Wynne Jones story is the understanding that as wonderful as magic is, it doesn't solve problems. Magic is merely an extension of the personality of the people who use it. Character, not power, decides the fate of Aileen and her companions.

 

The Islands of Chaldea was completed by Diana Wynne Jones's sister, Ursula Jones, an acclaimed novelist and actress.

Matt

 
 

Steam and Grime in Victorian Times

catalog.bcpl.lib.md.us/polaris/search/searchresults.aspx?ctx=1.1033.0.0.6&type=Default&term=Flights and Chimes and Mysterious Times&by=KW&sort=MP&limit=TOM=*&query=&page=0London:
 

Ten-year-old Jack Foster has never been the center of his parents’ universe. Spending much of the year at boarding school, Jack’s infrequent trips home to smog-choked Victorian London are fraught with awkwardness, boredom and his own guilty anticipation of returning to school.
 

So when on one visit home Jack spies Mr. Havelock, his mother’s mysterious new spiritualist, opening a door where no earthly door should be, he jumps at the chance for adventure and follows...
 

Londinium:
 

...into a magical world that so closely mimics our own, the line between what is mechanical, what is magical and what is alive has long been blurred. Here the air is thick with smoke, and many residents are obliged to wear goggles and nostril grills to shield them from the noxious atmosphere. Whole, flesh-and-blood children are rare and prized by Londinium’s ruler: the Lady. Now, the Lady requires a new, perfect son and she’s set her sights on Jack.
 

As keen as he was for adventure, Jack isn’t so sure he’s ready to be adopted, and the Lady’s previous son, Mr. Havelock (aka Sir Lorcan), isn’t happy about being replaced. This new world is not without friends though, including Beth, a wind-up doll with an attitude, and Dr. Snailwater, the scientist who created her. If Jack wants to escape back to his own world, he’ll need the help of his new friends and that of the Gearwing, a powerful, mythical creature that no one has seen in years.
 

Emma Trevayne paints an atmospheric and eerily entrancing landscape in Flights and Chimes and Mysterious Times, her middle-grade steampunk debut. Boasting excellent world building, characteristic of the steampunk genre, gorgeous cover art and an independent protagonist with amusing supporting characters, Flights is best suited for younger middle-grade readers.
 

For all the narrative merit displayed in much of the story, Flights does suffer from some underdeveloped and ultimately unresolved plot devices. Among these weaker elements are the obscure motivations of the Lady in continually craving perfect, eternal sons in the first place, as well as the underdeveloped mythos of the Gearwing itself. As a standalone novel these flaws are prominent, however, in the larger context of a series (should Ms. Trevayne continue to expand Jack’s horizons) these shortcomings might be camouflaged.
 

Meghan

 
 

Squirrels Connect Us

Squirrels Connect Us

posted by:
January 23, 2014 - 7:00am

Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamilloIt all began with a vacuum cleaner. Popular children’s author Kate DiCamillo returns with a tale of a cynical young girl and an ordinary backyard squirrel turned superhero in Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures. The inciting incident occurs in the first few pages (presented in a comic book style by illustrator K.G. Campbell) when Donald Tickman presents his wife with the ultimate birthday present – a Ulysses Super-Suction, Multi-Terrain 2000X. Neighbor Flora happens to be peering out the window just as the out-of-control vacuum propels into the Tickmans’ yard, sucking up a hapless squirrel. A fan of comics and survival literature (but not the sappy novels penned by her romance-writer mother), Flora turns out to be the perfect person to revive the fur-stripped mammal.

 

Well aware that “impossible things happened all the time,” she soon recognizes that the squirrel’s run in with the vacuum has granted him amazing powers (among them, flying and typing poetry). Upon witnessing his super strength, Flora dubs him Ulysses and becomes his de facto sidekick. Of course, every superhero has an arch nemesis, and in this case it’s Flora’s own mother who has it in for the rodent.

 

Campbell’s appealing pencil illustrations are essential to the enjoyment of this engaging and exciting novel. DiCamillo is a master at creating the quirky characters that are the hallmark of her work, appealing to both young and older readers.  The winner of the 2004 Newbery Medal for The Tale of Despereaux (and a Newbery Honor in 2001 for Because of Winn-Dixie), DiCamillo was inaugurated as The National Ambassador for Young People's Literature on Jan. 10. According to the Library of Congress, the National Ambassador “raises national awareness of the importance of young people’s literature as it relates to lifelong literacy, education and the development and betterment of the lives of young people.” DiCamillo's platform is "Stories Connect Us” and she will be serving in the position during 2014 and 2015.

Paula G.

 
 

Here There Be Monsters

Monster on the HillIn an alternate Victorian-era England, all towns have a resident monster whose job is to scare and thrill the residents, as well as to protect them. Stoker-on-Avon has a problem: their monster is suffering from depression and a general lack of confidence. Much to the townsfolk’s dismay, Rayburn hasn’t attacked in well over a year and a half. Rob Harrell’s graphic novel Monster on the Hill chronicles the efforts of Charles Wilkie, doctor and inventor, who has been dispatched by the town fathers to “fix the monster.” Timothy, the self-proclaimed town crier/street urchin, stows away in the doctor’s trunk in order to be a part of the mission.

 

Rayburn, a heavy-lidded, horned, winged, rust-colored creature, boasts no special skills or talents. He doesn’t breathe fire and he can’t fly. After diagnosing his problem, Wilkie suggests a restorative road trip to visit other town monsters to pick up some “tricks of the trade.” His old school chum Noodles, better known as Tentaculor, may offer just the boost he needs. This edgy, drolly humorous graphic novel will capture the imagination of a wide range of readers, much like Jeff Smith’s popular Bone series.  Harrell captures a Victorian feel while sprinkling in modern anachronisms to good comic effect, as vendors hawk Tentaculor merchandise (like trading cards and Tentacu-Pops) after a recent attack. Older children who enjoy tales of adventure and dragons will enjoy the twist on the usual trope. Harrell’s wide-eyed villagers and thoroughly detailed monsters are enormously visually appealing, as is his choice of a bright, colorful palette.  Readers will eagerly await upcoming books in this ongoing, all-ages series.

Paula G.

 
 

In the Spirit of Spook

Cover art for ZombelinaCover art for Vampirina BallerinaZombies and vampires have been all the rage lately, but not like this. Zombies who eat brains? Okay, sure. Vampires who suck blood? Makes sense. But vampires and zombies in tutus? Huh? Authors Kristyn Crow and Anne Marie Pace bring to life two adorably spooky characters with wonderfully supportive families.

 

Zombelina has a love of dance that she just can’t contain. She twirls through the house from one dance to the next. To her pleasant surprise, her mother says it’s time that she becomes a true ballerina. She takes her shopping for all of the ballet accoutrement and even signs her up for lessons. When she begins her class, it’s plain to see that Zombelina may be a little different from the other girls, but she practices hard and gains praise for her unique spin on ballet. Will the practice pay off for her big recital? Crow uses rhyming in combination with Molly Idle’s illustrations to create a story wholly unique. This book is a clear choice for any young reader with a passion for dance or who is looking for something to get them in spooky spirits.

 

Another book to go with the theme is Anne Marie Pace’s second installment of Vampirina Ballerina, titled Vampirina Ballerina Hosts a Sleepover. In this story, Vampirina shows just what to do to create the very best sleepover. It’s not all about work, though, as the little girls come over and frolic in this uncharacteristic house filled with mummies, monsters and spiders, oh my. Not everyone enjoys the slumber party when one little girl is spooked by an unexpected mummy appearance. Will Vampirina be able to save the party she worked so hard to plan?

 

Other picture books to celebrate the spooky season are Bone Soup by Cambria Evans and Gibbus Moony Wants to Bite You! by Leslie Muir.

Randalee

 
 

Imagination Run Wild

Imagination Run Wild

posted by:
October 15, 2013 - 7:00am

The Sasquatch EscapeThe Lonely Lake MonsterWhere would you take an injured baby dragon? To the imaginary veterinary if you are lucky enough to have one in town. The Sasquatch Escape is the first book in the Imaginary Veterinary series by Suzanne Selfors. In it, two 10-year-olds, Ben and Pearl, find themselves living in what could be the most boring town in the world, Buttonville. The Button factory has long been closed down when Ben moves in with his grandfather while his parents work out some “issues.”  Pearl has lived there her whole life and is well-known as a troublemaker…so much so that she has been banned from the bookstore and other children are not allowed to play with her! When Ben’s cat catches a baby dragon, Ben and Pearl take the dragon to the only animal doctor in town, Dr. Woo of Dr. Woo’s Worm Hospital, located inside the old button factory. All is not as it seems at the Worm Hospital, as the children discover when a Sasquatch is let loose on the town!   

 

Book two in the series, The Lonely Lake Monster, continues Ben and Pearl’s adventures as apprentices at the Worm Hospital. Tasked with trimming the Sasquatch’s toenails on the first day, they quickly become distracted by an enormous lake monster and a leprechaun with a head cold. When the lonely lake monster catches Ben for a pet, it is up to Pearl to save him (ideally without being caught breaking the rules, again!)

 

The Imaginary Veterinary series is filled with delightful characters from both the real world and the imaginary world. Underlying themes of loyalty and resilience add to the rich plotline. Selfors alternates points of view for each book, with book one being told from Ben’s point of view, and book two being told from Pearl’s. She adds some enrichment activities to the end of each book challenging the reader to use their imaginations with some writing, art and science activities.  She also adds some background to the mythical creatures described in each book.  This is an excellent adventure series for children who enjoy a little bit of fantasy. The third book, The Rain Dragon Rescue, is due out in January 2014.

Diane

 
 

The Sweetness at the Bottom of Pi in the Sky

Cover art for Pi in the SkyFrom the author of Every Soul a Star comes a story that’s out of this world — literally! In Pi in the Sky, Wendy Mass weaves an imaginative tale of worlds colliding, and the rollercoaster adventure that results.
 

Joss is a seventh son. Not just any seventh son, but the seventh son of the Supreme Overlord of the Universe. Expecting a superhero, imbued with extraordinary powers and responsibilities? Guess again. Despite what you may have heard, being that special “seventh son” does not imbue you with any great powers or great responsibilities — even if your dad is the SOU. With six older brothers, the greatest responsibility Joss has ever held is delivering pies across The Realms to the Powers That Be.
 

That’s right; a glorified pie delivery boy.
 

Mind you, these aren’t ordinary pies, but more about that later...
 

To date, Joss’ life has revolved around going to school (even immortals need an education), hanging out with his best friend Kal and getting those pies delivered on time. Then one day, a girl from Earth winds up in The Realms after her planet has been obliterated and Joss’ whole world is thrown out of orbit. Upgraded from delivery boy to world architect, it’s up to Joss to somehow rebuild Earth with the help of the planet’s last human, Annika.
 

Pi in the Sky is a spirited fantasy of friendship, adventure and the awesome sciences that shape our world. It is a balanced story that is accessible and fun to read even as it incorporates some challenging concepts. The characters are relatable and the story is alternately playful and poignant. Chapters are headed by quotes from scientists and visionaries that succinctly capture the theme of the chapter to follow. Recommended for middle grade readers and, in particular, fans of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet.

Meghan