Review: City of Islands

“She tried to keep her voice light, as though she wasn’t asking the most important question she had ever asked.” page 23

City of Islands by Kali Wallace.
Katherine Tegen imprint, HarperCollins, New York, 2018.
MG fantasy, 328 pages.
Lexile:  not leveled
AR Level:  5.8 (worth 12.0 points)  .

Mara has been orphaned twice over – once when she survived her family’s shipwreck, and again when the bone mage who raised her was killed by a rival.  Now she’s a diver for the Lady of the Tides, but worried about finding herself homeless again if they keep coming up empty-handed.  A chance tip has her trying a new location where she finds a pile of strange spelled bones that don’t make sense.  Her dream is to study magic with the Lady, but instead she’s rewarded with a challenge – find a way to break in to the impregnable Winter Blade fortress island.

City of Islands cover
City of Islands by Kali Wallace.

Before I finished this book and started to write this review and checked the back flap of the book cover and got around to looking the author up, I knew that she would be white.  By the time I was halfway through the book it was obvious, and here’s why – the hair.  Wallace’s heroine, Mara, is a diver by profession.  She lives on a small island in an archipelago where most everyone grows up swimming and boating and generally transitioning from water to not with ease.

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Review: The Dragon of Ynys

“Of course the dragon would try to distract him if it really was guilty. But Violet wouldn’t let it. He was a professional, specialised in dragon crimes. This dragon’s crimes.” page 15

The Dragon of Ynys by Minerva Cerridwen.
Atthis Arts, Detroit, Michigan, my edition 2020, originally published 2018.
All ages fantasy, 132 pages including back matter.
Not leveled.

Sir Violet’s duties as knight have fallen into a familiar pattern – he goes to the dragon’s cave, and after some banter a missing item is returned. Until instead of his morning cinnamon roll, he finds the baker’s wife distraught – Juniper is missing! This sends Sir Violet on a quest for not only the missing baker, but a few other things he didn’t know he was missing.

The Dragon of Ynys by Minerva Cerridwen.

I bought this book entirely because of a post; I didn’t realize the age level until it crossed my feed. Not that this is only for kids, it’s especially written as All Ages – a rare find!

Much like the dragon, I’m a collector, only my hoard is books. I like the collection to fit together in various pleasing ways and am always looking for new releases that fit categories seldom seen in diverse MG fantasy. Three areas have been elusive -stories set in South America or Australia, LGBTQ+ representation, and indigenous stories. We are finally seeing movement on the latter two, so I have high hopes for more English-language South American MG fantasy in the next five years.

I was initially disappointed at the length. The main story is only 118 pages with generous spacing. MG fantasy novels (which this isn’t, but is the comparative genre I’ve been most heavily immersed in lately) tend to run longer, so on my first reading this was at the back of my mind… until the fairly detailed back matter. Knowing that the $13 list price goes towards fair payment for editors, sensitivity readers, and others made me much happier about the price versus length.

Although the book is smaller, it’s well formatted. The cover, while not especially exciting, conveys the gist and is nicely laid out. Simple works better than wrong! As someone who personally and professionally handles dozens to hundreds of books daily, I can tell it’s not from a mainstream publisher – but nowadays well made titles aren’t obviously POD to most casual readers.

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Review: Dragon Steel

“It had grown so wild that what had once been neat, orderly arrangements of coral and anemones were now as wild a tangle as any sea reef; but that gave us plenty of hiding places.” page 101

Dragon Steel (Dragon Quartet #2) by Laurence Yep.
HarperTrophy, HarperCollins, New York, originally published 1985, my edition 1993.
MG fantasy, 276 pages.
Lexile: 800L .
AR Level: 5.8 (worth 8.0 points) .
NOTE: This review will contain spoilers for the previous book.

Exiled princess Shimmer and the Thorn by her side continue their quest to restore the lost dragon sea, although it’s a more complicated task than they first believed.

Dragon Steel by Laurence Yep.

As I was reading this, I couldn’t help thinking that it was everything I wanted from The Dragon Egg Princess, although this series was published long before and now out of print. The very 1990s covers are starting to grow on me – while definitely dated and not of any interest to my own children, they do accurately depict characters and scenes from the books. I also am easily impressed by pre 2010 books with openly diverse covers.

In this volume we are still following Shimmer and Thorn, and several characters from the previous book are around too, but there’s a different focus. Civet is no longer the main villain and what they’re up against now is much trickier. We find out more about what happened to Shimmer’s people after their homeland was lost and finally get to meet some other dragons.

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Review: Dragon Pearl

“Cautiously, I nudged both of them with Charm. If they detected that I was a fox and ratted me out, I’d be toast.” page 93

Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee.
Riordan Presents, Disney Hyperion, New York, 2019, my edition 2020.
MG speculative fiction, 312 pages.
Lexile: 780L .
AR Level: 5.9 (worth 13.0 points) .

Min Kim is stuck on the un-terraformed planet of Jinju with her family, pretending to be human, performing an endless cycle of dreary chores, and waiting for the day she turns 15 and can join her brother in the Space Forces and finally see the world. Then a stranger arrives saying Jun is a deserter who left to search for the fabled Dragon Pearl, which 200 years ago was supposed to transform Jinju.

Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee.

My absolute favorite part of this entire story is that it’s assumed that space will be dominated by Asian culture, in the way that so very many speculative fiction authors have constantly assumed white dominance. Lee never explains away the setting, although he does keep it readable for all. I loved details like not looking a superior directly in the eye and larger worldbuilding aspects, like how important gi and meridians are in ship design and maintenance.

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Review: Dragon of the Lost Sea

“But to my annoyance, he did not seem in the least bit frightened. In fact, I seemed to amuse him – just as an elderly, eccentric aunt might have.” p110

Dragon of the Lost Sea by Laurence Yep.
Charlotte Zolotow, HarperTrophy, HarperCollins, my edition 1988, originally published 1982.
MG fantasy, 214 pages.
Lexile: 830L .
AR Level: 5.8 (worth 6.0) .
NOTE: First of a quartet, see review for the relationship this has with other Yep books.

An unremarkable human boy with a generous spirit and a magical dragon princess team up on a quest for revenge and restoration that doesn’t go how either of them expect.

Dragon of the Lost Sea is the first volume in Laurence Yep’s classic middle grade fantasy quartet.

This was one of those Yep books that always gave me a pause since his books with Dragon in the title could be either fantasy or historical fiction. Thankfully, this one has a dragon front and center on the cover, so it’s pretty clear that it’s a fantasy novel – which is probably also why I’d never read it before, since most Yep books I read were in order to catalog them properly.

Yep opens with the main viewpoint character as an elderly, impoverished woman traveling a beaten, broken down land, who smells something strange in a small village. It’s pretty clear within a few chapters that this is going to be high fantasy, and I am excited. We meet the main character Thorn, about whom several things will seem very obvious to experienced or adult readers and probably less so to the intended middle grade audience.

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Review: Secret of the Blue Glass

“Every day you should fill this glass with milk and put it on the windowsill for them. You mustn’t forget now. The Little People cannot live unless humans do this for them.” page 15

The Secret of the Blue Glass by Tomiko Inui, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori.
Pushkin Children’s Books, London, UK, 2015.
Historical fantasy, 188 pages.
Not leveled.
NOTE: Reviewing the 2015 translation of a 1959 Japanese novel.

Although the little people first came to Japan in the 1890s, this unique story covers the time from 1913 until World War II when they were in the care of the Moriyama family.

The Secret of the Blue Glass by Tomiko Inui, translated by Ginny Tapely Takemori.

I finished my first read-through thinking I must review this, and immediately after wondered how I was possibly going to review it. How does one review a book they personally loved, but know won’t work for everyone?

When reviewing books for this blog, I do my best to consider the book through multiple lenses. I adored this book and sincerely hope more of this Inui’s books are translated. But… I can also see why other people might not adore it.

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Review: Xander & Lost Island of Monsters

“There must be a logical explanation for all of this. I just don’t know what it is yet.” page 57

Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters (Momotaro #1) by Margaret Dilloway, illustrated by Choong Yoon.
Disney Hyperion, New York, 2016.
MG fantasy, 310 pages.
Lexile: not leveled.
AR Level: 3.9 (worth 10.0 points) .

Xander Musashi Miyamoto is your average 6th grader – obsessed with video games, could care less about his homework project on climate change. Also latest in a long line of Momotaros – with a life-or-death quest. As the smallest boy in his class, it’s a good thing his best friend was around when the magic hit – Xander will need all the help he can get.

Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters (Momotaro #1) by Margaret Dilloway, illustrated by Choong Yoon.

Xander is biracial white/Asian, and Dilloway specifies both. I was intrigued to see how his Ainu heritage would play out. Indigenous people of Japan, Ainu are even today subject to racism, cultural appropriation, and suppression. His father’s Ainu/Japanese family could be mixed, but if they teach him he’s part Ainu, presumably they’d retain other cultural markers too. Although today considered white, Irish Americans like his mother were once a hated minority.

People remark on Xander’s ethnicity, from a mean classmate to overheard remarks from his best friend’s father and even his own grandmother’s suggestion that his powers will be completely different because he’s biracial. Xander also remarks specifically on the lack of a local Asian community. I wondered why his father chose to stay in the San Diego suburbs and how the local university supported an Asian mythology professor if his family are the only Asians there, but was mostly willing to accept the hand-wavy magic of it.

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Review: Kiki’s Delivery Service

“After exchanging goodbye after goodbye, Kiki hung her radio from the front of her broom, sat Jiji on the back, and jumped on.” page 23

Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono, translated by Emily Balistrieri, illustrated by Yuta Onoda.
Delacorte Press, Penguin Random House, New York, 2020.
MG fantasy, 196 pages.
Lexile: 670L .
AR Level: 5.1 (worth 7.0 points) .
*at the time of this writing, the AR page included both the 2003 and 2020 translations although they are substantially different, so it may change.
NOTE: Reviewing the 2020 translation of a Japanese novel.

Kiki is a young girl coming of age – the only child of a witch and a human folklorist. She’s decided to follow her mother’s traditions and become a witch herself, which means leaving her parents for a witchless town at 13.

Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono, 2020 edition illustrated by Yuta Onoda and translated from Japanese by Emily Balistieri.

This book is the story of Kiki’s first year and reads almost like interconnected short stories. Most chapters are episodic and self-contained, although they do all build to a final end. I haven’t yet watched the popular animated film of the same title. While the two bear many elements in common, reviews indicate that the movie has significant differences from the book (like many Miyazaki films), so I’ve waited to see the animated version.

Although this story is about a girl going from 12 to 14, it’s incredibly wholesome and would make a lovely family read-aloud. In Kiki’s world, witches and humans live alongside one another peacefully and share similar concerns. Kiki quietly refuses to do anything against her morals, but also isn’t perfect – snooping in a package when her curiosity overcomes her, interrupting an old lady who speaks slowly, and speaking sharply to irritating customers. Kadono balances on a fine line between innocence and realism without ever reminding the reader of this impressive tightrope act.

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Review: You Can Fly

“The sky’s no limit if you’ve flown / on your own power in countless dreams; / […] / not if you’ve gazed at stars / and known God meant for you to soar.” page 1

You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jeffery Boston Weatherford.
Atheneum Books for Young Readers Imprint, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2016.
Second person historical novel in verse, 80 pages including timeline and notes.
Lexile:  910L .
AR Level:  6.0 (worth 1.0 points) .
NOTE: I would consider this book for about 4th grade through adult reading.

This story told in the second person vividly delineates the journey of a black airman during WWII through sparse poems and black and white images based on historic photographs.

You Can Fly cover
You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jeffrey Boston Weatherford.

I did not expect to like this book.  A novel in verse – already something I feel ambiguous about.  Then you add the fact that this is in second person, which I tend to dislike even when it’s done well.  Finally, I was under the misapprehension that this was a work of non-fiction about the Tuskegee Airmen.

Yet this book which I should have disliked actually captivated me.

First, let’s discuss the illustrations.  There is one illustration on almost every other page.  A few are full page, but most are half or less.  They interact nicely with the text.  Some scratch into the page, and in other cases there’s white text on black background so the words flow into the illustration.  At a casual glance some of the illustrations look like photographs.

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Review: Zahrah the Windseeker

“Contrary to what a lot of people think, these vines didn’t sprout directly from my head. Instead, they were more like plants that had attached themselves to my hair as I grew inside my mother’s womb. Imagine that!” page vii

Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu.
Graphia, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, Massachusetts, 2005.
MG or YA fantasy (see review), 308 pages.
Lexile: 720L .
AR Level: 5.0 (worth 11.0 points) .

Zahrah Tsami was born dada, with vines that grow amongst her hair. She doesn’t spend time with anyone other than her family and her best friend Dari, a charismatic boy newly obsessed with the Forbidden Greeny Jungle that borders their town. For much of her life she’s kept to herself and quietly tried her best to fit in, but puberty brings many changes. Can Zahrah complete a dangerous quest that only she is suited for? Could she ever accept her own unique self?

Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu.

Every so often I come to this blog to look up a review and realize I never actually wrote one, as with this excellent Afrocentric fantasy novel for young readers which really should have been on my first diverse middle grade fantasy booklist, but will have to wait for the next one instead.

Classifying works by genre is something I probably spend too much time considering. It interests me personally and professionally, especially when there isn’t a clear answer. Zahrah the Windseeker definitely fits into a category – science fantasy. But that category doesn’t fall neatly on either side of the science fiction | fantasy divide!

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