“Haroun noticed that old General Kitab himself, mounted on a winged mechanical horse very like Bolo’s, was flitting from Barge-Bird to Barge-Bird to keep in touch with the various discussions; and such was the freedom evidently allowed to the Pages and other citizens of Gup, that the old General seemed perfectly happy to listen to these tirades of insults and insubordination without batting an eyelid.” page 119
Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie. Granta Books London, Penguin Books, New York, originally published 1990, my edition 1991. MG fantasy, 216 pages. Lexile: 940L . AR Level: 6.9 (worth 7.0 points) . NOTE: This is longer than my usual review, as I had much to say about this book. The final paragraphs will contain content warnings and my overall thoughts as usual.
Twelve year old Haroun’s father has fallen into a pit of deep despair and he himself can’t focus for longer than eleven minutes at a time. This causes a problem when Rashid Kalifa the Ocean of Notions is expected to speak at a politician’s rally and can’t perform. Catching a Water Genie uninstalling the tap from the Sea of Stories makes Haroun question if his father’s stories might actually have an element of truth to them, and he is determined to set his family right.
I wanted to love this book but did not. Rushdie has good elements in an increasingly frustrating telling. The Biggest Thing for me, this Reviewer, were the Lots of Unnecessary Capitals (LUC) and the Frequency of Pointless, Unclear, Initialisms (FoPUI). Was that sentence nearly unreadable for you? Now imagine an entire book. If I wanted all the nouns to be capitalized, I would read it in German.
It was difficult to finish this book because of the random unneeded capitalizations in particular. If I had not already purchased this and the sequel, I would probably have given up. Eventually I pushed through by rewarding myself with a different book after every two chapters read. It is one of the few fiction books reviewed here that I have not fully read twice.
“Looking back, Buzz probably should have just owned up to the fact that he hadn’t written the blasted thing. Couldn’t be bothered to write it, because mythology was such a momentous waste of time.” page 14
Secrets of Valhalla by Jasmine Richards. Harper, HarperCollins, New York, 2016. MG fantasy, 312 pages + excerpt. Lexile: 690L . AR Level: 4.9 (worth 10.0 points) .
It’s yet another unpleasant Friday the 13th for Buzz, getting bullied by Theo, trying to hang out with his best friend Sam, and meeting a new kid, American Mary, thanks to his sister. But when Buzz and Mary find a famous missing weatherwoman magically tied to a tree in the woods, they tumble in to a Norse god adventure with portals and time loops, talking squirrels and ancient runes. Oh, and the end of their world as they know it, of course.
There are some diverse MG fantasy books that have been on my radar for a while, but are just too new or old, either too far out of print for me to easily get, or so recently released that they are only available in hardcover and have a long list of library holds. If there’s one I haven’t even heard of, usually it’s not a good fit because neither the main characters nor the author are diverse or if they are, the book isn’t that great and I don’t feel comfortable recommending it.
So, when I discover a new-to-me series by a Black British author of diverse MG fantasy and get the first book and it’s perfectly written, I am beyond excited! Not only do I get to recommend Jasmine Richards to all of you, I also have two more books by her to read (and hopefully more if she continues to write).
“Aru held her breath as the familiar weightless sensation of the portals swept through her.” page 50
Aru Shah and the Tree of Wishes (Pandava #3) by Roshani Chokshi. Rick Riordan Presents, Disney Hyperion, New York, 2020. MG fantasy, 386 pages including back matter. Lexile: 760L . AR Level: 5.4 (worth 13.0 points) . NOTE: This review will contain spoilers for previous books in the series.
Aru and company manage to flub their mission to protect two targets and receive a prophecy, only to find that the targets are twin sisters and their last remaining Pandava siblings. Moreover, the prophecy has a line about one sister being untrue which has everyone second guessing each other and allows the Sleeper to sow dissension among the group. Aru believes the only way to fix this mess is to find Kalpavriksha, the wish-granting tree from the Ocean of Milk. She’ll need her allies both old and new to surmount this new quest!
I was not prepared for this to include foster children. Granted, some aspects of care are different in the magical world of the Pandavas, but that still was something I hadn’t seen in other reviews before reading this for myself. While it didn’t quite match with the logistical details of real-life foster care, the emotional aspects rang true, and I was willing to forgive some magical hand-waving here. In particular, the backstory about Nikita’s love for fashion and their parents leaving them in care to protect them were especially moving.
The twins are Guyanese – open for a wide variation in appearance, but they are described as Black and blue-eyed. The official illustrations are lighter than I’d imagined from the text. Nikita has plant-based powers, while prophetess Sheela is simpler and more sensitive. The girls are only ten, so even when officially recognized by their godly ‘fathers,’ they don’t receive weapons. Instead each gets a choker necklace (Sheela a silver star, Nikita a green heart) which serves as a tracking device and placeholder. Chokshi’s attempts to include such a wide variety of representation for Indian-Americans with various cultural backgrounds and family situations are welcome and well-done.
“King Bheema was a kind and just ruler. Every day he held court at the palace. Rich or poor, tall or short, man or woman – anyone could walk in with a problem.” page 1
Mangoes, Mischief, and Tales of Friendship: Stories from India by Chitra Soundar, illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy.
My edition Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA, 2019.
MG fiction, 180 pages.
Lexile: 600L .
AR Level: 4.4 (worth 3.0) .
NOTE: this is a compilation of two books:
> A Dollop of Ghee and a Pot of Wisdom (2010)
> A Jar of Pickles and a Pinch of Justice (2016)
Prince Veera and his best friend Suku decide to hold court and resolve disputes when his father King Bheema is not available in this collection of eight interconnected short stories.
I came across this charming book looking for our next family read-alouds after we finished the Anna Hibiscus series. Since there are only two volumes, the American publisher has decided to combine them into one book. It was considerably cheaper to purchase the collected hardcover volume than to buy the two paperbacks separately, although I’m not sure how much that has to do with import costs.
“Yolanda squeezed Rosalind Franklin to her chest and nuzzled her nose in the dog’s fur. She was not going to get rid of her dog, and she and Sonja were not going to foster care. There was no way she was going to let any of that happen.” page 59
Into the Tall, Tall Grass by Loriel Ryon. Margaret K. McElderry Books, Simon & Schuster Children’s, New York, 2020. MG fantasy, 330 pages. Lexile: 660L . AR Level: not yet leveled.
All the women in Yolanda’s family have some sort of magical gift, including her twin sister, but not her. Her father is away in the military, she’s become estranged from her best friend and her twin, her grandfather has died, and her ailing grandmother asks Yolanda to take her to the only pecan tree left standing on their property after the grass starts growing taller and taller…
Occasionally I run into a book that seems to be severely underhyped. Sometimes, like with The Secret of the Blue Glass, I can look objectively at the book and see why it might have trouble finding an audience or why it might not appeal to everyone even if I personally loved it. Others I can’t understand why it hasn’t been popular! My only thinking for this one is 2020, or perhaps that some readers disliked the lesbian aspect which is not immediately apparent.
I’ve written about “diverse-adjacent” books before; this one is more stealth diverse. The cover is gorgeous and represents the characters well, but even reading the synopsis, other than the names Yolanda Rodriguez-O’Connell and Wela, nothing that stands out as Latina, and particularly not LGBTQ.
“Better to be brought up on charges for excessive force – or worse- than give someone the benefit of the doubt and be carried out in a coffin. I began waking up in the middle of the night, second-guessing everything I did on the job.” page 125
The Gift of Our Wounds: A Sikh and a Former White Supremacist Find Forgiveness After Hate by Arno Michaelis and Pardeep Singh Kaleka with Robin Gaby Fisher. St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2018. Adult nonfiction, 222 pages. Not leveled. NOTE: This book, and therefore the discussion of it in this review, contain numerous triggers. Please be aware and skip this review if needed. 2nd NOTE: Also this review is longer than usual because my own mental and emotional health made it difficult to edit.
The story of a former white supremacist whose words inspired the Sikh temple shooter and a man whose father was murdered in that shooting spree.
The book begins with acknowledgements and a prologue, followed by a chapter detailing the co-authors’ first meeting. The second chapter onward follow a more linear progression, starting with their childhoods, their high school and early adult life. At one point these two men lived only a short drive from each other, yet it took national headline level violence for their lives to converge.
Michaelis is very clear that his life was not especially full of hardships, that he was a normal, if somewhat wild, suburban boy. The stories about his recruitment to white supremacy through the punk rock scene (after an unfortunate incident turning him off of his earlier love of breakdancing) are almost as upsetting as his descriptions of acts of violence.
Then he attends a white supremacy “leadership camp” and is literally indoctrinated into the beliefs and recruitment system. He sees himself as doing good in the world even when literally beating someone. It’s stomach turning – this is not a book that can be read during lunch breaks or before bed.
“There are only so many years you can fool your friends – or yourself – into thinking you are a real Indian princess, banished from your fairy tale and hiding out in a suburban split-level in northern New Jersey. No matter what your crazy parents insist.” page 3
The Serpent’s Secret (Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond #1) by Sayantani Dasgupta, illustrated by Vivienne To. Scholastic, New York, 2018. MG fantasy, 358 pages. Lexile: 730L . AR Level: 5.2 (worth 10.0 points) .
Kiranmala is so over her parents’ stories and dressing up like “a real Indian princess” for every birthday – they’re already overprotective and weird, do they have to keep lying about a magical land too? Then they go missing, and a rakkhosh shows up at her house closely followed by two princes. Kiranmala will have to draw on every bit of help, magic, and story to figure out how to save her parents, herself, and maybe a few others too.
Dasgupta focuses on Bengali stories as her main inspiration, and it definitely gives the fantasy a fresh slant. But the writing truly brings two places to life – The Kingdom Beyond Seven Oceans and Thirteen Rivers and Kiranmala’s home in Parsippany, New Jersey – and while most of the magic happens in the Kingdom, Dasgupta manages to make New Jersey surprisingly compelling.
In particular, I was very impressed with the mix of science into the story. Science fiction and fantasy are distinct genres (along with horror and the less popular science fantasy) under the speculative fiction umbrella. Although a lot of people enjoy both, many readers don’t like to mix these two, especially in the MG range. Dasgupta takes an interesting approach – magic is fully magical and has its own internal logic, but science is also real and has parallels and applications within the story. Kiranmala discusses how astronomy and physics relate to her quest without ever losing the magic, thanks to a deft narrative hand.
“We’re almost the same shade of brown, but Aunty’s wrinkly skin is a bit darker than mine. I reach up and tug at one of the tightly coiled curls that frame her face.” page 23
The Dragon Thief by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Geneva B. Penguin Random House, New York, 2019. Elementary/MG fantasy, 170 pages. Lexile: 700L . AR Level: not yet leveled . NOTE: The review of this direct sequel contains spoilers for the ending of Dragons in a Bag.
Kavita has a dragon now, and Jaxon is desperate to get it back. But with Ma out of commission, Kavita gone missing, and a magical trickster interested in that dragon, it won’t be easy for the children or any of their new friends.
I was happy to see Kavita featured in this, but less thrilled about a novel in two voices. Regular readers will recall that multiple voice novels are not my favorite – too difficult to balance and often unwieldy. Luckily Elliott is strong enough to carry two voices.
Kavita considers her actions in the last book and feels remorse over stealing the baby dragon. Aunty sort of supplies the grandmotherly role in this book, although not a biological relative – she was Vik’s father’s ayah, or nanny, when he was growing up in India. As such, she’s able to give us a little bit of history – specifically about the Siddi people who were enslaved and brought to India. I had never heard of this and appreciated Elliott including it.
“Aru knew that not all parents stick around – not all can, for whatever reason. It isn’t the kid’s fault, and sometimes it isn’t even the parent’s, either.” page 306
Aru Shah and the Song of Death (Pandava Series #2) by Roshani Chokshi.
Rick Riordan Presents, Disney Hyperion, New York, 2019.
MG fantasy, 381 pages including glossary.
Lexile: 700L .
AR Level: 5.1 (worth 13.0 points) .
NOTE: This review contains spoilers for the previous book.
Aru Shah and her friend Mini are back – and need to clear Aru’s name quick after a thief wearing her form stole the god of love’s bow and arrows. In order to stop the thief’s horde of heartless zombies, they’ll have to team up with extra-strength Brynne and that unusual guy from across the street.
This installment of the Pandava series introduces two new characters, sidelines some who were main players in the first book (mostly Boo) and involves a lot of courtly intrigue.
The underworld apparently operates under the idea of guilty until proven innocent, so even though there’s a picture proving that a malicious doppelganger stole the bow and arrows, not Aru, she still has to quest to clear her name by finding the real thief and retrieving the stolen goods. Plus some of the people they’re battling have the favors of the gods, and Aru and friends don’t get extra help while they’re considered criminals.
“I stare at the box so my grandmother won’t see that I’m annoyed. People never expect a kid like me to know anything about anything. I’m used to it, but it still bothers me sometimes.” p. 9
Dragons in a Bag by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Geneva B
Penguin Random House, New York, 2018.
Elementary/MG fantasy, 154 pages.
Lexile: 740L .
AR Level: 4.7 (worth 4.0 points) .
It’s bad enough that Jaxon’s mother dropped him off with a stranger who she calls Ma, but then it turns out Ma is a real witch…
Zetta Elliott is finally getting some long-deserved recognition, and it’s nice to see her promoted through a major publisher. I’ve marked this book with both middle grade and elementary because it fits that tricky in-between stage. This is definitely interesting enough for MG readers, especially in the 4th to 6th range, but it’s also a book that you could read aloud to a much younger group, even as low as kindergarten. Continue reading “Review: Dragons in a Bag”