“One melancholy voice rose in the air and he smiled. It was his mum, singing a sad sea ballad, one that she had sung to him when he was a child, and he knew the tune well” page 25
Gloom Town by Ronald L. Smith. Clarion, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York 2020. MG fantasy, 274 pages. Lexile: 650L . AR Level: 4.7 (worth 7.0 points) .
Rory’s mother has two jobs, is taking as much extra work as she can, and living cheaply, but they still have simply run out of money. With the landlord taking their last cash and still threatening eviction, it’s clear that the only choice left is for Rory to work – but town rules won’t allow him in a seafaring job for another two years. So when a position at Lord Foxglove’s creepy mansion is advertised, he doesn’t see any option but landing the position, even if it turns out to be not quite what he thinks.
I’ve reviewed just one of Smith’s books before, Hoodoo. That one takes place in the American South in the 1930s, so I was mildly surprised, and impressed, to find that this book takes place in an atmospheric near-Britain seaside town in a vaguely Victorian (but more progressive) time. Most of the women in this novel work in some form or another. Some wear skirts while others choose pants, and women are aboard ships at the harbor. In fact, while Rory is certainly capable himself, his friend rescues him from physical danger multiple times, in a pleasant turn on the normal damsel in distress storyline.
Smith has certainly worked out the bumps in his writing now – this is his fifth novel, and clearly I need to go back and read the other three. His format here is many relatively short chapters, exactly the style my sons most enjoy. While some segments understandably have more action than others, none felt slow or irrelevant.
“The Ironmonger was speaking, and his voice was deep and rich and bitter. ‘It took fighting against the States to be able to walk free. Is it so different a place now that I ought to forgive it after so short a time? To say nothing of binding myself to it.’ ” page 30
Bluecrowne by Kate Milford, illustrated by Nicole Wong. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2018. MG/YA fantasy adventure, 262 pages + excerpt. Lexile: 840L . AR Level: 5.9 (worth 10.0 points) .
Melusine Bluecrowne, or Lucy for short, is going to be grounded. As much as she loves her half-brother and stepmother, she’s always imagined a life on board her father’s privateer (aka letter-of-marque), not living ashore, no matter how grand their new home appears.
Sutler Foulk Trigemine is in 1810 Nagspeake to see about several matters of business for his boss Morvengarde, one of which is the collection of a specially gifted conflagrationist. Meanwhile young Liao Bluecrowne is fascinated by fire and can create fireworks like nobody’s ever seen…
I debated reviewing this. Full disclosure – it’s not really diverse. The author is white and so are both of the main characters, and while there are important secondary characters of color, Milford’s AU world is, at least at this time and place, mostly white. Greenglass House has the same conditions except the main character is an Asian domestic transracial adoptee, which put that book firmly within the scope of this blog. This book is more diverse-adjacent, which is okay but I just wanted my readers to be forewarned.
“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.
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.
“But maybe her mother was right, and everything would be okay. It wasn’t a given that she would get mender’s disease. // Then again, it wasn’t a given that she wouldn’t.” page 69
Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly, illustrated by Lian Cho.
Greenwillow Books, HarperCollins, New York, 2019.
MG fantasy, 390 pages.
Lexile: 600L .
AR Level: 4.4 (worth 7.0 points) .
Sanlagita is a cursed isle, with harsh conditions and strict predetermined roles. The only festival left is Sailing Day, a time of fear as the strongest Sanlagitans are sent to certain death. But now a drought is changing things on the island for the worse.
This book reminded me of nothing so much as Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. Although the story and flavor are quite different, Kelly also uses the device of stories within a longer story to great effect. The stories are short and set off from the main text by the use of a different font and a decorative border around the margins.
“Kinchen pursed her lips, thinking. She never told anyone about Pip’s strangeness with people; not wanting anyone to make fun of her brother, she covered up for him.” page 61
A Crack in the Sea by H. M. Bouwman, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu.
Puffin Books, Penguin Random House, New York, 2017.
MG fantasy, 360 pages + excerpt.
Lexile: 740L .
AR Level: 5.1 (worth 11.0 points) .
A layered fantasy draws together a 1781 slave ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean, a Vietnamese refugee boat in the South China Sea in 1978, and two very different groups in a magical place the inhabitants think of as the Second World.
I had seen this book even before writing my diverse fantasy booklist, but hesitated to read it as I was nervous. A fantasy story that blends African and Vietnamese and English and different worlds and time periods and difficult topics all into a readable middle grade novel? Many books struggle to do one of those and this was written by a white woman, so I was dubious.
But when I got to the sentence “Old Ren coughed, his unusually pale face even whiter than usual” I breathed a sigh of relief. So many authors make the error of describing the race of characters of color only, that to see a white person’s skin described is a benchmark for baseline acceptability.
“Another world’s accomplishment was done and finished, and as in the past, from the beginning of history, wherever the world’s work was done by a white man, he had been accompanied by a colored man.” page 136
A Negro Explorer at the North Pole by Matthew Henson, forward by Matthew E. Peary and introduction by Booker T. Washington.
Frederick A. Stokes Company, New York, 1912.
Available online at www.gutenberg.org/files/20923/20923-h/20923-h.htm
Accessed in September 2017.
Nonfiction, 200 pages.
Matthew Henson was the black man who accompanied Peary on most of his expeditions, including to the North Pole. He received scant notice from the white people of the time, but his life story was very much in demand among African-Americans. Eventually he used his journals from the trip to write this book.
The book is a curious mix of direct entries from Henson’s journals, summations of journal entries, and his direct writing covering periods of time when he couldn’t write or adding information he felt was helpful.
Racism is very present in this book. For the most part, this is overt, although it does come out more blatantly. There are two main forms of racism present – against African-Americans, and against Native Americans.