Book Review: A String in the Harp

A String in the Harp by Nancy Bond was a rare case where I bought a book unread—unheard of, in fact, before finding it on the shelf. But it was at my library’s warehouse sale, and either I got it in a brown bag with a lot of other books, or I bought it for a dollar—I can’t remember anymore—so I was willing to risk it. The Newbery Honor medal and the Welsh setting seemed like good signs. And happily, it turned out to be well-worth the price!

The story is about an American family spending a year in Wales. Coping with their mother’s recent death, all three children—15 year old Jen, 10 year old Peter and 8 year old Becky—are all grieving in their own ways. Their father has retreated into his work, and Peter in particular is withdrawing from the family, angry and rebellious and fiercely hating this cold country his father took them to. Then Peter finds an ancient harp key, and through it begins to have visions of the ancient bard Taliesen, exploring Welsh history through his life. It’s not immediately clear whether this magic will draw Peter back towards his family, or only farther away.

This book had me engaged at the first glimpse of Wales—and the odd part is, I have no idea why! I’ve never been to Wales (apart from one train ride to and from the Doctor Who Experience, which doesn’t really count), I’ve never been especially interested in Wales, and the characters, initially, hate the place! And yet somehow, I immediately felt an incredible wistfulness for Wales. Continue reading “Book Review: A String in the Harp”

Book Review: Tom’s Midnight Garden

After reading the time-travel Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie, it made me want to go back to reread a very similar, classic time-travel story, Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pierce.  And maybe it’s just because I read it when I was a kid, or maybe it’s the style, but I found it to be delightful.

The story begins when Tom is sent away for the summer to his aunt and uncle’s house because his brother has the measles.  Tom misses his brother and hates his exile…until one night he hears the old grandfather clock downstairs striking thirteen.  Venturing downstairs and out the back door, Tom finds a wonderful garden, not at all like the dingy yard and crowded subdivision he knows surrounds his relatives’ house.  He visits the garden every night, where time seems to run differently and it’s always summer.  There he makes friends with a little girl named Hatty, and they explore the garden together.

This is in some ways a quiet book–there’s no big conflict, no huge obstacles to overcome, and no particular plot even.  It’s just a story about a boy who finds–and then fears losing–a magical place, and makes a dear friend along the way.  But the whole book is so whimsical and light and charming that I didn’t mind at all that there was nothing bigger at stake. Continue reading “Book Review: Tom’s Midnight Garden”

Down Time’s Rabbit Hole

I find time travel stories deeply intriguing–and Alice in Time by Penelope Bush promised an especially intriguing trip into the past.  Since the travel is facilitated by a magical merry-go-round, it’s solidly fantasy and suitable for Once Upon a Time.

Fourteen-year-old Alice hates her life–loudly and constantly.  She’s convinced that all her problems started from the birth of her younger brother, her mother’s post natal depression and her parents’ divorce soon after.  A spin on a merry-go-round sends her back seven years to just a few days before her brother was born.  She inhabits her younger body, while keeping her older memories.  Freaked out at first, Alice soon decides that this is her chance to change everything, saving her parents’ marriage and inflicting revenge on the girl who will bully her through middle school.

I was fascinated by the idea of going back into one’s own past, with the opportunity to relive life differently.  Doesn’t it make you think about what you’d do if you could go back into your own past?

Alice has definite plans, and one of the best parts of the book is Alice’s growing understanding of what really happened the first time around when she was seven.  As an older (and not emotionally-involved) reader, I saw very quickly what the real problems were in Alice’s family.  Within the first few chapters (pre-time travel), Alice’s father holds the reception for his second wedding at a pub, next to a bookie’s office, which probably tells you quite a lot too.

Even though I figured things out before Alice did, I believed in her blindness, and didn’t mind waiting for her evolving understanding.  There were also some nuances in her friendships that were, if not surprising exactly, interesting to watch unfold.

One of my favorite parts was watching how teenage Alice dealt with being seven again.  There were good things, like the closeness with her mother, and bad things, like the lack of freedom and control.  One of the sweetest parts of the book is when Alice gets to spend some time with her grandmother, who had died when Alice was eight.

I have to warn you that this book started a little slow for me–it’s a fast read overall, at a little over 200 pages, but it’s about 80 pages before Alice goes back in time, and I was starting to get impatient by that point.  It picked up a lot once the time travel came in, and became a very good read about family, friends and growing up…by being younger!

Author’s Site:

Other reviews:
Charlotte’s Library
Ms. Yingling Reads
Anyone else?

Buy it here: Alice in Time

A Magical Wall, and Magical Books

There are some definite Types of fantasy books–for instance, ordinary kids finding a magical item/creature, and then coping with the inevitable chaos that results.  Having read two books like that recently, I thought a combined review was in order!

Any Which Wall by Laurel Snyder features one of the odder magical items I’ve seen–a magical wall.  Henry, Emma, Roy and Susan (two sets of siblings) find the Wall out in a cornfield, and discover that they can use it to wish themselves to any other wall.  They find their way into adventures with Merlin, pirates and cowboys, though nothing is ever quite what they expect.

This is a clear descendent of the Edward Eager books–even including some references back (which is particularly fun because Eager always included references to his inspiration, E. Nesbit).  It’s a light book with somewhat low-key adventures, good for a younger reading audience.  Nothing is ever too scary or too big a disaster, though the kids do encounter plenty of things that don’t go as they anticipate.  That may be my favorite part, as they find out that their ideas of history are not carried out by the reality.

I did think there were a couple of lost opportunities where a little more danger and tension could have been pursued.  Their first encounter Guinevere sets her up as seriously creepy…and then that never goes anywhere.  I also thought they took the convenience of the magic a bit for granted.  The first time they use the magic to leave their own town, they don’t have any evidence about how the magic works to get back.  It turns out they can leave by the wall they came by, so to speak, but they hadn’t tested that before landing in Camelot–and the whole thing seemed much riskier to me than it did to any of them!

I have a feeling I would have liked this a lot as a kid.  As an adult, I wanted a little bit more…but maybe that wouldn’t have been right for the book after all!  And for the Type of book it is, it’s excellent.  The kids are likable, the adventures are fun, and they learn some good if not terribly complex lessons in the process of the magic adventures.

There’s also something I like about visiting Anytown in Anytime.  All these magical-item stories seem to be set in the same nice little town where kids ride bikes in the summer (except when they’re set in London), in a vague time period.  This one was more modern than Eager’s books; I think I remember a cell phone or two.  You know what really made it seem modern though?  At one point a father was preparing dinner.  I feel like that wouldn’t have happened in a book fifty years ago… 🙂

Magical Mischief by Anna Dale takes some twists on the usual Type.  It’s set in a city in England (though not actually London) and centers around a magical bookshop.  Magic takes up residence in Hardbattle Books, and despite the inconvenience (and the smell), Mr. Hardbattle doesn’t have the heart to force it out.  But it’s bad for business and rent is due, so he has to find a new home for it.  He joins forces with Arthur Goodenough, a boy just looking for somewhere quiet to do his homework, and Miss Quint, who’s mostly in search of company.

The magic here has some particularly entertaining features, like bringing a stuffed elephant and the black cat bookends to life, or turning one of the steps on the stairs into custard when it’s feeling rebellious.  Or there’s the pushpins that dance around and occasionally attack…  It also grants wishes in an unpredictable fashion, spurring my favorite thread of the book–Miss Quint gets lonely, and starts wishing characters out of their books.

Now–if you found out you could do that, I bet most of you know exactly what characters you’d bring out for a tea party, right?  I would know!  Miss Quint, on the other hand, picks up books at random and looks for interesting people, which seems like rather a waste of an opportunity.  However, the plot goes in exciting directions because of it, so I’ll forgive her…mostly.  Especially because her random choices brings out Susan, a girl whose only role in her book was to wait by the swings, but in the real world she grows into so much more.  I loved watching her development as a person.

This book has some good humor in it, and a more focused plot.  It’s also unusual to see a kids book with two adults as major characters; Mr. Hardbattle and Miss Quint were both distinctive and engaging.

If you like a particular Type of fantasy book, I would recommend either of these two! 🙂

Authors’ Sites:

Other reviews:

Any Which Wall
Charlotte’s Library (where I found out about both books, thank you!)
Jen Robinson’s Book Page
Reading Kids Are Dreaming Kids

Magical Mischief
Charlotte’s Library
Midleton and Fermoy Books

Anyone else?

Buy them here: Any Which Wall and Magical Mischief

Meeting a Ghost Girl Through a Twist in Time

Twist in TimeBetween Narnia, Bloody Jack, Doctor Who and Agatha Christie, I seem to listen to a lot of audiobooks with British narrators.  This is not a problem!  The trend continued, more or less by accident, when I pulled A Twist in Time by Jean Ure off the shelf at the library.

Cosy (Cosima) has her life turn upside down when her emotionally fragile mother has to go into hospital, and Cosy is sent to a foster family.  Quiet, introspective Cosy finds herself overwhelmed by the new house and new family, especially the boisterous girls Jade and Gemma.  A new school and challenges with maths [sic] doesn’t help.  Her one consolation is when she begins seeing a “ghost girl” in her room; Kathleen had the same room in the 1940s and, by reading her journal, Cosy realizes that Kathleen is seeing a “ghosty-person” too.

With lots of British slang or wording (like “maths” and “hospital” without “the” before it) this has a very strong British atmosphere that, for me, helped bring Cosy’s world to life.  I expected the book to focus mostly on the ghost girl element, so I was surprised by how much it focused on Cosy’s present-day situation–but that was vivid and meaningful so even though it might not have drawn me to pick up the book to begin with, it ended up being a powerfully engaging story.

I always enjoy stories about shy heroines who have to find their courage, and Cosy is an excellent character of that type.  She has particular nuances and complexities through her relationship with her mother, and her conflict between wanting to fit in with wild Jade and Gemma, and wanting to do well at school to keep her scholarship.  Cosy struggles with her identity and her relationships, a story told in a very moving way.  The situation with her mother is also delicately handled, revealing details slowly at the beginning of the book, and finally exploring more of that relationship through a fictional story Cosy writes.

The ghost girl has her own story, which we catch glimpses of.  Even though she wasn’t as prominent an element as I expected, she added some interest to the story as well.  There are also some subtle indications that seeing the ghost girl is doing more for Cosy than it appears on the surface.  The obvious surface help the ghost girl provides is to help Cosy with her maths–which is sending Cosy into fits of crying and frustration.

I do remember how life-and-death homework could feel at eleven years old (especially since Cosy worries about losing her scholarship) but at the same time it occasionally feels overdramatic.  However, I’m inclined to believe that maths is not really maths, and Cosy’s tears, while set off by algebra, are more about her larger situation.  From that perspective, the whole thing makes more emotional sense, and the ghost girl’s role has far more meaning.

I was impressed especially by the audiobook reading as well, done by Kim Hicks.  Though everyone sounds British, Hicks gives different accents to different characters.  It’s not taken to an exaggerated extreme, but Cosy (who’s teased about talking posh) does sound different than her working-class foster parents.  In fact, Auntie sounds remarkably like Jackie from Doctor Who, which makes a good deal of sense!

If you enjoy a bit of British flavor, a shy heroine and just a little magic (or is it science fiction?) then I definitely recommend this story.

Author’s Site:

Other reviews:
Tara Calaby
That was all!  Anyone else?

Buy it here: A Twist In Time

Walking Ankh-Morpork with Sam Vimes–Both of Him

I wanted to read some new Discworld books this summer, but I’ve also been meaning to re-read Night Watch.  This was the first proper Discworld book I ever read.  Technically I read Maskerade first, but I read it as a Phantom parody, paid no attention to the larger context, and despite madly loving it, I was somehow not inspired to go on to the rest of the series (can’t quite explain that).

So Night Watch is where it really started for me.  I don’t recommend anyone else start here, as it makes absolutely no sense as a place to begin.  More on that in a bit.

The book focuses almost exclusively on Sam Vimes, who remains my favorite Discworld character.  He’s the head of Ankh-Morpork’s City Guard, and has been instrumental in making them into the force they are today (and weren’t a few books earlier).  While attempting to apprehend a serial killer, Vimes is caught in a freak storm above the Library of Unseen University, where the wizards reside.

Vimes and the killer are thrown thirty years back in time.  Due to complications and wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey technobabble, Vimes ends up taking the place of the copper who taught a young Sam Vimes how to be a copper–so it all becomes rather circular and you can’t think about it too hard (Vimes tries not to).  If mentoring his younger self while keeping an eye out for that killer on the loose isn’t enough, Ankh-Morpork of the past isn’t the comparatively well-ordered place of today.  Corruption is rife, plots are afoot, and a revolution is in the making.  Vimes remembers how it all came out, but there’s no guarantee things can’t change, wiping out his own future.

It’s a slightly complicated plot, but somehow it works right along while you’re actually reading it.  I think that was true the first time I read it too.  I liked it even better on a re-read, because I knew who everyone was.  Part of the fun of the book is seeing recognizable characters when they were much younger.  Nobby Nobs is a street urchin (and as ugly as ever), Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler has yet to acquire his trademark phrase, and Vetinari is still in Assassin School.  None of that means anything without reading other books, which is why it makes no sense to start here (funny how that’s always a topic when discussing Discworld, and so rarely one for any other series!)

I can even argue that you get an extra layer if you read later books first.  The narration keeps referring to Vimes’ younger self as “Young Sam.”  In the present-day portion, Vimes’ wife is very pregnant, and in later books we see that their son is called (wait for it) Young Sam.  So there’s definitely a father theme going on that becomes much clearer when familiar with later books.  Discworld is so sequentially confused.

The best thing about Night Watch is that you get to see Vimes at his Vimesest.  He’s a copper and he’s tough and he’s practical.  He doesn’t seem to believe much in honor, while being very honorable.  He believes in Law and he believes his job is to keep the peace and protect the ordinary man–while having no illusions about the nobility of your typical Ankh-Morporkian.  He’s the kind of man who doesn’t fight a mob or yell them into submission.  He steps out in front of the mob, lights a cigar, asks if they’re having a pleasant night and would they like to step into the Watch House for some cocoa, and if not they really ought to go on home, it’s getting cold.  And it works.

Vimes understands Ankh-Morpork and its people, he knows the streets and he knows the crowds and he can handle all of it.  I love this book because we get to see all of this.  In some of the earlier books, Vimes is still evolving.  Some of the later ones deal more with politics, and the most recent, Snuff, takes him out of Ankh-Morpork (which was a mistake, I think, and though I like the book I’ve just now realized this is why it wasn’t better than it was).

Night Watch is set in a different time so a lot of regulars and recurring characters aren’t in it.  But that’s actually okay, because the result is that we get lots of Vimes instead.

My conclusion is, don’t start here, because significant portions won’t mean anything.  But if you’ve read any City Guard books to give you context and if you like Vimes, this is a particularly magnificent installment in the series.  It’s definitely one of my favorites.

Author’s Site:

Other reviews:
Ritual of the Stones
Puss Reboots
Sandstorm Reviews
Anyone else?

Through a Maze, into the Past

Some books seem to make the rounds of all the blogs I follow.  That’s what brought me to The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman.  So many bloggers loved it, I couldn’t resist giving it a read.  And I did enjoy it, largely for reasons that other people mentioned too…and I had a few reservations.  More on those in a bit!

The book is about Sophie Fairchild Martineau, thirteen years old and living in the American South during the 1950s, just as the Civil Rights movement is starting to take shape.  She’s bookish and awkward and doesn’t know how to be the proper, refined Southern lady her mother wants her to be.  Her mother has never forgotten that their family used to be wealthy plantation owners, before the Civil War.  Sophie is sent to spend the summer with her grandmother and aunt on what’s left of the family land, and wanders into the Maze, a labyrinth of hedges and paths.  She meets a strange Creature, and makes a wish…only to find herself back in 1860, where her Fairchild ancestors assume that this tanned, unkempt child must be a slave.

There’s a lot to love in this book, starting with Sophie.  I already loved her by the bottom of Page One.  She reminds me of Sym from The White Darkness, so obviously a thoughtful, lovely girl who’s being told by the people around her that there’s something wrong with her.  I love that Sophie likes to read–and she and I seem to have read all the same books!  It’s so much fun to have a heroine who has read Edith Nesbit and Edward Eager, and knows how this sort of adventure is supposed to go.  She knows the rules about wishes and magic creatures and native guides…but then nothing goes the way she expects.

I was so interested in Sophie and her family dynamics and life in the 1950s that I was almost disappointed when she went into the past.  But the family dynamics and the life in the 1860s turned out to be very interesting too.  The handling of the master/slave situation was fascinating.  The Fairchilds (with the exception of a very nasty daughter) are not cruel people, but they are slaveowners.  Through a combination of obliviousness, delegation of discipline, and a conviction of how the world is meant to be, they fully believe in their own goodness.  And in a way they are “good masters”–but that doesn’t mean the slaves are happy.  Neither are they desperately miserable in the day-to-day.  Sherman walks a narrow line to avoid falling into stereotypes in either direction, while vividly portraying the culture of the white society, and the community of the slaves.

Sophie is mistaken for the daughter of one of the men in the family, who’s currently living in New Orleans.  She has the Fairchild nose and tan skin from being in the sun, and so must be the offspring of a white master and his African slave–which makes her a slave too.  This was one of the most intriguing and disturbing aspects of the story.  I’ve certainly been familiar with the concept before, but I don’t think I had ever seen it brought to life.  Everyone, white and black alike, believes that Sophie is related by blood to the white family, but she’s still classed and treated as a slave.

Sophie meets many wonderful people, particularly among the other slaves, and somehow those characters are growing on me more as I get farther out from the book.  Strange!  The book takes on the feel of historical fiction the longer Sophie spends in the past, and I liked learning more about life in the time, though to some extent this was a more academic than emotional interest.

As interesting as it all was, it also began to feel somewhat purposeless.  It’s suggested, very clearly, that Sophie has been sent into the past for a reason, to do something.  I had to wait most of the book for any hint of what that might be, and at times I felt as though I was waiting for the main story to get going.  Sophie does ultimately end up helping another character in an important way, but the character wasn’t previously significant, and I didn’t have much reason to care.  If that was the whole point of it all…I could appreciate it from a humanitarian standpoint, but it didn’t have much emotional resonance for me.

The other point, I’m sure, was for Sophie to grow, to find a new view on the world, and to find the strength to seize her own freedom.  And I love that in theory…but in practice that aspect felt a bit rushed.

This book does many wonderful things–the way it does them doesn’t always feel quite as wonderful as they might have been.  But don’t let that dissuade you!  It is an enjoyable, fascinating book.  It takes what feels like a very familiar setting, finds new angles, and is thoroughly thought-provoking!

Author’s Site:

Other Reviews:
Stainless Steel Droppings
Charlotte’s Library
Stella Matutina
Anyone else?