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West of the Moon by Margi Preus (2014)

West of the MoonA dense tome for middle grade children that deals with abandonment, abuse, greed, illness, illiteracy and poverty. Weaving fairy tale and folklore into a historical setting – similarly to Grace Lin but in a less structured fashion and with heavier themes – Preus tells the story of Astri and her younger sister, two girls effectively orphaned by the death of their mother and father who left them for America. Now in the care of their uncle, Astri and her sister are marginalized.

Then Astri is sold to a goat farmer named Mr. Svaalberd, she is worked to the bone, physically abused and almost sexually assaulted. Then Astri discovers Svaalberd has been keeping another girl, rumored to be a changeling, with a talent for weaving.

Eventually, Astri finds the courage to escape with the weaving girl, rescue her sister and leave for America. Along the way, she discovers family secrets, betrayals and the courage to cheat death and forge a new future herself and her sister. A well told tale.

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Julia’s House for Lost Creatures by Ben Hatke (10/2014)

Cover ImageCharmingly illustrated and begging to be read aloud. A great choice for your public library story time: a compassionate hostess, monster noises, problem solving, promotion of shared responsibility, and inclusion and acceptance of differences wrapped in a beautifully illustrated and imaginative tale (the house upon a turtle’s back and the fantastical whimsy reminded me of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies).

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The Stepsister’s Tale by Tracy Barrett (2014)

It was the hardest winter Jane could remember. Mamma said that there had been a worse one when she was a girl. But in those days there had been servants to ride deep into the forest and fetch dry wood to stack in huge piles for cheerful fires, and there were woolen blankets and hot things to drink whenever anyone wanted them. Now it took all day to find a few logs that weren’t half-rotten, that could dry out in a day or two and provide some weak and smoky heat in the fireplace (p 99).

StepsistersTaleThis delightful fairy tale retelling is quiet and small but enjoyable. Jane is the elder stepsister to the young beauty known as Cinderella. Isabella, is a spoiled child who knows little of the hard world until his father marries Jane’s mother. Jane and her sister, Maude, however, have learned to survive on little comfort, less warmth and whatever little food they manage to produce. Time are hard, and the Prince brings no relief. Instead, the girls find themselves caught between fear of the supposed fairies that dwell in the woods, the rough men of the wood and a corrupt Prince.

Though there is little in the way of action, this novel held my attention. I do, however, dislike the cover. It greatly misrepresents the story. I assume the publisher was trying to glamorize the girls to appeal to some empty-headed pre-teens. It’s just a totally blah and bleck cover.

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The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (1961)

“Think of all the trouble it saves,” the man explained, and his face looked as if he’d be grinning an evil grin — if he could grin at all. “If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones that are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. For there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing, and if it weren’t for that dreadful magic staff, you’d never know how much time you were wasting” (p 213).

The Phantom TollboothThis was a KidLit book club pick. It’s a title I thought I had never read until I came to Alec, the boy who grows down, not up. Then something triggered in my brain and I recalled my third grade teacher reading this to her class. I’m glad I found my way to it again. The timing was fortuitous as I become increasingly frustrated professionally. The absurdities Milo encounters bathed my reality into a humorous light and I felt immediately better.

Perhaps it’s knowing that my struggles are universal… ubiquitous… timeless. But after reading this, my worries seem so silly, like the demon of insincerity or the Terrible Trivium. A refreshing experience.

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Prince of Shadows: A Novel of Romeo and Juliet by Rachel Caine (2014)

Prince of ShadowCaine expands the world of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, selecting Romeo’s cousin Benvolio as the narrator who assumes the title character’s role. As the Prince of Shadows, dubbed so by his close friend Mercutio, Benvolio spends his nights avenging slights by stealing and publicly, but anonymously, humiliating the offender. Romeo rounds out the threesome but he has a limited role in the novel.

Instead, Benvolio provides the backdrop to the well-known story, delving into Montague family politics. Rosaline, too, has a larger role. The real surprise came in the mystical turn the book took about half way through. It turns out Mercutio’s dying curse (A plague on both your houses) had meat to it. We all know Romeo and Juliet ended tragically, but will Benvolio and Rosaline succumb to the same fate?

And enjoyable read more for the language and descriptions than the plot. Mercutio is a scene stealer as well.

Library copy | 9780451414410 | Ages 14+ | New American Library

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Hood by Stephen R. Lawhead (2006)

HoodThis engaging surprisingly erudite retelling of the Robin Hood myth – relocated to Wales in the 11th century – is the first in the Raven King trilogy. Bran is a young prince whose mother dies when he is just a boy. His father, no longer tempered by his wife, becomes harsh with Bran, creating a rift between the two.

When the Normans invade England and attempt to subdue the Welsh, Bran’s father and his war host are struck down. Bran and his people flee. Having never wanted the crown, Bran attempts to flee north to his kin, only to be hunted and severely wounded. This first book takes us through Bran’s transformation from handsome, disaffected and naïve youth to scarred, informed and compassionate man.

Slowly but surely familiar names appear in surprising roles. A slight magical element runs through the whole, tantalizing the reader and giving the story the little umph it needs just when the narrative starts to drag. I look forward to starting the next, Scarlet.

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The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals by Wendy Jones (2014)

He wasn’t able to meet her eyes — he’d been gazing at her waistband when he’s inadvertently proposed in a shame-faced way. It wasn’t that he had intended to get down on one knee — he hadn’t intended anything at all. What he had meant, if only he could have said it, was, ‘How do you get out of your dress?‘ (p 16)

Wilfred PriceWilfred Price and the Welsh town of Narberth are deceptively innocent looking. It’s 1924 and Wilfred’s funeral business is finally established and gaining capital. On the advice of his trade’s teacher, Wilfred contemplates taking a wife. Befuddled by Grace’s loveliness in a yellow dress, he blurts out a proposal. Grace accepts and, before Wilfred can retract his offer, the whole town knows they are engaged. Add to the scenario a young lady with whom Wilfred is truly falling in love with and the young man is in quite a pickle.

But lurking under this innocent dilemma is a horrific betrayal and violent crime. In disarming prose, the story unfolds.

I recommend this to historical fiction fans and those who enjoy Downton Abby.