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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.

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Weasels by Elys Dolan (2014)

Weasels. What do you think they do all day? Eat nuts and berries? Frolic in the leaves? Lurk in the dark? … What they really do is plot world domination!

WeaselsI love this hilarious book about a group of weasels who plan to rule the world with the help of a big machine and a little white mouse. When their big machine breaks, various strategies are employed to fix it but some weasels have divergent ideas while others are easily distracted. Chaos ensues until one curious weasel solves the mystery. Brilliant.

Here is a clip from inside the book. As you can see, one little weasel’s attempt to improve the tense work atmosphere goes awry.WeaselsFire

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The Glass Casket by McCormick Templeman (2014)

One bleak morning in the eye of winter, five horses and five riders thundered into the remote mountain village of Nag’s End. Without ceremony or respect for local custom, they charged through the square and up the steep alpine trail that lay just beyond (p 1).

Glass CasketThe arrival and quick deaths of the king’s men set off a series of disturbing deaths. Add to this the arrival of a group of strangers (a couple and their daughter) with whom Rowan is forbidden from approaching and a Duke who visits Rowan’s father and Rowan’s world is turned up-side-down.

First, the beautiful young woman named Fiona is revealed to be her relation. Then Tom, Rowan’s best friend, falls completely in love with Fiona. But death toll rises and each gruesome body suggests a protean and impossible murderer. Then, the ever friendly Tom becomes truculent and crazed and the villagers become suspicious.

This atmospheric tale has a touch of mystery, fantasy, romance and fairy tale all mixed together. Though it could have benefited from a tighter telling, I recommend it to fans of Marcus Sedgwick and Chris Wooding.

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Nightingale’s Nest by Nikki Loftin (2013)

When I first heard Gayle, I couldn’t tell if she was a bird or a girl. All I knew for sure was that the music she made wasn’t like anything I’d ever heard before. It was magic.
Even a kid like me could recognize that (p 1).

NightingaleLittle John first hears Gayle, an orphan being fostered by the town’s poor widow and her bully son, singing as he and his father are pruning pecan trees for the richest man in town. He finds her perched in a nest snug in the branches of a sycamore tree that abuts the Emperor’s property. Gayle, who reminds John of his deceased younger sister, becomes the catalyst to John’s much needed healing.

With an undercurrent of subtle magic that harkens to Hans Christian Anderson’s The Nightingale, this is an enchanting and thoroughly delightful story with deftly drawn characters and sparse, lyrical language. Highly recommended.