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Book Review: Elatsoe

Elatsoe (Amazon / Los Alamos Public Library) is YA/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction set in an alternative United States that is a home to magic. Magic is commonplace enough not to be astounding, but also not really a huge part of life for most folk, hence it is not fully in the fantasy realm.

Elatsoe (Ellie)’s Lipan Apache family has passed down the knowledge that allows them to raise ghosts, but only animals. Raising people is bad news; they come back as angry balls of energy, unlike her faithful dog who will protect and love her all of its days. The secret is well hidden and is passed from mother to oldest daughter and must be used carefully to serve and protect their community.

The story centers around a dream in which Ellie’s cousin visits her with his last breath asking her to avenge his murder and protect his family. She must use all her knowledge, cunning and contacts to uncover the truth and avenge him without unleashing his ghost to do untold damage.

This story pits the little guy against the rich and powerful without ever implying that Ellie doesn’t have plenty of her own power. It doesn’t gloss over the historic and current atrocities enacted against indigenous people, but always there is hope and a desire to restore the earth. Ellie is followed in every store she enters while her friend Jay is adored.

This story is wonderfully diverse in the best ways. Ellie’s culture plays a large part in the story as it does in her life. Her mom uses story-telling to impart truths and we learn the life of Six Great at the story unfolds. Lipan burial rites and beliefs serve as a central theme to the story and elders are consulted.

There is also incidental diversity included causally and without fanfare. Ellie is asexual and doesn’t plan to have children. She considers breaking tradition and passing her legacy to her cousin’s son. Her best friend is a cheerleader and his sister is the star of her basketball team. Vampires are evil, but they’re also just normal people. Marriage is not just between a man and a woman. Inter-racial families must find ways to incorporate multiple cultures into their lives. Men can take a back seat to their wives careers and passions.

This book is appropriate for most anyone. It has some complex concepts, but a story that can be followed by any kiddo up for longer books. I adored it without reservation, but I could have read it out loud to my girls when they were 4 and 6, my son, currently 5, doesn’t have the attention for it though.

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Book Review: Ghost Boys

I’ve held off on writing this review, because one aspect of this book didn’t set well with me, but I think it has far more good than not, and it was easy enough to discuss its one problem with my kids. So I decided to give it a go after waking up to another Black man shot by police. Also, it is written by a POC which puts me a little more at ease, but still not entirely.

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes (Los Alamos Public Library) starts at the scene of the extrajudicial police shooting of a young Black boy, Jerome. The circumstances leading up to the shooting are revealed in snippets over the course of the book both in flashbacks and trial coverage. It will sound familiar, though. A good kid who tries to always do the right thing living in a rough neighborhood under circumstances that make the shooting ‘justifiable’ and even ‘laudable’ to those who will always set Black boys on the wrong side of the law.

The book is told through the eyes of Jerome who is now a ghost watching his family mourn and his killer cover backside. His grandmother can sense him and he has the ghost of another boy to give him guidance, but his only real companion turns out to be Sarah, the daughter of his killer. She is a little girl his own age (and size) living a very different life, but struggling just the same.

The heart of the tale is about Jerome and Sarah and their shifting perspectives of each other. Already in turmoil, dealing with people who either call her father a hero or a murderer, Sarah will be forever changed by putting a face to the boy whose life her father ended. The book is masterfully written and ends on a hopeful, but far from easy, note.

My one issue, and it is big, is the use of white female tears. On a few occasions Sarah is overwhelmed with the growth that is being asked of her and escapes through tears. Her life is pretty awful in the moment, so that’s a bit reasonable. My real problem is that when Jerome gets angry with her, he is counseled by his ghost friend to be gentle with her in a way that didn’t sit well with me. It speaks too much to the feelings of white women being centered over the feelings of those who are literally being killed and I wish it would’ve been handled with a little more nuance. In my family, it served as a jumping off point for talking about this issue, but only because I’d read the book.

This book is written for middle grades. My sixth grader enjoyed the book and was able to have good dialogue about it. My fourth grader, who can be very sensitive to things, read through the book in just a few days. She was entranced. It is well done, in the sense that it doesn’t brush over the trauma and horror, but it does handle it in an age-appropriate way. I highly recommend it, with the noted reservations.

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Book Review: A Wish in the Dark

This book guys! It is soooo good. A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat is set in a magical Thailand and stars two children raised in a women’s prison and the daughter of the warden. There is so much complexity that I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will give you a rundown on the main players.

In Chattana the light shines on the worthy. The governor came from the dark to save a town burned to ashes by the great fire. He has the magical ability to create balls of light that also serve as electricity for powering the town. He is a demagogue who can do no wrong.

Pong and Somkit are two boys raised in the women’s prison guilty of being born to criminals. They are branded as such and will only have their brands crossed out (not removed) when they reach thirteen and are released. After a fateful meeting with the governor, Pong can no longer wait and rashly makes an escape that will force him to hide for the rest of his life.

Nok is the warden’s daughter and tries to be the perfect child. Light shines on the worthy and she *will* be worthy. She does not understand how a child as well cared for as Pong could shun what he has been given. She is determined to track down this boy who ignores the law.

Father Cham is a kind soul in a quiet monastery. He sees the good hearts of all and bestows small but meaningful blessings on the children of the village. “May you never stub your toe in the dark.” He provides an education for the unwanted children of Chattana.

Auntie Ampai is the heart of the broken East Side of Chattana. Light shines on the worthy and the east side only has the dimmest of light orbs. Ampai gives the east side faith and heart and shows the downtrodden that they have value and that honor can shine anywhere.

This book is sooo rich. It is diverse in its setting and rich in culture. At the same time it dives deep into philosophical questions of power-dynamics and what it means to be worthy. Every single character grows and changes throughout the book. There are no villains and heroes, simply ordinary people put into extraordinary positions.

I will happily hand this book off to my 3rd and 5th graders to read. One will likely learn about another culture and have her deep sense of social justice beaten up a bit. The other will dive deeper into the world and think about the book’s lessons for the rest of her life. There is really no mature content to worry about.

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Book Review: All the Impossible Things

You guys. This book. Don’t read it before bed. Don’t keep reading it hoping to get to a part where you’ll stop crying before you go to sleep. Just don’t.

Okay, but seriously, All the Impossible Things by Lindsay Lackey is a piece of speculative fiction about a twelve year old foster kid who has a bit of an affinity with the wind. Red has been through a lot in her life. Her mother is in jail, her grandmother and primary caregiver is dead, and when her emotions get too much for her she has a tendency to cause storms. Her foster families don’t know about her magic, but they do know she’s trouble and she knows she’s unwanted.

The story begins when Red is being taken to a new foster home. I won’t go into too much detail as it will spoil the story, but I will highlight some of the things done well.

  • Her foster dad is black, but that is mostly just mentioned in passing.
  • Her caseworker is a genuinely good person who cares about her.
  • The support family for the foster family are Hawaiian and their culture is very important to them.
  • Red’s mom has a drug problem that doesn’t magically disappear.
  • Lots of things go wrong. There is no magically happy ending, but there is hope.
  • This quote: “Grief isn’t like anger. Anger can burn out. It can be released. But grief is something that becomes a part of you. And you either grow comfortable with it and learn how to live your life in a new way, or you get stuck in it, and it destroys you.”

I will hand this book over to my ten year old to read and she will love it, but it is a hard book. I am not kidding when I say I cried through half of it. It was raw and there was very little break from one moment to the next. Please read this before handing it to your child. It was oh, so good, though. We’ve needed more books like this for a long time, and I’m pleased they are starting to get published.

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Book Review: Frontier Magic Series by Patricia Wrede

Let’s just start by saying I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Patricia Wrede. Even though her series can be vastly different from each other, they are all just fantastic. I particularly recommend The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, featuring a princess who offers herself to the service of dragon because she just can’t handle being as vapid as her sisters, and the Cecelia and Kate Novels featuring the letters two regency era cousins send back and forth to each other as they piece together a dastardly plot and try to stop it.

Anywho, this book review is actually about Frontier Magic, a series set in an alternate history just after the secession war in Northern Columbia. The world is filled with dangerous creatures, both magical and non-magical and only the mysterious magic of the great barrier keeps the pioneers safe. Many who cross it to explore or create settlements never come back.

In The Thirteenth Child, we meet Eff. In a world where Seventh Sons are powerful and the Seventh Son of a Seventh Son is nearly legendary, it is really pretty awful to be a twin to a double seventh, especially if you are the older twin and a seventh daughter, for that makes you an unlucky Thirteenth Child. This is the story of Eff, a child so unlucky that her parents had to move the whole family from their safe existence to the frontier when she was only five. In this story, we learn that maybe superstition is only what you believe it to be and if you just look at something differently then maybe the unlucky can become lucky. Eff grows in confidence, and does amazing things even proving that she has abilities her brother can only dream of, but she still does not shake off her feelings of inferiority.

I won’t review Across the Great Barrier and The Far West in great detail, as the continue the life of Eff as she grows into herself and becomes a young woman. I will say that what I love about this series is its slow pace. Very little happens in the way of great excitement, or rather exciting things happen, but they are rarely the focal point of the story. Instead, we get to see a brow-beaten five year old turn into a lovely, strong young woman because one person has faith in her at a time and she works hard to prove the faith warranted. There is no defining moment or major climax where she suddenly realizes that she is worthwhile. Instead, she is constantly surprised when people give her their faith. She is the ultimate example of imposter syndrome and in the end she has faith in herself and that is lovely.

Because the book is much more about the character and much less about the action, it is probably more suited for a mature and introspective reader. I would totally hand it to my current 10yo, but my 8yo probably won’t be ready for it for another five years. The Amazon reviews agree with me, ranging from love of the book to complaints about it being ‘boring.’

Mature Content/Spoiler Alert: The books are pretty pristine and true to their era except for reference to a bit of math that explains an elopement and an unchecked ego that ends in an accidental death and a lot of guilt.

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Book Review: The Old Kingdom Series by Garth Nix

I recently had the opportunity to reread one of my favorite series. I often do this alongside one of my two daughters, when it’s been long enough that I can no longer remember the intricacies of the plot details to discuss with them. Of course, my oldest usually passes me straight away and then badgers me to catch up, but there could be worse things in life…

In the Old Kingdom the dead don’t stay dead and there are all sorts of free magic creatures. It is the job of the Abhorsen to use necromantic bells infused with tamed charter magic to send them back where the belong. This could imply that this story is a dark one, but exactly the opposite is true. All of the books contain much hope and friendship even as they do not shy from sadness and loss.

Sabriel features a girl just on the verge of womanhood who has spent most of her life in a boarding school just on the other side of the walls of the Old Kingdom in a land that only barely believes in magic. When a dead messenger arrives bearing her fathers bells she must take on the mantel of Abhorsen and cross the wall to save her father. It doesn’t matter that the Old Kingdom has been overcome with dead and free magic creatures, she perseveres with the right help coming along at the right time. Don’t worry, though, she runs into enough trouble that this is no fairy tale. Sabriel presents as an amazingly strong woman without screaming, “We need a female heroine!”

Lirael takes us to a different part of the Old Kingdom about 20 years after Sabriel. In this book we learn of the Clayr an extended family of women who live in a glacier and use the Sight to see images together in frozen water. Only Lirael does not have the Sight, nor does she have a mother, nor does she look like the others. Raised amongst a group of women that are similar in so many ways she struggles to find her way. She finds a friend, though, and ends up playing a huge part in the saving of the kingdom as she learns to be herself instead of wishing she was someone else.

In Abhorsen (Book 3) and Goldenhand (Book 5) we continue on Lirael’s journey so I won’t discuss those here.

Clariel takes us back in time when the land was safe from the dead and the Abhorsens had grown lazy and were even a bit afraid of the dead (and not in a healthy respect sort of way). Clariel is the daughter of a Master Goldsmith who has been uprooted from her safe place in the forest and thrust into all of the politics of the big city. She knows what she wants and where she belongs and will do just about anything to accomplish it. She struggles with some really big choices and is treated like a child instead of given the information to make good decisions. With the fore knowledge of what is to come, we as the reader do a fair bit of yelling at the adults in the book.

Mature Content:
* Sabriel closely examines a naked carving of a man that turns out to be an actual man. This is pretty academic. Sabriel also hears the sounds of sex next door in an inn. Again, academic.
* Lirael contemplates suicide multiple times, but never in a romanticized way. A woman tells a man she must have his child in order to save the world. After his initial shock he tells her they should enjoy it.
* Clariel talks of experimenting with boys and considering with girls but mostly concludes she is a singleton (asexual).
* In Goldenhand there is some aggressive kissing and a clear desire for more. Not crazy descriptive, but enough to make the difference between handing the book off to my 8yo vs. 10yo. That was more about a willingness to slog through it than concern about content.
* In general, I’d put this at about 6th grade and up, but clearly that is dependent on the child

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