I’ve read and quite liked four of Scarlett Thomas’s novels for grown-ups, so when I found out she was writing a middle-grade fantasy novel, I knew I was going to want to read it, and I’m glad I did. Dragon’s Green gets off to something of a slow start (world-building and getting our characters into their various dilemmas) but once it gets going, it’s a fast-paced delight.

I can’t do this book justice with a plot summary, but basically: our protagonist, eleven-year-old Effie Truelove, has been spending a lot of time with her grandfather since her mother disappeared. Her mother’s disappearance, five years before the action of the book starts, seems to have had something to do with the worldquake, which was a mysterious seven-and-a-half-minute-long earthquake that shook the entire planet and somehow broke the internet and cell phones, sending the world “back to something like 1992,” technology-wise (8). Effie’s pretty sure her grandfather knows magic: his rooms are full of all sorts of interesting objects, and he has an amazing library that’s been off-limits to Effie—but he won’t do any magic for her or teach her any. Eventually he explains that he promised her father he wouldn’t teach her magic, but he relents a bit: he lets Effie read from his library, and starts teaching her the basics of what he calls “magical thinking.” When he ends up in the hospital, though, it becomes clear that Effie is going to have to figure magic out on her own.

Well: not entirely on her own: it turns out that there are other kids in her year at her school who have magical interests/aptitude, and circumstances bring them together into an unlikely friend-group that nevertheless totally works. And it’s a good thing Effie isn’t entirely on her own, because she has a lot to figure out, like how to navigate between this world and its magical neighbor/counterpart, the Otherworld, and oh, also how to keep an evil mage from destroying the books in her grandfather’s library.

Those books in Effie’s grandfather’s library, by the way, give rise to some of my favorite parts of the book: there’s a great story within a story where it becomes clear that Effie is going to subvert some expectations around princesses and dragons and heroes, and another story within a story where Effie’s friend Maximilian finds himself in a room full of people quoting James Joyce and Katherine Mansfield at each other. A lot of the magic/plot in this book has to do with books (it’s complicated), and that bookishness ends up being a big part of its appeal, which I guess shouldn’t surprise me: my other favorite Scarlett Thomas book is Our Tragic Universe, which has a whole lot in it about narrative/story/the structure of stories, and there’s definitely some of that in this book, too.

The Secret Garden is one of those books I definitely read as a child, but that I guess I didn’t love: re-reading it as an adult, I found that I remembered the beginning very vividly, those first two chapters where the reader is introduced to Mary Lennox, an English girl who was born in India and moves to Yorkshire to live with her uncle after her parents both die, but I didn’t remember a lot of detail about the rest of the book, though I remembered the general outline, which is basically this: Mary is a spoiled brat but also quite lonely; her uncle isn’t really around and she wanders around the massive house and its massive grounds in a state of grumpiness, until some things happen to change that. She hears about a garden on the grounds that’s been locked for ten years (her whole lifetime!) and then, excitingly, finds its key, and then its door. She also makes friends with two boys around her own age—Dickon, who’s a little older than her and is the brother of one of the servants at the house and is a kind child who loves animals and nature and knows all about plants, and Colin, who’s the same age as her and is her cousin, whose existence was being kept from her but whose room she discovers one night when she hears him crying. (Colin’s mother died and his father can’t bear seeing him; Colin has basically spent his life confined to his bedroom, and thinks of himself as an invalid, though actually it seems like his illnesses were passing things rather than anything chronic/permanent.) They all spend time in the garden together, and both Mary and Colin find themselves becoming happier and healthier and less horrible (Colin, when we meet him, is as self-centered and spoiled as Mary at the start of the book).

Re-reading this as an adult, I was (negatively) struck by a few things: 1) Mary’s casual racism (the things she says about the household servants in India, ack: I mean, it’s not presented positively and I imagine an English child living in the system of colonialism may have had those thoughts/said those things, but oof) and 2) the emphasis on positivity. I mean, I really like the idea of making space for joy, but negative emotions are a part of life too, and not all problems can be solved by changing how you think about them. So, yeah, I was bothered by bits like this: “To let a sad thought or a bad one get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body. If you let it stay there after it has got in you may never get over it as long as you live” (321). And as this piece by Anna Clark in the Guardian puts it, on one level, it makes sense within the story that Colin can walk by just believing he can/trying to/working at it: his problems are not actually physical. But, to quote Clark, “in the context of a larger literature that has relatively few complex characters with disabilities, the diagnosis of “it’s all in his head” feels disappointing.”

Still, there were things about this book that I liked a whole lot. I like the details of Mary’s arrival in England, the train ride to Yorkshire with the rain streaming down the windows and the lunch basket of cold beef and chicken and hot tea that the housekeeper gets for herself and Mary at a train station. I like the way that we get to see Mary having increasingly positive interactions with an increasing variety of people, and how her feelings about herself and the world change as that happens. I like the way that Mary’s growth and Colin’s growth are set against the springtime garden, everything and everyone opening up together, and that gorgeous spring sense of energy and possibility, and I like seeing Mary and Colin’s friendship growing, too, the way we get to see them laugh together and talk together and explore the house together on a rainy day.

Next time I’m in the mood for some early-20th-century kid-lit, I’d probably reach for some E. Nesbit sooner than I’d reach for Frances Hodgson Burnett, but I’m still glad to have re-read this.

This is the seventh of nine books in the Anastasia Krupnik series, and I think I’m going to be a little sad when I’ve read them all: they’re such fun middle-grade/early YA reads, and this one, while not my favorite, was still pleasing. Anastasia is thirteen and is bummed that she doesn’t get to go skiing over winter break: it seems like all of her friends are off on ski trips (well, except for Sonya, who is unfortunately stuck going to some weight loss program and being told to eat half an apple for “dessert” – blergh) while Anastasia’s stuck at home. She has nothing to do over break except a school paper on the topic of her “chosen career,” and she’s not really looking forward to it, until she has a brilliant idea: maybe she can convince her parents to let her go to a week-long modeling course for junior high students. In her head, of course, “model” is her chosen career, but she knows her parents aren’t going to be cool with that, so she tells them she wants to be a bookstore owner: the modeling course is just because anyone being entrepreneurial needs poise and confidence, right?

So her parents agree she can take the course, and her dad also arranges for her to interview a Boston bookstore owner he knows: it may not be skiing, but Anastasia’s excited. The modeling school turns out not to be as glamorous as Anastasia’s visions of it, and she keeps forgetting to actually interview the bookstore owner (though she visits her more than once), and oh, also, the hopelessly uncool boy from her old school who totally used to have a crush on her is signed up for the modeling class, too: augh. But it’s OK because visiting a bookstore owner and her store is interesting, and Anastasia makes a new friend in modeling class: Henry Peabody (“Short for Henrietta. But if you call me that, you die”) who is gorgeous (though she doesn’t initially realize it) and also smart/kind/fun. I like Henry’s no-nonsense feminism (she tells Anastasia that when they grow up, they can get married if they want, but they don’t need husbands), but as always, Anastasia herself is what makes this book as fun as it is. I love the way we get to see her rewrites of her school assignment in progress as the week progresses, and I love her ridiculous overactive imagination: she’s always thinking about something, whether she’s pondering changing her name to “Spike” because she thinks the matching k-sounds in “Spike Krupnik” are cool, or worrying about being late (or, possibly worse, early) to modeling school on the first day, or getting bizarrely nervous about Henry’s dad (who’s a police officer) driving her home after she has dinner with the Peabody family (because he’s driving her home on the way to work, and what if he has to, like, capture a criminal with her in the car?). And, I mean, how could I not love/relate to a character who’s described like this?

Bookstores were among Anastasia’s favorite places; maybe they were even first on her list, or at least tied for first with libraries. She sometimes thought that she would like to live in a library, not even having a kitchen—just going out to eat, and spending all the rest of her life surrounded by books. (67-68)

All Our Pretty Songs is a lush YA retelling of the Orpheus myth (but different), set in the Pacific Northwest, written in a way that is pleasantly reminiscent of Francesca Lia Block. It starts with our unnamed narrator on summer vacation before her senior year of high school, introducing us to herself and her best friend, Aurora. The narrator’s mom and Aurora’s mom used to be best friends but no longer speak; the narrator’s dad has never been around, and Aurora’s dad, who was a famous rock star, is dead. Aurora’s mom is a junkie; the narrator’s mom is a witch (in the herbs-and-amulets-and-fortune-telling way, I mean). And the narrator and Aurora? They’re like sisters who have kind of raised themselves, with Aurora as the wilder one, the one who “never thinks about what comes after. She’s all now, all the time. This moment, this kiss, this second holds everything” (6).

Not long into the book, Aurora and the narrator meet Jack, a slightly-older singer/guitarist whose music is intense and beautiful and like nothing they’ve ever experienced. As the flap copy puts it, though, they’re “not the only ones who have noticed Jack’s gift; his music has awakened an ancient evil—and a world both above and below, which may not be mythical at all.” So, yeah, things get weird: at the same party where the narrator meets Jack, she notices a creepy guy who “smiles a smile with too many teeth” who’s also made rapt by Jack’s music (25). The creepy guy, whose name is Minos (yes, the mythological one), keeps showing up, pulling both Aurora and Jack into his orbit, in this interesting way where the narrator is pretty sure she’s seeing some supernatural stuff happening but still has doubts as to what’s actually going on: at one point Aurora’s mom asks where she is, and the narrator’s answer is priceless: “She either went to Los Angeles or she went to hell” (142).

Before the weird stuff, though, the narrator becomes smitten with Jack, and there are some pretty delicious scenes with the two of them, but what I like even more are the scenes with her and Aurora, or, best of all, with her and her friend from work, Raoul—they work together at a fruit stand at what basically seems to be Pike Place Market, and he’s totally my favorite character in the book. I like how the narrator figures herself out a bit over the course of the book, and how Raoul helps with that; I like his smarts and his kindness and his humor, and a conversation the narrator has with him at one point totally made me teary-eyed. I felt like the pacing of this book was somewhat uneven, but maybe it was just where I was in my reading of it: it felt like the plot was slow to get moving and then moved really quickly, but the writing was pleasing enough to keep me engaged even before the plot kicked in. I like how the narrator describes being up front at a show, watching a band: she says she and Aurora are “all the way inside our bodies and all the way outside them at the same time” (7). And I am a sucker for descriptive passages like this:

In the winter I love my work. All the out-of-towners flee the eternal damp. We have to wear sweaters and wool hats to keep out the cold, and we drink coffee until we’re cracked-out and speedy. The cobblestoned streets are wet and foggy, the low mournful sound of the ferry horn carries across the water, and all the afternoons are dreamy and quiet. (36)

This was a book I liked more as I got farther into it, a book I ended up staying up late to finish, and a book whose sequels I’m looking forward to reading.

In his blurb for Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, Daniel Handler says it has “the grit and the wit and the girls in trouble loving each other fierce and true” of Michelle Tea’s work in general (which totally makes me want to read more by Michelle Tea) and also “all the juice of a terrific fantasy novel, with the magic and the creatures and the otherworldly sense of something lurking underneath each artifact of our ordinary lives,” and yeah, I think that’s a good description, and captures a lot of why I liked this book so much.

Mermaid in Chelsea Creek is set in Chelsea, Massachusetts, which is described in the first sentence as “a city where people landed” (7). It’s a city of immigrants, all of whom bring their own cultures and traditions—and also, their own magic, though it’s maybe hard to pass that magic and those traditions on to children and grandchildren who grow up American. Sophie Swankowski, who’s thirteen and being raised by a single mom, is the granddaughter of Polish immigrants, though at the start of the story she’s not particularly connected to that heritage: she basically sees her Polish grandmother only on holidays, and her overworked mom is more likely to suggest cereal or pizza for dinner than to cook anything. In addition to magic, we learn, the people who land in Chelsea bring stories with them:

And the stories brought from the many places were all different, but then, they were all the same. And the oldest story, the silliest and most dangerous story, the saddest and most hopeful story, was the story of the girl who would bring the magic, the girl who would come to save them all. (9)

Plants

OK, so I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that it becomes clear pretty early that this is going to be a Chosen One story—and, surprise, Sophie is the Chosen One. But she doesn’t know that to start: she just knows her life in Chelsea, this city that Tea describes like this:

brick and cement, the telephone poles and electrical wires, the roaring buses and the graffitied everything, busted playgrounds, a city with so much wear and tear on it, so many people with so little money coming to it for so long, the threadbare buildings and dollar stores, the railroad tracks where men slept in the tall grass, the sub shops and pizza places and the corner stores selling scratchers and cigarettes, the corner bars with no windows and men inside heaped and immobile as the cracked stools they sat upon. (9)

This being a Chosen One story, it’s a lot about Sophie learning about her history/destiny/magic, though meanwhile it’s also about her dealing with being grounded on summer vacation, and tensions with her best/only friend, and her growing awareness of herself as her own person, and I thought the combination of it all worked really well. The scenes where Sophie learns about/explores her magic are great, and I also love the magic itself, how much it’s about feelings and intuition and, crucially/centrally, empathy: Sophie can read people’s hearts and feel what they’re feeling.

I loved so many things about this book, from the grumpy/hilarious/bedraggled mermaid of the title to the way that Sophie comes to see pigeons as something other than “rats with wings” to Jason Polan’s pleasing illustrations (see above). Minor quibbles: I might have liked this more if it were a standalone book rather than the first of a trilogy, and oh man, so many typos/this book really needed a better proofread. But everything else was delightful enough for me to overlook those things. I took this book with me on the 4th of July, when I went to Queens three hours before the Macy’s fireworks so I could get a decent spot in one of the parks by the water with a good view, and it was pretty perfect to be reading this in the midst of the crowd and the heat: it was engrossing enough to get lost in, even in the middle of a whole lot of potential annoyances/distractions.

I’ve been making my way through Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series over the past four years, picking one up when I found myself wanting something light and fun, and this fourth and final book was probably my favorite. As with the others, we’re in steampunk/paranormal alternate England in the 1850s; our heroine, Sophronia, is a student at Miss Geraldine’s Quality Finishing School for Young Ladies, where the students are actually getting a training in espionage as well as in manners. Throughout the series, Sophronia and her friends have been trying to foil the dastardly plans of an anti-paranormal group called the Picklemen, so it’s not surprising that the Picklemen feature heavily in this book. But the Picklemen and their plans were less interesting to me than Sophronia and her friends: I love how the book opens with a ball where the students have been told they have to be dressed as and in character as each other, with Sophronia assigned to be the more retiring Agatha, Agatha assigned to be their bubbly friend Dimity, Dimity assigned to be class Mean Girl Preshea, and Preshea assigned to be Sophronia herself. I like, too, the scenes we get of the girls in London over their Christmas holidays, and the bits of humor, like this: “Dimity had firm opinions on cucumber, which she felt was nothing more than slimy, embarrassingly shaped water and should never, under any circumstances, be presented at table” (131). And I like how in this book, Sophronia finally figures out/admits to herself who she wants to be with, romantically speaking. All those bits are more satisfying to me than the action-adventure portion of the plot, though the action is well-written and I found myself caught up in it, too.

The Luck Uglies is a pleasing middle-grade fantasy novel, the kind that starts with a charmingly-drawn map of the place where the book is set, which in this case is a village called Drowning, though really it’s “more of a sprawling town than a village, one built on a foundation of secrets, rules, and lies, but mostly just mud” (3). As the book opens, we meet eleven-year-old Rye O’Chanter and her friends Folly and Quinn, who are running across the town’s rooftops with an accidentally-stolen book, its owner in hot pursuit: it’s clear this is going to be a story with significant amounts of adventure.

The stolen book, though, isn’t really at the center of things, though it does feature a bit in the plot. Drowning has problems, and not just because of the Earl who governs it with heavy taxes, arbitrary fines, and repressive laws. Drowning has a river on one side and bogs on the other, and the bogs have historically been home to dangerous creatures called Bog Noblins—though they’re supposed to be extinct, vanquished by a quasi-criminal gang called the Luck Uglies who were then pushed out of town themselves. But what if the Bog Noblins are still out there? When Rye actually sees one, this becomes more than a theoretical question. If the Luck Uglies are gone, who will protect the town now? Or are the Luck Uglies still around, too?

Rye (who lives just outside the town walls, near the bogs, with her mom and her younger sister and their cat) learns rather more than she expects to over the course of the book, about Bog Noblins and Luck Uglies and also about her family, her friends, and herself. I appreciated the characters and the writing: Riley’s bookish friend Quinn, for example, lives alone with his dad, and we learn that at their house, with its piles of books and other things, there’s “a fine line between hidden and lost” (38). A description of the Bog Noblins, read out by the town crier, is this totally great sentence: “Typical Bog Noblin activities include clawing, biting, growling, consumption of humans and livestock, vandalism, and recreational dismemberment” (124). A library is described as having “a scent that was part mildew, part magic” (254). And I liked the excitement of the plot, even though a few of the revelations were obvious to me well before they become obvious to Rye: I was having enough fun that I didn’t particularly mind. This book is the first in a trilogy, and I’m looking forward to reading more about this world.

I wasn’t necessarily planning to read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child—I mean, I like the Harry Potter universe and I’ve read all the books but, eh, a play written by someone other than J.K. Rowling, based on a story that she co-wrote with him and another guy? I don’t know; I wasn’t convinced I’d be into it. But then my boyfriend borrowed it from a friend, and then, after he finished it, it somehow ended up on the top of my pile of books to read. And while there are things I didn’t like about it, I’m totally glad I read it.

A thing you should know about this play is that it’s quite plot-heavy, and I’m not sure how much I can actually say about the plot without giving away too much. It’s set 19 years after the Battle of Hogwarts and it focuses partly on one of Harry’s kids, Albus Severus, who’s about to start his first year at Hogwarts when the play opens. Albus ends up being friends with Draco Malfoy’s son, Scorpius, and adventures ensue. Scorpius, for me, was the best thing about this play: he’s smart and charming and brave and kind and my only problem with his friendship with Albus is that it’s not more than a friendship. (Maybe I should just go re-read Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On?)

This was a really quick read and I was totally engrossed in it while reading, despite a few clunky/overwrought pieces of dialogue and some quibbles about characterization (Ron Weasley in particular, who felt much flatter than I think he should have, aside from a few choice moments in climactic scenes).

As I make my way through Luke Pearson’s “Hilda” graphic novels for kids, I find myself liking each one more than the last. The art is consistently excellent—I like the colors, the clean lines, and how it rewards attention to detail—and the stories keep getting better. This one opens with a scene from Hilda’s life in the country, where she used to wander on her own to the edge of the forest to draw, and her mom was fine with it. Now, Hilda and her mom have just moved to the city of Trolberg, and Hilda’s planning some solo exploration of their neighborhood, but her mom doesn’t think it’s safe. She wants Hilda to stay inside for the day, but promises they can go out together to the town’s annual Bird Parade that night. Some kids from Hilda’s school show up, though, and her mom lets her go out with them. But rather than drawing or reading or even playing at the playground, these kids amuse themselves by pulling pranks on strangers and throwing rocks at birds: Hilda, who is kind and has a rapport with all kinds of creatures, is clearly horrified. When one of the kids actually hits a bird with a rock, Hilda rushes to help it, and her interactions with the bird lead to further wanderings, and to the kind of adventure she maybe didn’t think was possible in the city.

I love the below, in which Hilda’s explaining to the bird that she didn’t think she liked the city at first, but now she thinks she might:


Hilda and the Bird Parade

At the start of Anastasia Has the Answers, we learn that Anastasia (who is 13 now) has decided she wants to be a journalist, which helps to give a pleasing structure to the book. She’s learned that journalists should think about the “Who, what, when, where, and why” of the situation behind the piece they’re writing, and should answer those questions near the beginning: each chapter ends with an excerpt from Anastasia’s notebook in which she puts a journalistic spin on whatever’s been going on, and we get to see her crossed-out initial drafts as well as her final result.

As with some of the other books in this series, some of the plot/conflict centers around some ill-fated plan that Anastasia comes up with—though I was pleased that the plans in this book were less stressful than in some of the others. First: Anastasia’s Uncle George, whose wife has just died suddenly, comes to visit from LA, and Anastasia decides she should try to set him up with someone, maybe her friend Daphne’s mom (Daphne’s parents are getting divorced). Meanwhile, Anastasia has been struggling to learn to climb a rope in gym class, and decides she wants to teach herself how and unveil her newfound skill at a demonstration her class will give to a team of visiting foreign educators. The first plan is not such a great idea, but Anastasia doesn’t push it too hard: she’s busier with the second plan, especially because she totally has a crush on her (female) gym teacher and wants to impress her.

This was a fun and quick Sunday read for me, and I look forward to picking up the next one in the series at some point.