Mo Wren has everything she needs, right on Fox Street, where she lives with her father, her little sister, and the memory of her mother. Except girls to play with; during the school year, Fox Street has decidedly few girls. Luckily, it’s summer, and that means Mercedes is back, staying with her grandmother. This summer, though, something is different. After a year living with her mother’s new, well-to-do husband, Mercedes now notices the shabbiness of Fox Street, its chipping paint and litter. And the lady with the roses, who terrifies all the kids, is being unexpectedly nice to Mercedes, and that after a lifetime of snubbing Mercedes’s grandmother because she’s black. And then there are the strange letters from a lawyer.

It’s a bit predictable, but lovely anyway. Mo is a great, well-drawn character and an entertaining narrator. Realistically, she’s extremely observant about some things, and completely in denial about other things. Fox Street is lovingly portrayed, its community close-knit but certainly not perfect. Mo’s grief for her mother is apparent but not overdone, likewise Mercedes’s confusion and conflicted loyalties and Mo’s sister’s need for attention and approval. It’s a simple, honest, and enjoyable book.

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What Happened On Fox Street ~ Tricia Springstubb ~ Tricia Springstubb’s Blog

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When Plain Kate’s father dies of a fever, she isn’t left with much: a few clothes, some tools her father gave her, the woodcarving he taught her, and some loyalty from the townspeople. These are enough for a few years; she survives by carving objarka, charms that the villagers feel are too important to leave in the hands of the guild woodcarver, significantly less skilled than Plain Kate. Then an albino tinker appears, offering to purchase Kate’s shadow in exchange for her deepest wish, and when she refuses, strange things start happening—strange things that have the villagers muttering about witchcraft and Kate. Knowing she’ll likely be killed if she stays, Plain Kate takes the tinker’s offer: her shadow in exchange for ample traveling supplies. Well equipped and now accompanied by a talking cat, she leaves to find a new place in the world.

Plain Kate is well-written and absorbing; within a page or two, I could feel myself sinking into the world with a contented sigh. Kate is an appealing but not overly-idealized heroine, and a smattering of Eastern European and Roma (gypsy) folklore and tradition gives the book shape. Mostly, though, it’s about human nature: suspicion, desperation, family loyalty, mob mentality. To an adult reader, it’s a mite predictable, but not in particularly frustrating way; it didn’t feel like Kate was being daft by not putting things together, it just felt like the reader had a longer view of the situation. Kate had immediate concerns to distract her; the reader is looking for the big picture. The only significant flaw is the ending; it feels a bit too neat, and there are enough sudden changes to make the reader feel a bit jerked-around. Still, it’s a beautiful, gripping novel. And I didn’t even mind the talking cat!

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Plain Kate ~ Erin Bow

Leviathan Scott WesterfeldIn a Steampunk Austria-Hungary, Prince Aleksander sets off across Europe in a mechanical walker with his tutor, murderous countrymen on his heals. Meanwhile, in a Darwinpunk England, Deryn disguises herself as a boy to join the Royal Air Service and fly in a living airship—whale meets zeppelin. World War One ensues.

The world is well-developed and creative, especially the Darwinist living technology and the ways the two technology streams have clearly influenced one another. Seriously: it’s half Darwinpunk. That’s just awesome.

The main characters are unsurprising but believable and sympathetic, even if Alek is a bit daft sometimes. The minor characters are entertaining, particularly a lady scientist who is exactly the kind of character we’re programmed to like. And we do, mostly—but it’s no surprise that other characters find her incredibly annoying. The plot moves along briskly, without major twists but with plenty of small surprises and clever details to keep it interesting.

It’s the first in a series and doesn’t try to properly conclude, but it comes to a sensible stopping point; it’s generally a satisfying book, and Westerfeld has seeded plenty of fertile ground to explore in the next one.

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Leviathan ~ Scott Westerfeld

the evolution of calpurnia tateThe lone girl sandwiched between six brothers, Calpurnia Virginia Tate—Callie Vee—is more comfortable romping the woods and swimming in the stream than knitting or sewing in the parlor. When a drought gets Callie wondering about grasshoppers—most summers she only sees one kind of grasshoppers, this time she’s seeing two—she faces her fear and talks to her grandfather, a rather forbidding amateur naturalist who generally ignores the children in favor of experiments in his laboratory. On finding a kindred spirit in Callie he makes an exception to his child-ignoring rule and teaches her about science, nature, and the distillation of liquor. (She finds that whiskey may cause coughing.)

It’s also the summer when it starts to sink in how differently boys and girls are treated in 1899, how few options she has, and how little she likes those options. The realization sits heavy on her, to say the least, and on her grandfather, too; he teaches her about Marie Curie and other lady scientists, but he knows that he’s making it harder for her to settle for the life her mother wants for her and the world expects of her, and that rejecting that life would take her down a very difficult path.

Callie is an appealing, energetic narrator, applying her wit and newly-trained skills of observation to the natural world and, with less consistent success, to her family. She is a product of her times and of her grandfather; her take on gender roles does not spring up fully-formed simple because she is the heroine of a modern volume of historical fiction and we expect our heroines to be sympathetic from a modern point of view, but rather we see it developing naturally through the conflicting influences of grandfather, brothers, best friend, mother, cook, and the telephone company. Memories of the Civil War frequently remind us how much Callie is the product of her time and place; with her friends and brothers, she maintains a reverence for Confederate soldiers, and no one likes the Federals.

It’s a slice-of-life book, covering the six months surrounding Callie’s twelfth birthday. It’s a pivotal six months of her life, and the book is a consistently interesting and enjoyable read, but as is so often the case with such books, the ending is abrupt and irresolute. We’re left with the hope that Callie will grow up from an unusual girl to an unusual woman, but with a lingering melancholy and a view of the obstacles that stand in her way.

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The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate ~ Jacqueline Kelly

Dreamdark Blackbring Laini TaylorMagpie is a bit of a feral faerie-child: having left the Dreamdark, a cradle of faerie civilization, at a very young age, she has spent her childhood travelling, first with her parents and then with a murder of crows. Once a theatre troop, the cheroot-smoking, foul-mouthed birds are now Magpie’s couterie, helping her track down the devils humans are forever releasing from their prisons in bottles, cast into the sea. A rumor of a new devil brings them to an abandoned ship; instead of the blood and gore that usually characterize a devilish crime scene, this one contains nothing but the abandoned bottle, sealed with the mark of the great djinn, and four pairs of empty shoes.

The world is brilliantly crafted, and in decline: the faeries have lost much of their magic, knowledge, and awareness of the natural world; the great djinns who wove the world are long asleep, uncaring about the world they created; the humans evolved without the djinn’s input and are wreaking havoc, what with the cutting-down of trees, digging-up of gold, killing of dragons, and unleashing of devils. It’s nice to have a faerie book in which humans are, at most, peripheral: it gives the book a pleasant independence and sets us in our place a bit. It deals with prophesy and destiny better than many; Magpie was born for a reason and with great power, and was the given gifts of further power by all the animals, but her free will is unimpinged. Even better, her birth caused a bit of a spillover into similarly-timed and -located faerie births, so at least a few faeries her age have hints of her gift. They, too, can help rejuvenate the faerie world.

The writing is beautiful and the book swept me away. I can’t say that it made a six-hour stay in the airport pleasant, exactly, but it certainly helped.

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Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer ~ Laini Taylor ~ The Journal of Laini Taylor
My review of Silksinger

Nick doesn’t like Mrs. Starch, his biology teacher; she’s strict, a tough grader, and likes to use homework for both punishment and humiliation. Nonetheless, he’s worried when she disappears: a fire breaks out during a field-trip to the everglades, she goes back for a student’s dropped asthma inhaler, and never returns. The school insists she’s taking a leave of absence to deal with family matters, but it doesn’t make sense to Nick. With his friend Marta, Nick decides to investigate, even if he’s a little afraid of the number one suspect: a classmate recently antagonized by Mrs. Starch and with a history of arson.

Carl Hiaasen’s books are always fun: a dose of environmentalism, a dose of mystery, a dose of adventure, and leavened by his rather twisted sense of humor. Unfortunately, he’s getting a touch predictable, especially in his children’s books; having read both of his early kid’s books and about half of his adult books, I enjoyed Scat but the main plot never surprised me or held me in suspense.

The secondary plot, on the other hand, had me on the edge of my seat. Nick’s father is just returning from a tour of service in Iraq, and not entirely intact. Nick and his parents’ struggle to adjust and Nick’s father’s medical setbacks are masterfully portrayed, particularly as Nick fights for a sense of control over a situation in which really, he has no control.

And the rest of the time it’s running around the everglades saving panthers and defeating greedy oilmen, in true Carl Hiaasen tradition.

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Scat ~ Carl Hiaasen

Goose Girl Shannon HaleMy first exposure to this particular fairy tale was only a few months ago, when I was reading Troll’s-Eye View – a collection of short stories told from the villains’ points of view. The Goose Girl tells the story from a more traditional perspective, but with plenty of personality anyway.

Ani never fit in as a princess. Even as a baby, she was odd; only her aunt, herself an outsider, could make sense of her. Confident and comfortable when talking to swans and other birds—her aunt had taught her their language—she is nearly paralyzed with anxiety when interacting with most humans. However, she respects her position as Crown Princess and, with a lady in waiting who is much more skilled with people than she is, she watches and studies her mother and governance. But then she’s packed off to the neighboring country, separated from her own by mountains and woods that few pass, to be married off to a prince she knows nothing about. In true fairy tale form, a betrayal and reversal occur, sending the lady in waiting to the palace and the princess to the goose pasture.

Anyone familiar with fairy tales can predict the overall story arc fairly early in the novel, even if they have limited exposure to this particular story. It’s Ani who makes it special. The early descriptions of her panic in the face of socialization are a painfully accurate portrait of anxiety. Her disillusionment, as she realizes that her status does not guarantee her loyalty from everyone, paves the way for her evolution over the rest of the book: becoming comfortable in her skin for the first time, making friends for the first time, learning to trust again—this time not blind trust based on class, but earned trust based on shared experiences and friendship—and even learning how to lead.

The world Hale created is rich and interesting, with plenty of unplumbed depth. Unplumbed in this book, anyway; she has since written three more books (Enna Burning, River Secrets, and Forest Born) set in the same world. Likewise, the supporting characters have personalities of their own, which I look forward to exploring in Hale’s later books.

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The Goose Girl ~ Shannon Hale
My review of Enna Burning
My review of Rapunzel’s Revenge