Quick Review: Tuesdays at the Castle and The Night Gardener

Here are two middle grade novels with fantasy elements.

  •  Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George
    • Series: Castle Glower #1
    • Rating: ★★★★ [ratings guide]
    • I devoured this book during April’s 24 Hour Read-a-thon. I think it’s a very fun, if not super deep, read. The castle intrigue and politics aren’t the most original, but they suit the story and are a lot of fun to read with the castle in play. The characters are well-balanced. I enjoyed this one and will read the sequel. I would recommend it for young readers who like ‘traditional castle fantasies’ (as I would have said when I was 10 :P). This is a good example of middle grade that could be enjoyed by anyone who likes this kind of story. 
  • The Night Garden by Jonathan Auxier
    • Rating: ★★★ [ratings guide]
    • I don’t like to say a book is ‘good for middle grade’ – I like to think a book is either good for all ages or none at all. However, lately I’ve been thinking that’s not as terrible a statement as I once thought (“It’s good for middle grade”). Kids have a different mindset, a different set of experiences than adults. A book that’s great for kids isn’t necessarily going to be great for adults. Perhaps what I should be saying is the best middle grade is good for all ages – it doesn’t all have to be that way. Not every book for children needs to refuel my love of reading or spark a strong emotional response or revolutionize how I think. So. Now that I’ve cleared that up, I think this is a good book for middle grade 😉 The characters weren’t as developed as I like to read (though they do each have clearly defined personalities). I hoped for more from the Night Gardener’s story, some depth or ambiguity regarding good and evil but the line is pretty clearly drawn in that matter, but I think that’s appropriate for this book.
    • The story does have some spooky and dark moments, certainly if you’re ten years old and therefore relatively new to this type of story. 
    • I liked how storytelling vs. lying factored into the story.

If I was writing more objectively, I might say these two books are of the same ‘goodness’ level. After writing about The Night Gardener, I thought again about Tuesdays at the Castle and tried to identify why I enjoyed that one more than the other. I don’t think the characters are any more strongly written than in The Night Gardener, which seems to be my main criticism of that book. I guess it just comes down to my personal preference for story.  Have you read either of these books? How would you compare the two? (Can they be compared, given their greatly different subject matter?)

Review: Salt & Storm by Kendall Kulper

Author: Kendall Kulper
Title:Salt & Storm
Format/Source: eBook/Library
Published: September 2014
Publisher: Little, Brown
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Why I Read: Sounded intriguing
Read If You’re: Hankering for a historical, magical tale set by the sea and aren’t too critical of undeveloped romance
Rating:  ★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

Look at that deep dark purple!! (Well, maybe it’s blue…but I’m sticking with purple.) Unusually, I can’t remember how I came across this book. The cover probably left me with a good impression, though, inviting me to read the description and add it to my TBR.

The premise drew me to this story. I’m learning that I enjoy moody tales with touches of magic in a historical settings by the sea (okay, few stories have all those elements – two out of four is enough to draw my attention). I like that atmosphere. I also enjoy stories that feature a line of women, focusing on one of them. I like reading snippets about impressive ancestors of the past. Salt & Storm tells the tale of the Roe witches of Prince Island, a small whaling island off the east coast of America at a time when the whale industry is collapsing. Avery yearns to become the next witch and take over from her grandmother, but her mother holds Avery against her will to prevent her from doing. While this sounds like something I would love, the story fell short for me because of the romance.

Please noteThe next two paragraphs contains spoilers regarding the romance and origins of the Roe’s magic. Skip to to avoid.

 

The romance develops quickly and unrealistically (even if you’re a fan of everlasting teen romance, you may agree with me here). I can’t accept that such feelings can blossom in so short a time, when they know so little of each other. Admittedly, I am so not interested in teen romance. I wasn’t interested as a teen, and I’m becoming even less interested as I age. Possibly I’m too cynical when it comes to matters of young love. I dislike stories which go “I’m 16 and I’ve just met the love of my life and we’ve been together for a week but we’ll be together forever”. They’re not realistic – which, okay, this sort of romance is often fictional escapism, but they rarely even feel realistic and I can’t imagine why I would want to read that. I guess for me it’s a bit because I’ve never experienced that feeling? But, I also never wanted to experience it (I’m not hankering to be in a relationship, I like to take things as they come and go), so in stories it dulls me. I’d rather see a few relationships (that don’t necessarily end horribly) before meeting the soul mate, but I guess there isn’t room for that in a single novel. Now I’ve digressed probably more than necessary. The point is, at least this romance appeased me with its tragic ending (that I read too quick and got a bit confused about what was happening.)

Another aspect of the story that ties into the romance that I didn’t like was how witches get their power from having their hearts broken by men. Avery’s mother and grandmother both fell in love with ‘bad’ men, had their hearts ruined, and thus gained their magic powers. Perhaps some years ago I would have thought this beautifully tragic, but now I can’t help but find messages like men give women power when they hurt them, women can only be strong if men break them first, women can’t trust their feelings, etc.

 Spoilers finished!

In addition to the romance, the story has a more teenager-y voice than I anticipated. I hoped for something more in the vein of The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender – less romantic yearnings, more touches of magic, less ego, more dreamy prose. I still intend to read the upcoming companion book (I can’t tell if it’s a sequel or prequel or how much it’ll connect to this book). After all my ramblings on romance, you might think I’d give this book a lower rating. However, I enjoyed all other aspects, especially if I stop thinking about what I wanted to it to be and just take it for what it is. Ditch the romance and I think Kulper could really tell a shining story.

The Bottom Line: A great historical setting and system of magic, unfortunately Salt & Storm is more focused on the underwhelming romance than the magic.

Quick Revew: Emancipation Day and The War That Saved My Life

Both of these books take place during World War II.

  • Emancipation Day by Wayne Grady
    • Rating: ★★½ [ratings guide]
    • This is only the second book I’ve read that uses passing to explore racial identity and prejudice. Boy, Snow, Bird introduced me to the concept, of which I was previously ignorant. 
    • I liked the setting and the incorporation of historical events. I especially liked that part of the story is set in Newfoundland prior to its joining with Canada. 
    • The story is pretty bleak and felt flat overall, to me. Missing that spark that brings a story alive. The final line definitely caught me in the gut, though! Ouch, what a conclusion.
  • The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
    •  Rating: ★★★ [ratings guide]
    • I like stories about plucky young evacuees during WWII. I suppose that comes from the Narnia books and the film Bedknobs and Broomsticks. I should read more books about them.
    • A lot of the story felt unbelievable to me. Mam reads as a caricature and Ada teaches herself unaided (to walk, to ride a horse) remarkably well for a nine-year-old who’s been shut in doors her entire life. The ending is a bit of a spectacle. However, if I were younger, I think I would forgive these aspects of the books in favour of Ada herself, whose line of thinking and emotional reactions feel very much so believable. She could be very inspirational. I would cheer when she succeeds because of her bravery and I would admire her devotion to her brother.
    • I wonder if Ada was meant to have an autism spectrum disorder? Her screaming, her distancing moments, disliking touch and the comfort she finds in being wrapped in pressure prompted this thought. (Pardon my ignorance if I’m way off base here – these could also all be symptoms of being locked up her whole life). At least, I like to think a child who experiences these things and reads this book will find someone to look up to in Ada.

Family Reads: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

 Welcome to the inaugural post of Family Reads! Family Reads is a monthly feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book. Posts with a link-up go live on the last Sunday of each month, so feel free to grab the banner and join in however you like.

Reno: Neil Gaiman is a favourite author of mine. Moo took me to his signing and waited patiently for a few hours while I stood in line! Ocean became my new favourite Gaiman book during my first read and I brought it to Japan so I could reread it for the first time. 

Mom: My connection to NG is through my daughter. I recall years back seeing the movie Stardust and thinking that would make a great book. Oh, so little did I know. Years later I took that same  daughter to his book signing. When she says a few hours, please translate to 6.5 hours. His books are often topics of conversation in our home. I was excited when asked to read Ocean – I experienced first hand the imagination in the words NG puts to paper.

After explaining my rating scale to Mom, we both gave this book 5 stars. Mom says she would like to have a copy on her shelf to reread. Now, onto our discussion. We spent a couple hours on Skype chatting (mostly talking about the book, but with family interruptions and tangents include). I recorded and transcribed our conversation, then selected some highlights for this post (we talked about a lot). You’ll get more out of this discussion if you’ve read the book (spoilers ahead!). Here is some of our discussion on memory, children’s experiences, and relating to the story (and also, what might be the narrator’s name?).

I remember my own childhood vividly… I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let the adults know I knew. It would scare them. (Maurice Sendak, quoted at the begin of Oceans)

Reno: I was reading a blog post about whether the boy’s experiences are ‘real’ or not. Some people think it’s just the kid rationalizing what happened. But that quote at the beginning, especially, makes me think… That’s why he forgets his experience, because he’s an adult now, he can’t really believe that all happened. Does that make sense?
Mom: Yup. So when he’s back there, he remembers everything vividly, but when he leaves, his mind says “No, that’s too out there, it can’t be true.”
Reno: It’s like what kids experience isn’t as valid or real.
Mom: Right, like there’s no possible way it could be real. Like when you’re in kindergarten and you use all different colours for different things but as you get older you’re told you should only use this colour for that, because the sky’s blue and not orange.
Reno: YES, spot on! Just because you’re a kid doesn’t mean your imagination or experiences aren’t real or vaild.
Mom: Yeah, because we all experiences things in a different way.
Reno: That’s why everyone likes this book in a different way…because it’s ‘deep’.
Mom: Because everyone relates to it on different levels, how it’s ‘their’ story.
Reno:  Yes! That’s how I feel – “This book really speaks to me” and 5 million other people, in their own way. I think that’s part of why Oceans  stands out so much – we all love American Gods or Neverwhere for the same reasons, but we love Oceans perhaps for own ranging personal reasons.

***

Reno: What do you think of the main character not having a name? *Mom makes a face* Haha, Mom’s like “Wait a minute…”!
Mom: How does he not have a name?
Reno: He just doesn’t. He’s never named.
Mom: Oh! *flips through book* Okay, so you start reading and you just have this picture of a boy in your head. I never noticed that he didn’t have a name.
Reno: It’s so smoothly written. Maybe that’s one of the things that makes it more adaptable, like how you can put yourself in his shoes more.
Mom: Yeah! Well, for goodness sakes. If I had to say he had a name, I would have said Fred or something.
Reno: Hahaha, Fred, that sounds good. I was thinking something like…not Kevin, but maybe a K name…Tom? No, not Tom… Rick? No no, not Rick! Something British. Fred is pretty good, actually.
Mom: Fred is the only name I can think of him by.
Reno: Maybe I just think of him as Neil. Neil is pretty good, too.
Mom:  Well, I never gave it a thought that I didn’t know his name. I just knew. You just relate to him anyhow.

Reno: I think that’s good. I have a lot to work from.
Mom: Oh, do you? I didn’t feel I’d given you anything.
Reno: No no, there’s lots! Good job, Mom.
Mom: Thank-you! I enjoyed it. Did I tell you I’ve read The Book of Lost Things now?

And then we proceeded to talk about that one for half an hour 🙂 So, that’s it! That’s the end of my first Family Reads posts. I hope you enjoyed it. I’ll probably experiment with the format going forward; I’m not yet sure the best way to share the conversations. I had tons of notes that I wasn’t sure how to incorporate, and instead decided just to focus on what I thought was the most important part of our discussion. Going forward perhaps I’ll include more. Anyway, I definitely had a lot of fun talking about one of my favourite books with my Mom! Is there anything you would add to our discussion? If you’ve written a Family Reads post this month, add your link here. (pardon me while I figure out how to run this sort of link-up feature…)

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane also counts towards the Re-Read Challenge.

WHEN I First Read – Shortly after publication, at the start of July 2013. I was traveling around Ireland at the time, so I didn’t devour it the day of publication like I would have at home.

WHAT I Remember – The feeling that this was Gaiman’s most personal story for me, and that it was a small story in an immense story.

WHY I Wanted to Re-ReadOcean is one of the precious few physical books I brought to Japan. I planned on rereading it this year because I hadn’t read it since its release (though I feel like I reread it when I got back home from Ireland [Sept. 2013], there’s no documentation of that). Mom said she was going to read it next, so I decided I would also read it for our first Family Reads.

HOW I Felt After Re-Reading – Very pleased that the story held up on reread. It was just as deep and magical as the first read.

WOULD I Re-Read Again – Certainly! This has potential to be an annual reread book (not sure, though.)

Have you re-read any of Gaiman’s works? What did you think upon rereading?

Reread Review: The Scar by China Mieville

Author: China Mieville
Title: The Scar
Series: Bas-Lag novels
Format/Source: Paperback/my copy
Published: 2000
Publisher: Del Rey
Length: 578 pages
Genre: Mieville is his own genre (steampunk?)
Why I Read: In the mood for a strong ‘place as character’ book
Read If You:  Like original world-building, grounded characters or ocean adventures
Rating:  ★★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon
Third book for the Reread Challenge. Read my original review.

WHEN I First Read – At the start of January 2013, while I was house sitting for my aunt.

WHAT I Remember – The vivid and intense world building. The immensity of the avanc (real whales freak me out because of their size – I got chills reading the descriptions of the avanc). Down-to-earth Bellis. The general decency of most characters. And something vague about how the story ends, but nothing about how it got to that point.

WHY I Wanted to Re-Read I wanted to enter that sort of world again. I wanted a meaty book I could really get pulled into. I knew I could rely on this one to do that. I picked up a physical paperback while visiting a huge bookstore in Osaka that has half a floor of English books *-*

HOW I Felt After Re-Reading – Excellent! Why didn’t I give this five stars + favourite before? I think I read the ending too fast on my first read and didn’t quite understand it. I was surprised by how much of the story I had forgotten (for example, I did not remember Simon at all.) was pleased to find aspects of the novel that I liked the first time surpassed my expectations this time. Bellis is such a great character, I think one of the most realistic and believable characters I’ve read in an unbelievable situation.

WOULD I Re-Read Again – I think so. I love the prose, the characters and the world, but it’s a thick book that’s relatively plot heavy and I think some time would have to pass so I can ‘forget’ the plot and enjoy it again.

This wasn’t a book I thought I would reread this year, but I’m glad I did! Have you read anything by Mieville? Are there any fictional worlds you’ve been wanting to revisit?