The Worst Witch, by Jill Murphy

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Author’s Wikipedia page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 3, 2011

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Mildred Hubble is a trainee witch at Miss Cackle’s Academy, and she’s making an awful mess of it. She’s always getting her spells wrong and she can’t even ride a broomstick without crashing it. Will she ever make a real witch?

Thoughts: I was a fan of the Worst Witch TV show back in the day. Even rewatched a few episodes lately, just for nostalgia’s sake, and was pleased to see that while the plot was still corny and not all the acting great, the glare of nostalgia hadn’t blinded me into thinking that the show was good when in fact it wasn’t. It holds up pretty well.

So getting the chance to finally read one of the books that inspired both that show and a (from what I hear) rather ridiculous movie starring Fairuza Balk and Tim Curry, was something of a childhood dream come true. (Seriously, watch this video of Tim Curry’s song from the movie, where he does his level best to use any word that rhymes with “Halloween.” “Has anybody seen my tambourine?”)

Sadly, the dream wasn’t all I’d hoped.

The Worst Witch was originally written in 1974, so it’s older than me, and as far as books for younger children go, it passes the test of time. There’s nothing in it that would confuse modern children, no mentions of old technologies or fads or anything of the sort, which puts it a step ahead of some other novels intended for younger audiences. It’s got a timeless appeal, and can be read by kids or parents from the day it was published to today without ever having to stop and explain something obsolete.

It’s incredibly difficult to read or review this book without making some reference to Harry Potter, so I’ll just come right out and say it: this book has so much resemblence to the HP novels that it’s practically like Murphy and Rowling collaborated for a while. If I were to say to you, “It’s a book where a child goes to a boarding school to learn magic, and they have a snobby rival right from the get-go, and the Potions teacher seems to hate them bust constantly praises the main character’s rival,” most people’s minds wouldn’t jump to The Worst Witch.

This isn’t a fault of the book itself. After all, this book was written decades before the first Harry Potter novel, so nobody can accuse it of being derivative. The problem here is that the characters have no depth and their actions have no explanation. Some of this can be excused since the series is intended for a slightly younger audience that Harry Potter‘s earlier books, and not every kid is going to point out that Miss Hardbroom’s malice and cruelty seem to come from nowhere, for example (at least Snape had reasons for his animosity toward Harry), but there’s one issue that I don’t think will escape many young minds: why is Mildred the worst witch? She literally gets called that by the school’s headmistress, and the reason, at least from what I can gather from the book, is that she’s a bit clumsy and isn’t adept at all her lessons.

And even this is inconsistant. She gets reprimanded for using the incorrect ingredients in a potion (which she wasn’t allowed to have the instructions for, and her reasons for making a mistake weren’t exactly illogical — she thought she’d forgotten an ingredient and said ingredient was one of the one’s set out as an option for students to use), and yet at the end somehow still manages to be awesome enough to turn an entire group of witches into snails and save the school from disaster. No progression of character, no learning as she goes, nada. Just getting tired of being told that she sucks, running away, and then when it counts, doing something incredibly difficult on the first try. Maybe this part will go over the heads of children reading it, but as an adult, it seemed to me like poor writing.

Perhaps the series improves as it goes on. I certainly hope so. There are the seeds of something good here, and the books have gone on to become timeless classics in children’s fiction, so I hope there’s more to them than this first book suggests. And perhaps I’m expecting more from kidlit than I ought to; I don’t have too much experience in reviewing books intended for this age range, after all, and I freely admit that. It’s probably the sort of book that I would have adored reading when I was 7 or so, and I wouldn’t have seen the problems in it that I do now. I suppose that begs the question of whether a problem is really a problem if nobody sees it; if kids like it, then where’s the harm in not giving characters any depth or motivation or consistancy?

Actually, in phrasing it like that, there is a problem. It’s not impossible for these elements to be added to fiction for younger audiences. It’s not impossible to add nuance and for kids to see it and even appreciate it. Miss Hardbroom’s cruelty is the best example I can think of to illustrate this. Children may not always understand why adults are mean, occasionally malicious, or why they get away with it so often. It may seem completely random to them, as it does in this book. And in that respect, the book gets points for realistic portrayal of a young child’s perspective. But there is always a reason, even if it’s a lousy reason, because people are more complex than one-dimensional one-trait things. Helping kids understand the reasons, to show them that people aren’t merely what’s seen on the surface, might be a better lesson than, “If you really need to, you can do the impossible.”

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Princess Academy, by Shannon Hale

Because how can you go wrong with a title like Princess Academy?

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – December 1, 2008

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Miri lives on a mountain where, for generations, her ancestors have quarried stone and lived a simple life. Then word comes that the king’s priests have divined her small village the home of the future princess. In a year’s time, the prince himself will come and choose his bride from among the girls of the village. The king’s ministers set up an academy on the mountain, and every teenage girl must attend and learn how to become a princess.

Miri soon finds herself confronted with a harsh academy mistress, bitter competition among the girls, and her own conflicting desires to be chosen and win the heart of her childhood best friend. But when bandits seek out the academy to kidnap the future princess, Miri must rally the girls together and use a power unique to the mountain dwellers to save herself and her classmates.

Thoughts: I don’t normally review mid-grade novels. YA is usually about as young as I’ll go, since often I find books for audiences much younger than that don’t have plots as deep or complex and can’t often hold my attention as well as books for older audiences.

Shannon Hale’s work, on the other hand, appears to be a pleasant exception.

I’d say that Princess Academy straddles that fine line between mid-grade and young adult, with an easy-to-follow writing style and simple conflicts to resolve, combined with some deceptively in-depth world-building, unexpected plot twists, and it’s certainly a thick enough book to hold some good story inside. It’s a fine read when you’re looking for something light and relaxing, something that doesn’t take too much of your attention, but that still has a decent plot and is something worth reading.

The story centres around Miri, a young girl from a poor mountain village who is chosen, along with every other girl of a certain age in her village, to be part of what they call the princess academy. Fortune tellers have predicted that the kingdom’s prince will find his future bride in that region, and in order to allow each girl to put her best foot forward, they must be trained in politics, history, etiquette, and a dozen other things that none of them have ever had cause to think about before. All so that one of them might impress the prince when he visits and so can marry into the royal family.

You go through the book expecting that, as is typical for such stories, Miri will be the one that the prince chooses. Hale throws readers for a loop by not having that happen. It’s a small thing, but bucks the trend enough to be very noticeable and praise-worthy. Instead, that honour goes to Miri’s friend, who knew the prince when they were children, and Miri instead goes on to change the economy of her village and improves the lives of everyone there. It’s impressive to see a story about a girl who isn’t just some romantic prize, but instead is more concerned with finance and trade and justice, making sure that the people of her village are no longer taken advantage of by traders. It’s not something often seen. Usually you’ll see a female character who is concerned with that kind of justice and is the romantic prize. Kudos to Hale for not setting up the story that way.

It’s also interesting because it shows how a good story can be told from a character that isn’t technically the main focus on the unfolding events. Miri is undeniably part of the whole princess academy deal, but she isn’t particularly interested in the academy’s primary purpose. It’s someone else who goes through that, beginning to end, and is the one chosen by the prince when all is said and done. But Miri’s story is still interesting to follow, probably moreso because it’s atypical for stories but very typical for what the majority of people will actually experience in their lives. We won’t always be the ones to achieve greatness. We won’t always get the guy, or girl, or whoever. We won’t always be the centre of the stories going on around us. Sometimes someone else will have the spotlight shining on them and will get the fairy tale ending. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have our own stories to star in, and that we can’t do something amazing with the lives we lead. It actually sets realistic expectations for readers, and doesn’t  cave to the pressures of the standard story: girl gets chance to become princess, girl thus marries prince. Here it’s: girl gets chance to become princess, girl uses training to discover her village is being swindled and puts a stop to it.

As I said earlier, Hale’s writing style is clear, smooth, and easy to follow, without making things simplistic or dumbing down the expectations of what the audience can understand. The world-building draws on European-inspired fantasy to provide a very traditional feel to the setting, and it doesn’t break too many molds where that’s concerned. But a lot of the subtler aspects of culture-building are there, from snippets of local songs and jokes and the expressed difference between the mountain girls and the people from the royal capital. It’s familiar enough to draw younger readers is and different enough to make it clear that it’s fantasy, that Miri’s world is not our own at any point through history. It’s the kind of book I curl up with when I don’t want to stretch my brain much, when I was comfortable and familiar fantasy that I can sink into with minimal effort and still come away from having been entertained. As far as mid-grade fantasy goes, Hale has definitely piqued my interest enough for me to want to check out more of what she’d written, to see if her world-building and skill with creating individual and very real characters continues.

A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness

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Author’s website
Publication date – March 12, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) The monster showed up after midnight. As they do.

But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…

This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.

It wants the truth.

Thoughts: At first blush, this book could be taken for a mid-grade horror novel. And while  suppose an argument could be made for it being such, it’s more of a powerful story about loss and acceptance, coming to grips with terrible realities and how things aren’t always what they seem.

And here’s the twist: the true monster of the story is not the one that’s visiting Conor. The true monster is never even named. But it’s painfully obvious what the true monster is, nevertheless.

It’s very hard to write a review of this book without mentioned serious spoilers, or else sounding incoherent like I’m having a fandrogyne moment. But I’ll do my best.

The plot centres around Conor, a young boy from the UK in a lousy situation. His father has remarried and moved to America. His mother is very sick. He feels alone and friendless and endlessly stressed out about his mother and the pity he’s receiving for her and he longs, very much, for life to be normal.

And then a monster comes for him. A monster with many names, who has worn many faces through history, and he comes when people have need of him and call him. As the story progresses, the monster tells Conor 3 stories, each seemingly straightforward but all with a twist that makes Conor frustrated yet gives him a chance to examine things from a new and unexpected angle. As Conor’s mother gets sicker, the monster makes his own demands on Conor: a story of his own, one of complete truth, and something which terrifies Conor in ways he can’t fully express.

This book is a fairy tale for those in a hard situation, and cathartic for those who have experienced deep loss. I challenge you to read this and not shed tears, whether for Conor’s loss or a loss of your own. This is something that will resonate with anyone who has struggled with grief, and Ness’s writing prowess and storytelling ability shines as it conveys the difficult truths of life and death. I have read books about loss before. I have even attended grief counseling. But I have never before seen something like this, something that cuts to the heart of the matter so simply and poetically.

This isn’t a book where I can just say, “I recommend this to [group of people].” It’s a book that I think should be read by everyone, young and old. You’ll close the book and come away changed, you’ll endure every emotional up and down that Conor endured, you’ll empathize with all sides and understand all perspectives presented. You’ll step back a little sadder, a little wiser, and more than a little blown away at the complexities that life gives us all.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Son, by Lois Lowry

Son, by Lois Lowry  Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com

Author’s website
Publication date – October 2, 2012

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) They called her Water Claire. When she washed up on their shore, no one knew that she came from a society where emotions and colors didn’t exist. That she had become a Vessel at age thirteen. That she had carried a Product at age fourteen. That it had been stolen from her body. Claire had a son. But what became of him she never knew. What was his name? Was he even alive? She was supposed to forget him, but that was impossible. Now Claire will stop at nothing to find her child, even if it means making an unimaginable sacrifice.

Son thrusts readers once again into the chilling world of the Newbery Medal winning book, The Giver, as well as Gathering Blue and Messenger where a new hero emerges. In this thrilling series finale, the startling and long-awaited conclusion to Lois Lowry’s epic tale culminates in a final clash between good and evil.

Thoughts: The Giver was an amazing book that presented mature themes in a way that younger audiences could grasp. Gathering Blue tackled the issues of brutal societies and forced art. Messenger was occasionally baffling and unfocused and probably would have been better as a standalone novel rather than a continuation to The Giver, and was undoubtedly inferior to the previously two books.

Son just breaks the hell out of almost everything Lowry established in previous installments, with the exception of Messenger. Personally, I think that the only reason it made the bookshelves at all is because of its ties to The Giver. The bulk of the novel is about a young woman trying to get her son back after he was taken from her, and the loss she feels because of the situation. However, more often than not it seems like she’s a central figure to the story only because the story is going on around her. If Lowry meant to leave readers feeling distanced from the action and incapable of relating to Claire, then she certainly accomplished what she set out for. Otherwise…

We start the story in Jonas’s old community, and plenty of references are made to the events of The Giver to keep the reader centered. Unfortunately, this brings in the first major way that Lowry messed up her own continuity. She actually had characters refer to the Giver and the Receiver as separate people. It was previously established that there is the Receiver of Memory, and Jonas was his apprentive, but the title of Giver was something that seemed to be known only between the old man and Jonas themselves. He was still known as the Receiver to the rest of the community.

Later dissatisfied with her life as a Birthmother after her son was taken from her (post-partum depression, and given the community’s very ordered and structured methods, it’s surprising that there was no pre-existing way to deal with this), our protagonist leaves, develops amnesia, and is re-raised by a fishing village that is confined by large cliffs. She eventually regains a sense of purpose and climbs the cliffs to leave, and finds her way to the village that Jonas established and presides over. But not before she encounters a dark and sinister man (the Trademaster, who was so bafflingly introduced in Messenger) to whom she basically trades away her youth.

From here, the perspective switches to that of Gabe, the young child who left the community with Jonas in the first book. Claire is, from here on, pretty much an incidental figure, someone who happens to be there but doesn’t actually do anything. This is, above all else, what made me think that Lowry mostly wanted to do a story about post-partum depression and the loss a young mother can feel, but didn’t think it would sell well on its own. She shoe-horned it in with an existing story from The Giver‘s universe, and left the whole thing feeling like 2 separate short stories rather than one cohesive novel. Sadly, it weakened both stories.

Anyway, we get to see Gabe’s big destiny is to defeat the Trademaster once and for all, shrinking and eliminating the embodiment of evil with the power of mercy and goodness. For the ending of a kid’s speculative fiction novel, this wouldn’t normally be bad. Clear-cut divisions, an ultimate triumph. But when you take it in context with the universe it came from, it seems like a cop-out. In The Giver, there are some hard-hitting issues tackled. Euthanasia of children for the convenience of others. Restrictive dystopias. Freedom and uncertainty versus captivity and security. Things that actually make people think hard no matter what their age. To have all of that come down to nothing but a rather tame battle between good and evil felt like nothing so much as the author just wanting to wrap things up in a neat package. It wasn’t challenging. It wasn’t even that interesting.

It also didn’t explain anything that had confused me about the Trademaster from the previous novel. It was obvious there that he was pretty much an analogy for the devil, but his appearance seemed so random and unsuited to the setting that I felt like I was missing something vital every time he was mentioned. Go from hard-hitting issues to being careful what you wish for was a let-down, and I wasn’t exactly picked back up in the fourth and final novel of the series.

Ultimately, this book wasn’t a good one, either in context or out of it. From my own standpoint, The Giver and Gathering Blue were wonderful as standalone novels, and didn’t need to be tied together in what became a disappointing series with unsatisfying conclusions. This one is definitely worth passing over, even if you enjoyed the previos novels. Possibly especially if you enjoyed the previous novels.

Sad to see something so amazing fall to this.

Warriors Wednesday: Sunset, by Erin Hunter

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Author’s website
Publication date – September 25, 2007

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Soon after the cats reached their new home by the lake, ThunderClan’s medicine cat Leafpool received an ominous warning from StarClan: “Before there is peace, blood will spill blood, and the lake will run red.” As the Clan slowly recovers from a devastating badger attack, Leafpool can’t help but wonder . . . do her prophetic dreams mean there are even worse dangers still in store for the warrior cats?

At the same time, shadows of the past continue to haunt the forest as some old friends struggle to find their place, others appear to be lost forever, and an old enemy finds a new way to resurface in a quest for dark revenge. A sinister path is unfolding, and the time is coming for certain warriors to make the choices that will determine their destiny… and the destiny of all the Clans.

Thoughts: After the disappointment I felt for the previous book, I was really hoping this final book of the the second series of Warriors novels would be better. And I can’t deny that a lot of the problems I had weren’t present in this novel. The pacing was better, characterization improves, and the fact that things were actually happening and 75% of the book wasn’t filler were all good changes. But what really made this book fall down for me was the deliberate and too-frequent sequel-baiting.

That, and Tigerstar is being set up as the kitty devil or something. I get that he’s bad. We all get that he’s bad. But to have him be setting up his revenge against Firestar from beyond the grave, literally becoming a spiritual presence that was following Brambleclaw and Hawkfrost around, was a bit over the top. It is possible for a person (or cat, in this case) to be an antagonist without being a furry embodiment of evil.

A great deal of issues brought up in previous novels were dealt with, and often dealt with well. Tigerstar is seen in Tawnypelt’s dreams, but she’s made of sterner stuff than Brambleclaw, it seems, because she refuses what he offers. Hawkfrost is revealed to be the one who planted the moth’s wing sign that got Mothwing her position as a medicine cat. Mothwing desperately tries to stand up to her brother when it comes to his political ambitions. The final confrontation is revealed to be between Brambleclaw and Hawkfrost (come on, who didn’t see that one coming the very second they heard the prophecy?). So I can’t say that this book was wholly bad, because it did tackle a lot of interesting subjects (ie, Cinderpelt’s reincarnation) and added depth to the world I’ve come to enjoy reading about.

But those good things were not enough to overshadow the bad. I mentioned the blatant sequel-baiting. It was terrible. The 3 stars that Leafpool kept seeing in her dreams were at least addressed directly, in the sense of her being told, “Yup, they’re important, but that’s a story for another day.” But other things were not handled so well, and left me feeling unsatisfied. The biggest piece of bait? Why can’t Brook and Stormfur go back to the mountains, and why do they act so shifty and upset when someone mentions it? Characters wonder it all the time, but nothing is ever said, and it’s painfully obvious that it’s a set-up for another series.

The first Warriors series tied things up nicely. It left a couple of unanswered questions, but they weren’t hugely important ones, and in all, the story it told was contained nicely. Here, it feels like there should be a seventh book just to wrap up what the sixth book didn’t bother to get to. And considering the fifth book was nearly all repetitive filler, that’s pretty bad.

But by this point it was obvious that the series was taking off in popularity, and so any attempt to milk the cash cow must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

The author has a habit, much like with many children’s books, to end chapters on a question. “If so-and-so did this, does it really mean that?” “How can this be true when that happened?” That sort of thing. Which is fine, it you remember that you’re reading a book designed for younger audiences. But then we get to a chapter-ending question later on in the book that asks, essentially, “If Brambleclaw was doing whatever it took to achieve power, didn’t that automatically make it right?” Uh, what? Considering by this point, this whole series has spent a dozen books showing that the pursuit of power by any means isn’t a good thing, why on earth would that even come up as a “consider this” kind of question? It seemed so out there, so pointless, that I can’t even imagine what was going through the author’s head with that line. It isn’t even a subjectively moral question. It was a question that the character asking it wouldn’t even consider as an option!

Particularly galling in this book, though, was the presence of the fox traps. They definitely had a reason to be there, but they annoyed the hell out of me for multiple reasons. First of all, cats figure out how to disarm them by using sticks as tools, an idea which makes me facepalm far more than the idea of cats using herbal medicine. Second, if you combine the scenes of Berrykit and Firestar getting caught in the traps, and relplace cats with rabbits, you’ve practically got a direct rip of the scene in Watership Down where Bigwig gets caught in a snare. Right down to them getting rescued because characters figure out that they can only loosen the wire by digging out the peg. Or in this case, stick.

This book had a good story that was soured by the presence of so many problems, and it’s a shame that such a potentially good series ended so poorly. This book and the one that came before it are the chief reasons I need to take a break from the series before I tackle the next one. I need to step back, or else I’m worried that future reviews will be tainted by my lingering opinions of these books.

Warriors Wednesday: Twilight, by Erin Hunter

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Author’s website
Publication date – June 21, 2007

Summary: (Taken from GoodReadsNew territory brings new troubles for the fierce cats of the warrior Clans, who are still uncovering the secrets of their new home around the lake. Dangers they have never faced before are lurking in the twilight shadows, and former allies are acting strangely hostile.

As divisions between the Clans grow deeper, Firestar’s daughters face troubling decisions. One is torn between loyalty to her calling and a forbidden love, while the other struggles with her best friend’s betrayal and the surprising perils of the forest. The choices they make now could affect ThunderClan for generations to come . . . and with an unexpected enemy preparing to attack, their courage and strength will be needed more than ever if the Clan is to survive.

Thoughts: I wanted to rate this book higher. I really did. But I had so many problems with it, so many things that made me frustrated with the book that I really couldn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to.

For starters, this book feels very much like a filler book. Now, I’m normally all for large pieces of character development, and will often forgive that when it comes at the expense of action. But here? No. It wasn’t even character development. What was dragged out for a while book could have been accomplished in a quarter of another book, which made me think that this book has its place for no more reason than to pad this second Warriors series out to the same 6 books as the first series. And it really shows.

Brambleclaw is now distant from Squirrelflight. Squirrelflight, of course, blames Brambleclaw’s closeness to Hawkfrost, whose ambition and calculated moves I think we’re supposed to get a better feel for here, but since he shows up in one scene and doesn’t saw a word, that’s really hard to tell. Squirrelflight is a horribly unreliable narrator, and reading between the lines, it’s easy for anyone with eyes to see that Brambleclaw’s distance from her has nothing to do with the dark dreams he’s sharing with Hawkfrost and his dead father Tigerstar, and far more to do with the fact that Squirrelflight is treating him like crap and Ashfur is moving in on his territory, so to speak. And Squirrelflight’s temper often gets the better of her, so in spite of Brambleclaw being a senior warrior and acting as Clan deputy, she’ll often do the opposite of what Brambleclaw’s orders are, even when it means clearly going against the warrior code. She returns to being the same brat she was when she was an apprentice, and the amount of times this behaviour gets shown just gets annoying.

Leafpool, on the other hand, is torn between her duties as a medicine cat and her growing love for Crowfeather, something that’s denied all medicine cats. Crowfeather returns the affections, which seemed to me less like genuine love and more like rebound and the need for comfort after Feathertail’s death… and saving Leafpool from a similar situation to the one Feathertail died from in the first place. Again, this is all reading between the lines, but to not do so makes these characters all seem really flat and without subtlety and nuance, and I prefer to think that there’s more to a situation than what’s being explicity said on the book’s pages. Anyway, Leafpool spends so much time vacilating between, “I wanna, but I shouldn’t, but I wanna, but I shouldn’t,” that I got tired of it pretty quickly.

Ultimately, very little actually got accomplished here. Tigerstar shows up in the prologue and explains a little bit about kitty hell for the readers, and how he’s going to take revenge on Firestar through Hawkfrost and Brambleclaw (why not Tawnypelt, who actually left Thunderclan to join Shadowclan like her father? No reason, except that nobody’s mistrusts Tawnypelt on sight or has anything to lose by her turning on Firestar, so she’s just not important to the plot).Thunderclan takes in a rogue and her kits, Sorreltail gives birth, Cinderpelt dies. But those are the main important events in here that aren’t included in Leafpool’s great love affair and Squirrelflight’s annoyance with Brambleclaw.

See what I mean when I said this book could have been done as a quarter of another book and still not lost anything important?

The battle scene with the badgers was really what bumped this up a notch for me, even if it seemed a bit contrived. Especially Midnight showing up to warn them. But it was a good scene with a lot of legitimate tension and fear going through it, and as with many heavy action scenes in this series, it led to character death, which lent it a good chunk of emotion, too.

But ultimately, thisbook felt like little more than a waste of time, unnecessary padding, and something that should have been condensed and worked on more than it was. The love story was overblown, the betrayal wasn’t actually anything more than speculation, and aside from Cinderpelt’s death and the adoption of Daisy and her kits, it would be so very easy for a person to completely skip this book and not to lose anything from it.

I certainly hope the next one’s better.

Warriors Wednesday: Starlight, by Erin Hunter

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Author’s website
Publication date – March 27, 2007

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Before there is peace, blood will spill blood…

The Clans have finally arrived in their new home, following the prophecies of their warrior ancestors. The journey was difficult enough, but now they must struggle to establish territories and learn the hidden dangers of this unfamiliar world. Most importantly, Leafpaw knows they must find a replacement for the Moonstone – a place to communicate with StarClan. Otherwise there will be no way to choose new leaders, no way to share medicine cat secrets, and no way to know whether the Clans are on the right path.

The future seems uncertain, and more than one cat is harboring sinister plans that could lead to violence and darkness. As all the warriors wait for a sign, some of them begin to realize that the threats they face in the forest may not be as perilous as the threats they face from within.

Thoughts: I know that I previously reviewed this book, but since I started the Warriors Wednesday feature, I felt it only fair that I read and review it again. This time I have a much better context for the novel, as the first time I read this book it had been a little while since I had read any other Warriors novels.

The Clans are getting settled in their new home, sorting out which parts of the territory will belong to each Clan, but not all the cats are feeling settled. Some doubt that this is even the place that StarClan sent them to find, since there’s nothing like the Moonstone where leaders can receive their nine lives and medicine cats can talk directly to StarClan in their dreams. Added to that, Tallstar’s death has left rifts in WindClan, and Hawkfrost is still showing far too much ambition for some cats to find comfortable.

Of all the books in this series, this one has so far felt the closest in tone and action to the original books, which made it quite good to read. Yes, I admit there was a bit too much romantic blathering going on at times between various characters, but aside from that, it had a lot to offer. There’s a nice balance of uncertainty and forward motion, spirituality and the mundane aspects of life. A great deal is hinted at or commented on that is of great interest, such as Hawkfrost and Brambleclaw’s dreams of Tigerstar (and Tigerstar’s insinuation that there’s a feline purgatory, Onewhisker’s reluctance to take on leadership of his Clan, Mothwing having orchestrated the supposed sign from StarClan that resulted in her becoming a medine cat.

Though I’ve got to admit that Mothwing’s disbelief in StarClan got stale as soon as it was mentioned. Seriously, we already did this dance with Cloudtail. Mothwing is now the second cat to not have full Clan blood who doesn’t believe in StarClan, openly scoffs at the idea who also has family who shows a great loyalty to the warrior code, and where the insinuation is that it’s because she’s not of full Clan blood to start with. It was interesting to see the conflict with Cloudtail in the previous Warriors series. Here, I can’t help but have the reaction of, “It’s been done.”

The action in this book is awesome. Instead of being mostly the action associated with events outside of the characters’ control, here we get back to basics, with a full-out battle between Clans. Physical Clan rivalry has been something that’s been sorely lacking in this series, and while these books go out of their way to show that much can be accomplished by working together, it’s nice to see a return to the familiar boundaries that once existed, and for kitty-political reasons that used to occur back in the old forest.

Definitely a step up from a few previous books, and quite a speedy read because of it!

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making, by Catherynne M Valente

  Buy from Amazon.ca, Amazon.com, or IndieBound

Author’s website
Publication date – May 10, 2012

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Twelve-year-old September lives in Omaha, and used to have an ordinary life, until her father went to war and her mother went to work. One day, September is met at her kitchen window by a Green Wind (taking the form of a gentleman in a green jacket), who invites her on an adventure, implying that her help is needed in Fairyland. The new Marquess is unpredictable and fickle, and also not much older than September. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn’t . . . then the Marquess will make life impossible for the inhabitants of Fairyland. September is already making new friends, including a book-loving Wyvern and a mysterious boy named Saturday.

Thoughts: I got a copy of this when it was first posted online as a freebie, but it sat unread on my Kindle for ages. What changed? Reading this. Where the author essentially says that hey, maybe kids reading books with big words and awesome stories to them will actually make them smarter. I developed a majot lit-crush on Valente right there and then, and made a point of reading this book at the first available opportunity.

I read this book mostly during my breaks at work, and while I regret not being able to just sit down and tear through the thing in one sitting, I think maybe doing it the way I did was beneficial. This is a book mean to be savoured, appreciated, and reading it piece by piece, chapter by chapter, puts you on the very same adventure that September is on. It felt epic and wonderful and properly like what fairy tales were supposed to feel like but never did because they were so short most of the time. This is a modern fairy tale for modern children who love their fancies and fantasies, and for adults who need reminding that children come in all shapes, sizes, and ages.

With whimsical wordplay that was strongly reminiscent of Harry Potter, and the sort of sensible nonsense that never fails to thrill me, I followed September as she gets whisked away from the mundane world and thrust into the fantasy world of Fairyland, getting into trouble and going on quests and meeting all sorts of strange creatures and friends. My favourite (and I’m sure the favourite of just about everyone who reads this) is A-Through-L, the Wyverary. Wyvern+library, and this is where we run into a great example of the wordplay that Valente uses. It’s silly and captivating and speaks to my inner child that never wanted to stop messing around with words to see what new ones I could come up with, or new uses for old words.

This is a book for children, no matter how many big words are used. Children who are young in body, or young in spirit, who have already yearned for a world beyond the mundane, they will all enjoy reading this. The chapter titles are as long and amusing as the book title, the story is tight and well-paced and a utter treat to read. This is a book you do not want to pass over, either for yourself or for children you know. This is the sort of book that could kick-start a love of reading, or sate the literary hunger of a book-loving child, or keep you endlessly amused on a rainy day.

If all Valente’s work is as witty and creative as this, I can foresee myself becoming a big fan of hers.

The sequel to this, The Girl Who Fell beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, is due out next month. After having read this, just looking at the plot synopsis of the sequel about guarantees that I’ll enjoy reading it, and will probably read it the same way. Chapter by chapter, to make the journey last.

Hang on to your shadows, curl up with your wyveraries, and get lost in a delightful fantasy world.

Warriors Wednesday: Dawn, by Erin Hunter

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Author’s website
Publication date – November 2, 2006

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Something terrifying is happening in the world of the Clans. Amid the destruction of the forest, cats are disappearing, including ThunderClan’s beloved medicine cat apprentice, Leafpaw. Now the young cats who set off on a quest many moons ago have returned with a chilling message: The Clans must move to a new home, or risk extermination.

But it is not easy to convince the cats to leave. Even if all four Clans agreed to travel together, the dangers waiting for them beyond their borders are impossible to predict. More importantly, even the questing cats have no idea where they’re supposed to go. What they need is a sign from StarClan… but what they need most of all is a plan to save their missing warriors, or risk leaving them behind forever.

Thoughts: So the cats of prophecy have returned to a shattered forest, where all cats are starving and their territory shrinks day by day as human construction projects advance into what used to be thick woods and open moorland. More cats are disappearing, stolen by humans who are trying to rescue them from a life of feral living and ultimate death as the construction continues.

And when push comes to shove, the four Clans, as one, decide to leave the forest in search of the better home promised to them by StarClan.

Unlike the original journey made by the original 4 cats of prophecy (and their 2 companions), the journey made by the Clans did not feel as tedious and drawn-out, which was far easier and more enjoyable to read. This is likely due to the fact that there was a clear destination in mind this time, rather than a vague, “We have to get somewhere, and we’re waiting for everyone to receive a sign that gives us hints as to where,” idea. Seeing four Clans try to put aside their differences during a time where everyone’s stressed and starving was interesting, because as much as they all kept to their own groups, it was clear that they were traveling as one, putting aside the bulk of their differences for the greater good.

True to form, this book deals with the loss and death of cats. Elders who knew they were too old and weak to make the journey across the mountains stayed behind in the forest, knowing that nothing but death awaited them, but choosing their own death rather than letting the unknown be the end of them. The journey over the mountains claimed a few lives too. Ferncloud is down to only one kit, after her other two died.

And then there was the loss of Stormfur. Who didn’t die, but instead chose to stay with the Tribe cats, with the cat he’d fallen in love with, and to be near to where Feathertail was buried. It was a sad and touching scene, quite heavy on the emotion. This is a cat who we first saw as he was being born, who went through every trial with his sister, and ultimately chose a good place to be, but it was sad to see him leave his Clan regardless.

Where the previous books sometimes felt very light on the action and adventure, this book really throws you back into the thick of things, and is much more of a page-turner than, say, the first book of this second Warriors series. It felt refreshing to read after previous disappointments, and was much closer to the original series that got me hooked on the Warriors books in the first place.

Warriors Wednesday: Moonrise, by Erin Hunter

  Buy from Amazon.ca, Amazon.com, or IndieBound

Author’s website
Publication date – July 21, 2005

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Darkness, air, water, and sky come together and shake the forest to its roots as The New Prophecy series comes to paperback.

Thoughts: Wow, what a lousy summary. I wish I had the power to update that on GoodReads, because that tells you absolutely nothing except that the book’s now out in paperback.

Ahem, anyway…

The second series of Warriors books continues here, with the two-sided story of the Clan cats and their latest adventure. The forest is really starting the feel the pinch of the Twoleg invasion, as humans start rolling their construction vehicles in and tearing up trees and generally making life difficult for the cats who live there. Meanwhile, Brambleclaw and the other cats chosen by Starclan to lead their Clans to a safer place, are on their way home, and decide to go through snowy mountains rather than go back the exact way they came.

This, of course, leads to them discovering that they’re not the only cats in the world. The mountains are home to the Trive of Rushing Water, who live in a cave behind a waterfall, and who have their own warrior ancestors and prophecies. One of which is that a cat will come to save them from the viscious Sharptooth, who is described as a bloodthirsty cougar with a taste for other cats. Stormfur is taken for the cat of prophecy, and is forced to stay behind when the others are forced out.

But things aren’t always what they seem, as always happens with prophecies.

Many things about this book have improved over the previous book. Squirrelpaw is still a brat, but not as much as she used to be. Cats no longer invoke Starclan with quite as much regularity and pointlessness. The tone is darker, much like the first series of books was. And it was quite interesting to see a new group of cats whose ways were similar and yet different than the ways of the Clans.

Many people have already made their commentary on the impossible geography of this book, and so I won’t go into it in detail here. But really, a mountain range so close to the ocean, and so close to temperate fields and forest on the other side… It stretches the imagination. I know it’s said that the cats travelled for more than a month, but still. A cat’s pace is going to be slower than a human’s, and I can’t think of many places in the world where this terrain change would happen. Artistic license and suspension of disbelief is high in this book, in places.

The real low point for me was Feathertail’s death. Character death in these books is nothing new. Get attached to any character at your own risk, because there’s every chance they’re going to end up dead by the end. And while it was a heroic and sad death under normal circumstances, it struck me all the harder this time because unlike the last time I read it, I now have a cat who looks a fair bit like Feathertail was described. It hit home. I suspect this may be the norm for many cat owners who read these books.

But I was definitely happy to see that so many of the little things that bothered me about the first book were lessened in this second novel. I hope that trend continues, and we get back to the tone and feeling that was present in the first series of Warriors books, which were what hooked so many people on the lives and adventures of feral cats in the first place.