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The Emerald Atlas (The Books of Beginning #1)The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens

I once tried to listen to Jim Dale read the first Harry Potter book, and stopped less than an hour in. I won’t say I’ve been completely won over to his voice, but it did feel well-suited to this fantasy/time travel adventure, particularly the voices of the dwarves!

While the story itself didn’t feel completely original, it did have a few elements that made it feel fresh. I enjoyed the combination of traditional children’s fantasy (the evil Countess and her frightening creatures, the dwarves, the children setting off on a quest/adventure) and time travel, which I tend to think of as it’s own category (traveling to an actual time in our history, as opposed to traveling to a time in a fantastical history). Some of the characters felt a bit flat at times, and I occasionally had trouble remembering which child had which adventure. Apart from that, an enjoyable story that I’ll recommend to my legions of fantasy fans.

Source: my public library

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NevilleNeville by Norton Juster

I picked this one up after it made Calling Caldecott’s mock ballot list, and I’m glad I did. It’s one of those stories where the text tells the story but the illustrations convey the mood. There’s a fun reveal at the end for readers who miss the clues. I for one was coming up with all kinds of more outrageous explanations for why the boy was shouting “Neville!” and of course had to read it through again once I got to the end.

Plus, a second read makes you notice the details in the illustrations that tell the story in their own way. On the first page, the boy and his belongings are in color while the houses an street are sepia-toned. As soon as the other boy joins him on the corner, the grass becomes greener, and by the time all the kids are gathered around the colors are bright and vivid. As they head home, all the houses have gained personality and color. It’s a subtle but effective technique.

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I don’t often review picture books, but it’s refreshing to sit down and think about one critically – especially because they’re so easy to reread!

Among OthersAmong Others by Jo Walton

While this is a book with fairies (or creatures that the narrator calls fairies for lack of a better word) it’s not fantasy. Yes, there’s a bit of magic, but at it’s heart it feels like a story about being fifteen, while not feeling like a young adult novel. Although I think it would have enormous appeal for some young adults – the kind who like Mori are absorbed in a world of books, where opinions on topics like politics and sex and religion are formed by reading as much, or more than, by experience. Ahem, no, I never felt any similarities to her at all (especially not when she sings the praises of the library).

Mori tells her story as diary entries, which gives a sense of immediacy rather than being told in retrospect, but somehow Walton manages to make the tone of the book perfect for adults looking back at adolescence and still making sense of it. I don’t know how she gives it, but as Mori would say, it’s “brill.”

It’s not an action-driven story, and like other reviewers have commented, the dramatic bits of the plot mostly take place off the page, before the book starts. Most of the story deals with day-to-day life in the aftermath of a life-changing event, with grief and pain (physical, mostly, but it’s closely tied to the emotional) and classes and navigating the waters of friendship and relationships. There’s a scene at the end where the fantastical elements of the story come into play, but it feels anti-climactic. I can’t decide if this is perfect for the story – it IS, after all, an anti-climax to the events that occurred before the story starts – or if it felt like a let-down, mostly because it was a bit rushed in Mori’s account of events.

Even if that is a weakness of the book, it hardly detracts from how much I felt at home reading it. Another reviewer said that, “in many ways this book is as much a love story about a girl and the interlibrary loan system as it is about a girl and a boy,” and I confess that it’s certainly added to my joy in placing interlibrary loans for patrons! I loved the librarian characters and the way they encourage Mori and go out of their way to get her books. Reading this made me miss those days when it felt like I had nothing to do but read, when acquiring books felt important and slightly desperate. If you’ve ever read that way, this is a book for you.

Also, the book should come with a reading list of Mori-approved titles – I was never a big SF reader, but I felt a thrill whenever she read something I love (Brat Farrar!)

Source: my public library. No ILL required.

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This isn’t my first experience loving a Jo Walton book – I first encountered her through her alternate history series starting with Farthing.

So many people seem relieved that 2011 is over. I’m more surprised. In some ways it was a long year (wedding planning!) and in other ways a short year (wait, we got married? Wasn’t it just the other day we got engaged?) So New Year’s Eve found me thinking fondly of the last year and wondering what new things 2012 will bring.

For starters, I’ll be busy reading Cybils finalists – I’m a round 2 judge for middle grade fiction. Then there are several trips to plan – a road trip to CA, a weekend trip to CA, and a wedding in CO. And if all goes as planned, maybe even a bigger trip! We’ll see. In the meantime, happy new year to all of you!

January 2012

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