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Middle Grade Monday – Don’t Call it a Quest!

If you get that reference, let me know in the comments.

What do you get when you combine:

  • the court mystician
  • a newly licensed wizard
  • a princess in the body of a handmaid
  • a disgraced former naval officer and current ornithologist
  • a twelve year old adventure guide
  • and 3 obnoxious adventure seekers?

Well, you get a quest into the Cambrian Empire to retrieve the kidnapped Once Magnificent Boo and a wizidrical energy focusing gemstone known as the Eye of Zoltar – BUT DON’T CALL IT A QUEST! All quests have to be approved by the International Questing Federation, cost an upfront payment of 2,000 moolah, and require you to include “a minimum staffing requirement: at least one strong-and-silent warrior, a sagelike old man, and quite possibly a giant and a dwarf too.”

In this newest installment in the Chronicles of Kazam series, Jennifer Strange, the newly minted wizard Perkins, and Her Royal Spoiltness the Princess Shazza journey to the Cambrian Empire to retrieve the Eye of Zoltar in order to save the world’s only two dragons (and themselves) from the evil wizard The Mighty Shandar. The Cambrian Empire’s economy is driven by adventure tourism where foreigners regularly risk life and limb for extreme experiences. The only tour guide who is willing to take on Jennifer’s group is twelve year old Addie, who guarantees a 50% survival rate for the journey (and she’s always right.) Addie is keen to pick up at least 4 more adventurers for their journey in order to secure the safe return of the original party, which is where the three obnoxious young men come in. On their way to find the ex-sorceror Able Quizzler, the last person known to have a lead on the Eye of Zoltar, they also pick up Wilson, an ornithologist and disgraced former naval officer who is on the hunt to redeem himself by making an extreme sacrifice (rather convenient.)

This installment in the series differs from the first two in that Jennifer is removed from her normal environment (Kazam Mystical Arts Management) and sent on a spectacular journey. New, vastly interesting characters are introduced, and we find out more about the diversity of the Ununited Kingdoms. The rest however, is a solid installment of what Fforde does best – an entertaining story full of twists, turns, and really funny throwaway jokes (he describes “an enchanted tent that swore angrily to itself when self-pitching, thus saving you the effort”) where every last detail is important. If it’s not important for this story, it will be in the future. This amazing attention to detail and constant seeding of information that becomes pivotal later is one of the reasons Fforde is my favorite author.

If you read and enjoyed the first two in the series, I definitely recommend picking this one up – it will be out in the US in October. If you haven’t read his books, I strongly recommend starting with the first in this series, The Last Dragonslayer.

Middle Grade Monday – Upcoming Excitement!

I had the opportunity to do a little hunting on Netgalley and Edelweiss this weekend, and found a few items I’m super exited to see. Let’s dive in!

The first is a new middle grade by one of my favorite authors, Jacqueline Woodson. I got to meet her at one of my first North Carolina School Library Media Association conferences – more years ago than I care to admit. At the time I had only read If You Come Softly, but I knew I was in love. Her books really resonate with me, and they’re very popular with my students. I’m excited that her new one will be middle grade.

Here is the publisher’s summary:

In vivid poems, award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson shares what it was like to grow up in the 1960s and 1970s in both the North and the South. Raised in South Carolina and later New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place, and describes the reality of living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world.

Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories—something she’s always loved to do, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Readers will delight in witnessing this gifted author discover her love of stories and storytelling and seeing the first sparks of the writer she was to become.

 The next title is from one of my perennial favorites, Joan Bauer. Her novels feature strong lead female characters who deal with contemporary issues. From the publisher:

A new friend.  An empathetic horse.  A flower festival.  And all of this in a town where “Nothing Bad Ever Happens.”  No wonder Anna is enjoying her visit to her grandmother, Mim.  But then Anna sees something that she can’t ignore: a girl who seems to be being held against her will.  Anna can’t forget the girl’s frightened eyes.  She wants to do something about it, tell someone, but can she get anyone to take her concerns seriously?  What good will it do to say something if no one is listening?

Finally, the latest installment in Jasper Fforde’s Chronicles of Kazam comes out tomorrow in the UK, but we have to wait until October. If I don’t get an early review copy, I may explode. Read more about my love of all things Jasper Fforde here. From the publisher: 

Although she’s an orphan in indentured servitude, sixteen-year-old Jennifer Strange is pretty good at her job of managing the unpredictable crew at Kazam Mystical Arts Management. After all, she solved the dragon problem, avoided mass destruction by Quarkbeast, and helped improve the state of magic in the Kingdom of Snodd. Yet even Jennifer may be thwarted when the mighty Shandar emerges from his preserved state and presents her with an utterly impossible task-how can a teenage non-magician outsmart the greatest sorcerer the world has ever known? But failure has dire consequences, so Jennifer has little choice but to set off on a journey from which she and her traveling companions may never return.

Book Review: Song of the Quarkbeast by Jasper Fforde

I’d like to begin by freely acknowledging (again) that Jasper Fforde is my favorite living author. He will be visiting my local book store in about a month and I am gleefully preparing for his visit. That said, I would also like to freely acknowledge that his books are not for everyone. But, oh, the people they are for are MY PEOPLE. The people of my heart. The students whom I walk by in the library and am struck with a visceral remembrance of what it was like for me to be in middle school. 

The Song of the Quarkbeast picks up where The Last Dragonslayer left off. Jennifer Strange, sixteen-year-old foundling, is still de facto in charge of the Kazam House of Enchantment due to the continued absence of the Great Zambini. Magical power (referred to as crackle) is slowly increasing in the wake of the Big Magic that occurred in TLD, and Kazam is in greater demand for its magical services – finding lost objects, repairing structures, and the newest request, the rebuilding of Electro-magical devices, such as microwaves and the mobile phone network.
Strange and sinister things are afoot, however, when the Amazing Blix, head of the only other House of Enchantment is named the Official Court Sorcerer by King Snodd. Jennifer Strange, with the assistance of her sidekick, fellow foundling Tiger Prawns, and the motley assortment of active and retired wizards of Kazam, must figure out what is really going on before all magic comes under the purview of King Snodd, who intends to use it for his own financial gain.

As in all Jasper Fforde novels, a dizzying array of seemingly unrelated plot points are woven together to create an amazing tapestry of story. Some of the highlights include an explanation of magic behind the longevity of select wizards, a mind altering view of the human race from the perspective of the trolls, and the explanation of the creation and purpose of the regenerating quarkbeasts. The novel is also filled with Fforde’s trademark clever (if occasionally awful) puns and witticisms that only add to the delight of the story. I would encourage you (as I do almost anyone who asks) to read this series.

If you are at a loss for who might enjoy his books, I’d point you in the direction of those readers who find delight in Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchet, or even, to a certain extent, Tolkein. And if you, as an adult reader, have not read Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, I would strongly suggest starting there yourself. You can thank me later. If you’re one of my people.