Timestoppers: A “Five Things I’ve Learned” Review…

2

image

Today’s offering is a middle grade, magical, wintry adventure: perfectly atmospheric if you live in the southern hemisphere, and one to help you cool down a bit if you happen to be sweating it out in a northern hemisphere summer.  We received our copy of Time Stoppers by Carrie Jones from Bloomsbury Australia for review.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Annie Nobody thought she was, well, nobody; living in a nowhere town where nothing goes her way. Day one at her newest foster home proves to be dreadful, too …and things get even worse when she’s chased by something big and scary that definitely wants to eat her. Luckily for Annie, not everything is what it seems, and she gets swept up – literally – by a sassy dwarf on a hovercraft snowmobile and taken to Aurora: a hidden, magical town on the coast of Maine. There, she finds a new best friend in Jamie Hephastion Alexander – who thought he was a normal kid (but just might be a troll) – and Annie discovers that she’s not exactly who she thought she was, either. She’s a Time Stopper, meant to protect the enchanted.

Together, Annie and Jamie discover a whole new world of magic, power, and an incredible cast of creatures and characters. But where there’s great power, there are also those who want to misuse it, and Aurora is under siege. It’s up to the kids to protect their new home, even if it means diving head first into magical danger. A thrilling adventure with heroes children will relate to – and more than a smattering of magic!

timestoppers

And here are Five Things I’ve Learned From Time Stoppers by Carrie Jones:

  1. Never make the decision to dispose of a garden gnome lightly.  Apart from the fact that artistic integrity is everything in backyard design, it could be an important magical artifact whose removal could bring about the collapse of magical society.

  2. When you are burdened with the surname “Nobody” it is a given that the universe will ensure you end up being a “somebody”.

  3. Never underestimate the power of a fluffy dog to bring hope to the bleakest of circumstances.

  4. Librarians always know more than they are saying.

  5. If your angry, bullish relatives consistently look at you while drooling and making noises that indicate unsatisfied hunger, you should ensure that you are either an excellent cook or an excellent runner.

Time Stoppers is an adventurous middle grade offering with some highly original elements and a few problems with pacing.  To highlight the positives first, the book features two protagonists – Annie and Jamie -who are likeable, down-to-earth, and will appeal to most readers of the target age group.  The story is told in chapters that alternate between Annie and Jamie’s situations and this definitely boosts the engagement factor.  Annie is a foster child who is on her last placement…which turns out to be a horrid, trailer-based version of the Cinderella story.  Jamie lives with his father and grandmother, neither of whom show him any affection and demonstrate their opinion of him through hostility and bullying.  However, both of the children seem to be natural optimists, and try to find hope in what look like hopeless situations.    When strange happenings start to kick off, both Annie and Jamie take it in their stride and try to make the best of a bizarre situation.

Some of the magical elements are quite original for a middle grade fantasy tale – magical creatures who get around on hovering snowmobiles, for instance, and the important role of the garden gnome (I’ve always said there should be more books featuring garden gnomes!) – and there is plenty of humour in the banter between our heroes and their new friends from Aurora.  Eva Beryl-Axe, the battle-ready dwarf girl, is the main source of this humour and most of the wacky situations in which the children find themselves are related, in part, to Eva’s impulsive ideas.  The city of Aurora is peopled with a wide variety of magical beings, some dangerous, most benign.

The two major problems I had with the story were pacing and the way in which the magic is presented.  After an action-packed and magnetic set of opening chapters, which include a chase by trolls, a house fire and the appearance of a dwarf on a hovering snowmobile, the children are introduced to the city of Aurora and the pace slows to a crawl.  Obviously, some world-building is necessary to introduce the town, its purpose and its inhabitants, but I found that the time the children spend in Aurora – and it is a significant portion of the book – really damaged my engagement with the characters and their struggles.  Although there are some indications that the town is not safe for the children, for a considerable amount of time the kids sit and ponder the meaning of their new existence in this magical space, and things just get a bit tedious.  It was in this section that the dual-perspective narrative really didn’t help the story, as we had to experience the town from the point of view of Annie, then Jamie, in turn, when both had similar feelings about the place. The pace does pick up again in the final third of the book with the introduction of the villain, but by then the slow-paced middle section had done its work and I was not as invested as I could have been in the outcome of the action.

My second problem with the story was the scatty way in which the magic, its rules and limitations were introduced.  There is a lot of magical stuff going on within the story, but I didn’t feel like it was explained well enough to make it believable.  For example, Annie is a Time Stopper – but the concept of this and why it is important and even how it works, isn’t explained until toward the end of the book and even then it is glossed over as the action takes precedence.  Similarly, there seem to be many different types of magic going on within the town, through its inhabitants and even its buildings and books, but there is a bit of a sense that anything goes; that any type of magic one might think of could happen just because one would like it to be so.

For example, in one scene, a note and pen appear out of thin air and disappear when their function has been served, a series of words and arrows appear to guide a character along within a house, and dishes wash themselves.  Who is making this happen? Is the house itself magical? If not, is it the inhabitants casting a spell?  If so, how does that work?  I really felt that more needed to be done in developing the hows and whys of the magical world, in order to make it more believable.  Admittedly, this may not particularly bother readers in the target age group, but I prefer a narrative in which the limitations and workings of the fantasy elements are clear, so that I can better engage with the characters and their struggles.

Overall, as a series opener, I think this book was more focused on introducing the characters, the setting of Aurora and the beginnings of Annie and Jamie’s powers than providing a particularly terrifying or worrying villain to vanquish.  The ending opens the way for the villain to be developed in the second book, so perhaps I will find more of what I hoped for in the next offering.  As it stands, Time Stoppers is an ambitious and original example of the genre and should be well received by readers in the target age range.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

A YA Coming-of-Age Tale with a Beardy Twist: Mabel the Lovelorn Dwarf…

6

image

Let it never be said that I don’t give you something different every now and again, because today I have for you a YA fantasy tale that has bearded ladies, high stakes movie action, family drama and extreme sport all wrapped up in a charming little package.  Behold, Mabel the Lovelorn Dwarf, book one in the Ballad of Mabel Goldenaxe series by Sherry Peters!

Mabel has just been accepted for work in the mines of Gilliam and is now of age to begin looking for a mate and think about settling down to a life of mining and dwarflings.  Unfortunately for Mabel, she’s thin (a liability in Dwarf culture), her beard would need extensions to be considered thick and full, and for all intents and purposes, she would rather be throwing axes with her axe-throwing-champion older brother Mikey, than down the pub trying to win the affections of her male counterparts.  If that weren’t bad enough, Mabel’s best friend Emma seems to attract men like flies to fly paper and if Mabel doesn’t start pulling in the suitors soon, her Da may step in to do the work for her.  As Mabel tries to be true to herself, she is constantly being challenged by unexpected events – secrets about her absent mother seem to impact on her search for a mate in ways Mabel doesn’t understand, and Emma is behaving in an increasingly unfriendly way.  Just when Mabel thinks that things are becoming too much for one dwarf to bear, an opportunity arises that will force Mabel to choose between being her true self and doing what’s expected.

mabel the lovelorn dwarf

Read it if:

*you can’t go past a book with a strong, bearded female protagonist

* you believe that dwarven culture consists of nothing more than digging and drinking

* you’ve ever felt the expectations of a family legacy weighing down upon you like a rocky bed full of emeralds

* you prefer when the common themes of coming-of-age in YA fiction are played out against a backdrop of ale drinking, axe-throwing and the ever-present chip-chip-chip of a community of (mostly) happy miners

I really enjoyed this book while I was reading it – Mabel is an engaging character and the world-building and cultural aspects of Dwarven life were well-developed and added a genuine feel to the overall plot. Peters has played this pretty straight – it’s not a satirical or humorous take on the fantasy genre, but a proper tale of working out one’s identity where the lead character just happens to be a Dwarf.  It was refreshing to experience familiar YA themes in such a different context and the author has done a wonderful job of keeping Mabel’s experiences authentic in a fantasy setting.

The plot moves from episode to episode in Mabel’s life, forcing her to learn new things about herself as she overcomes various challenges that pop up along the way. The ending is nicely hopeful, with the way left wide open for happenings in following books in the series, but readers could be equally satisfied with the ending were they planning to read this as a standalone. So lots of good things to enjoy about the book.

There were a couple of things about this book that either puzzled or irritated me though.  For starters, the title is a bit….bland.  Admittedly, I can’t think of a better one so I really shouldn’t criticise, but after having read the book it seems that there’s so much more to Mabel (and the plot) than just being lovelorn, as well as the fact that Mabel spends a lot of her time not that bothered about how quickly she finds a mate that the title feels to me like it doesn’t quite fit.  A personal qualm, no doubt, but one that irritated me disproportionately to my enjoyment of the book.

Also, I found this book to have a lot of (in my opinion) rambling that slowed down the forward momentum of the plot. Many of Mabel’s thought processes were repetitious both within each particular section of the plot and across different sections. There seemed to be a lot of time spent just going about her everyday business, with not much happening to move the plot forward. I really felt that this book could have done with some serious editing, to chop out the long descriptions of day-to-day existence and overabundance of introspection on Mabel’s part and just let her actions speak for themselves.

As I said though, I really did enjoy this novel – particularly the sections that turn elf and dwarf relations on their head and the theme of gender image that runs throughout as Mabel struggles to fit in as a Dwarven woman when she doesn’t have the right “look” or ambitions. This is that special kind of YA novel that would appeal to a much wider audience than just the typical, targeted age group and lovers of the fantasy genre will find lots to like and plenty of new twists on the expected reading experience.

If you’re looking for a coming-of-age YA novel with a fun, well-imagined fantasy twist then Mabel the Lovelorn Dwarf could be the book for you.

Until next time,

Bruce