The Magicians of Caprona Audio Book Review–Fantasy!

Looking for something to listen to on the family car trip to Grandma’s?  Try one of these!

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The Magicians of Caprona, by Diana Wynne Jonesmagicians-of-caprona-2
Narrated by Gerard Doyle
7 CDs, 8 hours

The Montanas and the Petrocchis are the two most famous spell-casting families in the great city of Caprona.  The crests of the Montana winged horse and the Petrocchi leopard top the best spells and  grace all the magical (and non-magical) buildings and bridges across the city, and have for hundreds of years.  It’s unfortunate that the families have been at war for generations.  The Montana children are warned away from the Petrocchis starting practically at birth.  When the two families are forced to work together on a project, like mending the New Bridge that has started losing it’s magic, they stay as far away from each other as possible.

magicians-of-capronaTonino Montana looks at all the enchantments surrounding him, and wishes he was  better at magic.  But he doesn’t seem to be able to learn spells as quickly as his older brother Paolo, or even his dashing cousin Rinaldo.  Of course,  Tonino can talk to Benvenuto and all the other Montana cats;  Old Niccolo, the head of the Casa Montana,is the only other person who can do that.  But it takes Tonino forever to memorize a spell, and although it works, nothing spectacular ever happens.  At least he’s not like Angelica, the littlest Petrocci girl, who is said to have no control over her magic, and even turned her father bright green.  Tonino would much rather be reading a book than making a spell.

magicians-of-caprona-1But something is not right in Caprona.  The magic is disappearing, and both families blame each other for causing it.  When the Duke of Caprona brings two delegations to the Palace to talk about it, Tonino and Paolo are drafted to be part of it.  Across the room, they see Angelica and her sister Renata as part of the Petrocci delegation–the first Petroccis they have ever seen!  The girls look normal though, not like the monsters the Petroccis are supposed to be.  The boys’ attention is pulled away from the girls when both families are tasked  to find the true words to The Angel of Caprona, a powerful spell that should save their city.  But no one knows quite where to look.  Even the famous enchanter Chrestomanci, called from England to help, cannot fathom where the words might be.

magicians-of-caprona-originalWhen Tonino and Angelica are kidnapped to force the Montanas and the Petroccis to stop using spells, it seems like someone must think someone at one of the Casas is close to a solution. That doesn’t help Tonino and Angelica though, who find themselves stuck in a spell with only each other to rely on.   Can they work together to escape and get back home?

At the two Casas, even with the missing children, the Montanas and Petroccis won’t work together; blaming each other for their missing child.  They’re having a hard time not working spells too.   Paolo and Renata are determined to find their siblings.

As the countdown continues, the youngest members of the Montana and Petrocci families find themselves relying on each other.  Can they work together to find The Angel of Caprona and rescue their city?

magicians-of-caprona-3I love Diana Wynne Jones, and I’ve always loved The Magicians of Caprona.  (It’s also a bit of an Old Favorite.)  In this parallel world, Caprona is one of the city states that make up Italy.  Most of the cities are at war with each other, trying to take over the country.  Florence and Venice want Caprona and it’s spells for themselves.   The Magicians of Caprona originally came out in 1980, and is one of the Chrestomanci books.  The nine-lived enchanter Chrestomanci has a very brief appearance in this one though, although his sense of style and his demeanor make as much of a splash as they usually do.

Gerald Doyle narrates this title; he does most of the Diana Wynne Jones books.  I love his voice, it’s very smooth, and his accent is quite enjoyable.  He does a wonderful job making characters sound different, without changing his voice too much.  I would recommend any of the books he narrates–I’ve never been disappointed with his performances.

I would highly recommend The Magicians of Caprona, both as a book to read and an audio book for kids ages 8 and up.  With it’s subtle humor and intriguing setting, it would be as accessible for adults  listening in the car on a family trip as well as kids and teens.


Quick Audio Reviews: A (partial) summer’s worth!

It’s been a long time since there was an actual review in Bella’s Blog.  Sorry about that!  It was a very busy summer, and September was also busier than expected!  But to make up for it, here are a few quick reviews of some excellent audio recordings for your next road trip.  Four today, four tomorrow!


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witch week audioWitch Week
By Diana Wynne Jones, Performed by Gerald Doyle
7 CDs, 8 Hours

“Someone in Class 6B is a witch.”

In most classrooms, that would inspire giggles and wishes to wield magic.  But in the school that Nan Pilgrim, Charles Morgan and Nirupam Singh attend, the anonymous note found on the teacher’s desk could be a death sentence.  In their world, witchcraft is punishable by death, and they all know from first-hand experience that even good people can end up accused of magic.  The problem is, all three of them suddenly seem to HAVE magic.  It’s easy to use. And it’s not easy to give up.

As their lives and the lives of their classmates become more and more complicated, Nan discovers a spell that could save everyone.  The spell is just one word, repeated three times: Chrestomanci.  But when chanting the spell brings a strangely elegant enchanter into their world, will he make things better…or worse?

The recording of Witch Week is delightful.  I love Gerald Doyle’s voice; he manages to make every character sound different…and there are a lot of characters!  The pacing is wonderful, and the story, by my favorite author, is fun.  If you like Harry Potter, you should give Witch Week (and the rest of the Chrestomanci series)  a try.  It’s a very different type of witch-school from Hogwarts, but just as intriguing.   Best for kids in third through sixth grade, this would be a fun CD for a family trip!


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kingdom keepers audioThe Kingdom Keepers
By Ridley Pearson, Read by Gary Littman
6 CDs, 6 hours

Finn Whitman is a celebrity at Disneyworld.  No one actually knows his name, but he has to wear a disguise any time he wants to visit the park.  That’s because Finn was chosen for a cutting-edge program for Disney–he’s one of the new 3D hologram guides to Disneyworld.  It’s kind of fun to be so famous, and kind of a pain.  But he never expected it to be actually painful.

Finn finds himself dreaming about being inside Disneyworld at night though, and it’s so real that when he gets hurt in the dream, he’s hurt when he wakes up.  That can’t be a coincidence.  After an encounter with Wayne, an old Imagineer from Walt’s day who claims that Finn’s dream self is actually him, Finn starts investigating.  He finds the other five kids who were scanned and imprinted onto the Disney Host Interactive and Daylight Hologram Imaging program, and discovers that they’re also experiencing strange things when they sleep.  Together, the teens find Wayne, who tells them that there’s evil afoot in Disneyworld, and only Finn and his new friends can fix it.  After hours. In the most famous amusement park in the world.  And then they have to split up, because they’re attacked by pirates from the Pirates of the Caribbean display.

Finn has to rally the others and fight the evil Disney villains, or risk them getting out of the park and into the world. It’s dangerous, and there’s a possibility that he might get stuck in his hologram body.  But what’s a kid to do?

The Kingdom Keepers is  a fun book to listen to, especially for anyone who has ever visited Disneyworld.  You can find out about hidden tunnels and the behind-the-scenes activity in the park, as well as use your imagination to see how the rides might be after dark.  (Hint: pretty scary!)  The narration is excellent.

This is the first book in the Kingdom Keepers series, which just ended (maybe?) this year with the seventh title: The Insider.  It’s a fun series for grades 4 – 6, although it could go younger or older for listening, especially if you’re a Disney fan.  A great mystery/adventure series!


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Liesl and po audioLiesl & Po
By Lauren Oliver, Read by Jim Dale
5 CDs, 5 Hours, 55 Minute

Poor Liesl is stuck in her attic bedroom, condemned to live there by her evil stepmother.  She’s rather accepting of her circumstances, considering.  She would have likes to have seen her father, but he’s been sick for years, and her stepmother refuses.  Three days after her father dies, Po appears in the tiny attic.  Liesl is convinced that Po is there from the Other Side to bring a message to her father for her.  Po thinks he was just following Bundle, his…dog?  Cat?  Small formerly furry companion, anyway.  That same night, a delivery boy named Will issent on an errand for a powerful alchemist; where he makes a terrible mistake in his deliveries.

Two boxes.  One containing the ashes of Liesl’s father, the second containing the most powerful magic in the world.

Will is in deep trouble, and suddenly on the run.  Po finds himself drawn to Liesl, unable to find her father, but returning to see her.  Liesl mourns her father and looks for a way to escape the attic and put him to rest.  Will, who  has been watching Liesl at her attic window for days, wishes they could meet while trying to figure out how to escape his situation.  Po figures out how to help Liesl.  And Liesl finds the courage to defy her stepmother. When Will’s mistake becomes obvious to the adults in their lives, it affects all three children, and Bundle too.  Suddenly, Liesl, Will, Po and Bundle are on the run, looking for the answer to a problem they don’t quite understand.  But they will!

The narration of Liesl & Po is excellent. Jim Dale is the narrator of this audio book, and if anyone has ever listened to the Harry Potter audio books, you’ll know that listening to his voice is an experience in itself.  The story is spooky, and full of adventure, with a hint of mystery and a lot of feelings.  You should also look at the book, even if you experience the story through the audio book, because the illustrations are wonderful.   Best for kids in fourth through sixth grades, but enjoyable for all ages.


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19093_dreamthieves_lbl_nodieThe Dream Thieves
By Maggie Stiefvater, Read by Will Patton
11 CDs, 12 hours, 46 minutes

Where we left off: in The Raven Boys, Blue Sargent had befriended The Raven Boys; four students at nearby Aglionby Academy–Adam Parrish, local boy on scholarship, Noah Czerny, mysterious and not quite part of their world, Ronan Lynch, angry bad boy and Richard Campbell Gansey III, otherwise known as Gansey, their defacto leader.   By the end of the book, their search for the lost Welsh king Glendower  awakened the ley lines, Blue and Adam had started dating (even though Blue was attracted to Gansey) and  one of the boys had sacrificed himself for the others, changing their world.  At the very end of the book, Ronan announced that he had brought his pet crow out of his dreams.

In the sequel, The Dream Thieves,  Ronan is keeping secrets from everyone, and maybe even from himself.  Although he told the others that he could bring items out of his dreams, he didn’t tell them that he has.  And every item that is taken from a dream can be dangerous.

Luckily, Ronan has friends who are willing to help him, because his family won’t.  When his father died, his will stated that his three sons never set foot on their childhood home again.  It also stated that are to never see their mother, who slipped into a coma after his death, again.  Declan and Matthew seem to abide by this, although both obviously hate it. But Ronan, angry Ronan, who was his father’s favorite, fights it.  In his day to day life, and in his dreams.

When Ronan discovers that there is  a killer after his family, working for someone who is determined to retrieve all the dream items and learn the secret of how to steal items from dreams, it stirs his anger to a boiling rage.  Blue, Gansey, Noah and Adam are pulled into the fight, along with Matthew and Declan.  But is it a fight that they can win?

The Dream Thieves is a well-written and suspenseful story, and the audio book reflects that.  I had an easier time getting into the second book on audio, but I still wish that they had picked a different narrator.  I think it’s me though, not him.  Other listeners seem to love his take on the characters.  The third book in the cycle, Blue Lily, Lily Blue, will be released this month and I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens to these characters in the next chapter of their lives.  The Dream Thieves is in our Teen collection, and is definitely for high school readers.  I think adults will enjoy it as well.

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Old Favorite: Dark Lord of Derkholm

October is my favorite month of the year.  Changing leaves, pumpkins, apples, Halloween, Halloween costumes…  When I was a kid, I usually based my Halloween costume on favorite stories and books.  I remember the year I was Dorrie quite well; it took a long time to find two pairs of different colored striped socks and a stuffed black cat for Bink!  With all the Harry Potters out there today, it’s obvious that people still find their inspiration for costumes in books.

But what if finding a costume was more serious that just once a year, for fun?  What if your life depended on it?  In Diana Wynne Jones’ Dark Lord of Derkholm, a whole world’s livelihood depends on the strength of their costumes.  And on their acting abilities.  And athough that might sound like fun, for the brothers and sisters in this tale, it really isn’t.

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Mr. Chesney is the most powerful man in the world.  In several worlds, in fact.  His  business to to bring groups of Mr. Chesney’s Pilgrim Party Tours from the overdeveloped, over mechanized outer realms to a poor world where magic works.  His hold over the world started forty years ago, and involved blackmail, threats and a demon.

No one  actually likes Mr. Chesney or his Pilgrims.  For one thing, everyone has to pretend to be something they’re not if one of the Pilgrim Parties is in town.  For another, every year, people are forced to play the Dark Lord and his minions.  During that year, the wizard  must act evil, perform evil deeds, and in the end, be defeated by the Pilgrim Parties in a huge, epic battle.  Even worse, the tourists in the Pilgrim Parties don’t actually know that most of the evil henchmen and magicians are farmers, soldiers and normal wizards forced into playing the part under duress.  It’s a dangerous job, and everyone–from farmers to  soldiers to thieves, elves, and dragons– agree that Mr. Chesney must be stopped. Even though that means risking the wrath of a creature who has the power to destroy their world completely.

When Querida, the High Chancellor, and her cohorts in the High Council of Wizards’ University consult with the Oracles, the only help the Oracles can give is that the next Dark Lord must be the first person Querida sees, and the second person will be the Wizard Guide, who leads the Pilgrim Parties around the world and who is supposed to keep all the tours running smoothly.  Even though this mysterious prophecy doesn’t seem very helpful, the Council is sure that both these people will be powerful wizards, able to defeat the evil Mr. Chesney.

But the first person Querida sees is the disorganized and kind Wizard Derk; the second is his 14-year-old son Blade.  And suddenly, Derk, Blade and the whole of Derkholm, from family to servants to  merchants and townspeople are embroiled in a magical mess.  Derk has to reform the family castle into a pit of despair and doom, as well as coordinate armies, magical creatures and other magicians while trying to save his people from too much devastation.  The whole family is dragged into the act. Although no one likes the idea, they’re resigned to a year of no crops, no income, destroyed farms and sacrifices.  And then Derk is hurt in an accident with a dragon.  With his wife Mara’s help, Derk still might be able to pull off the role of the Dark Lord…but what about Blade?

Even though Blade is still a teen, his job of shepherding the Pilgrims around the world and dealing with Mr. Chesney might be even more dangerous. Especially now, when his parents can’t help him.  Luckily, his sister Shona is willing to drop out of Bard college to help him.  And their brothers and sisters: Elda, Lydda, Don, Callette, Finn and Kit have some great ideas too.  So what if they’re griffins, not humans?  But Mr. Chesney is grimly determined that magical creatures, even related ones, must be evil.  His actions toward Don, Callette and the others put them all in terrible danger.  Blade and the others might squabble, but they’re a family.  The siblings become more determined, and their goal is clear. Derk needs help, Blade is in trouble, and what Mr. Chesney doesn’t know won’t hurt him.  But the question is…will it hurt them?

As Blade goes out with the first group of Pilgrims, he’s not sure quite what to expect.  Pretty quickly, he learns that he’s in over his head. The tourists seem to have their own agenda,  it’s not so easy to pretend to be an ancient wizard, even behind a long white beard that apparently, ALL wizards wear, and it’s hard to pretend that  your wounded and kind father is an Evil Overlord of Doom.   Even worse than that though, Mr. Chesney seems to have seen through their deception.  While trying to play their roles, Blade and his brothers and sisters find themselves in danger.  Trying to defeat Mr. Chesney at the same time that they’re protecting their father and their friends from his wrath is no picnic!

Will these unusual siblings prevail?  Or will the implacable Mr. Chesney and his menacing weapon–a demon–win?  Read and find out!

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I just love all of Diana Wynne Jones’ books, and Dark Lord of Derkholm is among my favorites.  If you’ve ever read any kind of fantasy novel with a dangerous quest at the heart of it, you’ll laugh as you read the descriptions of what Derk’s people have to go through to create this illusion.  You’ll never look at fantasy in quite the same way!

The siblings in this story–human and griffin–each have distinct personalities and goals.  They squabble like most brothers and sisters, in spite of the magic.  Best of all, when problems arise, they work together.  Derk and Mara are wonderful, loving parents, happy with their children and each other, and quite in over their heads with their evil taskmaster.  Mr. Chesney is a horrible enemy; cunning, controlling and commercial.

So if you like a splash of humor in your dangerous fantasy world, try Dark Lord of Derkholm.  There’s also a sequel, called The Year of the Griffin.  Both are wonderful!


Three Fantasy Audio Books Reviewed

Time for a few more audio reviews!  For some reason this month, they’re all fantasy-adventure stories.  I guess I have a type.

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Earwig and the Witch
by Diana Wynne Jones, Narrated by Charlotte Parry
1 CD, 1 Hour

Earwig was left on the steps of St Morwald’s Home for Children as a baby with a note pinned to her shawl:
Got the other twelve witches all chasing me.
I’ll be back for her when I’ve shook them off.
It may take years.
Her name is Earwig.

Of course, Matron didn’t believe that anyone would name a child Earwig, so she called her Erica Wigg. That never stuck though, and Earwig became…Earwig.

One of the interesting things about living in an orphanage is when people show up looking to foster children. Earwig always manages to avoid being chosen though, because she likes living at St. Morwald’s.  Where else would she be able to make everyone do whatever she wants? When potential foster parents come through, Earwig concentrates on looking unloveable. It’s always worked.

So when two strange people come in–the woman with one brown eye and one blue one in a mean face, with blue-rinsed hair and purple lipstick, wearing a brown suit with a green sweater and sky blue high-heeled boots,  the man just a tall black blur in the air–looking for a child, Earwig looks unloveable. It doesn’t work. The couple seems to see right through her concentration, and they take her. Earwig tries to refuse, but she has no grounds for an objection.  She goes to live with Bella Yaga and the Mandrake.

But the little house on Lime Street has some curious secrets. Why is it bigger on the inside than it is on the outside? Where are the doors to get out?  How can Thomas the cat speak to Earwig?  And what is Bella Yaga brewing in hter kitchen?  Soon Earwig has her hands full figuring out the mysteries of her new home and practicing magic, as well as trying to make her place in the world.

The narration for Earwig and the Witch is quite charming…I love the narrator’s matter-of-fact approach to telling the story.  All the characters have distinct voices and accents.

Earwig and the Witch was the last book Diana Wynne Jones completed before her death, and it’s an intriguing story.  Somehow though, it feels like it was only the beginning of a tale that is much longer and more involved.  I just wish she’d had the chance to write more about Earwig, Thomas and all the orphans at Saint Morwald’s.  But for a quick car trip or to introduce Diana Wynne Jones to younger readers, this would be an excellent choice.  I think kids as young as five would enjoy listening to Earwig’s story, and the book is aimed at second through fourth graders.

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Skulduggery Pleasant
by Derek Landy, Performed by Rupert Degas
6 CDs, 7 Hours, 30 minutes

Stephanie had always enjoyed her Uncle Gordon, even if he was a bit of a mystery. Part of that may be because he was a mystery writer, coming up with far-fetched horror plots where the hero never quite makes it through the book. But when Gordon dies and leaves the bulk of his estate to Stephanie, she’s as shocked as the rest of her family.

At the reading of the will, she meets the mysterious Skulduggery Pleasant. His only legacy from Gordon is a pithy piece of advice, but Stephanie is intrigued by his appearance. He wears a very fancy suit, gloves, a large hat, sunglasses and a scarf. There’s not a single bit of skin showing on his extremely thin frame. Stephanie and the rest of her family finds it very odd.

When Stephanie ends up alone in Gordon’s house–well, HER house now–overnight, she enjoys the time alone and the chance to read Gordon’s last manuscript.  Just after midnight, when she’s finished reading, someone starts banging on the door.  Stephanie tries to pretend she’s not there, but soon the prowler breaks into the house and attacks.  He apparently wants something that he thinks Gordon left to Stephanie–something that is hidden in the house. Something Stephanie has no idea exists.  She fights back, but Stephanie is no match for the mysteriously strong thug. She is saved by Skulduggery…who in the course of the fight reveals himself to be a living skeleton.

Stephanie is determined to learn what kind of craziness Uncle Gordon was involved in, and soon discovers that there is a whole other world which exists alongside the human world, populated by magic users, monsters and beings like Skulduggery, former humans transformed into something different by magic.  As she works alongside Skulduggery, trying to find out who is trying to kill her, she learns that she has some magic skills of her own…

The CD recording of Skulduggery Pleasant is fun to listen to.  I love the narrator’s accent, and his tone is full and rich.  I was at first taken aback by the bridges between chapters and scenes…most of them feature spooky music but there are also rattling bones, echoing footsteps, and sudden screams. (My poor dog practically jumped out of the car the first time she heard the screams on a car ride.)

The narrator’s voice is surprisingly deep, but there are so many menacing adult male characters in the story that his voice is perfect.  One thing that did throw me was that Skulduggery’s voice changed from disc to disc…on the first two CDs, he had a very deep voice with what sounded a bit like an American accent…but on the third CD, it was higher and had the same accent as most of the other characters.  It was a small flaw in an otherwise masterful recording.

Skulduggery Pleasant is both a mystery and a fantasy story.  It has two sequels–Playing with Fire and The Faceless Ones. The books do feature some magical fighting and contain some violence, so it’s probably better for older listeners.  I would recommend the books and the recordings to kids in fourth through seventh grade.

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Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog
by Ysabeau S. Wilce, Performed by Danielle Ferland
10 CDs, 11.25 Hours

Flora Fyrdraaca has problems.  She’s the only Fyrdraaca at home, which makes her the one in charge of Crackpot Hall.  As if being fourteen and preparing for her Catorcena ceremony wasn’t enough, she has to clean a house with 11,000 rooms, muck out horses stalls, care for the family dogs and watch out for Poppy, her father who lives in his Eyrie away from everyone else at the top of the house, has temper tantrums that destroy rooms and cause more work for Flora.

Even if Flora’s Mamma was home, the responsibility would still fall to Flora. Mamma, after all, is the Rock of Califa, the Commanding General of the Army of Califa, second only to the Warlord who rules the country. She is much too grand and busy to worry about the upkeep of the house. It would be different for Flora if Mamma hadn’t banished the Fyrdraacan Denizen, the magical entity who IS the house. But she did, and that’s why nothing in Crackpot Hall works. Even though there are 11,000 rooms, only a handful are actually accessible regularly.

So when Flora takes a forbidden shortcut and ends up in the Library, a room she has never before seen, she just has to explore. And when a skinny boy comes out of the gloomy stacks and introduces himself as Valefor, the family butler, Flora is amazed at how much Fyrdraaca family history he knows. But when he tells her that she can restore him to the healthy magical Denizen of Crackpot Hall by giving him a tiny taste of her will, Flora is intrigued.  The pot is sweetened when he offers to restore some of the conveniences of the house with the rebuilding of his Will.  Flora will have help cleaning, and cooking, and have fresh towels and sheets and someone to talk to while her Mamma is away and Poppy is hiding in his Eyrie.  Flora agrees, and Valefor takes some energy.

Flora thought that things would get easier with Valefor’s help, but then Mamma comes home and she has to hide his presence. Mamma leaves shortly, but not before Flora’s snooping in Mamma’s office reveals that one of her heroes, the Dainty Pirate, is about to be hung.

Flora enlists her best friend Udo to help rescue the Dainty Pirate. But can two teenagers take on the entire forces of the country (not to mention the overlords and enemies of that country) to save one pirate? Some surprising people come to their aid, and some unsuspected villains are revealed as Flora and Udo take their lives into their hands to do what they think is right.

I loved the narrator of the Flora Segunda CD.  The language in the story is quite different from most books, with a little bit or exotic flavor. The narrator’s voice is quirky, and her accent is just right for this book.  There are terms thrown around that are not what you expect to hear, and yet they sound perfectly natural.  It feels like the listener is in an entirely different world.

Flora has to deal with some difficult issues in her life–her father has PTSD and drinks, her mother is away too much, her family tree is riddled with strange characters–yet her charm and innocence and determination comes through. But because of that, I would recommend both the book and the book on CD for kids in fifth through ninth grade.

And if you like Flora Segunda, try the two sequels: Flora’s Dare and Flora’s Fury.

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So if you’re in the mood for a good fantasy book of CD for a car trip, a bedtime listen, or just to play for fun, try one of these.  They’re sure to be a hit with the right listeners.

If you need suggestions for your next book on CD, please ask one of our librarians. We’ll be happy to help you find the perfect story for your family!


Old Favorite: The Magicians of Caprona

It’s been a year since my favorite author Diana Wynne Jones passed away. She wasn’t just my favorite though, there are many people all over the world who have adored her and her books.   In her honor, many blogs all over the world are having a Celebrate Diana Wynne Jones Blog Tour!  From April 12th to April 26th, bloggers from all over the world will be talking about Diana, her books and her influence on writers and readers from April 12th to April 26th.

This is a writer who deserves to be read and reread, talked about and enjoyed.  So though we’ve done other Old Favorites of her books, (see Eight Days of Luke, The Homeward BoundersCharmed Life and our Tribute to Diana Wynne Jones) here’s one more: The Magicians of Caprona, by Diana Wynne Jones.

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The Montanas and the Petroccis are two of the most powerful magical families in Italy. For decades, all of the best spells have come from either Casa Montana or Casa Petrocci.   The two great houses of Montana and Petrocci go back to the founding of the great state of Caprona, seven hundred years ago, but they’ve been bitter rivals for over two hundred years.  There are stories about what started the feud (different at each house, of course) but no one really knows.  If groups of Montanas and Petroccis  meet on the streets, they fight. Sometimes with stones and fists, but more often with spells. Every citizen of Caprona knows to get out of the way if two factions of the rival houses meet.

Paolo and Tonino Montana have never been to school with any Petroccis, they’ve never even met one. But their older sister Lucia tells them stories about the family’s horrible habits. Since all the Montana cousins have heard these stories since they were children, they believe it too, especially dashing cousin Rinaldo, who is almost an adult. Only Tonino’s oldest sister Rosa laughs and tells Paulo and Tonino and the younger children not to listen to the over-imaginative Lucia.

But things aren’t always wonderful, even for magical families.  Casa Montana may be magical, but poor Tonino despairs of ever being able to work magic himself; his spells just go wrong.  Paolo, who has a great instinct for spells,  is sure that he would be good at school.  Tonino had always hoped for that too, but even at school, Tonino really has to concentrate to remember anything. He’s so unhappy that Old Niccolo, his grandfather, charges the leader of the house cats, Benvenuto, to look after Tonino.  That is how Tonino becomes the liaison between the Casa Montana cats and the Casa Montana spell-workers.

When the Old Bridge of Caprona is cracked by winter floods, the Duke of Caprona orders it to be repaired. It will take both the Montana and the Petrocci familes to repair the damaged spellworks. Although each family is determined to stay to their own side of the bridge, only the combined efforts of working together will ensure that The Old Bridge’s spells will endure.  But it’s much harder to repair than anyone thought…someone, or something, is diverting the magic.  When the Montanas call on Chrestomanci, the English enchanter who regulates the use of magic in their world, he is only able to tell them that there is an evil enchanter removing the virtue of the city.  If Casa Montana and Casa Petrocci can find the words to the Angel of Caprona (which is both a hymn and a powerful spell), they may be able to save the city.  If they don’t find the spell, they won’t be able to save Caprona, and it will mean war. And in fact, Chrestomanci must leave without helping them much more, he needs to prevent the city-states of Florence, Pisa and Siena from attacking Caprona while the Montanas and Petroccis try to find the Angel of Caprona. He takes several of the older cousins and uncles with him.

Both families know different words to the hymn, but they’re not the right words. As the search goes on for the spell, Old Bridge is in danger of collapsing again. Both families return to work on the spell-work, but since most of the men are trying to prevent war, the spells are being done by the senior uncles and aunts, the women and even the older children. At Old Bridge, Tonino and Paolo meet two Petrocci sisters–Angelica and Renata.  They don’t SEEM horrible,in fact, they remind the boys of their girl cousins.  Tonino even learns that there might be someone worse at magic than he is–whenever Angelica tries a spell, it works, but never the way that she intended.

Banished from the spellworking on Old Bridge because of their unpredictable powers, Tonino and Angelica are left unprotected and vulnerable.  Both are suddenly and sneakily dragged into a spell, and only Paolo and Renata seem to understand that something has happened to them.  Benvenuto knows too, but without Tonino to explain what he’s saying, the adults won’t listen to any of them.

While Tonino and Angelica struggle to discover where they are and how to save themselves, Paolo and Renata work together to try to get a rescue mission in play. The Casa Montana and Casa Petrocci families though, seem determined not to listen.  In fact, they spend more time fighting and throwing spells at each other.  Is this all part of the evil enchanter’s plan?  Are the two biggest Spell-houses of Caprona destined to fall?  Will anyone find the Angel of Caprona?  Is the fate of Caprona resting on the shoulders of Tonino and Angelica, Paolo and Renata?

* * *

The Magicians of Caprona came out in 1980, to much anticipation and critical acclaim.  It was the second book to feature Chrestomanci, the mysteriously vague nine-lived enchanter. The main focus of the story though, are the two feuding families.  The Montanas and the Petroccis are similar to the Capulets and the Montagues, only without the romance. Well, not the same kind of romance, anyway. Tonino and Paolo’s older sister Rosa has a secret she’s keeping, although Angelica and Renata’s older brother Marco might know more about it than any of the Montanas…

This is a great book!  Writing a description is difficult though, since all of the bits and pieces fit together so carefully that saying too much is like pointing out the way to put it together.  Most of Diana Wynne Jones’ books are like that, which is why they’re such a pleasure to re-read.  There’s always much more going on than you thought, and a second time through makes the reader realize that the clues were always right there, disguised. It’s almost a different book the second time around!

But if you like stories of magic, of brave and determined kids in danger, of brothers and sisters who are friends and who fight together, then you’ll like The Magicians of Caprona.  The world of Caprona might take a little getting used to (it’s a little like Shakespeare’s Montagues and Capulets live in Hogsmead, and their children all go to Hogwarts but must stay in different houses) but it is definitely an interesting world. (And it came first!)  The plot contains a lot of twists and turns, but I think the story would be enjoyed by kids in fifth through eight grades, and by even older readers  who know who the Montagues and the Capulets are.  Tonino makes some appearances in later books featuring Chrestomanci, so his story continues in some of Diana Wynne Jones’ later books.

So pick up The Magicians of Caprona and read it…twice!  Then let me know what you think. I’m guessing that if you’re a fan of original fantasy, you’ll love it!



Old Favorites: Charmed Life

Because I’m still in Diana Wynne Jones mode, today’s Old Favorite will be the fantasy book that made me realize that she was truly a fantasy genius: Charmed Life, by Diana Wynne Jones.

* * *

Cat and his sister Gwendolen have ended up living with old Mrs. Sharp after the death of their parents in a ferryboat accident (Cat and Gwendolen were also in the accident, but managed to survive.) Mrs. Sharp is kind, but she’s kind of…well…she’s a witch. And a weak witch at that. Although Cat is reasonably content to live with her, Gwendolen is sure she is destined for Greater Things. The thing is, Gwendolen is a witch too, and the magic lessons she’s taking from all the neighborhood witches, necromancers and warlocks just aren’t cutting it for her. They’re also too expensive for Mrs. Sharp. So Gwendolen takes matters into her Own Hands, and writes a letter.

The letter is to Chrestomanci, the personage responsible for the control of all magic in their world. Chrestomanci, it seems,  somehow knew their parents, and Gwendolen is determined that he will meet her, be overcome by her Magical Gift, her beauty and intelligence and  Desperate Situation, and take her away to live in a magic castle, where she will learn to be the greatest witch in the world, all the while being waited on hand and foot.

Chrestomanci comes, and he does take both children away to live in Chrestomanci Castle. The thing is, the castle seems to be rather…ordinary. Their rooms aren’t grand and filled with velvet curtains, they’re normal, smallish bedrooms. Chrestomanci is certainly a very stylish dresser, but he’s kind of vague and disorganized. His wife Milly is nice, but plain and rather plump. Roger and Julia, their children, are placid and normal and ordinary. There is a huge staff in the castle, but all the children are expected to help with chores, keep up with lessons and clean their rooms. Gwendolyn is Outraged.

Gwendolen and Cat are told they can’t use magic until they learn how it works, and they’re put with Roger and Julia in the castle classroom with a magic tutor. Cat is horrible at magic (he simply can’t do it, even if he tries, and he doesn’t understand why everyone seems to think he has any magical ability at all) but he actually rather likes the castle and the family and thinks he could be happy. If Gwendolen will let him. But Gwendolen is absolutely Not Happy, as  everyone in the castle soon learns, to their (well concealed) dismay. There is absolutely nothing about life at Chrestomanci Castle that she will accept. With Cat’s reluctant assistance (Gwendolen rather bullies her little brother) she tests all the boundaries she’s been given to the ultimate limits.

When the testing goes too far, and Gwendolen is stripped of her magic, Cat is suddenly the one with a problem.  What will he do? What can he do? Cat is suddenly making decisions and keeping secrets for the first time in his life, and it’s more difficult than he could have ever imagined.

* * *

It’s difficult to describe Charmed Life without giving too much away. Everything you think is perfectly obvious is anything but, and things you think you know from the start aren’t true.  Cat’s relationship with his sister is one thing from his point of view, and something very different from hers. To tell too much would ruin the surprise as it unfolds for both the reader and for Cat. (Poor Cat is rather in the dark at first, it’s not until about a third of the way through that he opens his eyes and starts actually looking at the world around him.)

I do love this book. I love it so much that I re-read it every couple of years, and I was so excited when one of the AfterSchool BookClubs chose it as our  read aloud a couple years ago. Gwendolen is so Dramatic, and Cat is so quiet.  Chrestomanci is flamboyant and humble and wears gorgeous clothes. (They’re there, in detail. Mostly dressing gowns, since he gets called out of his bed for magical emergencies at all hours.) The rest of the family and staff range from cozy to colorful in their own ways, from Roger and Janet to  the lady with the purple mittens to Euphemia, the unfortunately-named maid.

First published in 1977, Charmed Life was the first published book to feature Chrestomanci, who went on to appear in several other novels by Diana Wynne Jones. His story of growing up to become Chrestomanci is told in The Lives of Christopher Chant.  Christopher and Milly appear together, slightly older, in He appears in Conrad’s Fate.   Witch Week and The Magicians of Caprona (although both books are told by two different sets of children.)  Cat appears with the older Chrestomanci in The Pinhoe Egg and in stories in the short story collection Mixed Magics.

So, if you like your characters with character, your magic muddled up with a little real life confusion, and your adventure with a sideways twist you didn’t see coming, you’ll love Charmed Life.  We also have it on audio CD, and it’s just as much fun to listen to as it is to read. And if you walk around saying “bother, bother, bother,” at annoyances for several weeks, don’t blame me!


Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones
August 16, 1934 – March 26, 2011

Anyone who has ever talked to me about books knows that my favorite author ever is Diana Wynne Jones.

I discovered DWJ’s books when I was in junior high–Witch’s Business was the first one. It’s about a brother and sister who lose their allowance for four months and decide to start a business to make some money–Own Back, Ltd. For a slight fee, they’ll make sure their clients get revenge for any perceived wrongs. The only problem is that their customers have much bigger problems than Frank or Jess ever imagined…and there’s already a witch in town who is in the revenge business. It was such a wonderful set up! Here were two real world kids, with real world problems, who suddenly find themselves all muddled up with magic and revenge and treasure hunting.

I promptly went back to the library and took out the only other book they had–The Ogre Downstairs. That one might have been even better–Caspar, Johnny and Gwinny’s mother (a perfectly reasonable woman)  has just married Malcolm and Douglas’s father (who Johnny immediately dubs “the Ogre”)…and the two sets of kids are not getting along. The Ogre buys Malcolm and Caspar chemistry sets in order to make peace…only these chemistry sets have some very strange chemicals that even teenage Douglas has never heard of. Soon, the kids are flying around town, bringing toffee bars to sluggish life and even switching bodies.  Will the chemistry sets help their family, or cause an irreversible rift?  More real kids,  a touch of humor, a bit of  bumbling and magic.  (It’s also a great read-aloud with fourth and fifth graders.)

There were several other books listed on the back cover of that first book I read by Diana Wynne Jones, but my poor little cash-strapped rural  library didn’t have them. I promptly went to the bookstore and spent some hard-earned babysitting money on Power of Three and Dogsbody. (I couldn’t find the others; it took me several years and a new college library with ILL to track them down.)  Both of these stories were larger in scope, more high fantasy, pulling in Celtic and Roman mythology, but still featuring humor, adventure, likable kids in troubled situations and a bit of accidental magic. When her next book, Charmed Life was released, the library ordered it and I was first on the list. I read it twice, and promptly decided then and there that Diana Wynne Jones was my favorite author. Ever.  It’s been more than thirty years, and that has never changed.

Since 1977, I’ve eagerly awaited every new release, at first through booksellers in every town I’ve lived in, eventually having friends in England buy them over there (where they were often released earlier than in the U.S.) and sending them, and then ordering them online.  I would always read each book through in one or two sittings, to see what happened, and then go back and read it slowly, to savor the intricacies of the plot, the clever characters and the way it all fit together.

Unfortunately, there will only be one more new release–Earwig and the Witch, coming out in June 2011.  Diana Wynne Jones passed away on Saturday.

There has been an outpouring of memories from fans and authors all over the world. Neil Gaiman, Emma Bull, and Diane Duane to name just a few.  Diana Wynne Jones studied in Cambridge, taking classes from J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Her books were never a well known as, say, J.K. Rowling, but she has a loyal fan base around the world, who have been reading almost forty years worth of output religiously. She’s inspired and helped younger writers, but her voice was always unique. In 2007 she received a Life Achievement Award at the World Fantasy Association. She also won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award (twice), the Boston Globe Horn Book Award and the British Guardian Award. Her books have been translated into more than 20 languages and have sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.  There are some wonderful, heartfelt tributes online, just google her name and dozens of entries will come up.

My favorite books of hers to recommend to new readers are Howl’s Moving Castle (which is probably her best known book, but it has to have one of the worst original covers ever! I wish we could get the cover displayed here!) Charmed Life, and The Lives of Christopher Chant. (Chrestomanci and Howl have to be two of the best characters ever created in children’s literature.)  My personal favorites (although I love all of them) are probably Fire and Hemlock, The Homeward Bounders and The Dark Lord of Derkholm, because I always find something new, every time I re-read.

When you read one of Diana Wynne Jones’ books, prepare to be enchanted.  Then, if you’re the type of person who likes to re-read, prepare to read it all over again for all the “obvious” things you missed along the way.

Since high school, through college and graduate school, and then into adulthood, a new Diana Wynne Jones every year (well, almost every year) has been part of my life. It’s hard to accept the fact that there will never be another new one after this spring. I feel like I’ve lost a friend.  Still, DWJ will always be my very favorite author.  And her legacy will be kept going strong by all the readers (and writers!)  she’s inspired.

Thank you, Diana, for your wonderful stories.