The Secret of Grim Hill by Linda DeMeulemeester
Lobster Press, 2007

Cat and her younger sister, Sookie, have just moved to a new town with their mother, and Cat is not enjoying Darkmont High at all. Soccer-playing Cat soon finds out about soccer scholarships to the nearby private Grimoire school that are earned by the winning team of a Halloween match. Despite continually hearing from Sookie and their neighbour, Jasper, that something just isn't right about Grimoire, Cat goes ahead with her daily team practices until the bizarre events of an early Halloween party change her priorities.

I was spurred to read The Secret of Grim Hill by a new student who wondered if the library had the sequels because he enjoyed this book so much. He reads a lot and very quickly, so I thought if he liked it then it must be pretty good. Happily, it is.

Cat is a realistic tween protagonist: she is easily annoyed by her younger sister, very aware of her school's social hierarchy and endeavours to climb it, fulfills her household responsibilities despite wishing she didn't have to, and is quintessentially likable. When push comes to shove, Cat's priorities are in order (soccer and family at the top with homework dead last). Sookie is as much or even more compelling as a precocious, Monopoly-loving little girl who is generally as seemingly as annoyed with Cat as Cat is with her.

The atmosphere of Grim Hill is generally light with escalating indications to the reader that something dark is afoot. DeMeulemeester's incorporation and explanations of Celtic mythology and traditions are seamlessly done, and the tension builds to a peak that is exhilarating and urgent but not full-on scary. I look forward to reading one or more of the sequels (loaned from another school library for the student mentioned earlier) to see if the Celtic theme is maintained or if other mythologies are incorporated into the series.

Overall, a solid beginning to a middle-grade fantasy series.

Plain Kate by Erin Bow
Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic), 2010

Let me start at the end: I was reduced to not a slightly teary, not a delicately weepy, but a blubbering, sobbing mess at the end of this book. I haven't cried so much because of a book since I struggled to read the last chapters of Tolkien's The Return of the King through a veil of tears, a comparison which may give you an indication of both how invested I was in the characters and the effectiveness of Bow's world-building.

Bow's prose certainly reflects the fact that she is a published poet, with phrases like "the sky had slid shut under a lid of low clouds" (p. 30) appearing throughout. This lyricism lent itself well to the dark, magical world that Plain Kate inhabits and tries her best to make her way safely through. The book is very atmospheric, and I could almost feel the cold damp of the fog traveling upriver, or hear the mud pulling at the bottom of Plain Kate's boots. The novel has a distinct Medieval, Eastern European feel to it, with towns and cities located at great distances from one another and tinkers and merchants selling their wares in outdoor markets.

Plain Kate is an evocative main character. She reveals herself slowly to other characters as well as to the reader, and coming to know her gradually made her feel all the more real. Her constant companion, Taggle the cat, is a wonderful comic foil to Plain Kate's seriousness while remaining an exceedingly loyal companion (despite his derision for dogs). Secondary characters, such as Drina and Behjet, are three-dimensional with their own tangled beliefs and personal sorrows that are hinted at and not always explained, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. As in reality, people and events were not always tied up neatly, which makes it easier to believe that the world in Plain Kate has no boundaries and continues to exist.

Although it took me a few dozen pages to get truly sucked into Plain Kate, once I was in it I wasn't prepared to leave until I got to the end. Had someone asked me after the first chapter if I would be an emotional wreck at the end of the book, I would have given a definitive no. I am exceedingly glad that I would have been wrong, and I will be recommending this book to many.

Edited February 15th to add: I just found a fantastic book trailer for Plain Kate made by Scholastic:

Binky the space cat by Ashley Spires
Kids Can Press, 2009

This book is hilarious and I adore it. That is all.

No, not really, but that is definitely my overall sentiment about this graphic novel for elementary-age children. Binky the cat, who trains ceaselessly (except for napping and eating, of course) to become an effective space cat who keeps the omnipresent "aliens" (bugs) away from his humans, has fast become my favourite cat in children's fiction.

Binky the Space Cat spread
Image from: http://www.kidscanpress.com/US/Binky-the-Space-Cat-P3150.aspx
The humour in this book is spot on, especially for anyone who has spent much time with a cat and knows their habits and quirks. The pages when Binky tries to help out around the house but manages to do quite the opposite is a hoot, as are Binky's attempts to dote on his humans. It has a Toy Story sensibility in the sense that Binky pursues his projects under the humans' noses without their knowledge, partaking in nighttime raids and research on the sly, complete with reading glasses stowed under the chair cushion.  While some of the subtler jokes probably won't be caught by children, like the cover image homage to the inevitable slow-motion scene in Apollo 13 and the like wherein the astronauts stride heroically toward the spacecraft prior to take-off, Binky's "space gas" from eating particularly crunchy bugs will definitely get some giggles.

Again, loved it, and I can't wait to get my hands on any other Binky books out there.