River Magic, by Ellen Booraem

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I read a Lot of middle grade fantasy (c 150-200 books a year), to the point where I wonder when I pick up a new book if it will really offer me something that will stick in the crowed part of my mind where I keep all the books I’ve read.  River Magic, by Ellen Booraem (April 2021 by Dial Books), did not disappoint.  Indeed, since I have enjoyed her previous books lots, I was not at all surprised.

Donna’s aunt Annabelle was a fixture of her life–teaching her woodworking, and carving beautiful details around the family home, swimming with her in the river they both loved, and generally being loving and supportive. But then Annabelle drowned in the river. Now Donna’s mother is working desperately to pay the bills, her big sister has become a total pill, her best friend Rachel has ditched her for the cool/mean girls on the basketball team, and Donna’s in danger of being sent off to rich Cousin Betty to look after her horrible little boys. If only she could make enough money to help her mother somewhere closer to home…

When a strange old woman moves in to the ramshackle house next door, and hires Donna to clean it up, things are (perhaps) looking up. But the old woman is strange and scary, bad tempered and a terrible (and unlicensed) drive. She is, in fact, a thunder mage. And she’s paying Donna in gold.

This does not, though, magically solve all Donna’s problems. The gold is cursed, and isn’t enough to save the her house, her friendship with Rachel crumbles further when Donna becomes friends with a quirky (aka weird) ex-homeschooled boy (unwillingly at first but with growing appreciation), and the mage’s temper means the number of her chickens keeps growing. Then Rachel becomes one of the flock (I liked writing that sentence).

This is a lovely middle grade fantasy sort of Ack! pivotal moment, and also in true mg fantasy style, Donna rises to the occasion but doesn’t have to be a hero all by herself. (not really a spoiler, because of the cover–there is a dragon on her side. The cool/mean girls and the unpleasant sister also rise to the occasion). And so there was a very satisfactory ending…

I am a visual and emotional reader, not a dispassionate critical reader. I’m not sure that River Magic is “wildly original,” whatever that means, but I do know that I can scroll through it in my minds eye with beautiful clarity, and I remember bits that made me laugh, and that made me sorry for Donna. And I know it worked beautifully for the 45 minutes I was waiting in the car for one of my kids to do a thing, and I finished it up quickly once we got home. Though it isn’t a book that I personally will love best forever (perhaps because it didn’t push my mind anywhere it hadn’t already been), it was a good one. The target audience, of course, have more roomy minds, and I bet this one will be popular with them!

From Kirkus, whose reviews are being paid to be more dispassionately critical (and who aren’t allowed to say “nice fun mind pictures I liked it” and leave it at that):  “A carefully constructed interweaving of reality and magic that will transport and delight.”  
(I have now decided to try to figure out of the next book I read is carefully constructed.  Do you suppose that is the same thing as “everything slots neatly into place?”  Eveything in River Magic slotted just beautifully, so there you go).
Here are my reviews of Ellen Booraem’s earlier books–

Small Persons With Wings

Texting the Underworld (with an interview; a very interesting one at that)

I don’t seem to have reviewed The Unnamables (so this is the goodreads link)



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