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Thresholds (Magic Next Door) Hardcover – August 5, 2010
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From School Library Journal
Gr 5-7–Seventh-grader Maya and her family have moved from Idaho to Oregon, where they're all hoping for a "fresh start" after the death of Maya's best friend, Stephanie. Maya, who used to illustrate Stephanie's stories of magic and imaginary worlds, now uses her art to deal with her grief. She is intrigued by the people who live in the apartment building next door, who seem too exotic for Oregon, and strikes up a friendship with those who go to her school. Things go from odd to odder, however, when she is visited by a fairy, which leads to a chance encounter at school and an alien egg attached to her arm. She soon learns that her neighbors are a family of portalkeepers–they monitor portals from other worlds–and the egg, called a sissimi, will hatch into a creature that is bonded to her for life. As she learns more about portalkeeping and prepares for the hatching of her egg, she comes to terms with her family's move and starts to see hope for the future. The realistic and fantastical elements don't always blend seamlessly, but the story's premise is intriguing, and, like the rather abrupt ending, hints at a sequel.Laurie Slagenwhite Walters, Baldwin Public Library, Birmingham, MI
© Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Still haunted by the death of her best friend the previous spring, Maya must now make her way in a new town and, worse, a new middle school. Intrigued by the strangely dressed kids living next door, she finds herself opening up to them after an enigmatic, possibly alien boy at school magically implants a small egg beneath the skin of her wrist, making her the host of a rare, precious sissimi,a protector. Suspension of disbelief is a prerequisite for enjoyment of this inventive novel, which will sweep willing readers along in a strong current of narrative. As characters and events become “curiouser and curiouser,” the world of school and family becomes increasingly divorced from the fantastic realm Maya discovers. The concluding scene—which attempts to merge the two worlds—is, ironically, less convincing than the purely imaginative ones. Still, fantasy fans will find plenty to enjoy here, from the striking jacket art to Maya’s discovery of an alternate, magical reality. Grades 5-7. --Carolyn Phelan
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If this is the beignning of a series, I would give it 4.5 to 5 stars; if not, 3 or 4. The characters are likeable, the author does an excellent job showing Maya's emergence from acute grieving, the world-building is interesting and has a lot of potential. I just want more of a conclusion; I hope Hoffman will supply it.
The product description tells all you need to know about the overall plot. But it can't tell you how magical the writing, people, and places are. I enjoyed this immensely. I would love to read a sequel - or two.
You should probably know three things about Maya right from the outset. First off, her best friend Stephanie recently died and Maya's family has moved so as to help their daughter cope. Second, Stephanie has found herself living next to a house where the denizens come and go in odd fashions, play strange instruments, and speak in tongues she doesn't always understand. Third, there was a fairy in her room recently. It happened one night when Stephanie probably should have been asleep. No one would think much of it either, were it not for the fact that because of the strange fairy's scent an odd boy decides that he can trust Maya. Next thing she knows she has a strange magical egg embedded under the skin of her wrist, and her neighbors are the only ones who can help her. Now Maya, like it or not, has gotten caught up in their world. The only question now is what's in that egg and what will happen when it decides to hatch?
The blurb for this book that caught my eye is "Ingrid Law's Savvy as seen through the eyes of a young Ray Bradbury." I love that they had to put that "a young" in there. Old Ray Bradbury would be a whole different ballgame, of course. Mind you, it's an interesting statement above and beyond the age designation of one of the nation's greatest science fiction writers. First off, the blurb pairs two different genres together. Savvy is a Newbery Honor winning fantasy about a girl who receives a special power (like the rest of her family) at the age of thirteen. Ray Bradbury, on the other hand, is a master of science fiction. Put the two together and you would expect to find a book that appeals to both sci-fi and fantasy fans equally. No mean task. To my mind, I suppose that Thresholds could be characterized as sci-fi. Everything has a logical dimension. Just the same, as a general rule, when you open your first chapter with a girl discovering a fairy, folks are going to label you fantasy whether or not there's a scientific practicality to that fairy being there.
The real reason I think they decided to compare this book to Ray Bradbury probably has a lot to do with Hoffman's skill with descriptions. She's very good at avoiding the usual fantasy/sci-fi tropes, preferring instead to create her own original worlds. Fairies, for example, have a cinnamon/carnation scent and "the wings didn't look like angels' or dragonflies' or bats' - more like feather dusters." And when one is describing folks from another dimension Hoffman puts it this way: "Then he was surrounded by tall, narrow people with lemon chiffon-, key lime pie-, and blueberry yogurt-colored skin, their snaky, knobby hair-vines darker colors, their clothes bumpy and strange, with parasols - or something made of webbing stretched over jointed frameworks - moving behind their heads." That's luscious. You could practically eat that sentence right up.
I think a lot of the charm of this book makes it into a kind of anti-Twilight tale. Think about it. Here you have an average heroine who moves to a new town. She discovers a family that is different from everyone else. However, unlike the Twilight novels, these kids aren't super beautiful, superior people but the outcasts of the school that keep to themselves and still end up being incredibly powerful. Our heroine becomes one of them, not entirely by choice, but because she took pity on someone and agreed to do something outside of her realm of experience (mainly, to host an egg in her arm). Her reward is not only friends but also a purpose, a sense of belonging, and a super cool being bent on protecting her for all time. So the tween desire to both become powerful AND to be protected at all times is finely wrought here. It just avoids making that powerful being an overprotective love interest. Well played, Hoffman. Well played indeed.
Characters have to avoid being interchangeable in a middle grade fantasy, and Hoffman does a pretty good job avoiding that trap. But what's interesting is that the most distinctive person here ends up being one of the supporting characters. Travis is best described as the book's Jeff Spicoli (Fast Times at Ridgemont High fans, rejoice). He's a good-natured slacker who actually uses the phrase "cowabunga" in casual conversation and proves to be more valuable than he first appears. He gets the best lines too. Sentences like, "You guys are like the psychos of the homeschool world, aren't you?" Beautiful.
Every good fantasy (if that's what you decide that this is) also needs a bit of reality to ground it. In the case of Thresholds, Maya's best friend Stephanie has died the previous spring. Hoffman has to play this element delicately. For Maya to be a character we care about, she needs to overcome some personal problem in the course of the novel. Simply dealing with a magical wrist egg is not going to cut it. On the other hand, the dead friend card is a difficult one to play. The best way to handle is to do what Hoffman does here. She allows you to fall a little bit in love with the deceased Stephanie, so that the reader understands why Maya is so wrapped up within herself. This storyline has its own little arc and resolution too, but not so much that it overwhelms the more fantastical plot. Hoffman is playing with a light hand. It pays off in the end.
I loved all of that, but I admit that I did find the lack of conflict in the story a bit odd. Generally speaking, I'm a conflict adverse kind of gal, but it struck me as strange that the bad guys in this book do all their work off-stage. They don't even appear by the book's end! Even Voldemort showed up as a talkative half head in the first Harry Potter book. In Thresholds, though, the central conflict is between the heroine and herself. Between the two choices presented to her. She makes her decision. End of story. Kids hoping for something a little more exciting will be disappointed. Far worse, to my mind, is that it means that the book doesn't entirely stand on its own. We know the bad guys are gonna show up at some point. It would have been nice to get at least a glimpse of one of them in our own world.
The lure of Thresholds is the same lure you'll find in Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey or Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George. At its heart, this is about a girl finding something within herself that is strong and bursting forth at an important turning point in her life. It takes very little effort to turn Thresholds into one great big metaphor. All I know is that like Savvy or The Girl With the Silver Eyes, it's a tale for girls about to take the plunge into adolescence. There is comfort in knowing that the thing inside you that seems so strange and mysterious is there to help you and be your lifelong companion. Hoffman taps into that comfort, and the result is a story with a magical premise that may contain familiar tropes but ends up entirely original in the end. Worth seeking out. Worth waiting for its sequel.
For ages 9-12
The Andersen family had just relocated from Catspaw, Idaho to Spores Ferry, Oregon, and it's hoped that the move will ease the pain of the troubled middle child, Maya. It's key to know that Maya's lifelong best friend, Stephanie, had just died from cancer and that Maya is still deeply grieving. Here in Spores Ferry, Maya's fresh start isn't quite working out just yet. Her best friend Stephanie was the big goofy dreamer, and she'd stayed optimistic until the very end. When Stephanie left, Maya couldn't help but be embittered, and she's just so sad all the time. One night, in her second week in Oregon, when a tiny fairy flits into her bedroom, Maya thinks of how much Stephanie would've loved the sight, would've loved to learn that fairies smell like cinnamon and carnation. The fairy cuddles up next to Maya, and falls asleep. Eventually, so does Maya.
Maya wonders about her strange, fascinating neighbors living next door in that apartment complex (the Janus House, it's called). She sees them dressing oddly, playing weird instruments, consuming peculiar foods, conversing in an exotic language, keeping to themselves... so she's curious. Kids from that building attend her new school and Maya learns that these kids are widely shunned in school, that they form their own clique. Maya is faced with the dilemma of mainstream acceptance or social suicide. Not entirely by choice, she gravitates towards the outcasts. It opens up her world. Does it ever...
Her first day of 7th grade, and there's still a leftover scent of fairy dust on Maya, and this gets her approached in the school hallway by a strange boy who doesn't look all that well (Maya in her mind dubs him Sick Boy). Their encounter later culminates in his giving her a "gift," an egg which instantly embeds itself in her wrist.
Nina Kiriki Hoffman's storytelling, always rich and captivating, makes turning her pages as natural as breathing air or walking barefoot on the beach. She doesn't ever really pack her stories with slam bang action (once in a while, yeah), even though things are happening. What she does is craft her characters slowly, constructing layers around them, and she's got beautiful writing. Maya is an ordinary girl, maybe with a real talent for drawing, and it's only an accident that her eyes are unveiled to a world of enchantment. Her grief is a tricky thing to write about, and there's a real chance she may have come off as too melancholy and depressing. It really helps that Hoffman makes the absent Stephanie such a strong appealing presence. I found myself, like Maya, wishing that Stephanie, too, could experience enchantment. We get where Maya's coming from.
The author surrounds Maya with an interesting bunch, and it turns out her secretive outcast friends may be the coolest peeps around. Maya promptly finds herself immersed in their extraordinary world. But, having said that, one of the most well-written characters happens to be a laid back "normal" kid named Travis.
There are malevolent villains here, called the Krithi, but they're shadowy and are only referred to. THRESHOLDS, with the way Hoffman is leisurely setting up her world-building and with the last chapter sort of open ended, feels like the first book in a series, and that's a very good thing. I'm sure the Krithi will make a personal appearance in future sequels. But, for now, the central conflict resides in a girl's wounded soul learning to get on with things. It helps that Maya may have just stumbled onto her very own magic. It's satisfying that Maya, with that egg in her wrist, is rendered equally fascinating to her new friends.
Portals and aliens and magic and weird friends and art and Music Night. "Chikuvny" and "sissimi" and "Kerlinqua," and I'll leave it to you to discover what these words entail. It never gets old, does it, that sense of gratification when reading a story about the mundane running into the fantastical, and the young protagonist empowered and finding that sense of belonging, that sense of self. I can hearken back to years and years ago, when the world was vast and wild and I dreamed real big. Nina Kiriki Hoffman transports me to that place, always and effortlessly.
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