Friday, December 30, 2011

Favorites of 2011

Another year of reading is gone. This was a good year as several of my favorite authors released new books and I discovered a couple new favorite authors as well. I decided this year that I would keep my favorite list at 10. I cheated a little last year by sneaking in two extras. It was a difficult task, but I managed to whittle it down to 10.

Here they are  in no particular order:
Links are to my reviews:
Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt
The Piper's Son by Melina Marchetta
The Inquisitor's Apprentice by Chris Moriarty
The Coming of the Dragon by Rebecca Barnhouse
The Dragon's Tooth by N.D. Wilson
The Cheshire Cheese Cat by Carmen Deedy and Randall Wright
Chime by Franny Billingsley
Arrow by R.J. Anderson
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall

A few weeks ago I wrote about my Favorite Characters of 2011 and there are some more really great books on that list that I loved this year too.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Inquisitor's Apprentice

The Inquisitor's Apprentice by Chris Moriarty took be by complete surprise. I was expecting to enjoy it and was patiently waiting for my library to order copies. Then on a visit to our local bookstore, I saw it and bought it on impulse. This is a good thing because I didn't enjoy this book, I LOVED it. I recognize it is not a book everyone will like, but it worked for me on every level. As a reader I was engrossed and it kept me thinking. As a mom it is definitely a book I want to have on the shelf for my kids. As a teacher I could see so much potential in it for a great unit study. But it was the reader me who enjoyed it the most. And now I have a new literary crush as well.

Sacha Kessler is a Russian Jewish immigrant living on Hester Street in a magical New York in the late 19th century. Magic practiced by the masses is illegal and the Wall Street Wizards (Morgaunt, Vanderbilk, Astral) use it to stay rich at the expense of the people. Sacha's life is changed forever on the day he witnesses an act of magic and it is discovered he can see magic being performed. Suddenly he finds himself the apprentice of Inquisitor Maximillian Wolf, the most famous of the group of NYPD officers assigned to investigate magical crime. Along with his fellow apprentice, Lily Astral, Sacha is immediately thrown into an investigation centered around an assassination attempt on the famous Thomas Edison, and all the clues are leading very close to Hester Street and Sacha's own home.

I love the magical New York Moriarty created here. The concept of the magic of the city and the people were brilliant. Her world building is excellent. As an alternate history it relies a lot on the actual history of industrial New York but she has painted the world with enough detail that (I think) you can read it without needing to know that actual history. In many ways the world building reminded me a lot of Diana Wynne Jones and Megan Whalen Turner in that Moriarty in no way condescends to her readers. She throws them into the world as it is and expects them to have the intelligence to catch up. I can actually see the real history being more of a stumbling block for an adult reader than a child reader. Children who enjoy fantasy are used to being dropped into worlds where they are unfamiliar with many aspects and there are different words and languages being used.  The NY Moriarty has created would be viewed by them as a just another of these worlds.

The plot is fast paced and intricate. It is a mystery above all else, but also the story of a boy trying to reconcile his place in the world. Through it themes of gender, race, culture, religion, and economics are explored. There is so much fodder for discussion here. I could see this book working well paired with  Flesh and Blood so Cheap and a study of this actual time period. I really feel like Moriarty balanced the themes well here. There is a definite sense that the the Wall Street Wizards, Mordaunt in particular, are the bad guys. She also plays with stereotypes quite a bit as well, but the underlying message is the reality of the situation is far more complex. There are several threads in the story left dangling and the end is definitely a set up as this is the first in a five book series.

Sacha is an interesting hero and one that is easy to identify with. He is a very genuine 13, not really a child but not yet an adult. He feels a great responsibility to his family and loves them greatly but is ashamed of the conditions they live in. He is a Russian Jew and an American. I enjoyed the interactions he and Lily had in this book and how a tentative friendship begins to develop between them. I am looking forward to seeing how his character grows and unfolds in the future volumes. I am also very much looking forward to seeing more of all the supporting characters, particularly Inquisitor Wolf (my brand new literary crush). When Charlotte reviewed this she had this to say about him, "He reminded me a bit of Lord Peter Whimsey, crossed with Howl, with a dash of Eugenides, mainly because he is very, very good at not revealing all that is going on inside his brilliant mind." That description is so perfectly apt that I can do no better. 

So The Inquisitor's Apprentice has made a last minute entry into consideration for my top reads of 2011. I am eagerly anticipating any news of the next volume in this story. 

Monday, December 26, 2011

Happy Boxing Day!

And Merry Christmas a day late!

I have been busy enjoying our family traditions and the wonder of my kids for the past few days. Also, feeding the 8 people staying in my house right now.  I hope everyone is enjoying themselves as much as I am! Regularly scheduled book type posts will be returning on Wednesday with a review of The Inquisitor's Apprentice by Chris Moriarty, a book which made a last minute entry in my Favorites of 2011. I will be bringing you that list on Friday.

Enjoy any time off you may have and Happy Reading.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Prom and Prejudice

There are many many novels out there that are retellings of or borrow elements from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. I have a love/hate relationship with these novels. For some reason I can't help reading them despite the fact that they usually annoy me. A lot. Elizabeth Eulberg's Prom and Prejudice managed to not do that. I found it to be, like its bubble gum pink cover, light and fun.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

After winter break, the girls at the very prestigious Longbourn Academy become obsessed with the prom. Lizzie Bennet, who attends Longbourn on a scholarship, isn’t interested in designer dresses and expensive shoes, but her best friend, Jane, might be — especially now that Charles Bingley is back from a semester in London. Lizzie is happy about her friend’s burgeoning romance but less than impressed by Charles’s friend, Will Darcy, who’s snobby and pretentious. Darcy doesn’t seem to like Lizzie either, but she assumes it’s because her family doesn’t have money. Clearly, Will Darcy is a pompous jerk — so why does Lizzie find herself drawn to him anyway? Will Lizzie’s pride and Will’s prejudice keep them apart? Or are they a prom couple in the making?

Reading the synopsis you can see this is very clearly Pride and Prejudice reset at a 21st century American boarding school. Instead of every girl aiming for a marriage proposal she is aiming for a prom invite. Every element of the original story is here. (Eulberg did toss out Mary and Kitty, but that can be forgiven as they were fairly superfluous characters anyway.) The way Eulberg tweaked the circumstances to give it a modern flair worked. What is more important, she clearly gets what Austen's point was too. (A thing many people who claim to be Austen fans miss altogether.) As Austen was mocking the courtship rituals of her time, Eulberg is mocking the ritual that is prom. This aspect could possibly have been explored a little more, but I was quite satisfied with how she resolved the prom aspect at the end of the novel.

I did question as I was reading if it would work for a teen reader not familiar with Austen's novel. I think I relied a great deal on  my knowledge of the story and characters to fill in places, which someone who hasn't read Pride and Prejudice would not be able to do. Then there is the way the students talk. The language the kids use is....odd. That's the best word I can think to describe it. It isn't really old fashioned, more like they are trying to sound posh and cultured. No one talks like that even super educated trust fund kids. It was a little awkward in the modern setting and threw me off several times.

Overall this is an enjoyable read. However, if someone told me to choose one YA contemporary retelling of Pride and Prejudice to recommend I have to say Enthusiasm by Polly Shulman is a better choice. (Love that book. I can't believe I never reviewed it here. Hmmm...) It is nice to have more than one option though and Prom and Prejudice will, I think, appeal to a great many girls.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes

That title. The cover. If you are in any way a fan of children's fantasy I think it rather impossible to face those two things combined and not want to read this book. Then you read the synopsis and find out the main character is a thief and, if you are me, all thoughts of even attempting to resist this book's allure go out the window. But why would you want to resist? Jonathan Auxier has penned a delightful adventure full of magic, thievery, intrigue and militant ravens. Yes, there is oh so much to like in Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes.
"Now, for those of you who know anything about blind children, you are aware that they make the very best thieves. As you can well imagine, blind children have incredible senses of smell, and they can tell what lies behind a locked door- be it fine cloth, gold, or peanut brittle- at fifty paces. Moreover, their fingers are so small and nimble that they can slip right through keyholes, and their ears so keen that they can hear the faint clicks and clacks of every moving part inside even the most complicated lock. Of course, the age of great thievery has long since passed;today there are few child-thieves left, blind or otherwise. At one time, however, the world was simply thick with them. This is the story of the greatest thief who ever lived. His name, as you've probably guessed, is Peter Nimble."

I shall start with the prose. Because this was one of those books. One of those books that had me questioning why I don't always have something handy with me for marking pages with quotes I like. This book is highly quotable. It speaks for itself right there in that first paragraph quoted above. I marked a lot of pages and that is not a usual occurrence in my reading. What I liked about the way this book was written is that it reads like a classic. Let me be clear and say this does not mean the writing is old fashioned or in any way stale. The feel of the story is just such that you think of it as one that has to have been around for decades, and yet it contains within it a very real sense of our modern time. How Auxier managed this I do not know, but manage it he did. 

The story requires the reader to suspend belief a great deal. I always feel rather ridiculous stating that because it seems obvious. Of course it does. It is fiction. Yet this is fiction of a Tall Tale type. The stuff that is told of myths and legends long after they are gone. Think King Arthur. Or Davey Crockett killing a bear at the age of three. This has some of those type of elements in it and they enhance the story in many ways. The story itself is an incredible journey. There is a quest, high seas adventuring, a desert prison, scheming with a den of thieves, a kingdom under a curse, and an evil despot who must be stopped. It reads like something Dickens would have written if he decided Oliver Twist needed some magic in his life. Which could have been disastrous, but it's not. It is brilliant. And at the heart of it all is an orphaned blind thief named Peter Nimble.

Peter is awesome. He is an honorable thief. The best sort. He has lived a rough life and I felt for this poor little boy from the beginning. As his story continued I fell under his spell more and  more. He is not always likable. He can be arrogant, high handed, demanding. At times he is scared and helpless. At all times you can't help but want him to win the day. Peter is backed up by an odd yet wonderful assortment of supporting characters from his quest companion Sir Tode to a Guard Raven to the prickly pugnacious Princess Peg. They add to Peter's story in delightful ways and give much insight into who this hero is. 

I recommend this for anyone who loves mystery and adventure and enjoys a good yarn.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Books for Christmas Presents

Or What My Kids are Getting for Christmas, 2011 Edition.

 So I did this last year and decided to do it again this year since my kids, not surprisingly, get quite a few books for Christmas each year.

For the Little One (age 3):



You can find my thoughts on Apple Pie ABC and Press Here and also Follow Me and A Pocketful of Posies (from below) at this post.
We are in a Book and Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! are fairly self explanatory. If you are the parent of a young child and don't know Mo Willems (I recently discovered there are such parents) you need to get to know his books and know them well.
Super Dragon is a cute story about a young dragon who wants to compete in a flying contest but needs to learn to fly first.
For Bit (age 7):




Cake Mix Cooking for Kids is a book full of easy recipes that use cake mixes as a base. Great for budding bakers who want to strike out on their own.
You can read my thoughts on Tuesdays at the Castle here and The Cheshire Cheese Cat here.
Bit and I both read Amelia Lost when we checked it out from the library earlier this year. Bit really loved it and so is getting her own copy.

And this year I have a soon to be niece to by a book for too. She is not due to make her arrival into the world until March 1 but it is never to soon to start buying a kid books. Right? And every kid needs a good nursery rhyme collection so she will be getting this:
  
What are you all getting for the young people in your lives this year?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Horse and His Boy

Featuring Bit, Age 7

Our last read aloud of 2011 is complete. We just finished The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis. I had read all of the Chronicles of Narnia to Bit when she was four and she enjoyed them then. This time however she not only enjoyed this but was pulled into the story. She was vocal and opinionated about everything and really engaged with the text. It was heartwarming for me as this is my absolute favorite of the seven books.
The Story
In Narnia it is the Golden Age as the High King Peter reigns with his siblings, but to the south of Narnia in the land of Calormen, a boy named Shasta has lived a simple and harsh life with his father in a fishing hut. Everything changes on the night a powerful Tarkhan wants to buy him as a slave and it is revealed that Shasta is not from Calormen at all. With the help of the Tarkhan's war horse, a talking horse captured from Narnia named Bree, Shasta escapes and head for the north and freedom. Along the way he and Bree form an alliance with a proud young Tarkheena named Aravis and her horse Hwin, also a talking horse from Narnia. They too are escaping life in Calormen. The four end up playing an intricate role in the fate of the northern countries of Archenland and Narnia, both of which find themselves under threat from Calormen.

Bit's Thoughts
 I really like this book. It was my second time reading it. I enjoyed it much more this time and thought it was very funny. Especially the end. My favorite character is Aravis. I think she is very brave. She wants to go out all by herself. There is a character in this book named Lasaraleen who really annoyed me. She was silly and mostly cared about frilly dresses and all that. Aravis was so much better. I'm very happy that Aravis had a happy ending.

My Thoughts
Yes, this one, overlooked by many and hated by many who do actually read it, is my favorite of the series. I love how it is classic fantasy. There is a group of companions, a quest, a kingdom to save, an enemy to conquer, secrets to be uncovered, and an unknown heritage to be discovered. All the tropes of classic fantasy written before they were really tropes. This is the tightest of the plots Lewis wrote in any of the Narnia books. The story is wholly contained within this one volume. You can go into it knowing nothing of the other books and have all you need. The character arcs in this are also well done. Particularly that of Aravis, who is my favorite Narnia heroine. (I wrote about that more here.) From a Christian perspective I also appreciate the theology in this book and the way Lewis wove it into the story more than in any of the others. It is far more subtle, although still obvious, and is so layered. No matter how many times I read it I pick up on elements I missed before every time.

Bit and I won't be starting a new novel read aloud until January. There will be too many interruptions in the next couple weeks. When we do start back up we will be reading Mara, Daughter of the Nile by Eloise Jarvis McGraw.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Let it Snow

Yes, this is another YA Christmas book post. What can I say? I'm in a holly jolly mood this year. Let it Snow is a collection of three short stories by Maureen Johnson, John Green, and Lauren Myracle. They are interconnected and involve snow, Christmas, and romance. Light, fluffy, fun. It is perfect for reading snuggled under a blanket near your Christmas tree.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Sparkling white snowdrifts, beautiful presents wrapped in ribbons, and multicolored lights glittering in the night through the falling snow. A Christmas Eve snowstorm transforms one small town into a romantic haven, the kind you see only in movies. Well, kinda. After all, a cold and wet hike from a stranded train through the middle of nowhere would not normally end with a delicious kiss from a charming stranger. And no one would think that a trip to the Waffle House through four feet of snow would lead to love with an old friend. Or that the way back to true love begins with a painfully early morning shift at Starbucks. 

The three stories are interconnected, all taking place in Gracetown which is getting a Christmas snow that is stopping trains and trapping people where they are. The perfect set up for romances to bloom. And all this snow is falling on Christmas Eve trapping a couple of the teens in places their parents are not. Even more perfect for romantic developments. Gracetown is a fictional Western North Carolina mountain town and since I've lived in small town in Western North Carolina I especially appreciated this element. Particularly as the Waffle House was practically a character in the story. That is so spot on. All three stories are fun, if predictable. But let's face it, if you are in the mood to read a book like this, predictable is what you are after. My favorite was the John Green story, not only because I like his writing style, but also because I have a thing for best friends falling for each other stories. Maureen Johnson's story made me laugh the most of the three and I really fell for her characters too. I thought the final story (written by Lauren Myracle) was probably the weakest, mainly because the main character annoyed me greatly and it was heavy on the Starbucks and light on the male lead. 


This is a great choice if you are in the mood for a romantic Christmas read.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Great Wall of Lucy Wu

It is rare for me to pick up a book anymore that I have no preconceived notions about. It is hard not to develop some about almost any book when I read so many blogs. I was very excited when I saw The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang on the new arrivals shelf at my library.  I had seen it mentioned in a couple of comments at Heavy Medal but knew nothing else about it. Just the title. It was a lovely experience going into the story not knowing what to expect. I can say that it is one that is well worth reading and adding to any library collection (home, classroom, school).

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Lucy Wu, aspiring basketball star and interior designer, is on the verge of having the best year of her life. She's ready to rule the school as a sixth grader and take over the bedroom she has always shared with her sister. In an instant, though, her plans are shattered when she finds out that Yi Po, her beloved grandmother's sister, is coming to visit for several months -- and is staying in Lucy's room. Lucy's vision of a perfect year begins to crumble, and in its place come an unwelcome roommate, foiled birthday plans, and Chinese school with the awful Talent Chang.
Her plans are ruined -- or are they? Like the Chinese saying goes: Events that appear to be good or bad luck often turn out to be quite the opposite, and Lucy finds that while she may not get the "perfect" year she had in mind, she can create something even better.

Kids are going to sympathize with Lucy in all sorts of ways. I sympathized with her and really wanted to have a heart to heart with her parents on how unreasonable they are at times. Even when I knew they were right. That is how well Shang conveyed Lucy's emotions. Lucy has all the genuine feelings, frustrations, joys, and concerns of any typical sixth grade girl. There is a boy she likes but is content to sneak looks at. She is afraid of falling on the wrong side of her school's golden girl, who is a mean bully. She feels like her parents don't understand her or care about her feelings at all. There is an element in her story of warring culture. She is a Chinese-American and the American part wins over the Chinese part in many of her choices. Unlike her "perfect" older sister who speaks fluent Chinese and has learned all she can about the culture. This is conveyed with a light touch and, while probably the most element of Wendy's story, never becomes tired or trite.

Then there is Yi Po's story which the teacher/mom in me likes best about the book. There is a scene toward the end where Yi Po is recounting a moment from her childhood. A moment that took place during China's Cultural Revolution. It is a heart wrenching story and is told in such a way that it draws the reader in and manages to educate them on a very important time in Chinese (and therefore World) History at the same time.  As most people probably manage to graduate high school without ever hearing about the Cultural Revolution this is a very good thing indeed. It is not the main reason to read the book though, only an added benefit.

The ending was a little too neat and tidy, all loose ends tied up in a pretty bow with curly ribbons, for my taste. But I am a cynical grown up. I can see a kid eating it up because that is the way they want similar situation in their own lives to end. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a good contemporary MG novel.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Princess of Glass

Tackling a retelling/reworking of Cinderella in a post Ella Enchanted (my review) world is a brave thing to do. And if you are going to do it you should really give your story some kind of unique spin. Jessica Day George did just that with Princess of Glass and the end result is an enjoyable and fun read.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Hoping to escape the troubles in her kingdom, Princess Poppy reluctantly agrees to take part in a royal exchange program, whereby young princes and princesses travel to each other's countries in the name of better political alliances--and potential marriages. It's got the makings of a fairy tale--until a hapless servant named Eleanor is tricked by a vengeful fairy godmother into competing with Poppy for the eligible prince. Ballgowns, cinders, and enchanted glass slippers fly in this romantic and action-packed happily-ever-after quest from an author with a flair for embroidering tales in her own delightful way.

There is a lot to like about how George manipulated the tale of Cinderella. The main character is Poppy, one of the may sisters from George's earlier retelling of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses", Princess of the Midnight Ball (my review), and she is not the Cinderella type character. That role is given to a maid by the name of Eleanora who is not all that likable. Turning the Fairy Godmother into the evil villain was a stroke of genius. These elements made the story different enough that it was page turner and took unexpected turns.


I also enjoyed how Poppy is very much the heroine of her story. She is the rescuer of the Prince and that is always an awesome addition to any tale. (He gets to do a bit of rescuing of his own too, but Poppy is even an active participant in that.) 

This is a fun and light reworking of the old tale. I think that it might work better if it had not made so many references to the villains from the previous book and if the romance between Poppy and Christian had been developed a little better. Still, it is a good afternoon's entertainment.

This is YA, but is one of those that would work well for MG readers ready for something a little more mature and romantic. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Grand Plan to Fix Everything

Sometimes a book comes along that is a balance of quirky, enjoyable, and well written. When it happens to be a contemporary fiction novel about a culture many young readers are not familiar with, so much the better. If you are looking for such a book then Uma Krishnaswami's The Grand Plan to Fix Everything is one to check out.

Summary (from Goodreads):
Eleven-year old Dini loves movies—watching them, reading about them, trying to write her own—especially Bollywood movies. But when her mother tells her some big news, it does not at all jive with the script of her life she has in mind. Her family is moving to India…and, not even to Bombay, which is the center of the Bollywood universe and home to Dini’s all-time most favorite star, Dolly. No, Dini is moving to a teeny, tiny village she can’t even find on a map. Swapnagiri. It means Dream Mountain and it only looks like a word that’s hard to pronounce. But to that open-minded person who sounds the name out, one letter at a time, it falls quite handily into place: S-w-a-p-n-a-g-i-r-i. An honest sort of name, with no surprise letters waiting to leap out and ambush the unwary. That doesn’t mean there aren’t surprises in Swapnagiri like mischievous monkeys and a girl who chirps like a bird—and the biggest surprise of all: Dolly. So now, Dini is hard at work on a new script, the script in which she gets to meet the amazing Dolly. But, life is often more unpredictable than the movies and when Dini starts plotting her story things get a little out of control.

This is a book many kids will be able to identify with even if they don't know anything about Bollywood or Indian culture. They will be able to sympathize with Dini feeling alone, like her parents don't always understand her, and the sadness she has at leaving her home and best friend Maddie behind. They will most likely be able to identify with her obsession with a pop icon and her feelings that if any fan is important to said icon, she is. The story comes complete with a host of quirky secondary characters to back Dini up.

The story itself is not unlike a Bollywood movie. It plays out in a similar way to a film. There are abrupt scene cuts, fade out, multiple angles viewed. There are places where the plot is a little zany and the characters overblown. That is part of the charm of the book and another thing I think will appeal to young readers. 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Characters Who Captured My Heart in 2011

“I was attempting to write the story of my life. It wasn't so much about plot. It was much more about character.” 
-from Dash and Lily's Book of Dares

I love this quote because, as I have stated many times, I read for character. If you make me love your characters I will forgive you all kinds of faults in your world building and plot development. As I was thinking about the books that will go on my Best of 2011 list (which I'll post at the end of December) I started thinking about all the amazing characters I fell in love with this year. Not all the books they come from will make that final list (though some will) and I decided to a separate post to cover all the characters who captured my heart this year and  made me fall in love with their stories.

Instead of linking the titles to their Goodreads page like I usually do, I have linked them to my reviews.

Melina Marchetta's Boys:
Yes, all of them. I read Saving Francesca, my first experience with Marchetta's work, last December. I was an instant fan and picked up her other books once 2011 began. I even pre-ordered her 2011 US release. And while yes, I also very much love the female characters in her novels, wow can she write guys well. I love them all from Jonah and Chaz (and even Ben and Jude) in Jellico Road to Finnikin in Finnikin of the Rock. But the one that wormed his way into my heart the most this year was Tom, Tom, The Piper's Son. I dare anyone to read Tom's story and not come away seriously caring what happens to him and all the people in his messed up world.




 R.J. Anderson's Faeries (and their Humans):
I love stories with Faeries and Faerie lore so it was no surprise that I liked R.J. Andersons Faerie books, Knife, Rebel, and Arrow, when I read them this year. More than liked. I did order Arrow from the UK since it hasn't been published yet in the US (and I intend to do the very same thing with Swift when it comes out next year). The characters in these novels captured my imagination and my heart. The Faerie girls, Knife, Linden, and Rhosmari are all strong capable heroines who are unique and different from each other. Paul and Timothy, the human boys, are well balanced between being heroic and needing assistance of their own. Oh, Paul's actions at the end of both Knife and Arrow ♥♥♥. And then there is also Rob, male Faerie, with a very intriguing backstory I want to know more about.

The Casson Children
 "Oh, you Cassons are so artistic and dysfunctional and cool, it's not fair."-Sarah (Permanent Rose)
 Reading Hilary McKay's Casson Family books will make most adults, particularly those who are parents, cringe (most kids will probably think they can relate). Notice that I put the children and not the whole family. Their parents....shudder. They are not evil people, just the self absorbed type that probably maybe should have thought harder about the responsibility of children before having so many. Yet when you read the books you can't help but love these kids with all their quirks and annoying habits. Their bond is strong and their love for each other fierce and it is heartwarming to read. My review for Saffy's Angel; My review for the rest of the books

 Katherine Ann Stephenson
The intrepid heroine of Stephanie Burgis' Kat Incorrigible definitely deserves a mention. (Bit emphatically agrees with this choice as well.) This was another book it was going to be hard for me not to like. Regency England with magic. Fortunately Burgis is a talented writer with a firm knowledge of her historical period to pull this off well. And at the center of it she placed the best sort of young heroine. Kat Stehpenson is not a proper young lady. She climbs trees. She speaks her mind. She fights. She doesn't see why a girl can't set out to seek her fortune like a boy, and so cuts off her hair and goes out to do just that. The only thing standing in her way are her sisters. But she figures out a way to deal with them, find them proper suitors, and deal with the strange and mysterious magic she has inherited from her mother. She s like Elizabeth Bennett and Emma Woodhouse and Hermione Granger all in one. Truly spectacular.


Conn and Company
From my review of Sarah Prinneas' Magic Thief books: "A  thief is a lot like a wizard. A wizard is a lot like a thief. Yes, thievery and magic combined.  Who wouldn't love these books?  Hmmm....well, I can think of a few people who don't like either of those things separately, never mind combining them.  Who cares about those people though?  These books were definitely my kind of fun." And the characters in them are my  kind of people.I loved Conn's sneaky snarky heroism and Rowan's intelligent fierce loyalty especially. I certainly will be first in line if another book were to come out, which Sarah says is a possibility (just not anytime soon).


Cyrus and Antigone Smith
And all the other Polygoners who have joined them by the end of the book. I think my fondness for the characters in N.D. Wilson's The Dragon's Tooth might just outweigh my fondness for the characters in his other books, and that is saying something. I think what I love most about Cyrus and Antigone is how genuine their sibling relationship reads, younger brother and older sister very close in age. They bicker, tease, and poke at each other, but they also love and protect each other (often times simultaneously). I'm very much looking forward to following both of them and all the people they have befriended as the Ashtown series continues.

Briony
 Don't let my face fool you; it tells the worst lies. A girl can have the face of an angel but have a horrid sort of heart.
Ah Briony, so confused and so good at the self loathing. And yet so very very sympathetic. Franny Billingsley's Chime is a wonderful story. It's many potential award mentions and National Book Award nomination tell us that it is also well written and worth a look. No one would care about this book at all if it weren't so easy to love and feel for Briony. She is the story. And Eldric is a pretty awesome character too.


Doug Sweiteck
When I first wrote my review of Gary D. Schmidt's Okay for Now I had this to say: "I grow weary of reading book after book written in first person. Many of them sound the same. Not this one. Doug becomes a real person through his voice and, I have to say, I haven't enjoyed having a character's voice in my head this much since I read The Thief. (Not that Doug and Gen are in anyway comparable, because they aren't. That is just how real Doug came to be in my mind.)" I can give no book higher praise than that. This is another character whose story is a little heartbreaking but, at the same time, so full of potential. When I read this book I just want to give Doug hugs.


So there they are, the ones who got to me the most this year. I'm very excited that I will get to experience further adventures of some of them. And I will get experience all of them over and over through the joy of rereading.



Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Dash and Lily's Book of Dares

Wow, was this the perfect example of right book at the right time. I wanted a fun and light Christmas read and decided it was about time I gave Dash and Lily's Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan a go. I'm so very glad I did. It was exactly what I wanted, fun, light and Chritmasy, but with also smart and witty.

Dash is a cynical jaded teen who has orchestrated a Christmas alone by telling each of his parents he is spending it with the other. During his boring lonely winter break he is perusing the Strand (that mecca of used book stores) when he spots a red journal amongst the books by his favorite author. Intrigued he pulls it off the shelf and finds a series of clues leading him through several sections of the bookstore and to an invitation to begin a correspondence with a girl named Lily. To keep it interesting he continues what she has begun with the notebook scavenger hunt rather than just giving her his email address.

Lily is an optimistic girl full of hope and the Christmas spirit (despite being mostly an atheist) which is why she is so affronted when her parents go to Fiji for a second honeymoon and her grandfather stays at his winter home in Florida to spend Christmas with his lady friend. Her older brother is supposed to be looking after her but only wants to spend time with his new boyfriend. In order to get Lily out of their hair the boys take her new red journal, concoct a plan to leave clues in it, and tell her where to place it, next to her favorite book in the Strand. (Because if there was a guy anywhere for Lily that would be the section he would be in.) Lily is not optimistic that anyone "much less a prospect from that highly coveted but extremely elusive Teenage Boy Who Actually Reads and Hangs Out at the Strand species" would respond, so she is surprised and pleased, but cautious, when Dash does.

Thus begins Dash and Lily's correspondence via red notebook that also has them sending each other all over the city of New York in search of hints and tasks before the notebook can be passed off to the other again. Over the holidays Dash and Lily find themselves being surprisingly honest which each other and increasingly intrigued. But do they take a chance and meet in person or confine their relationship to a series of exchanged notebook entries?

Take one snarkily intelligent yet vulnerable boy, add one socially awkward yet gregarious girl, and throw in a healthy dose of one of my favorite cities in the world and I'm most likely going to enjoy myself. Enjoying to the point of sacrificing sleep to finish I was not expecting, yet I was hooked from the first few pages. The book switches point of view between Dash and Lily and it starts with Dash. And Dash is exactly the sort of character I can't help but fall for. Lily's voice contrasts perfectly with his and it was not long before I was behind each 110%, not only in their quest to figure out their relationship but in all the other parts of their lives. Dash and Lily don't sound like your average teens, because they are not average teens. Both are well read and highly intellectual. Yet I found their voices to be genuine. They are intelligent and mature, but they are still young and trying to figure out the world, how it works, and their places in it.

I further enjoyed the way that the story was a genuine look at romance. There were no sparks or love at first sight ridiculousness. There was no oh-I-have-found-the-only-possible-person-for-me to-be-with-for-all-eternity-at-the-age-of-16 nonsense.  There was a lot about reconciling the person in your head with the reality of an actual person. And the risk involved in trusting an actual person with your heart, or even the idea of trusting them with it. The entire plot, with its themes of love not being a fate driven fairy tale, was well executed and thoroughly enjoyable.

Also the book had me laughing so hard my sides hurt at times. All courtesy of Dash, who is well and truly awesome in all his sarcastic, word loving, compulsive, uptight, cynical, vulnerable and afraid glory.

Rachel Cohn and David Levithan are more famous for penning the book turned movie Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, which I have neither read nor seen. I may need to rectify that now.

Note on Content: Sex is a topic under discussion and mentioned several times. It is clear that Lily's brother is having a sexual relationship with his boyfriend and Dash thinks about the topic a bit, but there are no details or descriptions. There is also some strong language in the book.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Jefferson's Sons

I first became aware of Jefferson's Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley when Betsy Bird posted this review of it on her blog back in August. The novel chronicles the life at Monticello for the children Thomas Jefferson had with his slave, Sally Hemings. I was intrigued enough to buy a copy, but also hesitant to read it. There is a reason you don't see many reviews of historical fiction on this blog. I don't read a lot of it because when it is done poorly, as it often is, nothing annoys me more. (I was a History minor.) I have completely avoided the discussion on this book at Heavy Medal because I hadn't yet read the it, though I've heard most people there weren't as enamored with it as some earlier reviewers. (I will try to get to looking at it when the Christmas candy making is complete.) I couldn't resist reading Monica Edinger's thoughts when she posted them as they were about using real people as characters in a book, something that has always made me uncomfortable. And yes, I it made me uncomfortable here, particularly as I felt many of the thoughts and actions the characters were exhibiting were projecting philosophies and thought patterns people would not have had in the early 19th century. The book is certainly an interesting perspective we don't usually find on one of our Founding Fathers and also a perspective on slavery we don't ordinarily see, and I can see its value in sparking discussion to a certain extent, but my frustration far outweighed my enjoyment while I was reading it.

The novel spans 22 years and follows three characters. The first two perspectives are of two of Jefferson's sons, Beverly and Maddy. The third follows Peter, one of the other slaves on the plantation. It is a different look at slavery because Beverly and Maddy are slaves owned by their father. It is a complicated and messy situation and their feelings toward their father reflect this to some degree. Neither of them seemed like fully realized characters to me which may have been because neither story was followed through to the end from their own perspective. Peter was even less realized and never really established his own voice. I felt like his story was included solely for the emotional impact of the end. The characterization in the novel that disturbed me the most was that of Sally Hemings. She has conversations with her children in this book I can not fathom an actual person in the time period, in her position, having. I feel like the author took a woman who was a real person and a real mother and who, I'm sure, had some rather complex emotions regarding her situation and turned her into nothing more than a didactic voice. A didactic voice that preaches modern thoughts on the topics wrestled with in the book. Nothing will turn me off a book faster then didacticism and that is my largest complaint about the book. I couldn't shake the sense that the point of the narrative was to teach me a lesson rather than tell me a story.

If you are looking for accessible historical fiction on slavery in early America,  Jefferson's Sons works. It fell far short of the expectations I have when I'm looking for a good story though.

Note on Content: The book, while not going in to details, does make it clear that Sally sleeps at the house with Jefferson when he is there and there is, obviously, discussion about his paternity of her children. So you probably don't wan to hand this to a precocious young reader not entirely aware of the ins and outs of what makes babies.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

To all who celebrate it this weekend.

This is an incredibly busy weekend for me, hence the lack of reviews. We host Thanksgiving at our house for both our sets of parents. This is also the weekend when I make the candy for all the Christmas festivities we attend and gifts we give (chocolate covered cherries, chocolate covered peanut butter balls, fudge). Needless to say I'm a little busy.

I did squeeze in some time to take Bit to see Hugo today and enjoyed it immensely.

I will be back on Monday with a review of Jefferson's Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

Catherynne M. Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is the book that gets my vote for Best Title of the Year. But a clever title does not always make a clever book. In this case though the contents live up to the package. It is a beautifully written and clever story. It is pretty near impossible to discuss this book without bringing Alice into the mix, and I have made it no secret here that I'm not the biggest fan of Wonderland (or  the Victorian fantasy in general). This isn't Victorian fantasy however, it is modern fantasy with Victorian elements. Neil Gaiman stated it perfectly in his blurb for the book (an endorsement enough in itself, no need to read my review): "A glorious balancing act between modernism and the Victorian fairy tale, done with heart and wisdom." That exactly.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Twelve-year-old September lives in Omaha, and used to have an ordinary life, until her father went to war and her mother went to work. One day, September is met at her kitchen window by a Green Wind (taking the form of a gentleman in a green jacket), who invites her on an adventure, implying that her help is needed in Fairyland. The new Marquess is unpredictable and fickle, and also not much older than September. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn’t . . . then the Marquess will make life impossible for the inhabitants of Fairyland. September is already making new friends, including a book-loving Wyvern and a mysterious boy named Saturday.

September is a reader and as such knows all about Fairyland and what is expected in such stories, so when asked to go on an adventure she jumps at the chance. Except it turns out she doesn't know so much, and neither does the reader, because Valente took most of the rules and tossed them out the window. Which is wonderful. This is a story most people will think has been done time and again, but at the same time it is original. September is a different sort of visitor to Fairyland. People keep telling her she is Ravished. What that means is part of the mystery, one of the things September must discover. The villain is not at all typical either and is, in so many ways, utterly fascinating. What Valente did there made it worth reading the book for that alone.

Like Wonderland, there are moments in Fairyland that are surreal. However, the level of absurdity is not quite as high. Yes, there are talking inanimate objects, curious meetings, magic that makes no sense, the language is similar. Yet there is a cohesive story here and it is told with a fair amount of cynicism. 

I was a bit frustrated at how hurried the end was, after all we had circumnavigated all of Fairyland to get there, but Valente managed to make me accept it with the way she concluded the story: "All stories must end so, with the next tale winking out of the corners of the last pages, promising more, promising moonlight and dancing and revels, if only you will come back when spring comes again."


Is this a Middle Grade novel or a Young Adult novel? I have seen this debated several places. Are younger readers going to appreciate the cynical tone? Are teen readers going to pick up a book where the main character is 12 and still very much a child? My library has it shelved in the Teen section. I don't know that this is a book that is suited for any specific age group. It is a book that is suited for a specific group of people be they MG, YA, or not so YA. That group consists of those who love language and the written word. If you are such a person I recommend you pick this one up.
 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Featuring Bit, age 7

I am the mean sort of Mom who is not letting my child inhale all the Harry Potter books in one gulp. I'm making her take her time and space them out. It is working well so far. Since we read the first two it has been about nine months. Yes, I've had to listen to lots of begging but she has also reread the first two books on her own several times in the interim so she came into this one really knowing the characters well and there was a definite difference in how invested she was in the story.
The Story
Really I shouldn't have to do this, but as a matter of form:  Harry returns to Hogwarts for his third year after having a rather momentous summer. This year everyone is determined to keep Harry safe within the walls of Hogwarts since escaped Azkaban prisoner Sirius Black has escaped and is, most probably, looking for Harry. Harry doesn't only have escaped convicts to worry about though. He also must contend with his old nemesis, Draco Malfoy, constant predictions of his death by his new Divination teacher, and a fight between his two best friends. And there are also the Dementors guarding the school, who cause Harry to pass out whenever they are near.

Bit's Thoughts
 Whenever I read a Harry Potter book they get more exciting. I liked Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban because it has so many surprises. I was so shocked by all of the things you find out in the end. I also like Professor Lupin. I think he's very nice and a good new character. I really like all the other new characters and I think Professor Trelawney is silly. I thought there were a lot of funny parts in this one. It made me laugh a lot. I really can't wait to read The Goblet of Fire.

My Thoughts
This one is not my favorite. Not even close. The plot device used at the end has always bothered me a bit. I tend to rush through this one when I reread it but I wasn't able to do that reading it to Bit. What struck me about it on this read through was how much of Ron's and Hermione's character development occurs during this book. I was also reminded of how very much the movie messed up Ron. (Grrrrrr.) The best part of reading the book to Bit was watching as her eyes got wider and wider and she bounced on the couch in excitement at the end.

What Bit and I are reading next: The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis (See, I'm such a meanie.)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Back When You Were Easier to Love

Back When You Were Easier to Love by Emily Wing Smith is a fluffy light read with an interesting concept. Who doesn't like books with potentially awkward road trips in cool cars? The book certainly delivers in terms of that promise. It also delivers in terms of writing. The style works well for the plot and the imagery is very good. I think there are many teen girls out there who will be able to identify with the main character and enjoy going along for the ride. I don't necessarily think that's a good thing.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
What's worse than getting dumped? Not even knowing if you've been dumped. Joy got no goodbye, and certainly no explanation when Zan - the love of her life and the only good thing about stifling, backward Haven, Utah - unceremoniously and unexpectedly left for college a year early. Joy needs closure almost as much as she needs Zan, so she heads for California, and Zan, riding shotgun beside Zan's former-best-friend Noah.

When the story began I really felt a connection to Joy. She loves reading and books. She is the new girl at her high school and I know how that feels. I also moved my junior year of high school and that is not an easy time in one's life to make such a transition. When I came across this part I thought Joy was going to be my literary BFF: "I'd purposely waited until last to unpack my books. I loved my books too much to shove on a shelf willy-nilly. Books equaled permanence." And here I thought I was the only one weird enough to think that. I also liked how Joy was questioning her world. She is a Mormon and has recently moved from a town with a small community of Mormons to Haven, Utah where that is all the community to be had. She doesn't wish to rebel against the religion she was brought up in. She just doesn't like what she sees about it in Haven: "Even now that I live in a town where it's hard to tell where belief ends and culture begins-I don't like the culture, but I do like the belief." I really liked this insight. This is something everyone should sort out no matter what belief system they are being raised with. So I was immensely disappointed as the book continued and Joy kind of pulled a Bella Swan.  

From the synopsis I really thought this book was about something other than a girl who goes psycho when her boyfriend leaves her and decides to follow him in stalker fashion all the way to California. Because he is her love for all eternity and they belong together and he just needs to see her to know that. Because with him she is a better version of herself (Joy 2.0) and without him everything loses its glow and she can't breathe. Wanting closure and a defined relationship status is one thing, this is something else entirely and far more dire. Even when she sees Zan again and realizes he is the world's biggest jerk I was still concerned for Joy's stability, because not half an hour later she is actively thinking of Noah as a romantic interest. That is not an exaggeration, it happens that fast. I think the author was trying to pave the way for this switch. Anyone who reads the synopsis has to suspect that is the way it is going to go and the author does try and make it seem as though Joy has feelings for Noah all along she doesn't want to own up to. It didn't work for me though. Joy was just far too unhealthily obsessed with one boy who she defined herself by. When she lost him it seemed like she latched on to the next available boy for her to do the same thing with. We are supposed to believe that things with Noah are different because Joy has thoughts and feelings about him she never had with Zan. Then one has to question what the psycho stalker show over Zan was all about. Joy doesn't need another boyfriend, she needs to figure out who she is and what she wants. That idea isn't even flirted with though.


So in the end I was less than impressed.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

And the Winner is...

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai was just announced as the winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Young People's Literature. This is a novel written in blank verse that follows its young heroine as she flees Vietnam when Saigon falls, spends time in refugee camps, and learns to adapt to a new life in Alabama. It is a wonderful story and Ha is a sympathetic heroine. It is definitely a book well worth reading. You can read my original thoughts here.

I read four of the five books that were nominated and don't envy the committee the decision they had to make. The four I read were all excellent and worthy books. Congratulations to Thanhha Lai!

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Trouble with May Amelia

I am clearly missing something here. Jennifer Holm has been honored by three different Newbery committees for her novels Our Only May Amelia, Penny from Heaven, and Turtle in Paradise. Despite never getting past the first third of Our Only May Amelia and pretty much detesting every moment I spent reading Turtle in Paradise, I dutifully checked out a copy of her latest novel, The Trouble with May Amelia, as soon as my library received its copies. It is, of course, generating some award buzz this year. Honestly I just don't get it. If you enjoy historical fiction from the point of view of plucky young girls then there is much to enjoy here. I certainly liked it far more than I have the other works I have tried by this author, but there were still a multitude of things that annoyed me about it.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
May Amelia lives in pioneer Washingon State in 1900, and she just can't act the part of a proper young lady. Working a farm on the rainy Nasel River isn't easy - especially when you have seven brothers and a Pappa who proclaims that Girls Are Useless. May Amelia thinks she may have finally earned her father's respect when he asks her to translate for a gentleman who's interested in buying their land and making them rich. But when the deal turns out to be a scam, Pappa places all the blame on May. It's going to take a lot of sisu - that's Finnish for guts - to make things right.
  
This novel does a pretty good job accurately depicting life in a logging/farming community in the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the 20th century. Life for the Jackson family is difficult and there are many terrible things that befall them and their neighbors. It was a precarious way to live and that was conveyed well, as was the close knit community of immigrants from the same country and the attitude toward schooling. I did find it a stretch to think that May Amelia had at some point befriended a Chinese boy and a lady who ran a tavern in Astoria. (Maybe this is because I haven't read the first book?) The book,while having a main plot thread of the land deal running through it, is mostly snap shots of what life was like for the people in such a community.


As for the character of May Amelia herself, she is certainly sympathetic. I did feel for her and her situation(s) as the story unfolded. This is a first person narrative and I felt that her character was remote and rather bland for that format. She only identifies herself as the people around her identify her, which is true to life for children in many ways, however by the age of 12 most children start to question who they are in relation to those around them and May Amelia never does that. Her family say she is "irritating" and she repeats it like a mantra, but nothing in the book gives evidence that this is the case. She works her little tail off for her brothers, mostly without complaining.


What I found the most vexing about the book is one of the things that irritated me about Turtle in Paradise as well. May Amelia's parents and brothers act like petulant children. They storm around and make the strangest decisions while the heroine stands there in bewilderment and lands wherever the turbulent adult whims blow her. Until the end when suddenly she's a hero. For the life of me I can't figure out why the adults in the books act the way they do (almost as if their parents were first cousins-I don't know. Maybe they were?).


The books style further irritated me in that there was an Excessive and Unnecessary use of Capital Letters, and a complete lack of quotation marks. Some people find this quirky and artistic. I just find it annoying.


I admit I began the book with a prejudice against it. Being aware of that I really wanted to give it as fair a chance I could. There were scenes I enjoyed, lines that made me laugh. I could certainly see myself recommending this book to certain children I know. It was just not my cup of tea.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Tales of Ancient Egypt

A Review Featuring Bit, Age 7

I can hardly believe we are almost halfway through second grade. Four more weeks and we are done with the term. We are well into our study of ancient cultures that is focusing on Ancient Egypt, and these next four weeks find us immersed in the Middle Kingdom. We have been reading Roger Lancelyn Green's Tales of Ancient Egypt to give Bit some background and understanding of the religious system.
The Story
Tales of Ancient Egypt is a collection of tales and myths from Ancient Egypt. Go figure. The book is divided into three sections: Tales of the Gods, Tales of Magic, and Tales of Adventure.There are 20 tales in all.

Bit's Thoughts
 I like Tales of Ancient Egypt because it will help me understand history more. I also like it because I like Egypt. My favorite story was "The Story of the Greek Princess". I like this tale because the people are so clever in it. It is also the story of Troy which I know about from reading The Trojan Horse. This probably isn't going to be my favorite book this year but I think you should read it.

My Thoughts 
This is certainly a great resource to have about if you want a book on Egyptian mythology. We are going to be reading several novels in the second term that take place in Ancient Egypt (plus Bit is dying to read the Theodosia books) and I wanted her to have some background knowledge as the religion was extremely important in the life of the people. This book gives you a great basic knowledge of the gods and the system of worship. It is older so the language is rather dry. I wouldn't recommend trying to read it aloud unless you are used to reading lengthy novels aloud or you practice first. It should also be noted that several of the tales, unlike most religious stories, actually reward criminal behavior such as treason, theft, fratricide. It sparked some interesting conversations around here for sure. (And isn't that the whole point of good literature?)

What Bit and I are reading next: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Oh the excitement that is ensuing.)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Nightspell

Nightspell by Leah Cypess is a companion novel to her debut, Mistwood (my review). It can be read as a stand alone novel, the two only share one character and you don't need to know her story from the first novel to enjoy or understand this one.


Synopsis (from Goodreads):
When Darri rides into Ghostland, a country where the living walk with the dead, she has only one goal: to rescue her younger sister Callie, who was sent to Ghostland as a hostage four years ago. But Callie has changed in those four years, and now has secrets of her own. In her quest to save her sister from herself, Darri will be forced to outmaneuver a handsome ghost prince, an ancient sorcerer, and a manipulative tribal warrior (who happens to be her brother). When Darri discovers the source of the spell that has kept the dead in Ghostland chained to this earth, she faces a decision that will force her to reexamine beliefs she has never before questioned - and lead her into the heart of a conspiracy that threatens the very balance of power between the living and the dead.

Despite what the synopsis may lead you to believe, Darri is really not the main character. Or at least not all by herself. She shares that position with both her siblings, Callie and Varis, and also with Clarisse. Of the lot of them Darri was actually the one I found the least interesting. She is one of those hard headed stubborn types who has firm opinions, but doesn't seemed to have done  much analyzing to arrive at those opinions. Varis and Clarisse were by far my favorite characters. They were certainly not always likable, not even a little bit, but man oh man are they are interesting. They too have firm ideas about what needs to be done, but at least there is evidence that they think things through carefully, and even when you think the choices they make are reprehensible you can see why they are making them. The interactions between the two of them were my favorite parts of the book.


Cypess has a real talent for drawing a reader into a story. There is plenty of intrigue, mystery, and complicated maneuvering going on amongst the members of the court to keep a reader engrossed until the end. However, once I reached the end I was so frustrated. (This happened when I read Mistwood too.) The troubling thing about it is I can't explain why I'm frustrated because that would involve giving away spoilers. I'll just say that I felt there were several holes left in the plot at that the end.


I do like the way the ghosts were portrayed as clinging to an artificiality and that they were not enjoying eternal life, but rather eternal death. I also enjoyed that this was a sibling story as much as it was a ghost or fantasy intrigue story. The relationship between Varis, Darri, and Callie is portrayed very realistically and I loved that element.


This is a good book to recommend to anyone who enjoys slightly creepy stories and complex relationships.
 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Breadcrumbs

"Once upon a time, a demonlike creature with a forty-seven-syllable name made an enchanted mirror. The mirror shattered in the sky. The splinters took to the wind and scattered for hundreds of miles. When they fell to the earth, things began to change....A boy got a splinter in his eye, and his heart turned cold. Only two people noticed. One was a witch, and she took him for her own. The other was his best friend. And she went after him in ill-considered shoes, brave and completely unprepared." (p153,155)

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu is a retelling of "The Snow Queen" by Hans Christian Anderson, yes, but it might be more fitting to say this is an homage to all of Anderson's tales because there are a great many of them incorporated into this one. The heart of  the story is "The Snow Queen" though, or rather, what it symbolizes. Growing up, changing, leaving old friends behind, and discovering who one is as a person. Hazel and Jack have been best friends forever. Hazel does not know who she is without Jack, and she reminds him someone knows he's still there when he feels invisible. These kids have suffered through some rough times together. Hazel's dad left and Jack was there for her. Jack's mom is seriously depressed and Hazel is there for him. But one day Jack stops talking to Hazel. Her mother tells her this is normal and that it is natural for friends to grow apart as they get older. Hazel knows something is wrong with Jack because he would not just stop being her friend. Then he disappears. His parents claim he is gone to assist an elderly relative Hazel knows he doesn't have. When another friend of Jack's confesses he saw Jack being taken into the woods by a mysterious other worldly woman in the snow, Hazel sets off on a quest to rescue him and bring him home.

The story is split into two parts. The first lays the background of Hazel and Jack, their characters and friendship, and how it all begins to fall apart. The second part is Hazel's journey through the magical land to rescue Jack. Hazel is a wonderful and sympathetic heroine. She reads a lot and lives in imaginary worlds most of the time. Jack is her companion on her adventures and her only friend. She has trouble at school, being new to the way public school works, and hates every moment she is there. When Jack plays with his other friends at recess, she reads. Any child who has ever spent their days gazing out a window and relegating their teacher's voice to background noise will find a kindred spirit in Hazel. What is unique about Ursu's treatment of this is the story demonstrates that Hazel is in need of help. Imagination is all well and good, but sometimes you do have to live in the real world. Friendship is a marvelous thing, but you must be able to function as an individual as well. Hazel has to learn these lessons the hard way and so into the woods she goes. Hazel has a realization as she is walking toward Jack: "This is what it is to live in the world.You have to give yourself over to the cold, at least a little bit." I like this because it is true. Especially the "little bit" part. Hazel's journey has her learning, not only about herself, but also about how to reconcile fantasy and reality. And why its necessary to survive.

The magical woods Hazel journeys through is not a happy place. It is not the type of fantasy land that kids will be wanting to find a way into. Hazel has imagined herself in all of those fantasy worlds many of times, and so is not prepared for awaits her. This fantasy world doesn't play by the rules. The witch is not an evil ruler. She does not need defeating. This is a place where no one can be trusted and danger lurks in light as well as in shadow. Hazel is witness to some terrible and devastating magic. It is an interesting concept, but there were times when I wondered what the point of it all was. Not that there needs to be a point, but there were several quotes that left me pondering what the author was trying to say with all of this. My initial impression is that the themes are a bit muddled, as if Uru herself were unsure she wanted to say something specific. To me it had a very postmodern feel which is a contrast to Anderson's original tale, which definitely had a very specific theme about the power of love. It felt to me that was lost in this retelling, but it isn't a book that can be fully analyzed on one read through. This is partly why I enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second half.

It is all a little dark but there are moments of humor too.  Like when Hazel encounters a wolf upon entering the forest, "She'd read once that if you ran into a bear in the woods you should avoid eye contact and you shouldn't run away, but all she knew about wolves was that you should never tell them how to find your grandmother's house." And when the witch comes to fetch Jack she asks, "Would you like some Turkish delight?...Just a little joke." 

The book is a story lovers playground. Not only are the Anderson tales but Ursu makes reference Narnia, Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, Wonderland, Oz, L'Engle, Stead's When You Reach Me, and Gaiman's Coraline. Those were the ones I caught, there were probably more. The language is beautiful and yet not complicated. I recommend this for anyone who loves a good story.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Picture Books of 2011

It's Picture Book Month! Did you know? If not, you can read all about it. I don't write about picture books often on this blog, but they are very much a part of my everyday life. In celebration of Picture Book Month, I bring you my favorites of the year. Yesterday the NY Times revealed its 2011 Best Illustrated Children's Books. This post is unrelated to the NY Times list. This post has been scheduled for today for weeks. Great minds think alike and all that. My list is very different from the NY Times one. I don't know what criteria they used. My criteria: I had fun reading/looking at the book and, most importantly, my test subjects approved.
My Test Subjects (ages 7 and 3):

Apple Pie ABC by Alison Murray
Alphabet books are a dime a dozen. This one stands far and above the rest in my opinion. There are words and phrases for every letter, as one expects in an alphabet book. A for apple pie, B for bake it, C for cool it, D for dish it out, and on. All of it is held together by one narrative thread, a hungry little dog that desperately wants that pie and will go to any length to get it. The illustrations are crisp, clean and basic giving the book a very classic feel. This is an excellent choice for an alphabet book because it is one that can grow with a child. (Even the seven year old enjoyed it.)


Blackout by John Rocco
It's a busy night in the city and all one little boy wants to do is play a board game. But sister is on the phone, Mom is on the computer, and Dad is cooking dinner. Everyone is too busy so the little boy settles for playing a video game. But then...The Lights Went Out. All of Them. (The page spread that shows this is brilliant.) The family, together now, goes to the roof and then to the street, where neighbors are gathering and enjoying the night, the starts, and each other. The illustrations in the book are gorgeous and Rocco's use of light and shadow amazing. Both my kids love this book. The little one flips through it looking at the pictures again and again. I shared this book with my K-2 Literature class and they all really enjoyed it as well. As for me, this is my top favorite of the year.

Follow Me by Tricia Tusa
A girl and a swing, the perfect combination. I could spend hours on a swing when I was a child and Bit is the same way. Tricia Tusa captured perfectly the feeling of flying through the air while going all the places only your imagination can take you. Add to that the colorful and vibrant pictures, and you have a beautiful book that is going to make you want to locate the nearest swing set so you can experience it for yourself.


I Broke My Trunk and Should I Share My Ice Cream? by Mo Willems
Yes, I know these are easy readers, but they are also picture books. We are big fans of Elephant and Piggie around here so we were suitably excited when three new ones were released this year. We like these two the best. I Broke My Trunk has Gerald telling Piggie the story of how his trunk was broken. The suspense builds, and just when you think you know exactly how Gerald broke his trunk, the unexpected happens. In Should I Share My Ice Cream? Gerald has an ice cream cone and a big decision to make: to share or not to share? Bit is way past the easy reader phase but she still loves these books. She reads them to her brother with quite a bit of dramatic gusto, much to his delight. The books are great read alouds for preschoolers as they can find a kindred spirit in Piggie.

Pocketful of Posies: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes by Salley Mavor
When I was creating this list I decided to cover books published from October 2010 through September 2011. This book was released September 27, 2010 but I love it so much that I decided that was close enough. Nursery Rhymes are becoming a thing of the past. Many kids nowadays just don't know them like they used to. Reason enough to own a copy of this book. What makes it so incredibly special are the illustrations. If you are unfamiliar with Salley Mavor's illustrations visit her website. She sews and embroiders them all and I'm not at all exaggerating when I say this book is a work of art. Actually it is a collection of several works of art. Each illustration is handcrafted in minute detail. This book was the 2011 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award winner in the Picture Book Category.


Press Here by Herve Tullet
This is an interactive picture book. When you hear that you might think that means it is touch and feel, makes noise, or is maybe even scratch and sniff. You might think something on the page moves. Nope. To all of that. This book is illustration after illustration of primary colored dots on a white (and couple of times black) background. I was skeptical when I first picked it up from the library. Then I read it to my son and watched the magic happen. It didn't matter to him that the dots weren't actually moving and there were no bangs or whistles. He loves counting the dots, tipping the book, "blowing" the dots, shaking the dots up, and clapping to make them "grow". It was the most amazing thing and testament to how kids don't need fancy packages, they can make anything happen with their imagination and a simple concept.

Where's Walrus by Stephen Savage
This is a wordless picture book, not a usual favorite around here. However, Stephen Savage's book is just delightful and deserves to be an exception. Walrus is bored with life in the zoo and decides to do something about it. Escape and go on the run. Through retro style illustrations Savage shows all the unique disguises Walrus employs while trying to evade the zoo keeper in hot pursuit.

Hmmmm....I didn't realize until I typed this all out, but every one of my favorites this year was illustrated by the author. Something to ponder.

These books were taken from a greater list I made of books I've enjoyed reading in the past year. I made the list because I often start to receive emails from friends and family around this time of year asking for new book recommendations. I compiled a master list this year to make things easier. It is here if you are interested in seeing it in its entirety.