Thursday, September 29, 2011

13 Curses

I read Michelle Harrison's 13 Treasures (my review) this summer and enjoyed the way it gave a different spin on old Faerie lore and for the main characters of Tanya and Fabian. I was interested to see where the story would go next and when our library received its copies of 13 Curses I was eager to get a hold of one. I didn't enjoy it as much as the first.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
The 13 Treasures have become the 13 Curses. When fairies stole her brother, Red vowed to get him back. Now trapped in the fairy realm, she begs to be seen before the fairy court where she strikes a bargain: Her brother in exchange for all thirteen charms from Tanya's bracelet. Back at Elvesden Manor, Red, Tanya, and Fabian begin a desperate hunt, but as they soon find out, the fairies have done more than hide the charms; they've enchanted them with twisted qualities of the thirteen treasures they represent. And the longer the charms are missing, the more dangerous they become. Can Red, Tanya, and Fabian find all thirteen charms? And if they do, will the fairies keep their promise? 

What worked for me: The Faerie lore continues to follow traditional tales while expanding them. Red and Warwick actually get to attend the feast where the switch between the rule of the Seelie and the Unseelie Courts occur and I thought both courts were portrayed well. There is just enough darkness in the Unseelie to remain true to the myth without making it too dark for children. The Seelie, while not as dark, are shown to be just as heartless and unthinking of using humans in their games as their Unseelie counterparts.

What didn't work for me: This book focuses more on Red who was not a character explored a lot in the first book. I wouldn't have minded this so much except I felt like this focus did a disservice to both Tanya and Fabian. Part of my enjoyment of the first book was Tanya and Fabian and their interaction with each other. From the beginning I felt like they just were not the same characters, like something was off. Some of that might be attributed to the books format which jumps between Red in the Faerie realm to what is happening at the Manor in the human realm. There are also flashbacks to Red's past that are spotted throughout her account. There is a lot of jumping around and as a result the story has no fluidity. Warwick also gets a chance to add his own tale of tragedy and woe regarding the faeries that we did not get in the first book. All this back story contributed to a book that was way too long. It is 496 pages and they don't even get to the part where the quest begins until 300 pages into the book.

I can see how children who are fantasy fans and enjoy trilogies and series wanting to pick this up. It left me wanting and feeling a little deflated though. I'm not sure I will bother with the third book when it is released in the US. It is called 13 Secrets and is currently out in the UK and is expected in the US in 2012.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


I became a fan of R.J. Anderson's books when I read her Faerie series earlier this year. (my reviews here and here) I was very excited about the release of Ultraviolet , particularly as it was going to be a different sort of book. I was eager to see what Anderson would do with a different concept. This book did not disappoint. It was an engrossing, thought provoking, and entertaining read. When I write reviews I like them to be somewhat substantive and  not just, "Wow this book was great, I loved it, go read it." It is going to be more of a challenge to do that for this book because saying much about the book is difficult without mentioning spoilers. I shall try my best though.

Once upon a time there was a girl who was special. Her hair flowed like honey and her eyes were blue as music. She grew up bright and beautiful with deft fingers, a quick mind, and a charm that impressed everyone she met. Her parents adored her, her teachers praised her, and her schoolmates admired her many talents. Even the oddly shaped birthmark on her upper arm seemed like a sign of some great destiny. This is not her story. Unless you count the part where I killed her.

Alison is in trouble. After years of trying to suppress and hide the strange way she perceives the world through colors and sound she finds herself in a psychiatric hospital suspected of killing one of her classmates. The problem is there is no body and little evidence. Alison was the last person to see Tory. They fought and then Alison came home upset, with  blood on her hands, out of control, and claiming she saw Tory disintegrate. When Dr. Sebastian Faraday turns up at the hospital and not only discovers the reason for Alison's strange perceptions, but also completely believes her story about Tory she has new hope. And it doesn't hurt that Faraday is good looking with an entrancing accent either. Just when Alison thinks things might improve they go from strange to stranger and she discovers a whole new world of knowledge.

This story has a lot going for it: mystery, suspense, psychological oddities, a little romance, and then the other stuff that you have to read the book to discover. There are several elements of it that could have gone horribly wrong or been terribly awkward if Anderson were not so good at what she does. She took some real risks with this concept and they were definitely worth it.

Alison is the one telling us her story and it is told in first person. If you don't like unreliable narrators this book will drive you crazy. Alison, as a patient in a  mental hospital on anti-psychotic drugs, is the very definition of unreliable. I like unreliable narrators and Alison is one whose voice will capture you even if you don't completely trust her. She is extremely sympathetic and you can't help but want her to be telling the truth.

The relationship between Alison and Faraday is quite possibly the best executed part of this story. It could have been super creepy (and not just because of the age difference and the whole doctor/patient thing), but Anderson managed to avoid the disturbing relationship issue while also turning out a stomach fluttering romance.

I was also impressed with the portrayal of Alison's hospital and experiences in it. The hospital workers and doctors are portrayed as real people, some of whom are dedicated to their jobs and some of whom are simply earning paychecks. None of them are evil or abusive. Some of them are kind of clueless but you find those people anywhere. Overall they are portrayed as helpful professionals. The other patients are portrayed sympathetically, even the ones that hurt Alison and make her miserable. The books referenes to psychiatry and psychiatric drugs are delivered in ways that allows readers to draw their own conclusions (and in my case do some internet research).

The only small complaint I had was that the last couple of pages were a little less subtle than I would have liked. According to R.J. Anderson's website there will be a sequel coming out in 2013, which seems an awful long time from now. Though in the meantime her fourth Faerie book Swift will be released in the UK so we have that to look forward to.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A True Princess

A True Princess by Diane Zahler combines several tales and Faerie lore to tell the story of a princess and a quest. It is not one I found particularly enjoyable but is a book that would probably find a home in the hands of young princess and fairy tale enthusiasts.

Synopsis: (From Goodreads):
Twelve-year-old Lilia is not a very good servant. In fact, she's terrible! She daydreams, she breaks dishes, and her cooking is awful. Still, she hardly deserves to be sold off to the mean-spirited miller and his family. Refusing to accept that dreadful fate, she decides to flee. With her best friend, Kai, and his sister, Karina, beside her, Lilia heads north to find the family she's never known. But danger awaits. . . .As their quest leads the threesome through the mysterious and sinister Bitra Forest, they suddenly realize they are lost in the elves' domain. To Lilia's horror, Kai falls under an enchantment cast by the Elf King's beautiful daughter. The only way for Lilia to break the spell and save Kai is to find a jewel of ancient power that lies somewhere in the North Kingdoms. Yet the jewel will not be easy to find. The castle where it is hidden has been overrun with princess hopefuls trying to pass a magical test that will determine the prince's new bride. Lilia has only a few days to search every inch of the castle and find the jewel—or Kai will be lost to her forever.

The is a book that sounded tailor made for me so I was rather disappointed at not enjoying it. There were elements of the book I enjoyed. The writing is descriptive and the northern European setting with the Northern Lights was interesting. Lilia is a brave heroine and a loyal friend. There are heroic knights, a handsome prince, and the whole "boy next door" storyline. I liked that while Lilia was the princess who passed the test the outcome revealed was far different than in "The Princess and the Pea".

So what was my problem?

This is a reworking of "The Princess and the Pea" but it also contains Goethe's "The Elf King" (in the form of actual stanzas from the poem) and has elements of Anderson's "The Snow Queen". Plus the lore of Odin's Hunt is thrown in for good measure. Both "The Elf King" and "The Snow Queen" are dark and perilous stories. This book is not dark or perilous in anyway.  Goethe's Elf King is scary. That poem packs a punch and the villain in this book comes nowhere close to doing it justice. His daughter is vain, spoiled, petulant and childish nowhere near as forbidding (or seductive) as Anderson's Snow Queen. I just don't think the novel did the source material justice and adds nothing to it.

Lilia and Kai have a very sweet friendship/flirtation going on (paralleling the relationship of Gerda and Kai in Anderson's tale), except Kai is far more an innocent victim in this version and I didn't find him to be that interesting.. The romance between Prince Tycho and Karina was rather shallow. It was, look how noble he appears+look how beautiful she is=LOVE. Blech.

My final complaint was in the idea that Lilia couldn't function properly as a serving maid because she was born a princess. I'm sorry, the girl couldn't make decent porridge because princesses are inherently bad at cooking? Kai says this to her toward the end: "You were a bad servant to Ylva because you were a princess." No. No. No. She should have worked her lazy self harder and learned how to make decent porridge or sew better, or dust better. I really didn't have much respect for Lilia's character despite her bravery because she really didn't try to overcome her weaknesses. I prefer stories that show that it is how we act and not how we are born that define us as people.

The book is short, only 184 pages, and very tame. I think it would appeal most to girls in the 8-10 age range.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Banned Book Week

 It is that time of year again. The one where we celebrate our freedom to read what we choose and for other people to do the same even if we don't like or agree with their choices. It begins tomorrow on September 24 and runs until October 1. Over the year the American Library Association compiles data on books that have been challenged and the reasons given for wanting their removal from libraries. You can find information and some rather troubling lists here.Check your local library to see if they are doing anything special.

Here is the Top 10 list of banned/challenged book of 2010 with their reasons :
  1. And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
    Reasons: homosexuality, religious viewpoint, and unsuited to age group
  2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
    Reasons: offensive language, racism, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and violence
  3. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
    Reasons: insensitivity, offensive language, racism, and sexually explicit
  4. Crank, by Ellen Hopkins
    Reasons: drugs, offensive language, and sexually explicit
  5. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
    Reasons: sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and violence
  6. Lush, by Natasha Friend
    Reasons: drugs, offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group
  7. What My Mother Doesn't Know, by Sonya Sones
    Reasons: sexism, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group
  8. Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich
    Reasons: drugs, inaccurate, offensive language, political viewpoint, and religious viewpoint
  9. Revolutionary Voices, edited by Amy Sonnie
    Reasons:  homosexuality and sexually explicit
  10. Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer
    Reasons: religious viewpoint and violence
There are always a couple of things that make me want to tear at my hair about the list every year. This year's culprits:
1. How did Brave New World suddenly get back on the list and make it all the way to #3? Did a bunch of people suddenly realize that their former attempts to oust it from the world had been unsuccessful and so they decided to launch a new campaign? It hasn't made the Top Ten in the last 10 years and wasn't in the top 50 for the 90's.
2. Where on earth are these people getting the sexually explicit scenes in The Hunger Games from? Do they have a different copy of the book than I read? There is some kissing but nothing remotely deserving of the label "sexually explicit". Are these people actually reading the books they are challenging?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


The Invention of Hugo Cabret (my review) was a paradigm shattering book. Especially once it won the Caldecott. I admit that I had my doubts about Wonderstruck. I thought it highly possible it was going to just be another Hugo without the innovative edge. Which would still have made it a good book because Selznick is a talented man. Then the hype around it grew and grew and so did my wariness. I was excited, but it was a qualified excitement. Betsy at Fuse 8 said in her review before the book's release that it was a book that lived up to its hype which abated my wariness some. Now that I've read it, I completely agree with her. Wonderstruck is not just another Hugo. It has a similar style but is a different concept. And in my opinion it is a better book.

Synopsis(from Goodreads):
Set fifty years apart, two independent stories—Ben's told in words and Rose's in pictures—weave back and forth with mesmerizing symmetry. How they unfold and ultimately intertwine will surprise you, challenge you, and leave you breathless with wonder. Ever since his mom died, Ben feels lost. At home with her father, Rose feels alone. He is searching for someone, but he is not sure who. She is searching for something, but she is not sure what. When Ben finds a mysterious clue hidden in his mom's room, When a tempting opportunity presents itself to Rose.  Both children risk everything to find what's missing. 

The stories of Rose and Ben parallel each other and coincide even with a difference of 50 years. The book begins with Ben and the prose and then switches to Rose and the art. They then switch back and forth for the rest of the story. Where Selznick put the transitions between the two was masterfully strategic. Assuming his strategy was to keep the reader turning the pages, not wanting to put the book down because it was essential to know what was going to happen next. If that was the strategy it worked brilliantly on me. 

Both stories are highly emotive. Selznick's pictures have always been good for this, but in this book his prose is creating and setting the mood as well. The words are as beautifully descriptive as the pictures and convey Ben's loneliness, searching, panic, loss and wonder just as well as the pictures of Rose do. I actually thought that, at times, the prose did it better. Ben was the character I  connected with and felt for more. Here is just one of the passages that made an impression (This is just after Ben has arrived in NY):
"Ben looked around in astonishment. Taking in all the colors and smells and movements, he felt like he'd fallen over the edge of a waterfall. He was sure he had never seen this many people in his enter life on Gunflint Lake. Everyone everywhere seemed to be a different color, as if the cover of his social studies textbook had come to life around him."
Notice that it says "colors and smells and movements", not sound. That is because Ben is deaf, as is Rose. So their pictures and words are conveying more than just story, they are conveying an experience.

There is so much to explore in the book. It is about the wonder to be found in the world and how this wonder is often captured in museums. There is the wonder that is found in relationships of all kinds. There is the wonder that comes from striking out and finding your own way in the world. There is the wonder that comes from finding your way home, even if it is not to the same one. Unlike my use of the word wonder here, none of it is overdone or forced.

There has been much talk (see this post at Heavy Medal  and this one at Calling Caldecott as examples) of how Selznick may  have confounded the award committees for this year. I do think it will be sad if some he does not get some accolade for what he has done here. Although, this seems kind of trite, but I suppose the greatest accolades an author can receive is for people to read and appreciate his work. So go. Read and appreciate.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Running Dream

I would probably not have know of the existence of The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen if it were not for Emily at Lirbrarified. She presented the book at a workshop I attended over the summer and sung its praises so highly I had to read it. With the books less than flashy cover and fairly innocuous title I can see how many might overlook it. Which is sad because it really is a lovely story and an engrossing. read.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Jessica thinks her life is over when she loses a leg in a car accident. She's not comforted by the news that she'll be able to walk with the help of a prosthetic leg. Who cares about walking when you live to run? As she struggles to cope with crutches and a first cyborg-like prosthetic, Jessica feels oddly both in the spotlight and invisible. People who don't know what to say, act like she's not there. Which she could handle better if she weren't now keenly aware that she'd done the same thing herself to a girl with CP named Rosa. A girl who is going to tutor her through all the math she's missed. A girl who sees right into the heart of her. With the support of family, friends, a coach, and her track teammates, Jessica may actually be able to run again. But that's not enough for her now. She doesn't just want to cross finish lines herself—she wants to take Rosa with her.

I don't run. In fact, I'm one of those people who believes runners are crazy people. I had no trouble relating to Jessica and her struggle though. This may have been because I am active in other types of fitness and I had an injured foot while I was reading this. One day with no exercise and my cells felt like they were trying to crawl out of my body. While my very minor in comparison to Jessica's problem may have helped with my empathy it was mostly the craft of the author that had me feeling for her. The book covers eight months of her journey and covers the first few days in the hospital to her return home and flirtation with overdoing the narcotics to her return to school to her getting her first prosthesis and beyond. It is a gripping story and that is because from the beginning you feel for Jessica. What is brilliant about the way it is written is that you don't really feel sorry for her. I felt a great deal of empathy and sympathy but not pity. I just wanted to cheer her on. I really felt that every stage of her recovery was handled well. The emotions and conflicts a person in this situation would feel were displayed without getting too gritty and detailed. It was paced well and, I thought, realistically. I don't know anyone who has gone through a similar situation but I can see how a person in good physical condition with loving and supportive family and friends could make the strides Jessica makes in the time she makes them. It is plain that Van Draanen did her research and knew the subject she was writing about well.  

My own small complaint would be that everything was almost a little too perfect and tied up in the end.  That's probably because I am far too cynical.

This is a Young Adult book but one that is perfect for middle grades as well. It is a good story about friendship and perseverance in hard times.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Sean Griswold's Head

Remember that person who was always seated in front of you in class because your names were next to each other in the alphabet? You knew each other vaguely, borrowed pencils, handed papers between you, maybe signed each others yearbooks, but that was the extent of the relationship. Did you ever sit in class staring at the back of that person's head wondering about them or were they just there, part of the scenery of your day? Well, Lindsy Leavitt took this question and turned it into part of a lovely story in Sean Griswold's Head.

Synopsis (from the author's website):
Payton Gritas needs a focus object—something to focus her emotions on after discovering that her father’s been hiding his multiple sclerosis. Her guidance counselor suggested something inanimate but Payton chooses the thing she stares at during class: Sean Griswold’s head. They’ve been linked since third grade (Griswold-Gritas, it’s an alphabetical order thing), but she’s never really noticed him before. Payton starts stalking—er, focusing on—Sean’s big blond head, and her research quickly grows into something a little less scientific and a lot more crush-like. As Payton gets inside Sean’s head, Sean finds a way into her guarded heart. But obsessing over Sean won’t fix Payton’s fear of her dad’s illness. For that, she’ll have to focus on herself.

"Nothing creates a buzz like an Executive Deluxe day planner...I hug the planner to my chest and slowly brush the leather. It'll cost me a third of my Christmas money, but this baby has monthly and weekly calendars, financial graphs, to-do checklists...and did I mention the sweet, sweet leather?"
After a beginning like that there was no way that I could not like Payton. I felt an immediate connection to this obsessive nerdy girl and that connection held throughout the entire story. Payton's voice is spot on perfect. She is funny, self-deprecating, and very sympathetic. She is behaving like a bit of a brat at times in the story but you can't help but understand and empathize with her. Partly because she freely admits she is being a brat and her confusion over her feelings and the tumultuous mess her life is becoming makes it impossible to not like her. Also her parents and her best friend kind of deserve what she is dishing out. 

Then there is Sean. 

I really enjoyed the relationship between Payton and Sean and how it developed. It is sweet and simple and lovely. They genuinely have things in common and enjoy each other's company. Sean is not a typical 14 year old boy. He is more mature, focused, and understanding than most boys his age but his character was still very real. There are 14 year old boys like him out there, they are just not prevalent. He is just as prone to confusion, anger, and pouting as any typical boy his age. I didn't even mind too much when Payton came up with a ridiculous reason for avoiding him because I could see a scared and confused high school freshman doing something exactly that stupid.

As great as the romantic element of this story is I enjoyed it most as a story about a girl who is figuring out how to realign her life after it has been completely shaken up. The relationship between Payton and her family is also well developed and all the characters are distinctive and stand out. This is a wonderful light story about family, friendship, life, and first loves. I am very interested in reading Ms.Leavitt's other books now as well.

Note on Content: This is YA but could definitely be read by a younger audience who enjoys romance in their books. Sean and Payton's relationship is very much PG and I think that younger girls would also be able to relate to Payton's feelings and experiences.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street

A review featuring Bit, age 7

Yeah, it's been a while since Bit and I posted our review on the first Penderwick book. The beginning of second grade slowed us way down. School is taking up more portions of our day than ever, mostly because Bit slows way down when it is a subject she is not crazy about (Math, Grammar). I don't think we are going to get through as many read alouds this year as we did last year, but I think we have gotten into a rhythm that will allow us move faster than we have been.

The Story
The Penderwicks are back in their home on Gardam Street in Cameron, Massachusetts after their eventful summer with Jeffrey at Arundel. Rosalind is happy to have her routine back and is excited by the new responsibilities her father is allowing her to have at home. Everything is perfect until their Aunt Claire comes to visit with a letter in an envelope that Rosalind remembers seeing her mom give her  aunt shortly before she died. The letter is for their father and changes everything. Because before she died their mother wrote their father a letter ordering him to start dating again and Aunt Claire is going to enforce it. The girls have to come up with a plan to save their father from dating and themselves from a dreaded stepmother. Add to that one unwise decision regarding homework, a changing relationship with a neighbor, an intense soccer rivalry, and a mysterious man haunting Gardam Street, and it looks like the fall might be even more adventurous than the summer.

Bit's Thoughts
 I liked The Penderwicks on Gardam Street almost as much as the first  Penderwick book. I thought there were less surprises. I thought the Save Daddy Plan was funny and liked all the stuff that happened because of it. My favorite character in this one is Batty. I think Batty is funny. I can't wait to read The Penderwicks at Point Mouette.

My Thoughts
This is actually my favorite of the three Penderwick books. That is because it focuses on Rosalind so much and she is my favorite sister, the one I can identify with and sympathize with the most. Plus I'm a sucker for the whole "boy/girl next door" storyline so this book captured my heart in so many ways. I also think that this one has the most interesting conflict and more complex problems than the other two making it a little more intense. There is still plenty of humor in it too though and I love all the new characters introduced in this one particularly Tommy, Iantha, and Ben.

What Bit and I are reading next: The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall. We will not do a joint review on this one since I already wrote one here. After that we will be reading Roger Lacelyn Green's Tales of Ancient Egypt.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


 I have created a facebook page for this blog. It has links, not only to my reviews here, but also to other thing I have found interesting in the kidlit world during the week. I will also be posting a picture book of the week and a Bit book rec every week on there. If you are a facebook user stop on by and "like" it if you want updates.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Favorite Book to Movie Adaptations

I was inspired to write this by the series of posts Redeemed Reader did a couple of weeks ago on making movies from books. It got me thinking and my thoughts led me to decide that it would make a wonderful installment of My Favorite Things. Turning books into movies is a tricky business because there is already a loyal fan base that will have firm opinions on what is being done. Most of the time my reaction is somewhere along the lines of "that was good but the book is better". Sometimes I become enraged by what they have done to a beloved book. (See the  most recent The Count of Monte Cristo and Les Miserables. Actually don't see them, but those are examples.) There are times when I actually like the movie better than the book, where the movie becomes what I want to experience again. These are my absolute favorite adaptations.

How to Train Your Dragon, also one of my favorite animated movies in recent memory, is just wonderful. The writing is top notch and rhythmic, there is a sympathetic, inventive, likable hero, a capable and daring heroine, dragons who are fierce and dangerous, witty dialogue, and an engrossing story. The book has none of these things.

Stardust: I have a complicated relationship with Niel Gaiman's writing. This is one of his books that I enjoyed, but I ended up loving the movie. It is one of my favorites. I watch it regularly. The movie has more humor, the pacing is better, the chemistry between Tristan and Yvaine sparks more. And because I am a sap I am better satisfied with the movie's ending.

The Princess Bride This one might be because I had seen the movie a million times before I ever tried to read the book. I was in grade school when I saw it in the theater. Although I have heard so many others who agree with this one that I know it isn't just me.

Peter Pan This live action one, not the insipid Disney version. I am not a big fan of Barrie's prose, but I like the concept and story he came up with. I think this version has done the best job capturing the spirit of his vision and themes. Also, Jason Isaacs is BRILLIANT. It was a stroke of genius to have him play both Captain Hook and Mr. Darling.

The Lord of the Rings I know. I know. You can't say anything to me about this choice that my husband, who rereads the books every year, hasn't already said. Me? I read the books. Yes, before I saw the movies. Am I ever going to reread them? Not if I can help it. I enjoyed them alright, and I feel proper indebtedness to Tolkien for what he did for fantasy as a genre, but I never want to read them again. I like the movies lots though.

And here are the movies that I am willing to substitute for their books when I want to relax my brain:
Pride and Prejudice (the 1995 BBC version)
Sense and Sensibility (the Emma Thompson one)
Anne of Green Gables
Strong Poison (but not Gaudy Night)
The Secret Garden
Charlotte's Web (the new one)
To Kill a Mockingbird
I have conflicted feelings about the Harry Potter movies, but they belong on this list too. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Juniper Berry

Juniper Berry by M.P. Kozlowsky is a modern day fairy tale. Now that is a phrase that gets bandied about a lot, so let me explain. It is a fairy tale because it has much in common with old school fairy tales. It is dark, creepy, and has a moral. Modern day is pretty self explanatory. This fairy tale deals with modern day temptations and preoccupations, namely the preoccupation with celebrity, never ending quest for success, and a desire to maintain one's youthful appearance.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Juniper's parents have not been themselves lately. In fact, they have been cold, disinterested and cruel. And lonely Juniper Berry, and her equally beset friend, Giles, are determined to figure out why. On a cold and rainy night Juniper follows her parents as they sneak out of the house and enter the woods. What she discovers is an underworld filled with contradictions: one that is terrifying and enticing, lorded over by a creature both sinister and seductive, who can sell you all the world's secrets in a simple red balloon. For the first time, Juniper and Giles have a choice to make. And it will be up to them to confront their own fears in order to save the ones who couldn't. 

I can see this book appealing to kids. It is sufficiently creepy and fast paced to keep them reading. The villain is truly scary and the way his operation works inventive. Don't be surprised if interest in balloons takes a sudden drop after reading this. Juniper and Giles are not exactly average kids and they are misfits but I can see kid readers relating to them. The book is illustrated (by Erwin Madrid) and these illustrations were one of my favorite parts of the novel. 

A real weakness of the book was the development of Juniper's character though. She is lonely, she yearns save her parents, she wants her old life back. She is brave and heroic when needed. She is special. The kind of special that causes the villain to desperately want her soul above all others. The kind of special that causes Giles to want to save them both. The kind of special that requires her survival because the world needs her. The kind of special that makes her the only one capable of breaking the terrible curse the adults are under. The book tells us all this. What it never shows us is how she is special. What is it about Juniper that gives her the strength to do what she does? Also, the end was a little too tidy. There was no real sacrifice required to achieve the victory.

Another thing that bothered me was that this was a Message book. It is an unsubtle Message book and those annoy me no matter what age group they are aimed for. The message was repeated numerous times and the book has a rather preachy tone as a result. Don't get me wrong the message is a good one, I just prefer more nuance from my stories.

If you know a kid who enjoys creepy fantasy that is a little dark, but not too dark, this is a quick interesting read.

Monday, September 5, 2011

13 Little Blue Envelopes

I have been interested in reading 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson for quite sometime, but everyone talked so much about how frustrating the end was that I decided to wait until the sequel was out too and then read both of the books together.

In 13 Little Blue Envelopes Ginny receives a letter with instructions from her recently deceased Aunt Peg along with $1,000 to buy a plane ticket to London. She is only allowed to bring one bag, no guidebooks, no maps, and she is unable to communicate with US in any fashion. Along the way Ginny is to retrieve a package. This package contains 13 envelopes that she is to open one at a time. Each contains a task she is to complete before she can open the next. The envelopes take her from one place, and one adventure, to the next. (I hate the cover of this first book. They did a much better job with the sequel's cover.)

I was able to sympathize and relate with Ginny right from the start. She is a socially awkward organized girl who always plays by the rules. Yet she is also one who is willing to follow the crazy instructions of her beloved aunt and plunge into the unknown. Her character wasn't as developed as it could have been. A lot of the book was taken up by descriptions of the places Ginny was going and the ins and outs of getting around Europe. In fact, it was almost as if Europe was the main character of the book rather than Ginny. Johnson did a wonderful job describing it and the experience of being in a foreign place without a clue what you are doing very well. The supporting characters were varied and interesting but you never really get a deep insight into any of them either. While I could see why Ginny was attracted to Kieth, a boy she meets in London who shares some of her adventures, I thought he was not a nice person so I wasn't really sympathetic to her angst over him. I think I'm in the minority with that opinion tough.

As for the end, I thought it was perfect. I don't understand why everyone was so up in arms about it. I thought it was reflective of Ginny's relationship with her aunt and how she was moving through her grief over her death. She had to learn how to figure things out for herself and move on without direction. In fact I thought it was so perfect I was almost a little wary to move on to the sequel, but it was there and my curiosity got the better of me.

This next part contains spoilers for the first book but not the second.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Darth Paper Strikes Back

Origami Yoda returns. He was first introduced to the world in The Strange Case of Origami Yoda (my review) wherein he wowed the sixth graders of McQuarrie Middle School with his sage advice causing them to actually have fun at a school Fun Night. Except all the students weren't having fun. Harvey was angry. Harvey was bitter. If he had asked Origami Yoda for advice he might have heard, "Let go of your anger you must. Lead to the Dark Side it will." But Harvey didn't ask Origami Yoda for advice and Darth Paper was born just in time to throw a wrench into the awesomeness that should have been seventh grade.

When I learned Tom Angleberger was writing Darth Paper Strikes Back I was nervous. The first book was so unique and inventive I couldn't imagine that a sequel would live up to it. I grew more concerned as I read the first few chapters which repeated the same information. Also Harvey was annoying me by the end of chapter one. Score for Angleberger on that count. He made the "villain" truly unlikable. After that the story picked up and became more engrossing. It is a different sort of book from the first, a little darker, not as funny. It is still highly amusing, just not side splitting hilarious. The darkness comes from what is riding on the conclusions of this case book. This isn't about whether or not Tommy will get the girl (okay, it's a little about that), but whether or not Dwight will be expelled. Underlying this story is some commentary on the school experience in general and a not so sparkling picture of the public school system. I didn't disagree with these things, but wondered how much the target audience would actually get what was being said. I can see the target audience enjoying the antics of Harvey and Dwight though. And once more being engrossed with the soap opera of daily life in a middle school. Kellan's amusing drawings can again be found scattered throughout the case file.

This is a great book to hand to any kid who enjoys school stories, humorous books, or Star Wars. The Star Wars references in this one are a bit more for actual fans than in the original one. That shouldn't turn off any who don't like Star Wars as there is much more to the story than just that.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Dragon's Tooth

"North of Mexico, south of Canada, and not too far west of the freshwater sea called Lake Michigan, in a place where cows polka-dot hills and men are serious about cheese, there is a lady on a pole."
N.D. Wilson is the King of First Sentences as far as I'm concerned. He has yet to write one that hasn't made me smile. He is also one of my favorite authors and his books are auto buys. Always. The Dragon's Tooth was one of my most anticipated reads of 2011 and it did not disappoint. 

Summary (From Author's Website): 
For two years, Cyrus and Antigone Smith have run an sagging roadside motel with their older brother, Daniel. Nothing ever seems to happen. Then a strange old man with bone tattoos arrives, demanding a specific room. Less than 24 hours later, the old man is dead. The motel has burned, and Daniel is missing. And Cyrus and Antigone are kneeling in a crowded hall, swearing an oath to an order of explorers who have long served as caretakers of the world’s secrets, keepers of powerful relics from lost civilizations, and jailers to unkillable criminals who have terrorized the world for millenia.

The Dragon's Tooth pretty much has a little bit of everything. If you enjoy action there are plenty of car chases, bullets flying, and things exploding. If you enjoy mythology there is some of that. (And not the overdone Greek, Roman or Egyptian variety either. Wilson brought in the Ancient Mesopotamian mythology for this one.) If you like supernatural there is a "burial ground" trapping immortal bad guys. If you like boarding school stories you will find the protagonists receiving the most interesting of educations in the compound they are now residents of. (Not a magical education as is so common in fantasy novels, but a "how to become an Indiana Jones type explorer for a secret society" education.) If you like psychological thrillers the book offers up one of the creepiest mind controlling villains to show up in quite some time. (If I were writing about my Most Disturbing Characters now, Dr. Phoenix would be on the list for sure.) If you are a fan of mystery there is also plenty of that. The only thing missing is romance, but there are going to be four more books after this, so there is still time for that too. There are also literary nods to both Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Treasure Island. And a ferocious giant immortal turtle answering to the name of Leon. (No joke.)