Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Spy Princess

Sherwood Smith is an author I can always count on for a good tale of magic, suspense, and intrigue so was I excited when my library so quickly obtained a copy of The Spy Princess.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
When twelve-year-old Lady Lilah decides to disguise herself and sneak out of the palace one night, she has more of an adventure than she expected--for she learns very quickly that the country is on the edge of revolution. When she sneaks back in, she learns something even more surprising: her older brother Peitar is one of the forces behind it all. The revolution happens before all of his plans are in place, and brings unexpected chaos and violence. Lilah and her friends, leaving their old lives behind, are determined to help however they can. But what can four kids do? Become spies, of course!

I was immediately sucked into Lilah's story, and for the first half of the book completely engaged. Lilah is a great young heroine. Resourceful, brave, headstrong, loyal, and questioning she is easy to like. She makes plenty of mistakes. Mistakes based on not having enough information and experience. Mistakes based on thinking she knows best or is impervious to harm. She learns from them and moves on. I loved the relationship between her and Peitar. Great sibling interaction like this is always a favorite element in any sort of book. 

I admired the way Smith presented the theme of revolution and does it in a way that is realistic and perfect for the intended audience. She did this by showing it through the eyes of the young and naive, those who would be ignorant of the price of revolution and be caught up in the giddy excitement of it, and letting them watch the truth of it unfold.:
So this was revolution. I remembered how impatient I'd been for it to happen-just so I wouldn't have to curl my hair. But in my idea of revolution, people gathered to make stirring speeches about how we could better our lives, followed by cheers and exciting trumpet blasts as...things somehow changed. Not this horror.
And horror it is. Awful things are witnessed by Lilah and her friends and they are pushed to some desperate measures as the revolution explodes and there is chaos and death. I loved how this was presented and the first section of the novel is a gripping tale of covert operations and revolt. The last section of the book picked this thread back up and was again action filled and fast paced, but also dealt with the harder questions. I liked how the King is shown as being a complex human being, and not just an evil tyrant.

There is a problem, I feel, in the pacing of the middle of the book. I think a little too much time and detail were spent on scenes and with people who were unnecessary to the overall plot. Still that is a only a minor complaint in the midst of a book that was overall an enjoyable reading experience. 

Monday, October 29, 2012


If Endangered by Eliot Schrefer had not been named as a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, I probably would not have been inclined to pick it up. So thank you NBA committee. Endangered is a complex book, and as a result my feelings about it are complex. It is well deserving of its finalist status and is a powerful story.

Sophie spends her school year living with her American father in Miami. She spends her summer living with her mother in the Congo, her mother's native country, where she runs a sanctuary for the endangered bonobos. Bonobos are endangered and Congo is the only place they still live in the wild. Sophie finds herself the surrogate mother of a young bonobo she names Otto and spends her summer caring for him. Right before she is scheduled to leave again there is a coup and violence erupts in the nearby capital, quickly making its way to the sanctuary. Sophie is forced to flee into the jungle with some of the bonobos and begins a perilous journey to the remote village where her mother had recently gone.

What visions come to your mind when you hear the word Congo? If you pay any sort of attention to the world they shouldn't be pleasant ones. Schrefer did an amazing job portraying it in a book with all of its complexities. It is violent. It is beautiful. The imagery used to describe the places Sophie goes paints a vivid picture in the reader's mind of what she is seeing. It is honest without being gruesomely graphic. It is filled with horror without being horrific. He also did a good job of laying out the complexity of the social, economic, and political forces at work. Sophie, born in the Congo and living in the USA, has an unfolding understanding of her own country. At the beginning of her story she thinks: I knew there was great stuff about Congo. The second-largest rain forest in the world, wildlife everyone else gets to see only in the alphabet animals that hang over children's cribs. Brilliant greens, blues, and reds only your imagination could match. A lively, loving people. It was just that those same people occasionally took up their machetes and chopped one another up by the millions, and those vibrant red shades weren't only from blossoms pouring off sun-soaked tree branches. During my childhood, Congo was the best place in the world because it was the only place in the world. Now I really got why someone would want to live somewhere else if she had the option. Her opinion of her homeland is substantiated by much of what happens to her, but also challenged. This is drawn out and done in subtle ways throughout the story.

Sophie is a wonderful narrator. It is easy to slip into her story and come to care for the people she cares for. Even when I couldn't understand nor agree with the decisions she made, I was sympathetic to her plight. There are times when her narration or the dialogue becomes a little text book, sounding like something you would find in a text book, but then Schrefer ends the passage with a humorous comment or piece of imagery that makes it all worth it and completely forgivable. 

Note on Content for Concerned Parents: Schrefer doesn't pull any punches with the truth, but he is not graphic in his descriptions. I would say that mature readers in the MG range would get much from reading this. Rape is alluded to, as is the possibility of that fate for Sophie. 

I read a copy of this most happily received via NetGalley from Scholastic. Endangered is available in stores now.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


Variant by Robison Wells is a book I probably would have completely ignored if not for the review Charlotte for it over at Charlotte's Library. I'm a sucker for boarding school stories and when there is suspense and strange goings on thrown in I will definitely be all over it.

Synopsis (From Goodreads):
Benson Fisher thought that a scholarship to Maxfield Academy would be the ticket out of his dead-end life.
He was wrong.
Now he's trapped in a school that's surrounded by a razor-wire fence. A school where video cameras monitor his every move. Where there are no adults. Where the kids have split into groups in order to survive.
Where breaking the rules equals death.
But when Benson stumbles upon the school's real secret, he realizes that playing by the rules could spell a fate worse than death, and that escape--his only real hope for survival--may be impossible

I liked Benson. A lot. He is not a bad kid. He does not rejoice in being a rebel. But when the rules are stupid, things are clearly not right, and he feels he's being used he isn't just going to go with the flow. He challenges and pushes. He can't fall into line and assimilate as easily to his new home as the other students have when it is very clearly not right. The other students don't like his challenging and pushing. He makes things hard and uncomfortable. And this is really not an easy thing for him to do because there are craaazy shenanigans going on at Maxfield.

First and foremost Variant is a mystery. What is the school's goal? Who runs it? WHY???? It keeps you on your toes for sure. Wells did an excellent job of building tension and suspense through the novel. He makes you as the reader a little comfortable in this world, just like Benson, freaked but willing to accept it to a certain degree. Then suddenly the entire game changes. The tension increases from there to its inevitable breaking point where the action goes into overdrive. The descriptions used kept me immersed in the story and eager to get to the next page faster than fast. We were on a road trip to a wedding while I was reading and I may have shushed my husband. Errr...more than once. 

The ending is a cliffhanger. For those of you are not too fond of those, rest easy because the sequel, Feedback, just came out this months. Now to get my  hands on it....

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Great Unexpected

I am a big fan of Sharon Creech. I have taught Walk Two Moons and I have book talked her other books an insane amount putting them in the hands of lots and lots of students. I was pretty excited when I discovered she had a new novel, The Great Unexpected, coming out this year. Which is why it is so very hard for me to say I was disappointed by it.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Humorous and heartfelt, this is a story of pairs— of Sybil and Nula (sisters who grew up together in Rook’s Orchard, Ireland) and Naomi and Lizzie (both orphans in present day Blackbird Tree, USA) and unraveling mysteries about family and identity. Naomi and Lizzie’s tragedies turn into a life filled with hope, as old misunderstandings and sorrows between Sybil and Nula give way to forgiveness and love. It is about unexpected gifts—the kindness of neighbors giving away their dogs to protect a little girl, of strangers fostering children, and of young people helping old and old helping young.

The Great Unexpected has everything promised in the synopsis and it is all delivered in Creech's signature style. Creech excels at writing books for young people that focus on the power of community. Books that show family is defined by the people who love and care for us and who we love and care for, whether connected by blood or not. The community aspect of this novel is as strong as the others. The friendship between Naomi and Lizzie is lovely too, though Lizzie seems MUCH younger than Naomi. She's a strange girl to be sure. I liked the connection between Ireland and America, the young girls and the older. I loved the town of Blackbird Tree. I did keep wondering what time period this was taking place in because it didn't really feel modern, but the atmosphere certainly fit the story being told. I enjoyed the way Creech handed out pieces of story like pieces of a puzzle and the reader can't truly see the whole picture until the last piece is in place. And even then....

This brings me to my issue. There is a thread of magical realism running through the book. At least that's what I think it is meant to be. I can't say too much about this without giving away spoilers, but it involves a boy named Finn who steals Lizzie's heart and the connection he has to the Irish story and his similarities to a boy named Finn Nula and Sybil knew long ago. And it just wasn't necessary. It was a beautiful story without that element. Adding it made it confusing where it didn't need to be, and almost like it was trying to be something it wasn't. As the book ends on this note I ended up putting it down with frustration, which is not how I like to end a reading experience.

If you love Sharon Creech this book has all the qualities her books contain, though it is a distinct departure from her previous work. You may not have the same issues with it that I did so I would certainly urge you to give it a try.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Favorite Read Alouds

I have always enjoyed reading out loud. Which is good because I've been asked to do it a lot in my life. I like trying to get the inflections and attitudes of the characters perfect. (I don't do voices-I have not that talent.) Teachers were always asking me to read in class. My junior English teacher counted on it so much that when I developed a horrendous cough in the spring of that year that was agitated by the reading, I would come into class to find a pile of cough drops in the middle of my desk. I didn't mind though because I enjoyed it. Not so much being recognized by my classmates as the girl who always read. That was not so much fun. But I loved the challenge of making the words come out the way the sounded in  my head. I still do. And now I have a captive audience who adores me in the form of my children.

There are some books that just make better read alouds than others. Here are some of my favorites:

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Book by Lauren Child-Okay I admit it. I do voices for this one. How can you not? Doing Goldilocks' screechy whining is too much fun to pass up.

Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina-You can act this one out. What's not to love about that? And man to kids LOVE it when you do.

Any of Mo Willem's Pigeon books-Reading these can be great stress release. When else can you acceptably act like a four year old in temper tantrum mode?

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo-The words in this one just flow off the tongue. It is so much better read aloud than read silently. And it is amazing when read silently.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin-This is a storyteller's book and was meant to be read aloud.

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling-Yes, the later books are longer and don't flow as well in places. Still. They all make excellent read alouds and when you read them aloud you get to experience the magic again at the same time you're watching others experience it. Let  me tell you how much bonding has happened between me and my daughter over these books.

Anything by N.D. Wilson-What this author can do with words is amazing.

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin-I read this book to my 5th graders every year and turned it into a game. We all had tons of fun.

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner-Yes. MWT has to make it on to every single list. I read this with my 4th-6th grade lit class last year. They read a lot of it themselves, but I read huge chunks to them in class. The phrasing is so perfect with no word wasted or misplaced. I would venture to say the entire series would read well aloud. The first time I read A Conspiracy of Kings was to my husband on a car trip. (He didn't think it was fair I got to read it first-that was the solution.)

What about you? Is there a particular book you get excited to read aloud? Or is there a book you have a fond memory having read to you?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

On the Day I Died

Everyone knows the story. Teenager in a car on a lonely road stops to pick up a girl alone, shivering, scared, just wanting a ride home. She gets out of the car and leaves something behind. Teenager, in this case a boy named Mike, turns around and takes her belongings (saddle shoes) back to her house. There her mother opens the door and tells him her daughter is dead and has been for years, but every year someone shows up with a pair of saddle shoes. There are variations of the story, but is a common one and it is with this premise that Candace Fleming begins her book On the Day I Died: Stories From the Grave.

Mike, needing to be sure, takes the shoes to the cemetery where, sure enough, he finds a grave covered in years of saddle shoes. And he finds ghosts. Nine of them ready to tell him their death stories if only he will listen. All of them died in their teens and all of them need to have their say before moving on. This is the premise for the collection of tales Fleming has combined here.

The tales themselves are varied. What I like about this book is how wonderfully typical of camp fire stories it is. Each story is as different as the character voicing it. There are predictable tales, absurdly corny tales, chilling tales, and tales that are based on old stories. Not all of them have the same affect, just like ghost stories told at a slumber party will have a different affect based on who is telling them. I love the nod that Fleming has given to this age old tradition. I think it might be a dying art. So yes, there is a sense in which all of these are familiar, and some are downright silly, but I really enjoyed it. Partly for those very reasons. I liked the Edgar Allan Poe reference, "The Monkey's Paw" story being included, the utter campiness of some of the other stories. The way Fleming grounded each one in Chicago history is also fascinating. The Author's Note here is interesting in and of itself. The stories of Gina and Edgar were my favorites and, I think, the most creepy.

On the Day I Died is the perfect read to enjoy on a chilly rainy October day. I can also see putting it to good use in a Creative Writing class. As it is not too terribly gruesome it would make an excellent October read aloud for the older end of the MG spectrum. Whatever you might want to with it, if you are a fan of good old fashioned ghost stories this is a must read.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Seeing Cinderella

Seeing Cinderella by Jenny Lundquist is a light entertaining Middle Grade novel about a girl who learns to see herself and those around her a bit more clearly. With the help of some magic glasses.

Callie Anderson is dreading middle school, even more now that she has to get glasses. And not just any glasses either, super geeky big clunky black glasses. But Callie soon discovers that her glasses are special. With them on she can see anyone's real thoughts at any given moment. What does the boy she has a crush on really think of her? What is up with her best friend's attitude? What sort of secrets do her new friends and acquaintances have? Can her parents work things out so her Dad can finally move back home? The answers to all these questions and more are at Callie's fingertips. Once she has them though, what will she do about them?

Callie's voice is genuinely MG girl. She is sarcastic,  self conscious, self absorbed, and naive. I don't think any 10-12 year old girl would have any problems slipping themselves into her character. As an adult I figured out most of what was what long before Callie did, but the time it took her was realistic. 6th graders are not known for their intuitiveness and Callie's primary focus, like most girls her age, is herself. The complications of girl social dynamics, crushes, and home troubles was nicely balanced and also realistic. In the end Callie learns what she needs, is a better person for it, and loose ends are neatly tied up. Sound a little to "happily ever after"? Maybe. But what middle school girl couldn't use a little more happily ever after in her life? 

This book is perfect for its target age range and I would recommend it to any girl looking for a fun school story with a touch of magic.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Listenting to Gary Schmidt

At the University of Tennessee we have this wonderful entity called the Center for Children's and Young Adult Literature. They are pretty awesome. One of the awesome things they do is bring authors and illustrators to our area and then schools are able to share them for the few days they are here. This time also involves a lecture given at UT. This fall's guest was Gary D. Schmidt the absolutely fabulous author of many amazing books including Okay for Now, The Wednesday Wars, and Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. I was able to go to his talk this past Tuesday and let me tell you, I could have listened to him all night. He speaks as well as he writes. Which is saying something. I didn't bring a notepad with me and so took notes on a pack of post-its that was in my purse. I used a lot of post its.

 Schmidt started out by telling us a story about his uncle to demonstrate how a young minds internalize things. He moved on to tell a story of Naaman from the Bible (2 Kings 5) to illustrate how the world is complex and that, while it would be nice if all situations had a clear right or wrong solution, we don't live in that sort of world. He told the story well. He then went on to discuss how in his books he tries to show some rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. We don't have a key moment in our culture when this happens and some never actually manage it. He blames this largely on the adolescent world we live in. So in his books he tries to explore how that passage takes place, when a person stops looking at himself and looks outward to see how he can change the world. He also stressed that its not important that they succeed, as Turner doesn't in Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, just that they make the decision to try. (He is often asked why that story had to  have the ending it did and his response is, "Because I'm not writing a Hallmark card.")

Some Other Interesting Tidbits:
  • He originally wrote Lizzie a non-fiction and burnt it. He then wrote it from Lizzie's perspective and declared it awful. ("There are issues with an old fart white guy writing from the perspective of an African American young girl.")
  • The first scene of The Wednesday Wars he wrote was the scene of the race when Mrs. Baker tells Hollling to "pass those boys". He wrote it on the inside of a Milky Way wrapper in the car.
  • The premise of The Wednesday Wars actually happened to him. He was the only student left in his class every Wednesday afternoon with a teacher named Mrs. Baker who made him clean everything and then read Shakespeare. He made her nicer in the book. 
  • With Holling he wanted to tell the story of what it was like growing up with a war that was never ending. He pointed out that today's middle school students have also lived with such a war. We've been at war as long as they've been alive-we've just gotten better at hiding it from them.
  • In the Q&A he said that he identifies most with Doug's character. As a first grader he was put in the lowest reading group and by the time he was in 4th grade couldn't make it through a Dr. Seuss book, but another teacher that year took interest in him and taught him how. 
  • He has the most hilarious descriptions and thoughts on Shakespeare ever. He should really write a compendium.
The point he started with and the point he ended with was this: Stories are powerful and the stories we read when we are young are the most powerful. They never leave us. "Give a kid a book that connects and you have created a forever memory." YES! THAT IS WHY I DO WHAT I DO. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

What Came From the Stars

I love Gary Schmidt's books. Love. Love. Love. You can find my thoughts on three of them here, here, and here. When I found out his next book, What Came From the Stars, was going to be a fantasy I was so excited. I can see how those who love his realistic fiction might be inclined to dislike this one. I didn't. I thoroughly loved it, but in a different way than I love the realistic ones. It is a very different book and I loved it for what it was.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
The Valorim are about to fall to a dark lord when they send a necklace containing their planet across the cosmos, hurtling past a trillion starsall the way into the lunchbox of Tommy Pepper, sixth grader, of Plymouth, Mass. Mourning his late mother, Tommy doesn't notice much about the chain he found, but soon he is drawing the twin suns and humming the music of a hanorah. As Tommy absorbs the art and language of the Valorim, their enemies target him. When a creature begins ransacking Plymouth in search of the chain, Tommy learns he must protect his family from villains far worse than he's ever imagined.

The story is told in alternating chapters. It opens with the world of the Valorim and the Ethelim, the war being fought, and the forging of the necklace that contains all the Art of the Valorim. And that is some powerful stuff. Every other chapter the reader is given a glimpse of what is happening in this other world and the forces that are being sent to retrieve the necklace. It is a place where terror has taken hold, starvation and death are rampant, and the one being is trying to amass all power for himself. 

If you are someone who doesn't like fantasy that throws you into a world with words and speech you are unfamiliar with, this is going to bother you. It is a fantasy. If you are someone who likes things explained, this is going to bother you. Where is this place? Who are these people? You're not going to find that out. I didn't care so much. I was more interested in what Schmidt was doing with the world. How, in one small way, he was attempting to show the vast unknown of the universe and powers greater than our human minds can comprehend. The contrast is shown in how this power collides with our world. The book, like all of Schmidt's other books, also demonstrates the power of art, be it painting, writing, singing, or play the accordion. Art is powerful, it moves and creates. What we do with it as humans only scratches the surface of what is possible. 

In the part of the book set in our world readers will get what they have come to expect and love from Schmidt's other books. Characters that will grab your heart, a wry humor, and a story that shows the connectedness of people and community. Tommy's story is told in third person, but this did not keep me distant from him at all. Schmidt showed Tommy's heart and anguish and fear beautifully through the scenes with his family and friends. I did wonder a little that Tommy himself was not freaked out about the knowledge of the universe he suddenly possessed. Then I decided to just go with it, because in a strange way it made sense that acceptance would be part of possessing that knowledge and power. Also I think 6th grade is the perfect age to be able to accept and, at the same time, understand such a gift. I love the interactions between Tommy and his friends. The dialogue in those scenes is wonderful. Funny and wonderful. Classic Schmidt.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

2012 National Book Award Finalists

The 2012 National Book Award Finalists were announced today. Here is the place to find all the nominees. I am, of course, mostly concerned with the finalist's in Young People's Literature. I have read one of them. One. This is sort of unheard of for me. I suppose I can console myself with the reminder that one of them just came out last week and one won't come out until next week.

The Nominees
Goblin Secrets by William Alexander

Goblin Secrets has been on my TBR since I saw Betsy Bird give it a 5 star rating on Goodreads, read the synopsis, and realized it was exactly my sort of book. I have been waiting patiently for my library to get a copy. That patient wait just came to an end. Except I just ordered a bunch of books. I may have to wait a couple more weeks to order this one. Budgets-sigh.

Out of Reach by Carrie Arcos

Out of Reach is one of those contemporary YA novels that I usually go running in the other direction from. Not because I don't think there is value in them, but because I don't read that much contemporary YA and when I do I tend to like it light and fluffy. This one I will definitely read though because it sounds intriguing and  mysterious. Out of Reach has a release date of October 16.

Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick

Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge. The Killing Fields. This is the setting for Never Fall Down. I have known since I heard about it that it would be amazing. It's written by Patricia McCormick. It is one of those books you have to brace yourself before reading though. And my library still doesn't have a copy of it.

Endangered by Eliot Schrefer

Endangered was released on October 1. It is about endangered bonobos AND a violent coup. A girl has to rescue herself and the bonobos from said coup and survive in the jungle. I don't tend to like books where survival in nature is a key aspect. I probably would have dismissed it for that reason if it had not been nominated. I am interested to see how the author melds all of these themes together.

Bomb: The Race to Build-and Steal-the World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin

The one I've read! And I LOVE it. Because non-fiction is not the focus of this blog I don't review the non-fiction books I read here. I do review them on Goodreads and you can see my review of Bomb here. It is an account of the Manhattan Project and follows the science, the scientists, and the agents being sent from various countries to other countries to halt-or steal-that science. As I say in my review: It is everything excellent non-fiction is supposed to be while also being everything a good novel should be.

Is it just me or does it seem like they went out of their way to nominate books that weren't being talked of as much? Also the skewed very YA this year.

There is a good chance I will not be able to read all four of the books I haven't read prior to the award being announced.

The head of this year's Young People's Literature panel is Gary Schmidt. I happened to attend a talk given by him last night which I will be writing up for the blog and posting later. (Probably Saturday)

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow

Sun and  Moon, Ice and Snow was the only one  of Jessica Day George's fairy tale retellings I had not read and recently decided that I needed to remedy that. I had put it off for so long because the more I love a retelling's source material, the more critical I tend to be of the book. When it comes to fairy tales that means "Beauty and the Beast" and "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" retellings are going to be judged harder by me. And I wanted to throw the last retelling of "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" I read at a wall. I had no such problems with this one though, it is now my favorite of George's retellings.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Blessed—or cursed—with an ability to understand animals, the Lass (as she’s known to her family) has always been an oddball. And when an isbjorn (polar bear) seeks her out, and promises that her family will become rich if only the Lass will accompany him to his castle, she doesn’t hesitate. But the bear is not what he seems, nor is his castle, which is made of ice and inhabited by a silent staff of servents. Only a grueling journey on the backs of the four winds will reveal the truth: the bear is really a prince who’s been enchanted by a troll queen, and the Lass must come up with a way to free him before he’s forced to marry a troll princess.

I have stated in the past that I am a fan of retellings that offer a twist on the original tale. This is really true only if the tale truly requires it. Some fairy tales can't work as a full length novel because they are not a layered enough story otherwise (Cinderella).  "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" is layered and rich enough with so much plot that you don't have to add lots of bells and whistles to turn it into a really good novel. Thankfully George didn't try.  What the original tale needed to make it richer was more characterization and that is what George gave it. 

The youngest daughter of a poor woodcutter, the heroine is only ever called pika or Lass. Her mother refused to name her at birth as she was yet another worthless daughter. Her siblings have taken good care of Lass though. Her sisters taught her necessary skills and her brother, Hans Peter, showed her love. Her father also showed great care and regard for his youngest when he was around. Given the gift of speech with animals, Lass is sweet and content in her small life. Her mother's rejection and constant negativity have caused her to develop a wide stubborn streak and an iron will. And a need to prove that she is worth something after all. This makes all of her actions throughout the story believable and the choices she makes fit her character and history. The bear is less developed, but that is because he is cursed with the inability to speak about his past. The two do share long conversations about literature, life, and family. George also gave the servants in the palace delightfully endearing personalities and I loved the addition of Rollo, Lass's faithful wolf companion.

Other strong points of this retelling are the beautiful imagery in the descriptions of all the settings and the added texture of the Norse names and mythos. George gave this story a very real sense of place and it was easy to picture all the locales the story takes the characters to.

I highly recommend this to any one who loves a good fairy tale retelling to lose themsleves in.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Cybil's Nominations

The nominations for the 2012 Cybils are now open. They opened on Monday really so they've now been open for five days and lots of books have been nominated. But not all of the books and there is still time to nominate even more before the October 15 deadline. If you want to see a book you have enjoyed nominated here is the form to do so.I have listed some books (I haven't read them all) that I know came out this year and that, as far as I can tell, have not been nominated yet. As far as I know they all meet the eligibility requirements.

Here is where you can find what has been nominated in each category:
Book Apps

Easy Readers/Short Chapter Books

Fantasy and Science Fiction (MG is first, followed by YA)
Some MG Titles not yet nominated:
The Icarus Project by Laura Quimby
The Star Shard by Frederic S. Durbin
The Grave Robber's Apprentice by Allan Stratton
Seeing Cinderella by Jenny Lindquist
The Paradise Trap by Catherine Jinks
The Pecular by Stefan Bachman 

Some YA Titles not yet nominated:
The Assassin's Curse by Cassandra Rose Clark
Dragonswood by Janet Lee Carey
Shadows on the Moon by Zoe Marriott
Kill Me Softly by Sarah Cross
The Last Princess by Galaxy Craze
The Vicious Deep by Zoraida Cordova
Such Wicked Intent by Kenneth Oppel
The Unnaturalists by Tiffany  Trent
The Treachery of Beautiful Things by Ruth Frances Long
The Sweetest Spell by Suzanne Selfors

Charlotte has some more mentioned here and here.

Fiction Picture Books
Picture Book Titles not yet nominated:
Hans My Hedgehog by Kate Coombs
A Gold Star for Zog by Julia Donaldson.
Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin
One Two That's My Shoe by Allison Murray
Crafty Chloe by Kelly DiPucchio
The Hueys in the New Sweater by Oliver Jeffers
Bugs Galore by Peter Stein

Graphic Novels

Middle Grade Fiction

Non-Fiction Picture Books

Non-Fiction: Middle Grade and Young Adult


Young Adult Fiction
YA Fiction Titles not yet nominated:
The Fine Art of Truth or Dare by Melissa Jensen
Purity  by Jackson Pearce
The Academie by Susanne Dunlap
Being Friends with Boys by Terra Elan McVoy
Flirting in Italian by Lauren Henderson
The Boy Recession by Flynn Meaney 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Brixen Witch

I'm always on the lookout for good retellings and so was interested in The Brixen Witch by Stacy DeKeyser as soon as I heard of it. The book is a retelling of The Pied Piper of Hamelin. How many of those can be found?

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
When Rudi Bauer accidentally takes a witch’s coin, he unleashes her curse. Accident or not, he knows he’s got to fix things, so he tries to return the coin, only to lose it on the witch’s magic mountain just as the snows come. Plagued all winter by terrible dreams, Rudi tries to find the coin again in the spring, but it has vanished—and a plague of rats has descended on his village.
Then a stranger arrives and promises to rid the village of rats—for the price of the missing coin. Desperate to get rid of the rats, the villagers agree—but when they cannot pay, the stranger exacts a price too terrible for anyone to bear. Now Rudi is going to need all his courage—and some help from his savvy grandmother and a bold young girl—to set things right in this fast and funny adventure.

The Pied Piper is one of those tales that always leaves one scratching one's head. What did the Piper do with the children once he lured them away? Why on earth would the Piper think that kidnapping a town full of children was suitable revenge for not getting paid? There's a whole lot of creepy attached to this story if you think about it too much. The Brixen Witch attempts to tell a fuller version and answer some of the questions brought up by the original, but does it with an innocent and charming air. The conclusion seemed a little too easy, but it fit the tone of the book nicely. The plot moves along at a steady pace.

The story in the novel focuses on a 12 year old boy named Rudi. He feels the rat disaster in his town is his fault and he must be the one to put it to rights. He recognizes the Piper as the servant of the Brixen Witch as soon as he comes into town. Rudi's strength of character and actions are praiseworthy. He works hard to restore his village's good fortune and free his friends once they are taken by the Piper. I feel like he read younger than 12 in several places and that Sarah Louisa, the 8 year old girl who helps him, read younger than 8. Rudi is a typical folk tale sort of character, not terribly nuanced but serves his purpose in the story well. 

I found this to be an interesting read and am excited to have another retelling to add to my book report list for my students, especially one that comes in under 200 pages. It's length and simplicity also make it a good choice for younger readers.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Crown of Embers

You know how so often a sequel is disappointing and doesn't live up to the expectations of its predecessor's brilliance? That is a fairly common experience for me. Uncommon is the sequel that is amazingly better than the book you fell in love with in the first place. The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson was such a book. Don't misunderstand me. I loved loved loved The Girl of Fire and Thorns when I read it last year. (You can read all my love filled thoughts here.) The Crown of Embers met that love and raised it to the power of infinity. I needed a book like this. One that I could lose myself in and experience without anything marring the enjoyment. This book made me have all the feelings. I kind of just want to bask in those feeling for days, so forgive me if I fail to do nothing more than fangirl through all of this.

NOTE: If you have NOT read Girl of Fire and Thorns, STOP reading  this and go read that instead. Then come back and read this.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Elisa is the hero of her country. She led her people to victory against a terrifying enemy, and now she is their queen. But she is only seventeen years old. Her rivals may have simply retreated, choosing stealth over battle. And no one within her court trusts her-except Hector, the commander of the royal guard, and her companions. As the country begins to crumble beneath her and her enemies emerge from the shadows, Elisa will take another journey. With a one-eyed warrior, a loyal friend, an enemy defector, and the man she is falling in love with, Elisa crosses the ocean in search of the perilous, uncharted, and mythical source of the Godstone's power. That is not all she finds. 

Elisa is, once again, out of her depth through most of the book. Or out of her perceived depth in any case. She is once more unsure of herself and her decisions. She thinks too much and does too little. She is not nearly as awkward and unsure as the young princess she was at the beginning of book one, but she certainly regressed toward that girl a little. And I loved that because it is completely realistic. Yes she is a war hero. Yes she did amazing things. They were in a different environment with people who didn't know her though. Here, back in the palace, it makes sense that she would go back to being more hesitant and less confident. I love how her character is being developed and forged through these books. She comes so far in book one. She takes a few steps back to start book two, but again comes so far by the end. This is being done through making mistakes, having to pay for them, and learning from them. It is demonstrated in her interactions with the people around her, her responses to the things that happen to her. The people around her don't tell us she's changed, she doesn't think at length on her changing, we get to see her change as the story progresses. 

The action here is pretty much non-stop from the opening scene. There are multiple assassination attempts made on Elisa, there are plots to uncover, dirty dealings going on in her court, a perilous journey to take. Fortunately, Elisa has good people she can trust and who care deeply for her that have her back. Ximena I was far more annoyed with in this book than in the first book though her behavior was the same. It was stifling Elisa though. Still she does have Elisa's best interests in mind. It was nice to see the friendship between Elisa and Mara developing even more. It was good for Elisa to have someone she could confide in. 

And of course there is Hector. Hector-who-we-did-not-get-nearly-enough-of-before. There was good reason for that, but I pretty much fell for him in the first scene he was in so when he was largely absent for most of the first book I was annoyed. No such problems this time. He is very present in this book. He is, after all, in charge of keeping Elisa alive and well. Everything about him in the story made me love him more. He is honorable to, a fault. Really. He is supportive of Elisa, but honest with her. He is prideful, and that combined with his too-much-honor make him realistically flawed. He is also tender, sweet, and conflicted.

As you can guess from the synopsis and my preceding paragraph there is more romance in the plot this time. It is so well done. It builds slowly. There are a lot of furtive glances, stolen touches, wonder, and doubt. It is a romance built on friendship and trust. My favorite part was how much conversation took place. There was open honest communication and when an obstacle was thrown in the path of the budding romance it wasn't because of a silly miscommunication-a device that is overused and greatly annoying. When they hit bumps in their road they were legitimate bumps that people in their positions would have. This is a mature relationship. We so few of those in YA novels that it makes me want to cheer. Added to that are plenty of moments to make you swoon and/or melt into a puddle. 

The end was a bit of a cliffhanger. On the one hand it made me desperately, DESPERATELY want the conclusion. On the other it completely satisfied me. Somehow in the midst of what is actually a wretched scene, Carson managed to make me laugh and cheer. That people, takes major skill and she deserves major applause for it. (I am glaring while applauding.)

So next year (sobs due to the wait) when The Bitter Kingdom comes out I will be pre-ordering a copy I can pick up the day it is released rather than having it mailed to me. That just takes too long.