Friday, December 28, 2012

Favorite Reads of 2012

So here they are. My top 10 favorite reads of 2012. This year's surprise? The YA outnumber the MG. That's never happened before. And only one of my choices was published before 2012.

Links are to my reviews:
Above World by Jenn Reese
The Broken Lands by Kate Milford
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson
The Drowned Vault by N.D. Wilson
Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen
Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley
Peaceweaver by Rebecca Barnhouse
Quicksilver by R.J. Anderson*
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman 

Your turn. Let me know your favorites too!

Stay tuned to see my most anticipated of 2013 list on Tuesday. Then it will be back to reviews as usual on Thursday beginning with Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool.

*My review of this one won't publish until closer to the release date in March. Just let me say that it is excellent in every way and you should go and pre-order it right now.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Les Miserable as a Movie: My Thoughts

I just returned from seeing the Les Miserable movie and I am so hyped up. I need to share my thoughts with EVERYONE. I have, of course, gone over all this with my beloved baby sister, who shares my love for this story and the music. I will not be able to sleep tonight until I get all the thoughts out of my head though. So internet, thanks for being here to receive them.

My history with Les Miserable (just for background, feel free to skip): I have a long one. I have loved musicals since being introduced to Annie as a preschooler. I saw my first staged production at age 7 (it was The Sound of Music). By the time I was 11 I had seen Fiddler on the Roof, Cats, Brigadoon, and Starlight Express-all performed in London's West End. But I wasn't a serious connoisseur of musicals until high school.  It began as a flirtation with The Phantom of the Opera (which I soon realized was ridiculous) and quickly moved to Les Miserables. I had the Original London Cast recording on cassette originally and eventually snapped it from playing it so much. My junior year of high school the 10th Anniversary edition became available, which became (and still is) my go to version of the musical. My sister, in her young wisdom, asked for the full International recording for something and got it. Between us we cobbled together an epic full version from all three recordings. We were dedicated. I saw it on Broadway for the first time when I was 18, but I knew every note and word of it long before I got there. I have seen it performed three times since then by National Tours. I still listen to it in its entirety at least twice a month. Musicals are big part of my life. I love Wicked, adore Chess, am moved beyond belief at Miss Saigon., and have a great appreciation for anything Sondheim. I look forward to the Tony Awards every year with an excitement most people feel for the Super Bowl. But through all of these years Les Miserables has remained my absolute favorite.

The point to all that is to tell you that I know this musical. Very well. It is imprinted on my heart. And I'm not going to lie, I was a little concerned about it being turned into a movie.

My verdict: They did a fantastic job. I teared up several times and bawled like a baby three. That's pretty amazing considering I knew every word-or almost-that was being sung.

Spoiler Alert! If you don't know anything about Les Mis and don't wish to be spoiled for the movie stop reading. If you know the play and don't want to know what they changed stop reading.

My thoughts: 
Hugh Jackman was phenomenal.

Russell Crowe was not. Although he didn't ruin it for me, and I was worried he would if his performance was awful. It wasn't awful, but it wasn't great either. It was very rote, with little emotion and he sung his part with a sort of rock star vibe that doesn't fit Javert at all.

I love that they cast Colm Wilkinson to play the Bishop. That was just lovely. (For those who don't know-he was the original Valjean in both London and New York.)

"Lovely Ladies" is gritty and harsh. What they can mask easier on a stage is more in your face on the screen. It made what followed all the more powerful. Which brings me to...

Anne Hathaway made me cry when she sang "I Dreamed a Dream" (bawling instance #1) and I have NEVER cried during that song before.

As evidenced by the previous two comments: They changed the order of several songs, and each time they did it made sense and flowed beautifully.
Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen were brilliant as the Thenardiers. I knew they would be. Best. Casting. Ever.

The original song was  unnecessary and sappy, made even more so by the fact that they...


Amanda Seyfried sang Cosette's part beautifully, but with little personality. Probably because Cosette just doesn't have one.

Samantha Barks was an amazing antithesis to this, bringing to Eponine all the heart, courage, and tragedy that one could hope for. She made me want to shout louder than ever during "In My Life", "Hey Marius, you idiot! Turn around and look at the girl behind you. She's the awesome one!" 

I loved how they wove parts in the novel they cut for the stage production back in: Marius' history and relationship with his grandfather, how close of a proximity he lived to Eponine (therefore establishing they actually knew each other fairly well), Eponine's death scene is changed back to the way it happens in the book, and the part about her stealing Cosette's letter was added back. All of this makes the Marius/Eponine story richer in my opinion. Which is another reason it was so annoying that they CUT OUT PART OF "A LITTLE FALL OF RAIN".

I adored all those silly rich school boys. Their camaraderie, their misguided passion for change, their courage.

That kid they cast to play Gavroche. I...can't perfect, adorable...and yeah. (Bawling instance #2)

"Do You Hear the People Sing"-oh all the feels.

I LOVED the way they did Enjolras' death scene. The hanging upside down with the red flag flowing around him is such an iconic scene from the stage production. I loved they included it. AND that Grantaire was standing right next to him. SOB! (Though it would have packed more of an emotional punch if they hadn't cut the "Can it be you fear to die? Will the world remember you when you go? Could it be your death means nothing at all? Is your life just one more lie?" confrontation between the two out of "Drink with Me". Again, WHY????

The sewers of Paris were a little too realistic. (I gagged a bit.)

Javert jumping off the bridge-OUCH! Thanks for the up close and personal shot and sound of that movie makers.

Something else they cut was Marius slamming the Thenardier's for being such beastly parents to Eponine. This was apparently left out to make way for two extra lines of Cosette whining.

The end. The MINOR change they made was necessary and works brilliantly. The way they did it, the note it ends on....bawling instance #3.

I am going to work as hard as I can to see it again before the week is out.

Bookish Presents

Christmas was fun around here today. Many bookish presents were received and I'm sharing a few because some are AWESOME. Or all really.

The Hogwarts uniform my sister made for Bit's AG doll complete with wand. (She is supposed to be Ginny so April even made her a pygmy puff.

A bracelet my mom got for me. (This is where it came from. There are several different types available: Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Anne of Green Gables. I think that this might become a thing for me.)
My wonderful husband got me the new UK editions of the Diana Wynne Jones Chrestomanci books and a mug with this C.S. Lewis quote.
 Also this T-shirt.
I'm a lucky girl.

Did anyone else get awesome bookish presents?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Merry Christmas!

We are at my parents' house happily awaiting the arrival of my sister, brother-in-law, sweet baby niece, and already getting a head start on the festive cheer. (My family is one of those strange ones. We actually enjoy and look forward to spending time together.)

Anyway, as a result of all this holly jolly fun I'm having I won't be around much this week. I'm certainly not posting any reviews. Stay tuned Tuesday or Wednesday as I will most likely be posting a book related gift post. (My sister made Bit a Hogwarts uniform for her AG doll. The world needs to see that.)

On Friday my Top 10 of 2012 is posting.

In the mean time everybody have a fun filled festive week!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Will Sparrow's Road

Karen Cushman is well known for her historical fiction novels. She is the author of the Newbery Award winning The Midwife's Apprentice and the Newbery Honor book Catherine Called Birdy. Her latest historical fiction, Will Sparrow's Road, is the first time she has told a story from the male point of view. It also tells the tale of a way of life not often explored in historical fiction.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
In his thirteenth year, Will Sparrow, liar and thief, becomes a runaway. On the road, he encounters a series of con artists—a pickpocket, a tooth puller, a pig trainer, a conjurer—and learns that others are more adept than he at lying and thieving. Then he reluctantly joins a traveling troupe of "oddities," including a dwarf and a cat-faced girl, holding himself apart from the "monsters" and resolving to be on guard against further deceptions. At last Will is forced to understand that appearances are misleading and that  he has been his own worst deceiver.

The road Will travels in this story in not at all a typical one, but it's an interesting one, as is Will himself. I enjoyed how Will learned so much and grew as a character on his journey. He takes most things at face value, and though boasting that he is a "liar and thief" is way too trusting and gullible. Will's journey is full of interesting people and places as well. The setting, that of a market fair, is true to life. The reader gets a very real sense of what such a life would have been like. The characters of the "oddities" Will befriends, Fin and Grace, are wonderful additions to Will's life and story. The plot is paced well and is full of action from page one. I always enjoy a book where an author grows a character and I get to know him well, but things are happening at the same time. I appreciate that this is a quick, short read too. I'm looking forward to book talking this one with my students and using it with Bit next year when we study this time period.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Guest Author: Karen Cushman

Today I welcome Newbery Award winning author Karen Cushman to the blog to  tell us a bit about her writing process. Ms. Cushman is responsible for such wonderful books as The Midwife's Apprentice and Catherine, Called Birdy. Her latest novel, Will Sparrow's Road, is her first book with a male main character. 

We bought our house partly because of the charming studio for me to write in.  But I don’t write there.

My writing process?  Here’s the short version:  I don’t write every day and I don’t always write in a chair.  I don’t have a set number of words or pages to do before I stop.  I don’t follow anyone’s rules, and I don’t have rules of my own.
 I remodeled this loft as a place for me to write in.  But I don’t write there.
I believe my job is to write each day but I could write a longer post about my procrastination process: I read the newspaper, emails, writing blogs, and Google News. I eat breakfast, shower, do a load of laundry, think about dinner. I answer emails, play computer solitaire, and talk baby talk to my cat.  Finally I am impatient enough with myself to sit down and work.
 I write here, in this big chair in the living room, but I have to fight the cat for it
I don’t outline or make 3×5 cards, or storyboards, but I do have a story pretty well developed in my head before I start to write it.  I hate facing the blank page, and I find writing the first draft by far the hardest part of the job, pulling words out of me like, Katherine Paterson says, a spider spinning a web out of her own guts.  Revision is much easier.
Very early draft of my work in progress.
As I write my first draft, I go back and polish those pages and chapters that came before.  Over and over.  This is how I start working each day–reading over and polishing what I have already written.  It’s those early chapters that establish mood and voice and I like to know these as I write on.  Is the voice humorous and ironic, like Birdy? Naive but wise like Alyce?  Sad and angry like Rodzina?  Complaining and confrontational as are Lucy and Matilda?  Or dishonest, suspicious, and vulnerable like Will Sparrow?  And what have I written that might surprise me or challenge me or take me in a new direction?
Final edits on galleys of Will Sparrow’s Road.  After months and months of editing, there are still corrections.
 If I get stuck or blocked when I’m writing a new scene or passage, I go back to page 17 or 13 or 1, read what I’ve written, and get myself back into the story.  But I must say I am always aware of writing versus editing.  It’s important that I don’t write and edit at the same time.  I have to know which hat I have on.
When writing, this famous author wears these.
  I once despaired of my lack of routine to my editor, Dinah Stevenson, and she said, “Your process is your process.  Honor it.”  And it does work for me.  So I recommend writers discover their own process, even if it is lack of routine, and honor it.  There are no rules.

Thanks Ms. Cushman! I love hearing about how writers go about their craft.

For the final stop on the blog tour stop by Mr. Shu's blog Watch. Connect. Read. tomorrow. 

Other posts form the tour this week include an interview with Kirby Larson at Kirby's Lane, about writing a male mc at Green Bean Teen Queen, and a chance to win a giveaway of Will Sparrow's Road at A Year of Reading.
I will be sharing my thoughts on Will Sparrow's Road here tomorrow as well.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Bit Guest Review: The Penderwicks

Bit and I reviewed The Penderwicks together following the first time I read it to her. She just read it independently for the first time. As it was for school she had to write a critique when she finished it and immediately asked if I would put it on here. I agreed. Here is the original review she participated in for comparison.

I love how she thinks the story takes place in 1995. Why 1995??? (She had no explanation for why she chose that year when asked.) 

Review by Bit (age 8, third grade)

I think the Penderwicks was a very good book. The characters are interesting and the setup was interesting.

My favorite character is Skye. (Although most of the time her attitude is not one to copy.) I think Skye looks like me! Skye, for some reason is easy to understand. My second favorite character is Batty because she is funny, plus she reminds me of my brother Charlie. My third favorite character is Jane. Jane likes to read and write like me! My fourth favorite is Jeffery. He is interesting and he plays the piano, like me. My fifth favorite is Rosalind. She takes good care of Batty like I take care of Charlie. I have something in common with all of them!
The Penderwicks probably took place in 1995. They live in Massachusetts and are taking a vacation to Arundel. The adventure starts when Skye finds Jeffery, the horrible Mrs. Tifton’s son. Jeffery apologizes about his horrible mother and the five become good friends. Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and Batty must try to save Jeffery from a school called Pencey and a stepfather worse than his mother! Can they save Jeffery before they have to leave?   

I recommend this book to everyone!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Books for Christmas Presents

As a lover of books I like giving them as presents. Here are the books the children in my life are getting for Christmas this year.

For Bit (age 8, third grade):

For Little Man (age 4):

 For my niece (age 10mo-for her to grow into):

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

My Life Next Door

I'm not as enamored with My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick as many others are. I was especially frustrated by this as I really enjoyed the beginning.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
“One thing my mother never knew, and would disapprove of most of all, was that I watched the Garretts. All the time.” 
The Garretts are everything the Reeds are not. Loud, numerous, messy, affectionate. And every day from her balcony perch, seventeen-year-old Samantha Reed wishes she was one of them . . . until one summer evening, Jase Garrett climbs her terrace and changes everything. As the two fall fiercely in love, Jase's family makes Samantha one of their own. Then in an instant, the bottom drops out of her world and she is suddenly faced with an impossible decision. Which perfect family will save her? Or is it time she saved herself?

My Life Next Door has the same formula that Sarah Dessen is famous for writing. A smart girl with a carefully ordered life and a controlling mother falls for boy with more a messy life and a singular talent, who draws her into a new life and the real world, then something happens that forces her to decide to embrace said new life or settle into the false security of her old one. While I have enjoyed some of Dessen's books this isn't a formula I particularly want to read over and over again, so this was probably not a good book pick for me in the first place. And Huntley Fitzpatrick is not Sarah Dessen. This is her debut novel and so there is plenty of room for growth and much potential. The writing here is good. Good imagery, wonderful descriptions, excellent dialogue. Still, the characters and story left me cold.

Jase is pretty much perfect, and that was rather annoying. I like good guys as romantic heroes, don't get me wrong. I like that Fitzpatrick went that route rather than the oh so popular YA jerk-bad-boy-rebel-without-a-cause route. However, while good-guys are always preferable to jerks, no one is perfect. Except Jase. Who is ridiculously good looking, athletic, smart, sensitive, a great kisser, an excellent mechanic, good with small children and animals, capable of making delinquent drug addicts want a better a life, and mature when it comes to discussing and planning for sex. He's seventeen. And he never messes up. Not once. Everyone has flaws and a character that doesn't have any is not well-rounded enough for me to be able to believe in. Samantha does make some missteps and Jase is always perfectly forgiving and understanding when she does. Samantha as a character is a bit more well rounded, but she too is inclined toward the perfect. Beautiful, smart, athletic, good with children, quick thinking in a crisis. So that leaves the secondary characters to be the ones who mess up. And our super perfect heroes get to help fix them.

I had some difficulties with the plot too. Most of  the book is  about these two perfectly compatible almost perfect people falling in love. Their dialogue is excellent and the interactions with Jase's family are wonderful. There is some tension and conflict with Samantha's mother and her new political adviser/boyfriend causing Samantha to be uncomfortable, Samantha's best friend who is acting like a jealous shrew, and Samantha's best friend's druggie twin. Lots going on and then something of the high drama variety happens toward the end that seemed contrived only to bring in conflict of the soap opera kind. 

In the end this just wasn't the right book for me. I prefer more realism in my realistic fiction. 

Note on Content for Concerned Parents: Samantha and Jase handle their sexual attraction and desire for each other in a mature and perfectly sex-ed textbook manner but they are having sex and some of their physical interaction is described. There is also some strong language used.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Shorter Musings: MG Fantasies

Sometimes I read a book, and I even enjoy it, but I don't have much to say about it. Those are the books that are reviewed quickly on Goodreads and then I move on. Some of those are starting to pile up so I thought I would put them all together in one post.

Here are a few MG fantasies I've read recently and my shorter musings on them.

The Graverobber's Apprentice by Allan Stratton
This is an entertaining medieval type quest fantasy story. It is very typical of the genre and predictable if you are familiar with the tropes. Young readers who are not will have a lot of fun with a story full of adventure, mystery, and just the right amount of creepy. For reasons I can not understand my library shelved this in the Teen section. It is totally going to miss its audience there. There is nothing Teen about this book. Nothing. 

Ordinary Magic by Caitlen Rubino-Bradway
I really enjoyed the characters. I loved Abby, Fred, and Peter. Abby's family was great too. Each of them were so different and full of life and personality. I also very much liked the concept of the novel, a school for ordinary kids born into a magical world. Yet there were times when the ordinariness of the school was a bit dull. Like the instructions for dish washing. (Do kids really need detailed descriptions of this in their books? Do they want them?)  The biggest problem I had was buying into the world. It was incredibly modern yet had a king and what seemed to be an arcane system of justice. It was a strange melding of contemporary and medieval thinking that just never rang true for me. I also couldn't understand why on earth this society raised children to the age of 12 who couldn't do anything for themselves. They have to be followed around so someone old enough to use magic could open doors, turn on faucets, get them dishes. As a parent this is an utterly ridiculous concept to me. 

The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer
I expected to like this more than I did. I love historical fantasy, particularly with a Norse setting. Yet this book left me cold in many ways. I didn't feel any love for the characters who at times were inconsistent. I also felt like there was more detail than necessary. I did a lot of skimming.  It is, however, an intriguing look at Norse lore and a good Viking tale. For those who enjoy reading long fantasy with some slow sections this a good choice.
The Star Shard by Frederic S. Durbin
The Star Shard is a book with faeries, magic, and a large moving market town known as the Rake. Good stuff. The beginning is a little slow on the action front which may turn off some young readers, but there is plenty of action and excitement in the last half of the book. I enjoyed reading this one and would certainly recommend it to lovers of faerie lore and stories of orphaned children with magic.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Peculiar

Ancient Faery lore brought into an alternate history/steampunk world? Was there any doubt that I would want to read a book with all that? Noooo. (Also the cover. Look at that cover. It's beautiful.) I'm happy to say The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann did not disappoint.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Don't get yourself noticed and you won't get yourself hanged.
In the faery slums of Bath, Bartholomew Kettle and his sister Hettie live by these words. Bartholomew and Hettie are changelings--Peculiars--and neither faeries nor humans want anything to do with them.
One day a mysterious lady in a plum-colored dress comes gliding down Old Crow Alley. Bartholomew watches her through his window. Who is she? What does she want? And when Bartholomew witnesses the lady whisking away, in a whirling ring of feathers, the boy who lives across the alley--Bartholomew forgets the rules and gets himself noticed.
First he's noticed by the lady in plum herself, then by something darkly magical and mysterious, by Jack Box and the Raggedy Man, by the powerful Mr. Lickerish . . . and by Arthur Jelliby, a young man trying to slip through the world unnoticed, too, and who, against all odds, offers Bartholomew friendship and a way to belong.

Let me start by saying Bachmann can write. Oh can he ever. Exactly the right amount of description, vivid imagery, excellent plotting. The story is fast paced and, like all the best fantasies, doesn't  condescend to its readers. You get your information as you need it. Which means that in the beginning the reader is confused and feels a bit jerked around (at least I did), but it doesn't matter because this perfectly reflects the feelings and knowledge of the main characters. Bachmann has created a world in which the Faeries stumbled into our world through a door that shouldn't have opened (decimating all of Bath in the process) and are now trapped. The humans and faeries have to live side by side as best they can, and their best isn't so great. A costly war decided who would be in charge. The greatest victims of this are the peculiars, half-human and half-faerie, they are hated by both groups. Most peculiars don't live to see adulthood. The politics are complicated. The Sidhe have worked their way into high government positions and are yet not content with what this world that isn't their own has to offer. 
They could not forget that they had once been lords and ladies in great halls of their own. They could not forgive. The English might have won the Smiling War, but there were other ways to fight. A word could cause a riot, ink could spell a man's death, and the Sidhe knew those weapons like the backs of their hands. Oh yes, the knew. 
 The world building is excellent and the story one that had me longing for more from start to finish. Even at the end I longed for more. (Book two should be coming out next year!)

The story is told in third person, but shifts perspectives between the peculiar Bartholomew and a young parliament member, Arthur Jelliby. The way the story shifts (and the places it shifts) makes you want to keep reading. Both Arthur and Bartholomew are flawed characters who act in heroic ways. Despite themselves at times. The one thing that held me back from unequivocally loving the book in a passionate and intense way was that, while I found both characters likable enough, I didn't really  connect with either of them emotionally. I felt a bit removed from their story until almost the very end. I'm hoping this will change with the second installment and I will love that one even more. 

I highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys inventive twists to old folklore or just really loves a beautifully told story. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

For Darkness Shows the Stars

I have a weakness for retellings of Austen novels. Why I am not sure, since most of them make me break out in hives and want to stab things. For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund is not one of those. I not only enjoyed it, but found it very hard to put aside when I needed to. I have never been able to say that about an Austen retelling before. And this is a retelling of Persuasion which is my second favorite Austen novel.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
It's been several generations since a genetic experiment gone wrong caused the Reduction, decimating humanity and giving rise to a Luddite nobility who outlawed most technology.
Elliot North has always known her place in this world. Four years ago Elliot refused to run away with her childhood sweetheart, the servant Kai, choosing duty to her family's estate over love. Since then the world has changed: a new class of Post-Reductionists is jumpstarting the wheel of progress, and Elliot's estate is foundering, forcing her to rent land to the mysterious Cloud Fleet, a group of shipbuilders that includes renowned explorer Captain Malakai Wentforth--an almost unrecognizable Kai. And while Elliot wonders if this could be their second chance, Kai seems determined to show Elliot exactly what she gave up when she let him go.
But Elliot soon discovers her old friend carries a secret--one that could change their society . . . or bring it to its knees. And again, she's faced with a choice: cling to what she's been raised to believe, or cast her lot with the only boy she's ever loved, even if she's lost him forever.

Elliot is a marvelous reworking of Anne's character and, dare I say it, she is even an improvement. (Gasp! I know. I shock even myself.) Elliot's reasons for not leaving with Kai are sound ones, her decision was the right one for her to make for both of them. And for a whole host of other people for whom she felt responsible. Elliot's struggles through the book are realistic and reflect a mind and heart torn between who she is expected to be and who she wants to be. All of this is tied up with the societal and moral issues facing the time she is living in and the stakes are higher than in the original work. Kai is a bit harder to love. Captain Wentworth had every legitimate reason to be angry at and wary of Anne. Kai really doesn't have that same excuse for his actions and there are times when he is quite a jerk, making him harder to love as a hero. But far more realistic. The letters included between chapters that the two exchanged as children help in painting him in a better light though, one from which the reader is better able to understand him, and come to appreciate and love him as Elliot does.

Much of my enjoyment of the novel came from the themes Peterfreund explores through the world she built. Like Austen, she uses her novel to spark thought on certain social issues. There is a tension here between science and religion which I think is handled well. Questions are explored about genetic manipulation and ethics in bio-engineering.  I do have some questions regarding the world-building, places where my credulity is stretched more than it likes to be. For example, I can not figure out why the enhanced people who caused the Reduction set out to destroy the rest of humanity. We're supposed to believe it's because they were angry. This makes little sense to me. (I kept thinking maybe it would be revealed that the story the Luddite's told wasn't the whole story, but that didn't happen. Maybe in the next book?) I also feel that some of Elliot's misgivings are left too unresolved and up in the air. Still the world is an interesting one and works very well for the story that is being told. I like how the structure of the plot follows Persuasion so closely and yet also has added new dimensions.

There will be a companion novel coming out next year called Across a Star-Swept Sea that is going to be a retelling of The Scarlet Pimpernel. (Another of my all time favorite books.) I am eager to see what Peterfreund will do with both this world she has created and that story.