Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Undead Poll

The Undead Poll for the 2012 SLJ Battle of the Books is open! What does this mean to you? It means that you can now vote for the book you would like to see most in the final round, in case by some misguided judging strange twist of fate it should be defeated in an earlier round and not be able to go on. Let us say  you are a fan and you really want to see a certain book win. Like this one:
 What do you do? First go to this page of the SLJ site. Second, click where it says "enter voting page here". It will take you to a survey site with a list of all 16 books with little circles next to them like bubbles on a multiple choice test. Third, click on the circle next to Chime by Franny Billingsley. Be sure you don't click on any of the other circles. That would mean you were voting for the wrong book. Finally, click on the submit button on the bottom of the page and it will take you to another page assuring you your vote has been counted. You must trust this assurance and believe the BoB people aren't just playing us. Of course the above is just a highly suggestive example. If you wish to champion a book other than Chime you would be wrong fully within your rights to do so. But only if the book you choose is Amelia Lost, The Cheshire Cheese Cat, A Monster Calls, or Okay for Now. Otherwise you are too busy to bother with this. Really.

Happy Voting!

In other BoB news: They have begun a series of posts from fans of the Battle explaining "What the Battle of the Books Means to Me". Today's first post is written by the wonderful Kate Coombs (author of the delightful Runaway Princess, the adorable Hans My Hedgehog, and the blog Book Aunt). I'm very excited about reading everyone's posts in this series. (And in the interest of full disclosure it should be noted I am the author of one of them.)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Life: An Exploded Diagram

I don't normally write posts on books that I don't finish completely but am making an exception for Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet. As it is a 2012 BoB contender I want to have a place to link to my thoughts when it is up for competition. Also I thought it might be helpful to some to know why I put it aside and decided to not read it entirely.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Can love survive a lifetime? When working-class Clem Ackroyd falls for Frankie Mortimer, the gorgeous daughter of a wealthy local landowner, he has no hope that it can. After all, the world teeters on the brink of war, and bombs could rain down any minute over the bleak English countryside--just as they did seventeen years ago as his mother, pregnant with him, tended her garden. This time, Clem may not survive. 

I was really excited about this when it was first listed as a contender in the Battle of the Kid's Books. A YA book about the Cuban Missile Crisis from a British perspective? I was almost giddy with excitement. Plus I always enjoy a good poor boy/rich girl forbidden romance story. Except this time. My main disappointment was that the book actually does not seem YA at all. From the beginning it reads like adult literary fiction. The point of view switches between third person (past scenes) and first person (present day-almost). The narrator of the first person section is older (Clem as an adult), all the past scenes are extremely detailed, and the narrative rather circuitous. The writing is clever with passages such as: I'm sentimental; I admit that. No, not admit; I proudly declare that. After all, what's so great about being unsentimental? Hard-eyed, hard-nosed, hard-hearted, hard-boiled. Realistic, phlegmatic, unfeeling. Do any of those appeal to you? Fancy sporting any of those on your T-shirt? Besides, scratch a cynic and you'll find a sentimentalist beneath the paint. (page 25) Or: I'm not going to bang on about my suffering, my brutalization, and my salvation at Newgate those long seven years. (Well, eight, if you count the missing year.) Lord knows, bookshop shelves already creak under the weight of Misery Memoirs and Teen Novels that might be called My School Hell. I have no desire to add my small pebble to that avalanche of unhappiness. (p 102) Both of these are ironic, intentionally I'm sure, given the tone of the novel. I smiled at these, I enjoyed reading these two passages, but  I began to feel as though moments like this were the whole point of the exercise. Like the book was mainly about its own cleverness. Which is not a criticism of the writing or the author. I find this to be pretty typical of literary fiction.  A lot of people, including many teens, love adult literary fiction. I am not one of these people, so when I had plodded my way through to page 125 (about 1/3 of the way through-this book is looong), and decided it was time to go wax my eyebrows because I was so bored (this is no joke I really did this), I thought maybe some skipping around to see if reading the rest would be worth my time was necessary. So I read some of the middle (there is a lot of sex) and the end. The end is what did it folks. I was not going to plow my way through that many pages for that ending, which I feel is also typical of lit fic, completely hopeless and inconclusive. Inconclusive I can deal with, hopelessness I can not. 

The connections Peet was trying to make were interesting ones and the story intriguing. The style was not for me though. There are many who have, and will, find it well worth their time and very much enjoy this book.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Ogre of Oglefort

I have read a couple (and reviewed one) of Eva Ibbotson's historical romances, but had never read one of her MG fantasies until now. The Ogre of Oglefort was the last fantasy Ibbotson wrote prior to her death in 2010. After reading it I'm very interested in her other such works, particularly as I have a daughter who would gobble them up like chocolate I think. (The copy of Ogre is already in her excited hands.) This book has all kinds of kiddie appeal.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
For excitement-hungry orphan Ivo, a mission to save Princess Mirella from the dreaded Ogre of Oglefort is a dream come true. Together with a hag, a wizard, and a troll, Ivo sets out, ready for adventure. But when they get to the ogre's castle, the rescuers are in for a surprise: the princess doesn't need saving, but the depressed ogre does! 

The book starts out with a witch needing a familiar because hers has gone on strike. Orphan Ivo volunteers and finds himself on an adventure of a lifetime. The Princess Mirella wants to live with animals and enjoy the outdoors but her parents want her betrothed to a smarmy prince from a neighboring country so she takes matters into her own hands. Ivo and Mirella are engaging young characters but the book is just as much about the witch, wizard, troll and ogre as it is about them. They are a quirky and delightful cast. None of them are explored in depth and there is not much development of relationships in the story. The narrator mostly tells the reader what everyone is doing and how they are getting on, but I think the intended audience would love them all and the crazy antics they get into.


The plot here is all kinds of fun, with several irreverent twists on old story tropes. The Norn (fates) make an appearance as senile old women who aren't so good at their job anymore. There are several helpful not-quite-as-they-seem animals, a battle involving thrown furniture, and an ingenuous solution to a haunting. Like I said, loads of kid appeal. I quite enjoyed it myself (more than I enjoyed Ibbotson's historical fantasies for sure).

Friday, February 24, 2012

Daughter of Smoke and Bone

I don't know the last time I  was so torn in writing a review as I am for Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. I have never before enjoyed a book so much that I didn't really enjoy.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Around the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky. In a dark and dusty shop, a devil's supply of human teeth grown dangerously low. And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherwordly war. Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she's prone to disappearing on mysterious "errands"; she speaks many languages—not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she's about to find out. When one of the strangers—beautiful, haunted Akiva—fixes his fire-colored eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?

I LOVE how this book is written. It has the sort of vivid imagery and language I revel in. Here I give you the opening as evidence:
Walking to school over the snow-muffled cobbles, Karou had no sinister premonitions about the day. It seemed like just another Monday, innocent but for its essential Mondyaness, not to mention its Januaryness. It was cold, and it was dark-in the dead of winter the sun didn't rise until eight-but it was also lovely. The falling snow and the early hour conspired to paint Prague ghostly, like a tintype photograph, all silver and haze. On the riverfront thoroughfare, trams and buses roared past, grounding the day in the twenty-first century,but on quieter lanes , the wintery peace might have hailed from another time.
Talk about painting pictures with words. And notice Karou lives in Prague. We don't have nearly enough interesting books set in Prague. Taylor does a marvelous job bringing the city to life. (Of course, I have never been to Prague so whether or not it is accurate someone else will have to say. However, the city had a genuine and individual atmosphere that felt real in the story.) Then there is the main character, Karou, who is all kinds of awesome: artistic, irreverent, spunky, slightly rebellious, funny-and deadly.  As I often enjoy a star-crossed romance if it is done right, I even liked that element because Taylor wrote it well. This was my first experience with Taylor's writing and I was impressed.

All of that together usually means I fall in love with a book. That it goes on favorite shelves and I reread it and eagerly anticipate its sequel. But that is not the case with this one. Why? It is a paranormal romance novel. It is a paranormal romance novel incorporating the type of supernatural creatures I have the least patience for in stories. It just wasn't for me. I will say that my hat goes off to Taylor for proving you can use the tropes of a genre, even the ones everyone makes fun of (instalove-it's here; she makes it work), and write them well. Very well. Let me stress again: THE WRITING IS SUPERB. Bravo. You go girl and all that. It is still what it is, and what it is is not my thing. If it is your thing, or you know someone whose thing it is, go forth and read because it is awesomely written. 

Alas, I probably won't be reading the sequel. However, Taylor has written a couple of books about Faeries, and as Faeries very much are my thing I'm going to read those instead. I'm pretty excited because-did I mention?-she's a great writer.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Humming Room

Last year I read and loved The Kneebone Boy by Ellen Potter (my review). When I discovered she had a new book out this year and that it was a reworking of The Secret Garden I as eager to see what she would do with it. The Humming Room is faithful to the original plot while bringing the story into a more modern world.


Synopsis(from Goodreads):
Hiding is Roo Fanshaw's special skill. Living in a frighteningly unstable family, she often needs to disappear at a moment's notice. When her parents are murdered, it's her special hiding place under the trailer that saves her life. As it turns out, Roo, much to her surprise, has a wealthy if eccentric uncle, who has agreed to take her into his home on Cough Rock Island. Once a tuberculosis sanitarium for children of the rich, the strange house is teeming with ghost stories and secrets. Roo doesn't believe in ghosts or fairy stories, but what are those eerie noises she keeps hearing? And who is that strange wild boy who lives on the river? People are lying to her, and Roo becomes determined to find the truth. Despite the best efforts of her uncle's assistants, Roo discovers the house's hidden room--a garden with a tragic secret. 
  
Roo is the best thing about this book and she captures the reader's heart from the beginning as she huddles under her trailer hiding after her father's murder. She is a loner who won't admit she is lonely, but revels in the wild freedom she has in the new island home she has been brought to. It was easy to go along with her for her story and experience it with her. I also very much liked the character of Jack, actually I liked him a bit better than his counterpart, Dicken, in the original story. He was a bit more wild and unpredictable and seemed to view more as an equal and less as a protege. I did wonder if I was projecting a bit of what I knew of the original characters onto these characters as I read, particularly Roo. I didn't really like Philip much at all though. He is the counterpart to Colin in this and I found him less sympathetic and hard to reconcile with the 21st century time.


The setting is a strong element in this. The house the characters inhabit is an old children's tuberculosis hospital, complete with an old chute for sending out dead bodies. It is located on an island and Potter brings the scenery to life with her prose. 


Here is the question: Does The Secret Garden need a retelling or an updating? I think that will depend on who you ask. There are many purists who will say no. There are many who have fond nostalgic memories of the original who will say no.  Hand a 9-12 year old girl a copy of both books and which she chooses will probably depend a great deal on whether she enjoys contemporary or historical novels (and on which edition of The Secret Garden you are offering up). As a teacher I had about two dozen fifth graders check The Secret Garden out either from my classroom library or the school library. Only a handful of them finished it. They just couldn't relate. A story about a girl whose drug dealer father is murdered while she hides under the trailer? Unfortunately, that wouldn't have been so hard for them to understand. So I like that this book  is here now and I certainly think it has a place on the shelves of classrooms and libraries. And if it inspires some kids to read the original, so much the better.


The copy of this I reviewed was an e-galley received via NetGalley. The book will be in stores on February 28.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Gil Marsh

It is hard to write a review for a book when I have the sort of reaction to it that I had for Gil Marsh by A.C.E. Bauer. I was disappointed in it, but not through any fault with the actual writing. This is one of those cases where the author's vision for her story did not match my expectations as a reader. Keeping this in mind I'm going to try and split this into two parts.



Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Good looking, athletic, and smart, Gill Marsh is the most popular kid at Uruk High School, even though he is only a junior. When Enko, a new kid from Montreal, shows up, Gil is wary. Yet Enko is easy going and matches Gil's athletic prowess without being a threat. Soon, the two become inseparable friends, practicing, studying, and double-dating. Then suddenly, to everyone's shock, Enko succombs to an aggressive cancer. When Enko's parents take his body and return to Canada, Gil is unable to even say good bye. He is inconsolable. Determined to find Enko's grave, Gil sneaks away and heads north. 

For Readers Unfamiliar With The Epic of Gilgamesh
 This is a story about a boy who is grieving for his friend and who goes on a quest to say good bye properly. It is fast paced and there are some intense scenes. Gil is a sympathetic character who is searching for answers to hard life questions and trying to get over the death of his friend. You may question why Gil does some of the things he does and not fully understand why this friendship is such an important one, but Gil is an easy character to like and you will want to see him succeed. There is one place near the end where there is a flirting with the supernatural that will probably have you scratching your head as there is no real explanation for it.

For Readers Familiar With The Epic of Gilgamesh 
The book pretty much follows the Epic in form as well as plot, except I felt the details were even more sparse in this retelling than they are in the original. Bauer made a decision to remove most of the mythos from  the story in the novel. I was okay with this, but was hoping that would mean a removal of the entire mythos. Except it didn't. While the gods and goddesses of Babylonian myth are absent from the story, there is a random immortal dude lurking in the mountains of northern Canada. Unlike Utnapishtim in the original, this guy has no idea how or why  he is immortal and is not forthcoming with any help for Gil at all. He basically says, "This is the way I am. No explanation for it. Weird huh? Now get off my property." And that's all we get of that. One of the reasons I like the Epic so much is that one of its major themes is inevitably of death, but at the same time stresses life is precious and should be celebrated. The novel kind of sort of flirts with that concept a little at the end, but not noticeably. By removing the mythos Bauer also removed the feminine aspect of the story. The only major female character in the novel is not nice. She thwarts Gil's quest and swindles him. This too works against the themes in the original work, where the female is necessary as it is essential to life itself. Without these themes the story felt empty and lacking in meaning. It was just the story of a sad guy who went on a fruitless and uncomfortable road trip. Hence my disappointment.

This is a review of a copy received via NetGalley. Gil Marsh will be available for purchase February 28. 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Mara, Daughter of the Nile

 Featuring Bit, age 7

Looking back at my reading history I am pretty sure I can trace my love of political intrigue to Mara, Daughter of the Nile by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, which I read for the first time while in the sixth grade. It was my gateway drug. It might seem strange to some that I decided to do at as a read aloud with my second grader. It is a twisty book with a complex plot, but she can pretty much tackle easier MG offerings completely on her own and I wanted to try something that would challenge her brain a bit. She is loving her history unit on Ancient Egypt and was really excited about this book.

The Story
Slavery is the only life Mara has ever known. One master taught her to read, write, speak Babylonian, and use her head. When Mara finds herself with  a harsher master who cares naught for any of those skills she amuses herself by escaping the manor grounds and stealing pastries from unsuspecting bread boys. Mara's skills capture the attentions of a dangerous man who buys her to make her his spy. He wants her to keep an eye on the young Thutmose, who is being denied his throne by his sister Hatshepsut. Mara is to figure out how messages from the rebellion are getting to him and anything she can about the secret plans. If she does this she will earn her freedom. Soon after being sent on her way to achieve this she finds herself in the clutches of the rebel leader himself, the handsome young charismatic Lord Sheftu. He harasses Mara into his service as well and soon she is playing a dangerous double game trying to keep her life and promised freedom while playing both of the opposing sides. However, Mara is in over head in more ways than one as she sees Egypt in danger, the rightful king denied his place, and the Pharaoh Queen's extravagance. Then there is her relationship with Sheftu, which grows more complicated with each passing day. Her considerable wits may not be enough to untangle the coil she has gotten herself snared in.


Bit's Thoughts
I think that Mara, Daughter of the Nile is a great book. It takes place during the time of Hatshepsut in Egypt. My favorite character is Mara. I think that she is brave. The only thing Mara wants is to be free and I wanted her to get her freedom. My second favorite character is Sheftu. I also think that he is brave. The book is action packed. It kept me wanting to know what would happen next. Some things I could not quite understand and there were a lot of characters. I still really enjoyed it.

My Thoughts
I have fond memories of this book from my own childhood. It definitely made an impact on my life as a reader. It is full of adventure, mystery, intrigue, danger, and also a bit of romance. It also probably played a large part in forming the types of heroes I like. Sheftu is quite the sarcastic, deceptively lazy, brilliant mastermind. And we know how much I like those kind of heroes. Mara is more than a match for his wits though and the dialogue between the two of them are some the best parts of the book. I think that now. When I was younger I appreciated different aspects of the story, the action and the kissing mostly. It is nice to come back to a book years after reading it and find new things about it to love.

Note on Content: This book will not make the best read aloud for all second graders. Bit went into this story with a strong knowledge of the historical period and the culture of the time.  The romance in it is not at all subtle. There are a couple of kissing scenes, which some younger children might not like and some parents might not want them exposed to. (Bit thought the kissing was awesome.) There is also quite a bit of danger and Mara does have to endure some violence toward the end of the book.

What Bit and I are reading next: 100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Between Shades of Gray

Quite honestly I probably never would have chosen to read Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys if it had not been chosen as a contender in the SLJ BoBs. Even after my friend Betsy (of Literaritea) read it and said it was a good read I remained stubborn (and I trust her opinion of books implicitly). I am glad that I was finally pushed into reading it. It is a powerful story about events in history that are not discussed often enough.


Synopsis (from Goodreads):
 Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they've known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin's orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions. Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously - and at great risk - documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father's prison camp to let him know they are still alive. It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives.

Stalin's deportation of nationals from the Baltic countries the USSR invaded to Siberian work communes is a portion of history largely overlooked in most high school history classes. It is often mentioned tangentially to Holocaust studies, if it is mentioned at all. Neither my AP US or my AP European teachers ever even brought it up. Shades of Gray is a novel that can get a discussion on the subject started. It is a story full of powerful scenes and vivid imagery, such as: Used to what, the feeling of uncontrolled anger? Or a sadness so deep, like your very core has been hollowed out and fed back to you from a dirty bucket? Talk about a simile. The text and plot most definitely pack a  punch and show  the reader into a world they never want to experience. I like the added touch of including Lina's flashbacks to the past in each chapter. The flashbacks correlated with the content of the chapter and contrasted the privilege of her former life to the horror of her current one. Lina herself remained distant to me though. As I read the book I felt more like I was watching a documentary and not experiencing the things Lina experienced. This may be due to the action heavy plot. The story keeps up a relentless place of incident after incident after incident until it finally just ends. I thought this rather too abrupt. I was obviously not expecting, or wanting, any kind of "happily ever after", but I wanted more of a completion than I got, either for the story itself or Lina's character arc. I do feel like the strengths in the novel outweigh the weaknesses and it is an excellent choice for assisting in teaching an often forgotten aspect of 1940's history.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Pie

Warning: If you read Pie by Sarah Weeks you had better either eat first or have pie on hand. You should probably have a pie on hand either way. This is book will make you want to eat one or three.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
When Alice's Aunt Polly passes away, she takes with her the secret to her world-famous pie-crust recipe. Or does she? In her will, Polly leaves the recipe to her extraordinarily surly cat Lardo . . . and then leaves Lardo in the care of Alice.Suddenly Alice is thrust into the center of a piestorm, with everyone in town trying to be the next pie-contest winner ... including Alice's mother and some of Alice's friends. The whole community is going pie-crazy . . . and it's up to Alice to discover the ingredients that really matter. Like family. And friendship. And enjoying what you do.

Pie is a Middle Grade historical fiction set in a small Pennsylvania town in the 1950's. The plot of the  book covers just a couple of days in the life of Alice but through several flashbacks we get a complete picture of her, the small town that is her home, and her beloved Aunt Polly. This is a short book that uses a lot of old tropes: the boy/girl friendship (though it really is JUST a friendship), a quirky town full of quirky people, parents that don't understand the main character, a mysterious stranger in town, a mystery to solve. Weeks doesn't do anything new with these tropes, but she did write them well. Alice is a sympathetic character, Charlie an interesting one, and their friendship reads genuine. If you or someone you know is looking for a sweet short predictable read about small towns and friendship this is a book to keep in mind. While it was a nice afternoon's read the only strong impression it left on me was an overwhelming desire to eat pie. (And I'm not a pie eater.) The pie descriptions are well done for sure. And there are recipes included.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Literary Dads

When I wrote my Literary Moms post last month I said that I would tackle the fathers next. I thought this might be a little easier (even though, as with my mom, no fictional father can come close to the awesomeness that is my dad). It wasn't though. Again I thought of several that were good "types", but again not very many that actually stirred me enough to place the label favorite on them. (Charles Ingalls and Mr. Quimby fall into this category for me.) Here are the ones that I have grown attached to enough to truly care about:

The Minister of War
Funny that a character who doesn't even have a name, just a title, was the first to pop into my head. He is, of course, written by Megan Whalen Turner who can make you want to know every detail of a character she mentions in one paragraph. As this is the father of her amazingly awesome hero he doesn't actually need a name to make him well loved. The MoW gets awesome points for being Gen's father and surviving to his son's adulthood with his sanity intact. Then there are all the little details given in both The Thief and The Queen of Attolia that show how much he cares for his son and wants what is best for him (even when they disagree over what that is). Like most father/son relationships this one is fraught with tension at times, but there is so much evident love and respect between the two of them despite not completely understanding each other.

Martin Penderwick
Martin Penderwick is absent minded and, at times, in over his head with four daughters. However, that he loves them more than anything on the earth is clearly evident. He allows them a great deal of freedom, but I think this is a good thing. He does not stifle them and does not try to make their lives easier. When they do something they shouldn't, he disciplines them well and shows them he loves them at the same time. He is also admits to his own faults and has conversations with the girls that are priceless.

Matthew Cuthbert
I don't care that he wasn't Anne's "real" father, he totally counts! Matthew was as strong as a rock, and as gentle as a lamb. The way he loves Anne unconditionally and silently encourages her from the first time the meet until is death is wonderful.

Robert Spinelli
He doesn't come off in the best of lights at times because Saving Francesca is from Francesca's point of view and she is angry. He becomes the target of her anger as she would feel guilty throwing it at her mom. If you read between the lines of Francesca's hurt and frustration you get the picture of an amazing man though, one who has weaknesses like any other, but whose strengths more than make up for it. Their conversation toward the end is just the icing on the cake. Every time I read this book I tear up when I get to the, "Just tell me where you are" part. Sniff.

You will notice that while Mrs. Murry made my list of moms, Mr. Murry did not make this one. For some reason I've always been able to dismiss him easily. He falls into the same category as Mr. Ingalls and Mr. Quimby. Charlotte from Charlotte's Library has written a fascinating post on both Murry parents and the other parental figures in A Wrinkle in Time that is worth a read if you haven't seen it yet.

I want to know who would be on your list!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Graffiti Moon

I have wanted to read Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley since it was released in Australia and started making waves all over the book blogoshpere. Everyone who read it only had praises for it and I became more and more eager for the US release (which is February 14). I was graciously given access to an e-galley by the publisher via NetGalley. It has been downloaded and ready to read for a few weeks but after I had it in my hands I became nervous, worrying I would be disappointed and that it would never live up to those high expectations others praise and months of waiting had built. It did. Oh how it did. And I really wished I hadn't waited until after 10 at night to decide to start reading it.

Lucy is out with her two friends celebrating the end of Year Twelve. Her friends are out for the boys, Lucy is out for just one, the mysterious Shadow who has decorated the city with his beautiful graffiti art. She knows a boy who sees the world like that, who can paint like that, will be a boy she can talk to and share herself with. Unfortunately, because her best friend wants to hook up with his best friend, she is stuck hanging out with Ed. Ed who she never wanted to see again after the worst first date ever in the history of the world. Ed isn't anymore excited than she is, their one date was actually a worst first date for him than it was for her, but there is something about her that pulls him like a magnet and she still has an affect over him. Then Ed tells her he knows some of the places Shadow goes and is willing to take her to them. Lucy and Ed are soon on a tour of Shadow's work through the nightscape of Melbourne having all the conversations about art and life Lucy has always dreamed of, but the clock is ticking for Ed. In hours he will have to make a decision that will decide the course of his future and his future with Lucy , if he has one.

Ed and Lucy have become instant favorites. The book is told in alternating first person narratives between the two and their chapters often overlap, so you get a scene from her perspective and then his. This repetitiveness is not at all boring, it is enlightening and shows the reader so much about each of them individually and them together. Interspersed through this are poems written by Ed's best friend Leo that give insight into many of the other characters and events. Ed and Lucy are complicated and layered characters, complete in their strengths and weaknesses. Lucy is willfully blind to what is staring her in the face because she has a fantasy built in her head she doesn't want to let go of. Ed is stubbornly clinging to a bleak and ugly future because he is afraid to hope for anything else. They jump off the page as do Leo and Jazz (and even Dylan and Daisy). The dialogue is sometimes witty, sometimes poignant, always pitch perfect. Crowley is one of those authors who doesn't waste words, each one counts, and she manages to create these defined and real characters without over writing them. I love this.

Then there is the way this book is a love song to art in all forms. Crowley's descriptions are vivid and paint pictures in the mind. I could see clearly every single one of Shadow's paintings and even Lucy's blown glass creations. The setting is also vividly describes giving the reader the sensation of actually being there. I could see and hear the city clearly in my head.

Here are some examples of the writing I particularly liked, though I stopped bookmarking pages after the first 50 so I could just enjoy the ride:
I'm so close to meeting him, and I want it so bad. Mum says when wanting collides with getting, that's the moment of truth. I want to collide. I want to run right into Shadow and let the force spill our thoughts so we can pick each other up  and pass each other back like piles of shiny stones.

Paint sails and the things that kick in my head scream from can to brick. See this, see this, see this. See me emptied onto a wall.

I like that about art, that what you see is sometimes more about who you are than what's on the wall.

I kept dreaming her and me were tangled like that. Kept dreaming of this spot on her neck, this tiny country. I wanted to visit, to paint a picture of what I found there, a wall with a road map of her skin...Then one day she looked up from her book and caught me making travel plans.

I spent the weekend after our date wishing I could stab him with my fluffy duck pen and staring at the phone hoping he'd call. Dating is very tricky business.

You get the idea. I loved this book, unequivocally loved it, the writing, the characters, the emotion, the speed of it. It is well worthy of all the praise (and awards) it has earned.

Note on Content: This is a book for older teens. There is some strong language and references to sex and alcohol.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Dead End in Norvelt

The book with the new shiny medal affixed on its cover, the 2012 Newbery winner.  I had not read it before now because, while I admire author Jack Gantos's talent and versatility, I don't particularly enjoy his work. Just a matter of personal taste. I did enjoy Dead End in Norvelt, not enough to love it, but enough to appreciate it.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Melding the entirely true and the wildly fictional, Dead End in Norvelt is a novel about an incredible two months for a kid named Jack Gantos, whose plans for vacation excitement are shot down when he is "grounded for life" by his feuding parents, and whose nose spews bad blood at every little shock he gets. But plenty of excitement (and shocks) are coming Jack's way once his mom loans him out to help a fiesty old neighbor with a most unusual chore—typewriting obituaries filled with stories about the people who founded his utopian town. As one obituary leads to another, Jack is launched on a strange adventure involving molten wax, Eleanor Roosevelt, twisted promises, a homemade airplane, Girl Scout cookies, a man on a trike, a dancing plague, voices from the past, Hells Angels . . . and possibly murder.

Gantos has the quality I  most admire in writers, that of conveying much with few words. He can convey reams of information about a character with a few well phrased sentences. The characters were the best part of the novel for me, particularly Jack and his parents. Other characters seemed more caricatures than the realized characters of the main family and were quirky to the point of being over the top. Still,  the effect of the whole is charming and amusing for the most part.


As a work of historical fiction this book excels, and I found it to be most deserving of the Scott O'Dell Award it was given for this aspect. Gantos paints a picture of the times with his words and imagery without explicitly going into facts about the 1962 setting. Through all the obituaries Jack is scribing for Miss Volker and his own summaries of the Landmark history books he is reading the reader is treated to several anecdotes of times past. The book is a treasure trove of interesting historical detail, and while the historian in me appreciated this and how events in Jack's present were connected to the past and references to the impact on future events were made, I couldn't help feel most children would not appreciate it as much. 


The book is largely anecdotal, one story after another depicting life in the town, life in the past, life in the Gantos home. Until suddenly around page 290 it turns into a murder mystery for about 40 pages. That is where things went from quirky to downright strange for me as the reader. As much as I appreciate Gantos's ability to write interesting characters, I just find his humor to be odd and not really humorous.

While this is not my particular cup of tea, it is well written and interesting and I'm sure will find a happy home in the hearts of many readers.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Flip

Ever Wake Up in Someone Else's Body? That is the tag line for Martyn Bedford's Flip. The body switching concept is nothing new. Sometimes it is done in a comedic fashion, sometimes in a creepy thriller fashion. Bedford's novel is closer to the creepy thriller side, but it is mostly a story about a boy named Alex who wants nothing more than to have his own life back.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
One December night, 14-year-old Alex goes to  bed. He wakes up to  find himself in the wrong bedroom, in an unfamiliar house, in a different part of the country, and it's the middle of June. Six months have disappeared overnight. The family at the breakfast table are total strangers. And when he looks in the mirror, another boy's face stares back at him.  A boy named Flip. Unless Alex finds out what's happened and how to get back to his own life,  he may be trapped forever inside a body that belongs to someone else.  

 Alex, an asthmatic awkward teen, wakes up one morning in the body of a much better looking athletic boy. Here is what I liked most about Alex: he was terrified and confused and never once went through a, "I'm going to live it up and do whatever I want because wow look at me now" phase. He begins merely trying to survive as Flip while figuring out what happened to him, Alex. He does take advantage of the fact he has a girlfriend to gain some kissing experience, but even this is done thoughtfully. He knows he doesn't like the girl at all. Despite Flip's family being wealthier, Alex misses his own family because his memories are with them and he knows they love him. He misses making music with his clarinet and playing chess with his best friend. This makes Alex sympathetic and likable, if a little flat as a character. 


Through this plot a lot of questions on the nature of the soul and the afterlife are explored. The questions are interesting ones and Alex's frustration with his inability to find clear answers is evident. When Alex is questioning the religious studies teacher at his school we get this: The soul and the mind were not the same thing at all, in his opinion. Although, he had to point out that different faiths had different ideas about the nature of the soul-and the mind for that matter-and given that they were both abstract concepts, none of us could say with any certainty...and so on. As for where souls went at death and how they got there, Mr. McQueen set off on another global tour of belief systems tying himself in knots in his attempt not to set one particular theory above any other. Little wonder Alex was frustrated. As much as I appreciated the humor and accuracy in this paragraph I couldn't help but hear the author's voice intruding into the narrative. There are a couple of other places where I got the same impression. The quest for answers is an interesting thread in the plot but is buried under the dramatic conclusion (which was certainly riveting and well written) so nothing is ever completely explained. I rather liked this element, but people who like their stories all tied up in the end will not.

The story is fast paced and interesting and Alex's voice is very genuine teen boy. I would certainly recommend this one to those I know looking for such a book.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Shadows

I have been meaning to read The Shadows by Jacqueline West since it won the Cybil  in MG Fantasy and Science Fiction last year. I finally got around to it now that the new winners are about to be announced. I can see why this one was chosen as a winner. This is a story sure to appeal to children who like their fantasy on the slightly creepy side. For adult fans of the genre there is also quite a bit of nostalgia on offer in the book.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Old Ms. McMartin is definitely dead. Now her crumbling Victorian mansion lies vacant. When eleven-year-old Olive and her dippy mathematician parents move in, she knows there's something odd about the place—not least the walls covered in strange antique paintings. But when Olive finds a pair of old spectacles in a dusty drawer, she discovers the most peculiar thing yet: She can travel inside these paintings to a world that's strangely quiet . . . and eerily like her own Yet Elsewhere harbors dark secrets—and Morton, an undersized boy with an outsize temper. As she and Morton form an uneasy alliance, Olive finds herself ensnared in a plan darker and more dangerous than she could have imagined, confronting a power that wants to be rid of her by any means necessary. It's up to Olive to save the house from the dark shadows, before the lights go out for good.

The story in this book is full of a child's dreams come true. An old Victorian house that is bought with all the possessions still inside and free to explore. All those old things to play dress up and all the interesting places to discover. Plus a library full of ancient books with piled high on shelves with ladders. The home also comes with cats. Cats that talk. Life doesn't get much more exciting than that and Olive is enjoying herself. Except for certain paintings that are creeping her out she loves the old house. After finding a pair of glasses that actually allows her to enter the paintings things become a little more dire. There are people inside the paintings who have an extraordinary and frightening tale to tell. Olive finds herself caught in a sinister plot that puts her and her entire family in danger and she doesn't know who she should trust: the lovely painting of a girl named Annabelle or the cats everyone in Elsewhere is telling her are evil witch's familiars.

In addition to the setting of the old house and the mystery of the paintings this book has a supernatural element in it that is downright creepy. If you have a young child who likes haunting stories with a mild fear factor this one is a good choice. It is not too scary, just scary enough and the intense parts of the plot move quickly.

For kids who like series The Shadows is only the first adventure in The Books of Elsewhere. The sequel, Spellbound, is currently available and the third volume, The Second Spy, will be released in July of this year.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

School Library Journal's Battle of the Kids' Books 2012

From now on referred to as SLJ's BoB, or just BoB. For any unfamiliar with this particular celebration of children's literature you are in for a treat. They start with 16 books and in the end they have one winner, and authors do the choosing. Watching this unfold is one of the highlights of my year. It is that much fun.

They released the 16 titles today and you can view the brackets to see who will be competing against who in round one. Here is the list of titles:

Amelia Lost by Candace Fleming (my Goodreads review)
Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Septys
Bootleg by Karen Blumenthal
The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright (my review)
Chime by Franny Billingsley (my review)
Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
Drawing from Memory by Alan Say
The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Krishnaswami (my review)
Heart and Soul by Kadir Nelson (my Goodreads review)
Inside Out and Back Again by Thannha Lai (my review)
Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (my review)
Okay For Now by Gary Schmidt (my review)
Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick (my review)

My early thoughts: 
 Four of the books that made my Best Reads of 2011 list are on here. I have absolutely no idea how to choose which one to champion. I would champion all four but two of them are up against each other in Round One. Comparing and then deciding between Chime and The Cheshire Cheese Cat is not a task I envy. They are both excellent and very different types of books.

I have no idea what I'm voting for in the Undead poll.

As you can see I still have seven of these books to read. One is in my bedroom and will be read this week. One I will pick up tomorrow at the library. I need to pick up all my holds before I can put holds on the rest (I have reached my hold limit). My library doesn't have Life: An Exploded Diagram so I don't know if I'll get to that or not.

As it gets closer to the start of the first round I will do a more detailed analysis like I did last year.