Monday, November 30, 2015

The Wolf Wilder

I added The Wolf Wilder to my TBR as soon as I saw it. I didn't read the synopsis. I just saw it was by Katherine Rundell, whose Rooftopers I enjoyed, and that it had an intriguing cover. Author plus cover is often all it takes for me. I was in for a pleasant surprise when I started reading.

Feo has an odd job. She and her mother rare Wolf Wilders. Their job is to take in the wolves Russian aristocrats have kept as pets but have lost control of and now want to send far away from them. It is terrible luck to kill a wolf so the Wolf Wilders exist to take in the wolves and train them to be wild creatures again. They teach them to run, to hunt, to howl. Feo loves the wolves and her life with them. When General Rakov arrives at her home to tell them they must stop wilding the wolves, Feo's idyllic world shatters. Dodging soldiers and trying to do their work in secret, it isn't long before Feo's mother is captured and there is a large bounty placed on Feo's head. With the wolves and her new friend Ilya, a rogue soldier in Rakov's army, Feo begins a perilous journey to St. Petersburg to rescue her mother. As they journey toward their destination, Feo and Ilya pick up a group of unlikely allies and discover that Rakov's reign of terror in the countryside is far harsher than they had ever imagined. If they are going to rescue and free their friends and family, they will have to face and overcome the worst sort of predator.

Katherine Rundell has a poetic way of writing that pulls you into a story. She is a potent wielder of imagery and uses her settings well. The cold harsh Russian winter and the beauty of the wild in the wolves are fully rendered and make you feel like you are actually there running along with them through the snow. The prose has a storyteller's cadence and brings to mind fairy tales and folklore though there is no magic save that of friendship, love, support, and the bonds that grow from community. The magic of our everyday world. It's a beautifully told novel.

Feo and Ilya seem an ill matched pair at first. A socially awkward girl who spends her days with wolves and a soldier. But they are both misfits. Feo doesn't fit in with humans because she never really learned how. She understands the language of wolves far better than that of people. Ilya never wanted to be a soldier. He wants to be a dancer. They are brought together by the wolves. Ilya is terrified of them but fascinated. When he first meets Feo and witnesses the birth of a pup, he can not bring himself to follow his orders to kill something just starting out in life that is so magnificent. Both Ilya and Feo are incredibly brave but in different ways. Feo is more outwardly bold and naively flaunting of the rules, but Ilya is willing to risk himself for what he loves despite knowing the horrific consequences that will fall on him if he is caught. I loved watching their relationship develop and the eventual group of children they built into a small little army to complete their mission. That is another way in which this story has a fairy tale type feel to it. The small band of children armed with nothing but faith and courage taking on a force of evil and cruelty. It is a story that never gets old, and the form it takes here is enduring and fascinating. It was a book I couldn't put down and walk away from.

Rakov is a fairly standard villain. He is evil. All we know of him are his terrible deeds and his evil insanity. There isn't a lot of depth there. Randell didn't include any historical afterword so I do not know if he is based on a real person or not. There were certainly commanders in the Russian army who behaved the way he does toward the peasants. However the historical haziness is the only part of the book that bothered me. It shows the rumblings of the coming Russian Revolution, but it feels very unreal in many places and there is much that doesn't make sense to me. This is due, in part, to the storyteller's voice and fairy tale feel of the prose. I'm sure the target audience is not going to care. It was a minor distraction for me.

The Wolf Wilder is an excellent novel that tells a tale of friendship, family, community, bravery and love.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Things to be Thankful For

This year has been a struggle for me when it comes to books and reading. Regular readers of this blog probably already know that. I wrote about being in the worst reading slump of my life earlier this year, and my posts lately have been sporadic and not as focused or as enthusiastic as in the past. Part of it is that, while we have found a lovely community here in Michigan, I miss teaching. SO. MUCH. Of course I still teach my own two kiddos and that is no small thing, but I miss being in a classroom discussing books with teens and tweens and helping them learn to think about them on different levels. It was only one day a week when we lived in Tennessee but that day was a highlight of my week. I miss the prep work for it. I miss the grading. Yes, I do mean that. I loved reading my students' papers. Another factor is that a lot of what I read this year was just disappointing. I've been getting my groove back as far as reading goes, but it's been slow going and hard. If it weren't for several other imagination boosters and support for my brain to feast on this year, I probably would have sunk into serious rather than mild depression and I'm thankful these were in my life:


I don't watch a lot of TV. That's not me trying to be an intellectual snob. What I look for first in story is character, and TV doesn't work as well for me personally as a medium for that. But this show is all about its characters so it worked for me on every level. I decided to go ahead and binge watch it after its series finale aired earlier this year and was instantly outraged I hadn't been watching it all along. Had I known it was a satire of small town politics with amazing character arcs, I would have been there from the start. It also has this:

I wrote a post earlier this year about my formative ships, the ones that shaped what I look for in a good romance. It is pretty clear from that list that if it is adversary to respected ally to friend to lover, I'm going to go for it hard. And man did the writers of this show nail that arc. 

Remember how I just said I don't watch much TV? Hi. Once I was finished with Parks and still not feeling the book scene for this year I decided I needed to give this one, that came highly recommended to me by my friend Maureen, a chance. Excellent characterization, fun banter, awesome costumes, this show has so much to recommend it. It is also centered around a strong sassy smart woman and the taciturn detective inspector who looks at her like this:
GIF found here

Thank you Australia for this gem of a TV show and Netflix for letting this American girl enjoy it.

When I found out Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a hip-hop style musical about Alexander Hamilton, I may have chuckled a bit in a what-was-he-thinking way. I love In The Heights, and was excited he was giving the world another musical, but I was also skeptical as to whether or not it could possibly work. Then I listened to it. And listened. And listened. And haven't stopped listening since. It is a huge thing now. So many people are talking about it, but it is not an over exaggeration to say that it is a work of genius pure and simple. Musical, historical, political, literary genius. And as all good looking-back historical narratives should, it holds up a mirror to our present and asks us to take a good look at where we are and where we started.

Usually my all-consuming obsessions come YEARS apart. I don't have that many of them. The West Wing was one. The Queen's Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner was another. Years apart. Then I get Parks and this in the same year and they're competing for space in my head, but I'm enjoying it. Oh so much. (And you get extra credit points if you know what two things all four of those obsessions have in common.)

I joined Tumblr because Megan Whalen Turner did, and I'm not at all embarrassed to say that wherever she is that I can also be, I'm there. Anything that may give me hints about when book five is coming. And what it might be about.  But there are just pictures of coffee right now. WHAT DO THEY MEAN???? But this year, in addition to Ms. Turner's taunting coffee pictures, I discovered what else Tumblr was good for. It is a place where I can unabashedly revel in the things that I love. That's what I use it for. And it's great. I mean there's a place where I've actually found people who like the same mix of stuff I do. I'm not so strange after all. YAY! If you are also on Tumblr and are interested in seeing a lot of book love, West Wing, Parks and Rec, Queen's Thief, Star Wars, and Hamilton stuff mixed in with the occasional Sayers reference, Pride and Prejudice, and some feminist rants here is where you can find me. (NOTE: I do not edit the language other people use on posts I reblog.)

People complain about how technology has made the world a worse place to live, but I know people I never would have known if not for the power of the Internet. I want to say a special thanks to Maureen, Shae, Chachic, Benji, Sage, Emma, Sarah, R.J., and Stephanie for letting me fan and snark with you. And for all the myriad conversations about education, religion, politics, literature, art in all forms, and parenting. Extra thanks to Sage Blackwood, Emma Barry, Sarah Prineas, and R.J. Anderson for also being authors who all contributed books to my short stack of loved books for the year. Maureen gets extra thanks to for being my brain twin, someone I know I can always count on to understand my feelings on the many rage inducing incidents that have occurred in the world of children's literature this year. Also she was a really awesome person to hang out with at ALA Midwinter in January.

These may seem frivolous, but they mean a lot to me and I'm grateful for what they did for me this year.

Did you have anything that made your year more special?

Friday, November 20, 2015

Dream On, Amber

I will be honest. I've been reading a lot of depressing MG books lately. They are all about the same things and the plots are starting to run together in my head. And then I read Dream On, Amber by Emma Shevah, and it was like a ray of sunshine burst into my world.

Ambra Alessandra Leola Kimiko Miyamota has many problems, not the least of which is the terrible name her Italian mother and Japanese father saddled her with. To make things easy on herself she goes by Amber. But she can't hide how short she is and is tired of telling people yes she is really 11. She can't hide her mixed heritage either, and is tired of the questions and people asking her to say something in Japanese. (Her standard response is "sushi"). She hates that she has a boring old flip phone that doesn't even have a camera or connect to the Internet. How uncool does her mom want her to be? Most of all she hates having the hole in her life caused by her father leaving them. When her little sister, Bella, realizes she is missing out on a dad and tries to write him a letter, Amber responds creating a dad in her head to help her through her problems and make both her and Bella a little more content.

Amber's voice is so perfect. It has the exact right combination of snark and vulnerability you hear from 11 year olds. She is smart, but common sense often escapes her. She can be judgmental and impulsive and brave and scared.  She is incredibly real and just jumps off the page. Amber's relationship with Bella is beautifully depicted too. They squabble and fight like any pair of siblings, but there is a deep devotion and caring underpinning their relationship that comes out in their every interaction-even the sniping ones. Bella herself is a fully realized character which is not something we see a lot in the younger siblings in MG fiction. I appreciated how the author wrote how the girls feel something is missing with their father being gone, but simultaneously showed how great a family they have anyway. They are missing something and it needs to be acknowledged that it's okay to mourn the absence of someone you think should be there for you. The family unit in the book is a strong one though. The girls have a fantastic mother, a doting grandmother, and they have each other. I am sucker for sibling stories, especially ones about sisters, so this book was a perfect fit for me.

The book has several elements going on to form the plot. There are Amber's letters to Bella, Amber starting at the upper school and not having many friends, a situation with a bully, and an art competition Amber is being forced to enter. It is a lot, but at the same time it's not, because this is Amber's story. It is about her life and these are all little pieces of who she is at the time we are glimpsing into her life. All of it works to make her voice stronger and her character more rounded. I liked the way it all came together in the end too and how much Amber grew as a person.

My one major complaint about the book is not a flaw in the writing, but in the editing and a decision made by the publisher to Americanize the language. STOP DOING THIS, PUBLISHERS. Kids are smart and British English is not going to throw them into massive confusion especially if your already dropping in Italian occasionally. Context is everyone's friend. This could have been a five star read for me, but that was a major distraction. (Though it's a testament to how much I like Amber's voice that I like the book as much as I do. I usually DNF books that do that.)

Some favorite quotes:
She was nice and everything but I wasn't sure I could ever be proper friends with her because her bag was pink and so was her pencil case. I know that's really shallow and everything, but she also had a button saying "I heart Justin Bieber" on her coat, and I really don't heart him at all, so our friendship was never going to be massively deep and special. (p37)

She smiled at me with pity and confusion an went back to the conversation, so I just stared out of the window and in my head, I drew the world as it should be.
For a while it made me feel better.
But then I got to school. (p100)

Both of these highlight Amber's loneliness, but also capture the varied aspect's of her personality. I really like that part about drawing the world as it should be. Amber is an introvert and that's what we introverts do in our heads. All. The. Time. And it does make you feel better. But then reality happens.

I am now handing this one over to my own 11 year old who loves art and snark as much as Amber does. (And also does NOT heart Justin Bieber.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

WoW: The Left-Handed Fate

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill of Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

Lucy Bluecrowne and Maxwell Ault are on a mission: find the three pieces of a strange and arcane engine. They're not exactly sure what this machine does, but they have it on good authority that it will stop the war that's raging between their home country of England and Napoleon Bonaparte's France. Despite being followed by mysterious men dressed all in black, they're well on their way to finding everything they need when their ship, the famous Left-Handed Fate, is taken by the Americans.

And not just any Americans. The Fate (and with it, Lucy and Max) are put under the command of Oliver Dexter, who's only just turned twelve.

But Lucy and Max aren't the only ones trying to put the engine together, and if the pieces fall into the wrong hands, it could prove disastrous. Oliver is faced with a choice: help Lucy and Max and become a traitor to his country? Or follow orders and risk endangering that same country and many others at the same time--not to mention his friends?

There I was calmly perusing the Macmillan catalog on Edelweiss when suddenly there this was. And then I wasn't so calm anymore. I knew it was coming eventually. I knew Kate Milford was writing it. I didn't know we were getting it so soon. I mean "soon" is still almost a year away. BUT THERE IS A NEW KATE MILFORD BOOK COMING IN 2016!!!!! (August 23rd to be exact)

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Detective's Assistant

If you are looking for a fun adventurous historical fiction for MG readers, The Detective's Assistant by Kat Hannifin is a great choice.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Eleven-year-old Nell Warne arrives on her aunt's doorstep lugging a heavy sack of sorrows. If her Aunt Kate rejects her, it's the miserable Home for the Friendless.

Luckily, canny Nell makes herself indispensable to Aunt Kate...and not just by helping out with household chores. For Aunt Kate is the first-ever female detective employed by the legendary Pinkerton Detective Agency. And Nell has a knack for the kind of close listening and bold action that made Pinkerton detectives famous in Civil War-era America. With huge, nation-changing events simmering in the background, Nell uses skills new and old to uncover truths about her past and solve mysteries in the present.

Nell is such a fun character and she has a strong unique voice. Smart and witty, she is more than a match and the best partner for her Aunt Kate, a Pinkerton detective. Kate is an excellent character in her own right, blazing a path for herself in a world that has not always been kind. Both Nell and Kate have suffered a lot of heartache. They are both prickly and wary of each other. Watching their relationship unfold over the course of the story was fun, endearing, and touching. 

The story is rich in historical details, but is not encumbered by its historical significance. Important events occur and are discussed of but their purpose is in serving the lives of the characters rather than the characters serving the events. This is an important distinction for me in historical fiction, and one I find doesn't occur as often as it should. 

My one complaint about the book is that it takes quite some time to get to the point. I feel like some of the set up could have been cut down to make the book shorter.

This is a great recommendation to give to kids who like adventure and humorous narrators. 

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Wrinkled Crown

Anne Nesbet is one of those authors who always surprises me. Her book like they will be one thing, but they have so many fascinating layers. The Wrinkled Crown is my favorite book she's written yet. 

Linny has been tethered to Sayra all of her life. From the moment it became obvious Linny had a talent for music, she was put at Sayra's side to keep her safe. To keep her from even picking up a Lourka and allowing her talents to be realized. In the town of Lourka if a girl even brushes against a Lourka accidentally before her twelfth birthday, she is spirited off by mysterious voices to the Away. Linny and Sayra have developed a special bond, and they have secrets. Sayra allows Linny to run free in the woods. Linny unable to resist the call of music uses these times to craft her very own Lourka. Sayra feels she's failed Linny and wishes that Linny's fate would be hers. When that is what happens, Linny feels guilty but also determined to be the one to rescue her friend. In addition to music Linny possesses another gift: she never gets lost. She can find her way anywhere. With her Lourka on her back, Linny sets out to find a way to save her friend. Even if it means leaving her home and traveling to the Plain-a place no one from Lourka has gone to and then returned from. She is reluctantly accompanied by her father's apprentice, Elias who has his own motivations for rescuing Sayra. The Plain is not a welcoming place though, and soon Linny and Elias find themselves at the center of a political battle. Linny appears to everyone to be The Girl with the Lourka, whose return everyone is eagerly awaiting so that she can right the wrongs of the world. There are people who wan to exploit her and people who want to make her disappear. 

The Wrinkled Crown is first and foremost a book about relationships. Friends, sisters, mother/child, ruler/subject, it covers just about everything (except romance). Linny is at the center of most it. She is a determined girl who is sometimes thoughtless and impulsive, but always willing to work hard to reverse the mistakes she makes. Most of the other characters are not as well developed as she is. I got a strong sense of Sayra from the few pages she's in, but she is absent for most of the book. Elias is funny and a good foil for Linny, but I didn't feel he was as well rounded as Linny is. The characters all work together well to form a cohesive whole for the story though. There is more than one antagonist Linny has to face as she make her way through the Plain and people try to use her as an ends to their own means. These characters are shown to have strengths and flaws, but to be ultimately selfish in their goals. This is a contrast to Linny whose only wish is to saver her friend and go home. I liked how there were minor characters who helped her out in small ways as well. The unsung heroes who did little things to move her where she needed to be. 

There is an interesting twist on genre in the book. While it is very much a fantasy novel with a quest and an apparent chosen one (this is deconstructed a bit), it could also be classified as Science Fiction. The most fascinating aspect of the book to me is that the strongest theme is magic versus science. Faith versus intellect plays a huge role too. Linny with all of the magic she brings from the wrinkled hills, loves maps and the science too. She is a part of both worlds. The book is about finding a balance between the two. They are at war with each other, but do they have to be? This is by far my favorite part of the story.

This is an excellent tale of friendship and perseverance that will appeal to lovers of fantasy quests and music. 

I read an ARC made available by the publisher, Harper Children's, via Edelweiss. The Wrinkled Crown is available November 10th. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

WoW: Masks and Shadows

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill of Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

The year is 1779, and Carlo Morelli, the most renowned castrato singer in Europe, has been invited as an honored guest to Eszterháza Palace. With Carlo in Prince Nikolaus Esterházy's carriage, ride a Prussian spy and one of the most notorious alchemists in the Habsburg Empire. Already at Eszterháza is Charlotte von Steinbeck, the very proper sister of Prince Nikolaus's mistress. Charlotte has retreated to the countryside to mourn her husband's death. Now, she must overcome the ingrained rules of her society in order to uncover the dangerous secrets lurking within the palace's golden walls. Music, magic, and blackmail mingle in a plot to assassinate the Habsburg Emperor and Empress--a plot that can only be stopped if Carlo and Charlotte can see through the masks worn by everyone they meet. 

THERE IS SO MUCH TO LOVE. I've been wanting to feature this book for a while now, because it's currently the 2016 release I'm most excited  about. (I only see its status changing if the next book in the Queen's Thief series is announced.) Look at the cover! Read the synopsis! And it's written by Stephanie Burgis, who I know I can trust to write the best of stories.

Masks and Shadows releases on April 12, 2016