Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick resembles, not so much a book, as a treasure box. Just look at its cover, complete with the lock. Even it's size and heft resemble a box. Don't be fooled by its size though, it is a quick read as more than half of it is pictures. Beautifully detailed emotive pictures. And the prose works with them to magically bring the story to life. You know those times when you finish a book and sit there holding it for a moment knowing you have something precious in your hands? Something that came from the mind of a  master whose genius you could never hope to comprehend? Finishing this was one such time for me.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Orphan Hugo Cabret lives in a wall. His secret home is etched out in the crevices of a busy Paris train station. Part-time clock keeper, part-time thief, he leads a life of quiet routine until he gets involved with an eccentric, bookish young girl and an angry old man who runs a toy booth in the station. The Invention of Hugo Cabret unfolds its cryptic, magical story in a format that blends elements of picture book, novel, graphic novel, and film. Caldecott Honor-winning author-illustrator Brian Selznick has fashioned an intricate puzzle story that binds the reader like a mesmerist's spell.

Selznick won the 2008 Caldecott for this book and it is well deserved. I don't generally comment on art in books because what I know about art I could write on my little finger nail. I know what I like though, and it is this. The details, the facial expressions, the light, the feelings they evoke. I love everything about them. There are several pictures of Hugo, wrapped in a threadbare coat, on the snowy streets of Paris at night that made me shiver.

The pace of the book very much reminded me of the trains that arrive and depart from Hugo's home. The story starts out slow, little pieces of information being handed out like pieces of a puzzle, and then the pace builds until you are speeding along rapidly. The puzzle pieces seem to come together and then are jostled apart. Soon the pace has reached such a speed you just know it is going to lose control and crash. Except you are in the hands of a brilliant conductor and he knows his machine well. How this pace mimics the story itself is brilliance.

The prose works with the pictures to fill in the gaps and completes the life of the story. Hugo is a sympathetic character and the reader can feel his sadness, desperation, anger, hope, and  yearning. The pictures and words work together to give the reader an entirely different experience than most novels (or even graphic novels). I have not been as annoyed with a character as I was with Isabelle at times. Or as angry as I was at Georges. Or as afraid of the elusive and shadowy figure of the Station Master. Everything Hugo was feeling was projected in me which is the power of a great story teller. 
Selznick's new picture novel Wonderstruck will be released on September 13 and I can't wait.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Floating Islands

Politics. War. A hidden Mage school. Dragons. Did I enjoy The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier? How could I not?

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
When Trei loses his family in a tragic disaster, he must search out distant relatives in a new land. The Floating Islands are unlike anything Trei has ever seen: stunning, majestic, and graced with kajurai, men who soar the skies with wings. Trei is instantly sky-mad, and desperate to be a kajurai himself.  The only one who fully understands his passion is Araene, his newfound cousin.  Prickly, sarcastic, and gifted, Araene has a secret of her own . . . a dream a girl cannot attain. Trei and Araene quickly become conspirators as they pursue their individual paths.  But neither suspects that their lives will be deeply entwined, and that the fate of the Floating Islands will lie in their hands.

The Floating Islands is the story of both Trei and Araene, told in third person limited, going back and forth between them with each chapter. Both Trei and Araene are strong protagonists and each is in a position that raises interesting questions and problems. Through Trei we are told the story of a boy of mixed nationality, not completely one or the other, never truly belonging. His story is about loyalty and the struggle of continuously feeling the need to prove oneself. Through Araene we get a story of a girl who feels trapped in others' expectations for her. She wants a life that society deems is not proper for her so she feels she must choose between suppressing her passions and conforming in misery or in being something she isn't to achieve the life she wants. In addition there are strong themes of friendship, honor, sacrifice and family. The decisions Trei and Araene have to make are not about absolute right or wrong but nuanced and difficult to judge. I liked the way there was no real good/evil battle, but a very real depiction of the politics and considerations of national autonomy and empirical expansion. All of this is set against a world that is fully realized. It has a Greco-Roman feel to it but there is also quite a bit that is reminiscent of Asian culture. 

My only quibble is that often the inner conflicts of both main characters lasted a bit long. Do I or don't I? Is it right or wrong? Should I do this or would that work better? I was frustrated at times to the point of wanting to yell, "Make a decision already!" I wouldn't have minded so  much if at times these inner conflicts weren't a tad didactic. This wasn't enough to truly depreciate my overall enjoyment though.

This is isn't a book for everyone. You have to be a patient reader and one who doesn't mind characters veering into technical discussions on how things work in their world. This would be a good book for any one who has enjoyed Sarah Prineas's Magic Thief books or Hilari Bell's Farsala Trilogy.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Have Some Links (Awesome, Infuriating and Helpful)

The internet has had some attention grabbers this week.

Starting with the awesome:
At least it's awesome if you are a fan of Megan Whalen Turner (and if you are not it is probably because you haven't read her books yet. You should.) A Conspiracy of Kings has been released in paperback and has an extra short story about the destruction of the Gift. You can read it here. (Click on contents then bonus page. It is after the list of characters.)

The Infuriating:
I saw this first one on Eva's Book Addiction:  Ralph Lauren is masquerading their catalog of children's clothing as an interactive picture book. Ick.

On the same day I then saw this post on Book Aunt. This one is about a picture book coming out about a girl who is 14 and overweight, gets made fun of, goes on a diet, and, once she is skinny, becomes uber popular. And yes, that says PICTURE book. Kate pretty much said all there was to say and included a link to a news video. Just click up there and prepare to be disgusted. This gets a double ick for the terrible writing in the book.

And now for the helpful:
Over at Redeemed Reader there was a guest post about using movies based on books as teaching tools with your kids. (This is from a Christian view point but there are good things to be found in there even if you don't share that view.)

Related to this Bit and I were having a discussion this week about The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I was going to read it to her but she wants to read it herself. During this discussion this occurred.
Bit: I don't just want to read it because of the movie coming out I really love the author's illustrations. He does amazing art.
Me (amused): The illustrator does amazing art huh?
Bit: Yeah, Brian Selznick. He did all the pictures in Frindle and I love those.
Me (after recovering from surprise): Um yes, yes he did.
(The Bibliophile in Training program is apparently more effective than I thought.)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Olive's Ocean

As a parent of small children I am, of course, well acquainted with the works of Kevin Henkes. All parents should be. From his simple picture books like Kitten's First Full Moon, to the more complex picture books like Chester's Way and Chrysanthemum, he is a story time favorite around here. Henkes' brilliance springs from his understanding of children. He gets them and the way their minds work and can express it in a form they identify with. I was a little wary of trying his first foray into MG literature (obviously, it has been 8 years since it was published) because I love his picture books so much I couldn't imagine the novel living up to that brilliance. Channeling the thoughts and emotions of young children is one thing, channeling the thoughts and emotions of a 12 year old girl is another entirely. And yet Henkes managed to do it. Frighteningly well actually.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

"Olive Barstow was dead. She'd been hit by a car on Monroe Street while riding her bicycle weeks ago. That was about all Martha knew." Martha Boyle and Olive Barstow could have been friends. But they weren't -- and now all that is left are eerie connections between two girls who were in the same grade at school and who both kept the same secret without knowing it. Now Martha can't stop thinking about Olive. A family summer on Cape Cod should help banish those thoughts; instead, they seep in everywhere. And this year Martha's routine at her beloved grandmother's beachside house is complicated by the Manning boys. Jimmy, Tate, Todd, Luke, and Leo. But especially Jimmy. What if, what if, what if, what if? The world can change in a minute."

Monday, August 22, 2011

Leepike Ridge

N.D. Wilson is one of my favorite writers but I've never reviewed any of his books because I read them all before I started blogging. I have been rereading Leepike Ridge  because I 've been using it in a class I teach and thought this would be a perfect time to review it, especially since Wilson's newest book hits the shelves tomorrow. (I can not wait for mine to arrive!)

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
ELEVEN-YEAR-OLD THOMAS HAMMOND has always lived next to Leepike Ridge. He never imagined he might end up lost beneath it! What Tom finds underground will answer questions he hadn’t known to ask and change his life forever.

Leepike Ridge is an adventure, mystery, treasure hunt, and survival story all rolled into one. There are dubious characters aplenty who are up to no good. There is a worried and beleaguered mother, a man whose been living in a cave for three years, and a very loyal dog. At the center of all of this there is Tom, an ordinary boy who only wanted some peace and ended up on the adventure of a lifetime. Tom is the perfect protagonist because of his normalcy. He is completely average and has emotions any reader can sympathize with. He is a survivor though and when it is needed his instincts kick in to help him through his adventure. The book is brilliantly told written with words that paint pictures in the mind. Wilson has a true gift with language and his descriptions are beautiful, gritty, harsh, exactly what they need to be to convey the atmosphere of the scene. It is also a book that grow with a child. It is a perfect adventure story for the 8-10 year old crowd. Yet it can also be used with older kids who are studying The Odyssey as Wilson used many characters and scenarios from it when weaving this new tale. It is not a retelling or even a reworking though. Leepike Ridge is its own wonderful story.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


I can't remember for sure where I heard of Thresholds by Nina Kiriki Hoffman but I'm betting it was from Charlotte's Library. Whatever prompted me to add it to the TBR it recently found its way to the top and I was rather reluctant to start it. I ended up finding it quite good though, bizarre and rather creepy, but good.

Maya's family has just moved to Oregon from Idaho to make a new start for Maya who is mourning the recent death of her best friend. Maya is nervous about the start of school in a new place where she knows no one. On the way she meets a few of her next door neighbors who live in the Janus House Apartments. They are a little strange and everyone at school avoids them. Maya is intrigued by them, especially since she encountered a fairy in her bedroom and suspects the Janus House kids might know something about them. Then something strange and dangerous happens to Maya and she finds herself having to rely on the residents of Janus House for help because she certainly can not reveal her new secret to her own family.

Thresholds is definitely a page turner. Part fantasy and part science fiction, it is a fascinating melding of worlds. There are fairies sure but they come from other worlds, worlds to which there are portals, and one of them is located in the basement of Janus House. The members of the Janus family are trained all of their lives to work with the portal and the strange beings that come from it. The aliens. The family is a large one and the book introduces several members but focuses on the ones who are Maya's peers, Benjamin, Gwenda, and Rowan. Benjamin and Gwenda offer Maya friendship, help, and welcome her into their family once it is necessary. Rowan is harder to get to know and not much is revealed about him. He is dictatorial and disdainful most of the time but Maya is intrigued by him. Then there is Travis, another boy at school who Maya meets her first day. He is the first to come to Maya's rescue and is drawn into the events unfolding at Janus House as well.

There is a lot going on in this story. In addition to the many characters and the idea of aliens coming to our world through a portal controlled by people in the basement of their house, there is an inter world emergency involving eggs of alien life forms being stolen. The masterminds behind this are an alien life form who basically want to take over. One of these eggs is implanted on Maya's wrist and bonds with her which basically means it's hers for life. Did I find this a bit creepy? Yes I did. Especially as Maya is basically gestating the thing and they can silently communicate. It was fascinating though and interesting to see the way it unfolds. When the being, Rimi, hatches it takes on a form that will always keep it close to and able to protect Maya.

Woven throughout the story of aliens and other worlds are the themes of death and grief are dealt with in very real and sympathetic ways. The bond between Maya and Rimi might have come across as super unhealthy if Maya had not been processing her grief and making other friends at the same time. 

This book is only the first part of the story and reads like an introduction. Much of the world is left unexplained. There are many unanswered questions left at the end. I was actually rather impressed with how well I felt I knew all the characters at the end given the book's short length, large cast, and complex plot. The story of Maya, Rimi, and the Janus House family continue in the next book Meetings which was just released at the beginning a couple of weeks ago.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Iron Witch

I was intrigued by The Iron Witch by Karen Mahoney because it a) had a pretty cover and b) was about a girl who survived a horrific fey attack. I was wary of The Iron Witch because I knew it contained a) two guys in the girl's life and b) alchemists. While this certainly isn't one of my favorite books I didn't end up hating it. The writing didn't work for me but I didn't have the problems with it I thought I was going to have.

Summary (from Goodreads):
Freak. That's what her classmates call seventeen-year-old Donna Underwood. When she was seven, a horrific fey attack killed her father and drove her mother mad. Donna's own nearly fatal injuries from the assault were fixed by magic—the iron tattoos branding her hands and arms. The child of alchemists, Donna feels cursed by the magical heritage that destroyed her parents and any chance she had for a normal life. The only thing that keeps her sane and grounded is her relationship with her best friend, Navin Sharma. When the darkest outcasts of Faerie—the vicious wood elves—abduct Navin, Donna finally has to accept her role in the centuries old war between the humans and the fey. Assisted by Xan, a gorgeous half-fey dropout with secrets of his own, Donna races to save her friend—even if it means betraying everything her parents and the alchemist community fought to the death to protect.

I very nearly stopped reading after the third chapter of this book because it looked like Mahoney was using the same recipe as everybody else for writing a YA paranormal: take one lonely practically friendless angst ridden girl, add two boys (one should be a good friend who is supportive of her and been there with her through thick and thin, if this one can be of some other ethnicity so much better; the other should have a dangerous air, beautiful eyes that speak to the heroine without words, and also be friendless and angsty, if this one could be ridiculously rich and yet choose to drive a Volvo so much the better*), when you have these three sufficiently stirred up add in a whole mess of supernatural shenanigans for them to bond/fight over and watch as people become ridiculously interested in which boy the heroine should live happily ever after with once the bodies are counted. That is what it looked like I was in for, the first three ingredients were all in place. I forced myself to keep reading though because I have given up on several books in the past month. Turns out that while Mahoney used all the typical ingredients, she mixed them together differently and I was pleasantly surprised by those differences.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Fourth Stall

When Noir meets The Godfather in the bathroom of a grade school you get The Fourth Stall by Chris Rylander. It is an interesting concept and there are many amusing parts to the book. I think that it is quite possible that much of it will go over the heads of its intended audience though. However, I can also see how this might appeal to a certain boy reader who is into super heroes, crime shows, and action moves and video games. (So, most boys really).

Summary (From Goodreads):
Do you need something? Mac can get it for you. It's what he does—he and his best friend and business manager, Vince. Their methods might sometimes run afoul of the law, or at least the school code of conduct, but if you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can pay him, Mac is on your side. His office is located in the East Wing boys' bathroom, fourth stall from the high window. And business is booming.
Or at least it was, until one particular Monday. It starts with a third grader in need of protection. And before this ordeal is over, it's going to involve a legendary high school crime boss named Staples, an intramural gambling ring, a graffiti ninja, the nine most dangerous bullies in school, and the first Chicago Cubs World Series game in almost seventy years. And that's just the beginning. Mac and Vince soon realize that the trouble with solving everyone else's problems is that there's no one left to solve yours.

Mac is the narrator of this story and he is a sympathetic one. He and Vince started a business to help the kids in their school. It is an underground business and they have "hired muscle" and clandestine arrangements with the janitorial staff, but they are not doing anything illegal. Although they certainly have the minds to go there someday and they are more than a little vigilante in their methods. Batman wannabes without the altruistic motives, because they are in need of a cash flow. Then they run afoul of the high school gambling syndicate and their business, friendship, and way of life is all threatened. 

What I Liked: Mac has several struggles with his conscience that are very real and he learns a lot about being a loyal friend. I liked how Mac and Vince dealt with the struggles in their friendship and how they resolved their issues with each other. And that both of them seemed to learn from it.

What Concerned Me:  Mac blurs the lines between right and wrong quite a bit and his narration gives tips on how to be a better liar and avoid adult detection. There is also a lot of violence. There are several fights and kids are being bullied and the adults are oblivious to all of it. There were many scenes that had me thinking this is a book I would want to be familiar enough with to discuss with my son if he were reading it.

 The inside cover says the book is for ages 8-12 but honestly I think 10-13 might be a better demographic.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Folk Keeper

After reading and falling in love with Chime (my review) a couple of months ago. I very much wanted to read Franny Billingsley's other books but gave it some time so as not to be comparing too closely. I have just finished The Folk Keeper and enjoyed it very much. It is impossible not to draw some comparisons to Chime as they have many similarities, but The Folk Keeper is a different in many ways as well. It is also for more simple a story than Chime.

Summary (from Goodreads): 
Corinna is a Folk Keeper. Her job is to keep the mysterious Folk who live beneath the ground at bay. But Corinna has a secret that even she doesn't fully comprehend, until she agrees to serve as Folk Keeper at Marblehaugh Park, a wealthy family's seaside manor. There her hidden powers burst into full force, and Corinna's life changes forever...

Corinna is a fascinating heroine. She has disguised herself as a boy so she might be a Folk Keeper. Everyone knows only boys can be successful Folk Keepers. It is her job to keep the mysterious Folk fed and content, to draw their anger so that they do not sour the milk, ruin the crops, or plague the livestock. It is a job she covets and protects for Corinna is hungry for power and has learned ways to gain it, to ensure it, and to make the most of it. "Here in the cellar I control the folk. Here, I 'm queen of the world." Corinna has the convictions and tendencies of a despot so it is a good thing there are no small countries in her path. They wouldn't stand a chance. It is also a good thing that she makes a friend, Finian, who forces her to take herself a bit less seriously and makes her see that it is possible to bend and compromise a bit. Corinna is certainly not always likeable but she is easy to sympathize with and root for.

The setting in this is not all that easy to pin down. Like Chime it contains elements of our own world and elements of a world that does not exist. The descriptions are vivid and the world really does come to life. I was a bit perplexed as to the nature and drive of the Folk and that was never really explained, but it matters little as that is not what the story is about. 

Ultimately it is a story about finding your place in the world and owning it. It is also about the power of words, a power Billingsley wields with great effect. In this way it is very much like Chime, but is not as complex. The Folk Keeper is a book that I can see appealing to a younger audience than would be ready for Chime.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Into the Woods and Up a Tree

A couple of weeks ago Betsy at Fuse 8 wrote a post on the Fantasy worlds of 2011 and their desirability as a destination. It had me thinking about the fantasy worlds that I wanted to be a part of as a child. I thought about writing a post right away but school preparations and other things got in the way. Eva at Eva's Book Addiction was able to write one though and I like what she had to say about the desirability of any Fantasy world:
"Most of those magical lands just aren't SAFE!  From Oz to Wonderland, they're brimming with nasty characters, treacherous landscapes, and tricky tests of character.  Sure, natural-born Gryffindors live to push the boundaries, conquer bad guys, and hurl themselves in the path of danger, but we Hufflepuff/Ravenclaw hybrids crave a quiet life."
As a child (and fellow Hufflepuff/Ravenclaw hybrid) I completely agreed with this. The fantasy worlds I wanted to visit were pretty tame. And as an adult the ones I would like to visit I would in no way want to play a crucial part in. I would just be there to observe and soak it all in.

As a child the first world that caught my fancy was Enid Blyton's Enchanted Wood. It doesn't get much tamer than that. (See book cover). Sure, there was an occasional run in with an angry brownie, and there was a need to dodge the dirty water that Dame Wash A Lot would send cascading down The Faraway Tree when one was climbing it, and  sometimes there was a rather nasty land at the top of the tree that you wanted to stay away from. For the most part it is as delightful as a fantasy world can get though. An enchanted wood with a huge tree in the middle, full of engaging creatures (and some grumpy ones) to befriend, different magical worlds always at the top ready to explore, and a giant twisty slide running down the middle of the tree as a way to end the day (after you've had tea of course). What's not to love? Yes, I outgrew it quickly, but for a couple of years it was the only place I wanted be. 

Then there was Narnia, except not really Narnia but Archenland. I am all about The Horse and His Boy. Other than that pesky little Calormene invasion that was so neatly taken care of in the end, Archenland was a pretty peaceful place that benefited from an alliance with Narnia. Nice place to settle down and be near the magic without tripping over it.

As an adult reader I have been enticed by Hogwarts, of course. So much fun to be had there, and less dangerous if you are a Ravenclaw type.

Then there is the world Megan Whalen Turner has created in her series. It is beautiful and populated by people I love and would want to observe at close range. Not too close though. If there I would take great care not to draw the attention of the amazing Gen or his Queen. As much as I love them both they would just make me feel like an idiot if  I actually had to come in contact with them. And I don't particularly enjoy that feeling.

Bu all that is if you are polling the me who inhabits the real world. If you poll the me I am when I'm reading, I have different thoughts on the matter entirely. When I am reading I can imagine myself the hero and actually convince myself the world would be a great place to be, no matter how dark or scary. Fantasy worlds often are dark and scary places. Lands on the brink of war, under fierce enchantment, in need of heroes. That is the wonderful thing about fantasy. When you read fantasy you can imagine that you are the type who can fight an evil witch or save your country. Fantasy never dies out because it renders our own scary world a little easier to deal with. Like C.S. Lewis said: "Since it is so likely that children will meet with cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage."

Three MG Mini Reviews

I have been catching up on all the contemporary realistic fiction for 9-13 year olds I have been meaning to read and not gotten to. Here are some quick reviews on three of them.
A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban:
All ten year old Zoe wants is to be a piano maestro playing at Carnegie Hall, but her father bought her an organ instead. I think I would have enjoyed this book far more as a child than I did as an adult. Urban managed to capture the way children think very well. Zoe's imaginings of piano glory are devoid of the hours of practices she will have to put in. She expects to be a prodigy and is quite astonished to learn she is not. However, she does persevere and does not quit and I liked this. As an adult though I got way to hung up on Zoe's parents and what was going on there. That situation was just too strange and unresolved for me. Most kids think their parents are odd so I don't think they would have as hard a time getting around that.

Bobby versus Girls (Accidentally) by Lisa Yee:
Bobby never  meant to start a war with the girls in the fourth grade, particularly as his secret best friend is a girl, but he finds himself in the middle of one anyway. I was surprised at how much I really enjoyed this book. Yee did a wonderful job depicting fourth graders, an age far too often ignored in school stories. Bobby is a sympathetic character and his emotions and confusion regarding the war against the girls, his pet fish, and his dog allergy are delightfully conveyed. There are many humorous scenes and I feel like Yee did a good job of making Holly equally sympathetic.

The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd:
Ted's cousin Salim disappears into thin air while on the London Eye. Amidst the devastation of his disappearance Ted, whose mind works differently from everyone else, begins working with his sister Kat to prove or disprove his theories of what may have happened to Salim. I found this book to be extremely engaging. Time just flew by as I read it. It has an interesting mystery, a sympathetic and amusing first person narrator, and a complicated story. It is definitely for kids in the older part of the middle grade age group. Kat mentions to Ted at one point that children are sometimes kidnapped for "sex stuff".

Snow White and Rose Red

I have been on a retelling kick the past couple of weeks. It is my way of fortifying myself before reading a bunch of contemporary fiction for 9-12 year olds so I can finalize the book report list for the literature class I'm teaching. Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia C. Wrede was mostly enjoyable for me but I can see how it would not be enjoyed by everyone.
This novel adaptation of the Grimm tale takes place in an Elizabethan London suburb right on the edge of the forest containing the border to Faerie and manages to pull in a little from the story of Thomas the Rhymer. So lots going on. The princes in the tale are the sons of the Faerie Queen and Thomas. The youngest is transformed into a bear because of the machinations of some wizards trying to steal power from Faerie. His plight is not helped by the fact that there are powers in Faerie who want to see a break with the mortal world and feel the need to get rid of the Queen's half mortal sons. Fortunately, Blanche and Rosamund (Snow White and Rose Red) are savvy in the ways of Faerie and the daughters of a woman practiced in the magical arts of mortals. The bear prince and his brother were fortunate to stumble upon them and for their willingness to help.

The story here is an interesting one . Each chapter begins with a snippet from the original tale that covers what is taking place in the novel. The action moves from the cottage to the Faerie realm to the plotting of the wizards with stops to check on the shenanigans of the villagers. This got to be a bit much and by the end I was ready for it to be over and felt it was dragging a bit.

Due to the abundance of plot the characters were not well developed. There were simply too many of them. I enjoyed both of the princes and their friend Robin. I liked the widow's cautious practicality and willingness to help. For half the novel though I couldn't remember which girl was which. I had this problem until their prospective husbands showed up and I could match them. I am not sure I like what that is saying but that is probably mostly a problem in my own head.

Because I enjoy retellings and stories about the political maneuvering of Faerie I was able to enjoy this. It is not the best I have read of either of these. The dialogue is in Elizabethan English which might put some people off as well. If you are a  person with limited time on your hands and looking for a retelling with Faerie and Queen Elizabeth involved I would say read The Perilous Gard instead.

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness

Andrew Peterson is one of my favorite singer/songwriters. I was naturally intrigued to discover he penned children's fantasies as well. I am going to say that his talent as a lyricist is greater than his talent at narrative prose, but that doesn't tell you much as he is a superior musician. I very much enjoyed the book too.
On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness (Adventure. Peril. Lost Jewels. And the Fearsome Toothy Cows of Skree. The Wingfeather Saga Book One) 
A long title, and kind of a ridiculous one, but the book does have a hint of the ridiculous in it. The story takes place in the land of Aerwiar (a name derived from "here we are") and has a variety of odd creatures with odder names. Quirky is the word used to describe it on the back of the book. When I began to read I felt that Peterson had built a tower of quirky so high it was in danger of toppling into the realm of cutesy. I try to avoid cutesy at all costs and almost stopped reading as a result. I decided to give it a little longer and was soon wrapped up in the story. Peterson manages to avoid cutesy (but only just).

This is the story of three children, Janner, Tink, and Leeli Igiby, and how their boring life becomes full of danger and intrigue involving secrets of a toppled kingdom and the lost jewels of Anniera. The plot focuses on Janner, the eldest, who has grown a bit resentful of his role as protector of his younger siblings. And one really can't blame him given that Tink and Leeli possess the common sense and survival instinct of gnats.  It is easy to identify with Janner as he struggles with his role and his grandfather's admonitions to put others before himself.

There is evil afoot in the land the Igibys call home. The nameless evil (named Gnag the Nameless) has taken over the land of Skree from his fortress in Dang and filled it with his minions, known as the Fangs of Dang. I found it a little difficult to take villains with such an absurd name seriously.

There is quite a bit of the absurd in the book, making Aerwiar more reminiscent of Oz or Wonderland than Narnia or Hogwarts. The narrative structure is also more similar to the former, very action driven and almost episodic. There was another way in which this reminded me of those other two books. The absurd elements in the story make the darkness seem not as menacing in many ways. I never felt a true sense of peril. There is danger but it never becomes foreboding. Even when tragic things happen, they are fixed in such a way that nothing is sacrificed or lost. (There were sacrifices that occurred prior to the story but these are told in exposition by the adults to the children and are therefore distant and not as real.) Which is why I think the book works best for an audience  as yet untouched by cynicism, or one that is easily creeped out by truly dark elements in books. It would make a great read aloud for emergent readers and a good independent read for 2nd-5th graders. I have handed it over to Bit to read and she is all kinds of excited about it.

This is, of course, the first in a trilogy. The other two books North! Or Be Eaten and The Monster in the Hollows have both been released already. Janie at Redeemed Reader reviewed the second book here last week.

The Swan Maiden

The Swan Maiden by Heather Tomlinson is a novel that uses the idea of a girl who can transform into a swan via a magical swan skin. This is not a direct retelling of any specific swan maiden tale, but uses elements prevalent in several, and sets it against a backdrop of medieval France. It has many fairy tale staples in it. The impoverished man seeking to perform a task to gain the hand of a maiden, magic, transformations, enchantresses. If you go into it keeping in mind that it is really just a long form fairy tale and are not expecting much more you may enjoy it. I didn't have this mindset going in and it really didn't do much for me as a result.
Hardcover on left, paperback on right.
Synopsis (from Goodreads):
In the quiet hour before dawn, anything can happen. Doucette can dream of being a creature of flight and magic, of wearing a swan skin like her older sisters. But she must run the castle household while her sisters learn to weave spells. Her dream of flying is exactly that . . . until the day she discovers her own hidden birthright. Sudden, soaring freedom—it is a wish come true. Yet, not even magic can protect against every danger, especially when the heart is involved. As she struggles to find her own way in the world, Doucette risks losing the one person she loves most of all.

Ella Enchanted

A review featuring Bit (Bibliophile in Training), age 7

Cinderella has never been one of my favorite fairy tales. The main character is just too passive. Then I took my children's literature course for my degree and discovered Ella Enchanted and fell in love. It remains to this day my favorite fairy tale retelling, containing one of my favorite literary couples of all time. I loved it so much I made my AG students read it every year during our supplemental reading instruction time. I still haven't gotten over what they did to it when they turned it into a movie. WHATEVER YOU DO, DON"T SEE THE MOVIE. I have been waiting to introduce it to Bit with much anticipation.

The Story
Ella was "gifted" at birth by the fairy Lucinda with obedience. Ella is compelled to obey every command she is given. This makes her a puppet, but a not nice well mannered one. She fights the curse with all her might and makes life as difficult as possible for people who order her around. She is happy and  protected until her mother dies leaving her at the mercy of her selfish and ruthless father. From the drudgery of boarding school to her father's marriage to the odious mother of her worst enemy Ella's one focus is to find Lucinda and get her to take back the curse. But in a land filled with dangerous man eating ogres that is easier said than done. Her only comforts are her friendship with the Prince and the care of her fairy godmother. Ella comes to realize that her curse is dangerous to more people than herself and she must figure out a way to end it or give up the person she loves the most.

Bit's Thoughts
I like Ella Enchanted because it is a very good book. I like Ella because she tries to break her curse and is very brave. I also like Ella because she's very smart. I like Char because I think he is very sweet. My favorite part was the end because it was happy. This is the best Cinderella story I ever read. I wish there was a second one.

My Thoughts
This book is an all time favorite of mine. It is one of my go to comfort books. It is a book filled with magic, and fantastical creatures but at its heart it is a story of a girl trying to make her own place in the world. Ella is a heroine you can cheer for. I love how she shows initiative, how she refuses to become the doormat the curse compels her to be, how she works hard to broaden her mind and how self sacrificing she becomes. Ella works hard for and earns her happily ever after. Then there is Char who is sweet and humble yet strong willed and commanding at the same time. They are absolutely perfect together and the way their story unfolds is my favorite part of the novel. I love how they begin as friendly acquaintances, develop a friendship, and the love grows from those things. I love that the majority of their "courtship" is conducted via correspondence. Those letters make me swoon every time I read them, as does the way the  proposal goes at the end. 

Don't think this is just a "girl" book either. Every year I taught this the boys rolled their eyes and groaned, but by the middle they were unfailingly just as excited about it as the girls. I even had one try to smuggle a copy out of the class so he could read the end during lunch.

This is really a book for anyone who loves a good story and it answers all those annoying little questions brought up in Cinderella. Why does the shoe only fit her? Why midnight? If she had a fairy godmother why did it take so long for her to get help? The answers are all here.

What Bit and I are reading next: The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall

The Wednesday Wars

I was a little hesitant to pick up The Wednesday Wars   so soon after falling in love with Okay for Now (my review).  I don't know why. Schmidt is one of those writers that you can instinctively trust to deliver a good book. While both books share characters they are not really connected and it would be unjust to compare them to one another so I will try not to. Holland and Doug are very different boys with very different stories. They share the same time period, the same school (until Doug moves), and . Their voices are very different though, shaped by their different and each finds an interest unusual for boys their age. experiences and ways of life. Schmidt is to be commended for writing two such distinct, very real, sympathetic characters.
Hardcover copy on left, paperback on right.
Every Wednesday afternoon the 7th graders of Mrs. Baker's homeroom go their separate ways for the last period of the day. Half to the temple for Hebrew lessons, half to Saint Adelbert's for Catechism lessons. Not Holland though because he happens to be Presbyterian. So he is stuck alone with Mrs. Baker, who he is convinced hates his guts and is out to get him. After weeks of making him clean everything in sight Mrs. Baker comes up with a new device of torture: Shakespeare. And Holland can't complain because his father insists the fate of the family business rests on keeping Mrs. Baker happy with him. But it turns out Shakespeare, and Mrs. Baker, might not be so bad after all.

Writing a book about Shakespeare aimed for middle schoolers is a supreme act of bravery. It's not like Shakespeare is merely mentioned, there are quotes and descriptions. Over the course of the year Holland reads: The  Merchant of Venice, The Tempest, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet. He doesn't just read them though, he internalizes them and connects them to his life. He quotes them. He performs in a production of The Tempest. The Shakespeare here is not a side note, it is integral to the whole. It is incorporated in a way that never takes over Holland's story though, it is just a part of it. It never becomes didactic.

On top of the Shakespeare you have the time period the book is set in, 1967-1968. The year in which Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, things in Vietnam reached a new level of Hell and President Johnson announced he would not be running for a second term. All of this is included but through the eyes of a seventh grader. Holland filters it in relation to how it affects him, which brings the history to life in a very real way.

While this is a story about Shakespeare and the tumultuous time period both of those are just aspects of the story of Holland. Holland is a well fed, well taken care of, thriving 12 year old. His life is far from perfect but it is also far from awful. He is an average kid. He has the sort of voice that reflects this. He is funny, a little over dramatic at times, and egocentric. Anyone who has ever been 12 can relate. I liked how over the course of the book Holland's scope of the world expanded from himself to see things from a larger perspective. Mrs. Baker and the Shakespeare help with this, as does his older sister. This is not a "coming of age" story, but a story about the typical growth and change that occurs at certain points in the human experience. Holland is one of those kids you can't help but like.

Then there is the writing. Schmidt has a real way with words. I love the imagery he uses and the way he evokes emotion. After an incident in which Holland loses faith in a hero of his he has this to say:
"When gods die, they die hard. It's not like they fade away, or grow old, or fall asleep. They die in fire and pain, and when they come out of you, they leave your guts burned. It hurts more than anything you can talk about. And maybe worst of all is, you're not sure if there will ever be another god to their fill their place. Or if you'd ever want another god to fill their place. You don't want fire to go out inside you twice."
He comes back to this thought several times in the chapter in ways that made me cry. The book is full of vivid phrases and imagery like this that fully engage the senses in experiencing the story.

The Wednesday Wars was a 2008 Newbery Honor book and well deserved the recognition. Now I need to read Schmidt's book Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, which won not only a Newbery Honor, but a Printz Honor as well.

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda

"The big question: Is Origami Yoda real? Well, of course he's real. I mean, he's a real finger puppet made out of a real piece of paper. But I mean: Is he REAL? Does he really know things? Can he see the future? Does he use the Force? Or is he just a hoax that fooled a whole bunch of us at McQuarrie Middle School? It's really important for me to figure out if he's real. Because I've got to decide whether to take his advice or not, and if I make the wrong choice, I'm doomed!"
So begins Tommy's case file, a notebook in which he has compiled the stories of his fellow students and their encounters with Origami Yoda. Origami Yoda inhabits the finger of 6th grade weirdo Dwight and is dispensing advice to students. Advice that couldn't possibly really be coming from Dwight because Origami Yoda is way smarter than he is. It is very important to Tommy, whose social future depends on whether or not Origami Yoda gives good advice. In The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, Tom Angleberger delivers an insightful look into the complex social workings of a sixth grade class and the experience that is middle school.
Every once in a while I come across a book that makes me sad I no longer have a room full of fifth graders to feed it to. This is one such book. Let me tell you, they would fight over it like a pack of starving hyenas. Not just the boys either. Oh no, this is one of the books you can put in the hands of any kid (or adult) and it is guaranteed to be enjoyed. It will be best enjoyed by those who are familiar with the character of Yoda, but you don't have to be a Star Wars fanatic to appreciate the book*. And there is so much to appreciate. The point of view switches between the kids contributing to the file are done well. Each section written by a different person is done in a different font and the characters come across as genuine, both boys and girls. The book is a mystery where clues to the nature of Origami Yoda are given and analyzed. It is also a real and humorous look at the awkwardness that is sixth grade. And far outshining all the other awkward middle schoolers is Dwight, creator and keeper of Origami Yoda.

Most important though is this: THIS BOOK IS HILARIOUS! Not mildly funny, but side hurting, rolling on the floor, laugh out loud funny. To confirm the truthfulness of this and ensure it wasn't just me, I read several passages to my husband. His reaction confirmed it. Accompanying the story are amusing illustrations added to the case file by Tommy's friend Kellan.   All together it is a perfect package of fun reading. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

ETA: I only just now discovered there will be a sequel coming out next month! It is titled Darth Paper Strikes Back . I am almost a little afraid that it might spoil the fun of this original story but it won't stop me from reading it.

*Although people who don't know their Star Wars will miss some of the jokes, like this particular gem:
Q: Hey, Origami Yoda, have you seen that totally hilarious YouTube video where Chewbacca dances with a Jawa?
A: What a Jawa is?
Q: You know, a Jawa. One of those little guys from the first movie.
A: What this movie is?
Q: Star Wars!
A: What?
Q: Episode Four! A New Hope! Star Wars, dude!
A: In that movie I was not.

Okay for Now

2012 Newbery buzz began about Gary D. Schmidt's Okay for Now in pretty much the same breath the 2011 winners were announced. Schmidt has had two books win Newbery Honors in the past. I haven't read either of those, this is my first experience with Schmidt's writing, which is unequivocally deserving of the praise and buzz this book has received.
Synopsis (from publisher's website):
As a fourteen-year-old who just moved to a new town, with no friends and a louse for an older brother, Doug Swieteck has all the stats stacked against him. As Doug struggles to be more than the "skinny thug" that his teachers and the police think him to be, he finds an unlikely ally in Lil Spicer—a fiery young lady who smelled like daisies would smell if they were growing in a big field under a clearing sky after a rain. In Lil, Doug finds the strength to endure an abusive father, the suspicions of a whole town, and the return of his oldest brother, forever scarred, from Vietnam. Together, they find a safe haven in the local library, inspiration in learning about the plates of John James Audubon’s birds, and a hilarious adventure on a Broadway stage.

Okay for Now is set from the summer of 1968 to the summer of 1969. America is embroiled in Vietnam and launching the Apollo missions. So much tragedy and great potential at one time. How do you convey the aspect of such a time? By telling the story of one boy, a boy whose life is tragic and yet full of wonderful potential. And if you are a good writer you convey through this the universal human experience that any reader in any time will understand, because living is tragic yet contains wonderful potential in every moment. Schmidt is an author who not only can do this, but makes it appear easy at the same time.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Never Sit Down in a Hoopskirt and Other Things I Learned in Southern Belle Hell

I call the south home but I am not from here. Minus a three year stint in New Mexico I have lived here since I was 16. My parents are originally from Michigan. The places I have the most memories of I lived prior to here were England, southern California and upstate New York. I was little prepared y'all. Things are different here. Wedding are different, funerals are different, life is different. There are things I have come to appreciate about this region I call home:  the availability of sweet tea in restaurants, sweet potato casserole, Mayfield Dairy products, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the beaches, being surrounded by so much history. There are still things that have me boggled about the place: the array of desserts people insist on making from citrus fruits, the need to throw anything edible into a deep fat friar, how slow everyone moves, the entire state of South Carolina. And while I love the history I don't really see the need to cling to it like it is a lifeline and you are about to drown. Also, the famed sweet southern hospitality is a veil of hypocrisy that makes me want to grind my teeth to dust. Which is why I was excited to read Never Sit Down in a Hoopskirt and Other Things I Learned in Southern Belle Hell by Crickett Rumley. I connected with Jane's character immediately and settled in to enjoy myself. The book is a very fair portrayal of the region, good, bad and indifferent.
After being kicked out of 13 boarding schools in five years Jane Fontaine Ventouras is sent home to Bienveille, Alabama to live with her grandmother. When Jane's grandmother asks her to try out for the Magnolia Maid Pageant she agrees, knowing there is no way she will be chosen even though she has the pedigree. She is too rebellious and wears too much black eyeliner. Except this year the Magnolia Maids are going in a new direction and she is chosen, along with an African American girl and a country girl, to join the two more traditional candidates in the court. Caught up in a summer filled with etiquette lessons and billowing skirts Jane is not entirely pleased, but finds her sister Maids might be exactly what she needs, and that she might be what they need.

Fly By Night

On the cover of Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge there is a banner that reads: "Imagine a world in which all books have been BANNED!" I left the book on the table one day and Bit found it. Probably intrigued by the girl and her goose on the cover she picked it up and read this aloud. She slammed it back down and said, "I don't want to imagine that world, I would hate that world." Which is, of course, the point, but she's too young to appreciate that.
Fly by Night has a very Dickensian feel to it. Mosca Mye is a clever orphan with an instinct for survival and she has to survive in a world of shady adults and dangers. Adults with names like Eponymous Clent, Linden Kohlrabi, Lady Tamarind and Captain Blythe. This book is a word lovers delight. Hardinge plays with names and is a master of figurative language. The descriptions in the book bring the world of The Fractured Realm to life. The realm is a fully realized one with a detailed history that is revealed in clever turns of phrase and dropped hints. The artistry of this is important because it is, essentially, a book about the power of words.
"Words were dangerous when loosed. They were more powerful than cannon and more unpredictable than storms. They could turn men's heads inside out and warp their destinies. They could pick up kingdoms and shake them until they rattled. And this was a good thing, a wonderful thing."
Hardinge has such a way with words it is easy to forgive her for the sometimes ridiculous twists the plot takes. It all fits in with the quirky world and characters she has created. One small quibble I had with Mosca was that she sounded like a street urchin. I find it hard to believe with everything you discover about Quillam Mye that he would have allowed his daughter to talk in such ways. She was educated by him and lived with him until she was 8, her speech patterns would have already  been set and they certainly wouldn't have devolved so greatly over four years working as a bookkeeper in her uncle's mill. That being said, Mosca does think like a genuine 12 year old. She makes impulsive decisions and jumps to conclusions that are very natural for a 12 year old mind.

The book says for ages 10 and up and I think that is a good suggestion to go by. There is a very sinister feel to the book and it explores many themes most younger readers simply lack the maturity and critical thinking skills to understand. It tackles the dark side of politics, economics, crime war and social unrest. The religion of the Realm is also explored in detail as is Mosca's response to it. There is a very definite condescending atheism that develops in Mosca by the end that would make for an interesting discussion.

I really thought the book wrapped up well in the end. I was surprised because I knew going in there was a sequel, but you could read just this one volume and have a complete story. Depending on where you live the sequel is called Twilight Robbery (UK) or Fly Trap (US). Guess which version has the better cover?

Sibling Stories

I have been thinking a lot about stories with strong sets of siblings lately. I have been reading The Penderwicks to Bit, rereading Harry Potter, and we recently checked out the Ramona and Beezus movie to watch so it is not hard to see why it has been coming to my mind. I love stories where the siblings are different yet incredibly close. I only have one sibling myself, my sister (who is awesome). She is my best friend yet we are very different. She is the extroverted, sensitive, artistic, flighty, dramatic one. I am the introverted, practical, nerdy, sensible, bossy and controlling one. And if I just made us sound like Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, that is not too far off the mark. I am enjoying watching my children's sibling relationship evolve too. It is fascinating to think about the bonds brothers and sisters share. My sister and I can fight like cats and dogs one minute and be laughing together like mad women the next. My husband, an only child, was completely freaked out the first time he witnessed this. There are some books that I have loved over the years that have awesome examples of siblings and I thought I would share my favorites.

The Ingalls Sisters
I wore out my childhood copies of the Little House books. I can't tell you how many times I have read them and  the draw for me was largely the relationship between the girls. The way they fought with and loved each other, the way they depended on and supported each other. It is awesome.

The Murrys
A Wrinkle in Time and company were my next big obsession after the Little House books. I love how the Murry family operates and how the relationships between the different Murry children are portrayed. Siblings facing major hardships show how strong their relationships truly are, and when your hardships are of the fantastical kind it makes for an even more awesome story.
I don't know how they could miss anyone's list of great sibling tales. They are the ultimate example of the power of the sibling bond. I think it is just as interesting to see their interactions with each other in A Horse and His Boy when they are adults in Narnia as it is to watch their interactions as children.

The Weasleys
I really love them in ways that  can not be numbered. My only small quibble with the way they are written is that Fred and George are almost a little too much alike at times, but I like the way the work in sync so it doesn't bother me that much.

The Penderwicks
I love how the Penderwicks are all so different and yet can work together as a unit so well. I am also impressed by the way Birdsall is growing them all up, changing them and their relationships in a way that is natural and believable.

There are others who come to mind too:
The Bennets
The Dashwoods
The Cassons
Beezus and Ramona Quimby
The March Sisters
Claudia and Jamie Kincaid
The Stephenson Sisters
The Hardscrabbles
The Bastables
Jena and her sisters
Francesca and Lucca Spinelli

Inside Out and Back Again

I am not crazy about blank verse poetry. I don't understand why someone would sit down to write a novel and choose that format to tell the story. I don't understand why many readers get all excited about it.  I'm sure it is some sort of hitch with my own brain but I usually can't connect with the characters as well and I find the story awkward and stilted. This was not the case with Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
Inside Out and Back Again tell the story of Ha, a 10 year old Vietnamese girl. It begins a couple months before the fall of Saigon and covers a year in Ha's life as her family flees their country, lives in two refugee camps, and begins a new life in Alabama.

Ha is a wonderful narrator and very sympathetic. At the same time she has a smart sarcastic tone that is usually hard to convey with blank verse. Part of my sympathy for her came from knowledge. I taught in a school that had a large refugee population. I can picture exactly how Ha looked sitting at her desk, head down, avoiding everyone and everything. I can also picture the look of smug triumph on her face when she did the math problem perfectly, exhilarated joy in her eyes. I however, never used my refugee kids as a living museum exhibit for the class. Yes, let's show picture of the charred remains of our new student's country and people. WHAT. THE. HECK. The pain of Ha's situation is vividly portrayed in the writing of incidents like that and bullying from the other kids.

The devastation and also the beauty of Vietnam are rendered in the vivid descriptions used.

There were scenes that made me wince, smile, laugh and cry. This is a new experience for me with a blank verse novel so I am impressed with the author's skills.

Inside Out and Back Again is generating some Newbery buzz and I can see why. This book is much needed. It is an emotive tale of a girl who experiences the trauma of war and the scary necessity of a new life written by someone who experienced those things first hand. The teacher in me couldn't help but plan as I read. It is perfect literature to go with a unit on Vietnam. Outlines of such a unit took shape in my mind. I will definitely by having my own kids read it when the time comes. I don't know that this would be a book most kids would gravitate to on their own. The cover will attract them but I don't think most will make it past the first 10 pages without guidance. Without the context the beginning is difficult to understand and full of foreign words. Most kids don't have the context to help them unlock it.

If they do I think that they will connect with and love the story. It is genuine and has a beating heart you can't help but feel.

Farsala Continued

Last week I reviewed the first book in Hilari Bell's Farsala Trilogy, Fall of a Kingdom. I didn't say this then but the reason I put off reading this trilogy for so long was the titles of the final two books, Rise of a Hero and Forging the Sword. Because how stereotypically fantasy are those two concepts? I am mentioning this in case any out there may have had similar thoughts, because those titles are actually very tongue in cheek and there is more to them than their words imply.
Rise of a Hero picks up where Fall of a Kingdom leaves off. Jiann is commanding an army of ragtag peasants. Soraya, after spending time with Suud people learning their magic, is determined to find her mother and brother. Kavi is risking his life traveling around the countryside gathering information and encouraging the people to resist. For if Farsala can fight the invading Hrum for one year they will earn their freedom. Giving hope and heart to the resistance is the legend of Sorahb, the ancient warrior Azura promised would be reborn at Farsala's greatest need. These final two books chronicle the battles, covert operations, conspiracies, and rising legend until the fate of Farsala is decided.

Okay, I am going to admit it. I did come to like Soraya. That was mostly due to the way Bell wrote her character arc. Normally, the humbled spoiled princess bit doesn't play well with me but Soraya's change was a gradual one and very believable. Especially as she maintained many of her former characteristics, just with a softened edge. I did find another character to transfer my "see them pushed off a cliff/eaten by jackal" desire to. Jiann is the epitome of the honorable soldier. Too young and too inexperienced to be commanding an army he rises to the challenge brilliantly. Watching him count his losses and grieve over his dead even in victory is heartbreaking. There are many traits to admire about him but he is has a major weakness as he is consumed by anger and the need for revenge, most of which is generated by his own personal guilt. I really felt for him but also wanted to shake him. Kavi is the one who captured my heart and held it tight through this entire story. My devotion to him had me seriously irritated at Jiann and Soraya at some places. How recklessly brilliant Kavi truly is comes into full light as the story progresses. Seeing how his conscience and loyalties are torn and watching him suffer only makes him more endearing. How he survives it with his sarcastic wit and constant complaints makes him irresistible. I also came to love Patruis, one of the Hrum officers, lots.

The idea that there are good and evil, strong and weak, men on both sides of any conflict continues to be explored to the end. This is one of the main reasons I really enjoyed the trilogy. There are shades of grey all over the place. What is right and what is wrong is not always an easy thing to determine and the answers often are different depending on which side you stand. As well as this reality being present Bell also showed that there are some things that are just wrong and evil no matter who you are or where you are standing. I appreciated the balance of the two.

I also appreciated that there was no romantic element in the books. I like a good love story as much as anyone but there is a time and place for them and this wasn't the time or place in the lives of these young people for that. Not that the potential wasn't there between some of the characters but in the situations they were in that is all it could realistically be. Potential. Many times romantic scenarios are forced into books like this despite them not making sense for the characters and I'm really glad Bell didn't go that route.

The plot of both books is fast paced and exciting. I think they were a little longer than they might have needed to be. There were several scenes where plans were being made and strategies hammered out that seemed to go on forever. I really didn't feel like it was necessary to know every single thing said by every person. If you see the plan unfold you don't need to read the blow by blow of how it came to be. That is my only quibble with the books.

Finally, the legend of Sorahb that is placed throughout the books is a work of art. Every few chapters there are breaks where the legend is told the way it is centuries after the story takes place. It stands in stark contrast to the way events are actually unfolding and, at times, is downright hilarious. I  ♥ Kavi. He is a genius.

The Farsala Trilogy are YA books but easily enjoyed by any lover of this type of story no matter the age. There is nothing in them content wise that make them inaccessible for a younger reader. Any middle grade student who is looking for a more complex book would enjoy these.

The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy

Featuring Bit (Bibliophile In Training), age 7

I first read The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall when Bit was just learning to toddle around. I was instantly in love and looked forward to the day that I could introduce her to this wonderful story. In the mean time I devoured and loved the two Penderwick novels that followed. I have been waiting a long time to read this story with Bit but she was reluctant, convinced it was going to be boring due to its lack of dragons and magic. I told her to give it at least three chapters and then if she didn't want to finish it we didn't have to. Instead of wanting me to stop she only wanted to keep reading and reading.
The Story
Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and Batty Penderwick are off to spend three weeks of their summer vacation at a place called Arundel cottage with their widowed father. They are looking forward to peace, soccer drills, flower picking, and outdoor adventures. They are unprepared when they discover the cottage is a part of a large estate complete with beautiful gardens, a large mansion, and a snobby owner named Mrs. Tifton. Arundel also comes with a good looking gardener, bunnies, and Mrs. Tifton's son, Jeffrey. The girls befriend Jeffrey and Mrs. Tifton is less than pleased with the children's antics . They must work hard to keep out of trouble but that is almost impossible in a place with an irritable bull, a dress up party, a snooty garden club competition, and an incident involving a runaway rabbit. Can the girls maintain the Penderwick family honor and rescue Jeffrey from his dreaded fate at military school?

 Bit's ThoughtsI like The Penderwicks because it is full of the adventures of the four Penderwick sisters and a boy named Jeffrey. I like Batty because she reminds me of my little brother except my brother doesn't wear butterfly wings.  Jane is my favorite sister because she writes books just like I do and reads the same books as me. My favorite part of the book is when Jeffrey rescues Batty. I'm going to read the other two after Mommy reads me Ella Enchanted.

My ThoughtsThe Penderwicks is a wonderful tale of childhood, summer, friendship, and family. The writing has a timeless feel to it, yet has its own distinct voice and atmosphere that is very accessible for 21st century children. As far as contemporary fiction for intermediate readers goes, it doesn't get any better than this. Birdsall succeeds so well because she understands children. From four year old little Batty to 12 year old Rosalind the kids are defined characters with distinct personalities who suffer different hardships based on their age and who they are. They are also a very tight family unit and it is unsurprising that Jeffrey was attracted to the friendship they offered him. One part of this book I really appreciate is the girls' father. In a sea of books sadly lacking in strong fathers, this is a breath of fresh air. Martin Penderwick deserves a place in the hall of fame for literary fathers right next to Arthur Weasley, Matthew Cuthbert (he counts), and Charles Ingalls. He is an absentminded botany professor but he loves his girls more than anything and they know it. He uses wisdom and a dry wit in dealing with them that is amusing and heartwarming at the same time. This is the sort of book that just makes you happy when you read it and wanting more. And fortunately for us there are more, The Penderwicks on Gardam Street and The Penderwicks at Point Mouette. And there are still two more planned.

Fall of a Kingdom

It took me some time to get into Fall of a Kingdom by Hilari Bell. This was not entirely the fault of the book. I was on vacation with the family and this book was not an easy one to relax with. Once I was in the car on the way home I was able to give it my full attention and became much more interested.  It is a book about kingdom politics and has a con artist as one of its main characters so how could I not be?
Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Stories are told of a hero who will come to Farsala's aid when the need is greatest. But for thousands of years the prosperous land of Farsala has felt no such need, as it has enjoyed the peace that comes from being both feared and respected. Now a new enemy approaches Farsala's borders, one that neither fears nor respects its name and legend. But the rulers of Farsala still believe that they can beat any opponent.
Three young people are less sure of Farsala's invincibility. Jiaan, Soraya, and Kavi see Time's Wheel turning, with Farsala headed toward the Flames of Destruction. What they cannot see is how inextricably their lives are linked to Farsala's fate -- until it's too late.

Yay for a fantasy trilogy not set in a pseudo medieval Europe type place! Farsala is an ancient Persian type country about to be smacked down by a Greco-Roman type empire. The Farsalan nobility are haughty and arrogant. Everything in Farsala works to the benefit of the deghans (nobility). If as a peasant you serve a generous deghan so much the better for you. If not your life is misery. The religious system of the country is exploited by and used to benefit the deghans completely. Priests are easily bribed and do the willing, not of their god but the highest noble bidder. In Farsala only the deghans and their servants and peasant bastards are allowed to fight in the army. The invaders, the Hrum, are a systematic conquering machine. The situation in Farsala is not looking so good. I liked the way Bell presented both nations. This is not a story about a good and great nation fighting the evil conquering empire. Both governing systems have flaws. Both armies have good men and evil men. I like how it is made a point that it will matter little to the peasants which army wins. Their lives won't change that substantially. There is no great nationalistic pride or patriotism in Farsala except amongst the deghans, which is historically realistic.

Scumbling Your Savvy

I love the words savvy and scumble. I can't help but want to use them on my kids when they act too smart. "Hey! You better scumble your savvy!" Savvy and Scumble are not only delightfully fun words but delightfully fun books as well. But in Ingrid Law's books they refer to something a lot more wonderful and dangerous than a too smart mouth.
The members of certain families out there are born with special powers, or savvies. A savvy is a knack for something, but for a special something, like moving the earth and making mountains or starting a storm or producing electricity or making every endeavor perfect. A savvy makes itself known on a person's thirteenth birthday and can have disastrous results depending on the savvy.  From that point a person has to learn how to scumble, or control, the savvy. Mibs, the main character of Newbery Honor Book Savvy, has her thirteenth birthday turn out even worse when her father is in a terrible accident preceding the big day. She ends up taking her brothers and a couple acquaintances on an unforgettable road trip convinced that only she can wake their father up. Scumble takes place 9 years after Savvy and follows the adventures of Mib's cousin Ledge. His thirteenth has brought him a savvy he doesn't want and is hard to scumble. After he blows the barn on his uncle's ranch to pieces during his cousin's wedding reception he is forced to stay on the ranch for the summer in hopes he will learn to scumble. But a nosy neighbor has discovered the family has a secret and Ledge has to work hard to keep her from telling the world.

These books are absolutely perfect for the 8-12 year old audience they are intended for. I enjoyed them quite a lot myself, but as a kid I would have loved them. These are stories mostly about growing up, moving from childhood to adolescence, and the scary conflicted feelings that accompany this transition. Each book contains a first kiss, the awakenings of a first crush. These are very much innocent occurrences. In both books the girls involved hold things to a friendly non romantic line.

13 Treasures

No one else can see the evil fairies that rouse Tanya from her sleep, torturing her at the slightest mention of their existence, but they are as real to the 13-year-old as anything she's ever known. She cannot rid herself of them, nor can she ignore them. But it is her insistence on responding to them that has her banished to her grandmother's secluded countryside manor. There is much to explore and even more to fear in the woods surrounding the estate. But, the forest isn't the only source of dark secrets, and Tanya soon finds herself entangled in a mystery that could trap her in the fairy realm forever. (Synopsis of 13 Treasures by Michelle Harrison from Goodreads)

"Faeries," Tanya whispered, running her finger lightly over the old-fashioned spelling on the page. It seemed to suit them somehow, these strange creatures that hounded her.
It does suit Tanya's creatures because they are Faeries. The dangerous ones. The ones you don't want to cross. There are all sorts of Fae represented, goblins, hearth hobs, brownies. Changelings and their nature are important to the story. The Scottish tradition of the Seelie and Unseelie courts are combined with Harrison's own twist on the Welsh folklore of the 13 Treasures. She altered many of the treasures and their nature and integrated them into the story of the split of the Faerie Court. The combination made for a very interesting backdrop. I love it when author's take ancient folklore and manipulates it in a new way. I also love the dangerous type of fairy story. I was certainly in my element while reading this book.

Tanya is a strong heroine. Tortured and tormented by the faeries she has seen all her life, she is often blamed for their antics, a means of punishing her when they are angry. As a result she is misunderstood an her mother is at a loss of what to do with her. The target audience of middle graders should be able to relate. Tanya joins forces with Fabian, a boy she has known and barely liked all her life. He is often up to mischief and rude to his elders in a bid to get attention. Again, highly relateable. Tanya and Fabian's relationship begins as a wary alliance that morphs into a friendship where they truly come to care for each other. I enjoyed both their characters and interaction a great deal.

The plot is engrossing and full of mystery, secrets, past betrayals, harsh sacrifices, and a truly malevolent villain. The setting, a Faerie infested wood and manor near a small British town, is described in a way that fully conveys the eery atmosphere.

This is a great book for lovers of faerie lore, adventure, or mystery.

The story is resolved within this book so it can be read on its own and leave the reader feeling fully satisfied. It is the first book in a trilogy. Both of the other volumes are available in the UK.  The second, 13 Curses, was released in the US on June 7. As far as I know there is no official US release date for 13 Secrets other than sometime in 2012.

Incarceron (with a little Sapphique)

A prison that needs no guards because it regulates itself. A prison that once you enter you never leave so eventually the prison contains, not the original prisoners, but their descendants. Incarceron by Catherine Fisher has an almost irresistible premise. It is a unique setting for a fantasy novel and Fisher imported into it traditional fantasy tropes. There is a quest, a missing heir, plenty of ruffians who ambush our intrepid heroes, and an evil sorceress(?). Despite the prison setting there is also a journey (because it is required).  I really enjoyed how Fisher merged the futuristic setting with the traditional fantasy elements. Reading Incarceron was an intense and exciting experience. 
Incarceron was created to be a prison, but also a a Paradise. All the undesirables were sent with a group of wise scholars into its mazes of ducts, streets, metal forests, and halls. Incarceron was programmed to provide all they needed and to regulate its world.  Now, centuries later, the descendants of the original inmates still live within its walls and it is most definitely not Paradise. Finn is a prisoner but believes he hasn't always been.  He has no recollection of his life before a few years ago. He has memories of stars and sky and cakes. He believes he came from Outside and longs desperately to escape. Everyone tells him Outside doesn't exist, despite legends that one man has escaped before. But Outside does exist and is ruled by a tyrannical Queen who keeps everyone enslaved to Protocol, an enforced replica of an ideal past. This is where Claudia, daughter of the Warden of Incarceron, lives. Desperate to escape an arranged  marriage to the obnoxious prince, Claudia begins to uncover the facts around the death of the true heir and her father's position.  What she finds is the key to Incarceron and Finn.

Incarceron is a fantasy world gone dystopian and I love when authors play with genre like this. Most fantasy novels are medieval reimaginings. Here there is very advanced technology in a futuristic society pretending that it is in the past.  The world building is intriguing. Each chapter opens with an excerpt from a historical document explaining how this world evolved. It is a puzzle and one that I wanted to solve. It was this that kept me fascinated, trying to figure out how all the elements worked.