Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Dash and Lily's Book of Dares

Wow, was this the perfect example of right book at the right time. I wanted a fun and light Christmas read and decided it was about time I gave Dash and Lily's Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan a go. I'm so very glad I did. It was exactly what I wanted, fun, light and Chritmasy, but with also smart and witty.

Dash is a cynical jaded teen who has orchestrated a Christmas alone by telling each of his parents he is spending it with the other. During his boring lonely winter break he is perusing the Strand (that mecca of used book stores) when he spots a red journal amongst the books by his favorite author. Intrigued he pulls it off the shelf and finds a series of clues leading him through several sections of the bookstore and to an invitation to begin a correspondence with a girl named Lily. To keep it interesting he continues what she has begun with the notebook scavenger hunt rather than just giving her his email address.

Lily is an optimistic girl full of hope and the Christmas spirit (despite being mostly an atheist) which is why she is so affronted when her parents go to Fiji for a second honeymoon and her grandfather stays at his winter home in Florida to spend Christmas with his lady friend. Her older brother is supposed to be looking after her but only wants to spend time with his new boyfriend. In order to get Lily out of their hair the boys take her new red journal, concoct a plan to leave clues in it, and tell her where to place it, next to her favorite book in the Strand. (Because if there was a guy anywhere for Lily that would be the section he would be in.) Lily is not optimistic that anyone "much less a prospect from that highly coveted but extremely elusive Teenage Boy Who Actually Reads and Hangs Out at the Strand species" would respond, so she is surprised and pleased, but cautious, when Dash does.

Thus begins Dash and Lily's correspondence via red notebook that also has them sending each other all over the city of New York in search of hints and tasks before the notebook can be passed off to the other again. Over the holidays Dash and Lily find themselves being surprisingly honest which each other and increasingly intrigued. But do they take a chance and meet in person or confine their relationship to a series of exchanged notebook entries?

Take one snarkily intelligent yet vulnerable boy, add one socially awkward yet gregarious girl, and throw in a healthy dose of one of my favorite cities in the world and I'm most likely going to enjoy myself. Enjoying to the point of sacrificing sleep to finish I was not expecting, yet I was hooked from the first few pages. The book switches point of view between Dash and Lily and it starts with Dash. And Dash is exactly the sort of character I can't help but fall for. Lily's voice contrasts perfectly with his and it was not long before I was behind each 110%, not only in their quest to figure out their relationship but in all the other parts of their lives. Dash and Lily don't sound like your average teens, because they are not average teens. Both are well read and highly intellectual. Yet I found their voices to be genuine. They are intelligent and mature, but they are still young and trying to figure out the world, how it works, and their places in it.

I further enjoyed the way that the story was a genuine look at romance. There were no sparks or love at first sight ridiculousness. There was no oh-I-have-found-the-only-possible-person-for-me to-be-with-for-all-eternity-at-the-age-of-16 nonsense.  There was a lot about reconciling the person in your head with the reality of an actual person. And the risk involved in trusting an actual person with your heart, or even the idea of trusting them with it. The entire plot, with its themes of love not being a fate driven fairy tale, was well executed and thoroughly enjoyable.

Also the book had me laughing so hard my sides hurt at times. All courtesy of Dash, who is well and truly awesome in all his sarcastic, word loving, compulsive, uptight, cynical, vulnerable and afraid glory.

Rachel Cohn and David Levithan are more famous for penning the book turned movie Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, which I have neither read nor seen. I may need to rectify that now.

Note on Content: Sex is a topic under discussion and mentioned several times. It is clear that Lily's brother is having a sexual relationship with his boyfriend and Dash thinks about the topic a bit, but there are no details or descriptions. There is also some strong language in the book.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Jefferson's Sons

I first became aware of Jefferson's Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley when Betsy Bird posted this review of it on her blog back in August. The novel chronicles the life at Monticello for the children Thomas Jefferson had with his slave, Sally Hemings. I was intrigued enough to buy a copy, but also hesitant to read it. There is a reason you don't see many reviews of historical fiction on this blog. I don't read a lot of it because when it is done poorly, as it often is, nothing annoys me more. (I was a History minor.) I have completely avoided the discussion on this book at Heavy Medal because I hadn't yet read the it, though I've heard most people there weren't as enamored with it as some earlier reviewers. (I will try to get to looking at it when the Christmas candy making is complete.) I couldn't resist reading Monica Edinger's thoughts when she posted them as they were about using real people as characters in a book, something that has always made me uncomfortable. And yes, I it made me uncomfortable here, particularly as I felt many of the thoughts and actions the characters were exhibiting were projecting philosophies and thought patterns people would not have had in the early 19th century. The book is certainly an interesting perspective we don't usually find on one of our Founding Fathers and also a perspective on slavery we don't ordinarily see, and I can see its value in sparking discussion to a certain extent, but my frustration far outweighed my enjoyment while I was reading it.

The novel spans 22 years and follows three characters. The first two perspectives are of two of Jefferson's sons, Beverly and Maddy. The third follows Peter, one of the other slaves on the plantation. It is a different look at slavery because Beverly and Maddy are slaves owned by their father. It is a complicated and messy situation and their feelings toward their father reflect this to some degree. Neither of them seemed like fully realized characters to me which may have been because neither story was followed through to the end from their own perspective. Peter was even less realized and never really established his own voice. I felt like his story was included solely for the emotional impact of the end. The characterization in the novel that disturbed me the most was that of Sally Hemings. She has conversations with her children in this book I can not fathom an actual person in the time period, in her position, having. I feel like the author took a woman who was a real person and a real mother and who, I'm sure, had some rather complex emotions regarding her situation and turned her into nothing more than a didactic voice. A didactic voice that preaches modern thoughts on the topics wrestled with in the book. Nothing will turn me off a book faster then didacticism and that is my largest complaint about the book. I couldn't shake the sense that the point of the narrative was to teach me a lesson rather than tell me a story.

If you are looking for accessible historical fiction on slavery in early America,  Jefferson's Sons works. It fell far short of the expectations I have when I'm looking for a good story though.

Note on Content: The book, while not going in to details, does make it clear that Sally sleeps at the house with Jefferson when he is there and there is, obviously, discussion about his paternity of her children. So you probably don't wan to hand this to a precocious young reader not entirely aware of the ins and outs of what makes babies.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

To all who celebrate it this weekend.

This is an incredibly busy weekend for me, hence the lack of reviews. We host Thanksgiving at our house for both our sets of parents. This is also the weekend when I make the candy for all the Christmas festivities we attend and gifts we give (chocolate covered cherries, chocolate covered peanut butter balls, fudge). Needless to say I'm a little busy.

I did squeeze in some time to take Bit to see Hugo today and enjoyed it immensely.

I will be back on Monday with a review of Jefferson's Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

Catherynne M. Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is the book that gets my vote for Best Title of the Year. But a clever title does not always make a clever book. In this case though the contents live up to the package. It is a beautifully written and clever story. It is pretty near impossible to discuss this book without bringing Alice into the mix, and I have made it no secret here that I'm not the biggest fan of Wonderland (or  the Victorian fantasy in general). This isn't Victorian fantasy however, it is modern fantasy with Victorian elements. Neil Gaiman stated it perfectly in his blurb for the book (an endorsement enough in itself, no need to read my review): "A glorious balancing act between modernism and the Victorian fairy tale, done with heart and wisdom." That exactly.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Twelve-year-old September lives in Omaha, and used to have an ordinary life, until her father went to war and her mother went to work. One day, September is met at her kitchen window by a Green Wind (taking the form of a gentleman in a green jacket), who invites her on an adventure, implying that her help is needed in Fairyland. The new Marquess is unpredictable and fickle, and also not much older than September. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn’t . . . then the Marquess will make life impossible for the inhabitants of Fairyland. September is already making new friends, including a book-loving Wyvern and a mysterious boy named Saturday.

September is a reader and as such knows all about Fairyland and what is expected in such stories, so when asked to go on an adventure she jumps at the chance. Except it turns out she doesn't know so much, and neither does the reader, because Valente took most of the rules and tossed them out the window. Which is wonderful. This is a story most people will think has been done time and again, but at the same time it is original. September is a different sort of visitor to Fairyland. People keep telling her she is Ravished. What that means is part of the mystery, one of the things September must discover. The villain is not at all typical either and is, in so many ways, utterly fascinating. What Valente did there made it worth reading the book for that alone.

Like Wonderland, there are moments in Fairyland that are surreal. However, the level of absurdity is not quite as high. Yes, there are talking inanimate objects, curious meetings, magic that makes no sense, the language is similar. Yet there is a cohesive story here and it is told with a fair amount of cynicism. 

I was a bit frustrated at how hurried the end was, after all we had circumnavigated all of Fairyland to get there, but Valente managed to make me accept it with the way she concluded the story: "All stories must end so, with the next tale winking out of the corners of the last pages, promising more, promising moonlight and dancing and revels, if only you will come back when spring comes again."

Is this a Middle Grade novel or a Young Adult novel? I have seen this debated several places. Are younger readers going to appreciate the cynical tone? Are teen readers going to pick up a book where the main character is 12 and still very much a child? My library has it shelved in the Teen section. I don't know that this is a book that is suited for any specific age group. It is a book that is suited for a specific group of people be they MG, YA, or not so YA. That group consists of those who love language and the written word. If you are such a person I recommend you pick this one up.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Featuring Bit, age 7

I am the mean sort of Mom who is not letting my child inhale all the Harry Potter books in one gulp. I'm making her take her time and space them out. It is working well so far. Since we read the first two it has been about nine months. Yes, I've had to listen to lots of begging but she has also reread the first two books on her own several times in the interim so she came into this one really knowing the characters well and there was a definite difference in how invested she was in the story.
The Story
Really I shouldn't have to do this, but as a matter of form:  Harry returns to Hogwarts for his third year after having a rather momentous summer. This year everyone is determined to keep Harry safe within the walls of Hogwarts since escaped Azkaban prisoner Sirius Black has escaped and is, most probably, looking for Harry. Harry doesn't only have escaped convicts to worry about though. He also must contend with his old nemesis, Draco Malfoy, constant predictions of his death by his new Divination teacher, and a fight between his two best friends. And there are also the Dementors guarding the school, who cause Harry to pass out whenever they are near.

Bit's Thoughts
 Whenever I read a Harry Potter book they get more exciting. I liked Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban because it has so many surprises. I was so shocked by all of the things you find out in the end. I also like Professor Lupin. I think he's very nice and a good new character. I really like all the other new characters and I think Professor Trelawney is silly. I thought there were a lot of funny parts in this one. It made me laugh a lot. I really can't wait to read The Goblet of Fire.

My Thoughts
This one is not my favorite. Not even close. The plot device used at the end has always bothered me a bit. I tend to rush through this one when I reread it but I wasn't able to do that reading it to Bit. What struck me about it on this read through was how much of Ron's and Hermione's character development occurs during this book. I was also reminded of how very much the movie messed up Ron. (Grrrrrr.) The best part of reading the book to Bit was watching as her eyes got wider and wider and she bounced on the couch in excitement at the end.

What Bit and I are reading next: The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis (See, I'm such a meanie.)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Back When You Were Easier to Love

Back When You Were Easier to Love by Emily Wing Smith is a fluffy light read with an interesting concept. Who doesn't like books with potentially awkward road trips in cool cars? The book certainly delivers in terms of that promise. It also delivers in terms of writing. The style works well for the plot and the imagery is very good. I think there are many teen girls out there who will be able to identify with the main character and enjoy going along for the ride. I don't necessarily think that's a good thing.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
What's worse than getting dumped? Not even knowing if you've been dumped. Joy got no goodbye, and certainly no explanation when Zan - the love of her life and the only good thing about stifling, backward Haven, Utah - unceremoniously and unexpectedly left for college a year early. Joy needs closure almost as much as she needs Zan, so she heads for California, and Zan, riding shotgun beside Zan's former-best-friend Noah.

When the story began I really felt a connection to Joy. She loves reading and books. She is the new girl at her high school and I know how that feels. I also moved my junior year of high school and that is not an easy time in one's life to make such a transition. When I came across this part I thought Joy was going to be my literary BFF: "I'd purposely waited until last to unpack my books. I loved my books too much to shove on a shelf willy-nilly. Books equaled permanence." And here I thought I was the only one weird enough to think that. I also liked how Joy was questioning her world. She is a Mormon and has recently moved from a town with a small community of Mormons to Haven, Utah where that is all the community to be had. She doesn't wish to rebel against the religion she was brought up in. She just doesn't like what she sees about it in Haven: "Even now that I live in a town where it's hard to tell where belief ends and culture begins-I don't like the culture, but I do like the belief." I really liked this insight. This is something everyone should sort out no matter what belief system they are being raised with. So I was immensely disappointed as the book continued and Joy kind of pulled a Bella Swan.  

From the synopsis I really thought this book was about something other than a girl who goes psycho when her boyfriend leaves her and decides to follow him in stalker fashion all the way to California. Because he is her love for all eternity and they belong together and he just needs to see her to know that. Because with him she is a better version of herself (Joy 2.0) and without him everything loses its glow and she can't breathe. Wanting closure and a defined relationship status is one thing, this is something else entirely and far more dire. Even when she sees Zan again and realizes he is the world's biggest jerk I was still concerned for Joy's stability, because not half an hour later she is actively thinking of Noah as a romantic interest. That is not an exaggeration, it happens that fast. I think the author was trying to pave the way for this switch. Anyone who reads the synopsis has to suspect that is the way it is going to go and the author does try and make it seem as though Joy has feelings for Noah all along she doesn't want to own up to. It didn't work for me though. Joy was just far too unhealthily obsessed with one boy who she defined herself by. When she lost him it seemed like she latched on to the next available boy for her to do the same thing with. We are supposed to believe that things with Noah are different because Joy has thoughts and feelings about him she never had with Zan. Then one has to question what the psycho stalker show over Zan was all about. Joy doesn't need another boyfriend, she needs to figure out who she is and what she wants. That idea isn't even flirted with though.

So in the end I was less than impressed.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

And the Winner is...

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai was just announced as the winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Young People's Literature. This is a novel written in blank verse that follows its young heroine as she flees Vietnam when Saigon falls, spends time in refugee camps, and learns to adapt to a new life in Alabama. It is a wonderful story and Ha is a sympathetic heroine. It is definitely a book well worth reading. You can read my original thoughts here.

I read four of the five books that were nominated and don't envy the committee the decision they had to make. The four I read were all excellent and worthy books. Congratulations to Thanhha Lai!

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Trouble with May Amelia

I am clearly missing something here. Jennifer Holm has been honored by three different Newbery committees for her novels Our Only May Amelia, Penny from Heaven, and Turtle in Paradise. Despite never getting past the first third of Our Only May Amelia and pretty much detesting every moment I spent reading Turtle in Paradise, I dutifully checked out a copy of her latest novel, The Trouble with May Amelia, as soon as my library received its copies. It is, of course, generating some award buzz this year. Honestly I just don't get it. If you enjoy historical fiction from the point of view of plucky young girls then there is much to enjoy here. I certainly liked it far more than I have the other works I have tried by this author, but there were still a multitude of things that annoyed me about it.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
May Amelia lives in pioneer Washingon State in 1900, and she just can't act the part of a proper young lady. Working a farm on the rainy Nasel River isn't easy - especially when you have seven brothers and a Pappa who proclaims that Girls Are Useless. May Amelia thinks she may have finally earned her father's respect when he asks her to translate for a gentleman who's interested in buying their land and making them rich. But when the deal turns out to be a scam, Pappa places all the blame on May. It's going to take a lot of sisu - that's Finnish for guts - to make things right.
This novel does a pretty good job accurately depicting life in a logging/farming community in the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the 20th century. Life for the Jackson family is difficult and there are many terrible things that befall them and their neighbors. It was a precarious way to live and that was conveyed well, as was the close knit community of immigrants from the same country and the attitude toward schooling. I did find it a stretch to think that May Amelia had at some point befriended a Chinese boy and a lady who ran a tavern in Astoria. (Maybe this is because I haven't read the first book?) The book,while having a main plot thread of the land deal running through it, is mostly snap shots of what life was like for the people in such a community.

As for the character of May Amelia herself, she is certainly sympathetic. I did feel for her and her situation(s) as the story unfolded. This is a first person narrative and I felt that her character was remote and rather bland for that format. She only identifies herself as the people around her identify her, which is true to life for children in many ways, however by the age of 12 most children start to question who they are in relation to those around them and May Amelia never does that. Her family say she is "irritating" and she repeats it like a mantra, but nothing in the book gives evidence that this is the case. She works her little tail off for her brothers, mostly without complaining.

What I found the most vexing about the book is one of the things that irritated me about Turtle in Paradise as well. May Amelia's parents and brothers act like petulant children. They storm around and make the strangest decisions while the heroine stands there in bewilderment and lands wherever the turbulent adult whims blow her. Until the end when suddenly she's a hero. For the life of me I can't figure out why the adults in the books act the way they do (almost as if their parents were first cousins-I don't know. Maybe they were?).

The books style further irritated me in that there was an Excessive and Unnecessary use of Capital Letters, and a complete lack of quotation marks. Some people find this quirky and artistic. I just find it annoying.

I admit I began the book with a prejudice against it. Being aware of that I really wanted to give it as fair a chance I could. There were scenes I enjoyed, lines that made me laugh. I could certainly see myself recommending this book to certain children I know. It was just not my cup of tea.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Tales of Ancient Egypt

A Review Featuring Bit, Age 7

I can hardly believe we are almost halfway through second grade. Four more weeks and we are done with the term. We are well into our study of ancient cultures that is focusing on Ancient Egypt, and these next four weeks find us immersed in the Middle Kingdom. We have been reading Roger Lancelyn Green's Tales of Ancient Egypt to give Bit some background and understanding of the religious system.
The Story
Tales of Ancient Egypt is a collection of tales and myths from Ancient Egypt. Go figure. The book is divided into three sections: Tales of the Gods, Tales of Magic, and Tales of Adventure.There are 20 tales in all.

Bit's Thoughts
 I like Tales of Ancient Egypt because it will help me understand history more. I also like it because I like Egypt. My favorite story was "The Story of the Greek Princess". I like this tale because the people are so clever in it. It is also the story of Troy which I know about from reading The Trojan Horse. This probably isn't going to be my favorite book this year but I think you should read it.

My Thoughts 
This is certainly a great resource to have about if you want a book on Egyptian mythology. We are going to be reading several novels in the second term that take place in Ancient Egypt (plus Bit is dying to read the Theodosia books) and I wanted her to have some background knowledge as the religion was extremely important in the life of the people. This book gives you a great basic knowledge of the gods and the system of worship. It is older so the language is rather dry. I wouldn't recommend trying to read it aloud unless you are used to reading lengthy novels aloud or you practice first. It should also be noted that several of the tales, unlike most religious stories, actually reward criminal behavior such as treason, theft, fratricide. It sparked some interesting conversations around here for sure. (And isn't that the whole point of good literature?)

What Bit and I are reading next: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Oh the excitement that is ensuing.)

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Nightspell by Leah Cypess is a companion novel to her debut, Mistwood (my review). It can be read as a stand alone novel, the two only share one character and you don't need to know her story from the first novel to enjoy or understand this one.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
When Darri rides into Ghostland, a country where the living walk with the dead, she has only one goal: to rescue her younger sister Callie, who was sent to Ghostland as a hostage four years ago. But Callie has changed in those four years, and now has secrets of her own. In her quest to save her sister from herself, Darri will be forced to outmaneuver a handsome ghost prince, an ancient sorcerer, and a manipulative tribal warrior (who happens to be her brother). When Darri discovers the source of the spell that has kept the dead in Ghostland chained to this earth, she faces a decision that will force her to reexamine beliefs she has never before questioned - and lead her into the heart of a conspiracy that threatens the very balance of power between the living and the dead.

Despite what the synopsis may lead you to believe, Darri is really not the main character. Or at least not all by herself. She shares that position with both her siblings, Callie and Varis, and also with Clarisse. Of the lot of them Darri was actually the one I found the least interesting. She is one of those hard headed stubborn types who has firm opinions, but doesn't seemed to have done  much analyzing to arrive at those opinions. Varis and Clarisse were by far my favorite characters. They were certainly not always likable, not even a little bit, but man oh man are they are interesting. They too have firm ideas about what needs to be done, but at least there is evidence that they think things through carefully, and even when you think the choices they make are reprehensible you can see why they are making them. The interactions between the two of them were my favorite parts of the book.

Cypess has a real talent for drawing a reader into a story. There is plenty of intrigue, mystery, and complicated maneuvering going on amongst the members of the court to keep a reader engrossed until the end. However, once I reached the end I was so frustrated. (This happened when I read Mistwood too.) The troubling thing about it is I can't explain why I'm frustrated because that would involve giving away spoilers. I'll just say that I felt there were several holes left in the plot at that the end.

I do like the way the ghosts were portrayed as clinging to an artificiality and that they were not enjoying eternal life, but rather eternal death. I also enjoyed that this was a sibling story as much as it was a ghost or fantasy intrigue story. The relationship between Varis, Darri, and Callie is portrayed very realistically and I loved that element.

This is a good book to recommend to anyone who enjoys slightly creepy stories and complex relationships.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


"Once upon a time, a demonlike creature with a forty-seven-syllable name made an enchanted mirror. The mirror shattered in the sky. The splinters took to the wind and scattered for hundreds of miles. When they fell to the earth, things began to change....A boy got a splinter in his eye, and his heart turned cold. Only two people noticed. One was a witch, and she took him for her own. The other was his best friend. And she went after him in ill-considered shoes, brave and completely unprepared." (p153,155)

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu is a retelling of "The Snow Queen" by Hans Christian Anderson, yes, but it might be more fitting to say this is an homage to all of Anderson's tales because there are a great many of them incorporated into this one. The heart of  the story is "The Snow Queen" though, or rather, what it symbolizes. Growing up, changing, leaving old friends behind, and discovering who one is as a person. Hazel and Jack have been best friends forever. Hazel does not know who she is without Jack, and she reminds him someone knows he's still there when he feels invisible. These kids have suffered through some rough times together. Hazel's dad left and Jack was there for her. Jack's mom is seriously depressed and Hazel is there for him. But one day Jack stops talking to Hazel. Her mother tells her this is normal and that it is natural for friends to grow apart as they get older. Hazel knows something is wrong with Jack because he would not just stop being her friend. Then he disappears. His parents claim he is gone to assist an elderly relative Hazel knows he doesn't have. When another friend of Jack's confesses he saw Jack being taken into the woods by a mysterious other worldly woman in the snow, Hazel sets off on a quest to rescue him and bring him home.

The story is split into two parts. The first lays the background of Hazel and Jack, their characters and friendship, and how it all begins to fall apart. The second part is Hazel's journey through the magical land to rescue Jack. Hazel is a wonderful and sympathetic heroine. She reads a lot and lives in imaginary worlds most of the time. Jack is her companion on her adventures and her only friend. She has trouble at school, being new to the way public school works, and hates every moment she is there. When Jack plays with his other friends at recess, she reads. Any child who has ever spent their days gazing out a window and relegating their teacher's voice to background noise will find a kindred spirit in Hazel. What is unique about Ursu's treatment of this is the story demonstrates that Hazel is in need of help. Imagination is all well and good, but sometimes you do have to live in the real world. Friendship is a marvelous thing, but you must be able to function as an individual as well. Hazel has to learn these lessons the hard way and so into the woods she goes. Hazel has a realization as she is walking toward Jack: "This is what it is to live in the world.You have to give yourself over to the cold, at least a little bit." I like this because it is true. Especially the "little bit" part. Hazel's journey has her learning, not only about herself, but also about how to reconcile fantasy and reality. And why its necessary to survive.

The magical woods Hazel journeys through is not a happy place. It is not the type of fantasy land that kids will be wanting to find a way into. Hazel has imagined herself in all of those fantasy worlds many of times, and so is not prepared for awaits her. This fantasy world doesn't play by the rules. The witch is not an evil ruler. She does not need defeating. This is a place where no one can be trusted and danger lurks in light as well as in shadow. Hazel is witness to some terrible and devastating magic. It is an interesting concept, but there were times when I wondered what the point of it all was. Not that there needs to be a point, but there were several quotes that left me pondering what the author was trying to say with all of this. My initial impression is that the themes are a bit muddled, as if Uru herself were unsure she wanted to say something specific. To me it had a very postmodern feel which is a contrast to Anderson's original tale, which definitely had a very specific theme about the power of love. It felt to me that was lost in this retelling, but it isn't a book that can be fully analyzed on one read through. This is partly why I enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second half.

It is all a little dark but there are moments of humor too.  Like when Hazel encounters a wolf upon entering the forest, "She'd read once that if you ran into a bear in the woods you should avoid eye contact and you shouldn't run away, but all she knew about wolves was that you should never tell them how to find your grandmother's house." And when the witch comes to fetch Jack she asks, "Would you like some Turkish delight?...Just a little joke." 

The book is a story lovers playground. Not only are the Anderson tales but Ursu makes reference Narnia, Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, Wonderland, Oz, L'Engle, Stead's When You Reach Me, and Gaiman's Coraline. Those were the ones I caught, there were probably more. The language is beautiful and yet not complicated. I recommend this for anyone who loves a good story.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Picture Books of 2011

It's Picture Book Month! Did you know? If not, you can read all about it. I don't write about picture books often on this blog, but they are very much a part of my everyday life. In celebration of Picture Book Month, I bring you my favorites of the year. Yesterday the NY Times revealed its 2011 Best Illustrated Children's Books. This post is unrelated to the NY Times list. This post has been scheduled for today for weeks. Great minds think alike and all that. My list is very different from the NY Times one. I don't know what criteria they used. My criteria: I had fun reading/looking at the book and, most importantly, my test subjects approved.
My Test Subjects (ages 7 and 3):

Apple Pie ABC by Alison Murray
Alphabet books are a dime a dozen. This one stands far and above the rest in my opinion. There are words and phrases for every letter, as one expects in an alphabet book. A for apple pie, B for bake it, C for cool it, D for dish it out, and on. All of it is held together by one narrative thread, a hungry little dog that desperately wants that pie and will go to any length to get it. The illustrations are crisp, clean and basic giving the book a very classic feel. This is an excellent choice for an alphabet book because it is one that can grow with a child. (Even the seven year old enjoyed it.)

Blackout by John Rocco
It's a busy night in the city and all one little boy wants to do is play a board game. But sister is on the phone, Mom is on the computer, and Dad is cooking dinner. Everyone is too busy so the little boy settles for playing a video game. But then...The Lights Went Out. All of Them. (The page spread that shows this is brilliant.) The family, together now, goes to the roof and then to the street, where neighbors are gathering and enjoying the night, the starts, and each other. The illustrations in the book are gorgeous and Rocco's use of light and shadow amazing. Both my kids love this book. The little one flips through it looking at the pictures again and again. I shared this book with my K-2 Literature class and they all really enjoyed it as well. As for me, this is my top favorite of the year.

Follow Me by Tricia Tusa
A girl and a swing, the perfect combination. I could spend hours on a swing when I was a child and Bit is the same way. Tricia Tusa captured perfectly the feeling of flying through the air while going all the places only your imagination can take you. Add to that the colorful and vibrant pictures, and you have a beautiful book that is going to make you want to locate the nearest swing set so you can experience it for yourself.

I Broke My Trunk and Should I Share My Ice Cream? by Mo Willems
Yes, I know these are easy readers, but they are also picture books. We are big fans of Elephant and Piggie around here so we were suitably excited when three new ones were released this year. We like these two the best. I Broke My Trunk has Gerald telling Piggie the story of how his trunk was broken. The suspense builds, and just when you think you know exactly how Gerald broke his trunk, the unexpected happens. In Should I Share My Ice Cream? Gerald has an ice cream cone and a big decision to make: to share or not to share? Bit is way past the easy reader phase but she still loves these books. She reads them to her brother with quite a bit of dramatic gusto, much to his delight. The books are great read alouds for preschoolers as they can find a kindred spirit in Piggie.

Pocketful of Posies: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes by Salley Mavor
When I was creating this list I decided to cover books published from October 2010 through September 2011. This book was released September 27, 2010 but I love it so much that I decided that was close enough. Nursery Rhymes are becoming a thing of the past. Many kids nowadays just don't know them like they used to. Reason enough to own a copy of this book. What makes it so incredibly special are the illustrations. If you are unfamiliar with Salley Mavor's illustrations visit her website. She sews and embroiders them all and I'm not at all exaggerating when I say this book is a work of art. Actually it is a collection of several works of art. Each illustration is handcrafted in minute detail. This book was the 2011 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award winner in the Picture Book Category.

Press Here by Herve Tullet
This is an interactive picture book. When you hear that you might think that means it is touch and feel, makes noise, or is maybe even scratch and sniff. You might think something on the page moves. Nope. To all of that. This book is illustration after illustration of primary colored dots on a white (and couple of times black) background. I was skeptical when I first picked it up from the library. Then I read it to my son and watched the magic happen. It didn't matter to him that the dots weren't actually moving and there were no bangs or whistles. He loves counting the dots, tipping the book, "blowing" the dots, shaking the dots up, and clapping to make them "grow". It was the most amazing thing and testament to how kids don't need fancy packages, they can make anything happen with their imagination and a simple concept.

Where's Walrus by Stephen Savage
This is a wordless picture book, not a usual favorite around here. However, Stephen Savage's book is just delightful and deserves to be an exception. Walrus is bored with life in the zoo and decides to do something about it. Escape and go on the run. Through retro style illustrations Savage shows all the unique disguises Walrus employs while trying to evade the zoo keeper in hot pursuit.

Hmmmm....I didn't realize until I typed this all out, but every one of my favorites this year was illustrated by the author. Something to ponder.

These books were taken from a greater list I made of books I've enjoyed reading in the past year. I made the list because I often start to receive emails from friends and family around this time of year asking for new book recommendations. I compiled a master list this year to make things easier. It is here if you are interested in seeing it in its entirety.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Here Lies Arthur

I have been in an Arthurian sort of mood this week. If you should ever find yourself in an Arthurian sort of mood then Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve is one I would definitely recommend. Be warned that this is one of those stories that tries to place Arthur in his actual historical context. This not Le Morte d'Arthur. Not anywhere close, and that is actually my favorite thing about it. I like it when an author tries to separate the man from the myth, and Reeve does this while adding a clever twist that speaks of the power of story.

Gwyna is a child when Arthur's war band comes and destroys her master's home. Fleeing the burning wreckage, she manages to escape by swimming away in the river. Little does she know she has been seen by Myrddin, a bard and storyteller, who travels with Arthur. Seeing that Gwyna will be useful to him in his quest to help Arthur rule all of Britain, Myrddin makes Gwyna his servant. Over the course of her years in Arthur's band, disguised as a boy, and then her years as a lady in waiting to Arthur's wife Gwenhwyfar, Gwyna receives a first class education in how to manipulate the populace and turn a man into a legend.

Arthur, in this version, is not a nice man. At all. He is a thief, a bully, a brigand. He is unpredictable, has a fierce temper, and is not a thinker. He leaves the thinking to Myrddin, who is compelled to see a united Britain and has chosen Arthur as the most likely to lead it. So Myrrdin advises him and in the meantime weaves stories about Arthur's splendid deeds and honorable demeanor. I love the way Reeve juxtaposes his actual Arthur and the Arthur of lore. Gwyna will relate some terrible scene Arthur has enacted and follow it with one of Myrrdin's tales.The tales refer to some of the more familiar legends while the actual Arthur scenes depict 5th/6th century Britain in all its bloody and savage glory.

In addition to the political manipulation aspect of the story Reeve introduces other interesting themes and concepts to ponder over and discuss. Religion is explored quite a bit. There is a split between those who practice Christianity and those who practice the old ways, with a great majority of people combining the two in some fashion. Myrddin, who doesn't believe in any of it, uses it to manipulate people to think what he wants them to. Gender roles are also explored, there are several instances where characters use the dress of the opposite sex to hide themselves in plain sight. In these instances it is stressed that it is about more than putting on the clothes and changing your hair. Reeve plays with this throughout the tale in different and interesting ways.

My only issue with it  is the characters were not as well developed as I like. Myrddin was the most complex of the lot. Gwenhwyfar was also made interesting. Most of the others were types. Gwyna, as the main character, felt far too flat to me. She goes through so much and yet none of it seems to make an impression on her. She relates it all as though seeing it from a distance. She takes up the art of storytelling she learns from Myrddin so that may account for some of that, but in telling this, her true story, you would think she would be more invested. I also thought that the romance squashed into the end was rather unnecessary, not developed , and rather inexplicable. It may have made sense if it had been explored at all but it was just sort of tacked on to the mad rush to the end so left me with a "why is this even here" feeling.

Still, if you are someone who enjoys different takes on Arthurian lore or well done historical fiction you should find this enjoyable. It should be noted that this is very well done historical fiction. True, Reeve invented his own take on Arthur, but he nailed the setting perfectly.

Note on Content: This is definitely a book for teens or older. There is quite a bit of violence and blood (it was a violent and bloody time). Also, Gwenhwyfar's extramarital adventures play a big part in the plot (it is the story of Arthur). Nothing is described, but it is much alluded to.