Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Saving the Best for Last: A Monster Calls

A MONSTER CALLS
by Patrick Ness
Inspired by an idea of Siobhan Dowd
Candlewick Press (September 2011)
Ages 12 and up

I've waited months to read this book. I even pre-ordered it last July when I first saw the cover and thought, oh yeah, this one does not deceive. I was wrong. It does deceive. But in the very best way possible. A Monster Calls is not a horror story (as the title and cover suggest) so much as a haunting story of grief and denial, clinging and letting go, love and fear. There are so many layers to this book—stories within stories, the collision of the natural with the supernatural, truth and self-deception—it is stunning in its blend of ordinary and unhinged reality.

A Monster Calls unfolds slowly, seeping onto the pages with hypnotic cadence and shadowy, shapeshifting illustrations (beautifully imagined by Jim Kay). The truth of what's happening is revealed over a short span of weeks in the life of thirteen-year-old Conor O'Malley whose mother is nearing the end of her battle with cancer. Bullied and alienated at school, abandoned by his father who left England to start a new life and new family, and forced into the reluctant care of his very ungrandmotherly grandmother, Conor has nightmares. The monster is not one of them. The monster, which takes the shape of a yew tree, doesn't frighten Conor, but it does challenge him.
At last, said the monster. To the matter at hand. The reason I have come walking.
Conor tensed, suddenly dreading what was coming.
Here is what will happen, Conor O'Malley, the monster continued, I will come to you again on further nights.
Conor felt his stomach clench, like he was preparing for a blow.
And I will tell you three stories. Three tales from when I walked before.
The monster goes on to explain that the fourth tale will be told by Conor. And it will be the truth. The stage is set and the story unfolds, layers deep, alternating between everyday reality and the shadow world of grief, fear and denial. The tales told by the monster have unexpected endings, twisted meanings. Good and evil are not as clear cut as they seem. It's smart, sophisticated writing that does not cheat the reader by spelling everything out.

The language of the monster echoes the ancestral drumbeat of fireside storytelling. It's the perfect vehicle for this sort of tale, where the truth of real life is just too blinding and unacceptable to acknowledge. Instead, it pulses with words and smoldering images that bring to mind the way things look like other (more menacing) things in the dark. The ending is what every writer should be lucky enough to achieve: inevitable, but surprising. Knowing what's coming does nothing to lessen the blow of its impact.

A Monster Calls is self-identified as being for readers aged 12 and up. Many reviewers have categorized it as Young Adult, a strong contender for the Printz; however, I wouldn't be surprised to see it on the Newbery announcement next month. Regardless of where it lands on the shelf, it's a winner through and through.

Source: I cashed in a gift card through mumbletysomethingazon and ordered my copy there because I wasn't going to let it go to waste and fill their coffers with an unused certificate. Otherwise, I would have purchased it from an independent bookseller, which is what I recommend to you.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Nerdwurld Strikes Back

While the longstanding Star Trek v. Star Wars debate may never be settled (too bad because, duh, Star Trek: TOS is the clear winner), George Takei unites the nerdwurld in a battle against the true storytelling evil of our time:

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Review: Warp Speed

WARP SPEED
by Lisa Yee
Arthur A. Levine Books (March 2011)
Ages 9 and Up

Just when I thought I couldn't take another book that deals with bullying, up pops Lisa Yee's fresh, fast and witty take on one of the most insidious social cancers of our times. In Warp Speed, Yee pulls no punches when it comes to looking at life through the eyes of seventh grade lunch meat, Marley Sandelsky, a self-proclaimed AV nerd and Trekkie targeted by middle school neanderthals he nicknames the Gorn.

Marley's humorous first-person narration—present tense no less (kudos to Yee for pulling that off with ease)—absorbs the harsh blows of his sickening reality, as do his Captain's Log entries that cloak his emotional pain in Trekkie-esque lingo ("The enemy Gorn have infiltrated a satellite substation. Damage was minimal. However, the stigma of the attack remains.")

The daily abuse of being shoved in his locker, spit on and beat up is something Marley has come to expect, but it's also an ugly truth he hides from his parents and teachers. I initially had a hard time with the fact that he treats his situation lightly, but then I realized, duh, I was looking at this through an unrealistic adult's viewpoint and needed to get over myself. From Marley's perspective, humor is the best way to cope. So is running....really fast...to avoid the Gorn. It's his running away, which turns into running for the joy of it, that's his saving grace.

As a writer, it's incredibly difficult to place your character in a situation that no one has figured out a way to resolve in real life and, well, figure out a way to resolve it. Then, to do it in a way that puts the power in the hands of the main character and not some intervening authority figure. Although, to his credit, Marley tries to enlist the help of an outside force—the Star Trek action figures from whom he draws strength to face his tormentors. The crew of the Enterprise isn't much help, however, when it comes to wooing Emily Ebers, the girl he's beginning to think likes him for more than his garbage gown modeling skills. Honestly, the scenes with Emily in which Marley spontaneously erupts in Klingon are about as painful to read as the ones in which he's being pummeled by the Gorn. In spite of all he has going against him, however, Marley has guts when it comes to surviving love and war at Rancho Rosetta Middle School.

A nice subplot to Marley's story is his family's struggle to maintain their historic movie house, the Rialto, which Marley fears his parents will have to sell. They're kind people, his folks, and their love for each other and Marley offers a solid anchor to what could have become a lopsided bullied nerd saga.

Warp Speed is a well-rounded novel with great pacing, humor and appeal for kids in the upper range of middle grade readers. The best part is that it picks up where three of Yee's previous Rancho Rosetta Middle School novels left off. It reads just as well without ever having read the other books, and will make readers want to go check them out to see what they've been missing.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Review: Lucky Cap

LUCKY CAP
by Patrick Jennings
EgmontUSA (April 2011)
Ages 8-12

Patrick Jennings has got to be one of my favorite writers, not just because he writes in such an easy going carefree style, delivered with engaging humor and peppered with pathos, but because he takes risks. He does his own thing, regardless of conventional expectations. Case in point: Lucky Cap, his latest novel for middle grade readers.

In Lucky Cap, eleven-year old Enzo Harpold goes from average to amazingest in the blink of an eye when his father takes a management position with the ultimate sporting goods company, Kap, and off they go on a summer tour of Kap outlets, complete with personal lessons by sports legends and an all around can't-be-topped experience. The story opens just as Enzo's fantasy summer is coming to an end and he's faced with the horror of starting sixth grade. His biggest fear is that he'll go from top of world to bottom of the heap just as quickly as he ascended to glory.

Except for one thing: Enzo has a special prototype cap given to him by his dad's boss at Kap. Enzo is convinced that this cap has imbued him with some sort of magical middle school mojo. Given the phenomenal good luck he has on his first day of sixth grade (being nominated class president, attracting girls left and right, getting in with the cool kids), Enzo's confidence runs amok. Read: this kid has an out-of-control, over-the-top ego. And this is where Jennings takes his biggest risk. Creating a character/narrator that's, well, rather hard to love.

If Enzo's ego and good fortune hadn't been so over-the-top, it would be difficult to justify an entire novel in his defense. But since it is over the top, and there's no defending the way Enzo treats his best friend from elementary school (not to mention girls and kids who get in his way), by the time he loses his cap and spirals out of control, it all starts to come together.

In a way, Enzo's story reads like a deal with the devil, in which the devil's abode looks and functions a lot like middle school and survival of the best-dressed/most-glib/social climbers—in fact, a microcosm of the larger world we all live in. His dad's boss at Kap behaves a lot like a silver-tongued emissary from corporate Hades, plying young Enzo with a philosophy of accumulation and egocentrism. This kid goes completely off the rails, thanks to the fine makers of athletic wear and cold-hearted competition. Some readers might miss this, thinking Enzo is just a jerk, but I've read enough of Jenning's work to know he's not one to promote the slope-headed mentality of commercialism and convention.

The proof is in the ending, which I won't give away. You'll just have to read it to find out. Lucky Cap is not for readers expecting to cheer for a beleaguered underdog, but it shines as a tale of middle school madness.

Source: Copy provided by the publisher.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Oh Boy, Canada: Three Great Reads

I AM CANADA: DEADLY VOYAGE
by Hugh Brewster
Scholastic Canada (September 2011)
Ages 9-12

This recent release of I Am Canada tells the fictionalized account of a fourteen year old boy, Jamie Laidlaw, who travels with his parents on the Titanic's maiden (and well, let's face it, final) voyage. It's rich with detail, but not one bit pedantic or boring as Jamie recounts his excitement and wonder at seeing the ship for the first time, and being a curious boy, it's through his eyes that much of what's known about the real life passengers and their lifestyle aboard ship is conveyed. Jamie's father is a banker whose trip is courtesy of the Imperial Bank, a benefit that positions Jamie in the midst of first class luxury.

While his parents hobnob with power brokers of the time, Jamie befriends another boy and off they go exploring, giving the reader a top notch tour mixed with little dramas to personalize the story (Jamie's dog is in the kennels, his friend's pet rat gets loose). Of course, the reader knows what's coming, but that knowledge doesn't diminish the suspense one bit. Once the ship hit the iceberg and people are told to go above out of caution, I could not put the book down. Brewster relates the details of those hours— the mounting confusion and Jamie's dawning awareness of the trouble they're in—to maximum effect. I've always had a fear of ships at night (having been passenger on one and employee on another), and reading this just about gave me flop sweat. The chronicling of the lifeboat shortage is pretty disturbing, knowing that half the passengers are doomed, but witnessing it through the eyes of a boy who's only just beginning to understand this heightens the horror even more.

I could go on and on, but I don't want to give away the ending. If readers who love adventure based on real life can get their hands on Deadly Voyage, I don't think they will be disappointed.


DEAR CANADA: THAT FATAL NIGHT
by Sarah Ellis
Scholastic Canada (September 2011)
Ages 9-12

That Fatal Night takes a different kind of dramatic approach to the Titanic saga. Instead of telling about her story of survival, twelve year old Dorothy Wilton's diary avoids talking about what happened when she traveled alone (with an escort) aboard the doomed ship. It's the avoidance, with haunting clues (needing to have her shoes by her at night, the obsessive desire for neatness), that creates the dramatic tension in this fictionalized account.

Dorothy talks around the tragedy—writing in her diary that she will record everything but that event. Instead, she focuses on the good times she had visiting her grandparents in England and the days after her return. These accounts are incredibly well done, with Dorothy inventing a script to describe scenes that shed light on her internal struggles (she plays the rold of CG—Canadian Girl, other cast members include her grandparents, cousins and the dog).

It's clear that she carries guilt about something related to Miss Pugh, the woman who accompanied Dorothy on the voyage but didn't survive. There's enough anticipation created through this device of avoidance to pull the reader along, with revelations that are both heartening and heartrending. I could say that girls will love this book, but I'd like to think that boys would pick it up, too.

I AM CANADA: SHOT AT DAWN
by John Wilson
Scholastic Canada (February 2011)
Ages 9-12

Here's a revolting little fact about World War I that was news to me (granted, much of WWI is news to me, overshadowed as it is by part II): Deserters from several countries were court marshalled and shot, Canada included.  Shot at Dawn is the fictionalized account of one whose been arrested and is awaiting dawn where he expects to be executed, a young soldier by the name of Allan McBride.

There's not much I can say about the details of this account that won't be utterly disturbing—the appalling conditions under which they fought, the brutal treatment of the army's own soldiers to keep them from deserting, not to mention the horrors on the battlefield and all the ways a body and mind can be destroyed. The most compelling, in this case, is the mental stress and trauma that unravels so many soldiers. Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome is a condition that's recognized and treated today, but back then it was just not understood. In Shot at Dawn, Allan interprets the behavior of his commanding officer (and friend from back home) as cowardice. It's only later that Allan's account takes us right into the mind of someone who's broken by the wickedness of war.

There is no glamorization of war going on here, and the futility of it rings loud and clear. For young readers of war history, this book is well worth the journey.


Source: Review copies provided by the publisher

Friday, November 25, 2011

Rearranging Lifeboats on the Titanic

I recently read two compelling middle grade books about the Titanic. My reviews will come in a couple days, but in the meantime, I wanted to mention a factoid that struck me as I read the back matter of one of the books:

63% of first class passengers were saved
43% of second class passengers were saved
25% percent of third class passengers were saved

It occurred to me that this would never happen today.

First, there wouldn't really be any second class passengers, and those that were in first class would be a very small percentage of the overall manifest (let's say, oh, 1%).

Second, instead of women and children first, there would be a democratic election in which it would be pointed out to the third class passengers that it makes more sense for 100% of first class passengers to be saved because only they can create jobs so that all those suffering third class passengers have some hope of improving their circumstances--otherwise, what's the point in surviving if you haven't got something to look forward to? Let's face it, no one wants to be in third class forever. The first class is offering a different kind of life boat. It will just take a little longer to arrive.

Third, first class passengers need more room for their valuables, which are necessary to fuel the economy so that they can create jobs for the people sinking into the frigid deep blue.

Fourth, there might be some third class hooligans who object to this arrangement, but they are so poorly dressed and LOUD, it's almost hard to understand what they're saying. In fact, their message is deemed too unclear and, well, not very credible.

It's decided that the obvious choice is to allow first class passengers full use of the lifeboats so that they can go home and make life better for everyone. Besides which, they are already inside the boats and it would take too much time to roust them out, leaving everyone to perish.

It occurs to leaders of the first class passengers, however, that it might look bad if they are the only ones to survive, so they decide to take on some of the third class passengers. Actually, they are crew members, but it's getting dark and hard to tell all the screaming people apart. It works out to be useful because now they have someone to row the lifeboats and get them out of there.

Meanwhile, as the third class passengers are swallowed up by the sea, the survivors hone their message for the folks back home. It's important to present a united, unyielding front, unlike the drowning masses whose voices are all garbled...

Anyway, it's just a thought that occurred to me.

Review: The Underwear Dare

THE UNDERWEAR DARE
by the Nardini Sisters
Sorelle Publishing (February 2011)
Ages 8-12

Caution: Adults are not likely to be charmed by The Underwear Dare, with its heavy doses of gross out humor and bully vs nerd well trod trope; however, this adult found herself laughing in spite of herself, and there's no doubt kids will be entertained as two step brothers square off in a series of dares that has them each doing the unthinkable—acting in ways they each want each other to behave.

The story starts off with painfully tired stereotypes—nerdy Josh suffers from his stepbrother Eddie's cruel pranks. They share a room. They fight. The situation seems unchangeable, until Josh's dad announces that he's turning the attic into a bedroom. The catch: the boys have to decide, without fighting, who gets the coveted room. Thus, the dares. Each boy has a week to complete his dare. If they both complete their dares by Friday, they move into a new dare the following week and the week after that, culminating in the ultimate dare: the first one to run through the cafeteria during lunchtime wins.

Josh dares Eddie to stop bullying kids (i.e., taking protection money) and to do something nice for everyone he's been mean to. And Eddie dares Josh to produce an earsplitting belch in class. Both are challenging enough to turn the first week into a fun drama of failures and mishaps, resulting in both of them being brought in for weekly sessions with an earnest school counselor.

As the dares progress, tidbits emerge that shed light on Eddie's behavior and the boys' relationship slowly transforms. The Nardini Sisters do a really nice job of not being preachy. Instead, Josh's insights are lightly tossed and always secondary to his main occupation: winning the dare by being more disgusting than his step brother. The ending is perfect and well earned.

My only real quibble is with the typesetting (of all things). Funny that I would even notice this, but it's off just enough to have distracted me in the beginning, especially the large first line indentations. The story and writing grabbed me soon enough to get past that, though. It's such a fun read, with surprisingly touching revelations, I'd definitely recommend this one to reluctant readers, especially those who love to be grossed out.

Source: Review copy provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Review: True (...sort of)

TRUE (...SORT OF)
by Katherine Hannigan
HarperCollins (April 2011)
Ages 8-12

Delly Pattison is about as likeable a troublemaker as they come. She's irrepressibly curious, passionate and, unfortunately, a bit lacking in self control. (Naturally, I took to this kid right away.) She's got a plan to stay out of trouble by attaching herself to the new girl, Ferris Boyd, as it seems that the air doesn't stir much around Ferris.

In fact, Ferris, who doesn't speak and cannot be touched, is such a mystery to Delly that she decides to take the new girl on as a project, following her into the woods to see where she disappears and, ultimately, devoting herself to protecting Ferris from unknown peril. Ferris also draws the interest of a Brud Kinney who mistakes Ferris for a boy and is enamored of "his" deft basketball skills.

There's clearly something wrong with Ferris and her home situation, but what happens there is not revealed until the very end. Delly's story is so lighthearted and entertaining, and Ferris is carrying such a dark secret, that the shift at the end felt almost too much. I wish it had been integrated earlier.

There's a whole community feel to Hannigan's novel, with lives intermingling, separating and colliding. For the most part, she pulls this off quite nicely; however, the shifts in point-of-view are often so sudden and random that, for me, it sometimes becomes a jumble of head hopping. I wish the story had kept to Delly's point of view, and maybe Brud's, but the others' thoughts intruded on the flow just enough to be a distraction. 

Even with my quibbles, this story has stayed with me, and that tells me there's a lot to recommend here. It's worth reading for the voice of Delly alone, and the lovely way Hannigan introduces readers to a character who, without saying a word, says a lot more than most.

Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Review: Charlie Joe Jackson's Guide to Not Reading

CHARLIE JOE JACKSON'S GUIDE TO NOT READING
by Tommy Greenwald
Roaring Brook Press (July 2011)
Ages 9-12

If there's one topic that makes my blood boil, it's the issue of boys who hate reading, the reason being that this is usually followed by the need to write more books that boys like—in other words, books that don't have girls for main characters. Before I launch into a mini rant, I need to state first that Charlie Joe Jackson's Guide to Not Reading does not perpetuate that heinous cultural bias.

Once I realized this, my ire had no where to go. In fact, one of Charlie's tips is: If you have to read, read about girls. What's not to love about that? Tommy Greenwald created such a likeable character in Charlie—a boy whose sole aim is to get through school without ever reading a book—I simply gave up looking to be irritated and went along for the ride. Sure, he's a cheater and a schemer, but he's a fundamentally good kid with a great sense of humor.

The premise of the book is, of course, ironic. Here's a boy who hates to read so much he's written a slew of tips to get out of the dreaded task. He even makes an agreement to keep his chapters short and his syllables mono—promises he can't keep, given that it turns out he's actually got a good story to tell. So, while on the face of it, this appears to be a fluffy little book of tips, it's actually a fluffy-esque little book with great pacing and a narrative arc that's satisfying.

(Now for the rant.)

Although Charlie's reason for not wanting to read has nothing to do with girl characters—the book he's currently avoiding is about a boy and it involves baseball, so there goes that theory—in real life, it's a reason that many people seem to accept as valid. Why is that? Can't boys be encouraged to broaden their gender-centric horizons? Unfortunately, the answer to that is no, at least not enough of them. It's a deep societal bias. (The Institute on Gender in the Media states that only 28% of speaking characters in film and television--both real and animated--are female. This, despite the fact that girls and women compose 51% of the population.)

A case in point: I was volunteering at the book van one day, and we had a stack of Powerpuff Girls books. Two little boys came along at different times of the day and each grabbed a Powerpuff Girls. One mother told her son to put it back. "That's for girls," she said. Her tone was so harsh, he dropped it immediately. The other mother didn't object to her son's choice, at least not at the time (who knows if it ended up being discarded). I might have suggested a better book, but not because of gender.

It's far from a scientific study, but the reaction of the mother who objected to the girl book gave me the chills. She was teaching her son that reading about girls is bad. Her tone was shaming. Girls, on the other hand, read all sorts of books regardless of the main character's gender.

If the idea is to write books about boys so that boys have books to read, I refuse to acquiesce. If, however, the idea is to write an engaging story that clips along, then I'm all for that. I don't write for genders, I write for readers. I do believe that boys may gravitate toward more plot-driven than character-driven stories, and I think that's a valid consideration. There are girls who also prefer similar plot-driven stories.

Fortunately, this is not an issue in Charlie Joe Jackson's Guide to Not Reading, a book for readers looking for a good story with lots of laughs. I would especially recommend this book to reluctant readers of any species or gender.

Source: I borrowed my copy from the library. Libraries are great. You could borrow this very book from one for free. However, if you decide you want a copy of your very own, I suggest buying one from an independent bookseller, or even Barnes & Noble, because they have four walls and people you can interact with. Plus, there are no shipping charges and they say nice things like, What a great choice you made. I need to read this, too! And that feels good.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Review: Pearl Versus The World

PEARL VERSUS THE WORLD
by Heather Potter
Candlewick Press (August, 2011)
Ages 8-12

For a book of its size (80 slender pages), Heather Potter's Pearl Versus the World sure does create a large and lasting impression. It's got that lingering quality I look for in a good story, a feeling of fullness that lives on long after its ending.

Narrated by Pearl in spare free verse, Pearl Versus the World handles some very heavy topics with a gentle touch as Pearl comes to terms with the fading away (and, ultimately, death) of her beloved grandmother who suffers from dementia. Meanwhile, Pearl is fading away too. At school, she feels like a friendless outcast, a group of one who doesn't fit in, just like her verse doesn't fit in with her teacher's expectations to write poems that rhyme. As Pearl explains, "There is no rhyme in my life."

With few words, Potter crafts a surprisingly complete portrait of Pearl as she navigates grief, loss, love and friendship. Despite the heaviness of the topic, Potter handles Pearl's story with such easy grace, there's a feeling of completion and peace that's very reassuring. More vignette than novel, and very young in tone, Pearl Versus the World is an excellent book for young readers, especially those who, like Pearl, are coming to terms with loss and grief.

Source: I received a review copy from Candlewick Press

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Review: The Luck of the Buttons

THE LUCK OF THE BUTTONS
by Anne Ylvisaker
Candlewick Press (April 2011)
Ages 8 and up

It's 1929 in Goodhue, Iowa and twelve-year old Tugs Button is yearning to break free from generations of hapless Button tradition in which winning is a pompous pursuit and badge of shame. Due to the great good fortune of being the exact same height as the town's most popular girl, Aggie Millhouse, Tugs Button is a prime candidate to pair up with Aggie for the Fourth of July three legged race and maybe, just maybe, have a shot at a blue ribbon. The idea of winning something, anything, opens up a world of other possibilities for Tugs, all of which fly in the face of Button family values.

The Luck of the Buttons is an utterly delightful, delicately crafted novel of life in small town America, where Rowdies rule the road and a flim flam man is poised to fleece its residents of their life savings. Ylvisaker resists cliche's (the popular girl is actually kind and helpful and being poor isn't a shame, it's just a way of life) and offers up a subtle, yet lively, spin on shedding limitations and trusting one's instincts.

Ylvisaker shows great restraint by weaving in storylines such as the flim flam man without taking away from the primary focus, which is Tugs internal struggles to rise above the lucklessness of the Buttons. This is a character driven novel that's beautifully blended with its engaging plot, clipping along at a fast pace while still maintaining the slow sway of Goodhue's way of life.

This is one great read.

Source: I borrowed my copy from the library.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Review: The Romeo and Juliet Code

THE ROMEO AND JULIET CODE
by Phoebe Stone
Arthur A. Levine Books (January 2011)
Ages 9 and up

First of all, please ignore the cover of Phoebe Stone's The Romeo and Juliet Code. Its contemporary teen love story vibe simply does not do this book justice. For one thing, the story takes place during WWII. For another thing, if it's a love story, then I completely missed this fact. What it is, however, is one heck of a well-narrated tale of family secrets and wartime intrigue. (And yes, there's a crush in there, too, but it's nothing like what the cover suggests.)

The novel opens just as eleven-year old Felicity Bathburn Budwig arrives at her grandmother's moody, broody home on the coast of Maine after having been spirited away from bomb-torn London by her American father and British mother. They leave her there to be watched over by a troubled uncle, despairing aunt, secretive grandmother and a resident known only as Captain Derek who never leaves his room. The Romeo and Juliet Code riffs on works by Frances Hodgson Burnett—The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, which Felicity becomes an authority on—and, while it has the same sort of English orphan feeling of abandonment and hidden truths going for it, it doesn't delve as deeply into matters of healing and transformation that The Secret Garden does.

More than anything, it's the voice of Felicity that makes this book work. She's smart, articulate, and wonderfully unreliable in her misinterpreted memories of Danny and Winnie (her parents). The reader, of course, suspects what Felicity's parents have been involved with long before she does, which makes the narration all the more engaging. If only her inability to recall and interpret the past had been set up a little better, I could have bought the fact that she didn't know what was going on. The fact that she assumes her parents will return soon is hard to understand, considering that she arrives in May and her mother leaves her with a letter that's to be given to her uncle at Christmastime. Trauma can explain a lot when it comes to a character's denial, but I found I had to create my own justification in order to keep believing that she was so slow to tumble.

My other issue is that the ending would have happened no matter what Felicity did or didn't do. Although her actions affected a couple sub plots (her lonely aunt and mysterious Captain Derek), she was primarily uncovering secrets that (and this may be a spoiler) would have been revealed anyway. Her growth is more of an acceptance, and that would have come in time regardless.

Despite all that, I still liked the book a lot and would recommend it to readers who love to be immersed in moody settings, secrets and wartime mysteries.

Source: I borrowed this book from the library. The real one.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Friday Twofer

Two stories. Two girls. Different continents. Different lives. Great reads.

WORDS IN THE DUST
by Trent Reedy
Aurthur A. Levine Books (January 2011)
Ages 10 and up

Inspired by an encounter with an Afghani girl during his military tour of duty, author Trent Reedy offers a remarkable debut novel that's rich, satisfying and (from this outsider's viewpoint) so authentic it's hard to believe it was written by an American soldier, let alone a man. Words in the Dust is narrated with such confidence and intuitive understanding of what it means to be a girl living in an oppressive society, I was totally immersed in a world that should feel light years away in terms of geography and culture, but which Reedy crafts with such intimacy, I can practically taste the dust and disappointment as though I'm living it.

The story revolves around thirteen year-old Zulaikha who was born with a cleft palate, further isolating her from a society that already devalues her because of gender. Her mother having been killed years earlier at the hands of the Taliban, she lives in servitude to a stepmother who can't bear the sight of her. However, when American soldiers offer to correct her cleft palate, Zulaikha's hopes for a better life, free of abuse and ridicule. The question remains, however: Even with the surgery, what will life hold for a girl in a culture that denies the value of women?

Reedy handles these (and other) painfully complex issues with careful respect, not once stooping to sentimentality or simplification of unresolvable issues. Despite the inability to provide a tidy ending, he manages to produce a satisfying and realistic conclusion.


THE MAP OF ME
by Tami Lewis Brown
Farrar Straus Giroux (August, 2011)
Ages 8-12

The Map of Me, by Tami Lewis Brown, was such a treat to read, I was sorry to see it end so soon. At 150 pages long, it's short, but complete (not one bit unfinished feeling). I simply wanted to spend more time in this topsy turvy world of twelve-year old Margie Tempset and her annoyingly brilliant little sister, Peep.

Margie's first person narration is refreshingly different and, at times, laugh out loud funny, despite the fact that the story revolves around a deeply dysfunctional family and Margie's frantic search for their mother whom she believes has taken off in search of a Henny Penny Coin Canister. This is unreliable narration at its best—driven by a denial to face the truth rather than a narrator's intentional deception.

Margie is so sweetly, fabulously flawed in her thinking, Brown has the reader pulling for her in spite of the fact that she lies fairly easily, steals her father's car and takes her little sister on a road trip that's not nearly as easy as she anticipates. The characters are so fully drawn, they walk right off the page. Brown depicts the parents with small strokes of brilliance—light touches that tell the reader these two kids are pretty much on their own even when both parents are around.

As unbelievable as the story line might seem (two kids on a wild ride through the back roads of Kentucky), it's probably one of the most emotionally honest stories I've read this year.

Source: I borrowed both copies from the library. The real library, not that hideous Amazon Kindle crap.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Uninvited...

I never thought I'd be too busy to blog, but there you go. It happened. There are those who say if you can't blog every day, don't do it at all. Clearly, I'm not of that mind set.

I'll be back to posting more reviews in a few days. In the meantime, the November issue of Black Lantern Publishing is now available for sale (pdf right now and full color print in two weeks). It's a gorgeous edition of macabre literature. My flash fiction, Uninvited, But Not Unwelcomed, makes its debut in there. Imagine that!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Friday Review: The Great Wall of Lucy Wu

THE GREAT WALL OF LUCY WU
by Wendy Shang
Scholastic Press (January 2011)
Ages 9-12

I can't think of anything better than a good book, except maybe a book that gives no indication of the surprise inside, the kind of surprise that starts off good and keeps getting better and better. Wendy Shang's The Great Wall of Lucy Wu is just that kind of book and that kind of surprise.

It opens with a traditional Chinese story about finding the fortune in misfortune, creating a certain anticipation in the reader that this will be a thoughtful journey of self-discovery, a culturally rich experience. The beauty of this book is that, in a sense, it is very much a thoughtful journey of self-discovery wrapped inside a culturally rich experience; however, it's delivered with such wonderful wit, the fact that it has meaning is almost beside the point.

Lucy Wu, who narrates the story, is a self-proclaimed banana—a derogatory term that refers someone who is yellow on the outside and white on the inside. (In other words, she's more hamburgers and fries than Chinese dumplings.) With her culturally correct sister going away to college, Lucy is primed to have the perfect year. She'll have her own room, and she's set to take sixth grade basketball by storm along with her best friend, Madison. That is, until her grandmother's long lost sister, Yi Po, settles in for a long visit from China and her parents force her to attend Chinese school during basketball practice. Lucy copes by doing what she does best—erecting barriers of all kinds to keep from being too Chinese.

The Great Wall of Lucy Wu is a refreshingly light and surprisingly deep (in a sneak-up-on-you kind of way). No dull, stereotypical dialog and tired pre-teen tropes here. Lucy's wit and originality make this one enjoyable (and memorable) read.

Source: I borrowed this book from the library.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Hey! Hey! It's a Dead End in Norvelt Audio Book Giveaway


I've got one free copy of the audiobook version of Jack Gantos' brilliant novel, Dead End in Norvelt, to give away. (Narrated by Gantos himself!)


To enter, just leave a comment on this blog, with your name and email addy—you know the drill to avoid spammers: soandso(at)suchandsuch(dot)something—by midnight (PST) next Tuesday, October 18th. Or, send an email to grierjewell(at)comcast(dot)net. No need to compose anything artistic, just say Cheezus crust, sign me up for an audio book of Dead End in Norvelt! or something Jack Gantos-y like that. The winner will be chosen at random.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Friday Review: Dead End in Norvelt

DEAD END IN NORVELT
by Jack Gantos
Farrar Straus Giroux (September 2011)
Ages 10 and up

I have only one thing to say about Dead End in Norvelt—Jack Gantos' "entirely true and wildly fictional" anti-memoir of young Jack Gantos—and that's this: Cheezus crust. This book is fabulous. Okay, that's two things, and one of them is a regular utterance of the story's anti-hero, so if it offends anyone to read it, don't read on.

Set in the dying town of Norvelt sometime during the 1960's, young Jack Gantos is having to spend the summer digging a faux bomb shelter as punishment for firing his father's "Jap" rifle and mowing down his mother's corn crop. If he hadn't fired that rifle, he wouldn't have had to mow down the corn to keep on his father's good side. And if the shock of the shot hadn't caused Miss Volker to drop her hearing aid into the toilet, he might not have been sent to help her write up the obituaries of notable dead Norvelters. And if he hadn't been sent to help her out, he wouldn't have gotten on the wrong side of the town's tricycle-riding geriatric vigilante who carries a torch for Miss Norvelt, even though she's a commie lovin' liberal. His love is fierce, and so is his vengeance.

While it may sound like a lot to digest, Gantos (both the current and former) delivers the narrative in laugh out loud, easy going fashion, all the while leaping effortlessly from life on a macro to micro level as he and those around him grapple with the fact that the town is evaporating before their eyes—being moved away to another state, house by house, by an unknown real estate investor—and with it, the values upon which the town was founded (thanks to the efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt who felt all people should live in dignity).

Everywhere he goes (which isn't far, since he's grounded for the summer), Jack is caught in the crossfire of warring ideologies, the greatest of which is right under his own roof.
"That night my birthday celebration continued. Mom, Dad and I had cake and ice cream and played Monopoly, which Dad declared was the greatest game ever invented. 'It is the American dream in a box,' he said, pleased with his tidy summation.

Mom disagreed. 'It teaches you how to ruin other people's lives without caring,' she countered."

The characters are so full of life and individuality they practically walk right off the page and breathe down your neck. In addition to Jack and his parents, there's the aging medical examiner, Miss Volker, who is determined to fulfill her duty to Eleanor Roosevelt by providing the final "health report" of original Norvelters (that is, she wants to make sure she outlives her eight competitors); Bunny, whose father owns the funeral parlor and who is unfazed by gore, which is a good thing because Jack has a torrential nose bleed every time he gets excited (read: often); and of course, Mr. Spizz, the giant tricycle-riding irritant who forces Jack into an agreement that has deadly consequences.

Gantos infuses so much life and laughter into this slice of small town America, I can't find a thing wrong with it. The pacing is smooth and quick, even when it takes screwy turns and plunges down the path of ancient history (Jack spends a lot of time in his room reading history books and Miss Volker ties in each death with a moment in history). The dialog is exquisite and the setting is so flawlessly crafted, it's like stepping into a 1960's television show. In fact, Dead End in Norvelt is a perfect fit for television or film. I wouldn't be surprised to see it play out that way.

With unabashed flourish, Gantos rings the warning bell of history—how we are doomed to repeat what we forget. The real controversy of the book is not the handling of death (which I think is just brilliant), it's the harkening back to the many histories of oppression by the rich through war and accumulation. Reading this, it's hard not to notice allusions to today's current affairs. Considering these polarizing times, I'm surprised this hasn't been an issue with the gatekeepers.

Would some people find the subject matter too much? Of course, there are always some people in every bunch. Thankfully, the world is a big place, with readers of every stripe. Dead End in Norvelt is listed for ages ten and up, which is just about right. There should be no upper limit to its readership.

Source: I bought my copy at Barnes & Noble.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Friday Review: Hound Dog True

HOUND DOG TRUE
by Linda Urban
Harcourt Children's Division (September 2011)
Ages 9-12


"Uncle Potluck said when he talked to the moon, the moon talked back."
—Hound Dog True

Some books are so darn delicious, there’s no joy in picking them apart to see what makes them tick. Hound Dog True, by Linda Urban, is one such gem. The voice, characterization, theme and gentle rhythm of words create a symphony of fine storytelling that elevate this simple story to another level. Yes. It’s that good. Hound Dog True had me at the first sentence and held me in its enchanting grip until the very last page. (As I read this, I kept thinking, did Barbara O'Connor change her name to Linda Urban?)

Told in close third person—so close it’s nearly first person—the story follows eleven-year old Mattie several days prior to starting a new school (fifth in as many years). Deeply hurt by the betrayal of a girl at her old school, shy Mattie is haunted by memories of past humiliations. There’s a poignantly funny flashback of one of her former first days when all she could think to tell the class was that she was not a Buddhist. Urban places this scene early in the book, which does a brilliant job of showing just how painfully tongue-tied Mattie can get. This and other flashbacks also serve to establish the interior world that Mattie inhabits, as well as reveal bits and pieces of her past troubles. Flashbacks usually drag down a narrative and slow the progress, but not in this book, where Urban skillfully uses them to bring us into the emotional life of Mattie.

The narration is beautifully composed and fully grounded in the perspective of this sensitive young girl who hopes to avoid the pain of all the treacherous times of day—those “lawless” periods of arrival, lunch and recess—by being her Uncle Potluck’s janitorial assistant. Of course, things do not go as planned and her hopes unravel with the unceremonious introduction of the neighbor's niece, Quincy, who appears to be prime betrayal material. Quincy lands in Mattie’s life with a deadpan delivery that goes plunk plunk plunk right on top of Mattie’s worst fears.

Mattie’s world is small, but it's peopled with memorable characters, such as Uncle Potluck who can spin a yarn like no one’s business (it’s his phrase, Hound Dog True, that gives the novel its title); the not-so-subtle neighbor who’s got designs on him; and, of course, Quincy, who is twelve years old and seemingly weary of life.

Even though Mattie could use a friend, she struggles with the hurt caused by her former classmate in the school she left behind. Quincy, with her teenagery long legs and do-not-care attitude, feeds right into to Mattie’s worries. Although the book focuses on her fear of betrayal and humiliation, the unspoken threat (which Quincy represents) is that of growing up and losing control. Like everything else about this book, Urban handles these themes with a gentle, but assuring touch. And, mostly importantly, with a great dose of humor throughout.

Hound Dog True is a short novel, told over a very short period of time, but boy oh boy, it makes a large and lasting impression. Other than that, I don't have much to say, except this: Read it!

Source: I bought my copy at Barnes & Noble.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Friday Review: Sidekicks

Sidekicks
Written and Illustrated by Dan Santat
Aurthur A. Levine Books
Ages 9-12

There must be something in the genetic code of writer/illustrators that gives their work the sizzle and pop of eternal childhood. Whatever it is they were born with, or drank from, they've got a special spark that leaps off the page.

Dan Santat's latest release, Sidekicks, is proof positive that some writers don't just write for small people experiencing childhood—they embody it. The illustrations are as smashtastic as any follower of Santat's work would expect, but to have them in a graphic novel length work is a real treat. He's got a gift for storytelling without overtelling, letting the artwork do its work to convey the energy and emotion of a superhero in peril. Well...maybe not so much peril as allergies and age.

Santat turns tired comic tropes into graphic novel gold as the hero, Captain Amazing, announces auditions for a sidekick to help him battle the baddies without running out of breath. His pet dog, hamster and lizard want the spot, but there's one problem that stands in their way: Fluffy, aka The Claw, Captain Amazing's former sidekick. Turns out things went south some years back and Fluffy is feeling a bit bitter. Santat's ability to weave flashbacks into the storyline without disrupting the plot's forward movement shows he's earned his chops as a high ranking writer slash illustrator slash big kid with loads of talent.

This will make a great Christmas present for those looking ahead...


Source: I bought my book from Mr. Santat when he offered autographed copies on his website. I'm not sure if that offer still holds, but he's kind enough to provide a link to Indiebound as a way to encourage the support of independent booksellers.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Friday Review: My Brother's Shadow

My Brother's Shadow
by Monika Schröder
Farrar Straus Giroux/Frances Foster Books (September 2011)
Age 12+

There's one thing I know I can pretty much count on when I see the names Monika Schröder and Frances Foster together in a book: I'm in for a good read. I learned about Schröder's writing from her middle grade novel, Saraswati's Way, which I reviewed last fall. Saraswati's Way was published under the Frances Foster imprint as well, and when it comes to precious reading time, I often rely on the who's behind the scene to help me navigate the book piles. It took me about, oh, zero seconds to pick Schröder's soon-to-be released young adult novel, My Brother's Shadow, for review.
 
In short, it does not disappoint. With skillful restraint, Schröder's crafts yet another powerful portrait of a boy caught in the crush of value systems and a world in chaos. In this case, the story unfolds through the public/private strife of Berlin during World War I and a sixteen year old boy, Moritz, whose family is politically divided between his anti-war, political activist mother on the one side and his Kaiser-supporting, soldier brother on the other.

When the story opens, Moritz doesn't question the rightness of the war, even though he and others are barely subsisting on ersatz food and government lies. Life under the Kaiser is all he's known, and he's troubled by his mother's rebellious acts. It's a refreshing and honest insight into a period of history that, when it comes down to it, is not so much World War I as it is World War II, Act I. The fact that Moritz works as a printer for the newspaper allows his story to illuminate the clash of personal and private interests, as well as integrate the conflicts at stake.

Told in first person, the narration of Moritz is as stark and sparse as the unemotional chill of war, once again demonstrating Schröder's use of emotional restraint to reflect (rather than exploit) a harsh existence. It rings true with a voice that reads like a teen of that time, and under those conditions, would view the world, which is to say that Schröder did a fine job of getting inside the psyche of another era. It is not flowery or lyrical, but blunt and, at times, as cold as Moritz's relationship with his ailing grandmother. (There's a scene in which she asks him to apply ointment on her back that is absolutely priceless in its cringe-worthy honesty.)

The fact that the narration is also told in present tense gives the story an eerie sense of real time contemporary political struggles and war. I found myself thinking that, while we have food and shelter, not much as changed in terms of political rhetoric and the fact that it's the poor and powerless who always carry the burden of the prevailing powers' success and failure.

In the end, Moritz gets his bearings and carves a place for himself with his awakening values. He even finds a girl. A Jewish girl. We all know, of course, what that implies for his future. In this regard, the downside to ending a book at the close of WWI is that, by its very nature of unrest and mounting hostilities against Jews, it cannot feel satisfying or remotely tidy. But it does feel genuine. And that, when it comes right down to it, is My Brother's Shadow greatest strength (among many).

Due out September 24th.

Source: Advanced Reader's Copy

About my reviews:
My comments and reactions to the books I read reflect my experience of the story as a writer studying the craft. I write them to examine what makes a story work, rather than sheer reader appeal.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Peculiarity Pays Off

MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN
by Ransom Riggs
Quirk Books (2011)
Young Adult

I love risk takers—in life and in art—so when I caught sight of Quirk Books' latest novel novel by Ransom Riggs, I cheered. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children tells the reality-bending tale of a teen in search of the monsters of his grandfather's WWII youth, thanks in large part to antique photographs that ground this odd fiction in reality.

The story is told by Jacob, a privileged teen living in Florida who tries to make sense of his grandfather's childhood tales of living in a home for children with strange gifts, protected from monsters "by a bird who smokes a pipe." The tales are supported by pictures of children with peculiar abilities (a boy who has bees living inside him, a girl who levitates, another who eats out of the back of her head). When Jacob was a small child, he believed the tales and the pictures. As a teen, however, he sees the photographic tricks and comes to understand the monsters as symbolic of the Nazis who killed his grandfather's family—until his grandfather is murdered, that is, and Jacob sees the deadly monster with his own eyes.

His experience is treated as a stress reaction. The solution: visit the remote island off the coast of Wales where his grandfather took refuge during the war. Jacob plunges into the proverbial rabbit hole when he not only finds the home, but the children themselves—looking and behaving just like they did in his grandfather's pictures.

Hip hip hooray to Riggs for effortlessly blending the seemingly incongruous—an ordinary world tainted by the extraordinary—and sustaining this uncomfortable balance long enough to pull the reader in. To this end, the pictures work magic.

I think if I weren't a children's writer, I might have been able to stay the course. Unfortunately, the narration kept throwing me—part teen, part Rick Yancey (think Monstrumologist). It's the downside, I think, of a writer who hasn't been marinating in children's literature. Voice is everything. As the story progresses, it also tends to get younger in tone, maybe a result of introducing a cast of young children for this teen to interact with. The end result is a mixed bag of intriguing genius and slightly unfocused children's/YA craft. Stronger emotional/character development would have gone a long way as well.

I wanted to love this book, but I like it well enough to recommend it for an interesting read and study of well-executed liminal fantasy. No doubt, we will be hearing more from Riggs and his most peculiar children.

Source: I purchased my copy at Orca Books.

About my reviews:
My comments and reactions to the books I read reflect my experience of the story as a writer studying the craft. I write them to examine what makes a story work, rather than sheer reader appeal.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Friendship Doll

THE FRIENDSHIP DOLL
by Kirby Larson
Delacorte Books for Young Readers (May, 2011)
Ages 9 and up

Take four stories that span more than a decade of the Great Depression, each of which captures a pivotal moment in the life of a different girl, and link them through the awakening heart of a Japanese doll—you know what you have? One of this year's most compelling books in children's literature: THE FRIENDSHIP DOLL.

Although I am an admitted fan of Kirby Larson, I am not a big fan of dolls (unless they are the wicked, mangled, creatury kind); however, by the time I reached the end of the first story, I could not put this book down. Not only does Larson breathe life into the pretentious Miss Kanagawa, one of 58 Ambassadors of Friendship sent by Japan in 1927, she breathes life into the pages of this book with a subtle element of liminal fantasy that gives each episodic tale a mesmerizing mystical quality grounded in historical authenticity.

This is no easy feat, but when it works (as this does), the payoff is huge. One of my librarian friends read the ARC of this book a couple months ago, and she was raving that it "blew [her] mind." I had no idea what she meant by this, but I do now. The book—its four part structure and seamless blending of the magical with the mundane—has a numinous quality. And the voice—the voices—so pitch perfect in each narration they lend even more authenticity to the telling as Miss. Kanagawa is passed from place to place, suffering the hardship of years and diminished circumstances—but not diminished heart.

THE FRIENDSHIP DOLL closes with a fifth story that diverges from the other four by jumping to the present day. The leap jarred me at first, mainly because the Depression-era world created by Larson in the rest of the book is so hard to leave, but I can see that the book wouldn't have worked without it. In this sense, I tend to think of it more as a perfect epilogue than an ending.

On every level, THE FRIENDSHIP DOLL embodies the power of storytelling and friendship to heal and unite that which has become separated, isolated or broken. For me, there is just one thing lacking in this marvelous narrative: a cash reward for information leading to the whereabouts (or fate) of Miss Kanagawa and her missing sisters. Random House, are you listening?

Source: I bought my copy from Secret Garden Books

About my reviews:
My comments and reactions to the books I read are not so much reader-type reviews as they are my experience of the story as a writer studying the craft. I write them to examine what makes a story work.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

OKAY BY ME

OKAY FOR NOW
Gary Schmidt
Clarion Books (April, 2011)
Young Adult

Problem: Take a troubled teen with a violent father, bullying brother and a shameful secret and watch him navigate the perils of downward mobility during a turbulent time when our country is perched precariously between hope and fear—the first moon shot and war in Vietnam—and you've got a dilemma: How in the world do you keep his story from smelling like cheap melodrama?

Answer: Get Gary Schmidt to write it.

In OKAY FOR NOW, Gary Schmidt's follow-up to his Newbery Honor-winning WEDNESDAY WARS, Doug Swieteck's life has all the hallmarks of an ABC after school special about abuse, illness, poverty, bullying, disability, war, and first love all rolled into one; and yet, in the hands of Gary Schmidt, it's a multi-dimensional work of art—just like the John James Audubon's drawings of wildlife that Doug studies at the library every Saturday afternoon.

In fact, the images of Audubon's birds in flight, conflict and balance provide the underpinnings of Schmidt's complex novel. He opens every chapter with a different plate from Birds of America and uses each one as a focal point for Doug to grapple with as he learns Audubon's techniques for depicting movement and stability in a perilous world. In the case of OKAY FOR NOW, life imitates art imitating life.

The parallels are worth taking note by anyone who attempts to re-create life through words or images. Both Audubon and Schmidt's stunning real life portrayals hinge on one simple technique: suggestion. The point is driven home by Mr. Powell the librarian who (pardon the pun) takes Doug under his wing:
"Don't think of the bird as a flat image. Think of it the whole way around, even the parts that you don't see. Then think of how all the different pieces of the bird are working with or against each other. Think how the body of the bird wants to fall..."

"And the wings want to keep it up."

"Exactly. All movement relies on that kind of tension. You show the movement by suggesting the tension."
Simply put, Schmidt's novel succeeds because of his ability to suggest. This single attribute is what makes OKAY soar above other books that deal with difficult subjects.

Doug's father is abusive, but Schmidt doesn't come out and tell us that; he suggests it. Doug never tells the reader his father hits him. That would make him a chump. But he does say his father's hands are quick. He doesn't say his mother feels trapped and hopeless; instead, he shows us how he feels during those rare times she smiles. Often, Doug doesn't assign any value to an event, other than to say. "You know how that feels?" Thanks to suggestion, the reader feels the emotion more keenly than being told outright.

Like Audubon's birds that Doug learns are indirectly defined by the space around them, he is likewise being shaped and defined by the narrative unfolding around him. It's an effective technique if you can pull it off, which Schmidt does without being too overplayed. He does tend to draw the comparisons a little strongly at times, but since the story is told first person by a boy who's trying to figure himself out as he goes along, it works.

The other technique that works beautifully is Schmidt's introduction of an object on page one that will ultimately save the story from becoming distractingly improbable at times, and that is this: Joe Pepitone's hat. It's established right at the beginning that Doug was given that hat the year before by Joe himself (which readers of WEDNESDAY WARS would recall and new readers can easily accept as fact). Without this element of something slightly fantastical, much of Doug's storyline later in the book would feel unearned and parts could be dismissed as too unrealistic for such a realistic story. As a result, I can buy into anything Schmidt delivers at the end (except maybe what happens with the father).

There's so much going on in OKAY FOR NOW, I won't even attempt to lay out all the plot threads; but trust me, none of it would work if Joe Pepitone's hat did not make an early appearance.

And with that, I leave you to READ THIS BOOK and decide for yourself.



About my reviews:
My comments and reactions to the books I read are not so much reader-type reviews as they are my experience of the story as a writer studying the craft. I write them to examine what makes a story work.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Monsters Eat Whiny Children

MONSTERS EAT WHINY CHILDREN
Written and Illustrated by Bruce Eric Kaplan
Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing (2010)
Ages 4-8

I zeroed in on this book the other day because it had just about everything going for it that screamed READ ME:
  • The title, which does not leave me wondering if the trajectory of the plot will be on point. I already know where this story is going and I want to watch it unfold.
  • The back cover, which reads, "The crumbs are the best part." Okay. Now I know this is going to be brash, dark humor. Love it.
  • The color and illustrations, which are simple, bold cartoon style.(Very raw and monsterish.)
  • The inside cover pages, which display a map of the children's neighborhood, including this gem: "Store where people think Eve is a boy." It's one of those random, quirky details that tell me this book will not be the usual fare.
As I read the story—about a brother and sister who, despite the warnings from their "kindly father," continue to whine until they are taken by a monster to his lair "in the bad side of town"—I immediately felt an old conflict rising inside my gut (and it wasn't dinner). Here was a fabulous concept with off-beat twists...but the story had all the hallmarks of a writer for adults (Kaplan wrote for Seinfeld and Six Feet Under) who has just written his first children's book.

I love television writers. They're quick, witty, sharp and edgy—all qualities that, when combined with proven conventions of children's literature, could make for a dynamite story. But the key word is, conventions. There's a reason children's writers study them, practice them, and are rejected for years until they get them right: THEY WORK.

I think one of my biggest disappointments in MONSTERS EAT WHINY CHILDREN is that, while it's still a fun read, it could have been so much better. If only a few simple conventions were adhered to:

Make the children the protagonists. In MONSTERS, the protagonists are the "adults" (the monsters) and not the kids. How much more lively and empowering it would have been to see the kids get themselves into trouble, then deeper and deeper trouble as they tried to fix the problem; instead, the story shows us the monsters making all the decisions and mistakes, which his falls under "those dumb grown ups" category. (Yawn)

Stick to the rule of three. It's hard to tell how many problems and turns this story takes. It's a little muddled in this regard. The monster makes a whiny child salad, but the monster's wife doesn't like the dressing. So they make a new dressing, but the neighbor shows up and says they should be making whiny child burgers. But they have trouble with the grill... You get the picture. It's a very adult daily life sort of problem, which is fun to laugh at, but how much better would it have been if the children had been outwitting them or doing something (anything) to affect the storyline?

In the end, the children find a way out, but they didn't earn their way there. So, from my perspective, it felt much less satisfying.

Does this lessen the enjoyment of a reader? Probably not. On the other hand, why not make the most of a promising story and, at the same time, maintain the quality of of craft that we all want young readers to recognize and expect as they grow into the world of literature and life?

About my reviews:
My comments and reactions to the books I read are not so much reader-type reviews as they are my experience of the story as a writer studying the craft. I write them to examine what makes a story work.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

BOOM

I've been trying a different approach to book reviewing, which is to discuss only those books I have positive things to say about—ergo, the long stretches of silence.

It's not as though I haven't been reading or doing anything interesting; I've been trying to be nice. And, frankly, it's killing me. I'm a person with strong convictions. Strong doesn't mix with nice, which has always felt fairly gutless, even if it's for a good cause.

But who am I kidding? I read with undiluted passion, eager to find rare gems, disappointed when the stories fall short, and a muttering hot mess when my favorites don't get the recognition they deserve. I don't want to be this picky. In fact, I long for the days of pre-educated reading when I could get lost in a story and simply enjoy it without noticing moments of clumsy craft.

I wondered. Could I revert to those days? Could I randomly sift through the bookshelves and see what appealed to me, just like a regular person?

Yes I could. And this is what I found:


I'm not sure what drew me to this book. It certainly wasn't the fact that the author, Mark Haddon, wrote THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME...because I detested that book.

It wasn't for the blurbs. (There were none.)

Or the blog buzz. (The book was originally published in 1992 under the title GRIDZBI SPUDVETCH! and revised/released again in 2009)

Or the cover. (It's orange, with a rocket. Big whoop.)

What grabbed my attention was the immediate engagement of Haddon's writing on the first page—his clipped, breezy style and unpretentious humor. Nothing about this book is striving for higher ground. It is what it is.

And here's what it's about: Two boys overhear their teachers talking in a strange language and decide to investigate. Before they know it, the entire planet is at risk; and worse, their parents are going to be really upset.

There's an out-of-work dad, a work-obsessed mom, a sister's criminally thuggish boyfriend and a lot of smashing, crashing, injury-inducing mishaps. What you will not find is any great character development or meaningful growth. The main character—Jimbo—sleeps through a few key plot turns (because it just feels good to sleep, right?) and falls out of step with the action. No clever craft techniques or plot twists. Nothing along the lines of outrage that this book did not win any awards.

But guess what? I didn't mind. It was just plain fun to read. It reminded me a bit of M.T. Anderson's WHALES ON STILTS (wherein whales on stilts are trying to take over the world), and well, I sure wouldn't mind being on his playing field.

In fact, I wouldn't mind if all I ever wrote were fun stories like BOOM! that provided a little escape from a pretty treacherous world.


Source: I bought my copy at Orca Books.

Monday, March 7, 2011

A Book in Flight

NO PASSENGERS BEYOND THIS POINT
by Gennifer Choldenko
Dial Books for Young Readers
ages 10 and up

Gennifer Choldenko's newest arrival, NO PASSENGERS BEYOND THIS POINT, delivers a rare blend of skillful craft and great storytelling that captures the hard-to-bottle quality of a book that, once it takes off, cannot be put down.

In this reality-bending story of three siblings whose world has been uprooted through the foreclosure of their home and forced relocation to another state (without their mother), Choldenko manages to pull off the extraordinary.

She effortlessly transports her characters to another plane of existence that is as understandable as it is mystifying, inviting the reader to put the pieces together without feeling overwhelmed or confused. Nothing about what happens to the three young protagonists should make sense, but it does. And that is the beauty of this refreshing novel.

The story is told through three points of view: India, a self-obsessed fourteen-year old striving for independence; Finn, a reliable man-of-the-house twelve-year old saddled with being forgettable in the eyes of his peers; and Mouse, their brilliant six-year-old sister with an equally brilliant invisible friend (Bing).

This narrative approach works beautifully, especially when the kids' flight to Denver takes an inexplicable detour to Falling Bird, a place known only by what it is not. In fact, Falling Bird is littered with signs indicating an endless assortment of "Nots"—Not Las Vegas, Not Albuquerque, Not Denver. Once separated, the different narrations serve to heighten the tension and deepen the storyline.

Falling Bird operates with its own strange, dreamlike logic built from elements of real life. Each of the kids has his and her own home that satisfies every desire, right down to a "cool mom" for India, a "dad" for Finn and plenty of explosive crafts for Mouse. And yet, all is not well in this world where new arrivals are welcomed like rock stars. For one thing, they have to choose to be citizens of Falling Bird and never see their mother again, or forever be passengers looking for a flight that doesn't depart.

Choldenko wastes no detail, making every element work double and triple duty to drive the narrative through character motivation, rather than exterior plot. India, Finn and Mouse create their own outcomes according to their individual flaws and desires—digging themselves to varying depths of difficulty (India more so than her siblings). Not only do they have to solve the puzzle of Falling Bird and find a way out of a place no one leaves, they have to overcome their own individual and collective challenges.

I'm not sure if the targeted reader will be able to tell what's really going on in Falling Bird, or if Choldenko intended to keep it a mystery to the end. I knew right away (though I will be mum about it here), but my knowing did not diminish the enjoyment or suspense; in fact, it was enhanced. So, either way, the story works beautifully.

It's not often I read a book that I get this excited about. It's the perfect middle grade attention-grabber for boys and girls alike. If you haven't already put it on your TRB list, get it on there!


Source: I bought my copy at Orca Books.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Review: Moon Over Manifest

It's difficult not to take some things personally, especially when it comes to missing the arrival a great book; so when Clare Vanderpool's MOON OVER MANIFEST won the 2011 Newbery Award, I somehow managed to think it was a personal failure to not have known about it. Worse, because I'd had my favorites already in place, I questioned the right of this book to pop up out of nowhere (or, at least, nowhere I was looking).

I decided to read it and report my findings, but ran into a snag: how could I review a book without measuring it by the highest standard of children's literature? I can't. It's impossible for me to look at it without picking apart the bones to see how it holds up against those that came before it.

What I can say, after finally having read it, is that Vanderpool deserves her day in the sun for overcoming some complicated storytelling hurdles to deliver a story with breadth and depth. Her tale of twelve-year Abilene—whose father sends her away from their itinerant life to spend the summer in Manifest, Kansas—shifts from the present (1939) to the past (1918) as Abilene digs for clues to mysteries surrounding this small town burdened by a secret past.

There's a lot of ground to cover without ever stepping outside the tiny footprint of Manifest, including: an alleged WWI spy known as the Rattler; the dirty dealings of the Klu Klux Klan; an oppressive mine owner who commands the town and all its immigrants; local boys off to war; a bootlegging preacher; influenza; Hungarian diviner; and, last but not least, letters and mementos left behind by a boy on the run...a boy Abilene thinks just might be her father. Whew.

Vanderpool unravels these many threads through multiple points of view that give the story its movement as well as its continuity between the two time periods: Abilene's first person narration; letters from a WWI soldier; old news excerpts; and third-person vignettes told by a "diviner" who recounts the past as though it is being relived. She deserves kudos for doing something I don't see done very often or very well: alternating between two time periods without upsetting the story or the reader (who may become attached to one era and resent the jarring).

It could be that since the two eras are fairly close in time, and some of the same characters exist in both, Vanderpool is able to maintain the same grip on the reader's attention (although I admit to having preferred the old story within the present story of 1939). Regardless, this is no small feat. She also does a superb job of grounding her story in vivid historical detail without making the experience feel at all teachery (which kids will love).

I do have a few bones to pick, however, not the least of which is the similarity of the two main narrative voices—those of Abilene and Sadie, the diviner—which are expressed with a little too much generic folksiness. Even Abilene wonders how she should be speaking (do people in Manifest say y'all?), and this tells me that Vanderpool wasn't quite sure herself. Since Sadie is Hungarian, it would have been nice to hear different diction or tone to that key element of the storytelling. It would also have smoothed the transition from present to past with a little less confusion as to who was telling each part of the story.

I'd also love to have seen Abilene be more active, make some mistakes that drive the story, and maybe change a little more by the end; in other words, to be more of a protagonist. Instead, the protagonist is someone in the past—the boy known only as Jinx. The problem comes from the fact that so much of the story is being retold. The nature of the town's secret is so unique and well worth telling, I wanted to see Abilene be more of a participant than an observer; or, if not that, then somehow significantly altered by the experience of uncovering the past. If it's there, I didn't pick up on it.

Although I wish there hadn't been so much left to the end for the truth to be revealed (made manifest), there's a lot of depth to this story's message. By the end, I felt satisfied by all the threads that came together and the lives that reached across two decades to create a place called home.  I can see why the Newbery committee selected it, and look forward to seeing more of Clare Vanderpool's work in the future.