Tuesday, March 22, 2011


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

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.