Thursday, December 20, 2007

Garden of Eve by K.L. Going

I was really looking forward to this book because I enjoyed Gabriel King so much. I wouldn’t say I was disappointed by it as much as I don’t think it’s really finished. It has that have-to-fulfill-the-contract feel to it. Some of the imagery of the trees is fantastic, but the magic didn’t really work for me. It’s not enough to have a simple, yet cryptic, prophecy to make me accept strange coincidences.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Igraine the Brave by Cornelia Funke

I enjoyed this so much more than I expected to. The cover art is really unappealing. I like the British one (on the right) so much more. Apparently this was originally published in German in 1998 but only just translated. I can see some of my second graders picking this one up after we finish The Castle in the Attic.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

George's Secret Key to the Universe by Lucy & Stephen Hawking

I really thought this one was terrible. The science was interesting, but too much like science fiction, so that it seemed like fantasy. The writing was good enough, but some of the themes were disturbing. I think the ending was supposed to be a coming-together of all the different factions, but it message of the book seemed to be that environmentalists are against all technology and innovation, and that it’s okay if we destroy this planet because science can find us a new one.

I would love someone to explain to me the visual references to The Little Prince. They were far too obvious to be accidental, and yet nothing was really made of them. I just can’t see George as a modern-day Little Prince.

The book design was atrocious. My reading was often disrupted mid-sentence by sidebars and pages of photographs. I enjoyed the sidebars- they were better than the story, but the placement of them was problematic. Likewise, the photos were cool, but they weren’t placed near the relevant content in the book, and often came in the middle of the chapter. When I reached the end of the photos, I had to go back and reread the last page of text to get back into the story. We’ve made such strides in design recently, that there’s really no excuse for this.

It always makes me sad when books like this get so much press because of their authors when so many wonderful books are ignored.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

How It Happened in Peach Hill by Marthe Jocelyn

I picked up this one after reading about it on a children's lit blog. Unfortunately, I don't remember which one.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable book. It reminds me of A Drowned Maiden's Hair
by Laura Amy Schlitz, but in subject matter, not writing style. While I wasn't blown away by anything in particular, I found myself wanting to pick this one up even when I wasn't on the train- always a good sign. I wasn't exactly sure what was going to happen, and the ending was satisfying. I especially like that the romance was left so open-ended. The uncertainty of that saved the ending from being too tidy.

I was about to tag this "historical fiction" because, I suppose it is, being set in the 1920s, however, almost nothing about the book conveys a particular time or place (despite the explicit mention of rural upstate New York and flapper dresses). Really, it could be in any small town in any post-industrial, pre-war era when flim-flam artists and con men could stay just one town ahead of the law.

I remember going to a conference on historical fiction once, quite a few years ago. What I retained was the difference between historical fiction, which features actual historical people such as Johnny Tremain or Little House on the Prairie, and period fiction, which is set in the past, such as Mildred Taylor's books or Long Way From Chicago. It is an interesting distinction, especially since I more often find myself annoyed by the appearance of actual people in fiction. The Royal Diaries is a good example; I hate that they have taken real people and made up diaries for them, with little or no documentation or indication of what is real and what is not. If I were to encounter Johnny Tremain now, would I feel the same way about it? I don't think so, because the historical people are secondary characters, and while I haven't read it in some time, I think it is historically substantiated. But perhaps I only think that because it's a classic and I never questioned it.

And then what do we do with Little Women and Secret Garden? They sure seem like period fiction now, but when they were written, they were contemporary. Do we need a third term? And if so, what would it be?

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Land of the Silver Apples by Nancy Farmer

I was very excited when I saw this on the bookstore shelves, because I really enjoyed the first one, and I'm a huge admirer of Nancy Farmer in general.

I enjoyed the adventure, and certainly the kids who liked Sea of Trolls will love this one, too. However, I was disappointed in the mythology and folklore allusions in this one. Perhaps it's just that the world of hobgoblins and elves is more well-trodden than the realms of Nordic mythology that Farmer introduced us to in the first book. The story is good, even great (and addresses some of my earlier issues with the character of Lucy), but the novel lacks the depth and innovation of Sea of Trolls.

All of that being said, I will be eager to see what happens to Pega and Thorgil next, which, I now see from the flap copy, we will learn be able from The Islands of the Blesseds in 2009. Why does it seem so arrogant and pushy to have the publication date for the final book so soon? It feels like they're flaunting it in my face, "Ha, ha, the final book is done, but we're going to make you wait two years before we let you see it!"

Sheesh. Think of the effect on a fifth grader. Are they still going to be interested when they're in the seventh grade?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban

I was looking forward to reading this one, after meeting the author a few weeks ago and hearing so many good things about it. I wasn't disappointed. The first-person, present-tense narrative is intimate and spare- in the best sort of way. The characters are delightful and new, even as they are familiar, and the story is very satisfying. This is the kind of solid, good story that I will recommend over and over. It reminds me of Ida B by Katherine Hannigan or Saffy's Angel by Hilary McKay.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

Oh, how I loved this one. It reminded me of The Penderwicks- a perfect mixture of old-fashioned and contemporary. I think if E. Nesbit were still around, this is what she would be writing.

I loved the characters and their "superpowers" (especially Constance!). I loved that I wasn't entirely sure how it was going to turn out, and the twists and turns were perfectly plausible. The Edward Gorey-esque line drawings complemented the story perfectly.

The only thing that bothered me was the resolution to Sticky's story. it was too tidy and ultimately unsatisfying. I don't really believe Mr. Benedict's explanation. I would have been happier if he had picked up some confidence instead.

I have two conflicting ideas about who to give this book to. Part of me says that only particular readers will appreciate its quirkiness, but another says it will appeal to those who enjoyed Lemony Snicket's books, which were an enormous blockbuster. Probably, as with so many books, lots of kids will read and enjoy it, and a few will savor and adore it.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale

I always say that my favorite book in the letters/journal format is Dear Mr. Hensahw by Beverly Cleary. It does what few others do: the narrative reads the way a child's writing does, and the entries improve over the course of the book, become richer in language as the writer gets the hang of it.

This book does that, and it's almost its downfall- the first entries a little boring. Once the story gets going, the entries become less and less like what what a real diary sounds like, but by that point, I didn't care because I was so wrapped up in Dashti's story.

Sur La Lune lists this as a Sleeping Beauty story, and I've lent out my copy, so I don't have Hale's afterward in front of me, but I think she references a more obscure Grimm tale. I loved the fact that they were in a decidedly non-European setting. The biggest clue to the Asian steppe location is in the drawings of the people, and may kids will miss it, but that's okay. What I enjoyed most about this book was that I really wasn't sure how it would end. Even when there were still quite a few pages under my right thumb, I wasn't convinced Dashti was out of danger. All in all, it was a very satisfying read.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Nixie's Song by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black

This is the first of three books in the Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles series. (Is it redundant to say series if you're already talking about chronicles?)

First of all, let me say that I adore the first Spiderwick Chronicles. I love the creatures, the realistic portrayal of siblings (despite some of the language), the design, everything. And I think that Arthur's Spiderwick's Guide to the Fantastical World Around You is exquisite. I even bought the calendar. Twice.

So you might think that I would be overjoyed at the prospect of more Spiderwick novels. However, one of my biggest criticisms of the children's publishing industry at this time is the complete and utter lack of restraint. Any commercially successful book must have a sequel, whether or not there is any more story left. And if I learned only one thing from Cathie Mercier, it's to ask if there's really more to tell, or if I just want
more. I wasn't convinced that there was really more story to tell, so I was a bit trepidatious.

Having said all that, I enjoyed
The Nixie's Song, but it's definitely more of the same. We have an unlikely hero who is feeling misunderstood and marginalized with the changes that are happening in his family. He is introduced to the faerie world and, although Nick is more doubtful than Jared was, he will probably end up saving the world from some mean creature. And he will probably learn to love his new stepmother and stepsister in the process, and he might even have a nice moment with his dad when they learn to appreciate each other again. I hope I'm wrong. I hope it's more imaginative than that.

What I
loved about this book is that Laurie has a copy of Arthur Spiderwick's Guide and she and Nick go to a book-signing where they meet Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black and ask them for help. It reminds me of the movie Ocean's Twelve, in which Julia Roberts plays a character who impersonates Julia Roberts. Cracks me up every time I think of it. I love meta-stories.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Seat of Trolls by Nancy Farmer

This was a reread, in preparation for the second, The Land of the Silver Apples. I remembered that I liked it, but I couldn't remember anything about the plot. Indeed, I felt as though I was reading it for the first time.

There are so many wonderful things about this book. I absolutely love the Nordic mythology that is woven into it and that one reference that is there the whole time, but you don't see until it jumps out and hits you in the face. The characters are wonderful, the adventure is exciting, the whole book is rich with literary references. This is why I love Nancy Farmer.

Jack, an apprentice bard, finds himself on a hero's quest when he and his little sister, Lucy, are captured by raiding Vikings and enslaved. His journey takes him through the Viking's country and Jotunheim (the land of Trolls) to the lifeblood of the earth itself.

My only issue is in the character of Lucy. She is repeatedly referred to as a baby, and most of the time, I would say she is believably between two and four years old. However, there is one instance, when she and Jack have first been captured, that she explains her emotional and psychological state in sophisticated terms that would have been more appropriate coming from Heide, the wise woman, than a very young child. The scene is glaring in a story that is so marvelously subtle, and consequently makes me scrutinize each scene with Lucy in order to figure out just how old she is supposed to be.

I hope that in The Land of the Silver Apples, we see more of Heide, the Troll Queen, and, of course, Thorgil.

The Faceless Fiend by Howard Whitehouse

This is actually the second in the series about Emmaline and Rubberbones. I completely missed the first.

I enjoyed this one in spite of myself. It takes a very long time for the action to really get anywhere, but once it did, it was quite exciting. The characters are engaging and funny, and I expect we'll be hearing more about their future adventures.

Here's the basic plot. In the first book, Emmaline and the Princess Purnah escaped from a horrible school (with the help of Rubberbones, a boy who cannot be injured). Princess Purnah comes from a tiny, fictitious, and "backward" country somewhere in eastern Europe. The Faceless Fiend of the title has been hired by the Russians to kidnap Purnah and thereby gain control of her kingdom, in order to invade Europe. The madcap adventures follow as the kids try not to get captured by the Fiend.

My only real complaint about this story is that it is so very quaint. The setting is supposedly Victorian England, although perhaps an alternative one because of Rubberbones' mysterious qualities, the presence of Sherlock Holmes, and Purnah's kingdom. Although the views of Purnah's savage country are no doubt accurate for the time, to me the depiction was too much of a throwback to colonial views of non-white countries. Is it acceptable to use the allusion of an uncivilized and violent, albeit fictional, country for humorous purposes?

It reminds me of other books (Nancy Farmer's Sea of Trolls and John Flanagan's Ranger's Apprentice series, to name two), in which main characters learn to appreciate the culture and society (however unlike their own) of their enemies, to the point where they can become allies. I think this is a more desirable approach for the 21st century. Now, to be fair, those two books are very different in style from The Faceless Fiend, Purnah and her fellow citizens are not the enemy, and only the bad guys want to take over her country.

I think I wouldn't be so concerned if the book was set in an alternate world. It could have many of the same characteristics of Victorian England (as in Philip Pullman's
His Dark Materials trilogy or Philip Reeve's Larklight), but wouldn't be burdened by the actual social history of imperialism.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Maybelle in the Soup written by Katie Speck, illustrated by Paul Rátz de Tagyos

This is an amusing story about a cockroach, Maybelle, and flea, Henry, who live in the house of a fastidious couple, Mr. and Mrs. Peabody. (Mr. Peabody looks remarkably like Oliver Hardy.) Maybelle is no longer satisfied eating crumbs off the floor, and so sets out to taste some food from a plate, which puts into motion a series of humorous events that include the Peabodys trying to rid their house of bugs, and Maybelle and Henry narrowly escaping.

I will be interested to see what the kids think of this one. I suspect that the kids in
second grade and younger will enjoy the humor. It also seems likely that we will see more stories about Maybelle and Henry in the future.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis

I really enjoyed this one. What an interesting and different perspective on slavery. What Elijah's parents have told him about former slaves is insightful, sensitive, and seems very realistic. In the children's playing slavers and abolitionists (and Elijah's revelation about it), CPC even addresses the tendency to soften slavery in depictions for children. The last few chapters are truly haunting, and yet I wouldn't hesitate to have a 9 or 10 year old read this book. CPC has struck just the right balance of acknowledging and showing the horrors, but without making it too overwhelming for his audience.

One of my favorite narrative tricks is when an author uses a very limited first person viewpoint and is still able to let the reader know more than the narrator. It's one of the things I love about Walk Two Moons (among others), and CPC does it so very well here.

I will definitely be recommending this one to the sixth graders, who study both civil rights and sustainability. I will be very interested to hear their responses to it.

*publication date: October 2007

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen

I decided I wanted to reread some Austen before I realized that she was so hip at the moment. I'm still not sure why. I went to see the movie, Becoming Jane, which was good, although played around with history more than I like. Also, I think it did her a disservice, because it made P&P out to be based on her life, taking away the achievement of imagining and creating the story herself.

Anyway, when I saw a copy of P&P lying around at my mother's house, I decided to take it to the beach. It took me a while to get back into the narrative style (so much dialogue!), and of course, it takes a while for the story to pick up. But once I was into it, I really enjoyed humor and social commentary.

One critical essay (Brower, 1951) remarked on Austen's success in combining qualities of sentimental novels with poetic satire, and I agree. The timelessness of the love story keeps the book relevant to modern readers, and the satire prevents the story from drowning in saccharine.

I would have like reassurance that Elizabeth retained her vibrancy and spirit after her marriage to Mr. Darcy. It is alluded to- Miss Darcy in particular is surprised by the liberties that Elizabeth takes with her brother- but, she also seems more sanguine at the end.