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.