Saturday, January 31, 2009
I read this book way back in 1986, when I was 13 years old, and this is what I wrote about it in my journal:
"I liked it because of the way it made you think while telling a neat story with lots of good description. It's more alive than some fantasy and I like the way it mixes magic with real life."
My husband read this book to my children last fall. The prose is stunning! Lyrical! Beautiful! Weaving together the ancient mythology of the British Isles with contemporary characters and settings, Susan Cooper wraps Christmas holiday for the Stanton Family in an epic battle between dark and light. As a child I loved the magic and the adventure. As an adult I love the poetic language and the story built on the power of folklore.
When I found this book way back when I gave it to my brother and my sister and told them they just had to read it. We all read the entire series within a week or two, and then adapted Susan Cooper's magical version of the world into our own imagination games for years. I'm glad now to share it with my children.
Friday, January 30, 2009
Jonathan Cape 1965
This classic summer vacation adventure stars three children, an old house, a hidden door, a forgotten attic, and a map that just might lead to an ancient treasure. With hints of greater magic at work, the Drew children follow clues that lead them over sea and under stone to find a relic from the time of King Arthur.
What sets this book apart is the excellence of its prose. The writing and the characters far exceed the standards for books written for children at that time. Three cheers for Susan Cooper!
Thursday, January 29, 2009
In an alternate solar system where the science of two centuries ago turned out to be absolutely true, more or less, the mysterious and drafty old Larklight drifts out beyond the orbit of the moon. This daft house in which no one can tell which way is up, especially when the gravity generators are down, is home to the Mumby family - Art, his older sister Myrtle, and their lonely, absent-minded, space-fish-dissecting father. The British Empire is at it's height under the reign of Queen Victoria, bringing the blessings of civilization and proper manners to the natives of Mars, Io, the Moon, and other such formerly benighted realms. But all that is about to change, and it begins with an uninvited visitor at Larklight named Mr. Webster.
Jolly adventure ensues, including space pirates, giant spiders, even bigger moths, entrepreneurs, British Secret Service agents, robotic domestic servants, lizards that do alchemy, and even Queen Victoria herself. Seasoned with British humor and packed with clever ideas, this book was a fun and funny read. Recommended for ages 10 and up.
Simon and Schuster 2002
I found Bear Snores On in a cereal box while visiting my sister - it was a tiny little paperback, part of some promotional for getting children to read. "This is a really good book!" I exclaimed, utterly shocked. When was the last thing you got something of quality out of a cereal box?
I loved the book so much that the next time one of my children had a birthday I bought the big, expensive hardback version from the bookstore. At the time I was the literacy specialist in my women's group at church and at our next meeting I read them the first few pages as an example of exceptional poetry. The meter dances, the words sing, the story is charming and it has a clever twist at the end that always leaves me grinning.
An absolute favorite! I highly recommend it.
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
In my earliest memory of the elementary school library, I zoom like a homing pigeon to the shelf where I know I'll find the Harold and the Purple Crayon books. When I began to read independently, these were my favorites. Little Harold in his foot pajamas draws himself adventure after adventure with nothing more than a simple purple crayon. The narration is spiced with wit and there's a jolly sense of anything goes within the broad scope of Harold's delightfully childish logic.
I hope that my three-year-old's earliest memories of books will include how gleefully his mother read Harold's purple crayon stories to him.
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Laura Geringer 2006
In this beautiful novel, Susan Williams imagines how humans and horses may have begun their long friendship. A young girl of a hunter-gatherer tribe finds a young horse trapped in a bog. The girl's struggle to free the horse, tame it, learn to ride it, and then earn acceptance for her new friend from her tribe is only the beginning of the adventure. Told as only someone who loves horses, nature, and people could, this story moved me more than any other I have read this year. It is a book about life, about growing up, about courage and love.
Although the book is billed for middle grade readers, I thought the themes were more appropriate for young adults.
Monday, January 26, 2009
"Mom, you have got to see this book!" My thirteen-year-old daughter insisted on Christmas morning. "It's weird!"
I took it to church because I thought a picture book without words would be a good way to keep little ones quiet during the meeting. Found it very distracting - my mind full of, "What the - ?" and "Whoa!" I turned the pages over and over, enjoying the story and the inventiveness of the images. On an east-coast beach a boy finds an antique "underwater" camera. The camera has a roll of film in it, and after waiting an hour at the photo shop, an amazing story in pictures unfolds.
Though not as exuberant as Wiesner's Tuesday, I found Flotsam filled with the delight of secret discovery. I wish I lived closer to the beach.
Sunday, January 25, 2009
Dutton Juvenile 2001
My mother-in-law works at a book store. This suits me fine! For birthdays, instead of clothes or toys, my children get books! Lloyd Alexander's The Gawgon and the Boy came in a box with a few other books as a gift to my ten year old son a few weeks ago. I recognized the author's name of course, as I had read all the Prydain books both as a child and then again as an adult. Neither pass had impressed me greatly, so at first I regarded the book with cool disinterest. Could Lloyd Alexander still be writing books? Inside the front cover, the list of his published works spanned two pages. Still, I was skeptical. With his reputation, he could probably publish any old thing.
So the book languished on my front room table. One day I picked it up during what was supposed to be a five minute break from house cleaning. I opened the book, turned over the table of contents, and found the little bylines on the family tree perfectly charming. Intrigued, I went on to page one and was immediately caught by the cheerful, boyish relish the main character felt for having a near fatal case of pneumonia. I read on. Every page I told myself that it would be the last, that I must get up and do more housework, but the book was too much of a delight! Only decades of writing fiction can give an author the poise to dash off such a piece of work.
Finally, in chapter five, I managed to tear myself away for a few hours, but I was soon back. The convalescent boy is put under the tutelage of an elderly aunt. At first frightened of his aunt, whom he nicknames "Gawgon" after the gorgon Medusa, the boy soon finds out there's more to the old woman than he thought.
My favorite parts of the book are the yarns the boy spins in his imagination. A delightful blend of history, mythology, literature, geometry, and an eleven year old sense of high adventure, these stories kept me laughing as the boy's family faces the Great Depression and the changes it brings about in their lives.
In the friendship between the boy and his aunt I remembered my favorite teachers, the ones who really inspired me to learn. I loved the jolly cast of the boy's eccentric extended family. Full of sparkly, funny bits, this book is a marvelous read. I highly recommend it.
So why weren't those Prydain books more like this? I suppose thirty years of writing books does count for something.
Saturday, January 24, 2009
Simon and Schuster 2007
Uprising tells the story of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire through the eyes of three young women. I loved Bella the most, the poor immigrant girl willing to come to a strange land and put up with abuses she could never have imagined in order to send some money home to her impoverished family. I often laugh out loud when I read a book, but I seldom cry. I wept for Bella, sobbed right out loud. This book moved me because of her.
Yetta, the young visionary social activist who walks the picket line for months, both inspired and frustrated me. As much as I wished she would get off her high horse, get over her obsession, and enjoy life a little now and then, she also made me want to give up writing my silly fantasy novels and write something that would fight evil instead. Something more like Uprising.
Friday, January 23, 2009
Random House Books for Young Readers 2003
There is a shortage of good science fiction for children in this world. "City of Ember" should take its place among the classics.
Deep beneath the ground, the City of Ember is dying. The electric generator which gives the city its only light is slowly failing, and the supplies which were plentiful a generation ago are running out. It is up to two children who have never known anything but the black empty sky over their city to discover the way back to a world they could never have imagined.
Well thought out, with solidly drawn characters, this book moved me and captured my imagination. Recommended for ages 8 to adult.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Shadow Mountain 2006
This book gets so many things right that other fantasy novels for children typically miss. First of all, the adults are smart, reasonable, and willing to trust the children when they show they are worthy to be trusted. Second, there is a strong theme running through the book about how keeping the rules affords you strong protection against evil, and how breaking the rules can have serious, unforseen consequences. It is the cautious, obedient character who has the power to save the day at the end because she has kept the rules of Fablehaven and offended no one.
Brandon Mull has a spectacular imagination. His powers of description are stunning, and he is endlessly inventive. The fantastic creatures that inhabit Fablehaven are fascinatingly varied in their personalities, intelligence, and behavior. He's not bad with humans either. His two main characters scrap so much like real siblings I wonder if he bugged his kids' rooms and listened to their arguments as research for his book. The book is not quite Newbury quality - there are a few places where the dialogue stops sounding real and instead becomes a thinly veiled explanation for the reader. In spite of this, Mull does create a very convincing sense of peril in Fablehaven, a place both wonderful and treacherous. It is just the sort of fantasy world you love to believe in.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
"Homeless Bird" is a perfect little gem of a book. Set in India, it is a story of courage and patience in the face of disappointment and betrayal. A young widow abandoned by her in-laws seems to have no hope of making any kind of life for herself. But, in time, her patience, kind-hearted nature, talent for embroidery, and a little luck combine to give her a second chance.
I enjoyed learning about the culture of India as I read this book. I recommend it for ages 10 and up.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Shadow Mountain 2007
Author Brandon Mull is the rising star of this story. He hits the ground running in this second book with a first chapter full of laughs, magic, and tween-aged characters so believable you think he must have picked them up from the middle school right down the street. This book is more exciting than the first installment of the Fablehaven series. Right from the start, Mull creates a sense that no one can be trusted, the stakes are high, and the danger is real.
Mulls leads are fabulous. Kendra nearly walks off the page, and her trouble-prone little brother Seth is emerging as one of my all time favorite fictional characters. Their fantasy adventure is touched with some unexpected bits of realism that drew me right in and almost made me believe it could have happened.
On the other hand, I must say that Mull deserves a better editor. As I read I went from saying, "Wow! This stuff is fabulous! What genius! What imagination!" to "Hmm, the editor should have caught that one." Not that there were any typos or mispellings or anything like that. It was only that I had to read some of the sentences two or three times in order to decode their meaning, some passages were confusing, and sometimes the dialogue got out of focus. At times I felt like shaking one of the characters and saying "LOOK OUT! THE AUTHOR IS MIND CONTROLLING YOU TO MAKE YOU EXPLAIN THINGS TO THE AUDIENCE!" And yes, I care enough about the characters and the story to wish there had been another revision or two before the book went to print.
All my pickiness aside, the Fablehaven books are just exactly the sort of books I wish I could have read when I was fourteen years old, but that really didn't exist back then. Smart, sophisticated, funny, exciting, adventurous, and clean as a whistle, I'm pleased and grateful that all of my children will have them to enjoy.
Monday, January 19, 2009
Little, Brown Young Readers 2006
In the opening pages of "Twilight," the author leaves a compelling question unanswered. By the time you know the answer so many other even more compelling questions have come up that the book is impossible to put down. I have never tried to wash dishes while reading a library book before, not until now. The library police will be after me, I'm sure.
But by about page 300, my enthusiasm had petered out. I was getting tired of hearing how wonderful and ideal Edward was, ideal except for the fact that if Bella so much as gets a paper cut in his presence he won't be able to stop himself from sucking her dry. The two of them were so into each other I was beginning to feel like I'd tagged along on a date with an engaged couple. I looked at the clock, it was only 10:45. I put the book down and went to bed.
To my surprise, I couldn't sleep. Meyer has an extraordinary gift. Her direct prose style, combined with a keenly accurate sense of internal emotions and motivations, gets right under your skin. It reminded me of Orson Scott Card. And, just like I dreamed I was enrolled in battle school the night after I first read "Ender's Game," last night when I finally did get to sleep I dreamed about Edward.
He was on a skiing trip with some dangerous, blonde woman who was dressed all in red. In my dream, I was torn between watching the two of them and finishing the book. Then several planes landed nearby, full of Japanese zombies, and I had to run for my life. Huh? I guess that's why everyone, myself included, is glad that I didn't write "Twilight."
I finished up the book this morning, tucking chapters into my morning routine. The pace picked up again, and the action climax was almost worth getting through 500 pages for. Overall it was an intoxicating read. I kept grinning like a fool at things Edward and Bella would say to each other. As silly as the book was in places, the characters felt so believable that I went right along with it.
But in the end, the most terrifying thing about the book was not the vampires at all. It was the behavior of the teenage girl. I have a daughter, and it shook me to my socks that Bella would lie to her father about where she was going to be, then willingly go off alone with Edward to some secluded spot in the woods so that she could have a three hundred page conversation with him about what it is like to be a vampire. And then, when they get home, she invites him to sneak into her room and spend the night! Did this girl's parents never have a talk with her about basic safety rules for dating? I sat down with my daughter and went over it all again, and insisted that there are no exceptions for cute vampires!
Still, I have to admit that Meyer is amazing. It is no accident that this book got picked up out of the slush pile and catapulted to the bestsellers list.
Sunday, January 18, 2009
HarperCollins Publishers Canada 2004
This book had me hooked from page one. Young Matt Cruise, cabin boy aboard the luxury airship "Aurora," adores flying. With three generations of air force pilots in my family, and my own fascination with everything that flies, I understood him at once. More at home in the sky than on the ground, he dreams of working his way up to ship's captain one day. Then, a routine voyage turns into high flying adventure with sky pirates, crash landings, uncharted islands, typhoons, and a girl with a camera determined to find evidence for a creature that no one else believes exists.
Think of this book as a cross between Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson, with a delightful dose of humor thrown in. Sure, the constant hair breadth escapes strain the willing suspension of disbelief, but that's why they call it escapist fiction right? Everyone keeps having narrow escapes. That's what makes it fun.
As much as I liked Matt, I found the girl character a bit tedious. She was bold, stubborn, plucky, and that was about it. Clueless for such a well educated lass, her poor decisions necessitated a few extra narrow escapes. Not my kind of heroine.
Even if they weren't the most subtle and sophisticated characters, the cast certainly had a lot of personality. My favorite character may have been the airship "Aurora" itself, so well described in the book I almost felt like I'd been aboard myself.
A very entertaining book. I thoroughly enjoyed the trip. Somewhat violent, but otherwise unoffensive, I'd recommend this book for middle grade readers and up.
Saturday, January 17, 2009
This is a great little book.
I love Linda Sue Park. She does her homework! What she doesn't already know about, she finds out about before she writes about it. She already knows about being a Korean American, and she handles this subject deftly and naturally, as only someone who has really been there can do. She didn't know about silk worms, so she recruited family members to raise two different batches. Hence the loving detail with which she describes the life of the silk worms through the eyes of her main character.
This would be a great book for a middle school English class. It's a school story, a friendship story, it deals well with issues of racial prejudice, and brings up questions on animal rights and environmentalism. There's plenty of fodder for good discussion here.
My favorite, favorite part, though, were the clever asides between chapters when the author records conversations she had with her main character in the course of writing the book. As a writer whose characters follow her to the grocery store and pester her while she is doing her housework, I am comforted to know that if I really am insane, at least one other writer I admire and respect is insane in the same way.
So I hope to make Linda Sue Park fans out of all of you. I hope you'll read all her books. Project Mulberry is a good place to start.
Delacorte Books for Young Readers 2006
I spotted this book on a shelf in a shop. The cover intrigued me, so I picked it up and read the first few pages. I was hooked! This is a fantasy book about. . . books! My favorite subject!
The story runs on two levels. First comes the historical fantasy, well researched and brilliantly written, in which Johann Gutenberg's young shop assistant tells his tale. I ate it up. Dr. Fust (Faust), Gutenberg's business partner, arrives in town with something mysterious locked in a scary looking chest: magic paper that can reveal all knowledge to a chosen innocent. The shop assistant is the chosen one, and soon realizes that he must find a way to keep Fust from exploiting infinite knowledge for his selfish ends.
Fast forward to the twenty first century. A young boy named Blake has to hang around Oxford University while his mother does some scholarly research. He quickly becomes involved in a desperate race to find the pieces of the Book of All Knowledge before the bad guys beat him to it.
As much as I adored the historical fantasy portions of the book, the modern day part just wasn't so well done. First of all, I had very mixed feelings about the fact that Blake's parents were separated. On the one hand, I'm tired of that theme. Could we please have some fiction where the parents are not divorced or separated? Almost half of all real children still live in traditional nuclear families with married parents, but it seems that only about ten percent of fictional children do. On the other hand, Skelton handled it well. The emotions and reactions of the characters in relation to the separation were all honest and believable. On the other, other hand, it was completely irrelevant to the plot and it added about a hundred pages to a book that was nearly a hundred pages too long.
Secondly, in the modern day part, Skelton goes a little overboard with the poetic devices. Sometimes he hits it spot on, as in the following:
"A small rectangular lawn, brilliant green by day, but black by night, lay in front of them: a pool of darkness moated by a silver path."
That was beautiful! I could see it perfectly!
But other times:
"Dressed in a black leather jacket that made a crunchy sound when he moved, he sauntered up to the main counter and deposited an iridescent green helmet, like a decapitated head, on its surface."
Like a decapitated head? Did Skelton really intend to put that much horror and revulsion in that image? And what about the helmet was like a decapitated head? The shape? Maybe. The size? NO! The color? NO! The way the man set it down? Certainly not, unless he's used to handling decapitated heads!
Thirdly, Blake's story needed a little more work. For one, it contained too many characters. I had a hard time keeping them all straight. Also, Skelton began to resort to cheap tricks towards the climax. I mean, if you know the bad guys are hot on your tail, do you ever leave your little sister unattended for even one second? NO!
The reason I have written such a long and passionate review about this book is that I feel it could have been so much better! The ideas were GREAT! I loved the parts of the book that took place in 1452. If only Skelton could have refined Blake's story into a more compelling yarn. Ah well, it is only his first book. Maybe next time.
Friday, January 16, 2009
Scholastic Press 2008
Brandon Sanderson's "Alcatraz" series shatters this principle. Sanderson's genius is his ability to draw tension out of thin air. Combine this with the dizzying sophistication of multiple systems of magic use, an evil librarian conspiracy that covers up true world history and geography, quirky characters, and a fresh voice that breaks all the rules of traditional story narration, and you get a book that my husband, three children, and I all fought to be the first one to finish reading. All week you could hear someone snickering at the jokes or moaning at the suspense, with shouts in the background of, "DON'T TELL ME I HAVEN'T READ THAT PART YET!!!"
Alcatraz Smedry, the true author of the book (he publishes under Brandon Sanderson's name to avoid detection by the cult of evil librarians), intermixes his edge-of-your-seat narrative with snarky personal insights into subjects like literary fiction, philosophy, real adults vs. fictional adults, truth in storytelling, and perception vs. reality. This book defies gravity as a light, funny, fast paced, and thought-provoking read.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Henry Holt and Company 2006
Recently orphaned Kate discovers that the hideous Goblin King has decided to kidnap her and take her to his underground kingdom as his bride. Can she evade him long enough to escape the Goblin lands? Will her great-aunts and her indifferent guardian believe her preposterous story? Can one girl stand against a whole kingdom of strange and magical creatures determined to have her as their queen?
In "The Hollow Kingdom," Clare Dunkle takes elements of folklore and weaves them together into a tale of surprising twists and wonderful invention. The evil in this book is truly evil, and doesn't always come from the direction one might expect.
This is another book I wish had been in print when I was in high school. It is just the sort of thing I wanted to read but couldn't find.
Shadow Mountain 2008
No author I know can top Brandon Mull for sheer imaginative power.
Kendra and Seth Sorenson are the grandchildren of the caretakers of Fablehaven preserve, one of the few places left on earth where magical creatures can live on in an increasingly skeptical world. The trouble is, not all magical creatures are nice. In fact, some of them are downright evil. All the worst ones have been locked away in a magical prison, and if they ever get out, the world as we know it is basically over.
Mull creates a world where the stakes are high, danger is real, and almost everyone is under suspicion. His book has an endless parade of fascinating magical creatures, each with their own habits and personality. Fablehaven 3 contains Mull's best paced plot so far, with lots of adventures, an intense action climax, and an ending that leaves the reader eager for the next book.
Mull introduces some great new characters in this book, and only kills off about half of them. He's still having trouble with Grandma Sorensen, who had more personality during the time she had been turned into a chicken, but his tween-aged characters live and breathe as always. Seth is still my favorite, and I'm glad to see him begin to discover more of his abilities in this book.
So go out and buy your own copy. You certainly can't borrow mine. My husband is going to start reading it to our children tonight, and we just can't wait!
Simon and Schuster 2008
Palace of Mirrors by Margaret Peterson Haddix is a princess tale of mistaken identities. The character, Ella, from Haddix's earlier book, Just Ella, makes an appearance, but this new book isn't really a sequel. The story stands on its own.
The characters were the best thing about the book. The setting is your typical princess book setting, a very well behaved Medieval Europe that has been through the wash a few times so as not to horrify the kids. As for the story, some very important plot points were a little beyond my willing suspension of disbelief. But the characters were great! I almost didn't mind where the characters were or what was happening to them - I liked them so much.
But the reason I am going to buy this book, besides the fact that I'm a dedicated Haddix fan, is that she did her research on harps! I loved the details on harp-playing in the book, all accurate by the way, and wished for even more. It makes me wonder if Haddix plays the harp, knows a harper, or simply spent hours on the internet reading everything she could find.
Girls ages 9-12 should adore this unusual twist on the "princes raised as a peasant" theme.
I have wanted to read Hidden Talents by David Lubar for a long time. I started it once, but the first few pages were so much like Holes I thought "Been there, done that" and hopped off the bus. I took a look at it again and this time, I'm glad I stayed on for the ride. The book is clever, fun, and it even has a great sequel! I read them both in one day. The main character is a boy who has such a smart mouth that he's been sent to alternative school for very bad boys. He gets a pyro for a roommate, makes freinds with a clepto and a pathological cheater, and fills out his crowd with a hyperactive boy who wears his hair in little braids (that was one of my favorite parts) and a kid famous for randomly throwing objects.
They all have one thing in common, one thing they haven't discovered yet.
None of it is their fault.
There is some language in this book I wouldn't want to hear my kids use, but other than that, nothing objectionable. The sequel is more action oriented and less contemplative, but still clever and well written. I recommend them both.
Scholastic Press 2007
I first met Greetings From Planet Earth by Barbara Kerley a couple of weeks ago at the library. The spine really caught my attention. That font, those colors - the book looked like it ought to be thirty or forty years old. But the book had a shiny new plastic jacket and a "NEW BOOK" sticker half-covering the first letter of the author's name. I had to investigate.
The cover illustration looked just like the cover illustrations on the books that had been published when I was very young - scratchy line drawing filled in with pools of uniform colors like bright red and pale turquoise. The end paper was that bumpy stuff you never see anymore. Published in 2007 but set thirty years ago, I held in my hands a piece of historical fiction about WHEN I WAS ALIVE ALREADY! I must be getting really old.
I smiled at the book designer's cleverness and popped it back on the shelf.
But I couldn't get it out of my head. Two weeks later I was back to check it out. I am glad I did. This is unlike any book I have read before. It deftly combined the wonder of moon exploration and the Voyager probes with the tragedy of Vietnam, all through the eyes of a twelve-year-old boy who wants to know more about his missing father. The book made me think, made me laugh, made me cry, made me wonder. What more could I ask?
Houghton Mifflin 2007
I love World War II historical fiction, and this is one of the best! Chilling, almost science-fiction-like, it deals with a relatively small Nazi program that kidnapped children from occupied countries who fit the Aryan mold, "reprogrammed" them, and then adopted them out to good Nazi homes. Of course those who couldn't take the reprogramming got shipped off to prison camp.
Clear, unaffected prose lets the power of the story shine through. As I read I had to keep reminding myself that this really happened. Sixty years ago in Europe, modern civilization went very, very wrong. Could it happen again? Could it happen here?
I want my children to read this book and see the spiral of destruction that blind hate and bigotry can lead to. This book is a memorial, a warning, and an offering of hope. As I read this book I had the benefit of knowing that the war would end, that Germany would surrender, that some time in 1945 the skies would grow quiet again and the Nazi regime would crumble. I could urge the characters on - hang on, survive a little longer, and the night will be over, and once again you will have a chance to live. If I should ever face such dark times myself, I will remember - the night ends, the sun comes up in the morning.
Today at the public library I knelt in front of the "NEW YA BOOKS" shelf until my feet fell asleep and the carpet dug bumps into my knees. Lost in delight, I combed through title after title until I narrowed my selections down to seven books. As I drove home, bouncing in the seat with gleeful anticipation of reading and reviewing them for my blog, I thought maybe I should create a NEW blog JUST FOR MY BOOK REVIEWS. I'd really like to provide a service for people who love good books, especially young people who love good books, and give them an on-going, ever-expanding book list.
I don't write negative reviews any more. If I don't like it, I won't review it. I've decided I'll be a better reader, reviewer, and writer if I focus on what books do right rather than on what they do wrong.
And so, here goes! Happy reading!