Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Moonlight and Vines - read in 2004

Moonlight & Vines (Newford)Moonlight and Vines by Charles de Lint (Macmillan - Orb)

Moonlight and Vines isn't so much a YA book as one that a young adult might read, knowing Charles de Lint's work aimed at younger readers. This collection of short stories set in Newford--an imagined town where magic hides behind the scenes, and sometimes, in front of them--is what made me a fan of Charles de Lint's writing in the first place. This rather dark collection is also very emotional; the themes are not aimed at a young adult reader, but as I said, a young adult reader might find this book. It's been a very long time since I read this, and so I can't really take a closer look from this temporal distance, but I still might pass the book along to a teen reader looking for good examples of short stories and use of emotion, and I'd recommend it for adult readers who would like to take a look back at the various roots of today's urban fantasy.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Another Handful: Middle Grade Books I Read, 2004

Should I note that middle grade and I aren't the perfect fit? It's a harder age for me to connect with; it's a less compelling collection of stories and life themes. I gravitate toward books written for people a bit older or younger, and sometimes, my lack of interest in middle grade books is just a struggle with a time I didn't particularly like being me. So, keep that in mind as you read these reviews, of course!

Midnight for Charlie Bone (The Children of the Red King, Book 1)Midnight for Charlie Bone by Jenny Nimmo (Scholastic - Orchard)
I wanted to love this book, but it was really not for me. I got lost in the surreal story and the sense that it was just too close to Harry Potter for comfort, while being a less compelling read. If you're looking for books in the same vein, particularly for a fantasy read for a young reader who wants more like Harry, this might be a good choice.

The Thief LordThe Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke (Scholastic - The Chicken House)
I wanted to love this book too, but perhaps it is enough to say that I liked a lot of it, and it's one I've recommended, though it's not quite my favorite flavor. Something about the font in combination with the orphans-run-away story reminds me of The Boxcar Children, though this story is set in Venice. The story meanders a bit, but for a reader enamored with adventure and the idea of living on one's own (see also: Hatchet and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), that might not be a problem. There's a bit of magic at the end, but not so much it would spoil the story for a reader who isn't a fan of the fantastic. I've found that boys ages 9-11 particularly like this story, and it's a go-to gift idea for friends that age; there seems to be a divide where this book is a favorite of middle-grade readers (the target audience) and others by Cornelia Funke are favored by adults. And that is the power of books, for me--that there are stories enough to go around.

Trouble Don't LastTrouble Don't Last by Shelley Pearsall (Random House - Yearling)
I picked this book up to have on hand in my classroom for a unit on spirituals, wanting to have some fiction to excerpt for our discussions of the music and its history, particularly the connection to hidden messages. Samuel finds himself accompanying a father figure in their flight from slavery, and while he believes trouble follows him, he's got to find a way to make it to freedom. I think this is a good choice, particularly for kids who haven't studied the time period, which often doesn't come up until late middle school or high school. The first-person narration, the harrowing escape, the muted (but still present) attitudes and language of the time all draw in readers, and could prompt further reading or thoughtful discussion.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Finding a Way In

By now, you've heard the statistics--as many as 1 in 166 children will be diagnosed with autism, a complicated spectrum of conditions for which no one has yet found a certain cause or cure. Difficulty with communication is one of the markers, and so it's interesting to see books written from the first-person viewpoint of characters with autism and/or Asperger's. Here are three that give a peek into the concerns and problems of young people on the autism spectrum.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (Knopf - Vintage)

This was one of the first widely-read fiction books starring an autistic character, and it perhaps paved the way for more such characters. Christopher is having a very hard time fitting in with his family, and displays some behaviors that most people now associate strongly with autism, such as groaning, having a restricted relationship with food, and an aversion to touch. He's also bemused by math, aware of his self-imposed seclusions, and determined to solve the mystery of his neighbor's dead poodle. While Christopher claims to not have any gift for humor, the book is at turns amusing and heart-wrenching.

The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd (Random House - Yearling)

And again, a mystery. If you sense a theme, the only real similarities here are that these are all boys on the autism spectrum who are determined to find answers despite their natural challenges in doing so.

Ted is a young man who is aware that he sees the world very differently from his peers and family; he must practice ways to respond to interaction. The world for him is black and white: metaphors make no sense, and if someone doesn't smile at you, it means they don't want to be friends. Ted's aunt and cousin come to visit and the family takes a trip to the London Eye. Cousin Salim gets on--but never gets off. As the family falls apart with worry, Ted spins theories to solve the mystery, but only in working with his sister (in ways that are uncomfortable for someone with autism) can he truly make breakthroughs, and in doing so, he touches the edges of emotions new and strange. Ted does discover what happened, but this isn't the only mystery--Salim is pretty wiley, and there is more than one twist.

Marcelo in the Real World by Fransisco X. Stork (Scholastic)
Marcelo is ready to spend the summer between his junior and senior year at Paterson, a special school that meets his needs and where he'll be working with the ponies used for hippotherapy. He's good at this--good at Paterson. But his dad, a lawyer, wants him to go to a regular high school for his senior year, so he makes him a deal: work at the firm for a summer. If Marcelo is successful at the firm--if he follows the rules of the real world--he can choose where to finish school.

Marcelo opts for the firm, where he meets Jasmine, the head of the mail room who both protects him and allows him to fail so he can learn; lawyers good and evil; and secretaries who would like to use him for one thing or another. Soon, he's grappling with the concepts of friendship and personal agency, whether a "friend" is really a friend (and learning to trust one's instincts), the intricacies of adult relationships, and his trust in his father, especially as it concerns a victim related to a case that the firm cannot lose.

Marcelo's story is very much a complicated one, threaded through with his religious interests, his difficulty understanding interpersonal relationships, and his discovery of his own power as a person. The evocative and thoughtful writing would not be out of place in an adult novel, though at heart, it's a young adult book because it asks what I think is the essential YA question: when will I use my power, and why?

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A handful of books from summer 2004

Tithe: A Modern Faerie TaleTithe by Holly Black (Simon & Schuster - McElderry)
I was first introduced to Holly Black because she was a guest speaker for an event I helped out with, and so of course I picked up her book Tithe. I thought that this book was trying too hard at the beginning, but then I realized that it was more the characters lived lives I hadn't--that sort of life where no one watches you too closely, even though you live with your relatives. When I first read it, I don't think I had seen anything quite like it, and it shook up my reading habits quite a bit. I'd also really liked her Spiderwick Chronicles, and one of the similar things here is the way that the rough side of fairy tales isn't polished into a sheen. Additionally, this is definitely the book that brought fairies into a modern form that shaped them as not always pretty, sparkly theme park mascots. I think today's urban fantasy owes a lot to fans of this book who went looking for more.

The House of the ScorpionThe House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer (Simon & Schuster - Atheneum)
When I read books by Nancy Farmer, I don't go away thinking Oh, I wish I could write like that. I go away thinking I wish I could tell a story like that. This one, centered around a clone living in a future that's also the past, pokes at what we think is life and the will to live. It pokes at the way we don't always think for ourselves, don't question, and don't always realize what we're doing of our own accord and what is being imposed on us. All that sounds pretty heavy, but this is definitely a high-stakes adventure.

I was spoiled by some of the pre-story stuff. A character list gives away what, for me, was a huge plot point. Sure, I would have figured it out, but I like to figure things out! You might want to skip ahead and dive right into the story.

Lord of the Nutcracker Men (Readers Circle)Lord of the Nutcracker Men by Iain Lawrence (Random House - Laurel Leaf)
Lord of the Nutcracker Men is set in WWI England, and told by a boy that's sent out of the city. He ends up with his aunt, a teacher. His mother works in a munitions factory and his father goes off to war, writing letters to his son and sending little carved soldiers. The boy believes, after a time, that the games he plays are having an outcome on the war--and why wouldn't he, when dead men visit him in the back garden?

Especially moving was how the author integrated the 1914 England-Germany Christmas truce in at the end. There are certainly some narrative flaws, places where things are dropped or not really explained for someone who doesn't already know about the time (like the fate of the boy's mother), but it was a good read overall.

LoserLoser by Jerry Spinelli (HarperCollins) such a swift read that I found myself on page 30 before I realized it is written in present tense, which does not jar here, though I'm more of a past tense sort of girl. The protagonist is a loser. He can't catch. He's clumsy. He's unaware that he's a loser--and yet, you feel sorry for the 'winners' long before the end of the book, because they miss out on the best parts of living. Make me a loser any day! Very much recommended for someone feeling out of sorts or out of place.

Friday, July 24, 2009

A 2004 Book Roundup

One of the frustrations of pulling together old, mostly-forgotten reviews is that I'm missing the gut feeling of love, hate, or indifference, and I've since forgotten the details of why. Hence, I've culled a few reviews that aren't much more than a title and an impression, but otherwise, I thought I had enough to go on for the handful of long-ago reads listed below.

The Wish ListThe Wish List by Eoin Colfer (Scholastic)
Eoin Colfer is an incredibly funny guy. I could listen to him talk all day long. I am a fan of Artemis Fowl--though I admit that I have gotten so lost in the order of that series and so pained by accidentally buying multiple copies in that series, I haven't kept up with it in a while. The Wish List has a Pratchettian feel in its humor, but it deals with issues of life and death--or life and afterlife. A girl dies with her soul perfectly balanced in terms of good and evil deeds; St. Peter and Beelzebub agree that she can have a few more days (in spirit form) to tip the scale one way or the other. In the meantime, she's stuck with (and sometimes in) a crotchety old man. While this isn't a re-read for me, I think it's worth a look for Colfer fans.

The Supernaturalist (Golden Duck Awards. Eleanor Cameron Award for Middle Grades (Awards))The Supernaturalist by Eoin Colfer (was Miramax; now Disney-Hyperion)
I think that The Supernaturalist surprised me so much because it was a departure from the other widely available books by Colfer in 2004. It's grittier, less fantasy, more speculative futurey, more wryly cynical. Think Ender's Game crossed with Angel (the tv series). In a future dystopia, an orphaned boy, a tough ex-gangster chica, a person of short stature, and a sulky teen are facing life-sucking parasites that only they can see. Lawyers parachute onto the scene before paramedics and police. The paralegals are scarier than the gangsters. And cellophane is a weapon!

THE City of Ember [Paperback]The City of Ember by Jeanne Du Prau (Random House - Yearling)
To be upfront, before you read the rest of this review, this book and I weren't such a good fit. For me, there was too much beginning and not enough middle or end--though, of course, it became a series, and perhaps I'd have liked the later installments. This volume is open-ended in a sort of The Giver way, and the kids reading that book might also like this one. Ember has an interesting premise: when the lights are on, it's day; when they're out, night. But supplies are running low, and blackouts are starting to happen. Over time, one realizes that the city is underground, though the protagonists don't figure it out for a while. I didn't quite buy the premise, even as explained (finally) at the very, very end, and some of the point of view switching didn't work for me, but this series has been very popular with kids, even prompting a film version, and my aunt reports that kids in Alaska take to the concept of night and day being regulated by lights on and off, given their long, dark winters. So, while this wasn't for me, it might be a good read for you!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Rock and Roll with Trolls

Boots and the Seven Leaguers: A Rock-and-Troll Novel by Jane Yolen (Sandpiper) is a quick, fun read. All Gog wants to do is go to the Boots and the Seven Leaguers concert, but things go a bit crazy; his little brother just has to tag along while Gog's trying to pass as a roadie to see his favorite band. When Magog goes missing, Gog will have to figure out how to save him, if only he can get past some of the magical creatures standing in his way. And if he's lucky, he can still make it back in time for the music.

One of the best things about this story that threads together bits of various traditional tales: It's funny. Trolls aren't usually heroes, and Gog isn't all that excited to be one himself. I'd especially recommend Boots for middle grade students and music lovers. Future fans of Terry Pratchett might enjoy this as well.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Singer of All Songs - read in 2004

The Singer of All Songs (Chanters of Tremaris Trilogy, Book 1)The Singer of All Songs by Kate Constable (Scholastic)
Calwyn is a priestess with the ability to sing ice, a wall of which protects her village. When word comes that an evil sorcerer plans to learn this and other song magic, and theoretically control the world as The Singer of All Songs, Calwyn decides she has to be part of the battle for good. An ensemble cast broadens her power of the non-singing sort. As a musician, I was thrilled to find a book that combined magic and music (if they can be said to be separate!), and though I didn't remember to pick up the rest of the trilogy when it was published, I might do that now out of curiosity, particularly to see how the author fleshes out the rules and world.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Blue Girl - Charles de Lint (Read in 2004)

The Blue GirlThe Blue Girl by Charles de Lint (Penguin - Firebird) is another showcase of the author as a master writer, and he knows his universes backward and forward. Want to talk continuity? It's there, from the way magic works to the characters that pop up time and again. p. I fell in love with the stories in Moonlight and Vines and I was "uncomfortabled" in a good way by The Blue Girl, which is YA fiction for everyone. I particularly liked that this story was about friendship, and I often find that theme to be lacking in YA, even though friendships are at the heart of many teens' everyday experiences. This is urban fantasy, but not the urban fantasy that's really paranormal romance, and a fantasy of two very, very different girls finding themselves and themselves as friends.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Two by Siobhan Dowd

Bog Child (Random House - David Fickling Books) is a tapestry of a coming-of-age tale. Set in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, it follows Fergus, a young man just finishing his schooling and hoping his grades will position him for university, after which he'd like to be a doctor. When he and his uncle go out to steal peat to sell, Fergus discovers the body of a child in the bog, and dreams of this relic's life begin to haunt him. His days are haunted with matters both trivial and important--will he make it through his exams? Should he cooperate with the Irish Republican Army? Can he be friends with a solider who might shoot his friends and family to keep order? Will Cora, the daughter of the archaeologist investigating the bog child, ever notice him? Will his older brother die from his hunger strike, and will Fergus's family survive the loss intact?

Readers without much knowledge of the conflict that is the backdrop for Bog Child might find the first third of the book is easier if they take a few minutes to review the history, and still others might struggle with unfamiliar terms and idioms; U.S. readers have few opportunities to hear such a voice among what's being published commercially. Still, the book is a satisfying read as the plot threads come together to form a wistful picture of growing up in modern-era wartime.
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