By Elizabeth Wroten
On 28, May 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
My reading has really lessened in the last month or so, but I did squeeze in a few really wonderful titles, including several with diverse main characters. I apologize, this is a long post. You may want to read it in parts to break it up. For brevity’s sake I linked the title of each book to the GoodReads record instead of including the plot description.
The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater: Finally! A middle book in a trilogy (series?) that doesn’t read like it’s just trying to get you to the next one. Actually that’s not fair, I’ve read a number of good middle books, but they always feel so few and far between. I picked up the first book because it was getting such good reviews, but enjoyed it so much that I decided I would keep reading the series. I find a few of the characters a bit exasperating (Blue is occasionally obtuse and Adam needs to work on that chip on his shoulder), but they are all so well drawn, so human, and just on the other side of weird that I love them. Gansey especially. I mean, I know he’s a golden boy (cool, composed, rich, well-educated, etc.) but he has this obsessive side when it comes to finding Glendower that just doesn’t fit with all that and makes him incredibly interesting. Ronan is also a favorite of mine. Truth be told if I was 16 again he would be the one I had a crush on. He’s a bit dangerous and unpredictable, but he’s had tragedy that explains a lot of that. He’s also smart, incredibly loyal, and a good friend despite his gruff exterior. Dream Thieves was primarily about Ronan which if the series continues to focus on different characters (it seems the next one will feature Blue) I like that format. It really gets you into the story in different ways and allows you to see if from fresh angles. I have to say I’m still wondering where it’s all going. I suppose there are glimpses, but I’m not sure exactly how the quest will resolve and how all the pieces will fit together. I can’t decide if this means the story feels less polished or if it makes it better that you can’t figure it all out early on.
Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow by Faize Guene: This was a quick, but really worthwhile, read. Doria lives in the projects just outside Paris and she and her mother just can’t seem to catch a break. Her father has recently left them to move back to Morocco to marry a younger woman which starts a downward spiral. Not only does this essentially leave Doria and her mother destitute, it leaves them angry and broken. Doria’s mother has never worked and can only find a job as a hotel maid where the hours are long and she is constantly put down. Both Doria and her mother struggle with their new situation and seem to sink deeper and deeper into despair. Doria is failing in school where she can’t focus and where teachers don’t seem to care, so she’s sent off to a beauty school for her final year in high school, something she is less than thrilled with. But, while Doria’s a little sad and maybe even a little self pitying, she is incredibly funny. “I saw myself more with MacGyver. A guy who can unclog a toilet with a can of Coke, fix the TV with a Bic pen, and give your hair a perfect blowout with his breath. A human Swiss Army Knife.” About her dentist, “When she was a teenager, she must have had to choose between wrestler, riot cop, and dentist. It can’t have been easy to decide, but she picked the one job out of the three that combines violence with perversity. No doubt it was more fun for a psychopath like her.” I laughed out loud so many times. And I think this sums up the book pretty well. Doria ultimately finds something to be hopeful about. Things to begin to look up. There are a couple social workers who visit regularly and they get them services they need. Doria’s mother takes classes and learns to read. She gets a better job and is actually home more with Doria. She even makes friends with the woman who taught the French classes and now has someone to talk to. Doria’s only friend from the projects cleans up his act (mostly) and begins dating the young woman who Doria babysat for. She makes peace with the beauty school and decides she can use it to get a job and as a stepping stone. And she may have even found a friend (or boyfriend?) in one of the Arab boys that lives in the projects too. Life doesn’t seem so bleak.
Tsarina by J. Nelle Patrick: I picked this one up because it was set in Russia. I’m personally interested in reading fiction set in Russia right now thanks to the Grisha trilogy. Unfortunately this one didn’t quite live up to my personal standards. I did read it all and I wouldn’t say it was bad, just not super interesting to me and I didn’t fall in love with the language of it. However, I can see it really appealing to teens because it has a lot of really great elements. It’s based in exciting historical events (the Russian revolution and downfall of the Russian monarchy), but has bits of magic woven in, primarily in the form of a magical Faberge egg. There is friendship and betrayal and secrets. There is even romance that is quiet and slow-growing but still swoon-y. Plus Natalya is surprisingly plucky and determined even if she isn’t particularly savvy or brave and despite the fact that she’s set up as a spoiled rich girl. She also doesn’t give up her beliefs just for the boy she has a crush on. So maybe this one can be chalked up as great YA, not such a great crossover?
The Burning Sky by Sherry Thomas: This was an awesome book! In addition to consciously selecting books with diversity I am also trying hard this year to read genres that I don’t read much in. Fantasy is one of these, although I always enjoy the fantasy that I read so I couldn’t explain why I don’t read much of it. I think one of the reasons I really loved The Burning Sky was because it put me in mind of one of my favorite steampunk series, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld. I’m pretty sure it was the convincingly cross-dressed girl combined with a prince that did that. Iolanthe is a great character although we don’t learn much about her. She herself is surprised to find she doesn’t know much about herself fairly early on. She’s reluctant to be sure, but she’s also loyal, frightened, brave even is she doesn’t know it, and a survivor. Plus she essentially makes a bunch of “your mom” jokes and is accepted into the pack of boys at Eton. Prince Titus is kind of an enigma, but I think he is also unsure of who he is. His whole life he’s been living for his mother’s prophecies, waiting for one in particular to come to pass, one that will set things in motion to free his people from the rule of Atlantis. It will also set into motion events that will ultimately kill him. That’s some weighty stuff to live under. But he is nothing if not prepared and he’s quite clever in how prepared he is. He has learned all sorts of magic, created a place for this other person who will eventually join him at Eton (that would be Iolanthe, but he doesn’t know it until “the event” has passed), learned to fight and done a fair amount of studying of history so he has tactics and information to help. He isn’t really living for himself, but for his people and the revolution that may set them free. There was plenty of adventure in the book, as well as romance, suspense, and inaction. The pacing was really good, actually, but this could be because there are supposed to be two more books. It could have felt like there was too much crammed in. I will say the world building was strong in some regards and weak in others. It was unclear to me how their kingdom/land tied in with Victorian England. I wasn’t sure if Atlantis is actually mythological Atlantis or just the name borrowed. The rest of the magic and fantasy aspects I think were either self-explanatory or quickly became obvious.
On a totally useless side note, I just saw this fire dragon/phoenix thing that’s on the front cover on the cover of another book. And now I can’t remember or find what other book. I think it was an older book, but seriously I cannot remember. I have to say I hate it when publishers reuse images (pictures, graphics, etc.), but I feel like librarians may be some of the only people who notice because we see so many books. Of course none of this has anything to do with the quality of The Burning Sky.
The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich: I know Louise Erdrich is one of the premiere Native American authors, but her adult books sound way too depressing. That’s actually one of my biggest complaints about adult literature is how damn depressing it is without ever feeling hopeful and that, in turn, is why I prefer YA. The Birchbark House is actually totally appropriate for middle and lower school students and it’s a really wonderful book. I picked it up because it was recommended as an alternative to the Little House on the Prarie series by Angie Manfredi in her Circulating Ideas interview. I read the Little House books ages ago as kid and don’t really remember how I felt about them. However, Angie points out that they’re pretty problematic in their depiction of the Native Americans (the TV show apparently cleaned a lot of that up). I think if you’re reading them in a historical context and are aware of it, that’s okay, but most kids pick them up and read them as some of the first chapter books they read on their own and therein lies the problem. The Birchbark House is simply a depiction of Little Frog’s life in the same time period. It’s just a beautiful, slow story about life over one year. There is joy and tragedy, hunger and abundance. There isn’t really any adventure (unless you count Little Frog’s encounters with a playful pair of bear cubs), but there is storytelling around the fire. You see how bleak their lives could be in the deep of winter, but you also see how beautiful their connection with nature can be too. Smallpox does come to their island home and what happens is incredibly sad, but Little Frog also comes to accept and deal with the loss and sorrow. While this is easy enough for kids who read the Little House books to tackle on their own, I think it would make a really wonderful read aloud too.
The Clockwork Scarab by Colleen Gleason: I was so-so on this one. I liked that it combined a vampire hunter (Bram Stoker’s much younger sister) and a detective (Sherlock’s niece) but I wasn’t especially fond of either of them. They were both a bit petty, although the ending humbled them quite a bit and I wonder if further installments would be better. I didn’t think the steampunk was well enough explained either, but that’s probably just a personal preference. Really I picked it up because the cover is awesome and I always read things with Egyptology/Egypt themes. Even if they’re terrible. All that said I can totally see why this would appeal to the real YA audience and actually I think it would have been a good fit for me in high school. The writing was certainly fine and the story exciting and dramatic.
Delilah Dirk and Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff: This is the type of book I wish had been around when I was younger. It’s got adventure and a beautiful but smart and accomplished heroine. Delilah likes to make trouble but she’s clearly got some kind of Robin Hood style plan up her sleeve. Poor Selim, he’s a good guy and is obviously tied to being neat and tidy and in a routine, but he gets sucked into the hurricane that is Delilah. And yet, he learns to go with and actually seeks her out after some time apart. The graphic novel format makes this one go down easy. Which isn’t to say that graphic novels are lesser than novels, just that when I wasn’t as strong of a reader I needed the picture support and visual breaks instead of so many words. My one complaint was that in the beginning Delilah looked a lot more like her Greek heritage and at some point she shifted to looking a lot more white. I was really confused by this and it took some flipping back and forth to figure it out. Still, she drives (?) a flying boat and kicks a lot of ass. How can you not love this book?
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 12, Feb 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: When Yeats and his parents visit his grandmother’s creepy old house, Yeats reunites a pair of pirate bookends and uncovers the amazing truth: Years ago, Yeats’s father traveled into The Arabian Nights with a friend, and the friend, Shari, is still stuck in the tales. Assisted by the not-always-trustworthy pirates, Yeats must navigate the unfamiliar world of the story of Shaharazad–dodging guards and tigers and the dangerous things that lurk in the margins of the stories–in order to save Shari and bring peace to his family.
This was a book I came across quite by accident. I saw it on the shelf when I was dusting in the library where I volunteer and picked it up. The cover plus the promise of pirates were the deciding factors. I also have a soft spot for The Arabian Nights, which is charmingly called Alf Laylah wa Laylah in Arabic which translates exactly as One Thousand Nights and Night. Fortunately you don’t need any knowledge of the classic, although I wouldn’t be surprised if some kids picked it up after being immersed in a very exciting way in its world. This is definitely a book for kids who like to read and like fantasies. It wasn’t the most literary of books I’ve read lately, but it had likable characters, an interesting idea behind it, and a very exciting plot. I wish there was either a sequel or more exploration of the house where Yeats grandmother lives. There is a lot of magic about and I would have loved to hear more about it.
Between Two Ends, however, brought up an issue for me and that is typos. I haven’t ever held the fact that a book has typos against it, but it irks me when they do. Once I really started reading a lot of books I started finding typos all over the place. Everywhere. Some books will only have one or two, but far too many have a lot more than that. Belly Up was by far the worst. I lost count of how many that had.
By typos I mean misspelled words, extra spaces between words, sentences that are missing words or even sentences that it seems have been edited but fragments of the original are still there. I am not a punctuation person so I rarely catch those if they’re there, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they happens considering how many of the other types I see. Between Two Ends only had two that I found, but they were egregious. In two instances the word “then” was printed instead of “than”. That’s bad. Really bad. I remember back when I was teaching second grade this was a hard concept to teach the kids because people don’t enunciate and it was hard for them to hear. But a professionally printed book making that mistake? Wow.
I don’t know if this is something that is peculiar to YA/MG or why it happens. I am not familiar enough with the publishing and editing industry that I know why exactly this happens. Do they not read the book before it goes off to the printer? Oftentimes I wonder if it’s the fact that they haven’t read the book in its final form. But seriously, simply taking an extra couple days to read through it would catch these little errors. I am not a good speller, I don’t have a grasp on punctuation rules, I even have typos on my blog from time to time (or probably in each post :)), but these are professional level novels.
As I said, though, I haven’t ever let it get in the way of my enjoyment of a book. Does anyone else find typos in books? Do they bother you?
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 27, Nov 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodRead: In this hilarious chapter book mystery, meet a girl whose parents have been kidnapped by disreputable foxes, and a pair of detectives that also happen to be bunnies! When Madeline gets home from school one afternoon to discover that her parents have gone missing, she sets off to find them. So begins a once-in-a-lifetime adventure involving a cast of unforgettable characters. There’s Mr. and Mrs. Bunny, who drive a smart car, wear fedoras, and hate marmots; the Marmot, who loves garlic bread and is a brilliant translator; and many others.
This is the funniest book I have read in ages. Maybe ever. The characters are ridiculous. The plot is ridiculous. The whole premise is just plain silly. I tend to have a dry, dark sense of humor and there are definitely dry and darkly humorous moments, but the sheer silliness of the book (and a few wink, wink kind of moments) totally bowled me over.
While this is clearly fantasy and you have to believe that animals can talk and interact with humans, there are all these little moments when you realize Horvath has been almost literal about applying the fantasy story to the real world. For example, Mr. and Mrs. Bunny buy a house that comes with a SmartCar. I assumed it was a rabbit-sized car, but it turns out it’s an honest-to-goodness, human-sized SmartCar. They have to have Madeleine drive it because, as rabbits, they are too small. And for some reason these moments are some of the funniest moments of the book.
I did find myself wondering if the intended age range for this book would get the jokes and I’m still not exactly sure. I think there is plenty of humor and adventure in this book for younger readers that, even if they don’t get all the jokes, they will still love the book. Plus with multiple readings they will pick up more and more and this is most certainly the type of book you read over and over. I also think it’s really for the quirkier reader. I actually think this would make the perfect read aloud because, like the movie Shrek, there are several layers of humor and story going on which make it interesting and funny for adults and kids alike.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 26, Sep 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Ben and Rose secretly wish their lives were different. Ben longs for the father he has never known. Rose dreams of a mysterious actress whose life she chronicles in a scrapbook. When Ben discovers a puzzling clue in his mother’s room and Rose reads an enticing headline in the newspaper, both children set out alone on desperate quests to find what they are missing.
Set fifty years apart, these two independent stories–Ben’s told in words, Rose’s in pictures–weave back and forth with mesmerizing symmetry. How they unfold and ultimately intertwine will surprise you, challenge you, and leave you breathless with wonder.
I am ready to go live in a museum. Actually I have been ready since I read From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (what kid wasn’t ready after that book), but Wonderstruck made me remember that desire. In Wonderstruck, Ben’s mother has recently died and while poking through some of her things he finds a few clues to who his father may have been. Using the clues, Ben runs away to New York City. He ends up at the natural history museum where he is befriended by one of the curators sons who hides him in an old storeroom that just so happens to be connected to his mysterious father. Toward the end of the story Ben visits a miniature model of the city that was originally an exhibit at the World’s Fair.
So, I’m not the biggest fan of the mixed graphic novel and written novel mediums, but Selznick’s stories are so good that it ends up not mattering. There is just something so cozy about the story and it’s settings. It might have to do with the scenes or the model of the city Ben visits, but I fell in love with this book. Plus Ben is such a neat kid. He’s got pluck and courage and curiosity. Just an all around great story about family and living in museums.
As a post script, I highly suggest reading the Author’s Note at the back where Selznick talks about how he got the inspiration for this story, it is so interesting. I could also see it being pretty inspiring for aspiring writers because his inspiration came from something serendipitous and mundane (he was given a behind the scenes tour of the NYC Natural History Museum and happened to catch a documentary on deaf culture and how the move from silent films to talkies impacted it).
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 08, Mar 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
He wears a black band on his lower right leg and an orange flag on his upper left, bearing the laser inscription B95. Scientists call him the Moonbird because, in the course of his astoundingly long lifetime, this gritty, four-ounce marathoner has flown the distance to the moon—and halfway back!
B95 is a robin-sized shorebird, a red knot of the subspecies rufa. Each February he joins a flock that lifts off from Tierra del Fuego, headed for breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic, nine thousand miles away. Late in the summer, he begins the return journey.
B95 can fly for days without eating or sleeping, but eventually he must descend to refuel and rest. However, recent changes at ancient refueling stations along his migratory circuit—changes caused mostly by human activity—have reduced the food available and made it harder for the birds to reach. And so, since 1995, when B95 was first captured and banded, the worldwide rufa population has collapsed by nearly 80 percent. Most perish somewhere along the great hemispheric circuit, but the Moonbird wings on. He has been seen as recently as November 2011, which makes him nearly twenty years old. Shaking their heads, scientists ask themselves: How can this one bird make it year after year when so many others fall?
In the interest of full disclosure, I am a sucker for birds. While many librarians are crazy cat ladies, I am a crazy bird lady. We own seven. So of course I read this book, right? Well, I almost didn’t. I got about halfway through the first chapter and found myself incredibly frustrated with the sidebars that kept interrupting my reading. They either cut off the paragraph I was in the middle of or horned in on the side crying out for attention, right in the middle of my sentence. It’s apparently been awhile since I’ve read any nonfiction intended for a young audience or a textbook. I like sidebars, and these had a lot of excellent and pertinent information, but who placed them in the book? Jeez. They were so distracting.
Sidebar rant aside, this is a book about one incredible bird, a bird who has lived nearly 2o years to fly the equivalent of the distance to the moon and at least halfway back. It’s also the story of his species and many other speices. The book does a brilliant job of subtley showing its audience how all things in nature are connected and how all our actions have an impact. In the end this is a book about conservation, but it addresses a polarizing and touchy subject lightly and by employing such a remarkable and unlikely hero that it never feels like preaching.
I was constantly reminded of the documentary Winged Migration, the movie Fly Away Home and even Project UltraSwan. Kids need stories like all these as they are the kind that inspire children to want to be conservationists, biologists, or ornithologists. Or just simply to get outside.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 22, Feb 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, step inside Mosco’s Traveling Wonder Show, a menagerie of human curiosities and misfits guaranteed to astound and amaze! But perhaps the strangest act of Mosco’s display is Portia Remini, a normal among the freaks, on the run from McGreavy’s Home for Wayward Girls, where Mister watches and waits. He said he would always find Portia, that she could never leave. Free at last, Portia begins a new life on the bally, seeking answers about her father’s disappearance. Will she find him before Mister finds her? It’s a story for the ages, and like everyone who enters the Wonder Show, Portia will never be the same.
Despite the cover, this is not the book for the kid who wants to run away and join the circus. Too bad because we’ve all been there, right? I mean, there is some running away and there is a circus, but really it’s a book about finding. Finding yourself, finding your family, finding a family, finding a future, finding where you belong and who you belong to.
In actuality, this a a book for kids who like their fiction a bit dark and even a bit sad and melancholy. It is absoultely beautifully written. Even though most children have not been sent off to a home for wayward girls for being too imaginative and unmanageable, Portia is so familiar a character. She’s headstrong, angst-y, and ready to grow up, but she also longs for the more magical and comforting time of her childhood. In the end her story isn’t about being sent away or looking for her father, but about finding a place in the wider, lonely world and making a family for herself from the hodge-podge of people she finds herself amongst.
Wonder Show really reminded me of Carnivale, a television show from a few years back. It was dark, conflicted, and…adult. This book tried to be and there were hints of cruelty, sexuality, and abuse, but in the end it was a middle-grade novel. I think if nothing else, this Yalsa Hub reading challenge is teaching me a lot about what I like to read and what I can see value in for other readers. The thing is, I will read just about anything and, if not love it, at least lose myself in the story. And I guess what I’m finding is I like the more adult books and, really, as a kid I think I would have too. Leaving out the complexities of the world, especially a world as dark as a traveling freak show, always feels like pandering to me. Yet, I still connected with the book and with Portia.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 26, Nov 2012 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
When it comes to finding out about new books and materials, I’m a pretty traditional girl. I subscribe to review journals; I follow blogs; I poke around online; I even occasionally hear about stuff by word of mouth. But the latest book I came across was not found through any of these channels. No joke, I found it at the grocery store. It was a nice grocery store, but a grocery store nonetheless. I think it was the illustrations that drew me to it on the book table by the cheeses. They resemble Maira Kalman’s artwork.
I really hate those ploys at the grocery store that try to snare you into buying something really expensive simply because it’s a non-food item that you are buying from the food store. I also hate the way they lay things out to entice you to buy more than you need, mostly because it’s so darn clever. But I am so glad I gave in this once.
The Perfect Thanksgiving is, at heart, a simple story that I think everyone can relate to. The narrator, a young girl, compares her family’s zany Thanksgiving feast and festivities with that of another young girl, Abigail Archer. Abigail’s family has the Martha Stewart equivalent of a Thanksgiving. The pies are perfect, there are chocolates on the pillows for all the guest, for whom there is ample room. The turkey is all white meat and is expertly carved.
The narrator, who’s name you never learn, has a family and Thanksgiving more like what ours looks like. Things are spilled, the pies come from the store, her mother dresses casually and makes Jell-o molds. There is too much family to fit in the house and the relatives create lots of havoc and noise. It is a boisterous holiday to say the least.
However, at the end, the little girl points out that her Thanksgiving and Abigail’s are the same in one very, and ultimately the only, important way. They both enjoy loving families. This message is a good one for all children, but I think it is even more resonant in this day and age where families look more like those on Modern Family than on Leave It To Beaver. No child should feel bad because their family doesn’t fit some “traditional” model and I think this book does a sweet job of presenting that message in a way that doesn’t feel forced or apologetic.