Friday, April 29, 2011

Blog Giveaway

The Nostalgic Librarian is hosting another giveaway on her blog, this time for unpublished YA galleys, including Colleen Houck's Tiger's Quest, the sequel to Tiger's Curse (which finally arrived at my library for processing this week - I was getting tired of waiting!).  Check out the giveaway, and while you're at it, take a look at her Etsy shop, where you'll find some really cute jewelry. :)

Friday, April 22, 2011

Review - "Cloaked"

I've said before that I'm a fan of fairy tales, and fairy tales deconstructed. I find these stories fascinating, the way they move across cultures and adapt for their surroundings. So any time a book incorporates fairy tales in its storytelling, you better bet I'll be nearby. I loved Alex Flinn's Beastly, a solid story from a different point of view with wonderful touches of magic and modernity. I haven't read her A Kiss in Time (it's on my list), but I just had the opportunity to put my paws on her newest novel, Cloaked, which once again takes up the hero's point of view and puts him on the road for a rollicking good adventure.
Taking its cues from half a dozen fairy tales (at least), Cloaked tells the story of Johnny Marco, a seventeen-year-old living in South Beach, working at his family's shoe repair shop.
"My family's run the shoe repair at the Coral Reef Grand, a posh hotel on South Beach, since before I was born - first my grandparents, then my parents, now my mother and me. So I've met the famous and the infamous, the rich and the...poor (okay, that would be me), wearers of Bruno Magli, Manolo Blahnik, and Converse (again, me). I know the beautiful people. Or at least I know their feet."
Then one day a princess walks into his shop, the young Victoriana from Aloria, a fictional, French-speaking country, and turns his life upside down. One minute Johnny's biggest worry is how to pay the electric bill, the next, he's off on a quest for the princess to recover her brother, Philippe, who has been turned into a frog and is loose somewhere in south Florida. There is magic in the world, he discovers, and he learns to use part of it by means of a cloak that will taken him anywhere he wishes (but he must learn to be very specific) and an earpiece that will allow him to speak with animals, at least those who used to be human. Along his way, Johnny is joined on his quest by his best friend, Meg, and sparks fly in every direction when they get close and when they fight. All fairy tales must have a happy ending, of course, and this one does it up right, with a few twists and surprises on the way (although I wasn't particularly surprised by one of them).
Part of the charm of Cloaked is Johnny. He's affable, a sort of teenage everyboy, but one that harbors a special dream and talent. He wants to design and make women's shoes. That in and of itself is unusual, but I love that Flinn doesn't make a big deal about it. The dude loves shoes, and that's just fine. Johnny's an easy character to like, necessary for the kind of journey Flinn puts him on, so that even when he does something dumb (and he does, often), you're still on his side. Meg doesn't succeed quite as well. She's a little bit of a stock friend character, but charming in her own way. I just happened to find the princess, with her frantic faith in Johnny as a "good boy" and slightly sneaky manipulation of her own image, a little more interesting, and I was a bit disappointed when we didn't get more of her.
The fairy tales are the real gem of this book, though. Here are stories less well known than your average princess tale, including "The Salad", a personal favorite of mine. Also at work in Cloaked are "The Elves and the Shoemaker" (of course), "The Six Swans" and "The Fisherman and His Wife". I was thrilled to find a fairy tale at work that even I was unaware of; Flinn names it "The Golden Bird", though it was originally a Russian tale called "The Firebird and the Gray Wolf". Flinn incorporates all these tales quite deftly, spinning them together into a story of her own, one that captures the imagination and keeps you on the edge of your seat. This is a must read for dedicated fairy tale fans.
Cloaked by Alex Finn
2011, HarperCollins
Library copy

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Review - "Me...Jane"

It’s a sad truth, perhaps, but I’ll buy just about any book with a giraffe on the cover.  I love giraffes.  Outside of my cat, I think they’re the most marvelous animals on the planet.  So how psyched was I to discover that one of my most anticipated titles of the spring turned out to not only have a giraffe on the cover, but on the spine as well!  Instant purchase.  That title, of course, is Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell.

Me…Jane is a picture book biography of Jane Goodall, focusing on her early years with her stuffed chimpanzee named Jubilee.  Jane and Jubilee love to play, to be outdoors and explore.  “Jane learned all that she could about the animals and plants she studied in her backyard and read about in books.”  She investigates chickens and eggs, and has a favorite tree where she takes Jubilee to read her favorite books about Tarzan and dream about a life in Africa.  The book ends with Jane waking one day to find “her dream come true”.

This book is truly gorgeous, illustrated in ink and watercolors.  Everything has a brownish/beigish tinge to it, giving a pleasant antiquey feel.  With few exceptions, there is a text page and an opposing illustration, but even the text pages are illustrated with delicate stamps and sketches of natural objects and relevant imagery.  For example, opposite the illustration of Jane hiding in the chicken coop to witness the miracle of eggs is an image of a pocket watch.  The text is spare but every word counts.  McDonnell paints a vivid portrait of a young Goodall , whose eager scholarship and energy is infectious.  The book includes back matter on Goodall’s life and a short message from the woman herself.

Biographies to me are tricky things.  Biographies written for children are especially tricky, because where do you draw the line between the truth and an appropriate audience? (Lost Boy: The Story of the Man Who Created Peter Pan by Jane Yolen gives me especial pause, though I have yet to read the book myself.)  McDonnell did a smart thing here by choosing to focus only on the young Jane, and give but a glimpse of the woman, while still instilling the spirit of Goodall’s life and work in a few pages and drawings.  Me…Jane is my favorite picture book of the year thus far, and one I hope ends up on some Caldecott lists.  It more than deserves the attention.

Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell
2011, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Personal copy

Monday, April 18, 2011

Review - "Lizard Music"

I've read some strange books in my time. There's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which was not nearly as weird as it could have been), the Hitchhiker's canon, The True Meaning of Smekday (a personal favorite of mine), etc. I like strange. It makes a welcome change from the everyday, every once and a while. But I have never in my life read anything as wondrously strange as Daniel Pinkwater's Lizard Music.
I'll admit this is my first Pinkwater title, though I've had a copy of The Neddiad hanging around the house for a few years, unread. I ordered Lizard Music on the recommendation of Elizabeth from A Fuse 8 Production. Originally published in 1976, it was reprinted this year by The New York Review Children's Collection.
Eleven-year-old Victor has been left alone in his home for two weeks, first by his parents who have gone on vacation, then by his older sister Leslie who is supposed to be watching him but leaves for a Cape Cod camping trip instead. Left to his own devices, Victor stays up past the late night movie and sees something extraordinary: Lizards playing instruments. From here on out, it's one strange occurrence after another. Victor meets a man on the bus most consistently known as the Chicken Man who seems to know something about these strange lizards, but good luck getting a straight answer. Victor's investigations finally lead him to the island of the lizards, where questions are answered, in a way, and everything is strange and marvelous, but almost familiar.
I've heard from reputable sources that this is the perfect middle grade novel for boys. Not being a boy, I can't attest to that fully, but I can certainly see the appeal. Victor living on his own fulfills an independent fantasy most children have, and his adventure with the Chicken Man has everything you need for a good read. It has mystery, excitement, conspiracy theories, chickens and an expected but satisfying conclusion. I can very easily see boys getting into the strange elements of the story, and even starting to look for strange occurrences in their own lives because of it. The book is dated, however, and some references will float over the heads of modern readers. How many eleven-year-olds these days know who Walter Cronkite is? Thankfully, these outdated elements don't take away from the clear and entertaining storytelling. Thanks to the new reprint, I can imagine this book being around for years to come.
Lizard Music by Daniel Pinkwater
2011, The New York Review Children's Collection (originally published in 1976)
Library copy

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Review - "Like the Willow Tree"

Confession time.  Until recently, I had never read any of the titles in the Dear America series.  Originally published from 1996 to 2004, they were simply after my time of middle grade reading, and before my time as a children's bookseller and librarian.  It's only now that the series was re-launched in 2010 that they've really come onto my radar, and only when presented with a new title written by Lois Lowry did I make an attempt at reading one.  Lowry's new book, Like the Willow Tree: The Diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce is the newest title in the Dear America series, but it is much more than just another title in a bunch. 
Lydia Pierce thinks herself to be quite ordinary.  She lives with her parents, her older brother Daniel and her baby sister Lucy in Portland, Maine, and in the year 1918, she turns eleven.  1918 is also the year of the great Spanish Influenza epidemic, which claims the lives of Lydia's mother, father and sister, in the course of one short week.  Now orphans, Lydia and her brother go to live with their Uncle Henry and his family, but life there is crowded and unwelcoming, and they are soon moved again, this time to Sabbathday Lake, a nearby Shaker community.  It is here that Lydia must learn a new way of living, so different from her old life.  On her first day, two of her prized possessions, her copy of The Secret Garden and her grandmother's opal ring, are taken away from her (because the Shakers do not ornament themselves, and believe in communal property).  As a Shaker, Lydia must work, doing laundry, helping in the kitchen, knitting (which she hates) and making candy (which she can't wait to do).  But there is also school and play, and new friends made, including the cheerful Grace, who talks of one day leaving the Sabbathday Lake, marrying and having a family.  Over time, Lydia becomes accustomed to her new life, but brother Daniel does not, and one day he runs away, leaving Lydia with nothing but worry and the loss of the last ties to her old family life. 
Though she begins her diary as many typical eleven year olds would, with the sentence "I am desolate", there is a gentleness that comes to Lydia's narrative that inspired from her time living among the Shakers.  Lowry does a wonderful job of infusing the diary with the peace Lydia finds there.  This is achieved partly by the addition of several Shaker hymns, which add solemnity, but not heaviness.  I found Lydia's transformation as she eased into her hardworking, simplified Shaker life to be a breath of fresh air after the weighty gulp that was her earlier confession: "I have not written for eight days.  What could I write?  Father is dead.  Mother is dead.  My baby sister, Lucy, is dead."  I, who had forgotten what the novel was about, felt a good punch of shock at these words.  In some ways, the diary format was limiting, and I wish I could have known more about Lydia's brother, Daniel, instead of only knowing what Lydia knows and thinking what she thinks.  But that would have been a book for another day, I suppose.
 After this first foray into the pool of Dear America titles, I'm sure I'll find more to interest me, and more authors who have supplied books for the series to entice me (I know Karen Hesse wrote at least one).  I don’t know what to expect from the rest, but if they’re anything along the lines of Like the Willow Tree I’ll be satisfied.  Because Lowry, after all these years, still has the power to surprise me, and that’s a wonderful thing
Like the Willow Tree: The Diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce by Lois Lowry
2011, Scholastic
Library copy

Monday, April 11, 2011

Review - "The Books of Umber - The End of Time"

2009's Happenstance Found took me completely by surprise.  I was expecting a decent fantasy, and what I got from author P.W. Catanese was a vigorously imagined world and unforgettable characters.  As the beginning of a trilogy called The Books of Umber, it worked its magic on me and had me hyped and anxiously waiting for the next installment.  2010 brought Dragon Games, and with it more intrigue, more danger and some of the creepiest creatures I've ever encountered.  Seriously, the bidmis, magical beings who ceaselessly ask their master for tasks, gave me nightmares for days.  You can only imagine how impatiently I awaited the release of the third and final book, The End of Time.  Nearly the minute it entered my library's system, I had it checked out to my name.  But I hesitated when it came to starting the book.  It had been a year since I last peeked into the life of Lord Umber and his ward, Happenstance, a year of waiting for the end to come.  What if it didn't meet up to my expectations?  Thankfully, after just a few days of hemming and hawing, I dove right in.
In The End of Time, Lord Umber, Happenstance, and the rest of the crew are almost immediately thrown into adventure when Umber's friends try to lure him out of one of his emotional dark periods.  They venture off to the land of the dragons, in order to return the stolen dragon eggs from Dragon Games.  Once Umber emerges from his funk, so to speak, they return home to find their kingdom on the brink, as the king nears death, and a bloodthirsty prince waits in the wings.  Then of course there’s the sorceress locked away, who’s awake after a long meditation, and ready to cause trouble.  But most importantly, there’s Hap, and the seemingly impossible task Umber and Willy Nilly, the Meddler who made Hap, have placed before him.  That is, saving the world, our world, from itself.  To do this, Hap must learn to read the mysterious filaments that show people’s destinies, and become the powerful Meddler Willy Nilly meant him to be.  Along the way, there’s death, destruction, reunions and departures, lots of action, a thrilling chase scene that retraces the steps of the trilogy and an emotional conclusion.
With both Happenstance Found and Dragon Games, it took me thirty or forty pages to really get into the story.  But once they took off, they were off and running and I was with them all the way.  With The End of Time, I was hooked almost immediately, because Catanese wastes no time in getting our heroes into the action, or in recapping past events.  There is an assumption of knowledge that I find both refreshing and mildly frustrating.  Since it’s been two years since the first book, I had forgotten certain details that came back into play.  Luckily for all of us with faulty memories, though he doesn’t spend time detailing the events of the previous books, Catanese writes with such assuredness and clarity, that everything comes out as it should.
There’s something fascinating to me about Lord Umber, the man from our world who found himself in another and strove to make it a better place.  He reminds me vividly of the Doctor, the titular character from the BBC phenomenon “Doctor Who”, especially as played by David Tennant.  Umber’s wild enthusiasm peppered with periods of morose brooding make him real and fantastic at the same time.  Having a main character suffer from manic depression (though this diagnosis is never named) in a children’s book is challenging, but Catenese is up for the challenge.  Umber’s mood swings are felt deeply, and though only a thin explanation is given, readers can understand the feelings themselves, if not the medical motivation behind them.
Hap on the other hand, is a bit of a mystery to me, always.  It is not until the last act of The End of Time that we get a real understanding of what a Meddler is and does, and this is after Hap makes a decision that is disappointing, but necessarily so.  It’s a turn Catanese makes towards his conclusion, one that I feel he had planned all along, but it tugs at the heartstrings all the same.  At the time I was reading it, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the Epilogue, which picks up the story some thirty years from when we left it.  Part of me felt cheated out of more story, out of this enormous task Hap had been given.  Looking back on it now, I’m more at peace with the decision to reveal what is revealed and withhold what is withheld.  I’ll admit, part of me just doesn’t want to let go of these characters, rich and varied that they are.  But if that’s your biggest problem, it’s a darn good problem to have.
The Books of Umber: The End of Time by P.W. Catanese
2011, Aladdin
Library copy

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Weekend Movie Mini-Review

Emma Thompson can write a cracking good yarn.  First she came out with Nanny McPhee, which was adorable (and featured the scrumptious Colin Firth), and now she’s followed it up with the solid sequel, Nanny McPhee Returns.  I’ve never read the original tales of Nurse Matilda, from which Thompson got her inspiration.  My library doesn’t have the book at the moment, but I plan to put it on my next order, because if the movies are this fun, the book must be worth the time.  In Nanny McPhee Returns, there’s a new family and new children in need of Nanny McPhee’s particuar brand of magical childcare.  It’s World War II, and the Green family takes in cousins from the city to help them escape the bombings.  The cousins don’t get along, and the harried mother, Isabel (played with a shakily ok English accent by Maggie Gyllenhaal), parenting alone because her husband is off fighting, is nearly out of options.  Enter Nanny McPhee, and the unparrelled Ms. Thompson.  Also making a rather surprising appearance is Ralph Fiennes, who works wonders in his small role (and has a glorious comedy gasp).  This movie is sweet, witty, and literate and a fun way to spend an afternoon or evening.  It comes highly recommended. J

Friday, April 8, 2011

Review - "Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream"

As soon as I heard that Jenny Han was releasing a book for early middle grade readers, I did a little dance of joy at my desk.  A new Jenny Han book is always going to be a reason to celebrate, but a new Jenny Han book branching out into yet another age group?  Super celebration time.  Han’s Shug is one of my favorite coming of age books for older middle grade readers, and her YA Summer series (The Summer I Turned Pretty, It’s Not Summer Without You, and the forthcoming We’ll Always Have Summer) is just as successful, and a series I feel comfortable handing to just about any teenage girl.  Han’s newest title, Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream is written for young chapter book readers, and introduces a new character in the adorable Clara Lee.
Clara Lee goes by her first and last name together, because they just sound good that way, “like peanut butter and jelly, like trick-or-treat, or fairy and princess”.  She’s a Korean American third grader, living with her parents, her younger sister Emmeline and her beloved Grandpa.   After a bad dream that Grandpa tells her actually means Good Luck, Clara Lee thinks she just might have enough courage to enter the Little Miss Apple Pie contest, where the winner gets to ride on a float in the annual Apple Blossom Festival parade. 
It’s a simple story, with a simple goal, but gone about in a very relatable way.  Clara Lee’s belief in her Good Luck makes you smile, even while you wish she would believe in herself as much as she does her luck (which of course, she eventually does).  Her desire to be Little Miss Apple Pie is grounded in part by her desire to be “as American as apple pie”.  Han handles this combination of Clara Lee’s Korean self and her American self in a sensitive way that is easily understood, without feeling reductive or overly simplified.
The best thing about a Jenny Han title is the way she gets inside her characters’ heads.  I’ve never read an inauthentic word coming from a Han character, and I don’t think I ever will.  Her girls are real girls, with real thoughts and motivations and a real, honest quality that I find disarming.  Clara Lee is no different.  She’s a charming girl, but has her faults, as any real third grader does.  She finds her little sister annoying.  She’s rude to her parents when she’s in a bad mood.  She has fights with her friends.  But she also knows the value of a good apology, and the wisdom of her Grandpa.  I loved her, and Julia Kuo’s illustrations made me want to reach out and pinch her little cheeks.  She’s that cute.  I certainly hope that this is only the first in a series for Clara Lee, because I think there are more stories to tell and more adventures to be had.  I’ve said before that Lenore Look’s Ruby Lu has earned a place on the shelf beside Ramona, Junie B. and Judy Moody.  Well, there’s a new girl on the block, and I think she’ll fit right in.
Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream by Jenny Han
2011, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Library copy

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Review - "Small Persons with Wings"

I have always loved fairy tales.  When I was a child, I absorbed the stories of the fairy land of Oz, and as an adult I have devoured and dissected the tales of Andrew Lang, the Brothers Grimm and other legends from around the world.  There is something about the fairy tale, whether it involves fairies or not, that endures, and something about that fascinates me.  In the case of Ellen Booraem’s Small Persons with Wings, we’re dealing with fairies (more on that later) and the humans who see them.
First of all, let’s get this out of the way.  The proper name to call these pint-sized pixies is Parvi Pennati, or if you must, “small persons with wings”.  As the book cover pronounces, “they hate to be called fairies”.  Our heroine, Mellie Turpin, lived with a small person with wings when she was a small person without wings, but after a simple childish mistake, Fidius leaves her, which leads Mellie to be teased and ostracized at school (she is teased for her weight and called “Fairy Fat”), and her parents accidentally lead her to believe Fidius wasn’t real.  Because of this, Mellie promptly packs away her imagination and dedicates herself to facts, especially about art history.  With her nose in a book, Mellie survives school and bullies until her grandfather dies and her parents uproot to go and take care of the family inn and pub Ogier Turpin left behind.  Settling into her new home, Mellie discovers oodles of Parvi, and is forced to accept that her imaginary friend was not imaginary after all.
What follows is a little complicated to explain, so I won’t go into detail.  Suffice to say, there is a mystery, a threat, new friends, a creepy villain, some scary moments, some downright bizarre ones, and lots and lots of small persons with wings.  All hinges on a moonstone ring entrusted to the Turpin family and needed by the Parvi for their future survival.  In all, the story is a little too complicated.  There’s French and Latin being thrown around and ancient pacts and magic and lots of little details to keep track of.  Good for us, Booraem seems to know exactly what she’s doing, even if the reader isn’t always sure.  I always felt like there was somewhere important we were going, and I trusted Booraem to get me there.
There’s something to be said about a not altogether likable hero (or heroine).  Nan Marino’s Neil Armstrong is My Uncle and Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me was one of my favorite books of 2009, and Tamara, the heroine, is hardly a girl of sterling character.  In fact, she’s kind of a bully.  But she was utterly relatable, and a huge reason behind my love for the book.  Similarly, if I met Mellie in real life, I’m not sure I would like her.  She can be acerbic, obnoxious and a know-it-all.  Granted, as a girl who has been teased for most of her life, she has reasons to be standoffish, but her personality could still use some polish.  As a character, however, I loved her.  She had spunk, she had spirit.  She felt her fear, then pushed it down and went on in spite of it.  The secondary characters are well fleshed out, especially Mellie’s grandfather, who makes a surprising appearance (to say the least), but Mellie is the star of the show.  It is her hurt that we feel and her determination we latch onto when things look bleak.  Small persons with wings may bring the fantasy, but Mellie brings the heart of this charming fairy tale.
Small Persons with Wings by Ellen Booraem
2011, Dial Books for Young Readers
Library copy