Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Review - "The One and Only Ivan"

Animal books.  I can take them or leave them, frankly.  I’m not sure there’s a single one that I absolutely love, even beautiful, wonderful books like Charlotte’s Web, Black Beauty or The Underneath.  I went through a brief phase in my youth when I read anything Marguerite Henry wrote about horses (my mother is a horsewoman, and it felt like it must be in my blood).  I found that I preferred books written from the animal’s point of view, like Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, rather than books that were simply about animals.  But all the same, I liked them, certainly, but love eluded me.    Imagine my surprise then, when Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan crossed my desk and I found myself inexplicably falling in love.
 Ivan is a silverback gorilla.  He lives in a “domain” at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, along with Stella the elephant, Bob the dog (a stray), and a few other small animals.  They are all kept by a man named Mack, who runs the pseudo-circus several times a day to an ever dwindling number of attendees.  Ivan is settled into this life.  He’s not particularly happy, but nor is he particularly unhappy.  Until one day, a new baby elephant named Ruby joins the group, and Ivan’s world view begins to expand.  He begins to understand what it means to want to be free, to need to be free, and he hatches a plan to get Ruby to safety and change all of their lives.
 I waited a long time to read The One and Only Ivan.  It was released in January of this year, and only came to me in mid-April.  All the while, I kept hearing wonderful things.  Beautiful!  Poetic!  Newbery worthy!  It’s a lot of pressure to put on a book.  Compound that pressure by several months of waiting for a book to arrive, and you’ll get an idea of my mindset when I sat down to read Ivan.  But after one page, I knew I was in for something special.  “I am Ivan.  I am a gorilla.  It’s not as easy as it looks.”  These words are all you find on the first page, under the title “hello” and above a beautiful black and white (with shades of grey) illustration by Patricia Castelao.  The gorilla’s face drew me in, and his words, stark and powerful, gave me a glimpse on the inside.  I wanted to know more about Ivan, and about why his life was not so easy.
 Lucky for me, Ivan’s narration fills the book to the brim with wisdom, humor and strength.  He’s a fully-fledged character, with understandable motivations and desires.  Secondary characters like Bob the stray dog are drawn with such precision, it would be easy to see them as the star of their very own book (though perhaps not one as good as Ivan’s).  And the story.  How do I write about the story without giving anything away?  Suffice to say, Applegate could very easily have fallen into a maudlin trap of sentimentality, but I’m happy to report that nothing of the kind occurs.  There are definitely moments that pull at your heartstrings, but they happen in such plain spoken, honest ways, related to us by Ivan, that it never feels forced or overdrawn.
 I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Castelao’s illustrations.  They are used sparingly, and to great effect, usually to underscore a particularly expressive moment.  The cover illustration had me worried at first, because the image comes across just a little too cute.  Ruby the elephant feels anthropomorphized, and yeah, just a little too cute.  But Castelao’s inside illustrations are gorgeous and evocative, everything an author could want from an illustrator.
 Is this book a Newbery contender?  It certainly should be.  Will it win?  I don’t know.  The last animal related book to win was The Tale of Despereaux in 2004 (a book which breaks my ‘I don’t love animal books’ rule, but that’s because it’s not just about Despereaux, which is cheating perhaps, but my game, my rules).  And before that, you have to go back to 1992 and Shiloh.  So I would say the odds are stacked against it somewhat.  But it’s a beautiful book that’s bound to be remembered at the end of the year, and remembered fondly.
 The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
2012, Harper Collins
Final copy sent from publisher for review

Monday, April 16, 2012

Review - "The Apothecary"

There are different kinds of magic.  There’s the kind of magic that does outlandish things, like disappearing the Tower of London or turning a pumpkin into a carriage, and there’s the kind of magic that, if you squint your eyes and turn your head, just might be possible, like becoming invisible.  Maile Meloy’s The Apothecary deals with both, and handles both with keenness and care.
 Janie Scott was uprooted from her life in Hollywood when her parents decided to move to London to escape the House Un-American Activities Committee.  Once in the UK, Janie becomes mixed up with a boy from her new school, Benjamin, and the secrets his father holds as an Apothecary.  These magical secrets lead Janie and Benjamin and their friend Pip into the center of a worldwide intrigue that may direct them to the most dangerous place of all. 
 The Apothecary is a weird hybrid of historical novel and fantasy, each genre getting a bit of the spotlight.  It’s a little like a John LeCarre spy novel getting mixed up with J.K. Rowling.  The details of a 1952 world, a world still smarting from the wounds of World War II and plunging headlong into the Cold War, are wonderfully drawn.  There’s the bombed out streets of London, duck and cover drills and food rationing.  But then there’s also the alchemical magic, pills that forbid you to speak, elixirs that turn you into a pile of salt and other wondrous things.  It’s a weird marriage, but Meloy makes it work. 
 Story is really the star here, but the characters are intriguing as well.  Janie is sharp and relatable, and hardly ever veers into annoying teenage habits (there’s quite of a bit of running around without her parents knowing about it, which I would classify as an annoying teenage habit, though one necessitated by the plot – I suppose I just felt bad for her parents).  Pip, a mid-20th century Artful Dodger, is slick and fast on his feet, and yes, a little contrived, but I enjoyed him.  I could have done with a little more oomph from the villain of the piece, but that is a minor quibble.  On the whole, I quite enjoyed Meloy’s genre twisting experiment, and I look forward to seeing what else she can come up with for a young audience.
 The Apothecary by Maile Meloy
2011, G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Library copy

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Review - "Secrets at Sea"

2011 was a big year for mice.  The eponymous Babymouse had two new adventures, including the delightfully wacky A Babymouse Christmas, Geronimo Stilton introduced a new friend, Creepella Von Cacklefur, in some spooky new adventures, Lois Lowery gave us a band of church mice in Bless This Mouse and Pip and friends helped Skilley the cat in The Cheshire Cheese Cat.  And then there was Helena, Louise, Beatrice and Lamont, stars of Richard Peck’s Secrets at Sea, and their great adventure across the Atlantic Ocean.
Helena is the oldest Cranston, and as such it is her responsibility to look after her two sisters and her brother.  Helena wasn’t always the oldest, but we don’t talk of such things.  When their human family, the Upstairs Cranstons, decide to go away to Europe in order to fetch oldest daughter Olive a husband, Helena decides they will be going too, despite the fact that mice and water do not mix.  Once on board the ship to England, their adventures truly begin.  There is romance, intrigue, a one-eyed cat, a naughty nanny and lots and lots of mice on Helena’s road to finding her place in the world. 
Confession time: I’ve never read Richard Peck before.  I know!  I hang my head in shame.  Secrets at Sea was my first Peck, and I can promise it won’t be my last.  His command of character is so strong; I could hear each one of the sisters’ voices in my head clear as day.  Secondary characters like the Upstairs Cranstons, the elderly Duchess of Cheddar Gorge and ship steward Nigel (he of the wonderful whiskers) are drawn with equal vigor.  Illustrations by Kelly Murphy perfectly punctuated important moments with delicate detail and shading.  I was quite enchanted with this little tale of adventure on the high seas.  I couldn’t have asked for a better lead in to the Peck’s work than to be put in Helena’s capable narrative hands.    
Secrets at Sea by Richard Peck
2011, Dial
Library copy
Note:  I have since read A Long Way From Chicago.  Whew, what a book!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Review - "May B."

Verse novels are tricky things.  When done correctly, they invoke powerful emotions and rich settings.  When done incorrectly, they play fast and loose with emotions and risk coming off as blather.  I never really know what prompts a writer to choose verse for their storytelling mode.  Does it come to them in poetry, or is it a conscious decision of form?  I wondered such wonderings when I picked up Caroline Starr Rose’s May B.  But nary a few pages in, and questions were gone from my head.  I was absorbed.
May Betterly won’t go.  At least, that’s what she thinks to herself.  Her mother and father have decided to send her away to let her work for another homesteader and his new wife.  And May won’t go.  Won’t leave her family, her brother, her school.  But will and won’ts don’t mean very much, when you’re a girl living on the prairie, and your family needs the money.  So away May goes, to live with the Oblingers until Christmas.  But one day Mrs. Oblinger leaves her husband, and Mr. Oblinger runs after her, and neither returns, leaving May alone in a soddy in the middle of the prairie, with no help, and no way home.   And thus begins May’s tale of survival into a harsh winter, and her struggle with demons inside and out, hunger and wolves at the door.
The book that I was most reminded of while reading May B. was Karen Hesse’s Newbery medal winning Out of the Dust.  There must be something about the sparseness of the historical Midwest landscape that encourages the free verse poetry.  And May is just as compelling a character and a voice as Out of the Dust’s Billie Jo, which is a good thing, because we spend the majority of the work with May and May alone.  Everything rests on the authenticity of her voice, and thankfully Ms. Rose has confidence in May’s voice, in spades.  “I whistle,/I spit,/think up as many unladylike things as I can,/and do them./Out in the open./For the whole empty world to see.”  I was with May every painful, hard-earned step of the way.  Verse novels either get me, or they don’t, and May B. got me right from the start.  2012 is starting out as a very fine year indeed.
May B. by Caroline Starr Rose
2012, Schwartz & Wade
Library copy

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Review - "The Cheshire Cheese Cat"

Any book that proclaims itself “A Dickens of a Tale” (emphasis mine) has some big shoes to fill.  To call myself a Charles Dickens fan would be an understatement.  An enthusiast would be more appropriate, but still misses the mark somewhat.  I expect a lot when Mr. Dickens’ name is called into action, and in the case of The Cheshire Cheese Cat, I was not disappointed.
The Dickens in question here is the man himself, a frequenter of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Inn, and a frustrated writer in search of a killer opening line to his newest work.  Mr. Dickens is merely an observer, however, as the main action of The Cheshire Cheese Cat takes place nearer the floorboards, and concerns a cat named Skilley and a mouse named, of all things, Pip.  Both of these extraordinary animals have a secret that sets them apart from their kind.  Skilley, an alley cat who takes up residence at the Inn under the guise of a mouser, doesn’t like eating mice, but instead craves cheese.  And Pip, favorite of the innkeeper’s daughter Nell, can read, write and communicate, that is with those humans like Nell who will pay attention.  Here begins an unusual and remarkable friendship that will test its bonds through betrayal, secrets, new friends, old enemies and even Her Highness Queen Victoria herself.
Being a cat fan myself, I was instantly taken with the cover of this book.  Though I’ve never seen its like in real life, I can imagine it happening, which is the important part.  The curve of the cover’s text is pleasing as well, matching the curve of Pip’s body and tail.  Everything about this cover made me want to pick it up and read it, so there’s half the battle done.  Luckily for me, I found the inside to be just as rewarding as the outside.  The story is properly Dickensian, with twists and turns, colorful characters (I grew to love Croomes the cook and Too, the too small mouseling), pops of humor, daring heroes and dastardly villains.  There is success and there is cost, as there should be in every good story worth telling.  Skilley and Pip are wonderful characters, as they need to be.  What Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright have created is an animal tale with every bit the bite of good human drama.  And when everything dovetails together at the end, it does so by a skilled hand.  Nothing is left unknown or undone, the heroes are venerated, the villains vanquished.  The final page comes with great satisfaction, not only to the dear Mr. Dickens, but to the reader as well. 
 The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright, ill. Barry Moser
2011, Peachtree Publishers
Library copy