Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Review - "Temple Grandin"

Interesting tidbit: when I ordered Sy Montgomery’s Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World, and the order came in, my assistant director asked me if this is what I had really wanted. She thought the title looked too old for my audience (I’m the children’s librarian, so I cover 0-12). I told her that yes, this book was on the high end of my clientele, but it most certainly was the book I had intended to get. I believe Temple to be an exemplary role model, and someone I wanted my kids to get to know, and I trusted Montgomery to be the one to introduce her.
Of course, in reading Temple Grandin, it is Temple herself that the readers first meet. Ms. Grandin has written a wonderful forward to this volume about her life, in which she gives practical advice for all children, not just those on the Spectrum, but those who consider themselves nerds or outcasts, or anyone who has ever felt a drive towards doing something special. To wit: everyone. This was the beginning of my falling in love with this book, and with Temple herself. As Montgomery relates Temple’s early life and struggles, I struggled along with her. Montgomery is so deft and delicate with describing Temple’s symptoms, I could almost understand what it must have felt like inside adolescent Temple’s head. However, it isn’t until later, when an adult Temple begins her crusade for the humane treatment of all animals, and Montgomery gives direct quotes from Temple about how she relates to what the animals, especially the cows, are thinking, that it really clicked. I could feel the terror and uncertainty, but also the relieved peace that Temple’s inventions bring about.
I had a very visceral reaction to reading this biography, and I’ve heard similar responses from patrons as well. My library does not carry any of Temple’s own books (something I’d like to rectify if I can), so Ms. Montgomery’s biography is the only link we have to this amazing person and her extraordinary story. I know the book may be tough reading for some of the kids in my room, but that won’t stop me from pushing it into any eager hands I can find, or from dragging teenagers downstairs, away from their own collection, and getting them to read it as well (my hook: Claire Danes played Temple in an HBO movie. Read the book, watch the movie!). I’ve always been an animal lover, but I still feel like getting to know Temple Grandin has changed the way I look at the world. My hats off to Temple and especially to Sy Montgomery: an excellent book about a thoroughly excellent woman.

Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World, by Sy Montgomery, forward by Temple Grandin
2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Library copy

Friday, February 22, 2013

Review - "Under Shifting Glass"

Liminal space is a threshold, a between points no-man’s-land that wavers between being one thing and being another.  In Nicky Singer’s Under Shifting Glass, Jess learns all about liminal space:  the space between being a friend, and no longer friends; the space between family and not quite family; the space between a childhood and young adulthood; the space between living and dying.  The novel begins with the death of Jess’ Great Aunt Edie and quickly moves into the perilous birth of her conjoined twin brothers.  Suddenly Jess’ life is full of “joins”, and she struggles to keep herself, her friendship and her family together.

After Jess inherited her Great Aunt Edie’s desk, she finds a mysterious flask inside that seems to be filled with an otherworldly substance, floating ethereally, making the glass shimmer, shine or grow dark, depending on the situation.  Jess is convinced this flask is the key to her new brothers’ survival, and seeks to understand the mystery while at the same time making deals with the universe that young Richie and Clem will be healthy and endure their up-and-down stay in the hospital leading up to their surgical separation.

Under Shifting Glass doesn’t always work.  The magical realism of the flask is weak and Jess lacks agency as she appears to be at its mercy.  I understand the author’s intent to the leave the veracity of the flask and it’s “powers” to the reader’s decision, but flimsy as it is, the plot point doesn’t carry weight.  What does carry its weight is Jess’ very real struggle with her best friend, her contentious grandmother and her uncertainty within her own family as to where she now fits.  This is where Jess becomes relatable and sympathetic.  Everyone can understand the pain of a friendship hitting the reef and the relief that comes when that conflict is resolved.  Anyone can relate to the insecurity of familial roles.  Jess struggles not only with her new brothers, who have taken up everyone’s thoughts and energies for months, but with her step-father, who she loves but in some ways, fears to claim as her own.

As I said, Under Shifting Glass doesn’t always work.  Genre bending, it could have been helped with a little more weight in one direction or another.  But it does work as an adolescent drama about a girl dealing with very real stakes in a very uncertain world.

Under Shifting Glass by Nicky Singer
2013, Chronicle Books
Preview copy provided by publisher for review

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Review - "Once Upon a Toad"

Fairy tales are fluid things. To offer one of my favorite quotes, “The story is like the wind. It comes from a far off place, and we feel it.”* We tell each other these stories, and the details change across countries and languages, but the spirit transcends barriers. I love this about these stories. Fairy tales are often intended to teach lessens, and some do so obliquely and some put the moral right in your face. In the case of Heather Vogel Frederick’s Once Upon a Toad, loosely based on the tale by Charles Perrault called “Diamonds and Toads” (as well as other variations), the moral is fairly straightforward, but the getting there is all the fun. 

[WARNING: There be spoilers ahead.] Cat Starr is your average bassoon playing, nature loving, astronaut-Mom having 12-year-old. Life is good for Cat, until her mother gets called up last minute for a mission to the International Space Station. This means a mid-year move to her dad’s house in Oregon, which would be fine except for one thing: her mean-girl step-sister Olivia. Things between the two are tense and soon explode, prompting and impromptu visit from Cat’s great aunt Abyssinia, who just a little, shall we say, strange. After this visit Cat wakes up in the morning to a terrible surprise: every time she talks, a toad falls from her mouth! Conversely, whenever Olivia speaks, flowers and diamonds fall from hers. The family tries to keep things under wraps while they deal with these startling developments, but word soon gets out and suddenly it seems as if the entire world is camped on their front lawn. Everyone wants a piece of “Diamond Girl”, including the U.S. Government. In order to save Olivia from being dissected in Area 51, and their little brother from a crazed kidnapper, Cat and her step-sister run away in a mad dash to track down Great Aunt Abyssinia and get her to fix the girls’ problems.

In the original tale, “Diamonds and Toads”, a sorceress grants the “blessing” of flowers and diamonds to the kinder of two sisters and curses the crueler of the two with snakes and toads. For Ms. Frederick, poor, addled Great Aunt Abyssinia gets things a little muddled when our heroine ends up with the toads and Olivia the diamonds. But this doesn’t mean that the intended lesson doesn’t get across its audience. The girls have to learn to work together to save both their hides and their little brother. Yes, the story goes off the rails a little bit in the last act, with a magical deus ex machina in the form of Abyssinia’s RV, but never does Frederick lose control of the delight in her story. Using the old legend as a base for her “coming to terms with family” story, Frederick has woven a charming tale about familial affection, loyalty, magic, and yes, toads.

Once Upon a Toad by Heather Vogel Frederick
2012, Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
Library copy

*From the preface to Laurens Van Der Post’s A Story Like the Wind.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Review - "The Humming Room"

The Secret Garden is one of my favorite books of all time. I’m convinced it has healing properties, and when I’m down, or not feeling my best, I pull it out and find in the healing of Mary and Colin a kind of peace. And so it was that I was feeling not all the way put together one day that I reached for, not The Secret Garden, but Ellen Potter’s new book, The Humming Room, which is inspired by Francis Hodgson Burnett’s work. I was hoping to find some similar relief in its pages, and while I did feel a little better by the last page’s turn, I’m sorry to say The Humming Room does not quite stand up to its predecessor. For those who have read The Secret Garden, the story of The Humming Room will come as no surprise. For those that haven’t (and why?), there be spoilers ahead.
Roo Fanshaw is skilled at being unseen. This is particularly useful on the fateful day her father and his girlfriend meet unfriendly ends. Roo, you see, was hiding under the trailer. But she is soon found out, and after a brief stint in foster care, is shipped off to the home of an unknown uncle. She is fetched by the uptight Ms. Valentine and brought home to Cough Rock, a former children’s hospital turned sprawling and mysterious home. Here Roo continues her special brand of hiding, uncovering in her exploration two secrets of Cough Rock, a cousin, Phillip, suffering from depression and solitude, and the deserted garden. With the help of local boy Jack (who is mysterious in and of himself), she nurtures the garden back to life, helps lead her cousin to healing and brings her absent uncle home.
I don’t normally like to review one book by calling to mind one I liked better, but in this case, it’s hard to avoid. The Secret Garden has survived for over a hundred years because it taps into something very tender and vital in all of us: the need to be nurtured. Hardly anything can grow well without light and care. The Humming Room touches on this theme, but does not cultivate it properly. The novel comes in at a slim 182 pages, and much of this time is spent setting the scene and establishing the mysteries. When it comes to Roo’s relationship with Phillip, however, it is done almost in shorthand. They have very few encounters, and the resolution is hurried. In fact the final act of the book flies by with scarcely a thought, and before you know it, it’s over. The story could have used another thirty pages or so. Not much, just enough to give the ending some breathing room and Roo some proper time to flourish.
This is not to say I didn’t enjoy The Humming Room. It does have its merits. Roo is a well-drawn character, different enough from Mary Lennox to stand on her own two feet. The descriptions, especially of the house and the garden, are very vivid. Jack’s air of mystery almost makes up for his lack of development. He’s an interesting character, though not quite as attractive a nature boy as Dicken.
Ms. Potter to me is an author with great potential. Clearly she has great stories to tell (The Kneebone Boy was another with an exciting premise); she just needs a little help and practice with the landings. She is definitely someone I will keep my eye on.

The Humming Room by Ellen Potter
2012, Feiwel and Friends
Library copy

Monday, February 4, 2013

"The Case of the Frozen Hearts"

Plucky young girl detectives are a dime a dozen. Some are extraordinary (paging Enola Holmes!) and others are classics (my girls at the library are currently devouring Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew, Nancy’s latest incarnation). Some, sadly, miss the mark. Luckily, this isn’t the case with Wilma Tenderfoot, whose first adventure The Case of the Frozen Hearts, is a delightful afternoon read for a dreary winter's day.

Wilma is an orphan at the Cooper Island Lowside Institute for Woeful Children. Though her past is unknown, she has definite plans for her future. She is going to be a detective, just like her hero and Cooper Island’s most famous detective, Theodore P. Goodman. She starts small, attempting to solve crimes from around the Institute, but knows that her biggest mystery will be her own: where did she come from and who left her with the perplexing luggage tag that is her only tie to her family? But when Wilma is hired out (sold, really) to an unpleasant woman on Farside, and she discovers that her brand new neighbor is none other than Mr. Goodman himself, Wilma knows her life is about to change. There’s a new mystery, the theft of a rare and unique gem on the island, and she’s determined to show Mr. Goodman she has what it takes to face down the Criminal Element, follow the clues, and become a great detective’s apprentice.
As I’ve said, girl detectives are old hat. It takes a little something special to make them stand out these days, and author Emma Kennedy has that something special. Wilma on her own isn’t all that original; we’ve all seen the plucky young orphan before. But her spirit and indefatigability are quite catching and the friendship she forms with another outcast, dog Pickles, is warm and charming. Kennedy also packs her story with interesting side characters, from the smart and kind Detective Goodman, to the evil-minded Barbu D’Anvers, who is keen on catching the thief, if only to steal the gem for himself. The writing style is as charming as Wilma herself, with clever asides and addresses to the reader.
Wilma Tenderfoot is my kind of gal. If at first she doesn’t succeed, she tries, tries again. And again and again. I look forward to reading the further adventures of Wilma and her friends because I know with Ms. Kennedy they are in more than capable hands.

Wilma Tenderfoot: The Case of the Frozen Hearts by Emma Kennedy
2011, Dial
Personal copy