Written in free verse, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming is a memoir of her childhood, a collection of passages about growing up between her faWritten in free verse, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming is a memoir of her childhood, a collection of passages about growing up between her father’s Ohio and her mother’s South Carolina in the sixties and then eventually moving part of the family to New York. It’s been published as a middle grade memoir but it lends itself well to all audiences.
I am not a huge fan of poetry and as such I tend to avoid books in verse which is why it took me so long to get to this. It wasn’t until the book won the National Book Award1 a couple of weeks ago that I decided to give it a go. I am glad I did for Brown Girl Dreaming is wonderful…
…and its wonderfulness is manifold.
These chronicles navigate freely and with ease the waters of both history and story. The former in the way that, Jacqueline, as a young child, witnesses not only the acute differences –at a deeply personal level as well as at the social, universal sphere – between the South Carolina of her early childhood and the New York of her early teens always in the middle of the Civil Rights movement. The latter comes with the writing itself as intimate, painful as well as joyful memories turn into something special in the hands of a capable, talented storyteller.
Storytelling is in fact, a huge part of the young girl’s life: in Brown Girl Dreaming, it is made clear that the author has always been passionate about stories, about invention and creativity even as her learning difficulties are scrutinised by raw memories laid bare in front of our eyes.
Of those raw memories there are quite a few: carefully constructed verses of remembered loss, grief and separations abound. Just as abundant though, as those moments of joy, of happiness, of bonding and love. From Jacqueline’s grandparental family in the south to her closeness with her brothers and sister and her best friend (forever) Maria, it is all there with such incredible verve that the connection happens between not only the living, breathing people within the pages but between them and us. It was delightful beyond compare to reach the ending to find real photographs of Jacqueline Woodson’s family and to be able to put a face to those names.
Brown Girl Dreaming is an excellent book on its own and as an exceedingly moving memoir. That said, its importance as a book aimed at children cannot be underestimated either for everything that it is: a brown girl dreaming. Every single part of that sentence – brown girl dreaming – is vital.
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when**spoiler alert** Original review posted on The Book Smugglers
Warning: this review contains spoilers
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when I fell out of love with Counting by 7s but it happened slowly yet inexorably in the hours after I finished reading it.
On the surface, this is an innocuous book, full of good intentions: it is a book featuring different stories about diverse PoC characters (including its protagonist). It is also a beautiful story about different kinds of families, about deep connections that can be formed between people from different walks of life and above all, it is about surviving adversity. It is a touching story that made me laugh and that made me cry. But it also made me ponder and question its main message.
Counting by 7s’ main character is Willow Chance, a little girl who has lost two sets of parents in her short life – she never knew her blood parents and her adoptive ones die in a terrible accident. She is all alone in the world apart from Dell, a school counsellor whose therapy methods are completely unprofessional; and from a couple of new friends she has met recently. Those friends are the siblings Mai and Quang-ha (who is also seeing Dell for his disruptive behaviour) who end up convincing their mother Pattie to take care of Willow temporarily.
Willow is a special person: she is a 12-year-old genius, obsessed with nature and with diagnosing medical conditions and who has found it difficult to deal and connect to people until this tragedy has forced her to.
The story is centred on Willow’s specialness – despite her oddness she is extremely endearing and moves everybody around her that they all end up changing their lives for the better. It is a touching story that made me laugh and that made me cry. But it also made me ponder and question its main message.
It is not for nothing that the official blurb compares it to Wonder by R J Palacio: it has a similar motif, a similar structure (head-jumping) and it provoked a similar reaction on me.
I had three main problems with the novel: Dell’s counselling theories that go basically unchallenged; the novel’s ending; and its strange relationship with money.
Dell – Dell is a terrible counsellor who doesn’t really know what he is doing and who often tries to exploit the system, who at first tried to exploit Willow’s knowledge for his own gain and who has a way of labelling his patients in an extremely problematic way. For some reason, schools sent him their worst cases and he does absolutely nothing to help them. In fairness, Dell is NOT supposed to be a good counsellor but he is shown in a fairly sympathetic light that is also supposed to be endearing and funny. Willow calls him out on the way that he labels the kids he sees but this is as far as the narrative goes on really challenging his role – in the end, he is shown as having grown and changed but no word is said about the kids whose lives he has affected negatively and who he was supposed to have helped. That his therapy method worked for Willow (because of her specialness) does not mean anything in a wider context but is everything that the novel is worried about.
The ending: in the end, Pattie ends up adopting Willow. Now, up until the very ending of the novel, Pattie was shown as a resourceful, intelligent, caring woman who loves her kids and who cares for Willow deeply. She is also someone who struggles to make ends meet, who runs her own small business but who still has financial problems. Her and her two kids live in a one room garage with no bathroom or kitchen. She shares a bed with her daughter. It is hinted that their living conditions is one of the main reasons why her son is having behaviour issues. They are presented as extremely poor which only makes their attempt to help Willow all the more heart-warming.
Then in the end it is revealed that Pattie is actually RICH, that she has been saving money all this time and has enough to buy an ENTIRE APARTMENT BUILDING. This is grating and confusing within the context of the novel because the Pattie that was presented to the reader throughout the novel is not someone who would impose such hardships (living in a garage!) on her own children for NO GOOD REASON. That she’d only reveal her money after her love for ULTRA SPECIAL Willow and not her own children serves only to reinforce Willow’s specialness.
Which brings me to my last point.
The Money issue: one of the main topics of the novel is the question of poverty and how it affects peoples’ lives. Surviving adversity despite poverty is one of the main drives of the novel and one of the connecting points between characters. In the end, the revelation that Pattie had tons of money all along and all of their money problems are magically solved undermines the topic of dealing with poverty. Plus, ANOTHER CHARACTER ALSO WINS THE LOTTERY BY THE WAY. He turns out to be the guy who is going to be the little girl’s adoptive father.
The book is so focused on Willow’s specialness that it forgets the rest of the world (like the other kids with equally real problems that Dell is supposed to be helping), backtracks on the portrayal of the rest of their characters and detracts from a powerful storyline about poverty to shower money on just about everybody.
I think it is that type of book that tries so hard to be about GOOD PEOPLE and it’s so well intentioned that I feel like a jerk for writing this review. In a way it is just like those “feel good movies of the year” that so often have problematic underlying messages that almost escapes your attention because you are injected with such a huge dose of happy-inducing saccharine storylines. But when you come down from that high, you hit rock bottom fast and furious. ...more
Zach, Poppy and Alice are friends who have known each other for ever. The three love coming up with awesome stories and to play them out with their acZach, Poppy and Alice are friends who have known each other for ever. The three love coming up with awesome stories and to play them out with their action figure toys. Their current story follows pirate William the Blade and his ally the thief Lady Jaye on a quest for The Queen, “played” by an ancient china doll. When they reach a point when William the Blade is about to find out the truth about his past, the unthinkable happens: Zach’s father throws away all of his action figures because according to him, at 12, Zach should no longer be playing make-believe.
Zach is furious but also ashamed and confused and instead of talking to his friends, he closes himself off and stops playing with them altogether. But then one night the girls show up at his house saying Poppy has been contacted by the ghost of The Queen – who claims that her soul is trapped in the china doll which has been made from the bones of her murdered body. The only way to free her (as well as the kids from its haunting) is to find where the girl used to live and bury the doll.
Adventure ensues as Zach, Poppy and Alice run away from home and go on their – this time, real – Quest.
Doll Bones was not quite what I was expecting. I thought this was going to be a good old romp with a strong horror bend. And in a way it was: there is a lot of fun adventure to be had and the doll is genuinely creepy especially since, for most of the book, we (and the characters) are not really sure if this is all happening in reality or only in their imagination.
But those aspects are almost bare foundation from which the author builds a story with a stronger focus on the relationship between the three kids and the importance of storytelling and creativity. Above all, I feel this is a tale about three kids on that threshold between childhood and adolescence and one that is deftly, thoughtfully handled by Holly Black here.
Zach’s father’s thoughtless action of throwing away his toys propels the story in a very interesting way. It is an outside force that informs internal conflict: adults telling kids they can be no longer kids and that their hobby of choice is childish and undesirable. The kids have to grasp this idea, and choose whether they internalise it or question it. There is a very interesting conflation here between the toys and their ability to continue with their game. Zach for example, believes he can’t play without them. But are the toys an essential part of their game or just tools? Similarly, Poppy, Zach and Alice are in that moment that growing up is just around the corner but not for all them at the same time or in the exact same way – Poppy for example is still desperately trying to hold on to what they have now, whereas Alice and Zach are almost eager to embrace change. Do finding new ways of interacting with the world, becoming interested in different pursuits as well as forming friendships with other people mean that their interaction need to change or that their friendship is no longer meaningful?
The answers to those questions are not clear-cut and in the end there is a feeling that things will have to inevitably change but not necessarily in a fundamental way. Storytelling, creativity, role-playing is something that can be equally important to adults and teens as it is to children. In addition to all of this, each kid’s family is also extremely important in how they interact with the world and I thought really interesting how each kid had a different background which created a more dynamic and diverse story. I really appreciated that Zach’s father’s action is addressed in the story very nicely and with unexpected poignancy.
In the end, Doll Bones turned out to be not as creepy as expected but more thoughtful than I was hoping. All in all, a very good read. ...more
**NOTE: We are running a US-only giveaway of the final hardcover and framed art from the book! Contest ends oOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
**NOTE: We are running a US-only giveaway of the final hardcover and framed art from the book! Contest ends on Sunday, April 21 at 12:01am EST. Go forth HERE to enter.**
A NOTE: Though this is the second book in the series, you can easily read this book without having read The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom. (In other words, no spoilers ahead!)
Ever since the League of Heroes saved their respective kingdoms from clutches of a truly evil witch, you'd think they would have earned a little bit of respect. But, unfortunately, not much has changed for Prince Charmings Frederic, Liam, Gustav, Duncan, and Princess Cinderella. (Ok, that last bit is a lie - Cinderella is as awesome and beloved as she has always been.) Prince Frederic is still afraid of adventure - and now has a serious complex about not measuring up to the truly heroic Prince Liam, who seems to have so much more in common with his courageous fiancee, Ella. Liam is still afraid to return home and face his own betrothed, Briar Rose. Prince Gustav is still the laughingstock of his family (ever since he had to be saved by Rapunzel and later, Ella); Prince Duncan is just as scattered and strange as usual (though he and his wife, Snow White, are happy together). But when all seems lost, adventure calls! Prince Liam is kidnapped by his fiancee and forced to marry the frilly, conniving Briar Rose - for the spoiled Princess has a dastardly plan to take over ALL the kingdoms with a magical heirloom in her new husband's family vault. And while Briar Rose is up to her elaborate coif in evil machinations, other, more sinister forces are at play - the Bandit King Deeb Rauber (eleven years old, but fiercer than anyone else in the land) and the vicious Lord Rundark of the fearsome land of Dar play to take over the Thirteen Kingdoms.
Only the League of Heroes (and a few old friends) can stop these power-hungry villains - but they'll have to reunite and work together to save the day. Again.
The followup to 2012's delightfully zany The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, The Hero's Guide to Storming the Castle is every bit as charming and winsome as its predecessor. Like that first book, Storming the Castle blends humor, familiar fairy tales and an unexpected cast of heroes and villains (and some folks that sit somewhere between both extremes) to make for a truly hilarious and action-filled romp. This is the kind of book you want to read aloud in a classroom full of eager kids, because it is sure to get laughs (I'm not talking giggles or titters, but full-bodied, belly shaking guffaws and laughs). It's also full of absurd battles, vegetarian trolls, marauding giantresses, bejeweled swords, Hermes-style messengers (complete with seven-league boots and unique fashion choices), and... well, plenty more. Suffice it to say, the scope of Christopher Healy's imagination in this series is pretty fantastic.
Of course, the biggest draw to the series lies with the main characters, the League of Heroes (and Heroines). While Duncan is charmingly spacey and Gustav unerringly hot-tempered, the real main characters of this book are Frederic (with his fashion sense and aversion to action, but his desire to prove himself to his amazing fiancée, Ella), and Liam (who goes through a bit of an identity crisis - and is called out on his ridiculousness). Ultimately, being the lover of heroines that I am, my favorite characters are the ladies - Princess Ella of the fierce, fast sword and big heart, and Princess Lila the bold (Liam's little sister, who is on the way to becoming one of the kingdom's best bounty hunters with a little guidance).
And then there's Sleeping Beauty. What initially bothered me about this book ended up being the thing that pleasantly surprised me by the novel's end - that is, the "evil" character of Briar Rose. Briar, you may remember from the first book (if you've read it), is a bit of a prickly character - ok, that's putting it nicely. She's a spoiled brat, bent on controlling everyone and everything just because. While I hated this characterization in the first book (because, come on, why go with the spoiled brat princess stereotype in a book where boys are meant to save the day?), I love that she's given a deeper, different characterization in this book. I won't spoil it, but I'm glad it happens...eventually.
My only criticism for this book is that it feels a tad overlong. While there's a lot of action and movement in this book, ultimately it boils down to a single siege of the eponymous castle - at nearly 500 pages, the book is a fast read, but could have used some significant trimming down. Still, The Hero's Guide to Storming the Castle is a delightful read that should resonate with its target audience. Definitely recommended, especially for younger readers....more
**WARNING: This review contains slight, but unavoidable, spoilers for the first two books in this series. IfOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
**WARNING: This review contains slight, but unavoidable, spoilers for the first two books in this series. If you haven't read the first two books in the series and want to remain unspoiled, look away.**
After the dramatic turn of events at Bath, Kat Stephenson has managed to save her elder siblings from disaster and earn back the respect of her fellow Guardians - having stopped the traitorous machinations of the former head of the order. Now, just a few days away from Angeline's marriage to Lord Frederick Carlyle, Kat faces one of her most daunting challenges yet: preparing for her upcoming Guardian initiation test while trying to keep the peace between her family and the less-than-enthused Carlyles. To make things even worse, it seems that someone is out to seriously injure Kat and her family, as a mysterious saboteur follows the Stephensons across the countryside. And Kat has a sinking suspicion that the very same saboteur is the person behind the Guardians' stolen cache of magical Portals. With her sister's marriage, her family's lives, and the future of England at stake, Kat is up against her biggest challenge yet.
Well. Excuse me while I take this opportunity to gush because OH MY GOODNESS, I absolutely adored this third (and hopefully not final) Kat Stephenson adventure from hilarious start to heartwarming finish. I can safely say that Kat is one of my very favorite middle grade heroines ever - not just because she's smart, headstrong, and impetuous, but because she's got a great burning curiosity and an equally fiery temper, and at the heart of everything she is and does, Kat is a young woman with a deep sense of justice and love. Love for her family and for the new friends she makes along the way, and love for her position and magical abilities as a Guardian. This, dear readers, is freaking AMAZING.
What's extra-special and compelling about this newest Kat adventure, however, is more than just the sum of these different attributes (which Kat has had since the beginning). No, Stolen Magic is so wonderful and in a way bittersweet, because it's the book where Kat starts to grow up. She manages on several occasions to bite her tongue and control her temper. She takes responsibility for her actions and for those around her by not just rushing into action willy nilly (ok, she does still run headlong into danger, but there's more of a thoughtful reasoning process to it all), but by thinking and then acting. It's also the book where Kat turns thirteen, where her second older sister gets married, and her brother reforms his ways and finds romance. (And so too, in a subtle and believable way, does Kat.)
And this character growth isn't just limited to Kat, either. As I mentioned, Charles, Kat's older brother, renounces drinking and gambling after the sobering experience of nearly being sacrificed to the wild, pagan magic of Bath in Renegade Magic. Angeline, the second eldest Stephenson sister, finds a way to trust others (including her fiancee) after a few misguided attempts to taking on the world by herself and her witchcraft. And, most intriguingly, we finally learn more about Kat's father, the quiet, bookish, withdrawn Mr. Stephenson - we know he has been harboring secrets about his past, and most importantly, his late wife. We are also introduced to new characters in this book, with the sophisticated and elusive Marquise de Valmont (who also plays a role in the Stephenson family past) and the sweet-tempered Jane Carlyle among my favorites.
Beyond the phenomenal character building, Stolen Magic is also a mystery with a few good twists. There's the mystery of the stolen Guardian portals to contend with, compounded by the mystery of Kat's mysterious stalker with a vendetta, and the mounting, frightening threats against the Stephenson family (from a sawed carriage axle to an honest-to-goodness assassination attempt). And, of course, there's plenty of magic and daring-do - even a little bit of treason! - thrown into the mix. Oh yes, and let's not forget about the romantic shenanigans and comedy of errors type storytelling also happening simultaneously.
Needless to say, there is PLENTY going on in Stolen Magic - and it all boils down to one truth that should be universally acknowledged. That is, Kat Stephenson is the Real Deal. I absolutely, wholeheartedly loved this book, and I dearly hope to see more of Kat in the future. Absolutely recommended, and in the running for one of my favorite, notable reads of 2013. ...more
I will start this post with another Old School Wednesdays’ confession: I only ever read one Terry Pratchett novel, Good Omens ages ago and that was onI will start this post with another Old School Wednesdays’ confession: I only ever read one Terry Pratchett novel, Good Omens ages ago and that was only because he wrote that in collaboration with Neil Gaiman.
I know what you’re thinking right now: “CRIVENS! I can’t believe you haven’t read any Terry Pratchett till now, Ana.”
I KNOW, right? Anyway, the real problem with this course of action was of course, WHERE to start, given as how Pratchett has over 40 novels in the Discworld series alone. I had on good authority that even though The Wee Free Men is Discworld book #30, it was a good place to begin as part of a four-book YA mini-series featuring 9-year-old Tiffany Aching.
Tiffany is – as of this book – the current recipient of the newly-minted The Book Smugglers Award for Best Witch-To-Be on account of her perspicacity, courage, love for words, pride on her cheese-making skills as well as the ability to stand impervious and mostly unaffected by condescending adults, evil Queens, talking frogs and diminutive and outrageous, thievery blue men in kilts (otherwise known as Nac Mac Feegle or Pictsies [not to be confused with Pixies, if you please] or the Wee Free Men).
This is the plot and Tiffany’s personality in a nutshell:
”Another world is colliding with this one,” said the toad. “All the monsters are coming back.”
“Why?” said Tiffany.
“There’s no one to stop them.”
There was silence for a moment.
Then Tiffany said, “There’s me.”
So! Armed with a frying pan (as we all know, a perfectly good weapon of choice as evidenced in Tangled), common sense, the memories of her Granny Aching, and an inordinate amount of Chutzpah, Tifanny embarks on a journey to Fairyland to save her kidnapped brother (whom she says she doesn’t really like all that much but he is hers and as such, she must get him back). And although ok, that setup is not necessarily unique, boy did I love this book.
I loved Tiffany’s journey to Fairyland, as the two worlds collide and dreams and nightmares become intertwined with the real world and how the narrative itself seamlessly adapted to the ever-changing landscape that really reminded me of Diana Wynne Jones’ storytelling as well as Catherynne M. Valente’s recent Fairyland books. This ever-changing background and the stories-within-stories conceit also appears as Tiffany’s memories of her grandmother become clearer and clearer as she finally comes to understand what the stories about her really mean.
The writing is just the type of writing that I love. It’s clever, it’s subtle, it presents valuable, meaningful themes and ideas without being didactic or dumbed down to readers, it has an amazingly clever and astute protagonist and on top of everything it.Is.Hilarious. The portrayal of the Wee Free Men is ostensibly funny (they are afraid of nothing! Except maybe of lawyers!) but the sense of humour is present in everything even when the text is discussing Important Things.
Allow me to present a few choice quotes to better establish the above:
“All witches are selfish, the Queen had said. But Tiffany’s Third Thoughts said: Then turn selfishness into a weapon! Make all things yours! Make other lives and dreams and hopes yours! Protect them! Save them! Bring them into the sheepfold! Walk the gale for them! Keep away the wolf! My dreams! My brother! My family! My land! My world! How dare you try to take these things, because they are mine!”
(I absolutely loved how the above quote both reinforces Tiffany’s age and how children can be selfish and self-centred without portraying those as bad things)
“ “Yes! I’m me! I am careful and logical and I look up things I don’t understand! When I hear people use the wrong words, I get edgy! I am good with cheese. I read books fast! I think! And I always have a piece of string! That’s the kind of person I am!”
(How empowering is this?)
“The stories never said why she was wicked. It was enough to be an old woman, enough to be all alone, enough to look strange because you have no teeth. It was enough to be called a witch. If it came to that, the book never gave you the evidence of anything. It talked about “a handsome prince”… was he really, or was it just because he was a prince that people called handsome? As for “a girl who was as beautiful as the day was long”… well, which day? In midwinter it hardly ever got light! The stories don’t want you to think, they just wanted you to believe what you were told…”
(To sum up: Tiffany wants to be a witch because there is a lack of actual evidence that they are actually wicked)
“ “Zoology, eh? That’s a big word, isn’t it.”
“No, actually it isn’t,” said Tiffany. “Patronizing is a big word. Zoology is really quite short.”
And finally, what might just be my favourite quote of the entire book:
Are you listening?” “Yes,” said Tiffany. “Good. Now… if you trust in yourself…” “Yes?” “… and believe in you dreams…” “Yes?” “…and follow your star…” Miss Tick went on. “Yes?” “…you’ll still be beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy. Goodbye.”
Basically I spent my time reading The Wee Free Men by alternating between laughing my head off and earmarking thoughtful sequences. I’ve already made arrangements to get my grabby hands on the sequels. And maybe even other Terry Pratchett books (I hear Nation is most excellent).
I am loving these Old School Wednesdays discoveries! ...more
Indigo’s Star is the second book in the Casson family series and is more of a companion novel than a proper sequel to Saffy’s Angel – although it coulIndigo’s Star is the second book in the Casson family series and is more of a companion novel than a proper sequel to Saffy’s Angel – although it could be read as stand-alone but to do so would deprive you of the delights of that first book. Believe me: you don’t want that to happen.
This particular entry focuses on Indigo, the sole boy in the family as he is about to go back to school after a long illness. It soon emerges that before getting ill, Indigo was being bullied at school. Only his youngest sister (Permanent) Rose knows what happens and they are both understandably anxious about his returning to school. But there is a new student, Tom-from- America, who gets the unwanted attention away from Indigo. Ultimately, the two become friends with a little help from Rose.
I say that the novel “focus on Indigo” but this is not quite correct as it has become clear to me that this is an ensemble series. As such, as Indigo and Tom become fast friends, the entire Casson family share the stoplight too. Caddy, now in college is still entangled with former driving instructor Michael but keeps coming back home with potential new boyfriends (ore are they?); Saffron and her best friend Sarah organise to take care of both Indigo and Rose; as the latter is desperately trying to get their (increasingly absent) father’s attention.
Back when I reviewed Saffy’s Angel I said how that book had made me think of the way that literature can engage meaningfully and smartly with difficult topics. Here, there is bullying (as well as complicity and silence), absent-minded parenting as well as absent-for-real parenting, divorce and moving on and how these affect children. As an adult it is so easy to forget how seemingly simple things can torment children and this book reminded me of that by portraying this in a very compassionate way.
The book is also interspersed with the most hilarious letters from Rose to Bill. They provide her own version of everything that is happening in their lives but with her choosing to stress or reinforce the elements she feels will scare Bill into coming back home:
This is Rose.
So flames went all up the kitchen wall. Saffron called the fire brigade and the police came too to see if it was a trick and the police woman said to Saffron Here You Are Again because of when I got lost having my glasses checked. But I was with Tom whose grandmother is a witch on top of the highest place in town. Love, Rose.”
In the relationship between Rose and her father is where I think, Indigo’s Star is at the height of its cleverness-meets-heartfelt: because of course, Rose’s letters are an indirect plea for help that are often sadly ignored by Bill. Until he comes through at Rose’s greatest time of need –in that very moment, Rose understands her father completely and sees both the good and the bad in him. It is a very special and powerful moment in the story when she fully sees Bill and understands he quite possibly will never truly understand her. Which is heartbreaking in itself but all the more so when Rose is clearly the more artistic child of the family, something that she could truly share with her artist father but can’t.
Speaking of artistic tendencies, it is awesome to see how art, emotion and family intertwine here. This is true when it comes to Tom and Indigo playing the guitar and how music connects them both; or how Eve becomes more engaged with their community; and especially how Rose paints the picture of her family on the kitchen wall and as the story progresses, so do the painting with new additions like Sarah and Tom and with Bill always on the outskirts.
This idea of a fluid family that embraces new members as they come along is the core of these books with the understanding that blood ties are important but so are the ties of friendship and true understanding and bonding:
“There are all sorts of families,” Tom’s grandmother had remarked, and over the following few weeks Tom became part of the Casson family, as Micheal and Sarah and Derek-from-the-camp had done before him.
He immediately discovered that being a member of the family was very different from being a welcome friend. If you were a Casson family member, for example, and Eve drifted in from the shed asking, “Food? Any ideas? Or shall we not bother?” then you either joined in the search of the kitchen cupboards or counted the money in the housekeeping jam jar and calculated how many pizzas you could afford. Also, if you were a family member you took care of Rose, helped with homework (Saffron and Sarah were very strict about homework), unloaded the washing machine, learned to fold up Sarah’s wheelchair, hunted for car keys, and kept up the hopeful theory that in the event of a crisis Bill Casson would disengage himself from his artistic life in London and rush home to help.”
Finally, I also love how there are no strict gender roles here, how all the members of the family have interests that are not dependent on their gender and how they are all equally protective, emotive and active participants on the Casson comfort machine.
Indigo’s Star is funny, moving and thoughtful featuring amazingly subtle, complex and clever writing. This is becoming one of the best Middle Grade series I have ever read. ...more
Aluna has lived her entire life - all thirteen years - under the sea. She is one of the Kampii, a water-bornOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Aluna has lived her entire life - all thirteen years - under the sea. She is one of the Kampii, a water-born splinter group of humans that took to the oceans generations ago, to escape the death and wastes of the earth above. Aluna loves the water and her people, but she's frustrated with the future that has been set for her with the Kampii. Because their numbers are ever dwindling, all Kampii women are prohibited from the exciting and dangerous jobs (like hunting) and must focus on the important job of, one day, rearing children. At the same time as the Kampii's population dwindles, their tech also starts to fail at an increasing rate - every Kampii is given a "shell" that allows them to breathe underwater, powered by a mysterious source called HydroTek, created by wise and powerful ancestors many generations before.
Over the decades, the Kampii have lost the knowledge of their forebearers, trusting blindly that their technology will always remain in tact and provide for their needs - so when shells start to fail and people start to die, Aluna is terrified at the stagnant, passive stance of the Kampii Elders. Determined to fight for the future of her people, to stop others from dying needless deaths, Aluna decides to spurn the stance of her tribe leaders and searches for answers in the world above. With her best friend Hoku, Aluna sets off on an adventure filled with hidden truths, fierce warriors, new friends, and terrifying enemies.
The first novel in a planned trilogy, Above World is a truly fantastic start to what might just be a new favorite series. In other words: I loved this book. Set in a wonderfully imagined future world, solidly written, with memorable characters and strong central themes, Above World is pretty freaking awesome.
One of my favorite things about this book is the worldbuilding. Set in a future version of our own Earth, Above World is, in fact, a post-apocalyptic future dystopia of sorts. The human race has fallen to overpopulation, plague, and strife; in order to survive, humanity has used science to change their very physiology. Some have taken to the skies, becoming winged Aviars with hollow bones and accustomed to high altitudes; others have taken to the depths as Kampii, with fish tails, dense muscles and bones to withstand extreme deep, cold, and dark. These different splinter groups - adapted to different environments from desert planes to caves - are fascinating, and even more fascinating is the manner in which we learn about the fate of all these different groups and the ancestors who made the choice to embark on this post-human future. There are no huge info-dumps, no awkward or inorganic relays of this data - everything unfolds gracefully, smartly, over the course of the book. While I'm not sure that everything actually makes sense (the easy adaptation that Aluna and Hoku have on land from a life spent in the sea, most notably in their speech and ability to move feels a little off), it doesn't really matter because there are plenty of other nuances that make the experience worth it - Aluna discovering her speed on land for the first time during a sparring match, for example.
I also love that to these characters - Aluna, Hoku, Callie and Dash - technology is akin to magic. We see Hoku and Callie in particular struggle to understand the mechanics behind the tech (from electricity to audio/video, and a particular programmed robotic pet), but for the most part, the underlying principles of the technology that has shaped their different peoples and their future remains an advanced mystery. It's a rather elegant solution, really, and one I appreciated wholeheartedly.
From a character perspective, Above World also shines. I love, love, LOVE Aluna. She's impulsive and fearless, fiercely devoted to her people and to her friends - but that doesn't mean she's flawless. She acts without thinking and gets herself into a very big pickle by the end of the book. The best thing about this? She realizes that her constant rushing headlong into trouble can be a very bad thing. Thankfully, her best friend Hoku - the boy that tends to freeze in the face of danger, but has a huge heart and the brains to match - tends to bail her out in the nick of time. There's also Callie the Aviar, who struggles to fit in with her people and live up to her mother's legacy (but who eventually does, in spades), and Dash the Equine, who is perhaps the least fleshed out of the main cast, but still a strong figure and foil to Aluna.
Of course, there are villains galore, too. I don't want to spoil too much about them, except that they are pretty horrific - I'm talking borg-esque, hybrid human/mech/animal parts nightmares. And the identity of the villain? Also pretty cool. There are high stakes, and dark turns, and...well, I'm excited to see what happens next.
Suffice it to say, I loved this book and I eagerly await book 2, Mirage. Absolutely recommended, and a notable read of 2012....more
Abby Hale leads a happy and normal life for a twelve year old - she goes to school every day and she's luckyOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Abby Hale leads a happy and normal life for a twelve year old - she goes to school every day and she's lucky enough to have a large, loving family and plenty of friends. And, just like anyone else her age, Abby cannot wait to be Judged, because Judgement means she will finally be an Adult and that she'll FINALLY be able to use magic (just like everyone else in the world). On the day of her Judgement, Abby is an excited mess of nerves and she wonders what rating she'll receive - most kids get a Judgement of 5 or so (although Abby's eldest sister, Alexa, got a nearly unheard-of 9 rating!). But Abby doesn't even pass her first test, and she is Judged as having absolutely zero magical potential.
In other words, Abby is an Ord - that is, she's "Ordinary" therefore impervious to magic and anathema to society.
You see, in Abby's world, everything relies on magic, from the rooms in her family's house to the shortcake that Abby's mother conjures in her bakery. Ords are a danger because they can see through any spells and cannot be affected by magic, and reviled - they are treated as though their Ord-ness is a contagious disease (it's not), and their basic human rights are stripped away. For instance Ords, especially Ord children, are often sold as slaves to traveling Adventurers (who find it useful to have someone impervious to magic on hand to walk through magical booby traps in the pursuit of treasure).
Abby soon learns all of this, as she's kicked out of school, her supposed friends keep their distance, and a pair of brutal Adventurers show up at her family's doorstep looking to purchase Abby for their next adventure. At least Abby has her family who stand by her and love her just as much as if she had been proclaimed an immensely powerful young mage. And just when all seems lost, Abby learns that her life is not without hope and opportunity - her eldest sister, Alexa, works a top secret job in Education for the kingdom, and it turns out she (and newly coronated King Stephen) has been a champion for Ords for years, protecting a school for Ordinary children in the heart of the kingdom's capitol city. Soon enough, Abby is whisked away to Margaret Green School in Rothmere, where she learns that she is one of many Ords, where she makes new friends, and learns how to protect herself and use her Ordinariness to her advantage. Of course, danger abounds (what with redcaps and desperate Adventurers about), but with the help of her family and her friends, Abby may just be able to make it through her first year of school alive.
Well, thank you Stephanie Burgis! Ordinary Magic is EVERY bit as wonderful as promised - there's nothing ordinary about it. The core premise of the book is simple, but brilliant in its simplicity; Abby's world is like a reverse Harry Potter, in which the entire universe is magical, except for a very small subset of folks that are despised for their non-magical-ness. Instead of going to a school for the gifted, Abby goes to a school where she can be safe and where she can learn how to live life in a world built for others (really, upon reflection, "Ords" and "Oridnary" seems a misnomer because Abby and her fellow Ords are not average or typical in the slightest - in fact they are very OUT of the ordinary). The revulsion that other characters feel for Abby and her new friends is a searing, believable examination of xenophobia, of racism, of the despicable fear of those who are different. I love the careful, considered examination of these issues in the book, in a way that never feels didactic or exploitative, and is seamlessly integral to the story.
I also love the consideration of the world itself, too. While I wonder where the fear and hatred for Ords came from (fodder for future books, right?), I love the distinction between ords being impervious to magic, but NOT impervious to normal things that would kill anyone. As one of Abby's teachers points out, ords are impervious to magical fire, but they will burn just like anyone else if a spell is cast that creates a non-magical, regular fire. We also get to see just how ingrained magic is in this world, as when Abby volunteers for kitchen duty, she - for the very first time in her life! - has to wash a dish (dirty dishes in the Hale household are magicked away and back into existence, clean as ever).
But you know what I loved most of all about this book? The characters, and the relationships between the characters. I adored the family dynamic between Abby, her sisters Olivia and Alexa, and her protective brothers Gil and Jeremy, and especially her parents. Instead of absentee parents, or cruel siblings, the Hale family is a tight-knit bunch that unconditionally loves its youngest member, Abby. I even love the realistic tension that emerges at Abby's school - because unlike other Ords, Abby is incredibly lucky to have a supportive family (so many other family's turn their children out or sell them when they are Judged to be Ords), to the resentment of other characters.
And then there's our heroine Abby, herself. Like Stephanie Burgis' Kat Stephenson books, I love that the novel follows Abby and not her older siblings - let's face it, the story of Alexa, who is a level 9 mage (that's 9 out of a possible - or rather, impossible - 10!) and selflessly devoted to improving the law and living conditions for Ords even before her sister was claimed one is an easy shoe-in for heroine of a YA or older fantasy series. That said, how predictable would that have been? I LOVE the perspective we get from Abby who is NOT powerful or particularly ingenius, but who has guts and the love of her family and friends to guide her. She's brave and resourceful, but the thing that is so awesome about Abby is her belief and trust in those she cares for. And that's just Abby! The other characters in this book are brilliantly detailed and fleshed out, from the curmudgeonly Peter (there's a sweet beginning of a romance here, handled beautifully) to the passionate ord self-defense teacher Becky.
What else can I say about Ordinary Magic? This is a fantastic book in a richly imagined and fascinating world. I loved Ordinary Magic very, very much, and I sincerely hope there will be more adventures of Abby and her fellow Ords in the very near future....more
Once upon a time, there was a faraway kingdom called Phantasmorania, ruled by a benevolent King and Queen. ThOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Once upon a time, there was a faraway kingdom called Phantasmorania, ruled by a benevolent King and Queen. This happy royal couple was also blessed with the birth of six beautiful daughters, each princess more beautiful than the last, with rippling blonde hair, jewel blue eyes, and the fairest complexions of palest cream. And, each princess was given the name of a precious stone - Diamond, Opal, Emerald, Sapphire, Crystal, and Pearl. One fine day, the royal cannon boomed out twenty times, signifying the birth of a seventh princess, much to the delight of the townspeople, for it was common knowledge that the seventh princess was a good omen, and destined to be the most beautiful of them all.
To celebrate the birth of their seventh child, the King and Queen decided to throw a grand celebration, and invited all of the fairies of the land in the hopes that they would bestow delightful and useful presents on their youngest child. And bestow these fine gifts the fairies did - Princess Amethyst Alexandra Augusta Araminta Adelaide Aurelia Anne was given Charm and Wit and Grace and Courage, and many other similar traits besides, heaped on her already quite beauteous and sweet-tempered head of gold curls. But then, the most powerful fairy god-mother in the land - the prickly older fairy Crustacea with a notorious temper - bestowed her final gift on young Princess Amethyst Alexandra Augusta Araminta Adelaide Aurelia Anne:
"Wit, Charm, Courage, Health, Wisdom, Grace...Good gracious, poor child! Well, thank goodness my magic is stronger than anyone else's. She raised her twisty coral stick and waved it three times over the cradle of the seventh princess. "My child," said the Fairy Crustacea, "I am going to give you something that will probably bring you more happiness than all these fal-lals and fripperies put together. You shall be Ordinary!"
And with that parting gift, Princess Amethyst Alexandra Augusta Araminta Adelaide Aurelia Anne became quite Oridnary indeed. Her angelic disposition immediately became that of a normal cranky baby, her golden curls darkened and straightened, her complexion turned mottled and then freckled. As the years passed, she simply became known as Princess Amy - Ordinary, but happy, and far more interested in escaping to the woods to play than in the tedious rigors of court life, embroidering, or husband-finding. When all of Amy's sisters have been married off, however, and the princely prospects for the very Ordinary Amy look slim, her parents decide to resort to drastic measures to trick a prince into marrying the last daughter (the good old throw her in an isolated tower protected by a dragon scheme). Rather than endure that nonsense, Amy decides to run away - and embarks on an adventure that will lead to another kingdom, where she will find happiness, hard work, and someone who may be just as wonderfully Ordinary as she.
Originally published in 1980, The Ordinary Princess is a charming, delightful little middle grade book. Taking the very familiar tropes of fairy tales - the beautiful princesses with hair of spun gold and eyes of sky blue, gifted with all the riches and graces in the land - and gives them a very overt twist. Kaye poses a very interesting question in The Ordinary Princess, because no matter how beautiful these traditional fairy tale princesses may be, wouldn't their lives be so very boring? How dull and unfulfilling would it be to be have everything given to you, to be forced into always acting properly and looking beautiful? With heroine Princess Amy - who is still quite gifted with Grace and Health and Wit and all those other good things, mind you - we see how beauty can be overrated, and that happiness comes from the choices one makes and not what one looks like. While the message is hardly subtle, it's an important one and one that is done well in this delightful book.
There is a very linear, predictable nature to this story - and in that way it is in fact a perfect fairy tale. I'm reminded of Philip Pullman's own words in Tales from the Brothers Grimm regarding the essential components of a great fairy tale: the story must move quickly and told in an economy of words that is evocative, winsome, and most importantly brief. Characters do not need to be deeply nuanced or layered, and actions like falling in love are simple milestones that happen quickly, without elaboration or explanation. And in a book that is so clearly paying homage to the traditional folk tale, The Ordinary Princess certainly excels, telling a very different variation of a familiar princess story while adhering to the key ingredients that make a fairy tale successful. And that, dear readers, is thanks to voice. The most impressive and delightful thing about The Ordinary Princess is its narrative skill with words and that storyteller's voice - there is humor aplenty, charm in abundance, as well as the proper fairy tale-ish type of cadence and style. In under 150 pages? This is no small feat, but one that M.M. Kaye has accomplished so convincingly.
It's easy for me to see why this particular book is so beloved; for even if the elements are simple and familiar, sometimes the simple and familiar are all you need. Definitely recommended for anyone looking for a quick, refreshingly sweet and fun read. ...more
If there is such a thing as a universal – and I wasn’t ready to throw all of mine out the window – it’s that there is power in a story.
Winner of theIf there is such a thing as a universal – and I wasn’t ready to throw all of mine out the window – it’s that there is power in a story.
Winner of the 2011 Newbery Award, Moon Over Manifest is a historical novel set in the small town of Manifest, Kansas in 1936. It is an absolutely brilliant coming-of-age story following a young girl trying to connect to (and understand) her father by learning about his past.
12-year-old Abilene Tucker has lived all her life on the road with her father Gideon. But when she has an accident and nearly dies of infection, her father sends her off to Manifest to live with an old friend. Abilene is puzzled at first, not understanding why this small incident (and the fact that she turned 12) should have any impact at all in her life. Missing Gideon terribly and knowing that he has spent some time in Manifest in the past, Abilene sets out to unearth her father’s story, to try and learn about the boy he once was.
In doing so, she unearths the past of Manifest itself and of all of its citizens: Manifest is a mining town built on the blood of immigrants from all over the world, and the town has its share of secrets.
Those secrets are unveiled to Abilene through the local newspapers clippings (by Hattie Mae Harper, “Reporter About Town.”), a set of letters from a soldier shipped away in WWI writing to his best friend and the stories told by the town’s diviner Miss Sadie – who, ironically, knows a lot about the past but nothing about the future.
I just can’t even begin to tell how enamoured I am of this book. It is one of those deceptively simple slow-burning stories: the kind that needs to be savoured little by little so that the reader can truly absorb its subtle themes and its hidden meanings. It features stories within stories and the power that those stories hold in preserving memory as well as changing the future of a place. In many ways, Abilene’s narrative voice and the book’s overall atmosphere reminded of To Kill a Mockingbird as well as the more recent Boneshaker (minus the fantastical side).
There is a strong sense of place here and it is easy to picture Manifest in all is incarnations, its past and its present. But above all, through the letters and stories, it is also easy to really see how the characters affect the story of the town and vice-versa. Manifest is a living, breathing place and it evolves as its citizens do. As such, its inhabitants change it, are changed by it – in political, economical, cultural and social ways. They are not outside history either: Manifest is deeply affected by WWI, the Depression, Immigration, the Spanish Influenza and the Klu Klux Klan. It is really interesting to see how this sense of place plays into Abilene’s own story: as she cannot at first, find evidence of Gideon’s past in Manifest, she wonders what it means when a place doesn’t remember you.
Moon Over Manifest seamlessly incorporates certain aspects into its main thread very naturally and as such this book features a plethora of strong women in a matter-of-fact, diverse way. Their strength, mind you, is not necessarily overt or marked by physical power (which is how “strong women” is unfortunately, usually thought of). It is in the roles they play publicly as well as privately.
That said, although I loved the stories-within-stories, it took me a while to get used to the narrative choice of moving from first person to third person when Miss Sadie was telling Abilene the stories from the past. I also thought it weird that there was no word whatsoever about Abilene’s mother.
Those minor quibbles aside, when I think about all of this book’s qualities, the assuredness present in the storytelling, the strength of its characters and the emotional impact of this story (seriously, I was sobbing – good tears – at the end) I can hardly believe this is Clare Vanderpool’s debut. Worthy of the Newbery it won.
Like Abilene, I too believe that there is power in a story and there is definitely power in Moon Over Manifest. ...more
This is the Great! Unexpected! Dangerous! story of the great magician Tony Horten, the mysterious circumstances of his disappearance and the quest thaThis is the Great! Unexpected! Dangerous! story of the great magician Tony Horten, the mysterious circumstances of his disappearance and the quest that a young boy undergoes to find the magician’s missing workshop and its miraculous mechanisms.
The unlikely hero of this story is a (small for his age) 10-year-old boy named him Stuart Horten by his very smart yet not entirely sensible parents. With a name that could be shortened to S. Horten, Stuart, who is indeed a child very small for his age, is granted the nickname shorten by his friends.
In any case, in spite of that, Stuart’s life is pretty good (what with a bike with eight gears and a garden with a tree house and a pond) until his not entirely sensible parents decide to move away to a small town where his father’s family used to live. This is done at the worst possible time ever, meaning: at the of the summer holidays when (as any sensible person would know) it is basically impossible for anyone to make new friends.
Luckily for Stuart, the move leads to the beginning of an awesome Adventure (with capital A) as he finds himself solving the (literal) puzzle of his (as it turns out) Great-Uncle Tony’s disappearance with the aid of the his new neighbours, the triplets April, May and June.
Small Change for Stuart is a super fun read: vastly entertaining and smart. From the clues Stuart must solve to the mechanisms that his uncle has built, it is all very cleverly done. That, combined with other threats woven into the story, like Stuart’s relationship with his older parents, his trips to the library to research the past, a tragic (or it is) love story, just make this little book all the more engaging to older readers as well as kids.
But what really tipped the book into awesome territory for me are two things. First, the friendship that develops between Stuart and the triplets (most of all with April). I loved how at first, Stuart finds them completely alien and scary. The trio run their own newspaper and each kid has a journalistic role to perform and that in itself is a hoot but also show to Stuart how clever they are and eventually he sees them as allies in his adventures. In fact, April becomes the Brains of the operation and Stuart (begrudgingly at first) admires her for that.
Second, this book acknowledges the fact that 10-year-olds live in a universe of their own. There is a very serious moment in the novel in which Stuart has to think about his heart’s desire and it is no surprise that Stuart’s entire universe boils down to the fact that he is short. There is a really interesting balance between the gravitas and importance of this admittedly self-absorbed moment to Stuart at the same time that it shows his decision to do the Right Thing to everybody. I love these moments of True Growth in children’s books especially when the story is still simply fun.
From the adorable opening to the surprising ending Small Change for Stuart is a great MG book. Glad I found it. ...more
In Keara's world, every newborn child is bound to a darkbeast, a magical animal that will be the child's consOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
In Keara's world, every newborn child is bound to a darkbeast, a magical animal that will be the child's constant companion, and with which its bound child can communicate through thought and speech. Over the years as a child grows, it will make offerings of dark emotions to its darkbeast, such as hate, fear, jealousy, or anger. In turn, the darkbeast absolves and teaches the child the error of its ways. This process of offering and absolution continues until the child reaches her twelfth year - at which point she must kill her darkbeast and become an adult member of society.
It has always been thus.
Keara has long awaited her twelfth name day - the youngest of three sisters, she longs to leave childhood behind and become a woman. Once she becomes an adult, she will move to the woman's shared tent, she will be allowed to watch the Travelers perform their revels, and she will finally be seen as a woman in the eyes of her mother. But Keara's twelfth year comes at a terrible cost, and she does not know how she will be able to kill her darkbeast, a raven named Caw, who is Keara's dearest companion and beloved friend. When the time of the ceremony comes, Keara makes a daring, rebellious choice - to defy tradition and to save Caw. Together, the girl and her darkbeast flee Keara's village home and take to the road, avoiding the pursuit of the Inquisitors, who will stop at nothing to cleanse the unpious and inflict their torture on lost souls to bring them back to the Twelve Gods. On the road, the pair find solace in the employ of a skilled troupe of Travelers - actors that move from town to town - but when Keara's presence threatens to hurt her new friends, and as the Inquisitors draw near, she must muster the strength to tell the truth, to stoke the rebellious attitude within that made her save her darkbeast.
The first middle grade fantasy novel in a planned series, Darkbeast accomplishes a tricky feat. Morgan Keyes blends a medieval religious society in a believable and compelling fantasy world - one that is nuanced enough for older readers, but still engaging and accessible for a middle grade audience. There are few books that manage to walk this tightrope - the early Harry Potter novels and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials books immediately spring to mind - and Keyes' Darkbeast does this with surefooted grace. In short: Darkbeast is one effective, memorable novel.
Let's talk worldbuilding. Who doesn't love the idea of an animal familiar? Who read The Golden Compass/The Northern Lights and didn't want a Pantalaimon of one's own? In Darkbeast, Keyes takes the idea of an animal familiar and twists it - instead of golden monkeys and lynxes, the familiar beasts in Keara's world are toads and snakes, lizards and ravens. Instead of cuddly (and there's nothing wrong with cuddly!), darkbeasts are creatures that inspire revulsion or fear - which is fitting with their function as magical creatures that absorb the ill emotions of their bonded child. And this, perhaps, is one of the things that makes it easier for a twelve year old to kill its closest companion. It's a brilliant concept, and one that makes Keara's choice to save her friend Caw - whom she cannot kill any more than she can cut off her own foot, as she thinks at the decisive moment - all the more powerful. When Keara starts to question the wisdom of killing one's darkbeast, she starts down a rabbit hole of doubt and knowledge. Why would benevolent gods demand the deaths of darkbeasts? Why do the Inquisitors and tax collectors and the great Primate have so much power, while everyone else has so little? All of these questions, and more, are brought up subtly throughout the book and invite readers to question and rebel as much as heroine Keara does.
From a character perspective, Keara is a fantastic, deserving, and endearing heroine. You know how sometimes you read a book and cannot believe in the main character - either they sound too old or too young for their purported age, or something just seems off? This is certainly not the case with young Keara, who comes across as a living, breathing, flawed twelve year old that has her missteps, but also has a huge heart that guides her actions. I think I fell in love with Keara from the beginning, when she continues to sneak out of her home, explicitly against her mother's wishes - not because she's a bad child, but because she cannot keep herself away from the revels, and cannot sit idly by when her fascination and curiosity burn so brightly. In contrast, Keara's darkbeast Caw is somewhat less defined - my only real disappointment with the book is how quiet Caw is, and how one note his frequent jokes for food and scraps to cover up his wisdom.
This flaw aside, Darkbeast is a brilliant middle grade novel that is even better upon reflection. There is so much room for more - what with formal rebellion brewing in the background - so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that we will get more books in this beautiful darkbeast-filled world. Absolutely recommended, for readers young and old alike....more
Thea: Awe. Horror. Utter, depraved delight. All of these are emotions I experiencOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Thea: Awe. Horror. Utter, depraved delight. All of these are emotions I experienced while reading The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, the debut novel from Claire Legrand. Cavendish has a little bit of everything - a dash of Matilda, a heaping dose of Coraline, a touch of Tim Burton, topped off with a whole lotta original awesomeness, too, naturally. This is one fantastic book, and I loved it from cover to cover.
Ana: When I finished reading The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls I decided I needed to tell my colleagues all about it. It was just after lunch break and I was decidedly giddy about it. This is how I presented it: a fabulous horror book for children featuring cockroaches, cannibalism, a perfect little girl who she sets out to save her best friend. As I grew more and more enthusiastic about my recounting of the book, I stood up and I might have re-enacted a scene or two of the book – one of them, to the horror of those around me, involved an army of roaches. This is going to be our book club read for Halloween. Long story short: I loved this so much, I subjected myself to ridicule by re-enacting a scene with cockroaches.
On the Plot:
Thea: Victoria Wright is twelve years old and the top of her class at Impetus Academy. The pride of her stylish mother and well-connected father, Victoria makes sure that everything in her life is orderly and perfect, from her gleaming curls to her impeccable grades. In fact, the only thing that is not just so for Victoria is her one and only friend Lawrence Prewitt. Lawrence, also twelve years old, is a quiet boy with gray hairs that make him look a bit like a skunk, who doesn't care about his grades or what others think of him. What Lawrence cares about is music - he's a prodigy on the piano, but not much good at anything else. One day, after witnessing some particularly rude and disorderly taunting of Lawrence, Victoria decides to take him on as her own special project and befriends the strange musical boy (even when he resists and rejects her). Victoria and Lawrence grow to be close friends, until the day that Lawrence disappears.
Although the Prewitts insist that Lawrence is simply off visiting his ill Grandmother, Victoria notices that something is wrong - and this wrongness is not just with Lawrence's parents, but with so many others in the pristine town of Belleville. Peoples' smiles are garishly tight, their teeth too gleamingly white, and something else scuttles around the dark corners that Victoria can't quite see.
At the heart of all this wrongness is the orphanage on Nine Silldie Place - The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls. Children, like Lawrence, are disappearing from Belleville, and no one seems to care - no one but a few quickly silenced adults (like Professor Alban) and Victoria, that is. Victoria is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, to find her friend, and to restore sanity to the world.
From a pure plotting and storytelling perspective, The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls is a delightfully terrifying, deliciously creepy read - one that effectively plays with familiar tropes and images, like scuttling bugs in dark corners, mystery meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, a house with voices and shifting halls, and a terrifying puppetmaster under a sheen of glamour in the form of Mrs. Cavendish at the center of it all. In Claire Legrand's blog post today, she cites a few MG titles that influenced her work (in particular her heroine Victoria), and the homage she pays to these fabulous books are strewn throughout Cavendish. There's Roald Dahl's Matilda - from the terrifying Home's "hangar" (where children are...hanged), which feels very much like Dahl's Chokey, to the horrific coaching Mrs. Cavendish gives to a boy who cannot resist eating sweets, which feels very much like Miss Trunchbull's abusive cake-punishment inflicted on a sweet-toothed student. There's also glimmers of Neil Gaiman's Coraline in Cavendish, too - the shimmering facade of the Other Mother in Mrs. Cavendish's tight, sunny smiles hiding a monster beneath, the oddness of the Other Mother's realm in the other dimension that the Cavendish Home embodies.
But, most importantly, while some of the elements are familiar and the hat-tips to influential works are unmistakable, The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls has no shortage of its very own original magic. At heart, Cavendish tells the story of a prickly heroine that learns her own worth and the value of friendship - that different and disorderly does not always mean worse. To make this point, Claire Legrand is as gleefully sadistic as her titular Mrs. Cavendish - inflicting all kinds of deranged punishment on her characters, including (but not limited to) physical, emotional, and psychological torture; swarming, stinging beetle-roaches; and stinking food with mysterious chunks of rubbery meat for every meal. Even better - Legrand's writing is even-handed and never gratuitous or pandering, as she manages to keep the voice consistent with its middle grade heroine, but still make the story appealing (and properly horrific) for older readers alike. The story is brisk, the tension high, and as Victoria learns the true nature of the Cavendish Home and the secret of her perfect town, I was utterly, wholly under Cavendish's spell.
Ana: Unfortunately I am not schooled in Horror stories and more to the point, I am most definitely not well-read in children’s Horror stories . This means that even though I do understand some of the references and recognise some of the influences that Thea noted above, to me the sense of the familiar that the book engenders stems from archetypical fears rather than specific works. As such, Cavendish plays really well into those familiar fears: the fear of the dark and of confined spaces; of losing one’s parents; of loneliness and being at the mercy of enemies; of the monsters under the bed (or behind a wall) and of the creepy crawly insects. And then it goes beyond by combining those archetypical fears with the book’s own thematic elements: self-acceptance and the value of friendship and the importance of memory – of remembering people that are gone and the things have gone wrong in the past so that they are not repeated again.
This is a Horror story and it is meant to be horrific. I love that the author does not pander to her audience - although at times I admit found myself clutching my imaginary pearls in extreme horror and going “I can’t believe she went there”. I loved the book because it was a proper horror story and it doesn’t shy away from it. Interestingly, it is hinted that the parents of those children actually would have wanted them to go to the Cavendish Home to become perfect, well-behaved little children. As such, this makes the book all the more impacting because then the Cavendish Home might as well be a mirror to the world outside: a world that strives for a certain type of perfection that is fake and unnatural.
Of course, it also helps that the prose itself is pretty awesome and that the story is developed beautifully as a Quest to save a Best Friend (and in the process of doing so, also save the town).
On the Characters:
Ana: Victoria, the main character is an incredible MG heroine. Assertive, intelligent, self-sufficient. Incredibly self-aware about certain things: about her sense of self-worth and about her integrity, sense of honour and extreme dedication to her own education with a love for knowledge and a desire for victory. But she was also completely oblivious to others: like her potential for cruelty, the sense of superiority that effectively distanced her from the other kids and her real feelings for Lawrence (whom I loved from basically page 1).
I loved that the majority of those characteristics are not presented as negative aspects in themselves – they only become negative when Victoria thinks of herself as superior (and therefore better) to everybody else when they don’t show the same features. Her character arc is great - as per the thematic core of the novel, she learns to accept others for who they are (e.g. completely different from her) without changing her own personality. In fact it is her very own non-nonsense way to look at the world that saves her life.
As for Mrs Cavendish: Mrs Cavendish is that sort of unrepentant, black-and-white villain that is so easy to loathe. She reminded me of Professor Umbridge with her potential for unparalleled cruelty, the kind that entwines both physical and emotional torture.
Thea: Allow me to break out of serious reviewer mode and commence gushing: OH MY GOSH PEOPLE I FREAKING LOVE LOVE LOVE VICTORIA SO MUCH. Just as the author says in her guest post about heroines, Victoria is a prickly, snobbish, perfectionist of a heroine. The mere thought of earning a B is horrific to her, and she goes about her pristine, ordered life with nary a thought for what she might be missing or whom she is hurting in her quest for Utter Victory (Academic or otherwise). And yet, despite her frosty princess qualities, Victoria is an incredibly compelling and likable heroine, because underneath that hardened shell of self-importance, she actually is a loyal, true friend (though she's oblivious to this fact). Heck, the only reason why she stands a chance against Mrs. Cavendish and her cohorts is because she has such a hard head and a stubborn streak a mile wide.
On the other side of the coin, however, there is Mrs. Cavendish - our villain, who also quests for and demands utter perfection of everyone in the town of Belleville. At different parts of the book, comparisons are drawn between Victoria and Mrs. Cavendish, showing the similarities between the two characters - both Victoria and Mrs. Cavendish demand others conform to their standards and beliefs. And through the horrors inflicted on children and the townspeople by Mrs. Cavendish, Victoria gradually learns that sometimes perfect is not perfect at all. In particular, I love one scene where Mrs. Cavendish forces one of the girls to paint the same bland, pretty picture over and over again, and Victoria reflects on Jacqueline's art before - how it was shocking and disturbing and made people feel things, in stark contrast to the perfect, soulless pictures Mrs. Cavendish forces Jacqueline to create. Mrs. Cavendish perhaps was once like Victoria, gone down a different, dark path - I love the contrast painted between these two characters, and how Victoria breaks free from Mrs. Cavendish's cruel grip.
Although, I should mention that what I love most of all about Victoria is the fact that while she does change over the course of the novel, she does not emerge from Cavendish as some benevolent, repentant child. No, she is still prickly, still overacheiving, still hyperorganized to a fault - but she realizes that she wants and needs more than distant approval from her parents and wants their love, just as she knows she yearns for Lawrence's friendship just as much as he yearns for hers. And that is all kinds of awesome.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Ana:The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls is an amazingly fun and creepy read. The author develops its thematic core of self-worth without being preachy and without pandering to readers – this is Horror, yes. But Horror with a Heart.
Thea: I completely, wholeheartedly agree. The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls is a beautifully written, gleefully horrific novel that is perfect for readers young and old. Starring a truly remarkable protagonist in Victoria (who can go toe-to-toe with the finest heroines in the middle grade canon), and featuring terrifying (but appropriate and never gratuitous) horror in the form of Mrs. Cavendish, The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls simply rocks. Easily one of my notable reads of 2012. ...more
It was a truth universally acknowledged that my brother Charles was a hopeless gamester, a ridiculous over-slOriginally Reviewed on The Book Smugglers
It was a truth universally acknowledged that my brother Charles was a hopeless gamester, a ridiculous over-sleeper and the one sibling too lazy to take part in any family arguments, no matter how exasperating our sisters might have been (and usually were).
Kat Stephenson, untrained Guardian and youngest member of the Stephenson family, has saved the day, and now must deal with the consequences. Thanks to her efforts, Kat's eldest sister Elissa is marrying the man of her dreams (and newly found substantial fortune, also thanks to Kat), Mr. Collingwood. Her brother Charles' sizable gambling debts are repaid, Angeline and Kat are restored with modest dowries, and all seems to be looking up for the Stephenson family. On the day of the wedding though, things go terribly awry when the ceremony is rudely interrupted by one Mrs. Carlyle - mother to the (formerly bewitched) Frederick Carlyle, come to rescue her son from the scandalous, ruinous clutches of Angeline Stephenson. After receiving a vindictive letter from high-society darling, Lady Fotherington, Angeline's prospects seem ruined as she is revealed publicly as a witch - her true love, Frederick, is taken away by his enraged mama, his inheritance threatened to be withheld should he choose to dabble with the likes of the Stephensons. Even worse, after learning this news, Kat confronts fellow Guardian, Lady Fotherington (whom has always had it in for Kat and her family, stemming from some past brawl with Kat's mother) - and promptly gets herself thrown out of the Guardians' order, much to the glee of Fotherington.
In order to salvage the family's reputation before the gossip of witchcraft can reach the rest of society, Kat's Stepmama whisks away the family (sans newlywed Elissa) to Bath, under the guise of paying a visit to their Stepmama's very rich and well connected cousins and enjoy the locale's health restoring properties. In reality, Kat's Stepmother's plan is simple and direct - they are at Bath to find Angeline a husband before Lady Fotherington's malicious handiwork catches up to them.
Things at Bath, however, do not go smoothly to plan. First, there's the problem of tricking Stepmama's rich cousins into accepting the Stephensons as guests (thanks to Kat's quick thinking and storytelling). There's the problem of saving Angeline from her own ridiculous schemes to push everyone away. Most importantly, there's the question of the restorative springs at Bath themselves - wild magic is afoot, and it involves Kat's brother Charles, her cousin Lucy, and the Guardians themselves. With Kat expelled from the order, though, she has to rely on only her own wits to solve the mystery and save the day.
Well, folks, what can I say? Renegade Magic is every bit as fantastic as Kat, Incorrigible - heck, it's even better. Everything that I loved about the first book and came to expect from the second book - Kat's penchant for mischief-making and magic-wielding, the love and understandable frustrations between Kat and her family, for two - are present in abundance here. The ante is upped in Renegade Magic, in terms of plot complications (they are wonderful), character development (especially between Kat and her various family members), and in terms of Kat's abilities herself.
Let's talk plot, first. The storyline for Renegade Magic is more complex than the first book, throwing in not only romantic entanglements and magical mischief, but also some serious conflict in the way of Kat getting kicked out of the Guardians' order, being stripped of access to the Golden Hall, and her powers forever destined to be stunted as she will never have formal training by any Guardian mentor. Things get even more drastic when Kat stumbles across some dangerous wild magic in the bath houses, ancient Roman rituals amassing crazy amounts of power, and must figure out who is behind the gatherings before her brother Charles ends up a sacrificial lamb to someone else's dastardly scheme. There's also the ever-present tension between Kat and Angeline, as Angeline is hell bent on her ridiculous schemes to make her Stepmama go apoplectic, and stick it to society at the same time.
In fact, I think my favorite parts of Renegade Magic involve Kat and Angeline and their relationship. As with the first book, clearly both sisters love each other (and by way of comparison, Kat and Angeline's cousins, Maria and Lucy are a great example of nasty sisters), though they do have their own tensions and animosity. Angeline still refuses to share their mother's spell books with Kat, and clearly harbors resentment towards her younger sister for inheriting Guardian powers and a position in the secret order of society magicians. At the same time, Kat jumps into trouble head-first, even with the best of intentions (protecting her sister and brother, for example) without thinking of consequences. There's also more inclusion of Kat's Stepmama - giving her more of a voice and full dimension as a character that does love her stepchildren, for all her blustering - which is fantastic. Plus, this time around, we are fully introduced to brother Charles (who needs more conviction, but actually does stand up for his sisters), and best of all, Kat's father - who finally takes a stand for his family in a gloriously fist-pump-of-awesomeness pivotal moment.
Of course, the success of the book relies on Kat herself, and she's stronger than ever in Renegade Magic. Just as clever, just as quick-witted, and just as wonderfully headstrong, Kat is a heroine with her heart in the right place, who will do anything for those she cares about. And that is pretty freaking awesome.
I loved this book to bits, and I cannot wait for more. Absolutely, enthusiastically recommended, and easily a notable read of 2012....more
This probably sounds extremely clichéd, but reading a Frances Hardinge book is like entering a whole new world. Take Gullstruck Island forAna’s Take:
This probably sounds extremely clichéd, but reading a Frances Hardinge book is like entering a whole new world. Take Gullstruck Island for example: where consuming a certain type of fish allows one a glimpse of the future; where a beetle song is deadly; and where different peoples fight for survival, as the places for the honoured dead expand at the expense of the places for the living. On one small corner of the island, the Lace – who smile all the time with their adorned teeth and whose names imitate the sounds of nature so that they don’t draw attention from the volatile, living volcanoes that pepper the island – struggle against poverty and overwhelming prejudice.
Their only hope is their Lost, Arilou, who might one day become the most important person on the island and bring riches to the Lace. Born only occasionally and respected for their abilities, the Lost are a different people on their own. Able to send their senses away from their bodies and wander around, they function as the island’s main form of communication across towns and as a sort of sage figure, their important political role unspoken rather than openly asserted.
Arilou is a different Lost though – someone whose mind wanders and rarely comes back. She can’t communicate and that is the best kept secret amongst the Lace, a secret shared and understood without being spoken out loud. Enter Hathin: Arilou’s unassuming sister, born especially to take care of Arilou, to be there for her at all times and to speak on her behalf. It is on her young shoulders that the fate of the Lace truly lies and she lives with this truth every single day of her life.
But then…the Lost start to die mysteriously. All of them are gone except for Arilou and so a history of mistrust and prejudice leads to the Lace being found guilty. Arilou and Hathin must run for their lives but how can the duo survive when one of them can hardly function on her own, on an island where everybody hates them and with an assassin on their track?
And this barely scratches the surface of Gullstruck Island.
Adventurous, wildly imaginative, engaging, thought-provoking, often heartbreaking, always inspiring, Gullstruck Island soars powerfully and beautifully. I feel like a broken record but Frances Hardinge’s imagination is otherworldly and awe-inspiring. It frustrates me a little bit that I do not have the equivalent talent (LOL, how could I) in order to express how good her books are, how awesome Gullstruck Island is. I always feel when I am writing a review of one of her books that I am woefully boring and incapable to convey the sheers brilliance of her stories. I tend to dwell on certain aspects like her powerful social commentary or her heroines’ incredible story arcs and then miss things like…say, the Reckoning in Gullstruck Island. They are group of Lace warriors who abjured their older lives so that they can avenge the death of those they loved and whose deadly weapons are anything they can get a hold of. And then there is the whole thing about the difference between revenge and justice and how different people choose different ways and it is awesome.
The best thing is how Gullstruck Island (the place) is a completely different, original setting in which familiar themes of friendship, sisterhood, coming of age, overcoming prejudice and finding one’s place in the world are explored without a shadow of clichéd writing or oversimplification.
A theme that runs through Gullstruck Island is the insidious nature of prejudice which sometimes is not even OVERT and can even be disguised as friendly. Take this quote for example:
It was a joke, but centuries of distrust and fear lay behind it.
Soon somebody would say something that was sharper and harder, but it would still be a joke. And then there would be a remark like a punch in the gut, but made as a joke. And then they would detain her if she tried to leave, and nobody woujld stop them because it was all only a joke…
Look at me, I am going on and on about things and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that the characters are all incredibly well done and I loved them and I hated them and I feared for them and I rooted for them. But most especially, Hathin is such an amazingly drawn, complex protagonist and her arc is inspiring (how many times have I used this word in this review?) and her actions are stirring and affecting. From her complicated relationship with her sister to the way she feels about her place in the world, it is impossible not to empathise with this character. And world, why can’t we have female protagonists like these all the time?
I seriously believe that there is nothing quite like Frances Hardinge’s books out there at the moment – in any shape or form (or genre and age group).
Dear Frances Hardinge: you have ruined me for other books this year and I love you for it.
And I will just finish with my favourite quote from the book:
“I am anything I wish to be. The world cannot choose for me. No, it is for me to choose what the world shall be.”
Yes, yes, yes. Everything that Ana said. I have jumped on the Frances Hardinge bandwagon and have no plans of jumping off. Gullstruck Island is a beautiful, wildly imaginative book that is unlike most anything else out on the market today. Heck, I can’t think of any author in the YA or even adult space that possesses the same imaginative scope as Frances Hardinge.
In Gullstruck Island, we are introduced to an island-society, stratified by different groups of people – varied in their beliefs, in terms of their tribal representations, appearance, and history. Our heroine, Hathin, is one of the Lace – a group of peoples on Gullstruck, marginalized because of their air of perceived secrecy and duplicity, a prejudice that dates back to a time when the always-smiling Lace secretly killed and sacrificed humans to placate the volcanoes on the island. Since that horrific discovery generations earlier, the Lace have been ostracized and demonized by all other tribes on the island, from the Bitter-Fruit clan to the Sours. The one silver lining that the Lace have is Arilou – the Lost are rare on Gullstruck, but there has never been a Lost Lace before, so the respect and power that comes with having a Lady Lost is a huge boon to Arilou’s particular tribe (the Hollow Beasts).
There’s only one problem: Arilou, for all her beauty and seeming appearance of a Lady Lost, has never shown a sign that she is anything more than a mentally handicapped girl. This is the Hollow Beasts’ greatest secret, and all falls on the shoulders of young Hathin, Arilou’s sister and “interpreter” who, over the years, has cultivated a commanding voice for Arilou all the while making herself invisible and insignificant to any inquiring outsiders. When a pair of inspectors come to test Arilou and ensure she is, in fact, one of the Lost, things look bad for Hathin and her tribe. When one of the inspectors dies suddenly, and the other goes missing, marooned on the open ocean, things look even worse.
Someone is blaming their deaths on the Hathin’s people, and single-handedly leading an already Lace-prejudiced populace into an angry mob that seeks to wipe Hathin’s tribe from Gullstruck. It is up to Hathin to save Arilou, to avenge her tribe, and save the Lace from annihilation.
I cannot express how complex this book is, and how carefully and completely Frances Hardinge creates the world of Gullstruck and all its various peoples. The central themes of discrimination, fear, and unwarranted prejudice, stirred by heated to a frenzy by some very nasty individuals is not an unfamiliar one – finding an ethnic group or people of a different belief system to blame for misfortune is, unfortunately, a prevalent theme in human nature. In Gullstruck Island, Hardinge examines these ugly human sentiments with careful attentiveness and draws these historical parallels without ever seeming heavy-handed or didactic. This is the stuff of great writing, folks – and Hardinge handles these very important topics with all the grace and import they deserve.
But beyond the social strata and commentary, Hardinge also manages to simply create a world that is amazingly, breathtakingly full. It’s hard to believe that Gullstruck Island is not a real place, with real people! We learn the different languages that these people speak (“Nundesrruth” short for “not under this roof” is a pidgin dialect, versus “Doorsy” which is the formal spoken and written language on the island). More than that, we see their different customs and beliefs, from the Lace’s affinity for smiling and drilling precious jewels in their teeth and creating long strands of shell jewelry, to the Ash people’s hunger for human ash to create and dye their skins and their goods. There are familiar elements from many different cultures and civilizations, but Hardinge makes these inhabitants completely her own.
And the characters! And the plot twists! What more can I say that Ana hasn’t already said? I loved Hathin with the force of a thousand supernovas. I loved her dedication to her sister Arilou, her feelings of pain and fear and ineptitude when her tribe is massacred, her desire to seek revenge and join the Reckoning. I loved Arilou, too, and the twists that come with her character in particular. There are villains and friends aplenty in Gullstruck Island, all believable and formidable enough, given texture and distinction with Hardinge’s clever prose.
If I had one complaint about this book – which isn’t so much a complaint as a note – it is that Gullstruck Island is unnecessarily long. This is something that I’ve noticed with Hardinge’s other books, and I think a detriment to her work. This title, as with A Face Like Glass are very long, very dense creatures that require days of reading time – and I’m an adult, that can read pretty quickly! Gullstruck Island is not the same type of quick, compulsive read that a Harry Potter or Twilight novel is – and I don’t think this is a bad thing, but I do think this is a reason why Frances Hardinge is not a household name. A middle grade level reader or YA reader, the target reader to which Hardinge’s books are aimed, likely does not have hours and hours of reading time. Gullstruck Island is a wonderful, complex novel as it is, but it probably could stand some careful pruning – which would not only help the story move along in a more direct fashion, but could also help its marketability to new audiences.
That said, I loved this book just way it is, and Gullstruck Island is absolutely one of my notable reads of 2012 (it would’ve made my top 10, had it been published in 2012!). Wholeheartedly, unabashedly recommended. ...more
It’s the end of World War II and 13-year-old Jack Baker’s father is finally coming back home. Unfortunately his return is marred by the death of the sIt’s the end of World War II and 13-year-old Jack Baker’s father is finally coming back home. Unfortunately his return is marred by the death of the sudden wife he left behind and without knowing what to do with a son he barely knows, he sends Jack to a boarding school in Maine.
There, Jack meets Early Aiden, a strange boy who often misses lessons and who can always be found listening to records in his basement room where he also spends time reading the number pi as a story and collecting news clippings about the sightings of a Great Appalachian Bear.
The two strike an unexpected friendship and although Jack often finds himself befuddled by Early’s behaviour, he ends up joining the other boy on his quest for the Great Bear on the Appalachian Trail.
Navigating Early is the sophomore novel from Clare Vanderpool, following up the success of her first award-winning novel Moon Over Manifest. Like Moon it is also a historical novel, featuring a young protagonist and it is a very similar story thematically speaking but it diverges from its predecessor perhaps in an essential way.
The similarities appear in the way that this too is a novel about connections, coincidences, memories and one that rely on stories within stories to carry some of its themes forward. The main recurring story-within-within story is that of the number pi as told by Early, who sees the infinite (or is it?) number as the story of a questing character trying to earn his name.
It is never stated outright in the novel because at the time the novel is set the identification didn’t exist but Early has Asperger’s Syndrome (a high functioning form of autism) and is a savant that sees numbers and therefore to him “pi” is not a what but a who. As the boys navigate around the trail, and Early tells his tale, the two narratives start to blur.
En route, they also meet memorable figures and learn more about life on the trail and those figures’ stories end up being threaded into the narrative in a slightly too coincidental way. That said, if the author does one thing really, really well is to take this reliance on the coincidental and turn it into something wholly moving and welcomed.
My thoughts so far haven’t quite captured the beauty of the story but this exists in the way that Jack slowly understands Early or how Early’s extraordinary gifts are more important to the quest than we could ever have imagined. The aftermath of World War II is also of heartfelt importance here in how it has affected the lives of those who survive leading Jack to have more insight and understanding of his father’s behaviour as it has been shaped by his experience in the War. The ending, when all stories come together, is extremely touching.
That said, one of my favourite things about Moon Over Manifest was how diverse it was in the stories it told and this is something I sorely missed in Navigating Early. Although I truly appreciated the stories being told here – of soldiers coming back home and of boys growing up – and think they are important, I also felt slightly sad that for example, all the women depicted are those left behind or those who passed away, rarely active in the story at all, functioning more as motivation than being characters on their own.
Despite these reservations, I found Navigating Early to be a quiet, hopeful, beautifully rendered story. ...more
The youngest in a large, poor family, Molly has never been truly wanted by her father. It doesn't help that sOriginally Reviewed on The Book Smugglers
The youngest in a large, poor family, Molly has never been truly wanted by her father. It doesn't help that she starts developing a strange ability - while playing tag with some of the local villagers, Molly has a vision of a neighbor dying tragically. A few days later, when that vision comes true, the entire village sees her as a witch and a curse - like her mother before her, who has been locked away from the world and called mad by Molly's father, Molly has a rare gift of seeing the future. So, at the age of seven, when her family's fortunes are at an all time low, her father finds the perfect reason to get rid of his unwanted child. Molly is hauled off to the castle where she is put to work as a scullery maid in the kitchens - hard, long labor that at first is a tough fit for the headstrong and very vocal Molly. As the years pass, though, she finds her place at the castle, making friends (especially with the so-called "Donkey Boy" Tobias and fellow maid Winifred), and eventually getting a position polishing silver outside of the kitchens.
Her new job, however, has her polishing a beautiful silver bowl...which immediately begins to show her terrifying visions of the past, and of the grim future that awaits the King. As it turns out, the royal family is cursed, and Molly alone has the ability to foresee - and change - the future.
When I started this book, I was looking for a diverting, adventure-filled YA fantasy read - and I am pleased to say The Silver Bowl did not disappoint. Reminiscent of middle grade/young adult fantasy novels Patricia C. Wrede, The Silver Bowl is a sweet adventurous tale with a wonderful, plucky heroine. In fact, though this book was published in 2011, it feels much more like one of the books I would have devoured and loved as a middle schooler - like Cimorene's adventures in Searching for Dragons, or Harry's adventures in The Blue Sword. The tone of the novel and its prose are beautifully rendered, and I love that Diane Stanley is not afraid to show the darker elements of the story (curses in the form of monsters, bloody battles and injury, to name a few) - but it is the elegant style in which the book is written that gives it the feel of a McKinley, or Wrede, or McKillip.
Of course, the true standout of the book is our heroine, young Molly and her singular ability to cut to the heart of any problem and take matters into her own hands. I love that she, unlike the usual heroines that seem so prevalent in today's fantasy fiction for young adults, is charmingly ignorant and un-educated. Instead of being the peasant girl that has had the loving family that has, inexplicably, educated her far beyond the station of her time, Molly is refreshingly ignorant. She's not polished. She's not princess beautiful. She's not literate. But that does not mean she isn't brilliantly smart. Molly has gumption, beyond her station in life - and that is pretty freaking amazing. I also love that there is a romance angle to this story, and it's not one that features the peasant girl becoming the prince's bride.
From a story perspective, the underlying conflict of The Silver Bowl is somewhat simplistic (and somewhat predictable, once the villain is revealed), but that does not translate to a poorly told or boring story. Stanley's writing style, the touching interchanges between her characters, the magical abilities and curses of this world - they are all fantastically done.
The Silver Bowl is a book that I would whole-heartedly recommend to anyone looking for a quick, nostalgic fantasy novel - and I will be checking out Diane Stanley's backlist very, very soon....more
Sure, they manage to convey the general storyline, but they get all theOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Bards almost always get things wrong.
Sure, they manage to convey the general storyline, but they get all the details wrong. Like the names of the people involved. Across four different kingdoms, bards have been singing their tales of great deeds and romance...but lumping all the heroes together under the name of "Prince Charming". Prince Charming is, in fact, four different princes - Frederic (of Cinderella fame), Gustav (who tried to save Rapunzel but she ended up saving him, in reality), Liam (the guy that woke up Sleeping Beauty), and Duncan (Snow White's hubby).
After the magically romantic evening of the grand ball and finding his true love in Ella (Cinderella, that was), things seem to be going just swimmingly for Prince Frederic and his new fiance. However, what is fun for Frederic (picnicking on castle grounds) proves to be not so much fun for Ella, who grows weary of her fiance's penchant for sleeping until noon, his focus on wardrobe, and most of all, his aversion to adventure. Ella leaves Frederic for her own grand adventures - but Frederic is determined to get her back. Embarking on his own grand adventure to win back his beloved, Frederick soon runs into other similarly disgruntled princes who have been, for varying reasons, left behind by their princesses.
Gustav, while tall and strong, has a bit of an inferiority complex compared to his older brothers - and things didn't get any better when he tried to rescue Rapunzel from the clutches of the evil witch, only to get pushed out the tower window, blinded, and saved by the very same Rapunzel after she singlehandedly her witchy captor. Frustrated by the jeers of all of those in his kingdom, Gustav pushes Rapunzel away and sets off to do something truly heroic to earn some respect.
Liam is every bit the handsome, heroic, storybook prince, but after saving Sleeping Beauty and her kingdom from the sleeping curse and besting a different witch, he finds out that his betrothed princess is actually a terrible person that starts willfully spreading malicious rumors about Liam's character.
Duncan is perfectly happy with his wife Snow White and a bit of an oddball. To be fair, Snow is an oddball, too. Their combined oddness makes them a perfect pair, but there's still an adjusting period to go through and things are a little off for Duncan and his new bride.
Together, the Prince Charmings (ok, actually "Princes Charming", as Liam would interject) team up to thwart a nefarious plot from a familiar witch (and a Bandit King and his posse), win back the girl and earn the respect and thanks of their various kingdoms. And they'll have some fun and learn a little something along the way, too.
Charming. In a word, The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom is fittingly, utterly charming. I love the imaginative spin on classic fairy tales and the fitting attention paid to the Princes Charming as they embark on their own adventures to be considered worthy of their respective princesses. Even cooler, I love that this attention to the princes and getting them a fair shake as heroes does not come at the expense of the princesses. Ella plays a major role in the book and leaves her own Happily Ever After in pursuit of something greater - but when Frederic and her friends are in trouble, she rushes to the rescue. (Sure, there are less palatable female characters, but such is life!)
I love the four different types of princes we are presented with in The Hero's Guide and the qualities they add to the story - Liam with his traditional Prince Charming-ness, the goofy and endearing Duncan with his magical good luck, Gustav and his brash pigheadedness, and Frederic with his surprisingly huge heart and devotion to Ella. (My favorite Princes are Duncan and Frederic, naturally.) More than just the characters, though, The Hero's Guide is so effective because of the wonderfully engaging narrative voice and fast-paced plot. The glib narration, employing different foreshadowing (in the first chapter, we are given a glimpse into the twentieth chapter, for example), blending contemporary phrasing with a storybookish touch. The book is illustrated throughout, too, with gorgeous sketches (which put me in the mind of the recent Disney film, Tangled):
Gorgeous, right? And finally, of course, there's a good healthy dose of the absurd, too. An unlikely Bandit King, a gentle Giant, vegetarian Trolls, and a few surly dwarves? Of course there's absurdity involved!
What else can I say? This is a wonderful, delightful middle grade adventure novel that should be read and loved by young readers everywhere. Preferably out loud. With voices. Absolutely recommended.
I cannot wait to follow these particular Princes Charming (and Ella!) on another their next adventure. ...more