The more I read and review children’s books the more I find it all to be a Complicated Affair. Do I approa...moreOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers
The more I read and review children’s books the more I find it all to be a Complicated Affair. Do I approach them like the adult that I am or do I approach them bearing in mind their intended audience? And even if I come to believe that its intended audience would like the book do I still recommend it even though I found flaws in the book’s logic? To sum up: do I read for myself and write my review accordingly or do I bear in mind the book’s potential readers? This is a question that applies to all reviews but which is foremost in my mind when reading Middle Grade. Especially when it comes to books like The Water Castle.
In other words: I am conflicted about this book.
On the one hand, there are things that are excellent. The Water Castle tells the story of three young kids – Ephraim, Will and Mallory. The narrative’s viewpoint alternates between those three and it also includes extracts from one of Mallory’s ancestors, a young African-American woman named Nora who is writing a journal in the early 1900s.
Ephraim’s father has recently had a severe stroke and his mother decided to move from Boston to their family estate – known locally as The Water Castle – in a small town in Maine to help with his recovery. The Water Castle is now nothing but a huge mysterious house full of undiscovered rooms but its grandiose past still lives on in the minds of everybody in town as once the Grand Hotel where people came to drink its famous healing waters. Some say that the water actually might spring from the mythical Fountain of Youth, found by one of Ephraim’s ancestors and a possible explanation for the fact that everybody in town is so healthy and smart.
Mallory’s family have always been the caretakers of the estate, a position that has been passed down the lines on her mother’s side. Will’s family has always hated Ephraim’s family: their dispute over the discovery of the mythical Fountain of Youth a source of intense hatred on the part of Will’s family over the wealth generated for Ephraim’s family.
What the book does really, really well is to expound on this basic scenario by having the three children become friends and allies. They start by working together at school on a project about early North Pole explorers (a fun theme that runs through the book and connects both present and past) and then trying to solve the mystery of the Fountain of Youth. What happens next is a fun adventure following the three kids going around town as well as up and down secret rooms in the house. As the tension builds up, questions of immortality, of tradition and of inherited feuds are addressed – to uneven results.
It’s a really interesting set-up because each kid has a different motivation for going on this quest. Ephraim hopes to find the Fountain so that he can cure his father; but this quest also gives him a sense of purpose as he often sees himself as the mediocre member of the family since his older brother and younger sister often excel at everything. The relationship with his siblings is one of the best things about the book as well, especially the way that each kid deals with their father’s ailment. Mallory’s motivation stems from a childhood brought up on hearing fantastical stories about the Water Castle and about the Fountain. Her parents have always told her those stories as though they were true and their love for each other shone through the telling. But now her mother is gone, her parents are separated and what else about her life is a filthy lie? Finding the Fountain would definitely re-establish the order of things. As for Will, he needs to find the Fountain in order to explain it: as a budding scientist, all of this will only make sense if he can understand the properties of the water. It doesn’t matter that his father will probably kill him if he finds out that he is friends with Ephraim because it is time for idiocy and ignorance to end.
In the meantime, there are Nora’s journal entries: a young woman in the early 1900s, she is a learned scholar who wants to become an explorer and who is hired by one of Ephraim’s ancestors to assist him on his scientific research about the legendary water’s properties.
As you can see, The Water Castle offers a very rich story, with several interesting threads that blend together rather well. I loved the kids (including Nora) and their storylines but there were certain things that give me cause to pause.
The approach here is kind of awesome. It’s about taking what could be otherwise “magical” with an attempt to explain the Fountain of Youth through the scientific method by examining its properties and how it can even exist. In a way, this is much more Science Fiction than Fantasy and I would have otherwise really appreciated this hadn’t it been for the fact that the “Science” was of the hand-wavy variety. This wouldn’t generally be a huge problem – I can suspend disbelief – if it wasn’t for how the book seems to be so determined to have things set in a “realistic” scenario. It does that by introducing science lessons, science experiments and in Nora’s timeline, by having her interact with famous scientists like Nikola Tesla.
So what is wrong about the science here? First of all, they find out that the water contains a new natural chemical element which, in our world, as it exists, it is not POSSIBLE – all elements occurring naturally have been found according to the periodic table of elements (although it is possible to synthesise a new element which is not the case here). Then there is how they take the water (with this element in it), put the water in a barrel then use electricity to affect the water and create the Super Water which: no. This is a completely bogus experiment – the water within the barrel would not be affected in the way intended by the author in this scenario.
Yeah, I can’t believe I am going on and on about this and let me tell you, having a partner who teaches Chemistry and Physics is both a blessing and a curse. This is also where I take a break to ask: does this matter? If the book is good otherwise and I think that really fun for children, does it matter? I personally think it does: Science is important.
But moving forward, there are also flaws in the internal logic. One of the biggest ones has to do with the connection between Nora and Mallory’s mother and without spoiling: their true connection is clearly defined in the book (at least they were for me) and although it is SUPER COOL, it is not very believable that no one else would realise this given what this connection entails. It also makes one wonder about certain things: how come these kids are the only ones finding out about the true nature of the water? How come no one has ever found this barrel in the roof, or the hidden bottles of Fountain of Youth water (which are not well hidden at all considering how the kids find them). It is also puzzling that the author addresses racism in the present storyline by having Mallory being outspoken about it but it doesn’t at all addresses it in the 1900s storyline – Nora is a African-American girl who works at a hotel-estate belonging to a white rich family with white privileged guests and not once there is any indication that she is affected by any form of racism. As much as I completely loved her storyline, I also felt there was a weird disconnect there.
And I also think the super neat ending completely defeats the bigger questions asked about immortality in a way. It was a let-down for me because I am really not interested in magical cures and despite the “scientific approach” this is ultimately what it really was to me.
That said, this is my interpretation of the book – things are not really spelled out at all (although they seemed obvious to me) and I guess that part of the fun here is to argue over What Really Happens. The Water Castle is not really as bad as what the misgivings above might indicate and has enough awesome in it to make it worth reading if you are so inclined. (less)
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 ac...moreZach, 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. (less)
Loki’s Wolves, the first Middle Grade novel of YA heavy-hitters Melissa Marr and Kelley Armstrong, transfe...moreOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers
Loki’s Wolves, the first Middle Grade novel of YA heavy-hitters Melissa Marr and Kelley Armstrong, transfers the Gods and the ideas of Norse mythology to a modern-day setting.
Most people in the small town of Blackwell, South Dakota, are direct descendants of the Norse Gods Thor and Loki. Matt is a Thorsen, and to him, family history and tradition are the most important things in the world. But being descendant of Thor is a not only a matter of pride but as it turns out, a matter of responsibility too. After all, it is Thor who is supposed to lead the Gods in their final battle when Ragnarok – the end of the world – comes. But Thor is dead. All the Norse Gods are dead. So when there are signs that Ragnarok is coming, the leading families of Blackwell come together to find the ones that will stand in for the gods in the final battle.
To his utter dismay, Matt is chosen and now has to stand in for Thor, and to put together a team of new gods to prevent the end of the world (with no help whatsoever from his family). And the first step is to find the other descendants, starting with Loki’s: because if Matt manages to get that god on his side, things might not end up as badly as they have been predicted.
Loki’s Wolves’s main conceit and thematic core are actually pretty awesome and had tons of potential: get a bunch of kids together to fight a big Serpent thingy that will bring the end of the world but also have them question the fact that they must follow old legends and to try to change the outcome of their DESTINY by making their own choices. The most obvious one is to have Thor and Loki fight side by side as friends. The narrative is split between Matt and two of Loki’s descendants, cousins Fen and Laurie, which gives a more diverse tone to the story. Another positive aspect is how both Matt and Fen are constantly trying to protect Laurie because she is a girl and this is presented as an internalised idea that has been passed by their family and Laurie herself is constantly questioning that and acting to prove them wrong. In fairness though, this is not faultless: Laurie also had a tendency to protect and forgive Fen’s constant sexist comments because “that’s how he is”. But I suspect this might be addressed in further instalments.
All that said, it’s amazing how a good idea can be derailed when execution fails. My main problems with Loki’s Wolves were twofold: the sheer amount of suspension of disbelief required to buy into the premise and how underdeveloped the progression of the story was.
With regards to the former, I was obviously prepared to suspend disbelief (Kids! Standing in for Gods! To fight the end of the world!) but WHY exactly are the descendants of NORSE Gods living in small-town America? This is never addressed. WHY exactly must KIDS be standing in for the Gods? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have fully developed adults to take on this fight? There is an attempt at explaining this choice but I thought it was a flimsy explanation at best and a contrived one at worst. My biggest problem though is how the Ragnarok is taken at its most literal. The population of Blackwell knows the end of the world is coming because Volcanoes are erupting and Tsunamis are happening. Therefore: the Midgard Serpent must have broken free of its bonds and is causing all of these natural disasters.
When transplanting these ideas – the Ragnarok, the Serpent that causes Tsunamis – to a contemporary setting it makes little sense to take them at face value as this implies that nature disasters are caused by mythological figures turned real. My point is: this is a Contemporary setting and for all intents and purposes is our world. So what happened to Science? To Geology?
With regards to the progression of the story: things progressed very fast, with little care given to developing storylines or characters. There is a moment in the story when Matt says:
‘After facing a few monsters at his side, they were becoming friends.’
And this basically sums up the story – from facing monsters to becoming friends without a lot of development in between.
I enjoyed reading about the heartfelt connection between cousins Fen and Laurie and how Matt took upon himself to become a leader but there was a redundant presence of those aspects of the novel, with the characters always rehashing these same topics. Not to mention the fact that as Matt met the descendants of the other gods, even those kids who had NO IDEA who they were and why, still accepted the premise that they had to fight a giant Serpent at the end of the world without even questioning it (going back to suspension of disbelief).
All of these combined to make Loki’s Wolves so flat to the point of when something really tremendous happens I felt cold and uninterested.
Martha Wells is one of my favourite writers. I have loved her Books of the Raksura series as well as Wheel...moreOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers
Martha Wells is one of my favourite writers. I have loved her Books of the Raksura series as well as Wheel of the Infinite and, based on the strength of those books, I also plan on reading more from her backlist soon. Needless to say, I was very interested to read Emilie and the Hollow World, Wells’ first foray into YA territory.
The story follows main character Emilie as she runs away from home to join her cousin in the big city, but ends stowing away on the wrong ship. Here, Emilie meets Lady Marlende, who is about to embark on a wondrous adventure to the centre of the planet in order to rescue Marlende’s missing father.
Emilie is Science Fiction reminiscent of Jules Verne with a side of Fantasy (i.e. when something cannot be explained with Science, Magic comes to the rescue). It is also an adventure romp and a non-stop thrill-ride that includes different peoples (including non-humans), dastardly villains, sabotage, daring rescues, and fun escapades.
The book contains some of Wells’ signature traits, including diverse and memorable world-building, thanks to the fascinating “hollow world” setting. The novel also features astute, thought-provoking observations of gender roles and expectations, especially as Emilie’s new adventures and ensuing realisation about how she can effectively engage with the world are juxtaposed against the lower expectations and teachings of her relatives, who expect the worst of her because Emilie’s mother ran away from home:
As if all her life she had thought her world was one thing: closed-in and solid with carefully defined boundaries; so much so that running away to a relative with a respectable girls’ school in Silk Harbor was almost unimaginably daring. Now the boundaries had fallen away, leave a broad vista that was stranger than anything she had read in a gothic novel.
This is probably the best thing about the book and what kept me reading.
Unfortunately – and it pains me to say this – Emilie and the Hollow World is not up to par with what I have come to expect from this author. The story jumps from plot point to plot point without much in the way of development. Emilie is for the most part a subject of this story, almost a standby character who merely observes and reacts to events. Even taking into consideration the quote above and the fact that in the end she learns she can do more with her life, this lesson almost seems to have been learned by rote rather than a result of actual character development. This goes beyond a mere distinction between a plot-driven novel and a character-driven one, simply because there was just not enough of either vital element here. In fact all signs – from the plot elements that appear to some moments of epic badassery – point to the potential here for a meatier book. In other words: in order to be a better book, it needed more complexity.
Which brings me to my final point: the sinking feeling that this lack of complexity is a result of the book having been written down because it is intended for a younger audience. This is very clear in the way that Emilie acts and thinks – her thought processes, manner of speaking and naivete make Emilie sound like a much younger character. For most of the book, Emilie sounds as though she could be as young as 11-12 which basically coloured my perception of the entire book. There is even one character that addresses Emily thusly: “you are one brave little person.” This simply does not jive with a teenage character and there is nothing, to me, that can justify Emilie as a teen. In a way, Emilie and the Hollow World actually sounds much more like a Middle Grade novel than a YA one – but still one that is frustratingly lacking in complexity.
In my opinion, Emilie and the Hollow World is not a good example of how good MG or YA can be. It definitely is not a good example of the usually exemplary SFF of Martha Wells. (less)
In 1943, 11-year-old Dewey is on her way to spend some time with her mathematician father after her grandmother suffers a stroke and can no longer tak...moreIn 1943, 11-year-old Dewey is on her way to spend some time with her mathematician father after her grandmother suffers a stroke and can no longer take care of her. Her father has been absent since the beginning of the War and now lives at Los Alamos, working on a secret project which is only referred to as “the gadget” throughout the book. The Gadget is of course, the atomic bomb and Los Alamos is the secret location of the Manhattan Project.
There, Dewey is left mostly to her own devices – quite literally too, since Dewey has a love for all things mechanical and loves inventing new things. But life is not particularly easy because most of the other kids (especially the girls) want nothing to do with Dewey. At the same time, her classmate Suze is equally shunned for her (large-ish) size – and the two girls end up becoming friends.
I recently read and had my mind blown away by a short story written by Ellen Klages in the Under My Hat anthology which promptly made me want to read another story from her. I did a bit of research and came across The Green Glass Sea, an award-winning historical novel featuring Girls! Science! The Atomic Bomb! and how could I NOT want to read this? Really.
There is a lot to admire here and a lot that is downright cool about it. I mean, Dewey is friends with Richard freaking Feynman and calls J. Robert Oppenheimer, Oppie. And it’s like, HERE girls, you can have the Physics Dream Team playing just outside your door.
Similarly, it is great to see the two girls finding out their interests in life are ok, even if they are girls – one is an artist, the other an inventor, both extremely creative. The book also shows how incredibly important role models are to children and in that sense, the relationship between Suze’s mother – a chemist working on the project – and Dewey is great because of their shared interest in scientific pursuits. Another thing that the book does really well is to show that historical moment when most people believed that the bomb was absolutely necessary to finish the war with Japan (Historians think it wasn’t) as well as the scientists’ working on the project increasing hesitation about using the bomb.
That said, I had two major problems with the novel. Problem numero uno: really, how freaking tragic can you get? Dewey has had a terrible time – first of all, her mother was a drunk who dropped her downstairs when she was a baby resulting on one slightly shorter, weaker leg. Her father is away all the time, her grandmother has a stroke and THEN as soon as life is starting to look up, her father dies in a car crash leaving Dewey orphaned and the latter chapters of the book are tense with a grieving Dewey believing she was all alone in the world. Ok fine, yes: tragedy happens and it’s cool that this book doesn’t shy away from it. But this to me just feels like a very old-fashioned MG in which main characters must suffer unspeakable contrived tragedies in order to grow and Learn About Life. Or something. Not to mention that the characters are stuck in this personal tragedy and this effectively overshadows the tragedy of the atomic bombings. In fairness though, the focus here is the personal and from the perspective of children.
Problem numero dos: As much as I loved her, it is clear that Dewey( and to some extent Suze too ) is an excepto- girl (TM Jodie): she is an exceptional girl who excel at something (science) that is not traditionally feminine (especially at the time) and who is elevated above all the other girls in the novel who all end up being villains described as girly-girls.
Something that made me really uneasy about the novel is how any signs of traditional femininity are portrayed negatively. All three “heroines” of the novel and the ones we are supposed to relate to and root for because they are better – Dewey, Suze and Suze’s mother – and are described as either ugly or big and there is one particular point made about how Suze’s mother doesn’t wear make-up or jewellery. Dewey and Suze even make a point of saying that no girls are allowed in their club. The problem isn’t as much with the perception the girls have of themselves or even with the fact they are not what is perceived as traditionally feminine but with the fact that girls are every other female character in the novel – often beautiful, with their “girl-voices”, interested in boys and who do not share the same (portrayed as better) interests as our main characters – and who are all villains and bullies. I love reading stories about girls who doesn’t conform to a certain idea of femininity but not to the expense of all others.
Unfortunately then, I was a bit disappointed with The Green Glass Sea. (less)
Once upon a time, there was a faraway kingdom called Phantasmorania, ruled by a benevolent King and Queen. Th...moreOriginally 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. (less)
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 the...moreIf 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. (less)
This is the Great! Unexpected! Dangerous! story of the great magician Tony Horten, the mysterious circumstances of his disappearance and the quest tha...moreThis 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. (less)
There are two ends of the CG animated movie spectrum. On the one side, there are gems like Wal...moreOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers
There are two ends of the CG animated movie spectrum. On the one side, there are gems like Wall-E and Up and Toy Story. On the other, there are the lamentable films like Fly Me to the Moon, or Robots, or Shark Tale. Granted, many kids like all of these films and there is some entertainment value to find in each of them – but there’s a huge difference in storytelling skill and in quality.
Unfortunately, Keeper of the Lost Cities falls deep on the Shark Tale end of the MG/YA spectrum. A poor man’s Harry Potter, featuring a super special snowflake of a heroine, Keeper of the Lost Cities is a sadly disappointing – and frequently laughable – dud.
But let’s start at the beginning, shall we? From the synopsis, this novel seems like it would be about a telepathic twelve year old girl that discovers secrets about her family, her true birthright, and her abilities. Right? What Keeper of the Lost Cities delivers instead is a story about ultra-beautiful, ultra-intelligent, ultra-magical elves (yes, elves), whose existence is secret from disgusting humans. It then morphs into Harry Potter knock-off land, complete with a prestigious, secret and ultra selective academy for young prodigious elves, with classes in specialized areas like alchemy and telepathy. Oh yeah, and it turns out that Sophie Foster, our protagonist, is not only superduper desirable (a humble twelve year old, but already commanding the attentions of fifteen year olds) but possesses unparalleled power and is The One who can Save them All.
I could go on and on, so let me just focus on the three areas that bothered me the most regarding Keeper of the Lost Cities: the blase treatment/combo of science and magic, Sophie’s super specialness (and unconvincing nature as a character), and the unabashed Harry Potter ripoffs.
Let’s start with Science and Magic. When it’s done well, I love a speculative fiction book that blends fantasy elements with sci fi, magic with hard science. This is, I suspect, what Shannon Messenger attempted to accomplish in this novel. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work. From very early on in the book, we learn that even “the slowest elf can still trump a human” – and that elves, apparently, know ALL the things about genetics and DNA and relative physics, but say this isn’t science OR magic. As heartthrob elf Fitz tells our heroine Sophie:
Fitz laughed – a full body laugh, like it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard [...] “No,” he said when he’d regained control. “Magic is a stupid idea humans came up with to try to explain things they couldn’t understand.”
But in the next breath, when Fitz starts to describe the impossible apparating speed-of-light travel, he tells Sophie that elves “light leap”:
He held the pathfinder up to the sun, casting a ray of light onto his hand. “Light leaping. We hitched a ride on a beam of light that was headed straight here.”
“That’s impossible [...] You need infinite energy for light travel. Haven’t you heard of the theory of relativity?”
She thought she had him stumped with that one, but he just laughed again. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
No further explanation, until a few pages later, when Fitz tells Sophie:
This is how the world really works. It’s not magic. It’s just how it is.
Well THAT explains everything, then. In this type of setting, magic would be completely acceptable as an explanation for feathered dinosaur pets, catching lightning in a bottle, using elderberries to transmutate iron, and so on. But instead, Keeper of the Lost Cities insists on not-science science, not-magic magic, and the end result is, well, ridiculous.
Which brings me to my next gripe: Sophie, the Special Snowflake. When we first meet Sophie, we learn that she is twelve years old, telepathic, possessing a photographic memory, and a high school senior that has been accepted at Yale University. We also learn that she is ‘the prettiest girl in school’, that she is an unprecedentedly powerful telepath, sickeningly sweet and good, and everyone rushes to her aid at slightest provocation. And I just want to include this quote, because Ana and I both had a good laugh when we read it:
Her family couldn’t be her family.
She took a deep breath and let the reality settle in.
The strange thing was, in some ways it made sense. It explained why she always felt so out of place around them – the slender blonde among her chubby brunette family.
Oh WOE! WOE! The life of a slender blonde in a chubby brunette family.
And then, finally, there’s the big whopping Harry Potter Ripoff problem. I’ll make this easy: as soon as Sophie gets to Elfland, she hears that she has been invited to attend a prestigious academy for aspiring young witches and wizards elves called Hogwarts Foxfire. The school is presided over by a benevolent headmaster Dumbledore Dame Alina, who also gets to pick the constantly changing sweet treat password sweet treat tasting flavor that unlocks every student’s locker (on day one, the flavor is Fizzing Whizbees Mallowmelt). Harry Sophie quickly makes friends with Hermione and Ron Marella and Dex, and Dex happens to be a mudblood bad match byproduct, meaning that his parents were muggles non-noble elves. While at school, Sophie excels and is a natural at almost all of her subjects, except for potions alchemy (Professor Snape Lady Galvin seems to really have it out for Sophie for some reason).
And on and on the list goes. I’ll stop here, though. While I’m certain there are many people out there that will enjoy Keeper of the Lost Cities, this book failed to work for me on any level.
Yes, to all that. Thea covered basically everything I wanted to say and I don’t have a lot more to add but here is my two cents. Keeper of the Lost Cities is a ridiculous book and I wish I could just make fun of it, disregard it simply as a bad book experience and think no more of it. But this is such a blatant, poor imitation of Harry Potter with the addition of extremely uncomfortable Racefail that I must look at it from a serious perspective.
I do not have anything to add to Thea’s assessment of Sophie but I have a couple of things to add to her other areas of concern – the Magic x Science conundrum and the Harry Potter Ripoffs.
With regards to the former, my main problem with the ridiculous not-science science and not-magic magic is that it results in a complete lack of internal logic and that is a way too big a flaw in the very construction of the story. The idea that the elves don’t know a lot about the human world is reinforced throughout the story – elves often wonder what a “dollar” is or what is “France”. They also insist that what they do is not science. And yet the very human scientific concept of “DNA” and genetics research is at the very centre of this story.
Regarding the clear Harry Potter Ripoff, I can add a lot more to Thea’s breakdown:
All wizards elves perform spells have gifts and Harry Sophie soon learns that there are three Unforgivable Curses gifts that are frowned upon: the deadly Killing Curse, the Cruciatus Curse and the Imperius Curse the deadly Pyrokineticsm, Infliction and Mermerizing. She also learns to play the wizard’s elven game of Quidditch Catch and that there are other people who don’t really like her like the snobby Lucius Cassius.
I wish I was kidding.
And that brings me to my last point – the brown-skinned Gnomes who work for the Elves as their gardeners.
This is a world in which the vast majority of elves are described as impossibly beautiful with fair skin (there is the odd “olive” skinned elf) and shiny blue/teal eyes. And where, even though everybody works, they do so because they want to because elves are rich and don’t really need money. But basically the elves have important jobs but the Gnomes tend their gardens. And those are the only creatures within the novel described as “brown-skinned”. Then Sophia asks those Gnomes are servants and is promptly told off because of course the elves do not keep servants. The gnomes CHOOSE to live with the elves for their own protection and help them with their gardens because they enjoy it.
The obliviousness to the real-life, historical and racial implication of this point is completely mind-blowing and what made me enraged rather than potentially amused by the book.
In fairness, it is very possible that this might be addressed at some point in the series (after all, didn’t Hermione Granger address the problem of the House-Elves in the Harry Potter series?) and some readers will probably not care about the similarities to HP or even appreciate it as homage of sorts – I am not one of them. Finding the similarities between this and the Harry Potter books might actually have been fun if it wasn’t so awkward – plus the characterisation here is nowhere near as good as Rowling’s endearing creations and this means that characters here are flat, thin, poorly constructed imitations.
Ultimately this is what it boils down to: Keeper of the Lost Cities is not one of the worst books I have ever read but it is certainly one of the most laughable ones. And it made me despair that books like these even get to see the light of day. (less)
Thea: Awe. Horror. Utter, depraved delight. All of these are emotions I experienced...moreOriginally 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. (less)
This probably sounds extremely clichéd, but reading a Frances Hardinge book is like entering a whole new world. Take Gullstruck Island for...moreAna’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. (less)
Part the First: In Which I Talk About the Plot, Characters and General Thoughts About Ungifted
If Donovan Cur...moreThis is going to be a review in two parts.
Part the First: In Which I Talk About the Plot, Characters and General Thoughts About Ungifted
If Donovan Curtis has one gift, it is his gift for troublemaking. With his poor impulse control and his recklessness, chaos follows him wherever he goes. After a particularly stupid prank with its costly and dangerous result, he thinks he has gone too far. But instead of being punished for it, an error by his school’s administrator sends him to the Academy of Scholastic Distinction, a special program for gifted kids with high IQ.
As an average student, Donovan is the proverbial fish out of water at the Academy, at least to start with. Soon though, he and the other students start to realise that Donovan is exactly what the Academy needed: a breath of fresh air and limitless creativity. Its short chapters alternate between several characters’ point of view including Donovan’s, some of his teachers’ and a few of his fellow students’ at the Academy.
On the surface, Ungifted is a pretty decent, fun book. I read it in one go and enjoyed my time reading it. Its prose is competent and it has truly funny moments. By comparing the day to day life of highly gifted students and that of “normal” (word used in the book) students it makes really good points about how expectations can shape the life of students (gifted or not ), how educational labelling can be problematic and how separating talented students from the rest of the student body is questionable when it completely sets them apart (they don’t even interact socially).
The way the story progresses and how Donovan manages to get away with his trouble-making tendencies as well as the hero-worship for his daring-do sort of reminded me in part of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off although Donovan doesn’t have half of Ferris’ charisma, which is essential for a story like this to work.
Other characters are much more likeable like the two gifted kids Chloe and Noah – both of them – understandably – wishing their school was not separated from the rest of the student body, wishing for a more “normal” life. To them Donovan is a godsend.
Part the Second: In Which I Lose My Shit and Get Ranty
The fundamental premise of Ungifted is completely, totally LUDICROUS. And I really can’t stress this enough.
ALL of the students at the Academy are portrayed as socially awkward nerds; most of them have a tendency for scientific subjects and none for the arts; none of them were presented as “creative” because obviously, high IQ plus science = uncreative people.
This is where things get really shady for me. If the point the book is trying to make is that these high IQ kids live a sterile, sad life because their teachers and the education system don’t nurture their creativity, I thought that point was really badly done. Because in the book there is a real dichotomy between “normal” kids and high IQ kids that is portrayed as FACT. The high IQ kids are all portrayed as lacking this potential for creativity, unlike Donovan, whose potential for creativity is limitless. A few examples are in order:
1)The first thing that Donovan does when he joins the Academy’s robotic class? He NAMES the Robot they are constructing. The other students’ reaction is one of AWE and RESPECT because and I quote: “Nobody’s ever thought of naming the robot before”.
2)Noah, whose IQ is 206 and therefore is a recognised genius, had never heard of youtube before Donovan told him about it. Once he comes across youtube, he becomes addicted to it and Donovan becomes his idol. I found it really hard to believe that a smart kid like Noah would not have heard about youtube EVER. It’s 2012, youtube is everywhere. Are you telling me none of the other kids or members of his family ever watched a clip and talked about it; that he has never come across it online, or on TV, or newspapers’ articles?
3)At the robotics competition at the end of the book when Donovan realises they are losing, he sets the robot to destroy the whole thing creating the chaos and destruction he is known for and…he is lauded for it. Because even turning a robot “into an instrument of destruction requires a kind of giftedness that none of us have”. Are. You. KIDDING. Me.
4)Some of the kids at the Academy are portrayed as wanting to lead a normal life amongst other students. I can totally understand that. But the only kid whose point of view differed from this and who is happy about what they have at the Academy is portrayed as a vapid, egotistic girl who only care about her results and getting into college.
5)There is a ridiculous amount of unexplained Donovan-worship just because he is “normal” and creative. The teachers, the students all worship him. One of the kids says “He’s more important than any of us” because he has “an uncanny knack for making a difference”. This got tiresome really soon.
Separating kids so completely from the rest of the student body is a bad thing in many ways – it separates them from the rest of their colleagues, it can create too high expectations and it can also result in creating too low expectations for all the other kids. But high ability groups (not schools) are, I think, necessary because these kids need to be challenged.
But the biggest problem I had with the book is the fact that the high IQ kids are portrayed as lacking any creativity (this is reinforced by all characters and by the plot). This is extremely problematic because it stems from an undeserved stigma that associates science and high intelligence with uncreativity. And that is, for lack of a better word: stupid.
I’d like to quote Thea when she wrote about another book (The Unwanteds) that had a similar problem because she says it so well and I agree with the sentiment completely:
"Some of humanity’s most brilliant and creative minds have been mathematicians, scientists, engineers, and yes, even economists (as an economics graduate, I resent these implications so very much). The central premise of the novel precludes the possibility – nay, the reality – that it takes creativity to be in the sciences or related subjects. You’re trying to tell me that Einstein’s theorems are the product of a non-creative mind? That brilliant economists like John Nash or Adam Smith, or that Watson, Crick and Franklin in their discovery of the double helix structure of DNA have not an iota of creativity in their being? What of Euler, Da Vinci, Tesla, Curie, Newton, Darwin, or Galileo?
I’m sorry, but I call BULLPUCKY."
Ultimately, I think MG kids would enjoy this book immensely and as I said some really good points are made. But I feel I can’t really recommend Ungifted unreservedly. (less)
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 s...moreIt’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. (less)