I do love putting out books on our ICPL Staff Picks display in the library, but after a while I start to see a pattern in the things I grab. One of th...moreI do love putting out books on our ICPL Staff Picks display in the library, but after a while I start to see a pattern in the things I grab. One of the regulars this past year has been Nicole Krauss’s latest novel The History of Love.
This felt like such a huge book for being so short in page length. I guess ambitious is actually a better term. Krauss weaves together at least three separate story arcs with many fully fleshed out and interesting characters. I was truly interested in each section and character. Incorporated into this is the story of a novel that captivates all who read it. This last part was a gutsy move by Krauss, to openly claim to readers that there is this mystical novel and then to include selections of the writing…and then have those selections actually be believable? Bravo.
There are also some fantastic snippets of magical realism that are classy and meaningful. This is a novel I find myself thinking about even after moving on to others. --Jason
Brian and I both work at the Fiction Desk. If you’ve been in this summer and asked for a recommendation from one of us chances are we shoved this mass...moreBrian and I both work at the Fiction Desk. If you’ve been in this summer and asked for a recommendation from one of us chances are we shoved this massive fantasy novel in your hands and apologized for the awful cover art. For those of you who are too shy to ask directly I’ll try to ‘sell’ this electronically…but you’re missing out on my crazy hand gestures and emphatic facial expressions.
First let me say you do not necessarily have to like the fantasy genre at all to enjoy this. The series is mostly a vast and complicated character-driven historical fiction saga…with a dragon or three. Wait, haters stay with me here! OK, so there are dragons and a race of human-like beings that kill and create an army of undead ‘wights’, but most of the story (and there are over 3,000 pages – so far) is focused on an intricate plot design and many fascinating characters. You’re thrown into a medieval world of common folk, knights, lords and their King. And bad blood between the royal families make holding that throne oh so difficult.
Each chapter is written from the point of view of a different character and usually ends with a cliffhanger. Characters are presented as obvious heroes and villains but as you progress through the series things become much less black and white. 800-odd pages have never gone by so quickly! Oh and HBO is making the pilot, so there is huge potential for this series to blow up. --Jason
If you could pick any name for yourself, would you choose Poison? In this dark "fairy"-tale fantasy from Chris Wooding, Foxglove lives in the marsh to...moreIf you could pick any name for yourself, would you choose Poison? In this dark "fairy"-tale fantasy from Chris Wooding, Foxglove lives in the marsh town of Gull where lives are often cut short by nasty beasts and the folk generally lack drive and imagination. On her Nameday, rather than choose one of the traditional flower names, Foxglove decides on Poison…though most of the villagers expected nothing less of this rebellious teenage outcast! After a fight with her stepmother, Poison is visited in her bedroom by the Faerie-realm beast, Scarecrow. His sleep spell ensures she won’t put up a fight and she awakes to find that her younger sister has been switched with a Changeling! Most residents of Gull would accept their fate and await the eventual return of the real child…but not Poison, she’s going to the visit the King of the Faeries to get her sister back!
There’s some great world-building in this story without getting too Tolkien-esque in detail. Poison is a strong, independent female protagonist, but Wooding also gives her personality flaws that make her more multi-dimensional. This is not a fluffy tale, there’s some great creepy scenes early on that make this tale more appropriate for Junior High and up. Also there are some pseudo-heady philosophical concepts touched on, that would be more appreciated by an older crowd.
For those who like the independent female protagonist and evil fairy plot, you should also try Holly Black’s Tithe and the upcoming sequel, Ironside. For a more humorous take, try the three stories starring the young witch Tiffany Aching by author Terry Pratchett:
1. The Wee Free Men 2. A Hat Full of Sky 3. Wintersmith
I’m a late-comer to the Tortall fantasy world created by children’s and young adult author Tamora Pierce. I admit that my initial reluctance was due t...moreI’m a late-comer to the Tortall fantasy world created by children’s and young adult author Tamora Pierce. I admit that my initial reluctance was due to both the original cover portraits of the main characters (girls on horses) as well as the confusing number of series (which was I to start with?). I’ve also never really been into castles and knights. The odds were against Ms. Pierce here.
But then a few years ago she published the Trickster books (Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen) which dropped the typical high fantasy art cover. Unfortunately they came home with me and were returned without ever being opened (as, let’s face it, happens to us all). But it had piqued my interest in Tamora Pierce’s work again. Long story short, I finally got down to business with the publication this last fall of Terrier (another new series set in the Tortall past). Great cover, no horse in sight, and over 500 pages of fantasy…what’s not to love.
The story is told in a series of journal entries which is often very hard to pull off, but I only rarely found the device to be awkward (gotta say though, not sure why it had to be in journal form, maybe Tamora was bored with conventional storyline?). We’re introduced to young Beka Cooper a painfully shy but street-smart teen from the gritty Lower City who is in training to become a part of the city police force. A difficult internship to say the least. She’s got an uncanny knack for tracking down thugs though; partly due to her ability to work the locals for information (most have known her since birth), and partly due to the dead souls’ voices she hears in the wind and through pigeon flocks.
There is a lot here to please young adult readers. A solid mystery with tense moments. Fantasy elements (including talking to animals, which would be so cool!). Personal growth. A strong female lead character. A touch of romance, but not gushy. Good vs. evil. Do I need to go on? --Jason
Among the many changes that came with the publication success of the Harry Potter series was the freedom to publish books for children and teens with...moreAmong the many changes that came with the publication success of the Harry Potter series was the freedom to publish books for children and teens with a longer page count. I’m not saying this is always a great thing; in fact lately I’ve grown quite tired of seeing yet another bloated fantasy pushing 600 pages (I’m looking in your direction Mr. Paolini!). But occasionally a slightly-pudgy gem comes along that vindicates J.K.
Frances Hardinge’s 483 page book Fly By Night uses the extra words to good effect. This is a complex tale involving an orphaned girl living in a politically tumultuous England of an alternate history (based on the 18th Century lifestyle). The pacing varies, but there are plenty of scenes involving espionage and characters being chased and nearly caught.
More than the plot though, this is mostly a story written as a gushy Valentine to the English language. Hardinge is blessed with an amazing vocabulary and clever imagination. We meet characters with names such as Mosca Mye, born on the day of "Goodman Palpitattle, He Who Keeps Flies out of Jams and Butter Churns," hence her name Mosca or fly, from the Latin musca. Then there is Eponymous Clent, Mabwick Toke, Vocado Avourlace, Arami Goshawk, and who could forget Linden Kohlrabi (I’ve been waiting years for someone to make good literary use of the word ‘Kohlrabi’!). She writes lines that will challenge the average 5-9th grade reader, but they will be rewarded by staying with her for the journey. An example of her writing style is seen early on as Mosca attempts an escape from her prison in her Uncle’s mill:
"It had made perfect sense to grab armfuls from the gorse stacks which the village used as fuel, and pile them against the wall. And when she had clambered up to the top of the wall, ignoring the sweet smell of dying summer and the stems which prickled against her face, it had made sense to light an oil lamp. She did not remember deciding to drop the lamp, but nor did she remember it exactly slipping from her grasp. What she did remember was watching it fall away from her hand, and bounce so softly from one stack to another that it seemed impossible that it should break. She remembered seeing the wrecked lamp sketch a faint letter in white smoke shortly before the dry stems around it started to blacken and a hesitant flame wavered first blue, then gold … and she remembered a rushing thrill of terror as she realized that there was no going back to her old life. Now, as Mosca and Clent fled Chough, the wind followed them like a helpful stranger, offering them the smell of smoke from the burning mill as if it thought it might belong to them."
Bravo to Frances Hardinge (and her editor) for writing a complicated but gorgeous tale for the younger crowd. --Jason
To prepare for my upcoming trip to Ecuador I visited a doctor to update my inoculations. I explained that I was going to South America to look for bir...moreTo prepare for my upcoming trip to Ecuador I visited a doctor to update my inoculations. I explained that I was going to South America to look for birds, he mentioned he "thought that pastime had died out." I asked him where he’d been the last twenty years. That’s when he pulled out the syringe and asked me to roll up my sleeve…in hindsight, I could have been more polite.
What I should have said was, "The public library has many fine books regarding the deadly serious and ever-growing lifestyle that is BIRDING." There’s still hope for the rest of you though! In order to better understand these people (of which I am one), you should start with the mother of all bird-obsessed travelogues: Kenn Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway. Kenn (he’s so extreme he needs two "n"s) takes off on a road trip to try to set a new record for seeing the most birds in North America in a year. The twist (do you need one?)? He’s gonna hitch. As in, hitchhike. Also he’s broke. As in, he eats canned dog food at one point. This is one determined birder who will let nothing get between him and that new "year bird". Along the way the reader is also given some great background on the "hobby" and our natural world. --Jason
I came to this book much like the typical teenaged reluctant reader. I saw a bold, clean, somewhat mysterious cover. I was curious. I picked it up and...moreI came to this book much like the typical teenaged reluctant reader. I saw a bold, clean, somewhat mysterious cover. I was curious. I picked it up and saw it was under 200 pages. SOLD!
The story starts in a prologue. Two brothers, older Justin and younger Mark, are lazily passing time after school. Mom and Dad are still at work. Mom has taken to locking up the TV in a cabinet because Mark watches too much. Mark is quite fidgety this day and ends up breaking into Mom & Dad’s room to watch their TV. Justin follows, ‘cause what else is there to do? He commandeers the remote in a typical big brother fashion. Mark pulls out Dad’s handgun from the bedside drawer and jokingly tries a "stick-up" to get the remote back. Unfortunately, the gun goes off after Mark had changed tactics and put the gun towards his own head.
Needless to say, things aren’t the same in the house ever again.
Flash forward a year. Justin is sleepwalking through his days and occasionally hears voices in his head spurring on his day-to-day actions. His friends are gone. His parents act removed. He can’t figure it out. We are walked through one excruciating day where he gets into a fight with his former best friend, his former girlfriend calls him names while simultaneously flirting with him, all culminating in yet another deadly accident and suicide.
Justin drifts off…wakes up…it’s that same day all over again. He’ll live this pivotal day three times, in three different ways, but each time it ends with the same results (physical and emotional confrontation, horrible tragedy).
A gripping suspense story for teen reluctant readers, or just those that want a fast read. --Jason
Rachel Cohn and David Levithan have teamed up again to write another ultra-hip teen romance (see Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist). And could we ple...moreRachel Cohn and David Levithan have teamed up again to write another ultra-hip teen romance (see Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist). And could we please have a new one every year?
BFFs Naomi & Ely are freshman at NYU but are still living with their parents in apartments across the hall from each other (in order to save cash, keep their parents together emotionally, but also – more importantly – to remain fused at the hip).
Naomi is dating Bruce the 2nd (we also meet Bruce the 1st) but secretly wishes she were married to Ely and that he Loved (ever-important capital-L Love) her.
Problem: Ely is gay. Thus unlikely to take a wife. Naomi is obviously aware of this, but seems to have been in denial for the majority of their lives.
During the course of their growing up Naomi & Ely realized that: (1) They would/must stay friends to the end, (2) There could potentially be problems if both ended up going after the same guy, (3) Thus the creation of The No Kiss List™. A boy would never get between their friendship (as it almost did with #1 on the list Donnie Weisberg).
Problem: Bruce the 2nd isn’t on the list. But why would he be? Naomi was never much into him, he just fit a comfortable role.
So after Ely kisses Bruce 2. Bruce 2 wonders, "am I really gay after all?" Friendship fallout. Naomi does the unthinkable and dumps Ely. She can’t face the fact that he’ll never NOT be gay.
This story is so great for High Schoolers (and the rest of us). It has fun, effortless dialogue and revolves around a good old fashioned (but not really old fashioned) love story. Many will identify with the act of confusing Love love (remember that capital L?) with the love of someone who is important to you. It’s also very Jane Austen-eque, there’s romantic triangles aplenty. And most importantly, it takes place outside of High School! Such a novel – yet simple! – concept. With so many YA novels you’ve got your main characters and then you’ve got this other gigantic silent character in the wings: the school and all that baggage. Here we get to focus JUST on the relationship between our human characters. --Jason
The National Book Award winners were announced last night and Sherman Alexie won in the category of Young People’s Literature for his coming-of-age se...moreThe National Book Award winners were announced last night and Sherman Alexie won in the category of Young People’s Literature for his coming-of-age semi-autobiographical novel. So I guess it’s time to start the "I-can’t-believe-they-chose-that" blog arguments. This was the only one of the five finalists that I’d read, but I was still a little disappointed that he won. It’s not that this isn’t a worthwhile read, just that it really didn’t seem worthy of all this attention. ATDoaP-TI (I’ll use the acronym from here on out) is a solid book for 7-8th grade boys, but is it the best America has to offer for "Young People" this year?
For those who have read some of Sherman Alexie’s earlier work, or even seen his movies, you will recognize many themes and character traits in this new story. Alexie has chosen to write in the vein of a goofy Gary Paulsen or Bruce Coville-type story (incidentally, Jame Howe, who can also write in this vein, was one of the N.B.A. judges). The style reminded me of the recent push highlighted by Jon Scieszka in the "guys write for guys read". There’s nothing really wrong with this, and I welcome authors aiming for reluctant Middle School boy readers, but it doesn’t really scream "give me a national literary award!". On a more positive note, YA lit finally has an interesting contemporary Native American boy main character (sorry Joseph Bruchac).
Having read Alexie’s adult work, I felt this was a big step down in literary quality – and without really needing to be! Too often authors that normally publish for adults adopt a phony style and voice, which ends up sounding like "talking down" to the intended audience (which, frankly, may end up being teachers and librarians on this one). By stripping the story of literary merit, and forcing it to be the "7-8th grade reluctant reader boy novel" Alexie is never able to really achieve the necessary emotional atmosphere to pull off the sections that deal with real tragedy. There were few moments when I was completely swept up in Alexie’s telling of the tale, so I felt quite removed from Junior’s plight. Again, this is o.k., not every story starring a minority character needs to be about the plight of that community…but there is enough written about social injustices in this book that, on some level, I do have to confront it in a review.
O.k….having just semi-trashed this book, that doesn’t mean ATDoaP-TI isn’t a good book for the target audience! Middle School boys should eat this up and will learn much about contemporary life on the reservation. "How about a plot Jason?" O.k.: Junior lives on a rural Spokane Indian reservation in eastern Washington state and draws cartoons in his spare time. (Ellen Forney draws the comics interspersed throughout the text). Life on the reservation is difficult due to the ramifications of the oppression of Native Americans, thus contributing to the alcoholism that cripples most of the adult population. Horrible things are happening to Junior and his friends/neighbors.
A teacher explains to Junior that he needs to get off the rez if he wants to find “Hope” and something beyond alcohol and lost dreams. So he leaves behind his one friend, Rowdy (who has anger management issues…ha-ha), and enrolls at the all-white school in the nearby town of Reardan. Rowdy sees this as yet another abandonment in his life, but Junior, though upset, is not swayed from his decision. Due to the distance and lack of buses, Junior often has to hitch rides, walk, or just maybe miss class for a few days. In a couple of unbelievable twists he ends up on both the basketball team and finds a girlfriend. The story culminates with a basketball game between Reardan and the reservation team (Junior vs. Rowdy…and through the metaphor, leaving the rez and staying) and a tragic personal loss for Junior. Alexie touches on the ideas of racism and social class, but it will probably require teachers/parents/librarians to bring about a real discussion with the book’s target audience. --Jason
Last month the young adult division of the American Library Association (YALSA) announced the winners of the annual Alex Awards. These are books, "wri...moreLast month the young adult division of the American Library Association (YALSA) announced the winners of the annual Alex Awards. These are books, "written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18." Based solely on the cover art, I picked up The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz. This is a quick, funny read that has flashes of Veronica Mars (a PI family with snarky humor) and definitely owes much to sitcom television.
Isabel Spellman is a black sheep in a family of…very dark sheep. Mom and Dad Spellman run a Private Investigator firm out of the house and have difficulty keeping their work from spilling over into their personal lives. Two of the three children are employees and all have great aptitude for the job, including the following ever-handy skills: surveillance, interrogation, negotiations, lock picking, and just being generally sneaky. As a result, all of them have their quirks and Izzy in particular is quite emotionally damaged…being bugged, trailed, and professionally interrogated by your parents will do that to a person.
Told from Izzy’s point of view, the first half of the book is devoted to immersing the reader in this off-the-wall life in the Spellman household. These accounts were often funny but felt a bit like watching the pilot episode to a sitcom…although it is one heck of a sitcom. Dialogue-heavy text and sarcastic dark humor prevail here and older teens weaned on The Simpsons and reality TV will get a kick out of reading how Izzy fails at life. During this section I found myself wanting Lutz to get to the point but I stuck with her and was happy I did.
Izzy eventually realizes that she needs a break from her family/work if she’s going to keep her latest romantic fling (a very normal Dentist) afloat. Her parents reluctantly offer her an "out" but it requires that she solve a decade-old cold case. Much of the rest of the book is devoted to Izzy surprisingly making headway on the case, however, there are ominous overtones with regards to the witnesses she hounds as well as the law enforcement that originally handled the case. Finally, just when this case is unravelling, her younger sister Rae (who has a penchant for practice surveillance) disappears while tailing someone on her free time. Suddenly all of Izzy’s family and romantic drama shifts to the back burner as the family unites to employ all their sleuthing skills towards tracking down Rae.
A solid, fun effort with a sequel in the works. --Jason
I’m love-love-loving this Young Adult fantasy series even though this second book was gigantic (715 pages). A great high-fantasy tale with a gripping...moreI’m love-love-loving this Young Adult fantasy series even though this second book was gigantic (715 pages). A great high-fantasy tale with a gripping plot and characters that are more than just Harry Potter -slash- Tolkien spinoffs. Lamplighter two finds bookish Rossamund beginning his apprenticeship lighting the lamps that keep the Emperor’s highways somewhat safe from roaming bands of monsters (bogles). He’s joined in this new book by a headstrong girl and meets up with old friends from the first story as well.
I would recommend starting with the first book, Foundling, even though it is a little slow at times. Lamplighter has much more action, heck, someone is torn apart by monsters in the first few pages! Rock!
My only real complaint here is the excessive use of Cornish’s new fantasy terminology to describe everything (hats, coats, weapons, horse-drawn coaches, etc…). It wasn’t as annoying as say Eragon’s sad tribute to Tolkien-speak, but it was still distracting for the first quarter of the novel. Cornish’s amazing drawings are again sprinkled throught which made the characters really come alive in my mind. A bit of a cliff-hanger semi-surprise ending made me anxious for book three! Recommended for fans of John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice series. --Jason
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy may have some faults *cough*Book3*cough*, but it is surely a classic of contemporary fantasy fiction. The...morePhilip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy may have some faults *cough*Book3*cough*, but it is surely a classic of contemporary fantasy fiction. The story arcs were complex and allegorical, the addition of personal animal daemons was flat out rocking, and he created some memorable characters in Lyra Belacqua, Mrs. Coulter, Iorek Byrnison (the armored bear) and Lee Scoresby (Texan gunfighter).
It’s these last two characters that are featured in an adventure novella prequel Once Upon a Time in the North. We join Lee and his laid back rabbit daemon, Hester, as they land their balloon in a harbor port on an island in a northern sea. The town here is in the midst of a tight Mayoral election with the surging challenger in cahoots with a large mining company. This same company seems to be slyly tightening its grip on the political processes in the town and has used legalese to hold up a Captain’s tanker filled with mining equipment in order to have it impounded and auctioned off at a low price. Meanwhile the bear population is shunted off to the outskirts performing manual labor and banned from wearing any of their signature armor (much like in the early HDM trilogy). But now the meddling Lee and Hester are in town and they just can’t let those bad guys win. (cue Morricone whistling soundtrack)
Most of the novella is taken up with a gripping and violent gunfight that should grant the Captain a cover to load his cargo and flee. I do wish Pullman had bit the bullet and spent some time fleshing out the overall story to make a full-length novel. He has really chickened out with this easier method of publishing the HDM novellas (see also Lyra’s Oxford). Though I’m definitely partial to fiction with a surly, armored, talking bear and a quiet, Clint Eastwoodesque gunfighter having rollicking adventures, so I’ll let this one slide. --Jason
This book is receiving a lot of hype as the Young Adult book of the fall season. Collins, author of the popular Juvenile Fiction series The Underland...moreThis book is receiving a lot of hype as the Young Adult book of the fall season. Collins, author of the popular Juvenile Fiction series The Underland Chronicles (Gregor), has written for a slightly higher grade level in this dystopian action/adventure novel. The United States has fractured into a land made up of the domineering and decadent Capitol population served by 12 outlying districts, each responsible for some form of trade to support the Capitol. An earlier rebellion was quashed by the Capitol and now each year two representatives from each district are sent to compete in a reality television Running Man-esque deathmatch designed to remind the districts of their insubordination. Oh and these lucky chosen few are always between the ages of 12 and 18. Here’s where the story gets morally difficult…or at least I thought it was going to be. I mean 12-year-olds stabbing fellow pre-teens? Dark stuff, right?
Turns out Collins sidesteps this more intriguing issue in favor of building a tense action-packed story of survival as well as introducing a psychologically confusing romance between the two spunky and brave contestants from lowly District 12. Don’t get me wrong, I still think teens are going to eat this story up, but Collins really had a chance to do something more lasting with this one. Apparently Collins has a trilogy in mind for this storyline, I’d be surprised if she switches gears for the rest of the series, either way I’ll be first in line for book 2. --Jason