One of my favorite uncles growing up was my Uncle Joe. He was big, larger than life even. He could sing like Hank Williams. He was a giftedRating: 3.5
One of my favorite uncles growing up was my Uncle Joe. He was big, larger than life even. He could sing like Hank Williams. He was a gifted storyteller who usually focused more on the quality of the story than the truth. He had that quintessential southern accent -- smooth and warm, it would roll through you like good whiskey. He could make a mean boiling pot -- with Uncle Joe, food went beyond nourishment and became an event. He was an amazing and skilled hunter and fisherman. And (as odd as it may sound coming from this nearly life-long vegetarian) it was partly his love of nature and animals that helped inspire my own. He was a drifter by nature, unlike Nolay (see! I didn't forget the book!), because his roots were not a place but people. Like a boomerang he always circled back to us. Of all the stopping places he found, the one that lasted the longest in my memory was Alabama. He fell equally in love with the swamp and the Gulf; and, for a man who seldom did such things, he could wax poetically about both. Uncle Joe was also a lot like Nolay in that he always seemed to have something to prove -- to himself and everyone else. He was fiercely protective of us, his family, both as people and ideas. Somehow, after he died, we became a little less a unit and more a collection of people. He had a temper, and he didn't always make the best choices. But, like Bones, I didn't see that when I was a child. All I saw was this amazingly smart man who could do anything except wrong.
These similarities, of course, made my immersion into Precious Bones both quick and thorough. But, despite my personal parallels that made this book particularly compelling, I think many readers will find it equally compelling without them. Ashley-Hollinger writes with such evocative, eloquent beauty that it just sucks you in and won't let go. The mystery is fabulous, but the biggest reveals aren't necessarily related to the mystery. Precious Bones is also a luscious coming of age story, a story about seeing people as they really are and still accepting them.
Oddly enough, my biggest complaints about Precious Bones are also some of the things I loved most. I love that Ashley-Hollinger includes regional dialect. I also love the sweeping descriptions of her surroundings. There is such a sense of place in Precious Bones. However, upon closer examination, her descriptions don't make sense in the context of Bone's first person narration. Bones has neither the education and experience for the similes and metaphors used, nor the vocabulary to have described many things as she did. As an adult I found the descriptions poignant and apt, but many would have flown right over my son's head without further clarification and definition. Also, despite the fact that I agree with all of Ashley-Hollinger's "messages" within the book, they were not exactly subtle. I would hate for that to be what turned kids away from an otherwise beautiful and interesting book.
Shana Burg's Laugh with the Moon is such a complex yet simple book that packs a hefty emotional punch. (I cried while reading the last fourth of the bShana Burg's Laugh with the Moon is such a complex yet simple book that packs a hefty emotional punch. (I cried while reading the last fourth of the book; and, a month later, I still get emotional just thinking about writing this review.) Before I write what may sound like criticisms (but are not!) I want to put what I will say into context. Have you ever had someone tell you a story about a "friend?" A story about something so bad or sad or hard that the insulation of the "friend" was required, even though you both knew the story was really about them? Laugh with the Moon is a little like that story. You see, it isn't really fiction at all. Burg tackles some very harsh realities about Malawi. She spent years learning about these realities, and then even more crafting a story in which she could communicate them. Burg has some very specific issues that she wants to discuss, and it leaves her characters feeling less like actual people and more like symbolic representations of groups of people. She manipulates them to tell her story, but they never feel like puppets; she uses them to speak with her voice, but they never become her megaphone. They have nuance even while feeling a little flat. The insulation was needed to tell this story in a middle grade novel. (I am a 28 year old woman and I needed it!)
Laugh with the Moon deals with death, dying, illness, and grief, but it is always full of life. Burg not only shows how different cultures celebrate life and death, but also how people within those cultures deal with it differently. It is a frank look at loss, but it remains ever hopeful. (I didn't read the Author's Note until I finished, which just elevated my already very high opinion of her. Three different people who were her friends and helped make this book possible died before it was published; also before they were 40 years old. Shana Burg is an amazingly hopeful and optimistic woman.)
Burg also very subtly but effectively takes on the idea of privilege. Laugh with the Moon begins with Clare donning her mantle of privilege as carelessly and obliviously as one slips into flip-flops on the beach: Throwing an anti-Malaria pill away because it has fell to the floor, regularly chugging bottled water in front of people who have only had it once or twice in their lives, or causally using - then giving away - pens in front of students who have never had formal school supplies. As the story progresses, though, she becomes more aware of her privilege, and how unjust that privilege really is. Each one of her friends is instrumental in different ways to her achievement of this awareness. I particularly like how Burg uses Memory and Agnes as foils - the extremes of how Malawians might react to an American such as Clare. Memory loves and accepts Clare as she is, overlooking Clare's thoughtless acts because she knows they are unintentional. Agnes, however, calls her out at every turn - forces her to face it. It would be easy - and is often done - to make Agnes the 'mean' or 'bad' character, but she isn't. Agnes, too, becomes a friend, once Clare sees why Agnes treats her the way she does. Innocent shows her the value of the pills she so casually took; a child who dies for lack of a medicine that costs .28 USD per pediatric dose* or a mosquito net that costs $3.00 USD.** Saidi shows her the value of the education she took for granted; he cannot move into high school for lack of the less than $1.00 USD*** a year it would cost, and leaves primary school early because he cannot afford a suitable uniform.
These two issues, then, are the soul of why Shana Burg wrote Laugh with the Moon: access to adequate medical attention and access to an adequate education. It is hard to pull these issues out of the book because they are so deeply woven into the fabric of every single scene. The reality of what Malawians face is right there under the surface of the story; the fabric on which it is constructed. And, much like her characters Memory and Agnes, Burg by turns coaxes the reader and forces the reader to confront our privilege. The stark contrast between the private schools that children of white missionaries and doctors attend from that of the local village children is heartbreaking. The unutterable decadence of the fully equipped hospital Clare receives treatment in compared to the hot cave of a room that Innocent dies in is tragic. It is impossible to read Laugh with the Moon and remain unmoved. But it is a movement into action; a feeling of hope rather than despair. We can, and should, do something to change this.
For a list of ways you can help stop Malaria, check out the review on my blog Chronicles of a Book Evangelist; a review copy was provided by the publisher. ________________________________________________________________
I believe that Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl books will end up being a lot like John R. Erickson's Hank the Cowdog Books to me -- I like them a little foI believe that Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl books will end up being a lot like John R. Erickson's Hank the Cowdog Books to me -- I like them a little for myself, but like them a lot for my son. (That is why I am ever thankful for the wonderful Hank audio books.)
The story is a bit flashy spy movie meets stodgy detective story at times. I found Artemis to be an annoying brat who acted more like a miniature adult than a twelve year old. I also found little proof of his supposed intelligence aside from Sherlock-style breakdowns of information that we, as readers, were never allowed to "see" in the first place. He is less "heroic" (if that is the right word) than Holly, less intelligent than Foaly, and all around less cool than Butler. (I really loved Butler). I both loved and hated the constantly shifting point-of-view; it was nice to get to know the other characters so well, but I felt like it disrupted the flow of the story -- perhaps if it had remained only with a couple of characters it would have been better?
But, those quibbles aside, Artemis Fowl was funny. It was quirky and interesting and I think the fart jokes would have my son in stitches on the floor. I definitely think this is geared more for the younger side of middle grade, but can see the plot being complex enough to attract young adult readers -- especially if Artemis continues to mature through the series. I don't know that I would have continued to read them for my own enjoyment, but they are on the list for books to read aloud to my son.
Two Crafty Criminals! and How They Were Captured by the Daring Detectives of the New Cut Gang is actually a really long, unwieldy new title for two prTwo Crafty Criminals! and How They Were Captured by the Daring Detectives of the New Cut Gang is actually a really long, unwieldy new title for two previously released UK novellas: Thunderbolt's Waxwork and The Gas-Fitters' Ball. These two hilarious stories tell the adventures of a 'gang' of enchanting, lively, quirky, kids in Victorian England.
Once again, Pullman has crafted characters that dwell in the reader's mind rather than the page. These kids are real kids: by turns smart, clueless, brave, cowardly, resourceful, compassionate, condescending, or just plain weird. Pullman takes turns following the different children, boy and girl alike, with each holding their own. I think that Two Crafty Criminals would be an exuberantly lively and amusing read to boys and girls alike--no matter which character takes the lead.
Pullman also does and excellent job of establishing time and place. He drops little hints here and there that make the story feel authentically Victorian, while never allowing the setting to overrun the story. And the slang is just fun; it was an absolute delight to read this aloud to my son!
The mysteries, and the antics the kids get up to while solving them, are often over-the-top--making them feel like the stories kids tell each other about their weekends or school vacations while bragging at recess. They are easily solved, but in a way that leaves young readers feeling triumphant at having figured things out. Plus, there are whimsically amusing pictures scattered throughout.
I think that Two Crafty Criminals joins the ranks of other Pullman works that are a pleasure to read aloud at bedtime. It would also do well to encourage a newly independent chapter book reader. My only caveat: the stories lend themselves best to younger middle grade readers, but the ability needed to understand the slang from context clues, and the occasionally difficult vocabulary words, make them better for older middle grade readers....more
There are so many reasons why Rubino-Bradway's Ordinary Magic is now one of my favorite middle grade books to recommend. Rubino-Bradway created a worlThere are so many reasons why Rubino-Bradway's Ordinary Magic is now one of my favorite middle grade books to recommend. Rubino-Bradway created a world that, while built entirely upon magical inventions and a thriving absolute monarchy, is still recognizable as a contemporary society. I really enjoyed having the world slowly revealed to me--always feeling familiar, but with interesting magical quirks. Rubino-Bradway turned the typical plot of a middle grade fantasy on its head: here is a world full of magic, and, rather than being exceptionally gifted or special, our heroine turns out to be completely ordinary. She then goes on to show that one can be completely "ordinary" and still be smart, brave and strong; that you don't have to have "special" gifts to be the heroine of your story!
Rubino-Bradway's characters are all interesting in their own ways. I think it is sometimes hard to write a large family--not to mention a full cast of characters in a boarding school--and have each member maintain believable and distinct personalities, by she does it with aplomb. Abby's family was just wonderful. I love that they are supportive, loving, and present. I am so tired of absent parent syndrome! I also appreciated the way Rubino-Bradway handled the parents for each of the ordinary children a little differently. Naturally, not everyone would be supportive if they discovered their child was a social pariah--but there are varying degrees of how supportive or un-supportive they could be. I like that (though some parents did completely abandon their children) some parents still tried to support their children financially, or made sure a kindly neighbor took them in. I also liked how, though some parents were equally supportive on a personal level, Rubino-Bradway shows that the family's power and relative position in society can vastly change how helpful that support can be. It was a very frank look at bigotry for a middle grade novel!
Rubino-Bradway also handled the friendships between the ordinary children beautifully. The varying degrees of intimacy based on both personality and interactions felt very authentic. (And, can I just say, I am getting a very Anne-Gilbert vibe from Abby and Peter?) Most importantly, though, Ordinary Magic was a fun, engaging read. Rubino-Bradway writes with such charm that I was not only caught up in the story immediately, but felt at-home, and was sad to have it end. It was scary and exciting and funny. This is a book that I will own, and I can't wait for her next....more
When my father was about 9 years old, he discovered George's My Side of the Mountain. According to my grandmother, he spent quite a bit of time that sWhen my father was about 9 years old, he discovered George's My Side of the Mountain. According to my grandmother, he spent quite a bit of time that summer trying to recreate it. I inherited as a child the same beat-up 1969 paperback that had been rolled up and stuffed in his pocket while he slept in the leaves of the holler. In turn, I have read from it to my seven year old son. My husband, on the other hand, fell in love with Jack London as a child. To ask him to pick his favorite between The Call of the Wild and White Fang would be like asking him to pick between our children -- the first gift I ever gave him was a hardbound copy of both volumes in one. One of my most prized books is a copy of Island of the Blue Dolphins, bought and beautifully inscribed for me on my 11th birthday by someone who loved me way more than I deserved. The first book I ever remember staying up all night to read was Hatchet (a school class copy I smuggled home in my backpack and returned the next day - entirely against the rules. If your reading this, I'm sorry Mrs. Reiff.) I write all of that to preface a shameful confession: prior to the 23rd of last month, I had never heard of Julie of the Wolves. How? How did I not know about this book?!
Like any and all of the books listed above, Julie of the Wolves was beautiful. Beautifully written, and beautifully evocative of the natural world in the way that only someone who truly observes the world around them could write. George quite frankly stunned me at times with the stark exquisiteness of her words. It was also a very quick read - surprisingly so for how very much was included in it. I loved Julie's time with the wolves, and would have enjoyed a much longer, more in depth look at how the pack worked together. Amaroq and Kapu captivated me; and I would love to know how/why Jello was the outcast that he was. Is Kapu going to be able to keep himself and the rest of the pack safe, or will his relationship with Miyax make him have a dangerous level of trust around other humans? How much longer will Silver be the dominant female now that her pup is pack leader? (I think I may be more invested in the wolves than the humans in this story.)
I also have to wonder a little at what lies beneath the luster. Perhaps the haze of nostalgia is fogging my memory of the other books, but Julie of the Wolves has a sort of defeated hopelessness that I don't think I have ever encountered to the same extent in other books of this genre. It was almost like George was channeling Hardy or something. (Don't get me wrong, Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure have their place, but that level of pessimism in a 13 year old is just a little hard to take.) I want something more for Julie that she was willing to ask for herself. I want Kapugen (the father, not the wolf) to be more than he is - or to at least have time as a reader to learn why he isn't who he used to be. Why did Tornait die? (I mean, aside from the fact that he was representative of the bird spirit, which is being killed off by the Eskimos losing their traditional ways.) I mean, what actually killed him? I reread that part a few times, and I am still not clear. Better yet, why did Amaroq die? Couldn't we even get a, 'well, we've been killing the wolves that are getting too close to town' from someone once she got there? Was George imply that Kapugen was his killer? Or just like his killer in that they now share a similar lifestyle? I get that Kapugen represents the change in his people, but what about him on a personal level? George seems to sacrifice her characters as individuals for what they represent in the larger picture. I understand that Julie of the Wolves is supposed to highlight some of the problems created when civilizations collide; but it seemed to do its fair share of critiquing the harsher realities of traditional customs as well. (Her marriage to Daniel had nothing to do with 'gussak' ways.) Also, it's almost like George focused all of the very worst of both societies on one young girl, leaving her little else. Julie of the Wolves was gorgeous, and there is much to value in it. But, in the end, it just left me feeling hollow - and I don't know that I like that in a middle grade novel.
As an aside, the biography of George that was included with this edition was just wonderful. I think the pictures of her, especially later in life, really capture just how joyful the natural world and wild animals made her.
Actual Rating: 3.5 It has taken me a while to review The Last Song because I have struggled with how to approach it. You see, I am precisely the type oActual Rating: 3.5 It has taken me a while to review The Last Song because I have struggled with how to approach it. You see, I am precisely the type of person who would be inherently interested in it, but not at all Wiseman's intended audience. I am well read in both the middle ages and Jewish history and culture. In short, I know too much. That is not to say that Wiseman is in any way ignorant, or that she is wrong; merely that I wanted more detail, more nuance, and more depth from this story than she provided. The fault, therefore, lies in my expectations and not The Last Song.
First and foremost I want to applaud Wiseman for even tackling the Alhambra Decree and the Spanish Inquisition. I cannot even begin to count the number of times I have tried - in vain - to put the Holocaust into its proper prospective. When people ask, 'How could that have happened?' the answer for any student of Jewish history would be, 'Easily!' European countries have a long and sordid history of treating Jewish people abysmally - everything from laws which classified them as second or third class citizens to expulsions. It is nice to see something about Jewish history for young readers which is not about the Holocaust. It saddens me sometimes to see how popular perception had ossified Jewish history and the Holocaust into one and the same thing.
So few people know that the Spanish Inquisition started primarily because conversos (or Jewish people who had recently, ahem - as in within the past few generations, converted to Christianity were enjoying very high levels of financial, political, occupational, and intellectual success. Never mind that this was a period of fierce intellectualism within the Jewish community - in stark contrast to the rather ostrich-like approach Christians were taking to the world at the time. Wiseman does a very good job of highlighting most of these issues within The Last Song without ever getting too dark. So many things about this time period were made softer, toned down, simplified. Nobody important dies. Spaniards who are really close to Isobel never really betray her. Her family makes it out of Spain safely, as do her friends, and she has her happily ever after with the boy she loves.
The Last Song is a gentle introduction to Jewish history, but it is still a true one. There are no easy lies, perhaps only careful omissions. So, while I may have expected the quintessential (and completely un-PC) medieval insult slinging; the dirt and poverty and despair in the Juderia; the families and friends ripped apart by betrayals and arrests - they weren't necessary. The Last Song was safe enough that it was fun to read, and real enough to make kids think. And that, to me, makes this a very good book indeed.
What a refreshingly wonderful book! When I finished reading Candlewax I was happy. There weren't any niggling complaints about the book teasing at theWhat a refreshingly wonderful book! When I finished reading Candlewax I was happy. There weren't any niggling complaints about the book teasing at the happiness, nor unsatisfied expectations from an abrupt cliffhanger. Candlewax is quite simply a tight, well-written, interesting, fun fantasy novel for young adults.
Sims' world building is just fabulous; at once I was transported into her world, and there were no frayed edges to trip me up. Even the most fantastic elements had been incorporated in such a way that they fit seamlessly with the others. I completely believed in Lackanay, Cinna, and Candlewax. Yes, there was quite a bit of exposition in the dialog at times, but it rarely felt like info-dumping. Sims' dialog was both plausable and interesting, and the history and adventure unfolded together in a beautifully harmonious sort of way.
The characters were also just so well done! In Catherine we have a believably flawed, beautiful, strong protagonist. Her alternating strength and vulnerability never feel forced, and the fact that she is a girl never factors in either; they are the strengths and weaknesses of any person, not a specific sex. (I think a young male reader could get wrapped up in her adventure just as easily as a female reader.) Pokos is delightful in the way only a talking cat can be, and Cyril is a strong, smart, and nice hero. He is a partner for Catherine, not just a love interest. As I read I truly felt a part of the adventure; the relationships between the characters developed in such as way that it felt like we were all getting to know each other at the same time. I learned to trust and like the characters just as they learned to trust and like each other.
And what an adventure it is! Girl running from an arranged marriage. Girl masquerading as boy. Servant masquerading as Princess. Enchanted jewelry and daggers. Enigmatic cat. Prophesies. Kingdoms to be saved. Destinies to be met. Magical beasts. Secret rooms and hidden passages. Traitors. Archery contests. Evil Kings. Thieves. Campfire cooking. Everything one could possibly love about fantasy is in Candlewax (except maybe dragons. But you won't miss them, promise!)
The novel has a nicely plotted story arc and, even with the cliffhanger set up for the next books in the series, Candlewax has that now-rare satisfying feeling of conclusion when it ends. I won't lie: I really wish it had a more inspiring cover, some of the made up words and names made me giggle - even when they were supposed to be menacing - and the Trodliks never became more than this in my head, but none of that really detracted from my enjoyment of the novel in any way. Hardcore fans of fantasy may find Candlewax to be simple (but not, I think, derivative). There is danger, sadness, loss, fear - but things never get too dark. Therefore, I think it is an excellent introduction to the genre for younger readers while still being a good read for older teens. Sims didn't do anything earth shattering here, but it is a good, strong, fun, readable fantasy that I would easily recommend to any young reader who shows the slightest interest in the genre.
Thanks to Terabyte Press and NetGalley for the ARC.
Had I been forced to review 13 Hangmen after the first third of the book, it would have been terrible. Corriveau tells the reader EVERYTHING. NothingHad I been forced to review 13 Hangmen after the first third of the book, it would have been terrible. Corriveau tells the reader EVERYTHING. Nothing is shown, nothing is left up to the reader, the characters, setting, and plot all feel stilted, and it was just boring. The most exciting thing going on was the continuous (and often unbelievable) fight between Tony and his mom about his weight loss. However, when it picks up it really picks up.
Corriveau has a fascinating idea of history, and I love what he has done with it. Through a chain of thirteen year old boys who know each other - each meeting the one before him when he is thirteen and the one after him when he is an older man - Corriveau manages to tell the ethnically and culturally rich history of the United States. He does so in snapshots of great events while still showing that, though we mostly remember special dates, history is continuous. We are not isolated from history but a part of it. I won't lie, I had some serious problems with the way he mixed fact and fiction (and science and pseudoscience, for that matter) so seamlessly that they were at times indistinguishable. But, wow, he made history exciting! Once we got rolling on the mystery, I really couldn't wait to find out who the next boy would be or what he would contribute to the, well, history lesson, for lack of a better word. And, much to my peace of mind, Corriveau cleans up the fact/fiction melding at the end. (Not that I wouldn't trust middle grade readers to immediately fact check. Ahem.) Also, I just really wish he wouldn't have perpetuated some persistent myths. Corriveau adds his voice to that of Longfellow in muddying Revere's place in history. Obviously, the exciting exaggerations are a lot easier to remember - we have adults, who really ought to know better, still thinking Revere rode up and down the street ringing a bell!
There were some moments in 13 Hangmen that were really trite such as a villainous tell-all monologue a la Murder She Wrote. By the time we got there I was really hoping for better. Also, Sarah has violet eyes, really? (Can we just clear this one up now? Unless your character is albino, it is biologically impossible for her to have violet eyes. Elizabeth Taylor didn't even have violet eyes - she had deep blue eyes that she played up with cosmetics, lighting, and wardrobe. Okay, now we've all got this, stop with the violet eyes already!) I also felt that Angey's assistance to and subsequent friendship with Tony later in the book felt very contrived; it just didn't fit with his character, and I was shown no character growth to account for this change. Plus, a conveniently left behind Ouija board? Again, a plot device that kept the story moving but required suspension of disbelief on my part. Also, the mystery itself was a little predictable - but I'm a twenty-eight year old woman who enjoys reading mysteries. I imagine a middle grade reader new to the genre might not find these things quite as implausible, transparent, or predictable as I do.
Overall, 13 Hangmen was fun, interesting, and made me think about some things I know in a new way. (As a student of Geography, I have learned about the rotation of ethnic groups within a neighborhood throughout generations, but I have never really thought about the neighborhood itself as a sort of time capsule as Corriveau does.) I also love the way the boys are linked by objects that they pass on to each other. (I do feel most connected to my grandmother-the-young-mother when wearing her apron, canning or cooking for my children. It is a time travel of sorts that connects us - doing the same thing at the same 'time' of live with the same object.) Corriveau was absolutely at his best when recounting history, or placing the boys within historical settings and events. His handling of Jack as a boy and "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald were some of the most convincing bits of writing in the book. He manages to write about American history in a compellingly patriotic voice without finding the need to white-wash it - in any sense of the word. He holds no punches when describing the realities that a young African American, Jewish, Italian, Irish, Hispanic, etc., etc., etc. 13 year old boy would face at different points in history; and he acknowledges the very great contributions that each of these communities made to America. Plus, he pulls all that off without appearing nationalistic or nostalgic - a pretty impressive feat. (Truthfully, I would really like to see Corriveau turn his hand to some non-fiction histories or biographies for middle graders.)
13 Hangmen didn't wow me, but I enjoyed it - and I think that nine or ten year old me (she who hid under her blanket with a flashlight and Nancy Drew or Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators) would have enjoyed it even more - if she made it past the first third of the book, that is.