Wow. The most ambitious children's book I have read in a while, and the most successful at meeting those ambitions. Hardinge skillfully blends a sense...moreWow. The most ambitious children's book I have read in a while, and the most successful at meeting those ambitions. Hardinge skillfully blends a sense of creeping supernatural menace with astute psychological realism that makes the fantastical elements more grounded and thereby more plausible and frightening. The scariest part of the book is seeing the effect on Josh of his new supernatural abilities; when combined with an underlying resentment at being neglected by his adoptive parents, his growing powers exacerbate the worst aspects of his personality. Hardinge never talks down to her audience, setting up circumstances that allow Ryan to realize some profound truths about the sources of human discontent and the danger of hero worship without any hint of didacticism. The plotting is superb; I was impressed by the way that disparate strands came together fluidly, with the pace never flagging. I had a few nitpicks with the speed at which the flooding became dangerous at the end, and the final scene with the well witch moved too quickly for me to buy her transformation, but overall, the connections between the wishers felt satisfying rather than overly coincidental. (I did wonder about Josh's aunts in Merrybells -- I thought that they would end up playing a role a la Miss Gossamer, and was confused by their presence in the book and their effect on Josh without some kind of connection to the well witch.) An author who deals beautifully with character, plot, and theme is rare enough, but Hardinge is also just a gorgeous writer. Hardinge's characters may be thinking things you have thought before, but she states those thoughts with such grace, power, and clarity that you envy their insight and perspective. And even minor descriptions are worthy of great sentences and metaphors. For example, I loved this description of Chelle's mom: "She had big, vague eyes, and a big, vague smile, and was always very busy in the way that a moth crashing about in a lampshade is busy" (29). Other sentences that are jumping out at me as I page through: "Josh gave a grin as hard as glass" (384), "The bus's engine gave a long, exasperated sigh and shrugged its weight forward, as if hulking its shoulders against the rain" (1), "She had an air of kitten-tottering helplessness, and the pallor of her hair and skin made her look as if she had been through the wash too many times, losing her color and courage in the rinse" (6). You can tell I like metaphors! Looking back now, the metaphor of a wish as a conker shell is made right in the first chapter; that image returns later on when Ryan realizes how wishes have outer shells and inner nuts of truth. Yes another reason for me to admire Hadinge's writing and the thoughtful construction of the novel as a whole. It's always exciting to find an author into whose oeuvre you cannot wait to dive!(less)
Groundhog Day for kids, but not as well-done or philosophical. I reviewed this one for grad school, and while this review is a little more harsh than...moreGroundhog Day for kids, but not as well-done or philosophical. I reviewed this one for grad school, and while this review is a little more harsh than it needs to be upon re-reading, I still mostly agree with it. Here it is:
In this contrived fantasy, estranged ex-friends Amanda and Leo are forced to re-live their shared eleventh birthday over and over again as they learn trite lessons about the importance of standing up for yourself, following your dreams, and helping others. Back when they were best buddies, Amanda and Leo always celebrated their birthday together – but when Amanda overhears Leo insulting her at their tenth birthday party, she is so hurt and angry that she shuts Leo out of her life entirely. When their eleventh birthday rolls around, the two plan separate parties, at which each has an equally terrible time. Amanda, who narrates the novel in a shallow and stereotypically “tweeny” voice (with lots of exclamation marks! and CAPITALIZED WORDS!), is dismayed when she awakens the next morning to discover that the awful birthday is repeating itself, as it does again the next day, and the next. She feels frightened and alone until she realizes that Leo is stuck in the same loop with her. The two team up to figure out what is going on, and in the process, face down some long-standing fears and gain greater understanding of themselves and each other. The lessons they learn tend to be rather simplistic and heavy-handed, as when Amanda says: “I must be a pretty unobservant person not to notice Leo getting picked on for a whole year. All I had thought about was how I felt; I had never looked at it from his side. We could have made up a whole lot sooner” (p. 191). When an explanation of the friends' predicament finally emerges, readers may find themselves disappointed by the strained, clumsily foreshadowed back-story involving an old family feud and an out-of-nowhere enchantment. Mass’ inelegant, superficial rehash of Groundhog Day robs an extraordinary premise of its power to beguile and delight. (less)
This is the first book in ages for which I've been motivated to write a full review! First of all, I can't believe I didn't read this as a kid -- I wo...moreThis is the first book in ages for which I've been motivated to write a full review! First of all, I can't believe I didn't read this as a kid -- I would have been the ideal reader for it, with my love of the Victorian era, orphan/orphanage stories, and vibrant female characters and friendships. I was struck, reading it in this current era of bloated fantasy novels, by Aiken's economy and sense of discipline -- there was not a single wasted word. The beginning world-building was impeccable, and then once Sylvia was on the train to Willoughby Chase, the plot took off like a rocket. Somehow Aiken managed a mix a truly creepy setting, with the threat of wolves always menacing in the background, with a humorous awareness of the over-the-top Gothic-ness of it all, e.g. when Sylvia says: "We had quite a pleasant journey. A wolf jumped into our compartment last night, but Mr. Grimshaw stabbed it to death and we moved into another compartment." What a debt Lemony Snicket and Maryrose Wood, among many many others, owe to this delightful book. I can't wait to read the rest of the Wolves Chronicles! (less)
In Jellicoe Road, we have the pleasure of getting to know Taylor Markham, a 17-year-old boarding school student who has just been elected the leader o...moreIn Jellicoe Road, we have the pleasure of getting to know Taylor Markham, a 17-year-old boarding school student who has just been elected the leader of the Jellicoe School’s Underground Community. In her new role, Taylor is in charge of the traditional “territory war” that takes place each September between the students, the Townies, and the Cadets from a military school in Sydney who come to Jellicoe Road for a 6-week outdoor training course each spring. This is a large task to begin with, but it takes on an extra dimension of difficulty for Taylor when she learns that the leader of the Cadets is none other than Jonah Griggs, with whom she ran away four years ago in an ill-fated attempt to find her mother. But, as you can tell from the fact that she doesn’t know where her mother is, Taylor has much more on her mind than winning the territory war and dealing with Jonah Griggs – she is trying to puzzle out the story of her past and understand what brought her to the Jellicoe School in the first place.
As the story begins, Taylor's mentor Hannah has suddenly left the school, leaving only an unfinished manuscript in her house. We read snippets of the manuscript along with Taylor, and get to know five friends who met on the Jellicoe Road 22 years ago under tragic circumstances. Marchetta sets up a dual narrative, shifting between Taylor’s narration of current events at the Jellicoe School, and Hannah’s manuscript. In fact, the very first words of the book come from the manuscript and tell us of a terrible car wreck involving Narnie and Tate and Fizz.
Who are these people? What does this tragic car wreck have to do with Taylor? Why did Hannah leave the Jellicoe School so abruptly? Why did Taylor’s mother abandon her? And what’s the point of the territory wars, anyway? Marchetta skillfully builds up the suspense as Taylor searches for the answers to these questions, struggling to figure out how seemingly unconnected fragments of her past and Hannah’s past actually do connect.
Marchetta puts readers into the same position as Taylor, layering in fragments of narrative whose connection is initially difficult to ascertain. This strategy is a bit disorienting at first – we readers feel as confused as Taylor – and it does require some diligence to push through the first few chapters. However, the payoff is worth every bit of effort as we accompany Taylor on her journey into the past – a journey which, ultimately, helps her to move into her future.
Jellicoe Road deservedly won the 2009 Printz Award, and for that reason alone is worth having in your collection. But regardless of its award status, it deserves a place on our shelves for its wonderful main character, Taylor, whose wry, honest, unflinching voice feels completely authentic, for its sensitive and timely depiction of how to deal with and move past violence and tragedy, and for its skillful blend of genres -- it has elements of both “boy” and “girl” genre fiction, making it widely appealing across the board. Jellicoe Road really defies categorization – it’s an un-put-downable mystery, a romance between two of the least conventionally romantic characters you will ever meet, a boarding school story that turns every stereotype of boarding schools and their students on its head.
I highly recommend that you entrust yourself into Melina Marchetta’s more-than-capable hands and let her take you on a journey down the Jellicoe Road. (less)
Lucky Trimble has not experienced a lot of luck in her ten years. She has never met her dad, who left before she was born...moreA book talk from grad school:
Lucky Trimble has not experienced a lot of luck in her ten years. She has never met her dad, who left before she was born, and she lost her mom two years ago in a freak accident. Now she lives with her French guardian, Brigitte, in a small town on the edge of the Californian desert, where she has one of the only paying jobs in town, cleaning up the Found Object Wind Chime Museum and Visitor Center after twelve-step meetings. Eavesdropping on the recovering drinkers, smokers, and gamblers, Lucky hears about how they each found their Higher Power, and aspires to find her own: “Being ten and a half, Lucky felt like she had no control over her life—partly because she wasn’t grown up yet—but that if she found her Higher Power it would guide her in the right direction” (p. 5). Lucky knows that you need to hit rock bottom before your Higher Power will reveal itself to you, but she’s pretty sure that will happen soon -- she is sure that the homesick Brigitte will decide to return to France any day now, and dump Lucky in an orphanage without her beloved dog, HMS Beagle. When Lucky finds what she considers proof of Brigitte’s impending departure, she takes drastic action. Read The Higher Power of Lucky to discover what Lucky does, and whether she succeeds in taking control of her life.(less)
**spoiler alert** Almost impossible to categorize. It's like a dystopian historical fantasy, jilted a little off-kilter from actual English history bu...more**spoiler alert** Almost impossible to categorize. It's like a dystopian historical fantasy, jilted a little off-kilter from actual English history but clearly based on prodigious research. Within this deeply imagined and fully realized world we meet Mosca Mye, daughter of the noted (but disgraced) scholar Quillam Mye, whose father instilled in her a voracious appetite for the conjuring power of words before he died and left her in the care of a nasty aunt and uncle. Mosca's ability to read and love of language set her apart; in the Fractured Realm in which she lives, books are blamed for terrible past atrocities and a guild of "Stationers" censors printed material in the name of preventing further tragedy. The resulting fear of books leaves the clever Mosca misunderstood, bored, and restless: "Since the burning of her father's books, Mosca had been starved of words. She had subsisted on workaday terms, snub and flavorless as potatoes" (16). When a poet/con man arrives in town, Mosca is enchanted by the words like "mendacity" and "mellifluous" that pour forth from the verbose stranger, and when he runs afoul of the law, she rescues him on condition of his giving her employment as a secretary. Mosca, her new employer Eponymous Clent, and her goose Saracen therefore find themselves traveling together to the town of Mandelion.
Political intrigue and machinations swirl through Mandelion, and Eponymous and Mosca find themselves caught up in a power struggle between the Stationers' Guild, the Locksmiths' Guild, and the Duke's sister Lady Tamarind. An understanding of the history of political and religious strife within the Fractured Realm is necessary, and I found myself turning back to early explanations from Quillam and Mosca a few times to make sure that I was understanding the older history (the civil war, the parliamentary rule, the "Bad Times" of the Birdcatchers) as Hardinge kept adding information about more recent history (the Book Riots during the Year of the Dead Letter, the internecine quarreling amongst the Guilds). If this all sounds demanding on the reader, it is -- Hardinge has high expectations of you. However, the payoff for immersing yourself in this imagined world is great, since Hardinge also has high expectations of herself and, to my mind, exceeds them with aplomb.
The plot rollicks along through surprising but never eye-rolling twists and turns, the characters stay true to themselves even as they grow in emotional and spiritual maturity, and the language is heady, powerful stuff. Hardinge, who shares Mosca's enchantment with words, is a master craftsman; every detail, every image is evocative and potent. This facility with words is what made me dive directly from "Well Witched" into "Fly by Night," and what will make me head out to the library immediately upon finishing this review to pick up "The Lost Conspiracy" and "Fly Trap." Just flipping through the book, it's easy to find examples of Hardinge's unerring eye for surprising, precise description on every page:
"The wind roared with an estuary freshness. It carried the smell of sand flats and sea poppies, and the pale wails of wading birds, and the clammy, silver-eyed dreams of fish. Although she had never known the coastlands, Mosca felt with a thrill that somewhere beyond the edge of sight the ocean hugged its unthinkable deeps and dragged its tides in shrug after monumental shrug" (104).
"Mosca and Clent were led to an unsmiling little man of fifty with a gnawed, yellow look like an apple core. The little man's mouth was a small, bitter V shape, and seemed designed to say small, bitter things" (133).
"Clent simply swept such memories away, with the impatience of someone shoving crockery aside so that he can spread a treasure map across a table. The facts fell to the floor with a fractured tinkle and were forgotten" (214).
If all this were not enough, Hardinge also manages to make the book an indictment of religious extremism and a call for freedom of the press. As Mosca elucidates some of the hard-won lessons she has learned at the end of the book, I found myself making connections to our own world in the wake of terrorist attacks, with every hour a "Clamoring Hour" of "everybody able to to stand up and shout what they think, all at once" (479). Yes, Clent is right -- that such clamoring creates confusion that can drown out the truth, that not every citizen is willing to do the work to search out the truth amidst all the partisan yelling, and terrible ideas (like "death panels" and distrust of Obama's birth certificate) can spread like wildfire. However, Hardinge's convincing portrayal of a world that disallows such clamor gives me pause in my usual knee-jerk distaste for Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. (And you know a book that can do that is powerful!)
I don't mean to make the book sound moralizing; to my mind, Hardinge avoids black-and-white preachiness, and there is enough boisterous adventure to carry along readers who prefer not to dwell in the the deeper themes. However, I think it is impossible to finish the book without doing a little thinking about what kind of society you would like to live in. And that is a great thing. Hardinge proves herself yet again to be a children's author who refuses to underestimate her audience and is not satisfied with giving them anything less than her best. And her best is better than almost anyone else's I can think of.
Claire is a 7th grader who lives in a small town on the U.S./Canada border, who seems more than usually responsible and kind, with her willingness to...moreClaire is a 7th grader who lives in a small town on the U.S./Canada border, who seems more than usually responsible and kind, with her willingness to work hard on her family's farm, play Indiana Jones games with her younger brothers, and coach young skaters on the weekends. When she is selected to skate the Maple Show Princess solo at the town's festival, she doesn't know that a Olympic Gold-winning scout, Andrei Groshev, will be in the audience. He is impressed by her talent and offers her a scholarship to study with him in Lake Placid.
From here, the story is pretty predictable. How will Claire deal with the new high-pressure, competitive situation in which she finds herself? How will her friends at home feel about her new inability to go out for Milkshake Nights? How will Groshev's stable of ambitious young skating prodigies deal with the arrival of a talented newcomer in their midst? What will Claire think of the one young man who is training with her in Lake Placid? Chances are, if you have read a sports-related fish-out-of-water novel before, you might have a good idea of what the answers to these questions will be.
What pulls "Sugar and Ice" out of the pack, for me, is the lovely detailing of the setting, the well-drawn Claire's relatability and likability, and the way it immerses the reader in the world of figure skating. The latter might simply be an individual quirk on my part (considering that I am embarrassed to tell you how many times I have watched "The Cutting Edge"). But it is nice to see a girl-focused sports novel that does not focus on the girl trying to break into the ranks of a traditionally male sport, but instead deals with the dynamics of how girls treat girls within a mostly female world. Messner mentions in her note that she was trying to write "Mean Girls on ice," but there is a good balance of personalities in the Lake Placid skating rink -- Claire is hassled by one group of "Ice Queens," but also makes new friends. Development of secondary characters is not a central focus of the novel; each non-protagonist has one defining trait. However, Claire's well-roundedness helped to minimize the annoyance I usually feel at the lack of attention to other characters.
Of course, as the novel progresses, Claire learns about herself (with the help of a sports psychologist) and gains maturity and confidence. She also gains insight into what causes the Ice Queens to subject her to bullying. There are some pretty heavy-handed clues about which Ice Queen has resorted to vandalism and psychological games in her quest to intimidate Claire, but Claire does not figure that out until the end, just in time for a big novel-ending showdown. I bought Claire's growing understanding of how dreams shape people's choices, and what exactly her dreams entail, and by the end was satisfied with the choices she makes about how to fulfill her dreams.
Overall, "Sugar and Ice" is good fun and its predictability gives it an old-fashioned, comfortable feel -- a first read almost feels like a re-read. Plus, I learned something about beekeeping and Fibonacci numbers -- a nice side benefit :)(less)
A great one to re-read as an adult to fully appreciate Fitzhugh's language and characterizations. I can't believe that I have to classify this as hist...moreA great one to re-read as an adult to fully appreciate Fitzhugh's language and characterizations. I can't believe that I have to classify this as historical fiction -- there must be another label I can use for books set after WWII. Hmmm. Anyway, I remember my mom buying this for me as a present to read on a long airplane ride, and the night before the trip, I thought I would just start the first chapter before bed. Ended up staying up late and finishing the whole book, then re-reading it the next day on the plane, and I must have re-read it at least 100 more times as a kid. (less)
When seventh grader Rachel's older brother is expelled from boarding school and comes home, Rachel is forced to confront the ways in which her family...moreWhen seventh grader Rachel's older brother is expelled from boarding school and comes home, Rachel is forced to confront the ways in which her family and her life are not as "perfect" as she thought--and though she struggles at first, she eventually starts to realize that unexpected twists and messy imperfections help to make life meaningful and interesting.(less)
One sentence review: A well-crafted mystery with a gut-wrenching twist ending that pulls off the rare feat of being completely surprising and yet some...moreOne sentence review: A well-crafted mystery with a gut-wrenching twist ending that pulls off the rare feat of being completely surprising and yet somehow completely earned by everything that has come before; I sobbed my way through the last 30 pages as all the disparate pieces clicked together to create a tragedy as heartbreaking as its Shakespearean and Brontean forebears -- and then immediately had to go back to the beginning to re-read it and see how Lockhart had pulled it off with such elan.(less)