Friday, December 16, 2011

Books of 2011, part 3, & giveaway #3!

For this installment I'll be giving away a hardcover copy of Angel Burn by L. A. Weatherly, a YA paranormal romance that pubbed in May about, you guessed it, angels & love & some kind of intergalactic war I think. This isn't my kinda book, but I've heard it's really good. I bet it is because Candlewick publishes fantastic books. So comment away!

Books of 2011, Nos. 11-15

11. Word After Word After Word by Patricia MacLachlan (2010)

I think Sarah, Plain & Tall is one of the most perfect books ever written. I remember just thinking it was okay as a kid, but rereading it for grad school I was blown away. There is not a wasted word in it, just 60-something pages of beautiful, seemingly effortless prose, a simple story that's concise & complex at once. Needless to say, I was expecting a lot from Word After Word After Word. But... insert sad trombone sound here. I read this book in March & remember literally nothing about it. I remember that there is a creative lady who visits a classroom of students & inspires them to... do something. Write? I think they write stories? There was nothing impressive or inspiring about this little book; it was completely unremarkable. I was going to take a few minutes & look up the plot to give you a better idea of what it's about, but ya know, it's not even worth the time. Just read or reread Sarah instead.

Rating: 2/5 stars
Recommended for: Someone looking for a simple story they can get through in about an hour

12. The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau (2003)

Unlike with MacLachlan's book, I wasn't expecting a lot from this one. I thought it would be a pretty run-of-the-mill middle-grade fantasy, but to my pleasant surprise, it was much more original. Ember is a city - a sort of last resort of the human race - surrounded by total darkness, whose only light comes from huge lamps that are starting to flicker. Lina & her friend Doon discover a garbled message that they decide holds the key to saving the city, & try to unravel the mystery before the city is plunged into darkness forever. The scenes are so vividly imagined that even now, months later, I can picture exactly the layout of Ember, the architecture, the key characters, & some of the integral scenes. There are some logical fallacies where you can't help but ask, "Why didn't the people of Ember ____?" or "But how did they go all these years without ____ happening?" but eh, I'm willing to suspend my disbelief for a good story. & it is a very good story, almost like a Plato's Allegory of the Cave for kids. I went right out & bought the sequel, The People of Sparks, though I haven't read it yet.

Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended for: Readers (young or old - this book is classified as YA but I'd recommend it to a third or fourth grader, no problem) of fantasy, suspenseful stories, dystopian lit

13. The Small Adventure of Popeye & Elvis by Barbara O'Connor (2009)

I am a sucker for a charming, Southern story (as long as they're authentic), & this little book is full of Southern charm. I fell in love with the cover instantly: "That was me as a kid!" Popeye is perpetually bored in his little town in South Carolina, so when a motor home breaks down belonging to the rambunctious Jewell family & Popeye meets Elvis, who rocks a "so what?" attitude, life gets a little more interesting. Their small adventure begins when they start finding paper boats sailing down the creek with secret messages in them. This isn't a groundbreaking or life-changing story, but a sweet, solid, Southern read.

Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended for: Kids (as young as maybe second grade) who like safe adventures, humor, & mystery, & any kid (or former kid) who gets a thrill out of playing in a creek

14. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne (2006)

God, this book. It broke my heart & didn't even care. The matter-of-fact style Boyne uses to tell this story makes it feel like a centuries-old fairy tale, but give it a Holocaust setting & you end up with something much darker than fantasy. I hesitate to pigeon-hole books into "for children" or "for adults," but that this book was marketed so hard as a kids' book really confuses me. Even the cover I think you'd have to be at least an older teen to understand the nuances of Boyne's story - as the narrator is clearly an adult voice commenting on childhood innocence, but perhaps as a group read, a teacher could use this in a younger classroom. I'm not sure about that, though. People generally think of fairy tales as being "for kids," & I don't think they are, so do with that what you will. 

What I can say for sure is that you read the book with a sense of impending dread & then the end hits you like a bus, & you feel pretty dead inside. In the story, Bruno, the son of a Nazi officer, makes friends with a boy in striped pajamas who lives on the other side of the fence beside Bruno's house. That's about all I'm going to say. If you read this book hoping for a realistic Holocaust story, it's not. A lot of the things the characters do/say/believe fly in the face of reason, so you really have to take it with a grain of salt. It's not realistic; it's not fantastic; it's a bizarre story. But definitely worth reading, & not one you're likely to forget.

Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended for: If you need a good punch in the heart, or if you're on a Holocaust kick like I was (The Book Thief, followed by this, followed by The Diary of Anne Frank). I hesitate to recommend this book for kids.

15. Bossypants by Tina Fey (2011)

First, I have a major girl crush on Tina Fey. I love everything she glorifies: the woman who's not smooth, who's trying to have it all but who doesn't want to settle, who celebrates nerdiness & being smart, who gets to date Jon Hamm but would really rather stay at home watching Bravo & eat cheese than go out with a dude. Not to mention that she is freakin' hilarious. From her thoughts to physical beauty to unrequited love to career success, this book is a wonderful trip into her head. I should note that for me it was very important to look at this as a book of essays; it is not a memoir. If you go into it expecting her life story, as I did, you're going to be disappointed. But about halfway though (I read it in one sitting) I realized this is not supposed to be her life story, just a bunch of snippets of her life - none too specific - that have brought her to this point in her life. This was really my first "celebrity read," & not a genre I plan on frequenting, but hey, Tina Fey got to where she is by being an awesome writer, & this is an awesome book. I cried a lot - mostly from laughing so hard, but also when she sneaks in really beautiful, yet still silly thoughts, like this poem for her daughter. If you love her as much as I do, & if you too had a rough patch from 12 to 17, you will absolutely love Bossypants, this celebration of all her neuroses. 

Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended for: Everyone who loves Tina Fey or humor writing

Come back soon for reviews 16-20, & you guessed it, another giveaway! & in case you're wondering, I'll "draw names" for the winners at the end of the list, not as I go along. Patience.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Books of 2011, Part 2 - & another giveaway!

The giveaway for this post will be... the wonderful 2008 Newbery winner, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz, with illustrations by Robert Byrd. Just comment for a chance to win. & yes, you can leave comments on more than one post. Comment on all 11, if you like!

Books of 2011, Nos. 6-10

6. The Wheel on the School, written by Meindert DeJong and illustrated by Maurice Sendak (1954)

Two of my book quests overlapped with the acquisition of The Wheel on the School: to own all of the Newbery winners & to own all books Maurice Sendak wrote &/or illustrated. & I'm glad they did, otherwise I might never have come across this gem. This is an incredibly delightful, unique story about a girl named Lina who wonders why the storks no longer come to Shora, her village in Holland, to nest. Her curiosity sends waves through the village, & soon everyone has joined together in an attempt to get the storks to come back. There are numerous great messages woven though this timeless story: cooperation, friendship, the value of asking questions, the idea that everyone has something to contribute - young, old, rich, poor, tall, short, regardless of physical ability. The longer I think about this book, the more I find to appreciate about it.

Rating: 5/5 stars
Recommended for: Anyone who appreciates a really good story

7. The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson (1994)

I picked up this book after hearing more than once that J. K. Rowling plagiarized from it; it was published three years before Sorcerer's Stone. This claim comes mostly from the fact that both books are about magical portals on train station platforms in London. After that, the theory pretty much falls apart. & what children's fantasy novels don't resemble each other in at least one way? In Platform 13, the portal in the station - which opens onto an Island filled with all manner of fantastical creatures - is only open nine days every nine years. The baby prince of the Island was kidnapped nine years earlier, & now it's up to a wizard, a fairy, an ogre, & a hag to go to London & try to save him. The humor is a little cheesy, the surprises are pretty predictable, the "bad guys" are pretty tame & the suspenseful situations pretty low-risk - but this book is fun, completely enjoyable.

Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended for: Young fantasy readers, adults who'd like to jump back into a Harry Potter-esque world for a minute

8. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1929)

Oh boy. I'm going to catch some flak for this one. Confession (I think I confessed this last year): I just don't get the fuss about Hemingway. I can't say I haven't tried. I've read The Old Man & the Sea, The Sun Also Rises, & this year, A Farewell to Arms. I found some of his writing really sharp & poignant, but only in spurts. Thoughts of "What a lovely passage" would follow with "Do I seriously have to spend a hundred more pages with these insufferable characters?" I guess that's what my frustration with Hemingway boils down to: the characters. I know he's known for his misogynistic "man's man" protagonists who describe women by nothing more than how they look in a skirt, but I can't get behind that. It's not that I'm offended by it; it just isn't interesting. A guy like that gets old after about a page, & the ditzy child-women he chases get old after less than a page.

In A Farewell to Arms, Frederic Henry is only interesting & dynamic when he's talking about war. In all matters of love - enter sexy nurse Catherine - he is an asshole, & she is a needy, confusing, not-very-intelligent doormat. Neither are thinking, feeling beings. Neither enjoys the other; they are both so damaged that they just need something. & the end? (SPOILER ALERT!) Good god. I saw it coming from 20 miles away, but was hoping against hope that he wouldn't go there. Why, Hemingway? Did you think, "Well, I haven't managed to dredge up any sympathy for these characters yet. I guess I should kill one of them." Or maybe you were just particularly drunk & morose that day. Or maybe you just hate women that much. What a cheap move. That is a Nicholas Sparks move, Hemingway, or as I sometimes like to refer to it, an Upton Sinclair in The Jungle move. When enough awful things happen to miserable people, I stop caring.

I'm just ranting now. I really didn't like this book. I'm starting to wonder why I keep reading his books; suppose I just keep hoping I'll "get it," but I think I've about come to the conclusion that I just don't like Hemingway. Yeah. I said it. & I'll say it again next year when I inevitably will read another of his books.

Rating: 2/5 stars
Recommended for: Manly men? I don't know. Appreciators of flat characters & overrated American lit? I'm just being mean. Some people really love Hemingway & that is just fine with me.

9. On Writing by Stephen King (2000)

How you feel about Stephen King's fiction has literally nothing to do with the usefulness of this book. I've had to say this a number of times to people to whom I've recommended this book, who told me "Stephen King's writing sucks. Why would I take writing advice from him?" It doesn't matter how good or bad you think his writing is (I've only read The Shining, & I loved it), this memoir/writing guide is immensely beneficial for any aspiring writer who needs to learn how to get the job done. It is frank & true. He pulls no punches. In a nutshell, he says: "You want to write a book? Then stop talking about it, get off your ass, & write. & don't stop writing until it's done." Further, don't expect any of it to be easy. It will be tough, you will want to quit, you will encounter a thousand distractions, you might never get published, but keep doing it because you love it, & because you want it that badly. He does include technical advice as well, & it's good stuff. All fairly basic (e.g. cut out useless adverbs), but great advice.

I will never forget his assertion that you can't turn a good writer into a great writer, but you can turn a competent writer into a good writer. Some starry-eyed wannabe writers out there might disagree, but as a cynical person who knows she will never be the next Eudora Welty, it is incredibly helpful for me to keep that statement in mind anytime I write. Always strive to be better, but don't get discouraged by comparing yourself to the greats. & speaking of Eudora Welty, for writing inspiration of a different kind, read her One Writer's Beginnings. It's brilliant.

Rating: 5/5 stars
Recommended for: Any aspiring writer who needs some honest writing advice, & any fan of King's who's curious about his writing process

10. The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo (2001)

Oh, this book... I was kind of hoping it would disappear so I wouldn't have to badmouth Kate DiCamillo, beloved children's book writer by virtually everyone in the industry. I've read three books by her to date:  The Tale of Despereaux (fine, but not Newbery-worthy), The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (fine also, but elevated to good by the beautiful illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline), & this one.

The Tiger Rising is one of the most obvious books I've ever read. Twelve-year-old Rob (who has some strange leg disease) & his dad have moved into a run-down motel after the recent death of Rob's mom. Rob befriends a fiesty girl named Sistine. (Yes, as in the chapel.) Both kids are fairly unpopular & angry. There's a big woman named Willie May who's a cleaning lady/prophet, & a tiger in a cage in the woods that the hotel manager gets Rob to feed. Does it sound like too much? Because it is. The symbolism is so blatant & heavy-handed I just kept groaning under the weight of this miniscule, 128-page book. I know I was supposed to feel shock & sadness & perhaps a kind of vindication at the end of the book, but I didn't. I was just glad it was over.  

I know how mean this sounds & I honestly do feel bad for saying it, but this book reads like some overachieving writing exercise out of a very self-important MFA student. & yet, it won a Newbery Honor? I can only guess it's because of DiCamillo's name, though I don't know why any of her books have received the accolades they did. Any big DiCamillo fans out there? If so, I'd really love to hear why you love her work. Like Hemingway, I will keep reading her books, hoping to get it.

Rating: 2/5 stars
Recommended for: Perhaps children coping with grief? Or creative writing students who need a really obvious example of how symbolism works. "So what does the caged tiger represent, class?"

Next time, books 11-15, & another giveaway!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Books of 2011, Part 1 (& WIN A BUNCH OF BOOKS!)

Am I the worst blogger ever or what? It's been almost two months since I last posted. I'm not proud. I've been hard at work on my master's thesis though, so while I haven't been writing here, I have been writing somewhere! Can I make it up to you with some free books and 50-something brief book reviews?

This year I've read 53 books so far (plus countless picture books I read and forgot to log on Goodreads). I hope to make it to 55 by the end of '11 - I have to finish The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks & then A Clash of Kings is up. Between now & the end of the year, I'll post 11 installments of five book reviews each & tell you a little about all the books I read this year. & for each installment, I'll be giving away a book! I think that will assuage my guilt.

I'm starting this thing off with a bang by offering up my FAVORITE picture book of 2011. It's one of my favorite books of '11, picture or not. I've already blogged about my adoration for it here.

Just leave a comment on this post for a chance to win. Trust me, you want this book. Unless you don't have a sense of humor, in which case, go away. & now, the first installment of my book review list.

Books of 2011, Nos. 1-5

1. Amy's Eyes, written by Richard Kennedy and illustrated by Richard Egielski (1985)

I read this book at the recommendation of a Goodreads friend, & had really high hopes, since many of the Goodreads reviews begin with something like "I read this book as a child & it's still my favorite book of all time." This charming story is about a girl who's left on the steps of an orphanage with a sailor doll. Through a series of events that's surprisingly unmagical, Amy turns into a doll, and her sailor turns into a human - albeit a tiny one. There's sailing, swashbuckling, talking animals, battles, lost treasure, a stuffed animal who's weirdly obsessed with Biblical prophecies, & a fair balance of humor & sadness. The story was well written, but at 437 pages, it really dragged, & this is coming from someone who loves long books. (Why do I always assume massive children's fantasy books will be good? I should've learned my lesson with Inkheart.) While I read this book almost a year ago, I remember thinking over & over again, "This is a lovely book, but I wish it was over." So in the end, it was only okay. Maybe I would've been more captivated if I'd read it when I was little, or if 150 pages or so had been edited out.

Rating: 3/5 stars
Recommended for: Readers who like their fantasy pretty tame, children, readers with a lot of patience
2. The House with a Clock in Its Walls, written by John Bellairs and illustrated by Edward Gorey (1973)

I know a lot of people grew up reading the gothic mysteries starring Lewis Barnavelt, Anthony Monday, or Johnny Dixon, but this was my first experience with a John Bellairs book. Unlike my Amy's Eyes experience, this book made me feel like a kid again. It was funny, a little dark, had some really well thought-out supernatural elements - & of course, Gorey's illustrations are fantastic. In the story, the newly orphaned Lewis Barnavelt moves in with his uncle, a mediocre wizard. Their house was previously inhabited by some evil wizards who plotted to end the world by sticking a doomsday clock in the house's walls. There are ghosts, spells to raise the dead, cemeteries, Halloween - all elements of a really fun scary story, that's surprisingly offbeat & challenging for essentially being a series chapter book. It prompted me to go pick up more books by Bellairs.

Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended for: Children who enjoy books with a dark or supernatural twist, Halloween reads, readers who fall in between chapter books & middle grade

3. My Lobotomy by Howard Dully (2007)

Howard Dully was pretty much your average boy - rambunctious & prone to acting out. To fix the child she deemed uncontrollable & dangerous, Dully's stepmother arranged for him to be lobotomized. His father went along without asking questions. So, Dully writes, at age 12 in 1960, "I was given a transorbital, or ‘ice pick’ lobotomy. ...Dr. Walter Freeman, the father of the American lobotomy, told me he was going to do some ‘tests.’ It took ten minutes and cost two hundred dollars." Most of Dully's life thereafter was spent in halfway houses, prison, & mental institutions, dealing with drug & alcohol addictions. In his 50s, he decided to ask why.

This might be the most heartbreaking book I've ever read, but also one of the most remarkable. I'm really into medical literature (see: anything by this guy) but you don't have to be to appreciate this book. "Enjoy" would be the wrong word. I can't say I enjoyed this book, because it is unbelievably tragic. It is incomprehensible what Dully went through, & so horrifying that by the end of the book you will wish you could personally, violently murder Dully's stepmother, father, & Dr. Freeman, even though a couple of them are already dead. ...Too much? The most incredible aspect of this book is Dully's ability to forgive those who ruined his life, & who couldn't look him in the eye & admit their wrongdoing. A painful read, but completely worth it. I'll never forget this book.

Rating: 5/5 stars
Recommended for: Fans of medical literature & memoirs

4. The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit (1907)

Reviewed earlier this year here. Sad to say, six months later I barely remember the book. Even after finding this & The Railway Children pretty lackluster, though, I've bought at least three other books by her, so there's something that keeps me coming back. I love her writing style, but her plots leave something to be desired.

Rating: 3/5 stars
Recommended for: Adults readers of antiquated British lit, child readers who appreciate dry humor & tame fantasy

5. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (2006)

I have a love/hate relationship with this book. The title made me want to read it; it's a really good title. The fact that it's written by Nicole Krauss made me not want to read it; I imagine she & her husband (Jonathan Safran Foer) to be really snooty, pretentious jerks. Probably because I met him & he was indeed snooty & pretentious. The History of Love is essentially a diet version of Foer's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. I picture them in a Brooklyn brownstone, facing each other across flea-market desks, clicking away at vintage typewriters & bouncing ideas off each other while their vegetarian children run circles around the room. "How 'bout we throw some old Jewish folks in here?" "Great, I'll use that, too!" "I'm getting a little bored with this format. I think I'll throw in some blank pages for fun." "It's like you're reading my mind! Precocious child narrator?" "Well, duh! Of course there's a precocious child narrator!" "I'm so glad we're married! We practically finish each other's -" "Sandwiches?"
But dammit. I adore Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. I've read it four or five times. & dammit if I didn't fall for The History of Love as well. I fell for all of its silly postmodern tricks & old Jewish folks & precocious kids & multiple narrators & bizarre string of circumstances that brings everyone together in just the right way at just the right time & brings a tear to your eye at the very end. It feels cleverly formulaic but it works. So, whatever. I resolve to continue reading & begrudgingly loving their books while bitterly hating their attractive brunette selves for no real reason.

Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended for: Fans of Jonathan Safran Foer, postmodern tricks, offbeat love stories, & convoluted family histories

Part 2, coming soon!

Friday, October 14, 2011

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

I put off reading Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle for a long time because I built it up so much, & the anticipation was fun. The longer I waited, the more I was sure it was going to be an amazing book. The building up was totally unprovoked. No one had told me it was a great book; in fact, a friend who posted it on Goodreads gave it just three stars. The buildup came from the fact that it's one of the best titles I've ever heard, I enjoyed Jackson's story "The Lottery" however many years ago I read it, & after receiving a copy of the freaking gorgeous Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition (pictured directly below), I was even more convinced it had to be great. Yeah, I totally judge books by their covers. 

I've posted three covers, by the way, because this book has a beautiful cover history all around. Not many old books (Castle was first published in 1962 and was Jackson's last book) can say that. So anyway, I finally read it. This book is everything I love: It's off-putting, it's unnerving, it's dark, it's weird, it's somehow charming. It's a horror story without being overtly scary. The horror is in the characters Jackson portrays. The book's narrator is 18-year-old Mary Katherine Blackwood, or Merricat, who lives with her sister Constance & Uncle Julian in a large house, empty of the rest of their family who were poisoned with arsenic years before. Constance hasn't left the house since then, Merricat braves the leery townspeople to keep the house stocked with supplies, & doddering Julian writes & rewrites notes about the family's last days.    

It's hard to imagine two scarier characters in literature than Merricat & Constance, & much of this is due to the fact that they seem so innocent. Their quiet, mundane life in isolation isn't peaceful, just ominous, as Merricat is constantly alluding to the upcoming "last day." Merricat is 18 & Constance is 28, but they both feel much younger, 13 or 14, like they've been in arrested development since their parents died. Merricat is one of the most brilliantly written protagonists I've ever encountered. She's superstitious and believes in magic, though this reads almost as more of a severe case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, since she ritualizes everything. Her thoughts are sometimes frantic, she slips into near-hallucinations, and she gives off a constant aura of danger. Being stuck in her head for the duration of the book is a scary place to be. Yet in her head, her madness is justifiable - inviting almost. Constance mothers her. They adore each other, & their happy home life is disturbed by the entrance of Cousin Charles, who's got his eye on the family's money.

While the underlying question for much of the book is, of course, "Who poisoned the family?", when we finally find out, it's almost secondarily of interest, because so much more has been put on the line. How is Merricat going to get rid of Charles, whom she distrusts & hates? Whose side is Constance, who's smitten with Charles, going to choose? How long can Uncle Julian stick around in poor health? How will Merricat react to the major upheaval that's coming? Are the townspeople, who love to persecute the Blackwoods, going to do something drastic? The whole book is a question of "us versus them," but which side is the safe one? Are these girls ever going to live a happy, normal life again? Do we even want them to? Do they deserve it?

This book is absolutely unforgettable - the ending is chilling - & worth a million rereads. Merricat's almost fevered thoughts read like dark poetry. I'll leave you with one of my favorite sentences, & hope that you'll be intrigued enough to pick it up yourself. Oh & one last thing: If you do get the Penguin edition, don't read the introduction until after you read the book! It's excellent, but it gives away everything!

Like children hunting for shells, or two old ladies going through dead leaves looking for pennies, we shuffled along the kitchen floor with our feet, turning over broken trash to find things which were still whole, and useful.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Click these!

I'll be back later to talk about Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but for now I just want to share these two links. They're must-reads for you children's lit fans.

The first is an article from the New York Times by Maria Tatar, "No More Adventures in Wonderland." I enjoyed this article so much because her thesis is something I've never considered: that the darkness in today's children's literature is more sinister than children's lit of say, 100 years ago, because there's no silliness to balance them out, & that this is perhaps because the authors are speaking to their own adult thoughts & feelings rather than speaking to their child audience. In many ways, Barrie's Peter and Wendy (Happy 100th! I love you more & more with each reread) & Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (I love you, too) are so tragic, to me, so it's interesting to think of them as having elements that assuage grief, whereas something like The Hunger Games does not. Thoughts on this?

The second is a New Yorker article, "Broken Kingdom: Fifty Years of the Phantom Tollbooth." The Phantom Tollbooth, written by Norton Juster & illustrated by Jules Feiffer, is one of the only books I don't think I could ever look at through a critical lense. I can remember exactly when I fell in love with the book, & that same kind of unabashed, innocent love is what I still feel every time I read it. I feel like a child again, & have no desire to make it mean anything more or less than that. Actually, to be honest, I fell in love with the movie first. My parents taped the movie when it came on Sci-Fi, & my brother & I probably watched it a million times before I even knew there was a book. The movie is wonderful! & that's saying a lot, considering how great the book is.

But I digress. This article is pretty great, as both an interview & a critical piece.

Feiffer and Juster, both born in 1929, are like a pair of wryly benevolent uncles, with Norton the dreamy, crinkle-eyed, soft-spoken uncle who gives you the one piece of good advice you never forget, and Jules the wisecracking uncle who never lets up on your foibles but was happy to have you crash on his couch that night you just couldn’t bear going home.

Isn't that exactly how you'd imagine them?! The interview portion of the article makes me feel sheer delight about the book all over again. Did you know Juster had synesthesia? Or that Feiffer & Juster lived in the same apartment building during the writing of the book?

The book was published in 1961, and no one had much hope that it would find an audience. “Everyone said this is not a children’s book, the vocabulary is much too difficult, the wordplay and the punning they will never understand, and anyway fantasy is bad for children because it disorients them,” Juster said, four million copies later. “I thought, O.K., it will come out, and end on the remainder table.”

I love that. I have so much respect for any author who respects kids & doesn't talk down to them. & fifty years in, it's a classic. Take that, close-minded grown-ups!

The only part of this article I find problematic - & I might be alone here - is the author's assertion that the book's stance on education makes it such a magical classic & that the "point" of the book is "that normal school subjects can be wonderful if you don’t have to experience them as normal schooling." This is such an adult viewpoint. It is true - but it is true for the adult who is handing the book to a child, not the child himself. Did anyone fall in love with The Phantom Tollbooth because they realized school could be a wondrous thing? I'm going to guess no, because I sure didn't. I feel it's that magical combination of adventure story, a marvelous cast of characters, & neverending wordplay (much like Wonderland, eh?) that makes the book so great. I learned a lot reading Tollbooth - what the words din & doldrums mean, for instance - but the celebration of a liberal arts education is such an adult reflection of the book. To a child, the story is funny, scary, magical, rollicking, cute & cuddly & at the same time monstrous (Did anyone else never know whether to think the Lethargarians were adorable or frightening?).

It's like saying the Alice books are classics because they taught Alice to question authority. Sure, the books accomplished that, but that's not why they endure. They endure because of the children who read & reread the stories hoping that Alice will be able to stay in Wonderland forever, that Milo & Tock can stay in the Lands Beyond forever, just screwing with the sunrise & hanging out with talking animals & jumping to Conclusions. No young reader of these books is happy that Alice & Milo get to go home & go to school. Or are they?

I'm going to launch into a full-blown rant if I keep going. So yeah! Read these articles! & share your thoughts if you feel so inclined.

& despite the fact that I said I have no desire to look at The Phantom Tollbooth critically, I can't wait to get my hands on a copy of The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth, annotated by Leonard Marcus. So exciting.

Friday, September 30, 2011

I'm such a slacker./Have you met the Moomins?

I haven't updated in a month! I am terrible! I have, though, been a busy reader since then. What have I read since Wonderstruck, you may or may not be wondering?

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, The Sea of Monsters & The Titan's Curse (Percy Jackson 2 & 3) by Rick Riordan, Cosmic by Frank C. Boyce, If I Stay by Gayle Forman, & The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness.

Over the next week I promise a steady string of reviews of each of those books! I only disliked one of them - & boy did I intensely dislike it. Can you guess which?

I also read the book I'm going to turn my attention to today: Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson.

I first met the Moomins three or four years ago when a friend who knew my love for children's lit insisted I seek out Jansson's series. She described it as something like "trippy Nordic children's books from the '40s." I immediately ordered an old, battered paperback from Amazon of The Finn Family Moomintroll, caught a glimpse of the hippo-like Moomin family, & fell instantly in love.

Recently Macmillan's Square Fish imprint released gorgeous repackages of the series. Here's a few of them. Lovely, right?

How to explain the experience of reading a Moomin book? Tove Jansson's creative genius is impossible to put into words. You can't read one without marveling at how deep her imagination well is. (...What did I just say?) The first inclination is almost to feel that something was lost in translation from the Swedish, because it's just so weird, like peeking into a child's fever dream. But then you realize that Jansson is just that awesome, & it's just that rare to come across a person whose work (both books & art) feels so original, so unpretentiously set apart from the mainstream. A comparable children's book personality might be Nancy Willard, who I was lucky enough to experience as our writer in residence one summer at Hollins. Both women live in these beautiful worlds of their own creation, & both weren't afraid to challenge their child audiences with big ideas about life.

So anyway, summer was coming to a close, so I thought it the perfect time to read Moominsummer Madness. The Moomin books always open with a cast of characters. In this case, the Moomin family: Moominmamma, Moominpappa, Moomintroll, & their friends: the Snork Maiden, Snufkin, Sniff, the Groke, the Muskrat, Thingumy & Bob, the Hemulen, Too-ticky, & Little My. Those names! Intrigued enough to read it yet?

In this summertime adventure, the Moomin family home is flooded after a volcano erupts. Never ones to be daunted by natural or unnatural disasters, the Moomins & friends take to the roof until a new house floats by - a new house that just happens to be a theater, where they promptly decide to put on a play. The Moomins are an impressive bunch. They sometimes get discouraged, but they take everything in stride. Everything is met with optimism & the ingenuity to solve any problem. They don't get stressed. Well, sometimes the Snork Maiden is a little melodramatic, & Little My is always melodramatic, but the family as a whole is blissfully laid-back.
"Moomintroll was lying in his customary place (or one of his places), curled up on the green-and-yellow moss with his tail carefully tucked in under him. He looked gravely and contentedly down into the water while he listened to the rustle of wings and the drowsy buzz of bees around him."

They are a bunch of characters taken to contemplation, resourcefulness, & filled with a real love for each other. Even in melancholy scenes, when characters are sad, lost, lonely, despondent, you get the sense that there's a kind of joy bubbling up under it all, that everyone knows that just around the corner they'll be happy & content again. Life give you lemons? Put on a play! I don't know about you, but that's a lesson I need to hear pretty much every day of my life.

The book - & this is true for the whole series - should be read for its illustrations as much as the story itself. I wish I could share them all with you here. I can't say this about many books, but I cannot imagine a person who wouldn't love the Moomins. Sure, they're a little unconventional, but for a series that began about 70 years ago(!) their appeal is everlasting & universal. I'd even go so far as to assert that I cannot imagine a person reading Moominsummer Madness & not immediately picking up the rest of the series. They're that loveable - absurd & wacky & sometimes a little naive, but absolutely loveable. Pure magic. Pick it up.

& in another month it'll be time to read Moominvalley in November! I'll be back next time - & this will be SOON - with We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Wonderstruck - & a giveaway!

Wonderstruck, Brian Selznick, Scholastic, September 2011.

Well, Brian Selznick has done it again. When I read The Invention of Hugo Cabret, I was blindsided by its originality, inventiveness, & the feeling that I was taking in a new type of art. With Wonderstruck, he utilizes this same art form - a complex story told through words & pictures - with equally magical results.

I can't even verbalize how excited I was to read this book. This May, the first morning of my first BEA, I arrived at the children's author breakfast to find a Wonderstruck tote bag in my seat. Sweet! New tote! Then I opened the tote to find an ARC of the book. My heart skipped a beat. (If you think that's silly, well, what are you doing here?) I might as well have been holding a gold brick in my now-sweaty palms. I brought it home & set it on a shelf, where it sat unread by me until last week, when I just couldn't take the anticipation anymore. (Plus my boyfriend, who read it as soon as I brought it home, kept asking, "When are you gonna read Wonderstruck? You really should. Have you read it yet? What about now?")

It didn't disappoint. I devoured it in a matter of hours - & consequently was depressed that it was over.

The book consists of two storylines. One, set in 1977, is told through words. Ben's peaceful life by snowy Gunflint Lake is upheaved when his mother dies. He finds a strange clue in her room, leading him to the American Museum of Natural History on a search for the father he never knew. The other story, set in 1927, is told through pictures. Rose runs away to New York City to see an actress, whose life she follows through newspaper clippings.

There are infinitely more layers to the plot, but that's all you'll get from me. The revelations provided and experienced by the characters are a large part of what makes the book amazing. Every few pages a new piece of the puzzle falls into place, a surprise will make you gasp, a new artifact finds its place in the Cabinet of Wonders. The way that the two stories come together is nothing short of wondrous. Ben's story and Rose's start to converge, mysteries unravel, the stories intertwine, the art & words converge seamlessly to a gorgeous, moving end.

I would say it all feels effortless but that would be a discredit to the amount of effort Selznick puts into his work. As fascinating as the book itself are the endnotes about how thoroughly he researched every facet of the story - the places, the people, the cultures, the art, the history. At BEA (where he wore the most spectacular pair of sparkly red shoes!) he did a presentation on the making of the book, from trips to the museums to walls covered with his illustrations-in-progress. The passion for his art is evident in the time & care he has taken to create it, & to make it as good as he possibly can.

I also very much appreciated his nod to E. L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, one of my all-time favorites. & whether he was actually influenced by it or not, there are a number of likenesses to Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, another all-time favorite.

My only - ONLY! - complaint with the book is that for being such a hefty tome, almost 650 pages, it's over all too soon. I guess I'll just have to reread it a few hundred times. 

Now for the giveaway portion of this update! That's why you're all here, right? I have been lucky enough over the course of the past three months or so to end up with multiple copies of the ARC of Wonderstruck. I kept the autographed one, I've given away a couple to other Selznick fans, but now I have another. & yes, I could hoard all of these Wonderstrucks because they're so spectacular I don't want to part with them, but really, I'll never be able to read more than one copy at a time.

So I am gifting an ARC of Wonderstruck to one lucky reader! In order to win this little informal contest, I'd like you to comment & tell me what you love most about The Invention of Hugo Cabret. There are so many things to love about it. & heck, if you haven't read it, tell me what your favorite children's book is & why. & I will choose at random from the responders.

Comment between now & next Friday, September 2, at noon. After that, I will announce a winner. Please enter, because I mean, I'm just doing this for fun & because I love making people happy by putting books in their hands. Good luck!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Okay for Now

Okay for Now, Gary Schmidt, Clarion Books, April 2011.

I finished Okay for Now months ago & have been waffling over whether or not to review it at all, mostly because it has been reviewed to death, &, consequently, praised to death. But every time I see the book on my shelf, it gives me the warm fuzzies. So I'm gonna add my two cents to the pot.

Okay for Now is the story of 14-year-old Doug Swieteck, who moves with his family - his mild mother, abusive father, and shady brother Christopher - to upstate New York in 1968, to a house Doug calls The Dump. His teachers and the majority of the townspeople write Doug off as a bad kid, but he finds some unlikely shining lights in his new life: friends in the feisty Lil Spicer & an eccentric playwright named Mrs. Windermere, bookplates in the local library of John James Audubon's birds, a job as the deli delivery boy, & the book Jane Eyre.

If it all sounds like just too much, well, I thought so, too. I thought there was no way these elements could be woven together without it seeming like Schmidt was trying too hard. But he did it. Schmidt layers art, theater, friendship, family dynamics, loss, Creativity with a capital C, self concept, inspiration, tragedy, comedy, & so much more, seamlessly, effortlessly. Even when Doug's older brother Lucas returns from Vietnam, broken in every sense of the word, it isn't too much. That Schmidt accomplishes this is in itself a feat. Every element feels necessary & vital to Doug's development. That he does it in a way that is literarily beautiful is even more impressive.

Doug's voice is stellar. His echoes of "So what?" and "stupid" aren't contrived. The way he chooses to share & withhold information from the reader is brilliantly done, making for an original, believable 14-year-old boy. While I, a 26-year-old woman with a tattoo of one of Audubon's birds & a predilection for 19th century British lit, completely ate up the seemingly unrelated plot elements, it is the strength of Doug's voice that enables Schmidt to go into depth about the birds, Jane Eyre, horseshoes, and the theater without losing a young reader's interest, because of how powerful they are to Doug. Impressive, right? I will undoubtedly return to this book again & again, for many reasons, but the main reason is just to spend some more time with Doug. 

Okay for Now is a nearly perfect book. Nearly. I have one major gripe with the book. In the last 30 of the book's nearly 400 pages, Schmidt deals the characters some bad news. I won't go into detail, but this piece of news is so aggravatingly unnecessary that it won't stop nagging me. It WILL. NOT. LEAVE. ME. ALONE. Every time I get the aforementioned warm fuzzies, "What a great book you wrote..." is followed by "Why, Gary Schmidt, why?!" I cannot wrap my brain around it because there is no reason I can see for him to have done this. It serves no purpose except to make a book otherwise perfect in tone, not heavy-handed in any way, unnecessarily maudlin. You could actually go in & remove the revelation, & the message at the end of the book wouldn't have changed an iota. So why?!

I didn't mean for this to turn into a rant. I'm sure not all people feels as strongly as I do about the turn the story eventually takes. In fact, I haven't seen a review yet that mentions this bummer of a plot twist. But it does, in my mind, tarnish the story. & it is so frustrating because the story is otherwise flawless.

That's the thing about a flaw in a really amazing book, though. It can have a flaw & it's still better than most of what's out there. Which is why I agree with everyone: Okay for Now is one of the best books of the year, & I would not at all be surprised if it wins the Newbery.

Okay for Now is a companion novel to The Wednesday Wars, a Newbery Honor book. According to the Seattle Times, Schmidt is planning one more book in the "series."

Lastly, I was going to pepper in some quotes from the book, but there are too many to choose from. Instead, here's one of my favorite passages from the book, from the first conversation between Doug & Lil. Enjoy, & if you haven't picked up the book yet, I encourage you to do so ASAP.

"That's not how you drink a really cold Coke."
"So how do you drink a really cold Coke?"
She smiled, raised the Coke to her lips, and tipped the bottle up.
She gulped, and gulped, and gulped, and gulped, and gulped. The ice on the bottle's sides melted down toward her--and she gulped, and gulped, and gulped.
When she was finished, she took the bottle away from her lips--she was still smiling--and she sighed, and then she squared her shoulders and kind of adjusted herself like she was in a batter's box, and then she let out a belch that even my brother couldn't match, not on his very best day.
It was amazing. It made birds fly out of the maples in front of the library. Dogs asleep on porches a couple of blocks away probably woke up.
She put the bottle down and wiped her lips. "That's how you drink a really cold Coke," she said. "Now you."


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Magician King

The Magician King, Lev Grossman, Viking, August 2011.

Today is the official release date of Lev Grossman's The Magician King, so what better day to finally get around to reviewing it? I was still undecided about The Magicians when I picked up the sequel, but after I finished The Magician King I loved them both. They aren't two books; they are two parts to a very satisfying whole.

The Magician King opens on Quentin as a jaded king of Fillory, much like the first book opened on Quentin as a jaded New York teenager. Only now he's more fashionable; he's all decked out in royal garb & the final standoff in The Magicians has left him with snow-white hair. But he's bored (What else is new, right?) & looking for adventure, which quickly finds him. A morning hunt takes a very ugly turn, leading Quentin & Julia to charter a sailing ship to fulfill an errand that takes them to the sheer edge of the world, as well as back to Chesterton, Massachusetts, where Quentin's parents live. At first Quentin's attitude is as aggravating as in book one. "I guess I'll take this awesome ship on an awesome quest. I have nothing better to do. Might as well go kill some time."  But this doesn't last long, thankfully.

What I really appreciate about this book is that Quentin & his comrades change. This didn't happen in the first book, but now, viewing them as two halves of a whole, I can see that they just needed a few extra hundred pages to grow up. Eliot & Janet soften, Quentin matures & learns to stand on his own two feet, & Julia becomes the woman she was always destined to be - which is easily the most badass thing that happens in the book.

Quentin tells half the story, but about every other chapter belongs to Julia, whose voice is angry, powerful, & compelling. We learn what she was up to while Quentin was attending Brakebills & gallivanting around Fillory in book one, & it's a gritty, urban, from-the-ground-up counterpart to Quentin's story of easy success. The dark hunger for magic, for an entry into Quentin's world, fuels Julia & comes close to destroying her. Her story really makes the book. 

The Magician King has it all: well-developed characters, beautiful description, wonderfully varied settings & circumstances, a quest. What is it about books about quests that makes them so awesome? Quentin & Julia are on a quest for the fabled seven golden keys of Fillory, with a fantastic supporting cast of characters (including a talking sloth named Abigail whom I just loved). When I was twelve, my favorite of Brian Jacques's Redwall books was Pearls of Lutra, about a quest for six pearls. My favorite Narnia book has always been The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, about a quest for the seven missing Narnian lords. & my favorite book of all time is Michael Ende's The Neverending Story - the most epic quest ever! - about a boy searching for the archetypal water of life & a way home. 

His nods to Dawn Treader & Narnia, by the way, are many, & I appreciated them very much. Some are subtle, like his use of the phrase "further up & further in" from The Last Battle, while others are more obvious. Grossman's world's end definitely calls to mind the world's end that Edmund, Lucy, Eustace, & Reepicheep discover in Dawn Treader - the pair of people, an old man & a young woman, guarding the door at the end of the world, for example. 

So okay, I'm a sucker for quests. But that also means I'm a harsh judge of quest stories, & Grossman wrote an amazing one. It's a pair of books I will reread over & over, rereadability being one of my marks of a really great fantasy. The ending of The Magician King (also a nod to C. S. Lewis's books) might frustrate some readers, but I thought it was perfect. All in all, a worthy addition to the fantasy canon.

Next up: Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt. 

Friday, July 29, 2011

I Want My Hat Back

I Want My Hat Back, Jon Klassen, Candlewick Press, September 2011

This morning Candlewick tweeted an adorable picture of a gray bunny with a little red paper cone hat taped to his head. (I'm a bunny owner. Stuff like that kills me. Though mine would NEVER allow me to tape anything to his head, & if I somehow managed to he'd rip it off & eat it.) The picture was a hat tip to the upcoming picture book I Want My Hat Back, the debut by author/illustrator Jon Klassen, & when I saw it I realized - How have I not expressed my love for this book yet?!

When my Candlewick rep came to visit in the spring she said, "There is this new book. It's going to be huge. & it is so wonderful I want to read it to you right now." So she did. (Props to Candlewick for having such enthusiastic reps!) It was like preschool story time all over again. She read the book to me - a deceptively simple story about a bear who loses his hat & asks all his friends if they've seen it - & by the end we were both laughing hysterically. A month later at BEA, Jon Klassen was there & I was giddy as 12-year-old me at a Hanson concert to meet him & get my hands on a copy of the book. "This is the best picture book I've read in years!" I gushed. I probably embarrassed him. I gushed to so many people prior to his signing that I ended up in his line with a queue of at least 10 other people to whom I had gushed earlier that day. I am an I Want My Hat Back evangelist, much as I am an Adam Rex evangelist. (Seriously, go buy all of his picture books. You won't be sorry.)

The illustrations are as simple as the plot - soft watercolors in warm browns & black with a dash of red - but they evoke the kind of brilliant dry humor usually only reserved for BBC sitcoms. Catch a glimpse by watching the book trailer. If you don't find the trailer funny, you probably won't find the book funny. & you don't have a sense of humor. I kid.

But not really.

Told entirely in dialogue, the story just begs to be read aloud, & a child reader will be a few steps ahead of the bear in figuring out where his hat went, which makes for fun interactive reading. But, like with Adam Rex's picture books, I concede that grown-ups will get more out of this book about a very droll bear & his missing hat than a child will. I concede also that those grown-ups will need a slightly twisted sense of humor, as - SPOILER ALERT! - the sneaky rabbit who steals the hat gets his, um, just desserts in the end.

Which leads me to a very important point: Kids aren't introduced to enough twisted humor these days! Books like I Want My Hat Back are so vital. It's the quest Maurice Sendak has been on since he started writing: introduce kids to darkness early, so that they'll be able to laugh about it when they grow up. (I paraphrase.) Childhood favorites of mine included Sendak's Outside Over There (kidnapping & a freaky ice baby)Guess What? by Mem Fox (a gloriously messed-up book that you have to see to believe), & In a Dark, Dark Room by Alvin Schwartz (a little girl's head falls off!). I Want My Hat Back isn't horrific in such visual ways; it's very tame by comparison. But it is the people who are in Sendak's camp who will really appreciate the book. The ones who applaud the notion of "You think this book's too scary for kids? So? Wet your pants." (I paraphrase.)

I Want My Hat Back isn't scary, per se. But when you're reading the book with your son or daughter or doing storytime in your library, be prepared to answer the question, "What happened to the rabbit?" & don't sugar-coat it. Because it won't be funny that way.

Lastly, if my evangelism isn't enough, as Levar Burton would say, you can't take my word for it! Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, recommended I Want My Hat Back in a blog post for "Dinner: A Love Story." I too have read the book almost 50 times, & yes, it sustains.

Verdict: You need this book on your shelf to love & treasure & laugh at for years & years. I cannot wait to see what else Jon Klassen has up his sleeve.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Mostly True Story of Jack

The Mostly True Story of Jack, Kelly Barnhill, Little Brown, August 2011.

I went to ALA hoping to come home with a copy of The Mostly True Story of Jack after seeing it in Little Brown's summer catalog. The title & its cover grabbed me, calling to mind the story of Jack & the beanstalk while also looking like something a little out of the ordinary. The blurb is intriguing: "When Jack is sent to Hazelwood, Iowa, to live with his crazy aunt and uncle, he expects a summer of boredom. Little does he know that the people of Hazelwood have been waiting for him for a long time..." I snagged an ARC & it shot to the top of my to-read pile.

I was relieved & delighted to find that the book lived up to its lovely cover: It has elements of ages-old storytelling but feels contemporary. It is challenging, suspenseful, & compulsively readable. The characters are thoughtfully drawn, the setting well described, & the fantastical elements of the story are totally cool in an almost eerie way - a house that lives & breathes, shivers & tingles; women made of bark & corn silk; a schoolhouse with the power to collapse in on itself & regenerate.

One of the book's strongest points is the mystery Barnhill begins weaving on page one. "Frankie was the first to know. Frankie was the first to know most things - but, since he hadn't spoken since he was eight years old, it didn't matter what he knew. ... Frankie laid his left hand over the knot of scars that curled over half his face. ... It's coming, the scars said. ... No, Frankie thought, shaking his head. Not it. He. He's coming."

How did Frankie know things before anyone else? Why can't Frankie talk? What happened to him? Why is he scarred? Who is coming?! I have to read on! & so it goes until page 319.

Jack goes from a life of near-literal invisibility with his parents & brother to Hazelwood, where everyone pays him attention & everyone knows something he doesn't. The mystery, rather than unfolding throughout the story, becomes increasingly more complex as the story progresses. What a wonderful thing to encounter in a middle-grade novel! Barnhill doesn't dumb anything down for her audience; the answers to the questions she poses are not easy or obvious. She challenges her readers to think & speculate from beginning to end. I remember reading Madeleine L'Engle's A Wind in the Door when I was in elementary school & being entirely overwhelmed when Meg & Calvin shrink down to go inside Charles Wallace's body to find out what's wrong with his mitochondria. The ideas were all so much bigger than me & the references were all so much more than I could understand in third grade, but I loved it nonetheless - the complexity, the fantasy, the mystery. Not that The Mostly True Story is complex on a biological scale; the similarity is that both Barnhill & L'Engle respect their child (or adult!) readers enough to let them figure things out on their own. If you have to go look up mitochondria in the dictionary, or in Jack's case, look up references to Gog & Magog, Lyonesse, or Ys, so be it. Barnhill lays out the puzzle pieces & says "Okay, now you put it together. You're smart enough."     

I honestly can give this book my personal highest children's book compliment: The Mostly True Story feels like a new classic, a modern fairy tale. Except for a mention of computers toward the very end of the book, the story's events could unfold at any time. When there is nothing to date a story, it becomes timeless. I love this quality in children's books, a quality that is becoming increasingly rare. The last time I recall having this reaction to a book - a story that blends new & old with the result being something original & timeless - was with Grace Lin's wondrous When the Mountain Meets the Moon. (My review of that one here.)

I will happily give The Mostly True Story of Jack a place on my bookshelf & most definitely will reread it at some point in the future. It's the kind of book that almost needs a reread or two to be fully appreciated. I heartily recommend it, & already look forward to Barnhill's next children's book. In the meantime, check out her blog, because it's great. (I too have loved Labyrinth since I was a child, & I too was both scarred & fascinated by David Bowie's tight pants.)  

Next up: The Magician King by Lev Grossman (...if I can find my copy! Ack! Where did it go?!)       

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Ashes, Ilsa Bick, Egmont USA, September 2011.

So I lied. This isn't the book I said I'd be reviewing next, but I recently finished this one & it's fresh in my mind & it's full of BLOOD & GUTS!

I was not expecting to enjoy Ashes. I love dystopian literature, but one has to be wary when there's so much of it hitting the market. All these one-name dystopian romance/thrillers are starting to run together, am I right? Matched, Crossed, Divergent, Uglies, Ashes, Delirium, etc. But this one was getting considerable buzz, & in the name of my job, I decided to read it. The synopsis didn't grab me: "An electromagnetic pulse flashes across the sky, destroying every electronic device, wiping out every computerized system, and killing billions" (Amazon).

I plodded through the first 50 pages or so, which follows Alex, a bitter teenage girl with a brain tumor, on a trek through the woods to fulfill a personal mission. She comes across Ellie, an 8-year-old girl, & Ellie's grandfather, & then BOOM! EMP! Grandfather drops dead. Not knowing what happened or the extent of the damage, Alex continues on her way. Soon, she has Ellie and young army vet Tom in tow, & the group finds itself just struggling to survive. The EMP has killed most adults. The very old & very young have survived, & teens are turning into the Changed.

I wasn't hooked until the moment Alex & Ellie come to a clearing in the woods. Amongst the trees, two teens crouch over a dead body, which they are dismembering & eating. & it's GROSS. Entrails & innards & blood & guts & the girl even pokes a finger into the dead person's eyeball & eats it like a lollipop.

Okay, Ms. Bick, you have my attention.

From then on it's like watching an awesome, gory zombie movie with slightly more depth, & I mean that as a sincere compliment. (Though to be fair they aren't really zombies in the traditional sense, more like people transformed into crazed cannibals.) Bick is brilliant with disturbing imagery. Before long I felt genuinely invested in this little band on their quest for survival, much like I rooted for Shaun & his buddies on their way to the Winchester, & Jim & co. as they moved through desolate England trying to avoid those infected with the Rage.

Like most contemporary zombie movies, Bick doesn't do anything particularly new or different. For the most part, the components of Ashes, from the restructuring of society in isolated factions to Alex taking out the Changed like a badass, already have been depicted on screen or paper. & like most contemporary YA novels, a love triangle arises & Alex finds herself torn between boy loyalties.

Does that make it any less fun? No. It's fun as hell. I devoured the book like the Changed devour their prey, gooey intestines & all.

My main criticism of the book is that it is rather overwritten. Bick's action scenes flow well, but her description is so wordy it can get exhausting. Metaphor really gets away from her. I noted the words "bloom," "squall," & "dazzle," which appear so many times in the novel I lost count. "Bloom" as in "the blood bloomed on his shirt," & "squall" like "the floorboard squalled under her foot." The light always "dazzles." You should never think while reading a novel, "Boy, I feel like I've seen this word a hundred times," especially when it's an unconventional word use like the verb "squall." Also, the ash theme is very heavy-handed. Ashes are everywhere; everything looks ashy. It could've been tamped down quite a lot & still been effective.

But that's the editor in me talking. & that's a complaint I bet won't register with 95% of the people who read this book. What's more, I predict that 95% will love the book wholeheartedly, because it's good, clean, gory fun. Not only will I pick up the sequel as soon as I am able, but I will likely reread "Ashes," in the same way that it's always fun to rewatch "Night of the Living Dead."

I hated Twilight. I enjoyed the Hunger Games & Uglies but haven't felt compelled to pick up the sequels. But something about Ashes puts it a few cuts above. It might be the gore, which I do so love. It might be that Alex is a strong, believable protagonist. Even when she reflects on her attraction to the guys in the book, it is always framed in the context of survival. In essence, she is a teenage girl - & all teenage girls get crushes - but she has more important things on her plate. 

Verdict: Pick this one up when it hits bookstores in September! & in the meantime, check out Ilsa Bick's blog. Good stuff.

& just as an aside, my boyfriend sees all the books I bring home & dubs a lot of them derivative crap just by glancing at the cover. He's disliked most of the trendy YA he's read, but he picked this one up & blew through it in a few days just like I did. I'm tellin' you, it's addictive stuff.

Next up: The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill.

Friday, July 8, 2011

We the Animals

We the Animals by Justin Torres, HMH, September 2011

I picked up We the Animals at BEA this year after Publishers Weekly dubbed it "One of the Books You Should Pick Up at BEA This Year." My first thought as I snatched a copy from the Houghton Mifflin booth was "Well, dang. I thought I was getting a galley*. This is just a blad**." The slim volume is maybe 1/2-inch thick. I am so used to hefting a few-inches-thick YA paranormal romance (hefting most right into my giveaway pile) that when I get a book that adds up to all of 125 pages, it doesn't feel like a book at all. Funny how times change.

Before I get into the book itself, I want to add that it's interesting how the cover changed from the ARC I have to the final cover you see above. The cover of the ARC is solid blue, with the title, blurbs, & author name scribbled in white writing, harsh lines that almost look scratched into blue paint by a child. From the front cover a large pair of black & white eyes looks out, also crude & hand-drawn. Two smaller pairs look out from the back cover. They aren't sinister, like the predatory eyes that shine from the blackness in cartoons. But they aren't kind, either. They might be curious, looking out into the unknown. The cover perfectly captures the spirit of the book: animalistic, innocent boyhood. Boys aren't cruel & predatory, not intentionally, nor are they kind, again, not intentionally. They are natural, wild, animal boys, the three brothers.

Doesn't the cover above look joyful by comparison? That image evokes summertime, joy, Peter Pan - perhaps then, the idea of eternal boyhood. (Maybe this isn't coincidental; one chapter of the book is called "Never-Never Time.") To me, this image of leaping, bounding, joyous brothers doesn't at all capture the spirit of the book the way the ARC cover does. It doesn't balance the joy with darkness. But hey, it's just the cover. That's not what you came here for.

We the Animals is a dark, beautiful, raucous novel - or novella, I suppose - that never stops moving. I read it in one sitting, completely caught up in the musical, poetic quality of Torres's writing. Now, a few weeks since finishing it, the memory of reading it feels like a flurry of activity and violence. No emotion in the book, which follows in sharp vignettes the growing-up years of brothers Manny, Joel, & the nameless narrator, & their Puerto Rican father & white mother, is felt halfway. Every feeling is strong. The anger & hurt are harsh, but so is the love. Even love - parental love, brotherly love, romantic love - is expressed through gritted teeth, & always haunted by the fear that the hug or kiss will soon turn violent & dangerous. It almost always does.

From the book's opening line, "We wanted more," to its closing line, "Here they go," nearly every sentence in the novel suggests movement & intense emotion. There is not a word too many in this book. What I found most fascinating is that despite the spare prose & short length of the story, after the narrator grows from the trusting naivete of youth to the confused & frightened sexually aware adult, I found myself longing for his boyhood, of the time before the boys understood their parents' relationship, of the time when the narrator & his brothers smashed tomatoes in the kitchen. Their mother caught them; instead of getting mad, she joined in. "Do it to me," she says. They smash a ketchup bottle with a rubber mallet & cover her. The images of their gleeful childhood moments that express the strength of the family are indelible & endearing, yet always juxtaposed with inescapable violence, the dysfunction. "Our mother yelped & slid to the floor & stayed there... ketchup everywhere, looking like she had been shot in the back of the head." 

The boys-as-animals metaphor might be too heavy-handed if the book were longer, but as it stands, it is parcelled out into a perfect portion. If I have any complaint with the novel, it is that the narrator's discovery, exploration, & struggle to come to terms with his homosexuality is crammed into the last 40 pages of the novel. It isn't that it was poorly explored or fleshed out, or out of balance with the rest of the story, it just wasn't quite enough. I suppose I felt like the brothers sitting around the table at the opening of the novel, banging their forks on the kitchen table. I wanted more. 

*galley: proofing copy of a book often used for advance reading copies
**blad: or, book layout & design: a pre-pub booklet that might just have a few chapters of the book in it

P.S. Just as an aside, I have to mention that Justin Torres is incredibly nice. I always enjoy a book a little more when the author is kind & personable (conversely, I always enjoy a book a little less when the author is haughty or rude). I look forward to reading more from him.

Next up, Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai.