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.