Sunday, June 30, 2013

House of Secrets (House of Secrets #1) by Chris Columbus and Ned Vizzini

If you like action and a fantasy foray of pirates, witches, ghosts, skeletons, magicians, and more then you might like this book. The lack of character development, unlikable characters' behavior at times,  and loose plot ends made me not like this book very much. I did like the descriptions of the villains, the bone room, the pirate with the dolphin tattoo versus a shark, and the wind witch, who could transform into a hag or whirlwind. Most of the story is told from siblings twelve-year old, Brendan, and fifteen-year-old, Cordelia Walker. The younger sister, eight-year-old Eleanor Walker gets some page time but less than her older siblings. The Walker family is viewing an old Victorian house for sale with their real estate agent, when Eleanor sees an old lady in the woods by the house. The three kids go to investigate only to find a statue of a woman with one hand by the house. When the family leaves, Brendan decides to check out the statue one more time, but it is gone. An old crone hisses at him that his family doesn't belong in the house setting off a series of events thats hurdles them into another world on a quest to find their parents. The three learn what it means to be family and work together versus fighting.

The straightforward plot is a bit predictable and the execution doesn't always work. The kids in the beginning are so outrageously rude to the adults that they came across as spoiled brats instead of strong-willed characters. When Brendan wields a weapon against a stranger I really thought there was something wrong with him mentally. Yes, the old woman threatened him to not buy the house, but she doesn't make it sound dire enough for Brendan to resort to inappropriate violence. He's the more scary of the two by acting so extreme. Next, when Cordelia steals something, I'm thinking... maybe I don't want to read this book. As the plot evolves it becomes apparent why these two things happen as a contrivance to move the plot forward, but were out-of-character for Cordelia and Brendan.

While some of the references to pop culture were funny such as "instant-oatmeal spells" and Cordelia not being named after King Lear's story, but Cordelia Chase in Buffy the Vampire; it soon began to feel like a tornado of pop culture attacking me and it interfered with the storyline at times. I have no clue what "punk'd" meant and got overwhelmed by Lunchables, Scooby Doo, American Girl dolls, iPhone, MacBooks, Mick Jagger, Target and more. I would have preferred if the author had just stuck with the items pertinent to the plot such as the Playstation.

I have read a few books where the authors can't seem to strike the right balance between cartoonish violence and violence. The pirates are buffoons in the beginning and then become violent. I did like the part where Brendan has to do something selfish to fulfill the quest and he does all he can to get Will's weapons. Boys in the library are always asking me for weapon books and war books no matter what country I am in. They love explosions, swords, and guns and this plot twist is a way to live out that fantasy. Another contrived plot point happens when Brendan doesn't take the book or tell the others about it much later in the story. When the violence becomes more serious with real people dying I thought the shift back to cartoonish violence jarring. This happens toward the end when a character pulls his eyeball out when an arrow pierces it and asks Brendan to kill him to which Brendan replies, "get an eye patch." I had issues with this character whose humor was oftentimes disrespectful and mean rather than funny.

The wind witch's powers are never explained and she is a one-dimensional villain. She is driven solely by greed and there is no explanation as to why she became that way. The ending with the money didn't settle with me very well. I thought the dad's problem's would be addressed and found the selfish money resolution a turn-off. Money can buy comforts but not happiness and the dad lost more than a sizable income. He lost his reputation and career. I also wondered why the giant helped the kids risking his life and Eleanor's dyslexia did not have enough authenticity for me to empathize with her as a character. The explanation of how she tried to think about it in her head first was a start, but I wanted more. While I did finish the book and I found some action sequences entertaining, as a whole it didn't do much for me.

2 Smileys

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Templeton Twins Make a Scene (Templeton Twins #2) by Ellis Weiner

Read same book over and over. Check. Read all books written by favorite author. Check. Read series in chronological order. Check. If this sounds like you, then I highly recommend this new series called, "The Templeton Twins." I also suggest reading book 1 before book 2 or you will get an earful from the Narrator. And I don't mean an ear full of wax or other literal interpretation; I mean a blast of noise from the Narrator shaming you into reading his can't-put-it-down-absolutely-wonderful first book every other chapter or so (in case you haven't). This second book follows the same path as book one with the same villain and main protagonists. A new and funnier nanny is hired and the twins try inventions on their own. The visuals and funny end-of-chapter quizzes are again a mainstay along with footnotes and another recipe.

The Templeton twin's dad gets a new job at TAPAS (the Thespian Academy of the Performing Arts and Sciences) where he designs a camera lens that will be used in theatrical productions. The Dean brothers have decided to steal his invention and look like they will succeed until the twins turn the tables on them and give them a taste of being falsely accused of a crime. When a last minute sabatoge looks like it will harm someone, the twins must come to the rescue. Another fun adventure with a ridiculous dog and ingenious children.

I always laugh reading Weiner's books that are brimming with action and humor. I also usually read some passages out loud getting curious looks from those around me. I can't help myself. Here... try this aloud: "'Armoire is a French word. You pronounce it 'arm-WHAH' It means - I think - 'a place to keep your arms.' Or maybe not. Look, never mind what it means." That said, this book is so similar to the first book, the magic was a bit lost on me second time around. This doesn't tend to be a negative with young readers so don't let it stop you from getting the book. I did think the narrator inserted himself more in this novel which made for more distractions from the plot and left my ADHD brain unfocused in spots. Call it a "plot spot" if you will. Or "plot splot" if you are poetic. Maybe if the bursts of narration were less infrequent I wouldn't lose track of the details. Of course I can't find my car keys half the time so take this defect into account.

While the plot is predictable I do like the tie-ins with school subjects and the messages the author gives to readers. When Abigail and John decide to make an invention, they go through the engineering steps found in Engineering is Elementary: ask, imagine, plan, create, and improve. As a read aloud a teacher could tie it in with science. Add to that oodles of literary elements such as word plays, idioms, acronyms, mystery plot elements, and more, as well as, a major plot point on plagiarism and you have much to chew on for class or small group discussions. The message of the twins doing too much homework and not playing enough can be taken so many ways. As an adult I oftentimes don't play enough. Many kids play too much and don't study enough. At my school in Asia the students study and have tutors in first grade. Maybe they need to play more. People can reflect on their own lifestyles and happiness and gain their own meaning from the text. That's the beauty of books and good writing. It allows for personal reflections and connections to life experiences. A great addition to your library. 

3 Smileys

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Real Boy by Anne Ursu

When an author takes common fantasy tropes and conventions, flips them on their heads, then tosses in fairy-tale twists creating a new race of beings, take notice. This is the best middle grade fantasy story I've read in 2014. The unpredictable plot, emotional arc of the protagonist, layered themes, gorgeous writing, and excellent pacing blurred my expectation of how a typical fantasy story plays out. Scattered throughout my writing notes are lines, "Oh, oh, oh! I did not see that coming!" or "great twist!" It is such a delight to be surprised and it happened so many times I couldn't put the book down. Don't pass on this novel that will be released September 24.

Caleb, the greatest magician in the Barrow, owns a magic shop getting help from two assistants: Wolf, his apprentice with magic talents, and the nonmagical orphan Oscar, his hand. The Barrow is a forest of ancient wizard trees that feed the soil with magic surrounding the enchanted walled city of Asteri meant to protect citizens after a plague killed the townspeople hundreds of years ago. Oscar works in the cellar making magical potions with herbs, a task considered too menial for the magician's apprentice, Wolf, who bullies and mistreats Oscar.

When the city children become ill while Caleb is away and a monster starts attacking people in the forest, Oscar tries to deal with it aided by his friend, Callie, another nonmagical person who works for a Healer. Already the trope of the hero with superior brains, muscle, or magical powers is missing and while Oscar grows into the role of saving the city, he's painfully shy and socially awkward, to the point that I wondered if he was autistic or abused. Callie, his newfound friend, helps him deal with people and helps him make friends. She is a kind, giving, no-nonsense girl who pesters Oscar even when he tries to sink back into his uncommunicable shell.

The villain is not your fantasy-type Dark Lord. He's more misguided and I didn't even know he was the bad guy until quite a ways into the plot. He's eliminated quickly in the story compared to a typical fantasy before the story takes a fairy tale twist that made me think Oscar's social interaction problems might not be autism at all. Later, I wondered if the villain was "magic" in general and not a person. Nothing fits in a neat genre box in this tale. Oscar also reminds me more of a hero found in Grimm's fairy tales that run off into the enchanted forest as a way of dealing with issues. This blurring of fantasy and fairy tales makes the story unpredictable and quite fun to read.

Not that this is surprising. Anne Ursu blended realistic fiction and fairy tales in her previous book, Breadcrumbs, that has a basketful of references to children's books and fairy tales. The Real Boy follows the same vein except the references are sprinkled throughout and names not given directly, meaning readers have to make connections on their own. I'm hesitant to discuss the fairy tale aspect because I don't want to give away the terrific plot twists, but I think it's safe to mention Wolf and Bonnie, who wears a red cloak to the likes of Little Red Riding Hood. What happens to them made me think of the woodcutter and they way it ties in with the wizard trees is funny if not gruesome. I don't know how many young readers will make the connection but one thing I like about Ursu's writing is that it appeals to adults and children. She's so steeped in folklore it oozes in her stories; I think she has fairy blood or is related to the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen.

The emotional arc of Oscar is well-written with him going from painfully inept while interacting with others to learning to say the right thing. We all go through this phase, but it is particularly difficult to learn as a youngster where peers are easily insulted and friends can shun for minor offenses. Callie is the type of friend we all hope for, one who helps Oscar, is slow to offense and when she is insulted is willing to forgive and move on. Oscar grows up each time he interacts with Callie slowly becoming more personable. I love how he learns to apologize to Callie and does it with a question mark. He's not sure what she wants at first and becomes more sure as the story progresses. Oscar also can't read peoples faces. "If only Oscar spoke face." Eye rolling completely baffles him and by the end of the story he's confidently rolling his eyes at Callie.  Any reader will identify with Oscar's small steps outside his comfort zone. "The shelves were so very much taller than he could even dream of being, and Oscar firmly believed people shouldn't go any higher than they already were." When Callie admits her weakness the pair team up and build on each others strengths. Oscar does reach for those "shelves" eventually and I was rooting him each step of the way.

Some adults command Oscar to look them in the eye and put him down for being odd. The words hurt Oscar. Other adults show that they care and are concerned about Oscar. I would have liked a bit more development on the greedy adult leaders in the Barrow who were selling magic for money to others in the continent. I had a few questions whether or not the same products that were being sold to the city people (the big expensive product - I don't want to give it away). I wasn't sure how or if the Healer fit in with Caleb. Also, Malcolm is kind to Oscar and represents actions of a nonmagical adult, but I wanted a bit more on his interest with Oscar to the point that he makes his generous offer. It shows that Oscar is desirable and wanted by an adult, but I wasn't sure what was motivating Malcolm. These questions are minor and I should really reread the story to catch more details and see if some of the questions are there only I missed them as I blazed through the story. That's my flaw - I am not detail-oriented. And I have too many books on my to read pile to go back and reread it.

The writing is gorgeous and I kept writing down favorite lines to the point it looked like I was rewriting the story. I had to force myself to stop. "The wind pushed over the wizard trees, tearing the roots from the ground, leaving great mourning gashes in the soil. The roots gulped and gasped and grasped. The gashes in the ground grew under his feet; the wind battered his body." Or "Whenever Callie said something to a customer, he took the words and placed them on a map in his mind. On When a customer approaches he put a pin that read How may I assist you? No one else needed to do this. No one else needed lessons on how to be a person." The glass house and what happened to it is a nice symbol of this change in Oscar as he learns to understand humans.  I remember trying to learn the same thing when I got a waitressing job as a 14-year-old. We all need these lessons but Oscar doesn't realize it.

Multiple themes layer this story. I particularly liked the insatiable hunger of magic and people and how it parallels our own history regarding the destructive side of commercialism and the environmental crisis as a result of poor stewardship and greed. Oscar must take drastic measures to restore balance to the earth just like we have had to in the past, present, and future. In addition, the city people attempt to use magic creating a Utopia where there is no suffering. Oscar calls this "a beautiful lie" that is unobtainable. Oscar discovers that the underlying problem is fear in the townspeople. Once he realizes this, he discovers that he must face his internal fears as well; that just like the townspeople are stymied, so is he.  When he gives Sophie his carved cat, it symbolizes his release of his own fears; his fears of meeting people, being unwanted, and making friends. The human condition is full of uncertainty and each person has to learn to live with that moving beyond the crippling effects of fear.

I have one more favorite line to share. Toward the end Oscar writes Callie a note. "He looked at the note. Writing it had taken an eternity, and by all rights the words should have transformed into poetry somehow." How true. Writing is not easy for most - moi included. I was disappointed Breadcrumbs wasn't a Newbery contender and hope to see The Real Boy recognized for its high quality. Add this to your list of must reads.

5 Smileys

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Brixen Witch by Stacy DeKeyser

As a foreigner living abroad in Taiwan, I find local superstitions fascinating. The first baseball game I went to had a caffeine-wired hyperman using a microphone and cheering in Mandarin while fans echoed back his words all the while pounding their thunderstix in ear-deafening patterns. One time, hyperman screamed at us to jump to our feet and shout a repetitive line such a "kill, kill, kill" (similar to our "fight, fight, fight" chant not meant maliciously) as the player took his stance at home plate. The batter got a double and hyperman told us to stay standing and do the exact same thing because we brought the player "good luck." A fan interpreted this for me and I watched batter number two strike out much to the disappointment of hyperman who had to let us sit down. All in good fun. Superstitions pervade all cultures and while many are harmless, others are not. History is full of witch hunts that resulted in innocent people being murdered or blamed for natural disasters or for something bad happening in a village. In The Brixen Witch nothing so dire or grim as killings happen, but I did like the author's exploration of this theme as the Brixen villagers tried to blame an innocent man for a rat infestation. The plot is a twist on The Pied Piper of Hamelin with some excellent messages: the consequences of stealing, the politics of a small town, folklore and its traditions, and the courage to correct mistakes, to name a few. Throw in great tension, pacing, characters, and humor and voila! have a terrific book.

The start begins with twelve-year-old Rudi hurdling down the mountain and slamming in through the front door claiming a witch is after him. The adults think he's being a typical over-imaginative boy and tease him when he cries "Witch" by asking "Which what?" He's scolded for not bringing home rabbits for dinner and tracking mud into the house. Rudi sees a mysterious face at his window after stealing the coin, hears wailing and singing day-after-day resulting in nightmares and misery. His Grandma Oma notices the singing too and asks Rudi if he took anything from the witch's lair. Rudi thinks, "It's bad luck to talk of such things." The author repeats this line 15 times to emphasize different messages and in this instance, Rudi doesn't want to tell Oma the truth. Next, Oma repeats the phrase as she is discussing the witch, which suggests she knows more than she is telling Rudi. Later, it foretells Rudi's job as future keeper of Brixen's folklore and other times it brings comic relief.

Oma tells Rudi to return whatever he took and he tries to the next day but botches it by getting stuck in a storm and losing the coin. Winter comes and he can't do anything until springtime. He continues to have nightmares, but they suddenly stop and he thinks all is well; that the witch found her coin. But then hoards of rats overwhelm Brixen village making Rudi wonder if the infestation is from the witch or a natural occurence. He discovers it isn't natural but is coming from the witch and her servant. When the children of the village disappear, Rudi is convinced he is to blame and he seeks out the witch to make things right.

The tension in this story hinges on not knowing if the witch is either good or bad and the author keeps the reader guessing until the end. The beginning had me wondering if the witch was imagined or real. My uncertainty continued as I tried to figure out whether or not the witch was working with her assistant or if he was rogue; plus Oma seemed to know the witch. Add to that a mysterious quest and a good mix of creepiness and humor and you have a nice page turner. I have found that when authors retell folktales they can oftentimes be too predictable because the outcome is already known; hence, it is essential that the plot twists keep the pace moving along with the reader's interest. The witch, her assistant, Oma, and the rat-catcher succeed in doing just that and I enjoyed the creative retelling of The Piped Piper of Hamlin. I did get confused during a few transitions and would have liked the pacing slowed down just a bit so I could orient myself in the setting. The time leap from winter to spring and search party episode were a bit awkward. I wasn't clear why Marco and Otto went up the mountain with Rudi. Neither instance takes away from the story but I did have to reread those sections. Of course, I'm not a detail-minded person so take that for what it's worth.

The characters are nicely developed and there is a mixture of adult and child humor. Rudi and Oma have a fun relationship and I particularly like the episode where Rudi tries to hide his nightmares from Oma who teases him. "Oma rocked in her chair and studied the rafters. 'Let's see... you mutter such things as Go away and No no no and Take it!'" Sometimes children don't realize they need adult help as is the case with Rudi. Oma says, "Perhaps it's time you sought the counsel of someone older and wiser than yourself." To which Rudi says, "Do you know someone like that?" Oma tapped him on the head. "Is it your luck that's bad, or just your sense? I'm talking about my own self here." I laughed pretty hard at that one. Herbert Wenzel has his own  unique voice and uses ferrets to catch rats. When he gives Rudi the job as assistant, Rudi reflects that he likes how the others in town respect him. He likes the responsibility of having a job and becoming more confident and growing up a bit. Rudi is also kind to the younger children in the village. He looks out for them like an older brother and I liked the part where he gets disgusted with his arguing peers and jump-ropes with the young girls enjoying their adulation. He is uncertain whether or not his peers will laugh at him but he's feeling confident since given a job and is beginning to grow up and not worry as much about peer pressure.

Adults don't take children seriously at times throughout the story. When eight-year-old Susanna Louisa asks Rudi about the witch's chair, he decides to ask Oma because she is always truthful to him. He observes that young and old people tell the truth, but during the "middle years of life" people don't. If the adults had taken Rudi seriously they could have worked together to solve the problem of the rats. Instead only Marco and Otto decided to help Rudi. Kids will relate to this because they oftentimes don't feel they have much say in an adult world, and it is a good reminder to adults to take kids more seriously.
Oma and the rat-catcher know how to handle people and Rudi observes their actions noting their manipulation of people and opinions. While Oma suggests the mayor first handle the problem of getting a rat-catcher, she makes him think he came up with the idea. The rat-catcher charges per rat, but because it is so hard to catch them when they count one bag he gives them a discount. He also has the people help him drown the rats so there are witnesses to his work. As the villagers are trying to decide what to do about the rats in a town hall meeting, the dynamics of public opinions swaying others and superstitions playing a part in decisions was very interesting. The villagers are upset about the rats and decide to blame the rat-catcher. Rudi publicly defends the rat-catcher pointing out that they saw him drown the rats and vouching for his honesty. This is a great message about knowing when it is important to speak up. When the meeting turns ugly, Rudi finds the courage to confess in public taking the coin and causing the village rat problem. Interestingly, the adults just ignore him and say he is a boy talking nonsense.

I have had many conversations with grade 4 teachers who want books that have depth but are not dense and littered with words young readers can't decipher. The Brixen Witch satisfies this need and I highly recommend it. At 208 pages it has enough action, character development, and themes to satisfy both teacher and student. The plot is not dark and while many ideas are complex they are presented with humor and are not heavy-handed making it age appropriate. A great addition to any library. Can you hear me? I'm banging my thunderstix together cheering this one on.

4 Smileys

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Rithmatist (Rithmatist #1) by Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson does great world-building in this fantasy or steampunk novel. Joel is a student at the Armedius Academy where his dad worked as a chalkmaker before his tragic death. The Academy is made up of Rithmatists, those with special powers who give life to Chalklings, paper-like drawings that come to life and do their bidding. The wild chalklings that viciously attack people are threatening to overrun humanity and Rithmatists are fighting a war against them. The Academy trains scholars and the Rithmatists for combat.

Joel loves anything that has to do with Rithmatists war strategy and history. When a Rithmatist professor is ousted from his teaching position, Joel has an opportunity to work with him. Eager to learn more about the subject he meets a girl, Melody, who is failing her classes and taking summer school classes. Melody is melodramatic and annoying, but she and Joel become friends. When students begin to disappear in the surrounding community and then on campus, the ousted professor is put on the investigation putting Melody and Joel smack dab in the middle of the action. They learn to trust each other and use each other's strengths with teamwork making them a formidable force against the evil attacking their Academy.

The magic system that Sanderson creates is pretty incredible in this tale. It uses math and geometry to create defensive ways of fighting with or against Chalklings. I'm not a great fan of math so I skimmed the diagrams and some of the explanations of ways to fight using it. This didn't take away from me enjoying the novel at all and was well-done with illustrations and inserts to simplify it. While some readers will love the details and eat up the strategies, others might find it slow. If you are the later, then you might want to try my strategy. Either way, it is admirable how the author builds such a complex magic system. I read, "Mistborn" by Brandon Sanderson, and I marveled at that brilliant magic system in that novel as well.

The best part of this book is the ending when the Melody and Joel work together in such harmony that they do something never done before at the school in the "Melee" or dueling ring. I liked how their friendship transformed from one of annoyance to trust. I also appreciated Melody's humor that came out later in the story. I found her just as annoying as Joel at the beginning. Joel's quest to be a Rithmatist is a driving force and I found the turning point where he finds out whether or not he could be one very compelling and a nice twist on the fantasy trope of the protagonist who has superior magical powers. Instead the protagonist, Joel, has to rely on his brains and must figure out a way he can pursue his passion for Rithmatists when he has no magic source. This internal struggle and emotional arc of trying to figure out a career path mirrors real life for so many people.

There is a bit of steampunk going on in this novel with the gear watch and warding off of wild chalklings using clocks but for the most part it is fantasy. Familiar tropes lead to some predictable plot elements with a main character who is an underdog and screw-off, a villain who wants to take over the world, a quest to gain and control magical powers, an absent-minded mentor, a wise leader, and murder mystery. Not all of the questions are answered because there is going to be a sequel, but I didn't mind because the main plot points were wrapped up in this story. The father's death is not answered in full but enough to figure out what happened to him. The villain moves from mostly one-dimensional to a more complex character at the end and I found myself interested in this shift. I believe the sequel will look more into it. I like how Sanderson takes conventional tropes and puts his own unique twist on them making for an entertaining read. If you love fantasy then grab this one.

3 Smileys

Doll Bones by Holly Black

My best friend, Ginny, and I would sneak into the storm sewer system that emptied into the nature center bordering our adjacent backyards, huddle around a candle (it was more exciting striking a match than flipping a flashlight switch) and whisper ghost stories to each other. We'd hike in the inky darkness bent at the waist until reaching a manhole where we'd straighten up looking at a spotlight of sunshine near a small hole at the top. Sometimes I'd climb the rungs to get closer to the light feeling relief from the stale, black claustrophobic enclosure. One time, we reached the third manhole and spun a wild bigfoot tale. When we finished the story we heard a loud scraping noise and a gust of air blew out the candle. Screaming at the top of our lungs and convinced a monster had found us in an underground grave, Ginny dropped the candle and we sprinted hunched over taking the skin off our elbows and heads as we banged along the narrow concrete tube toward the only exit. We burst out into the sunlight, flopping onto the grass, laughing hysterically and savoring the joy of a fun adventure. This book reminds me of those good times as a youngster. Not only does it scare the reader, it explores the idea that when people grow up they stop making up imaginative creative stories like they did in childhood. As adults creative outlets change; as a child, the belief in magic and the impossible still exits. Holly Black has created a well-crafted, suspenseful, horror story that will appeal to adults and children. She hasn't written a children's book since "The Spiderwick Chronicles" with Tony DiTerlizzi and while I have seen some of her graphic novels, I haven't seen a middle grade book in a long time. This one is terrific. I can see why it is on Newbery lists as a contender this year. 

Twelve-year-old Zach, Alice, and Poppy have created an imaginary world for years using action figures and dolls. Their swashbuckling pirate adventures are pretty elaborate with Poppy usually playing the villain, Zach the pirate, and Alice his crazy, loud sidekick.  When Zach's dad tosses out his action figures because he thinks Zach shouldn't be playing with dolls, Zach is so upset he can't talk about it. When he tells Alice and Poppy he isn't going to play "the game" anymore they can't understand why. Poppy gets so upset that she takes her mother's forbidden antique doll from the case. This creepy doll is the Queen in their pretend play and everything done is meant to please her. The doll is haunted by a ghost who tells the three that they must bury her or terrible things will happen. They take off on an adventure to not only bury the Queen doll, but say, "Goodbye," to their childhood games. The intricate plot between the imaginary play and real life events and relationships of the three make this a fascinating read.

I want to explore this book more in depth than creating a surface review so this is your spoiler alert. Stop here if you don't want to know the plot.

We first meet Zachary, Alice, and Poppy where they are pretending the pirate, William the Blade, is on a quest to find who his father is on the high seas. This reflects Zach's real life where his dad left their family three years ago in pursuit of a dream to own a business that didn't come true and left him bitter and angry. Zach is not happy that his dad moved back home. He isn't sure he wants to claim him as a father. Alice's parents died and she lives with an overprotective, smothering grandmother who won't even let her choose what clothes to wear. In the pirate game, Alice plays her alterego GI Joe Lady Jaye, who does as she pleases. Lady Jaye steals from everyone and gets mad at Poppy who likes to improvise and dominate the storyline. Poppy is fierce and dramatic which makes her good at playing the villains. Poppy (which means friendship) doesn't want her friends to change and desperately tries to keep their pretend game going to the point of making up, or not, the ghost haunting the doll. William the Blade, who rescues Lady Jaye and is the hero mirrors Alice's crush on the unbeknownst Zach that she wants to date. In the beginning of the story, the mermaid (played by Poppy) asks for a sacrifice to cross the sea and grabs Lady Jaye (played by Alice). When Alice says that Poppy can't just change the rules and grab her it foreshadows the sacrifices the three will face on their quest to bury a doll. Poppy sacrifices her friends by letting them not play the game. Alice sacrifices being grounded by her grandma for the rest of her life. And Zach sacrifices not playing the game anymore because his dad destroyed his action figures.

There are so many layers to this book I can't possibly write them all but I'll try to touch on a few. The peer pressure and its affect on friendships is shown in Poppy's older brothers who laugh at Zach when the three are playing at Poppy's house. Zach is also worried about his friends on the basketball team finding out that he plays with the two girls. The game and the sport are important to Zach and he doesn't want to give either up. He talks about the special basketball handshake and says, "... and every time Zach did it, he felt the warm buzz of belonging." The author does a fantastic job showing how the three friends have created a sophisticated game and how it helps them cope with fears and life. For instance, the antique doll they named, "The Queen," is incorporated into the pretend game because she is scary. The Queen is also a symbol of absolute authority which is a reflection on the life of a child who has little say in what he or she does each day. 

Another important part of the game is the three friends pass notes to each other and ask questions directed at characters. Poppy writes William the Blade some questions in a note she gives to Zach.  She asks if William would give up being a pirate? Which is basically the same as asking if Zach would give up the game. Poppy wants to know if William would miss the game. She asks who he thinks his father is which mirrors Zach's struggles with his father currently. The next question asks if William the Blade likes Lady Jaye. Poppy is trying to find out for Alice if Zach likes her. The last question is if William has nightmares. Zach describes William's nightmare of drowning and wanting to be buried at sea. Again some clever foreshadowing occurs through this technique as the next chapter has Zach's dad tossing out William the Blade who ends up buried in a garbage landfill.

Zach doesn't tell Alice and Poppy the real reason he can't play the game. I did wonder why, but it becomes clear at the end that he can't because it hurts too much and he'd be admitting that he can't ever play again. I wished the author had implied this more when Zach first made the decision to not tell the girls. This made that turning point seem a bit contrived, but it didn't bother me too much because I remember as a teenager holding back on friends and not really knowing why. Poppy is so upset he won't play that she pulls the Queen doll out of the case so that Zach will play with them again. When the doll starts to speak to her and say that she is a ghost who was murdered and needs to be buried in a specific grave, the three embark on an adventure that reflects their pretend game. We never really know if Poppy is really seeing a ghost or manipulating her friends. When Zach thinks he dreams about the dead girl it involves an evil stepmom tossing out her toys and it leaves the reader guessing if the real quest is helping him deal with his dad's actions or is it a real ghost? Alice doesn't believe in the ghost because if she did then why hadn't her two dead parents come to talk to her? The author does a great job maintaining this tension and suspense. Other adult characters add to this as they comment on the four of them and refer to the doll as a blond-haired person. Throw in the mystery of how the doll was made and history of the girl's death and you have a fun scary story. Light a candle when you sit down with this one.

All the characters go through an emotional arc but I was pleasantly surprised and pleased with Zach's dad. He's a minor character but it is a good message to kids that adults make mistakes. When Zach's dad first tosses out his toys, Zach's mom is really upset because the dad didn't talk to anyone first. The dad apologizes the next morning but Zach knows that it isn't sincere. Zach reflects on when he was forced to apologize for something he didn't feel sorry about and sees his dad doing the same thing. When Zach runs away with Poppy and Alice and everything goes kerplooey, Zach talks to his dad on the phone. This time, Zach not only gets a sincere apology, he finds the answer to William the Blade's question as to who his father is in the pretend story. In real-life Zach's father is a man who makes mistakes, is willing to admit it, and truly loves his son.

The author captures the age well from the giggling friends at school to the difficulty of changing friendships. Zach says "Sometimes it seemed to him that girls spoke a different language, but he couldn't figure out when they learned it. He was pretty sure that they used to speak the same language a year ago." Later when Poppy and Alice get into a nasty fight it is because Alice wants to stop playing the game and abandon the adventure of burying the doll, but Poppy refuses. Poppy expresses her fear of the three growing up and growing apart. Hanging on to the game means their relationship won't change.

I like the author's homage to storytelling whether intentional or not. Childhood imaginative storytelling has a creative abandonment that can be magical. As people get older their stories change and the magic can be lost such as it is for Zach's dad. The last pretend story I wrote was when I was 13 years old. I read it now and it doesn't make much sense but I am nostalgic for a time when I didn't self-edit my writing and be judgmental. Even now I keep thinking this review is a meandering mess and I should work on it again. Holly Black tells a terrific tale and she says in the notes that this was a story she had wanted to write for a long time. I wonder if when an author finishes the story it feels like a death and the doll being buried is also a symbol of the death of a story. Who knows? I do know I didn't want this tale to end and when I finished I turned around and started rereading it. Something I rarely do.  "That was why Zach loved playing those moments where it seemed like he was accessing some other world, one that felt real as anything. It was something he never wanted to give up." Books have become my adult imaginative playground where magic exists and anything is possible.

5 Smileys

Thursday, June 6, 2013

A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff

I have a Talent for burning food into unrecognizable rock-like chunks that Ker-plunk when tossed into the garbage can. The people of Poughkeepsie either have a Talent or they don't. The worst thing for a person in Pookie - I mean Poughkeepsie - is to have no Talent. Those that don't tend to be "Middlings" or middle children. (That explains my Talent woes). Poor Middling Marigold is one of those with no Talents and she's desperately trying to find it. When we first meet her in the story, she is tooling down her list of possible talents and scatching out, pinata making. Her attempt to make a goldfish pinata ends disastrously when the head breaks off and rolls across the kitchen floor. The domino effect of her breaking it is quite funny with an ironic afterwards of her ruefully looking at the severed head, "Your pinata skills need work, its gaping fish mouth seemed to tell her." Interesting characters and great writing make this a fun read.

Alternating voices tell this tale; however, the main voice is that of Cady, an orphan who has a Talent for baking mouth-drooling cakes. Cady wants to find a permanent home, but it never works out. She is sent back to the orphanage run by the wonderful Jennifer Mallory who adores Cady like a daughter. Jennifer is quite successful using her Talent to find orphans' homes, except it doesn't work with Cady. Marigold's younger brother, Will, has a Talent for disappearing and the chapters he narrates are filled with the imagination and adventure in contrast to the 10-11 year old Cady and Marigold. Will pretends he is a storybook knight whose motto is: "Giants. Monsters. Cake." And whether he's crawling through air ducts or riding a dumb waiter in the walls that no one else knows about, he bubbles and bounces through each day with zest. It is fun as an adult reader to be reminded of the joys of childhood. (Not that I climbed in air ducts! I explored the street sewers like a rat.)

Zane, older brother to Marigold and Will, has a talent for spitting. This gob-spitting maestro can project a glop of mucus with such precision that he uses this Talent for many things such as annoying Marigold. Lisa Graff creates authentic relationships between siblings who bicker and stick up for each other. "I'm going to tell Mom and Dad you spit at me," she [Marigold] retorted. "But she knew it was useless, like a poodle puppy yipping at a full-grown rottweiler." When Zane accidentally shoots down or I should say spits down the mysterious grey-suit-man's hot air balloon causing damage to their apartment, he sets into motion one of the many subplots that ties characters pasts with the present creating one complex muddled knot.

The adult voices of the Owner, Toby, Mrs. Asher, Mrs V, and Miss Mallory were not as engaging for me as the three children. I liked the different voices, although it was confusing at times and I did have to go back and reread some sections because I missed important details. I found that the multiple-voices made what would have been a somewhat predictable plot, unpredictable. Graff drops clues but doesn't recap everything so the reader has to put it all together for the most part. It was quite fun and reminded me of a mystery where clues are left like a trail of crumbs. The plot doesn't answer all the questions and the ending seemed a bit rushed but overall it is a highly entertaining story.

You might want to stop here. I am going to add some spoilers. I don't know how to talk about the author's messages. Sorry. Read this after you've read the book. Or if you are like me and have a Talent for forgetting everything or if you read the last page of a novel, then please read on.  

Mason, Delores, and Zane have problems with feeling worthless and they steal as a way to find self-worth. It is implied that Mason's family thinks he is good-for-nothing. We don't know when or why he steals others Talents. Delores steals a bone artifact as a young adult feeling it gives her worth because she found it on a dig as the only person with no Talent. Her insecurity is reflected in Zane who feels worthless by the Principal at his school. Delores and Zane change emotionally from beginning to end as they learn to like themselves, but Mason stays a one-dimensional villain.

At first I thought the Talents were rigid. You either had one or you didn't, but they are actually fluid. You can lose them and gain them in random or purposeful ways such as Mason stealing them and Cady losing hers. As such they are more true to real-life talents that come and go. For instance, I once had a talent for soccer, but I can't play now because of arthritis. Talents come and go and are nurtured in different ways and at different times in a person's life. As one character says, "A Talent is only rewarding if you wield it well." The idea at the end of the book where the group doesn't use any Talents and creates peanut butter that tastes almost as magical as the original recipe is a statement on teamwork and effort to be good at something without focusing on natural talent. Too bad Mason didn't stick around to learn that with his relatives. Multiple in-depth messages are thrown forth in this novel that make it good for book clubs.

Fate is another big theme. The man in the grey suit is the Fate-maker, but unlike the Greeks who felt Fate was predetermined, Fate-man believes that it is how one reacts to situations, "It's the way we deal with what Fate hands us that defines who we are." He isn't the only one who says this or believes it. Fate is described the same way by Cady and Marigold as they go through their emotional arc. At the end, when Cady slips the jar in her pocket it is clear that she is making a choice as to what to do with Fate. Fate isn't about being a victim. Fate is about choosing your destiny.

The writing has a heavy dose of repetition that helps highlight key points and certain words, such as Mr. Fate-man had "a grin that suggested he knew more about the world than he was letting on" and when the same phrase is used by Cady at the end it is clear that she understands that happiness is being with those you love and love you back and choosing your destiny. Or words such as "Adoption Day" that celebrates a child finding a family which reflects Cady's deepest desire or the repeated "Wha-pop!" of the door at the Emporium and the "click-click clack" of the pet ferret that add texture and emotion to different episodes. The cake recipes sprinkled throughout the chapters connects cooking in a nonfictiony way with Cady's story. Even the mystery book all the characters are reading, "Face Value," is a comment on the superficiality of Talents. The real depth of a person comes from what is inside and how they choose to determine his or her Fate.

O' Talented readers, pick this winner up and enjoy.

4 Smileys

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children's Literature by Julia L. Mickenberg (Editor), Philip Nel (Editor)

"Can you read this?" My husband, a first grade teacher, hands me a test that says to circle one of the pictures and explain what features help the animal to live in its habitat. This first grader circled a dolphin and wrote, "They have ckowlowcashine. They live in the sea. They need to breath arr." "Well, it has to do with a dolphin," I replied handing it back. "Ah! I know... she means 'They have echolocation.'" He laughs at my gaping jaw and explains, "We teach them that bats and dolphins use echolocation to find food." What a great reminder for me that just because young children can't express themselves in sophisticated language systems, does not mean that they can't understand more than adults think. This book highlights radical writers who believe this too, and as such, have used the childrens genre as a vehicle for politics with the goal of effecting change in society and questioning the existing social hierarchy. This is not a book you are going to sit down and read with your kid. You might read some of the stories, but many might find the language stilted or the black and white illustrations unappealing or the topics too adultish. While this book is thought-provoking and unique in its topic, it was hard for me to get through and I went into skim mode several times. I only found some of the stories interesting and gravitated toward the more familiar writers. Given that most of the 43 items composed of stories, comics, primers, and poems were out-of-print or from lesser-known authors is one reason I didn't love the book in its entirety. This is personal taste and does not reflect on the quality; there's no doubt this is well-written and scholarly. If you love, love, love the history of children's books, then add it to your bucket list.  You won't be disappointed.

The book is divided into 8 parts that cover the historical breadth of radical works with topics of literary themes, science and technology, economics, subversive messages, missing historical narratives, and societal prejudices. Part 3 on "Work, Workers, and Money," was one of my favorites as it showed how radical writers bucked the trend of glorifying industrial production and the person in power to focusing on the worker. Langston Hughes "Sharecroppers" shows the tenant farmer working for an overseer who keeps the profits and "The Little Tailor," by William Gropper that has a tailor working in a factory on an assembly line. Both show their labors do not allow them to own their products or find happiness in their strenuous work. Unlike most books during the early 1900s that glorified industrial production, these authors questioned it. These stories made me think of today and how computers are replacing people and books to some degree.  The contemporary novel by John Scieszka shows this shift in technology as the protagonist, an old rusted cell phone called "Robot Zot" comes to earth and falls in love with a toy cell phone. Perhaps it is a comment on consumerism as Zot zaps household items in the house with his ray gun, as well as, a  parody on romance tales. Lane Smith's "It's a Book" is another radical book that shows how technology is causing kids to not read, along with "Goodnight iPad," a parody of children saying goodnight to their technology devices. These books make me question what I consider the norms of how technology effects society today.

My favorite story in this book was "Johnny Get Your Money's Worth," by Ruth Brindze which reveals how advertising by a company gets kids to buy their candy. (I'm sure this appealed to my journalism side.) The piece is written for adults and reads more like an article than story but is meant to get people to think critically about consumerism. The company advertised a free bike to kids if they collected 700 wrappers in 4 months. If you do the math that means a kid would have to eat 5 candy bars a day. As she says it is "first-rate advertisement" for the company in getting them addicted to their chocolate bars. This made me think of the book, "Betty Bunny Loves Chocolate" and "Betty Bunny Wants Everything," by Michael Kaplan, a humorous look at a child who doesn't know when to stop eating chocolate or buying all the toys in the store. David Shannon's "Too Many Toys" is a comment on the consumerism that has many children with "mountain's of toys". Much of what the authors point out can be found today and for me this was the strength of the book. History doesn't really change. There will always be inhumanity, prejudice, war, environmental, economic, and societal issues. This is a book that could be written many times over and while I found it quite compelling I didn't love it.

4 Smileys