Category Archives: Book Reviews

Not Your Mother’s Book Club: Can Lit Edition

I recently joined a book club and the process of selecting our booklist got me thinking. I’ve always enjoyed reading books that are slightly off the beaten path. Maybe it’s the thrill of discovery, maybe it’s the challenge, or maybe I’m just a little bit snobby but I know I’m not the only one who resists the overwhelming glut of “book club bait.” So I decided to create a list called “Not Your Mother’s Book Club,”* as a resource for like-minded individuals. From time to time I’ll share some highlights from the list, grouped thematically, with the hope that I can shine some interest on some little known or forgotten gems.** If you want to view the entire list or add selections of your own, please visit the Goodreads list I created. If any Ann Arbor District Library users are reading, I’ve also created a list spotlighting titles available within the AADL system.

Today I’ve decided to focus on books by Canadian authors that deserve a wider readership in the United States. I’ve always been confused why Canadian literature (or “Can Lit”) isn’t better known in the U.S. Here’s a start toward amending that.

The Day the Falls Stood Still, Cathy Marie Buchanan (Voice)

Synopsis: “Steeped in the intriguing history of Niagara Falls, this is an epic love story as rich, spellbinding and majestic as the falls themselves.

1915. The dawn of the hydroelectric power era in Niagara Falls. Seventeen-year-old Bess Heath has led a sheltered existence as the youngest daughter of the director of the Niagara Power Company. After graduation day at her boarding school, she is impatient to return to her picturesque family home near the falls. But when she arrives, nothing is as she left it. Her father has lost his job at the power company, her mother is reduced to taking in sewing from the society ladies she once entertained, and Isabel, Bess’s vivacious older sister, is a shadow of her former self. She has shut herself in her bedroom, barely eating and harboring a secret.

The night of her return, Bess meets Tom Cole by chance on a trolley platform, she finds herself inexplicably drawn to him against her family’s strong objections. He is not from their world. Rough-hewn and fearless, he lives off what the river provides and has an uncanny ability to predict the whims of the falls. His daring river rescues render him a local hero and cast him as a threat to the power companies that seek to harness the falls for themselves. As the couple’s lives become more fully entwined, Bess is forced to make a painful choice between what she wants and what is best for her family and her future.

Set against the tumultuous backdrop of Niagara Falls, at a time when daredevils shot the river rapids in barrels and great industrial fortunes were made and lost as quickly as lives disappeared, The Day the Falls Stood Still is an intoxicating debut novel.”

My thoughts: This is the closest title on this list to a “traditional” book club selection. With beautiful prose, an engaging romance, and centering around a vivid historical time period, this book is hard to put down.

All My Friends Are Superheroes, Andrew Kaufman (Coach House)

Credit: Goodreads

Synopsis: “The Amphibian took Tom to the Stress Bunny’s end-of-summer party, 1998. It was the first superhero party Tom was ever at. He nudged the Amphibian with his shoulder. ‘Watch this, ‘ he said. ‘Hey – hey, The!’ The Battery looked. The Seeker looked. The Phoney, the Ticker, the Couch Surfer, the Frog Kisser – almost everybody in the room looked. Including the Perfectionist. The Amphibian didn’t think it was funny but the Perfectionist giggled. She’d never noticed how many of their first names were ‘The’. She smiled at Tom. She flicked her hair over her shoulder. All Tom’s friends really are superheroes. There’s the Ear, the Spooner, the impossible Man. Tom even married a superhero, the Perfectionist. But at their wedding, the Perfectionist was hypnotized (by ex-boyfriend Hypno, of course) to believe that Tom is invisible. Nothing he does can make her see him. Six months later, she’s sure that Tom has abandoned her. So she’s moving to Vancouver. She’ll use her superpower to make Vancouver perfect and leave all the heartbreak in Toronto. With no idea Tom’s beside her, she boards an airplane in Toronto. Tom has until the wheels touch the ground in Vancouver to convince her he’s visible, or he loses her forever. A funny, sweet story, All My Friends Are Superheroes will remind you that the greatest superpower of all is love.”

My thoughts: Unlike anything else I’ve ever read. Book clubs are often looking for “quick reads” and this definitely qualifies. Can be read in just a few hours. Provokes a lot of discussion.

Fear of Fighting, Stacey May Fowles (Invisible Publishing)

Synopsis: “Combining Stacey May Fowles’s sharp prose with Marlena Zuber’s whimsical illustrations, Fear of Fighting revolves around Marnie, a broken-hearted young woman fighting for something more in Toronto’s lonely, urban landscape.”

My thoughts: A lovely book that reminds you that you’re never as alone or unloved as you might believe.

Come, Thou Tortoise, Jessica Grant (Knopf Canada)

Credit: Goodreads

Synopsis: “A delightfully offbeat story that features an opinionated tortoise and an IQ-challenged narrator who find themselves in the middle of a life-changing mystery.

Audrey (a.k.a. Oddly) Flowers is living quietly in Oregon with Winnifred, her tortoise, when she finds out her dear father has been knocked into a coma back in Newfoundland. Despite her fear of flying, she goes to him, but not before she reluctantly dumps Winnifred with her unreliable friends. Poor Winnifred.

When Audrey disarms an Air Marshal en route to St. John’s we begin to realize there’s something, well, odd about her. And we soon know that Audrey’s quest to discover who her father really was – and reunite with Winnifred – will be an adventure like no other.”

My thoughts: Charming doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan (Picador)

Synopsis: “Berlin, 1939. A young, brilliant trumpet-player, Hieronymus, is arrested in a Paris cafe. The star musician was never heard from again. He was twenty years old. He was a German citizen. And he was black.

Fifty years later, Sidney Griffiths, the only witness that day, still refuses to speak of what he saw. When Chip Jones, his friend and fellow band member, comes to visit, recounting the discovery of a strange letter, Sid begins a slow journey towards redemption.

From the smoky bars of pre-war Berlin to the salons of Paris, Sid leads the reader through a fascinating, little-known world, and into the heart of his own guilty conscience.

Half-Blood Blues is an electric, heart-breaking story about music, race, love and loyalty, and the sacrifices we ask of ourselves, and demand of others, in the name of art.”

My thoughts: I haven’t read this one yet but it’s been highly recommended. It won the Giller prize last year.

On a Cold Road: Tales of Adventure in Canadian Rock, Dave Bidini (McClelland & Stewart)

Synopsis: “David Bidini, rhythm guitarist with the Rheostatics, knows all too well what the life of a rock band in Canada involves: storied arenas one tour and bars wallpapered with photos of forgotten bands the next. Zit-speckled fans begging for a guitar pick and angry drunks chucking twenty-sixers and pint glasses. Opulent tour buses riding through apocalyptic snowstorms and cramped vans that reek of dope and beer. Brilliant performances and heart-sinking break-ups.

Bidini has played all across the country many times, in venues as far flung and unalike as Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto and the Royal Albert Hotel in Winnipeg. In 1996, when the Rheostatics opened for the Tragically Hip on their Trouble at the Henhouse tour, Bidini kept a diary. In On a Cold Road he weaves his colourful tales about that tour with revealing and hilarious anecdotes from the pioneers of Canadian rock – including BTO, Goddo, the Stampeders, Max Webster, Crowbar, the Guess Who, Triumph, Trooper, Bruce Cockburn, Gale Garnett, and Tommy Chong – whom Bidini later interviewed in an effort to compare their experiences with his. The result is an original, vivid, and unforgettable picture of what it has meant, for the last forty years, to be a rock musician in Canada.”

My thoughts: I haven’t read this one either but it was a finalist for the all non-fiction Canada Reads this year. I’ve heard it’s a great pick for music lovers.

Home to Woefield, Susan Juby (Harper)

Synopsis: “Prudence Burns, a well-intentioned New Yorker full of back-to-the-land ideals, just inherited Woefield Farm–thirty acres of scrubland, dilapidated buildings, and one half-sheared sheep. But the bank is about to foreclose, so Prudence must turn things around fast Fortunately she’ll have help from Earl, her banjo-playing foreman with a family secret; Seth, the neighbor who hasn’t left the house since a high school scandal; and Sara Spratt, an eleven-year-old who’s looking for a home for her prize-winning chickens.

Home to Woefield is about learning how to take on a challenge, face your fears, and find friendship in the most unlikely of places.”

My thoughts: If your book club is looking for a good comfort read, this is a good pick. This is Juby’s first adult novel (she’s written several books for young adults) and I hope she plans to write more for older readers.

One Bird’s Choice, Iain Reid

Synopsis: “Meet Iain Reid: an overeducated, underemployed twenty-something, living in the big city in a bug-filled basement apartment and struggling to make ends meet. When Iain lands a job at a radio station near his childhood home, he decides to take it. But the work is only part time, so he is forced to move back in with his lovable but eccentric parents on their hobby farm. What starts out as a temporary arrangement turns into a year-long extended stay, in which Iain finds himself fighting with the farm fowl, taking fashion advice from the elderly, fattening up on a gluttonous fare of home-cooked food, and ultimately easing (perhaps a little too comfortably) into the semi-retired, rural lifestyle. A hilarious and heartwarming comic memoir about food, family, and finally growing up, One Bird’s Choice marks the arrival of a funny, original, and fresh new voice.”

My thoughts: A lovely memoir. Reflective but never self absorbed, Reid is an appealing narrator. I read this book while my car was repaired and the several hour wait passed in a snap. Especially recommended for twentysomethings who worry they’re not living up to their potential. Reid’s memoir is evidence you’re not alone.

__

* Sorry, Mom! No disrespect to mothers intended. Having had a mother who inspired my own quirky reading tastes, I know not all moms read boring (or the same!) books. But you can’t deny that most “book club selections” are picked with a certain clientele in mind and center around similar themes. Not everyone can relate to or is interested in those themes. Hence the title.
** At least in the United States. Some of these books are better known internationally.

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Some books I’m looking forward to reading in 2012 (updated)

As the title says, here’s list of books I’ve heard or read about that I look forward to reading in 2012. You’ll see they cover quite a range of genres, from children’s to adult, fantasy to literature, which is pretty typical for me, since my reading habits are all over the map. The books are arranged chronologically, by the month of their release date. The good thing about publishing this list almost one-fourth into the year (really?) is that several of the books are either released or will be soon! As a matter of fact, I just picked up The Girls of No Return and The Snow Child from the library.

All synopses and images courtesy of Goodreads and Powell’s (except for Grave Mercy, provided by publisher and NetGalley.)

January:

The Flame Alphabet, Ben Marcus

Published: January 17th (Knopf)

Synopsis: “…a brilliant, mesmerizingly dark new novel in which the speech of children is killing their parents. At first it’s just Jews–then everyone. People are leaving their families to survive. Sam’s wife, Claire, is already stricken and near death. In a year or two, as she grows into adulthood, their daughter, Esther, too, will become a victim. Sam and Claire decide to leave Esther on her own, hoping a “cure” will miraculously appear. Sam’s car is waved off the road at a government-run laboratory where horrific tests are being conducted to create non-lethal speech. Throngs bang on the doors to be subject volunteers; they’re all carried out half-dead. When Sam realizes what’s going on, he makes a desperate escape, vowing that if he dies it will be with his family, the only refuge of sanity and love. Ben Marcus’s nightmarish vision is both completely alien and frighteningly familiar.”

Why I look forward to reading it: First, the synopsis intrigues me. Also, I’ve always meant to read something by Marcus, having heard good things.

February:

The Girls of No Return, Erin Saldin

Published: February 1st (Scholastic)

Synopsis: “…a lacerating young adult debut about girls, knives, and redemption. The Alice Marshall School, set within a glorious 2-million acre wilderness area, is a place where teenage girls are sent to escape their histories and themselves. Lida Wallace has tried to negate herself in every way possible. At Alice Marshall, she meets Elsa Boone, Jules, and Gia Longchamps, whose glamour entrances the entire camp. As the girls prepare for a wilderness trek, Lida is both thrilled and terrified to be chosen as Gia’s friend. Everyone has their secrets – the “Things” they try to protect; and when those come out, the knives do as well.”

Why I look forward to reading it: A lot of people I trust have raved about this one. It’s also a nice break from the genres I’ve been reading lately.

Review from 60second Recap:

The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey

Published: February 1st (Reagan Arthur Books)

Synopsis: “Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead, and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart — he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm; she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season’s first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone — but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees. This little girl, who calls herself Faina, seems to be a child of the woods. She hunts with a red fox at her side, skims lightly across the snow, and somehow survives alone in the Alaskan wilderness. As Jack and Mabel struggle to understand this child who could have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, they come to love her as their own daughter. But in this beautiful, violent place things are rarely as they appear, and what they eventually learn about Faina will transform all of them.”

Why I look forward to reading it: The cover drew me in initially. It sounds like a good winter book that might help get me through the next eight months until Spring. (Okay, okay. It just feels that way.) The re-told fairytale aspect (from a Russian folktale, arguably some of the best folktales) intrigues me.

Book Trailer:

No One Is Here Except All of Us, Ramona Ausubel

Release date: February 2nd (Riverhead)

Synopsis: “In 1939, the families in a remote Jewish village in Romania feel the war close in on them. Their tribe has moved and escaped for thousands of years- across oceans, deserts, and mountains-but now, it seems, there is nowhere else to go. Danger is imminent in every direction, yet the territory of imagination and belief is limitless. At the suggestion of an eleven-year-old girl and a mysterious stranger who has washed up on the riverbank, the villagers decide to reinvent the world: deny any relationship with the known and start over from scratch. Destiny is unwritten. Time and history are forgotten. Jobs, husbands, a child, are reassigned. And for years, there is boundless hope. But the real world continues to unfold alongside the imagined one, eventually overtaking it, and soon our narrator-the girl, grown into a young mother-must flee her village, move from one world to the next, to find her husband and save her children, and propel them toward a real and hopeful future. A beguiling, imaginative, inspiring story about the bigness of being alive as an individual, as a member of a tribe, and as a participant in history, No One Is Here Except All Of Us explores how we use storytelling to survive and shape our own truths. It marks the arrival of a major new literary talent.”

Why I look forward to reading it: I saw it on a “Books to Watch Out For” list back in January and it sounded like an interesting take on well mined subject matter (WWII, the Holocaust).

Interview with the author:

March:

Birds of a Lesser Paradise: Stories, Megan Mayhew Bergman

Release date: March 6th (Scribner)

Synopsis: “Megan Mayhew Bergman’s twelve stories capture the surprising moments when the pull of our biology becomes evident, when love or fear collide with good sense, or when our attachment to an animal or wild place can’t be denied. In “Housewifely Arts,” a single mother and her son drive hours to track down an African Gray Parrot that can mimic her deceased mother’s voice. A population control activist faces the ultimate conflict between her loyalty to the environment and her maternal desire in “Yesterday’s Whales.” And in the title story, a lonely naturalist allows an attractive stranger to lead her and her aging father on a hunt for an elusive woodpecker.

As intelligent as they are moving, the stories in Birds of a Lesser Paradise are alive with emotion, wit, and insight into the impressive power that nature has over all of us.”

Why I look forward to reading it: A solid short story collection is a thing of beauty. This one has promise.

Book Trailer:

April:

Grave Mercy (His Fair Assassin #1), Robin LaFevers

Release date: April 3rd (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Synopsis: “Why be the sheep, when you can be the wolf?

Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others.

Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?”

Why I look forward to reading it: I’ve loved LaFevers ever since I read her Theodosia Throckmorton and Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist series. Friends with advance copies have backed up my assumption that the His Fair Assassin series will delight as well. I’m really excited to have an ARC, thanks to NetGalley and the publisher, and I plan to read it as soon as I clear my out-from-the-library shelf.

Book Trailer:

Boy and Bot, written by Ame Dyckman, illustrated by Dan Yaccarino

Release date: April 10th (Random House Children’s Books)

Synopsis: “One day, a boy and a robot meet in the woods. They play. They have fun.

But when Bot gets switched off, Boy thinks he’s sick. The usual remedies—applesauce, reading a story—don’t help, so Boy tucks the sick Bot in, then falls asleep.

Bot is worried when he powers on and finds his friend powered off. He takes Boy home with him and tries all his remedies: oil, reading an instruction manual. Nothing revives the malfunctioning Boy! Can the Inventor help fix him?

Using the perfect blend of sweetness and humor, this story of an adorable duo will win the hearts of the very youngest readers.”

Why I look forward to reading it: It looks adorable. Also excited about the possible 826michigan cross-overs.

May:

The Last Princess, Galaxy Craze

Release date: May 8th (Poppy)

Synopsis: “Happily ever after is a thing of the past.

The year is 2090.

England is a barren land. Food is rationed. Oil has decimated the oceans. The people are restless.

A ruthless revolutionary enacts a plan to destroy the royal family, and in a moment, the king is dead. His heiress, Princess Mary, and her brother, Jamie, have been abducted, and no one knows their fate. Princess Eliza Windsor barely escapes, and finds herself scared and lost in London’s dangerous streets.

With a mind for revenge and the safe recovery of her siblings, Eliza joins the enemy forces in disguise. There she is tempted by her first taste of independence — and true love. Ultimately she must summon her courage and fight to ensure that she does not become… The Last Princess.”

Why I look forward to reading it: Looks like a good adventure and an interesting mix of genres.

In Honor, Jessi Kirby

Release date: May 8th (Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing)

Synopsis: “Honor receives her brother’s last letter from Iraq three days after learning that he died, and opens it the day his fellow Marines lay the flag over his casket. Its contents are a complete shock: concert tickets to see Kyra Kelly, her favorite pop star and Finn’s celebrity crush. In his letter, he jokingly charged Honor with the task of telling Kyra Kelly that he was in love with her.

Grief-stricken and determined to grant Finn’s last request, she rushes to leave immediately. But she only gets as far as the driveway before running into Rusty, Finn’s best friend since third grade and his polar opposite. She hasn’t seen him in ages, thanks to a falling out between the two guys, but Rusty is much the same as Honor remembers him: arrogant, stubborn. . . and ruggedly good looking. Neither one is what the other would ever look for in a road trip partner, but the two of them set off together, on a voyage that makes sense only because it doesn’t. Along the way, they find small and sometimes surprising ways to ease their shared loss and honor Finn–but when shocking truths are revealed at the end of the road, will either of them be able to cope with the consequences?”

Why I look forward to reading it: Someone compared the love interest to Tim Riggins. Say no more; I’m there! Also, books about road trips are always welcome.

Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein

Credit: Goodreads

Release date: May 18th (Hyperion Books for Children)

Synopsis: “Oct. 11th, 1943–A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it’s barely begun.

When “Verity” is arrested by the Gestapo, she’s sure she doesn’t stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she’s living a spy’s worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution.
As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage and failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy?

Harrowing and beautifully written, Elizabeth Wein creates a visceral read of danger, resolve, and survival that shows just how far true friends will go to save each other. Code Name Verity is an outstanding novel that will stick with you long after the last page.”

Why I look forward to reading it: Everyone says it’s fantastic. And who doesn’t love a good spy story?

June:

This Is Not a Test, Courtney Summers

Release date: June 19th (St. Martin’s Griffin)

Synopsis: “It’s the end of the world. Six students have taken cover in Cortege High but shelter is little comfort when the dead outside won’t stop pounding on the doors. One bite is all it takes to kill a person and bring them back as a monstrous version of their former self. To Sloane Price, that doesn’t sound so bad. Six months ago, her world collapsed and since then, she’s failed to find a reason to keep going. Now seems like the perfect time to give up. As Sloane eagerly waits for the barricades to fall, she’s forced to witness the apocalypse through the eyes of five people who actually want to live. But as the days crawl by, the motivations for survival change in startling ways and soon the group’s fate is determined less and less by what’s happening outside and more and more by the unpredictable and violent bids for life—and death—inside. When everything is gone, what do you hold on to?”

Why I look forward to reading it: I’ve heard good things from people that’ve read advance copies. I’ve never been very into zombies but this sounds like an interesting treatment.

August:

The Waiting Sky, Lara Zielin

Credit: Goodreads

Release date: August 2nd (Putnam Juvenile?)

Synopsis: “Seventeen-year-old Jane can’t quite face her mother’s alcoholism even though it sucks to spend all her time and energy keeping them afloat—making sure her mom gets to work, that the bills are paid when there’s money to pay them, and that no one knows her mom is so messed up. But when Jane’s mom drives drunk almost killing both them and Jane’s best friend, Jane can no longer deny her mom is spiraling out of control. Jane has only one place to turn: her older brother Ethan, who left years ago to go to college. A summer away with him and his tornado chasing buddies may just provide the time and space she needs to figure out whether her life still includes her mother.”

Why I look forward to reading it: An interesting premise. Bonus: Zielin is a local author (she lives in Yspilanti, Michigan).

September:

Drama, Raina Telgemeier

Credit: Goodreads

Release date: September 1st (Scholastic)

Synopsis: “Callie loves theater. And while she would totally try out for her middle school’s production of Moon Over Mississippi, she’s a terrible singer. Instead she’s the set designer for the stage crew, and this year she’s determined to create a set worthy of Broadway on a middle-school budget. But how can she, when she doesn’t know much about carpentry, ticket sales are down, and the crew members are having trouble working together? Not to mention the onstage AND offstage drama that occurs once the actors are chosen, and when two cute brothers enter the picture, things get even crazier! Following the success of SMILE, Raina Telgemeier brings us another graphic novel featuring a diverse set of characters that humorously explores friendship, crushes, and all-around drama!”

Why I look forward to reading it: I loved Smile and, like so many others, look forward to seeing what Telgemeier has up her sleeve next.

The Diviners, Libba Bray

Credit: Goodreads

Release date: September 18th (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)

Synopsis: “Evie O’Neill has been exiled from her boring old hometown and shipped off to the bustling streets of New York City–and she is pos-i-toot-ly thrilled. New York is the city of speakeasies, shopping, and movie palaces! Soon enough, Evie is running with glamorous Ziegfield girls and rakish pickpockets. The only catch is Evie has to live with her Uncle Will, curator of The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult–also known as “The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies.”

When a rash of occult-based murders comes to light, Evie and her uncle are right in the thick of the investigation. And through it all, Evie has a secret: a mysterious power that could help catch the killer–if he doesn’t catch her first.”

Why I look forward to reading it: Bray always writes fun books and this one sounds especially so! Hoping I can snag a copy at Annual.

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Review: A Tale of Two Castles by Gail Carson Levine

A Tale of Two Castles
Gail Carson Levine
HarperCollins
336 pages
ISBN: 9780061229657
Ages: 8 – 12/middle grade
On shelves now

Upon receiving an arc of A Tale of Two Castles at ALA Midwinter this year, my Goodreads review read:

“I might have squealed inside when I saw this title in a stack of ARCs. First, Carson Levine, no further explanation necessary. Second, a girl teams with a DRAGON to solve MYSTERIES. I know! Why am I typing this and not reading it? Clearly, I need to re-think my life’s direction.”

And that pretty much sums it up!

No, I’m just kidding. I’ll elaborate.

Two Castles is sure to please Levine’s fans. Several people have asked me if it is “as good” as Ella Enchanted, Levine’s best-known title and winner of a Newbery Honor. That’s a hard question to answer. Ella Enchanted is such a unique and clever book that I’m not sure Levine will ever top it. It was the equivalent of a lightning strike: unexpected, dazzling, and not something that can be replicated easily. However, lucky for us, Levine is an imaginative and skilled writer who is more than capable of producing delightful tales in the same spirit as her most famous book. That spirit being, of course, a richly imagined, once-upon-a-time kind of fantasy featuring resourceful, quick-thinking heroines. Fans of all things fairy tale will be glad to know that Two Castles fits squarely into Levine’s mold (without feeling like a re-tread) and is a welcome addition to her oeuvre.

Recommended for anyone seeking a middle grade mystery or fantasy novel, a book with a proactive heroine, or a story that features theatre and acting as a plot device.

If you like Two Castles, or Levine’s writing in general, you might try Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy.

Trailer:

Review copy provided by publisher.

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Review: Visconti House by Elsbeth Edgar

The Visconti House
by Elsbeth Edgar
Candlewick Press
$16.99
304 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7636-5019-3
Ages 8 – 12
U.S. shelves: February 22, 2011 (Originally published July 2009, Walker Books, Australia)

Today Elsbeth Edgar’s The Visconti House is released in the United States.

After living in Melbourne, Laura and her parents move into a fantastic old mansion, located in a small town. The house is gorgeously built. There’s a ballroom (which Laura’s mother, a sculptor, uses as a studio) and one of the bedrooms features a faded mural of a garden. But Laura doesn’t care about the house. She’s lonely and she hates her new school. She wishes her parents would move back to Melbourne, where their lives were more comfortable. Then suddenly things begin to change. A strange boy named Leon moves in down the street and soon after Laura learns that her house has a name – The Visconti House – after the enigmatic Italian immigrant, Carlo Visconti, who built it. Laura and Leon are convinced that The Visconti House harbors a secret and they are determined to uncover it.

The Visconti House is a middle grade mystery that will please any amateur sleuth. Its pacing is a perfect blend of baffles and excitement. Answers aren’t revealed too easily but there aren’t any frustrating wild goose chases either. Personally, I found the ultimate reveal a little tame but I don’t think children will have the same problem. This is an excellent book to recommend to children who enjoy mysteries but aren’t ready for the more mature elements present in adult titles. Do children still read Harriet the Spy? If so, this is a good follow-up. It’s likely to spark an interest in genealogy or local history.

I must give Edgar credit for portraying a great child-parent dynamic. On the whole, parents are problematic in children’s books. If parents are too present they can slow down the action, or worse yet, stop anything exciting from happening at all. Not the best for plot development. I suspect that’s why parents are so often absent in children’s literature. If parents are too busy to notice their children are waking the ancient dead, there can be hijinks aplenty and everyone’s happy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that model necessarily, it just becomes a little rote.

Fortunately, Edgar has managed to dodge the absent parent stereotype. Actually, make that two stereotypes that she sidesteps. Even though Laura’s parents are artistes, they act like reasonable adults. At one point Laura is all ready to tear down a boarded up wall when her father steps in and says, “You know, I’m not exactly comfortable with you smashing holes in our house to satisfy your curiosity.” I think we can all relate to that conversation from both sides. I also appreciated that although Laura’s parents are eccentric and have quirky artist friends, they are still involved in her life and make her do things she isn’t too keen about, like attending school. Weirdly, that’s not as common in fiction as you’d think it’d be.

One thing to note: Laura is supposed to be in Grade 8 (high school) but she and her classmates act much younger, closer to 5th or 6th graders, I’d say. This causes the romance plot to feel forced, although Leon and Laura have a charming friendship. Given the emotional immaturity of the characters, I think this book would appeal to tweens more than young adults.

For reference, here is the original Australian cover.

Australian cover

I prefer the U. S. version, don’t you? I think it has more shelf appeal. Also, the Australian cover looks a little too Wait Till Helen Comes, which isn’t this book’s vibe at all.

Review copy provided by publisher.

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Listening to the Newbery, Part 2

Today, as part of my personal Newbery project, I present two medalists that were enhanced by the audiobook format.

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village (2008 Medal)
by Laura Amy Schlitz
Narrated by Christina Moore & full cast

Recorded Books
ISBN 9781436119634

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! is a collection of monologues originally written for students at the Park School in Baltimore, where Schlitz works as a librarian. Schlitz started the collection as a way of bringing the students’ study of the Middle Ages to life. In her introduction Schlitz reveals that as a child she didn’t much care for history until she discovered historical fiction. She wrote her monologues hoping to prove to the students how accessible the past can be. Schlitz chose the monologue format – instead of a single play – because she wanted to give each child an equal part. I appreciated that, although Schlitz was striving for equality, she still allowed for shorter, less demanding monologues, designed for children who want to participate but don’t necessarily want to soak up the spotlight. I was never one of those children but I’ve been told they exist?

I would have been a prime audience for this book as a child. I never really thought much of the Middle Ages. The only time I remember getting remotely excited about the period is when I toured a reconstructed Viking village in York, England. The claim to fame there was that the creators had painstakingly re-created all the myriad Middle Age smells for your olfactory pleasure. Yeah, fun times. Reading Schlitz’s book is a similar experience, only heavier on the social history, lighter on the sniffs. Had I read this book as a kid or been asked to perform one of the monologues, I have no doubt I’d have been more interested in the period as a whole.

This was excellent material for an audiobook. Monologues are meant to be read aloud and, since school plays don’t often visit my living room, this was a good substitute. But it was a little disconcerting hearing adult voices perform material clearly meant for children. Come to think of it, I’ve never heard a child actor on an audiobook. I guess it’s just easier to use adults.

Given the format, I can’t imagine reading this, as opposed to listening to it. But of course that’s how most people experience this book. Those of you who did read the book, what did you think? Did you read silently or read the speeches aloud? I am sad that I missed Byrd’s illustrations. Did they add to the experience?

The View from Saturday (1968 Medal)
by E. L. Konigsburg
Narrated by full cast
Simon & Schuster Audio
ISBN: 9780743597135

Since Saturday is narrated by four first person narrators, along with one third person limited narrator, it too was a great audiobook. While listening, it occurred to me that, like Good Masters!, this too is a collection of monologues and therefore perfect for the audio format. The full cast recording made this classic even more poignant. A highly recommended recording.

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Listening to the Newbery, Part 1

As I’ve mentioned, I’m currently enrolled in a course on the Newbery. Each student is asked to read at least one medalist from each decade. Obviously, that’s a lot of books, especially because when I hear the words “at least” I multiply the requirement by five in my head, automatically. So, to achieve my lofty goals, and to keep myself entertained while watching endless muted news broadcasts and basketball games at the gym, I’ve begun borrowing audiobook versions of Newbery medalists from the library. My thoughts on the books themselves and the audiobook version in particular are recorded below.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Elizabeth George Speare (1959 Medal)
Narrated by Mary Beth Hurt
Listening Library
ISBN: 9780739359693

First off, not my favorite Newbery. My main issue is that Kit is just too defiant to be either believable or sympathetic. Far be it from me to criticize a sassy heroine but Kit felt more like a transplant from the twentieth century than Barbados. And really? A long suffering, saint-like cripple character? Ack. But, on the positive side, I enjoyed Kit’s unconventional contributions to the dame school. And this book did teach me the significance of the name Horn Book so I thank it for that.

Mary Beth Hurt does a fine job handling the diverse cast of characters’ voices. I was going to quibble with her performance of Kit because she came off as a total priss but then I realized, she is a total priss, so well played, Madam.

The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman (2009 Medal)
Narrated by the author
Harper Children’s Audio
ISBN: 9780061551895

The Graveyard Book is notable for being heavily decorated. Along with winning the 2009 Newbery Medal,  it also won the 2009 Hugo Award for Best Novel, the 2010 Carnegie Medal (a British equivalent of the Newbery), and a Locus Award for Best YA Novel. That The Graveyard Book won awards for three different age ranges (children’s, young adult, adult), hints at its broad appeal. Although, just to give all of the above a sprinkling of salt, I would point out that Gaiman has an especially rabid fanbase and just maybe they were waiting in the wings to reward him? I mean, was anyone else at ALA Midwinter this year? Hoo boy. Talk about mania! I hid out at an awards discussion to avoid being drooled on or trampled.

This is an excellent audiobook; one of the best I’ve listened to in a long time. Gaiman’s text begs to be read out loud and the fact that Neil himself (pun intended) is such a fabulous narrator is a huge bonus. I realize the guy wrote the book and therefore knew what dialects the characters would use but he does all the voices! He even does convincing women without resorting to falsetto. Phrases like “scraggly grass” come to life in their rightful British accent. It’s awesome. I recommend you give it a listen.

The story itself, I’m afraid, sputters out after an excellent first chapter. Oh, it’s still interesting but it doesn’t have the same pow! it starts with. It revives for the final act though. Oh, does it ever. I apologize to my neighbors for my shouting quite a bit while listening to the second to last chapter.

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Review: Mirror by Jeannie Baker

Mirror
Written and illustrated by Jeannie Baker
Candlewick Press
$18.99
ISBN 9780763648480
For ages 2 and up
On shelves now

When I was a kid I was fascinated by photographer Peter Menzel’s book Material World. Menzel arranged for a team of photographers to visit 30 different countries, live with a “statistically average” family for one week, and then, at the end of the week, take a photograph of the family standing outside their home, with all their possessions surrounding them. As you’d expect, the images vary quite a bit. Somewhere along the way my parents acquired an interactive CD-ROM atlas that exhibited all of the project’s images. (I have a hunch it was part of our Encarta* suite but I’m not sure.) I loved that CD-ROM. I spent dozens upon dozens of hours, flipping through it, fascinated, trying to imagine what my life would be like if I’d been born in Iceland or Mali or Texas.

I mention this because collage artist and author Jeannie Baker’s Mirror puts me very much in mind of Menzel’s work. The book actually is two picture books in one. On the left side, we witness a day in the life of a young family in Sydney, Australia. To the right, the same day in the life of a Moroccan family is shown. The book is bound so that both sides can be viewed either together or independently. As the two families go about their lives, their experiences are paralleled. Both families eat breakfast, go shopping, and gather together in the evening when the day is done. Except for a brief introduction, the book is wordless and the story is told through Baker’s stunning paper collages, full of texture and life.

It’s a stunning effort. Flipping through, I felt like I was simultaneously present in a Sydney family room, under the hot North African sun on market day, and in my parents’ family room, using that old CD-ROM and discovering the world for the first time.

Highly recommended. This book is not only a work of art, it’s a great discussion starter.

Reviewed from library copy.

___

* Gasp. Do they not make Encarta anymore? I feel so old!

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