Tag Archives: book review

This Plot is Familiar

This Girl is Different by JJ Johnson tells the story of former hippie homeschooler Evie as she tries out public high school for the first time her senior year.  She is clearly a smart, analytical boat shaker.  As soon as she gets to high school, she makes a good friend, Jacinda, as well as a boyfriend, Rajas.  However, she also stirs up trouble and sees injustices everywhere in the school system.

This YA book called to me from the shelf and I got it despite my better judgment.  Honestly, the basic plot outline is just too familiar.  From middle grades books like Ida B. to YA titles like Stargirl and Schooled, it seems like the idea of homeschoolers (always slightly unschoolish liberal ones, it seems) who go back to school, show off how unique they are and then eventually integrate into the system are everywhere these days.  For one thing, it has begun to feel like a very lame plot device.  Writers want characters who think for themselves and bring an outsider’s perspective, so they seem to be turning to homeschoolers.  However, the end result in so many of these plots tends to be that school isn’t so bad, a message I’m not really on board with educationally.  This Girl is Different walks a slightly more careful line in this regard.  In the end, school turns out to be a mixed bag for Evie.  There’s less of a redeeming moment than in other books I’ve seen, which helped my like it a little more.

The book also addresses another issue that is dear to my heart, which is student rights.  Student rights was the subject of my masters thesis and was something I fought for as a high school student myself, when my friends and I sued our school over censorship (and won, I might add).  I’m all too aware that most of the time when stories about high schoolers deal with student rights, the overt message tends to be that student rights are good while simultaneously showing how students don’t have or can’t handle having rights, thus subverting that message.  Again, This Girl is Different walked a careful line.  In the end, student free speech is actually validated, in a much clearer way than most story lines.  I’m not sure that the outcome Evie manages to achieve at the school is entirely realistic, but nor is it completely absurd.

So despite my reservations, the book basically won me over.  Evie’s fiery passion and sense of justice is a bit simplistic from an adult perspective, but it reminded me of myself back in high school and I appreciated that her strong qualities never become negatives.  Evie’s first romance is realistic, as is her friendship with Jacinda and her relationship with her hippie mother.  Quotes begin each chapter and help frame the story.  A nice, breezy YA read that teens interested in justice the way Evie is will probably enjoy.

Not for the Faint of Heart

I just finished A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz.  Why did I resist this book again?  I think it had something to do with an overdose of fairy tale re-imaginings.  Whatever the reason, I’m glad I went back and read it, because…  WOW.  Just, wow.

You know how A Series of Unfortunate Events started a trend of talking to readers, warning them that bad things might happen or that they should be careful with the book they’re holding?  Well, this book warns the readers too.  Only instead of something a bit sad, if comically over-the-top, happening to some otherwise good kids, this warning is serious.  If you keep reading, there will be blood, and a lot of it too.  There will be what amounts to serial killers and gruesome details about deaths.  Gidwitz takes the most dark, terrifying bits of the Grimm Brothers’ stories and brings them to life in his tale and he never holds back from the pain of it all.  Honestly, some of this stuff would make Stephen King cringe.  So don’t say the book (or this review) didn’t warn you.

However, it is a story solidly for kids and relatively young ones too.  The book is middle grades, not young adult, and I think the audience is definitely upper elementary schoolers.  Gidwitz is a writer more on the side of the kids than almost any other I’ve read recently.  The recurring theme of how corrupt and evil grown-ups are runs through the entire story and it never comes back around to re-evaluate that point either.  The plot twists and turns a great deal, but the set up is simple.  In a mishmash of the real Grimms’ tales, Hansel and Gretel are the prince and princess of a kingdom where their parents’ history leads them to a terrible plot against their own children’s lives.  They run away, first to the witch’s gingerbread house, but after that into several other re-imagined fairy tales, meeting violence and bloodshed along the way, mostly, but not entirely, perpetrated by those horrible grown-ups.

This is a story of actual darkness in the way the original Grimm Brothers’ stories were.  There’s no candy coating, yet the bloodshed isn’t gratuitous either.  And more importantly, the lessons aren’t simple.  There are a lot of transformations – people in monsters, souls into birds, and the like.  There are also a lot of journeys that are clearly at least as metaphorical as they are real.  In short, there’s a lot of meaty stuff to mull over for the serious young reader, especially when the ending brings the children back to face their murderous parents.

The book isn’t for everyone, but I hope those who would be interested by its dark story find their way to it.

Reckless

Another holiday read I tore through was the YA fantasy book Reckless.  I’m a big fan of Cornelia’s Funke’s.  We especially loved her middle grades book Dragonrider in our house as an long read-aloud.  I was curious to see how her writing would change when her intended audience was a little older.  In fact, there are some slightly darker themes and older characters in Reckless than her other works, but it’s very much recognizable as Funke’s style.

The book follows Jacob Reckless and his brother Will.  Their father had portal into a magical world where fairy tales are history instead of just stories.  He has been long missing, but Jabob has made a life there as a treasure hunter and general adventurer.  Unfortunately, he makes the mistake of bringing his younger brother along.  Will falls pray to a fairy curse that will turn him into one of the angry stone Goyl, who are fighting a war against the humans.  Along with Will’s girlfriend from our world and a woman who can turn into a fox, Jacob spends the book going to any length he can think of to save his brother.

Overall, I enjoyed it, but it’s certainly not my favorite of Funke’s works.  First, of all, I was far from enamored with the interior art.  It feels like even YA novels are using more and more illustration these days.  Sometimes, I appreciate it even if it’s not my totally my taste, which was the case with Behemoth, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago.  And sometimes I adore it, as was the case with Tony DiTerlizzi’s The Search for Wondla.  Cornelia Funke apparently drew the pictures herself, but I found their dark, sketchy design mostly unappealing.  They didn’t seem to add anything to the narrative which made me wonder what their purpose was.  They also contrasted sharply with the thematically dark but very ornate and polished cover art, which seemed to represent the style of the book more clearly to me.

The story was obviously set up for a sequel, but there were still a whole lot of issues that were introduced but not followed up on.  In particular, Jacob and Will’s mother’s illness and their father’s mysterious disappearance.  We’re thrown into Jacob’s mirrorworld without much explanation.  Cornelia Funke lets the action and her interesting characters be center stage.  She doesn’t let us get bogged down in the whys and the history of the world she has created.  That’s good, but at the end when I went to reflect on the book, all I could think about was how much of the backstory I simply didn’t know.  Presumably she is saving that for future volumes, but I feel like I needed at least a little more up front.  Still, it was a good fantasy adventure read that I’m sure any fan of Funke’s would enjoy too.

Keeper

I got some good reading done over the holidays, trying to dip into a couple titles off the best of the year lists.  First up, the middle grades novel Keeper by Kathi Appelt.  This book follows a young girl named Keeper who has had one of the most disastrous days of her life, after ruining the special meal, not to mention the keepsake cooking bowl, that was supposed to be the moment when her neighbor finally proposed to her adopted mother.  First of all, let me just say that this may well have been the least linear children’s book I’ve ever read.  The story is fairly straightforward: Keeper is upset about her disaster so she runs away on her boat to consult her mother, who she believes is a mermaid.  However, the events that led up to Keeper’s disastrous day are revisited several times in different ways.  Appelt slowly takes us back and forth between the present of Keeper sitting in her boat trying to carry out her plan to fix things and various moments in the past.  We see not only Keeper’s story and the story of her adopted mother, Signe, but also the story of all the inhabitants of their little cul-de-sac on the ocean, including a number of the animals.  The perspective shifts from person to person (and to animal) and many events, such as Keeper’s disastrous day, Keeper’s birth, and the day Keeper’s mother left, are told repeatedly with new perspectives and snippets of information.  To add more layers into the mix, the history of the Texas coast as well as the mythology of mermaids is also explored in different ways throughout the story.

At one point, I thought the whole story might get bogged down by its complexity and repetition.  It’s not a short book and I began to worry as I read if the story could really sustain the twisty storytelling style.  However, Appelt’s poetic writing carried it through to the end.  It was a satisfying read.  Because of the mermaid element, I’ve seen the book listed as fantasy, but I think it would probably appeal much more to readers of realistic, literary fiction.  There’s a blurb quote on the jacket from Sharon Creech and I think fans of hers might really enjoy this book.

Loving that Steampunk

I just finished Scott Westerfeld’s latest YA novel Behemoth.  It was a lot of fun, just like the first volume, Leviathan.  Westerfeld has created an amazing world where World War I is unfolding between the Darwinist nations and the Clanker nations.  Darwinists like Great Britain breed fabulous “beasties” that do everything from drop bombs to record messages.  The Clankers, like Germany, rely on pure steampunk contraptions taken to an extreme level.  Heavy walkers and giant lightning rods and guns dominate the landscape.  In case you have trouble picturing all this, there’s some fascinating interior artwork inside.  I’ve heard a lot of praise for the illustrations.  While the dark style isn’t entirely my cup of tea, they definitely enhance the reading experience for the book.

Like the previous volume, Behemoth shifts back and forth between the perspective of Deryn, a girl who has disguised herself as a boy to become a midshipman on the Leviathan, a huge British airship, and Alek, a young Austrian prince who must flee after his parents are assassinated.  Deryn has lots of funny slang, like “barking spiders.”  She has a growing crush on Alek, but can’t reveal it because he’s a prince and he thinks she’s a boy.  However, the focus of the story isn’t romantic, it’s pure action and adventure as they encounter intrigue and battles in and around the Ottoman Empire.

As I said, this was a fun read.  I dove into a number of YA steampunk titles over the last year, including Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series.  However, this series is by far the one I’ve enjoyed the most.  I’d also like to point out that while the books are being sold as YA, there’s absolutely nothing in the content to stop interested younger readers from enjoying them as well.  The romance is pretty mild and while there’s lots of intrigue and fighting, the story is not especially dark.

Twenty Four Days Until…

One of my favorite Christmas books, by far, is Madeleine L’Engle’s The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas.  It’s part picture book, part chapter book, with old-fashioned illustrations and the sort of feel that a book issued by a lesser publisher often inevitably has.  I understand there’s a newer edition with new illustrations, but I admit that I’ve never seen it.  As a kid, I lived within walking distance of an independent bookstore that ordered any book I asked for.  Bless them.  Seriously.  They let me grow up as if I had Amazon before there was Amazon, back when they had to lug out big catalogs to discover if the book I was asking for could be supplied by their distributors.  When I got on a Madeline L’Engle kick in middle school, I ordered her entire back list, up to and including all her adult nonfiction writings about religion and philosophy.  I got this one and I can remember my joy that I could share it with my brother, who was probably about Mushroom and BalletBoy’s age then.

The story follows the Austin family, a family just a little too perfect and yet L’Engle always made them vividly real.  Anticipation, the right sort of theme for Advent, recurs throughout the story.  As with many of her books, L’Engle weaves in the religious themes subtly, but they’re unmistakably present.  First, there is the excited anticipation that Vicky and her brother John feel for Christmas, played out by how the family does something special to prepare and decorate every day.  There is also a feeling of anticipation for a real winter snow that might come with Christmas.  There is the nervous anticipation Vicky feels for her role as an angel in the church Christmas pageant.  Finally, there is the anticipation the family has for the new baby who is due soon after the holidays.  You can probably guess at least part of the outcome from that mix of events, but L’Engle’s writing is so elegant and poetic that it elevates what otherwise might be a predictable ending.

Read Origami Yoda You Must

Tom Angleberger’s middle grades novel The Strange Case of Origami Yoda was finally in at the library when I was, so I checked it out to see if the buzz was true.  I’m here to attest, it’s totally true.  This book is pretty excellent.  I’ve read a number of reviewers who’ve said that it reminded them of their middle school experience.  I can’t say that, but the way that Tommy, Dwight, Harvey and the other characters in the book act reminded me a lot of middle schoolers I’ve known over the years.  The author got that mix of grown up emotions and deep thoughts with childish play and immaturity that can characterize middle schoolers just right.

The story centers around an origami Yoda who acts as an oracle for the 6th graders.  Different characters share what happened when they followed Origami Yoda’s advice.  A variety of different fonts, as well as an assortment of doodles and back and forth comments pepper the text.  As Tommy, the principal narrator, tries to figure out if Origami Yoda can really see the future, he tackles some big questions about faith and romance.

I laughed out loud reading this one.  I think fans of lightweight books like the Wimpy Kid novels as well as more complex stories may both find something to enjoy in this short novel.

The Search for Wondla

There are, to my mind, three types of books in the world.  First, there are the books not worth reading.  They may be wonderful for someone, they’re just not for me.  Then there are the books that are worth reading, but getting into them takes awhile.  It may be worthwhile effort, but it’s still effort.  Finally, there are those rare books where by page 3, you’re already enveloped in the book so deeply that you have to finish it.  These books don’t necessarily have the best writing (though it’s never poor writing), but author is a master storyteller.  I’ve read a lot of good books in the last year or so, but none of them were the sort that once I started, I just had to finish.  Well, thankfully, I just finished Tony DiTerlizzi’s The Search for Wondla and it was the sort of book that I barreled through at top speed.

First, DiTerlizzi’s illustrations are amazing.  They’re printed in green and black and really bring the story to life.  Each chapter begins with an illustration.  As I’ve said, good book design really enhances a book for me and this one had it in spades.  But the story is amazing too.  Eva Nine has always lived in an underground sanctuary.  She has never known any other people.  A robot called Muthr is her caregiver.  Muthr teaches Eva about the surface, testing her on things like how to survive a rattlesnake bite, so she can one day go up top.  Eva has only one item that didn’t come from Muthr, a fragment of an image of two humans and a robot with tiny fragments of writing that spell WondLa.  When Eva’s home is attacked, forcing her to the surface, she finds that it’s nothing like she’s been told.  She finds strange creatures like walking trees and water bears that her technology cannot identify.  She’s being hunted by another creature and must find friends and figure out why she’s there and what to do.

Wanting to understand the significance of WondLa and unravel the mystery of Eva’s life kept me interested up to the end.  I had my suspicions, but I wasn’t sure what was going on until the final reveal.  This was fantasy storytelling at its finest and it deserves to get the sort of maniacal fans that Harry Potter had.  Mushroom and BalletBoy aren’t quite old enough to appreciate it, even as a read aloud, but in another year or two they will be.  Something to look forward to other than just the next volume.

The Handcuff Kid

A spooky review for you just in time for Halloween.  The Carnival of Lost Souls was my nomination for the Cybils in the middle grades science fiction and fantasy category, so I probably owe it a review.  I can’t promise I’ll be totally unbiased.  The author, Laura Quimby, is a friend of mine.  However, I really did love it.  Pinky swear.

First off, I have to say that I love a book with good design and this one really had it.  From the excellent cover to the fonts and the interior pages with their faux weathered edges, the book design helps bring you into the creepy and wonderful world of the story.

Jack is an orphan who has bounced from home to home all his life.  His only real friend is is social worker, Mildred.  When he goes to live in a new home with the professor, Jack starts to think that he may have finally found a place to stay.  The professor even shares Jack’s interest in Harry Houdini and the art of escape and magic.  However, not everything is as it seems.  Soon, Jack is tricked into going to the Forest of the Dead, where his life is controlled by a magician called The Amazing Mussini, a traveling carnival performer.  With terrible monsters called Death Wranglers who can appear at any moment, escape seems impossible.  However, with the help of some of his fellow prisoners, Jack persists at looking for a way to get back to the land of the living, all as he is forced to perform Houdini’s escape acts for an audience of the dead.  Jack may be the “Handcuff Kid” in the show, able to get away from any pair of handcuffs, but the end had me guessing as to whether he would get away from Mussini.

The world of the book is a creepy one for sure.  The Forest of the Dead and the towns full of the dead are places brought to life with wonderful detail.  Jack is a bit of a rapscallion, but his longing for a real home, somewhere permanent that he doesn’t have to escape from, makes him sympathetic and real.  The book brings together the themes of escape and illusion throughout the story.  Because the story is a little on the scary side, it’s not for younger readers.  However, older kids may really enjoy escaping into Jack’s world.

Touch Blue

I just finished Cynthia Lord’s newest middle grades novel, Touch Blue.  Her last book, Rules, about a girl and her autistic brother, won a Newbery honor.  The issue Lord explores in Touch Blue is foster children.  The author gives us the beautiful and detailed setting of the tiny Maine island of Bethsaida.  She also gives us some wonderfully complex and real characters.  The family of Tess, the main character, has agreed to foster a child to improve the island school’s dwindling numbers and hopefully save it from being shut down.  However, Tess is superstitious and from from the moment her new foster brother, Aaron, arrives, he seems to bring bad luck.  Aaron is quiet and angry.  He isn’t the new brother Tess was hoping for.

In the end, things work out in a pretty predictable manner.  Like Rules, Lord manages to make her story transcend just being an “issue book” with solid writing and interesting characters.  The book really shines when she describes Tess’s love of boats and going lobstering with her father.  Children in families who have fostered kids will probably really identify with Tess and her sister emotionally.  However, while Lord doesn’t allow things to be tied up too neatly, but plot lines are still wrapped up a little too simply for my taste and Aaron doesn’t quite get his due as a character.  I know we’re following things from Tess’s perspective, but I still felt like something was missing there.  Overall, I enjoyed it, but I can’t give it the rave reviews I’ve seen others already give.