Thursday, June 23, 2011

Poetry Friday: Packing Villanelle

Still working on moving out of state... Less than a week till M-day, when I actually leave town. In honor of the occasion, I thought I'd share a packing poem for Poetry Friday. This villanelle was inspired by a prompt April Halprin Wayland posted during National Poetry Month (see her April 13th entry).


Packing up to leave a home
with symbols scattered everyplace
is like dismantling a poem.
This metaphor is made of lace,
while that one is a small blue vase.
Packing up to leave a home
calls for a steady, leaning pace.
Removing each bright thing, each trace,
is like dismantling a poem.
Words in boxes. Lines erased,
the startling with the commonplace.
Packing up to leave a home
requires a sudden sort of grace,
for keeping feelings from a face
is like dismantling a poem.
Till nothing's left but one suitcase
and all the rest is empty space.
Packing up to leave a home
is like dismantling a poem.

—Kate Coombs, 2011, all rights reserved

Poetry Friday is at Carol's Corner today, so stop by and check out the links!

Image is Edward Hopper's painting, Sun in an Empty Room.

Pottermore Gearing Up

You may have already heard, but just in case: J.K. Rowling is starting up a new, interactive website about the Harry Potter books. She is also making the series available in e-book format.

The website will include "elements of computer gaming, social networking, and an online store," according to this news article. Most notably, it will provide 18,000 words' worth of new Harry Potter material, things like background information on the formation of the Hogwarts houses.

Also, the first million people to sign up for the new site will help add to its design beginning July 31. The rest of us can visit the revised site in October.

And yes, you will be able to go to the site and get sorted into a Hogwarts house by the Sorting Hat. I just hope any little kids who are assigned to Slytherin don't pursue the path of eeeee-vil!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Joys of Moving a Home Library

So, I'm moving out of state in less than two weeks, and for people like me, the big question is: How do I move my home library? Do I just clean out the deadwood, or do I get hard-nosed and cut even more? And what exactly qualifies a book for cutting? (Or, as those glass half-full people might put it, What makes a book likely to enrich the local public library or thrift store?)

I have included a few photos of my current library... Just kidding. Can you tell which one is Karl Lagerfeld's? (I have this suspicion that if he ever removes his sunglasses, his face will fall off.) Does he read his books, truly? Er--for that matter, do I read mine?

In case my blog doesn't give it away, I'll confess this very minute that I'm a bonafide book hoarder. (As opposed to a book horder, which means belonging to a tribe that rides down out of the yellow Southern California mountains yelling in some strange Tolkienesque dialect on the way to raiding libraries of their treasures, things like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Hilary McKay's latest, and every Terry Pratchett book ever written...)

The questions I ask as I try really hard to divest myself of a few of these books are as follows:

1. Do I love this book? Am I ever going to reread it?
2. Can I use this book with my students? Would I hand it to a kid with a huge smile on my face?
3. Is it worth blogging about at some point?
4. Is my reluctance to let it go a result of generalized book greed, or is it truly this particular book I can't live without?

And then there's the more existential question: I've read this; now why do I also feel compelled to own it?

Of course, book owning feels to me like surrounding myself with friends. I suppose that makes it a variation on the security blanket. (Remember Linus?) It's pretty much like the way going to a library or bookstore makes me happy when I've had a bad day. Which makes me sound like an addict. But I suspect books as drugs are way better than, say, drugs as drugs.

Even as I packed the boxes, I came across treasured friends. I tried to resist the temptation to stop packing and read them, but I failed more than once and just decided to rejoice in renewing my acquaintance with some favorites.

I was also reminded of just how crazy I am about poetry! My culling efforts dropped significantly when I went through the poetry shelves.

By the way, when the going has gotten tough over the past few weeks, I've sat down and reread books from my Discworld collection. Because if Sam Vimes can do it, whatever hard thing he's being called upon to do, so can I. And the humor keeps me going, too.

Now, I know some of you can relate. One of the guys who came from my church today to help my brother load the truck said knowingly of his own library, "I don't like to go below 2,000."

(Another guy remarked, "All of this will be on Kindle eventually." I plugged my ears.)

What about you? Do you have more than 1,000 books? Maybe even more than 3,000? Have you ever had to transport your home library? How did you survive? Did you cull? And especially: How do you feel about books? Are you In Love?

Note: Charlotte brings up a good point in the comments. Some books are out-of-print and are hard to replace. So if you like them and they're out of print, you might want to hang onto them rather than have to attempt to track them down again later and possibly fail.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Quick Picks for Clever Beach Readers

Nightspell by Leah Cypess

Like her previous book, Mistwood, this new book offers a new take on fantasy—and, I might add, on paranormal fiction. You know those arrogant, malicious fairies in books such as Maggie Stiefvater's Lament? Well, here they're ghosts, living in a place aptly known as Ghostland. The details of Cypess's world are very well thought out, with the ghosts riding out to hunt in the dark and appearing at odd moments, sometimes looking like skeletal monsters and more often looking ordinary.

The story begins as Darri and the ambitious brother she mistrusts, Varis, ride to Ghostland, where Darri is to marry the prince in exchange for her little sister, Callie. Darri is doing this as a sacrifice, since she's been feeling horrible ever since she was unable to stop a frightened Callie from being sent to Ghostland as a child to await marriage to the prince.

When they arrive, however, Darri learns that her future husband has been murdered and has joined the ranks of the ghosts. Besides which, Callie is avoiding her. Darri and her brother soon find their lives threatened, and then, to Darri's surprise, Prince Kestin asks her to help him figure out who murdered him. To further complicate matters, some of the denizens of Ghostland are alive, while others are dead. (It's actually pretty hard to tell them apart.) As Darri begrudgingly launches into her investigation, as well as trying to learn what Callie's problem is, she uncovers the secrets of the ghosts and of The Guardian and The Defender. Naturally, she puts herself and her siblings in even greater danger along the way.

If you like court intrigue and mystery as well as adventure, dive into this well-crafted story. And when you find that Darri is feeling a little attracted to Kestin, don't worry: he's not a zombie or a vampire, he's something else altogether. He's a Ghostlander.

But Darri's greatest love is actually saved for her sister. Darri will do anything for Callie, and that's what drives the story. As a person with four sisters, I was very moved by Darri's pigheaded determination to save Callie. It turns out what Callie needs is not exactly what Darri imagines, though. Isn't that often the case with the people we love?

Note that Nightspell is a companion novel to Mistwood since it's set in the same world. Mistwood is another good read if you haven't gotten a chance. And take a look at this interview with the author over at The Enchanted Inkpot.

The Glorious Adventures of the Sunshine Queen by Geraldine McCaughrean

I know this author's work best because of her retellings of numerous myths and legends (Greek, Roman, The Canterbury Tales, Gilgamesh, etc.), but you may recognize her as the writer of an authorized new book about Neverland, Peter Pan in Scarlet. Mostly, I want to point out that she has a rich, often metaphorical style, which is why I requested a copy of this book from Amazon Vine.

I discovered that McCaughrean adopted a cleaner voice and a quicker pace in this story that is partly an homage to Mark Twain's classic tales about Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. But her style is very middle grade, so her riverboat leaves Twain behind and enters a more rollicking Mississippi River, with only a few dark notes.

Cissy Sissney's life is looking pretty bad as her sour, pragmatic mother makes her leave school to work in her father's general store. Cissy's secret wish is to become an actress like her former teacher, who has married the leader of a troupe of traveling players. Then disaster strikes, and Cissy gets her wish, at least temporarily. She and a couple of other kids from town wind up in the custody of the theater troupe, and all of them land on a riverboat, making their picaresque way down the great river. Hilarity—and a certain amount of heartache—ensues.

Having recently reread Huck Finn, I got a kick out of seeing what kinds of adventures this much larger cast of characters might have in a similar setting. Of course, the Sunshine Queen is a lot bigger boat than Huck's raft, though sometimes it's less watertight. Cardsharps, preachers, circus performers, banjo players, and an imitation Queen Victoria: you'll find them all in this book. I think my favorite scene is when the group on the riverboat puts on a show for a large family sitting in a row on their rooftop because the river has flooded, but there are many fun moments here.

For those of you who like your historical fiction with humor and spice, pick up Sunshine Queen and imagine a summer on the Mississippi!

Withering Tights by Louise Rennison

Did you ever fall under the alarmingly ridiculous spell of Georgia Nicolson, star of books like Angus, Thongs, and Full-frontal Snogging? In case you can't imagine uber-Brit Rennison ever dreaming up Georgia's like again, you're right; she hasn't. But she has decided to put on a new show starring Georgia's cousin, Tallulah Casey.

I'll admit that Withering Tights may disappoint readers who want more Georgia. In terms of character, style, and adventure, it does resemble the earlier series. But Tallulah is a much gentler and less selfish person than her cousin (which isn't hard to pull off, frankly!). She enters a terrific setting as she embarks on a summer program at a performing arts school in Yorkshire. Since the school has run out of room, Tallulah must lodge with a family in the village. The family is quirky and so are the teachers, as are Georgia's new friends and the boys at the academy located conveniently nearby.

Yes, there's quirk and humor everywhere you turn. As in the Georgia books, some of the humor borders on raunchy, but a lot of that has to do with Tallulah worrying about being flat-chested. Then boy-wise, you've got an attractive, chivalrous college boy like the "sex god" in Georgia's life and a funny academy boy who evokes Georgia's eventual love match. But forget those two: Rennison's best new invention is a local boy who is a lot like Seth in the movie, Cold Comfort Farm. He smolders and sneers and plays the field, and all of the girls for miles around line up in hopes of being mistreated by him. Cain and Tallulah get a little love-hate thing going. She thinks he's a jerk, but he's also... interesting.

In case you don't think Rennison had Cold Comfort Farm specifically in mind when she invented the character, this boy, rather glaringly named Cain, has two brothers named Seth and Ruben. Those are the names of the two sons in the movie, which is based on a book by Stella Gibbons. (Watch the movie, by the way; it's a wonderful send-up of Thomas Hardy and even gothic novels.) Of course, Cain and his brothers and some buddies have a rock band with which they further stun the girls at the theater school.

The main question in the story is whether Tallulah will qualify to stay on in the fall as a regular student, since the summer program is by way of being an audition. She seems to be failing miserably, but then, somebody's got to practice comedy in this place, right? Mostly, read the book to enjoy the goofy interactions between the various members of Rennison's colorful cast of characters. And try not to be too hard on it for not being about the inimitable Georgia.

Note for Worried Parents: Nightspell is a mature book in tone and is intended for teens. MacCaughrean's book is for middle grades, though it has a couple of references to tough life situations. Withering Tights is probably PG-13, with some eyebrow-raising remarks about kissing and breasts.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Review of Squish by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm

I am a big fan of this duo's Babymouse books, which are a great pick for reluctant girl readers and girls in general ages 8-11. So I've been looking forward to the launch of their new Super Amoeba graphic novel series. Of course, how in the heck do you turn a one-celled organism into an appealing hero? The dynamic Holm siblings show us how it's done: give your amoeba a great name and pop a baseball hat on him. (At first glance, the hat logo appears to be a simple smiley face; a closer look shows the hat's expression changing depending on the action—a nice little in-joke.)

Of course, every aspiring superhero and plain old kid needs sidekicks: Squish's best friend is a "guy" named Pod. When science genius and major lunch money mooch Pod says, "The fate of the world rests on my shoulders," Squish points out, "You don't have shoulders." Helpful arrows go on to add that Pod has no ears, no nose, no butt, and no shame, as well.

Squish's other (sort of) sidekick is a "girl" named Peggy, she of the eyelashes and overly optimistic smile. Peggy thinks everything is cute and nice and sweet, up to and including the school bully who threatens in all seriousness to devour her. Typical Peggy talk: "Guess what??!!?? ...I got a new slime mold!!! The cutest ever!!! I named him Fluffy!!! You guys want to see him after school??!?!"

There's a sort of mind-bending meld of everyday kid and microscopic pond life here. This occasionally strains credibility, but then, I'm pretty sure you won't care because the whole thing is clever and fun. So Squish eats Twinkies and goes to school, but his principal is a flatworm named Mr. Planaria and his science teacher is Mr. Rotifer, while the mean kids in the detention room include E. coli and parasites.

You may recall that in the Babymouse books, the narrator chimes in on a regular basis, alternately addressing readers and the main character, while Babymouse sometimes talks back to him. Here the narrator is also pretty participatory and even metacognitive (or metacommentative!). For example, when Mr. Rotifer says, "Now we're going to discuss the plant. This is the stem, these are the roots, this is the blah-blah-blah," the narrator's arrow-boxed remark is "What's with the blah-blah-blah?"

Adding further dimension to the storyline, Squish is a big fan of a comic book superhero named Super Amoeba, and we are given excerpts from the comics he reads (sometimes classically concealing them inside of his schoolbooks).

Matthew Holm's artwork is cheerful and clean. As in the Babymouse books, the strong black lines are highlighted with a single color. For Babymouse, it's pink (well, orange on Halloween). Squish's highlight color is pond-scum green, appropriately enough.

The plot is not particularly complex, but then, this book mostly introduces the characters and sets us up for further adventures. The story does include a nice twist. And the Holms throw in quite a lot of science info along the way.

Some second graders will need an explanation of the setting and the single-celled nature of the characters, but otherwise, this series promises to be a nice option for fans of Jarrett Krosoczka's Lunch Lady books. I will just note that it reads a tad younger than the Babymouse series, at least in this first outing. In fact, Super Amoeba feels a bit bland in comparison to Babymouse, but I'm curious to see how the series builds in future books.

Watch the book trailer for Squish here. I will also point out that Jennifer L. Holm has won three Newbery honor awards for her historical fiction. Wow! Link

A Review of The Accidental Genius of Weasel High by Rick Detorie

Larkin Pace wants to be a filmmaker. He also kind of assumes he's the boyfriend of his buddy Brooke, at least until she says those fatal words, "And how about you, Larkin? Have you found a girlfriend yet?"

These words reverberate through Larkin's brain, especially as he observes Brooke getting cozy with the school bully, Dalton Cooke, who spends a certain amount of his free time picking on Larkin.

And that's only one of Larkin's problems. There's the fact that he's on the short side. There's his evil older sister, whom he's dubbed The Beast. There's his friend, Freddie, who barely talks (except to say "Mahz well," which translates as "Might as well"). And there's crotchety Mrs. Grobnik, his new after-school boss—thanks to his mother, who has assigned him to work as the old lady's assistant.

I should point out that this book is illustrated, with a very Diary of a Wimpy Kid feel to it. Only it's not an imitator. Instead, the book's marketing campaign hews to truth in advertising with its slogan, "A book for the wimpy kid who has grown into a wimpy teen." I assure you, Larkin is not Greg Heffley. But he is an excellent if slightly nebbishy teen, and the people that surround him are a colorful cast in their own right.

For example, meet The Beast, AKA Kelly:
Then in stomped Kelly, who plopped her backpack on the chair by the door. Mom was right behind her.

"Kelly, have you had breakfast yet?"

"Yes, Mother. I had ibuprofen."

[Illustration with voice bubble: Kelly is making a bracey face and shaking her fists, eyes shut, as Larkin and his mother look on.] "It's the only thing I can manage because these braces are KILLING ME!"

Kelly was sporting her new look this morning. Lately she's been wearing a plastic thing under her hair that makes it look like there's a little speed bump on top of her head. I think she ordered it from an infomercial.

Which also gives you a glimpse of Larkin's slightly wry voice, one of the charms of this book.

Each section has a header, e.g., "Ten Things I Hate about Being 14," which includes items such as "Even girls are taller than me," "My mom has to drive me everywhere," and oh yes, after the fifth item: "I can't think of five more right now. I'll have to finish the list later." Ha. A few more memorable headers are "Miss Sadie, the Love Doctor," "She Who Must Get Her Way," and "Why Weasel's Library Lady Hates Me." And that's not counting the episode in which Larkin and Freddie sleep over at Freddie's cousin Jason's house in hopes of filming the ghost of a dead cat. Or the one where raccoons invade Kelly's bedroom late at night and Larkin scares them off using an "American Girly" doll.

And you know what? Old lady "Miss Sadie" isn't half bad, especially after she and Larkin get to talking about old movies.

Then there's the way Freddie never actually calls Larkin by name...

Rick Detorie's new book is more subtle than Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Larkin is much more likable than Greg (who is funny partly because he has no idea how selfish he is). Larkin's big break doesn't turn out so great and neither does his love life, but the book still ends on a hopeful note. For 11- to 15-year-old boys—and girls—I happily recommend The Accidental Genius of Weasel High.

P.S. You may know Detorie best thanks to his comic strip, One Big Happy, about a six-year-old girl named Ruthie and her family.

Note for Worried Parents: I'd call this a PG. It's for and about teens, but at the younger end of the spectrum, say middle school and early high school. Larkin is interested in girls and makes reference to a hickey at one point, but he never even gets a girl to go out with him except as friends (the topic of a running joke). Pretty mild stuff.

A Review of Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson

Did you ever have a passionate interest as a child? My friend's son knows everything there is to know about the Civil War. I have a niece who is horse crazy and a couple of my students know all about cars—one of them specializing in muscle cars and the other in street racing.

For Jack, it's elephants. And maybe it's the very steadiness of these large beasts that appeals to him, for heaven knows his life is anything but stable and predictable. Jack himself doesn't know the term, but readers will quickly guess that his mother is bipolar. Jack also doesn't seem to realize that he shouldn't be dragged here, there, and everywhere; being a kid, he's just along for the ride.

But his usual shrug-oriented attitude doesn't do him a bit of good when his beyond-flighty mother abandons him at a campground on an island in Maine. From here on out, it's a hide-and-survive story as Jack searches for his mother and then heads for his home in Boston while trying to avoid the police.

Of course, Jack can't stay in one place for very long because people start asking questions. Like the guy at the ice cream parlor, where he wishes he could ask for samples all day, but only gets two before he bolts. Or the family at the next campsite, who look after him for a little while before they start asking to see his mother for themselves.

To make matters worse, Jack hurts his finger, and he can't afford to try to see a doctor about it. Good thing the man in the bar wraps it for him. But the man seems awfully curious.

The trouble is, Jack's mother has quarreled with her mother and painted her as a bad person, so Jack is fearful of trying to contact his grandmother. And he knows that social workers would take him away from everything he knows, so he doesn't want that, either. No one can know that his mother is gone.

Jack steals a little elephant from a shop to give himself courage, though he feels kind of bad about it. He also looks at his YouPage on a library computer, hoping his mother has left a message. She hasn't, and his cell phone isn't any help, either. So after a few days looking around near the campsite, Jack decides to go back to Boston.

One of the most interesting things about this book is how it shows in such detail what a person Jack's age might do in this situation, step by step. Jack's thought processes are painful, yet revealing. His problem solving is also impressive. After he hurts his finger, he goes to the grocery store:
First stop in the supermarket was the bottle-and-can machine, where he made one dollar and ninety cents. Next stop: freezer section. Jack had to get some relief for his hand. Behind a glass door, he found the frozen peas, his mother's ice pack of choice, and plunged his hand deep inside mounds of crunchy bags. Fortunately, it was still fairly early, and most of the shoppers were more interested in coffee than frozen vegetables. He left his hand in as long as he could stand the cold and then pulled it out.

It helped, but he'd hardly made it to the frozen pizza before his pinky started throbbing again, so he slid it into another freezer case. This was how Jack moved up and down the aisles: clinging to frozen orange juice, wrapping his fingers around pints of ice cream. Even yogurt cups, which were not frozen but cool to the touch, provided relief.

He considered spending his money on a bag of ice, or even on some Advil, but knew that the ocean was close by and that he'd be able to give his finger a long soak if the pain didn't go away soon. Instead, he chose trail mix and a bottle of water.

Also poignant are the chapter headers, which are quotes and facts about elephants. The elephants' family dedication and reliability are offered in clear contrast to Jack's own situation.

Jacobson's methodical, almost muted tone heightens the power of this book, which in its gentle way is just as much a survival story as something like Gary Paulsen's Hatchet. The tension ratchets up when Jack starts seeing his face on the news. And he meets all kinds of people, some of them more willing to help him than others. For example, there's a girl named Sylvie who says bluntly:
"Convince me that I'm wrong. And everybody who's out looking for you, everybody in the state of Maine and your grandma and the police—convince me that we're all wrong, and that you're better off on your own."

Jack replies that he'll be taken away from his mother, which is clearly the most terrible thing he can imagine.

But then, he was also hoping to see an actual elephant on this trip, and somehow, he winds up heading toward the elephant instead of his old home.

As the lovely, understated cover art suggests, Small as an Elephant is a quieter book than some. It is nevertheless an adventure. Then again, thoughtful readers will appreciate, not only Jack's physical survival and his success in not being caught, but his inner quest to make sense out of having been abandoned by his mother.

I'll end with the Chapter One elephant quote from Peter Corneille: "If anyone wants to know what elephants are like, they are like people, only more so." And people are like elephants, fortunately for Jack. Little by little, readers will discover that Jack is loved and helped by a herd he hadn't even imagined.

Note for Worried Parents: There's some mild peril here, but mostly just a mature theme of child abandonment.

Also: If you like this book, try Walter Macken's classic,
Flight of the Doves. It's an old favorite of mine. The character interactions as Finn and Derval flee their stepfather and travel from England to Ireland remind me of Jack's journey. For that matter, try Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt, in which four children abandoned by their mentally ill mother in a parking lot travel cross-country in search of the grandmother they've never met.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Review of Wrapped by Jennifer Bradbury

Picture Y.S. Lee's The Agency: A Spy in the House at a tea party with Marissa Doyle's Bewitching Season and a couple of R.L. LeFever's Theodosia books. Be sure to add a mummy as the table's centerpiece, and you're in business with Jennifer Bradbury's new outing.

Did you know that in the 1800's, when Great Britain was fascinated by all things Egyptian, wealthy collectors used to hold mummy unwrapping parties? I'm not sure if that's the specific fact that inspired this book, but it certainly makes for a terrific story starter: our tale begins with the intrepid (well, bored) Agnes Wilkins attending a mummy unwrapping at the home of her soon-to-be betrothed, Lord Showalter.

Each of the guests who helps unwrap the mummy is allowed to keep any trinkets he or she finds in the wrappings. Agnes doesn't admit she has found a small amulet, and when Lord Showalter announces in some agitation that this is the wrong mummy, she is too embarrassed to return the small metal dog's head.

Then the guests who have participated in the unwrapping have their homes burglarized or are attacked, and Agnes turns sleuth. Is there really a mummy's curse, or is this an all-too-human plot of the nefarious Napoleonic variety?

Either way, Agnes finds she would rather spend time investigating the mystery with the help of a touchy, clever assistant curator at the British Museum than flirt with Lord Showalter, who seems to have secrets of his own. But Agnes and Caedmon find themselves in peril of their lives... Naturally!

Throw in a secret society or two and the secret codes to match. Be sure and make Agnes a linguistics specialist, the daughter of England's chief spymaster. Yes, it's all a little campy, but it's also a whole lot of fun! Here's Agnes in action, cutting the mummy's wrappings:
Then a metal edge emerged from the cloth in front of me, like a scallop shell half buried in the sand. My pulsed raced as the undeniable excitement of the moment took hold. I glanced up to see if anyone else had seen it yet, but they were all still attending carefully to Showalter's impromptu lecture about Rupert's ankh. So no one noticed as I pulled the item from the wrapping. No one but me saw the object breathe fresh air for the first time in a thousand years. The feeling was unexpectedly thrilling, and I could only imagine what it might feel like to unearth whole temples forgotten to time, like that Swiss man had found at Abu Simbel a couple of years ago.

I started to call to the others, but they were listening raptly as our host delivered a detailed description of a small scroll found by Lady Kensington at the shoulder of the corpse.

There's a bit more talk than action in this book, but the plot as a whole is pleasing, as is Agnes's growing attraction to the unsuitable yet honorable Caedmon.

If you liked any of the books I listed above, let alone Stephanie Burgis's Kat, Incorrigible, you'll probably enjoy Bradbury's novel. Wrapped is fairly predictable, a lighthearted adventure, a mystery and a spy story. There is just a touch of the paranormal for you fantasy fans out there. The author has left room for a sequel, with spying playing a prominent role. And she has kindly added an author's note explaining about the mummy unwrapping parties and spies of the Napoleonic era.

I suggest you unwrap this book!

Note for Worried Parents: This one is wholesome enough for middle grades, though it's being marketed to a Young Adult audience. I think 10- to 14-year-old girls would like it.

Also: Read about the author at Simon and Schuster's website.

A Review of The Magnolia League by Katie Crouch

If you liked Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, check out the first book in this new series by Katie Crouch, which is even more Southern gothic, if that's possible. Crouch has cleverly transformed the idea of the debutante into an initiation ritual into a secret occult society. Turns out the rich and beautiful women of Savannah, Georgia, owe their success to a pact with a clan of voodoo practitioners, the Buzzards. And now that Alex Lee's hippie mother is dead, Alex has been sent home to live with her grandmother, who is the powerful leader of the Magnolia League.

Of course, Alex doesn't know any of this at first, just as she has no clue about the significance of the necklace her mother left her. No questions about the way her mother died, either...

Alex snoops around, wondering why everyone is acting so strange—why she's not supposed to talk to the charismatic Sam Buzzard and why her grandmother is so determined for Alex to become a deb. Most of all, she wants to get out of town, right back to the hippie commune in Northern California where she thinks she's found true love in the form of a slacker named Reggie.

Crouch has a great time giving her basic premise a twist by making Alex a modern-day hippie child. In fact, Alex's personality is my favorite thing about the book, which begins, "You know what I hate? Sweet tea." And goes on to give us lines like this one from a knowing fellow deb: "'We're the New South,' Hayes says. 'Like Justin Timberlake.'" Take a look at Alex at an outdoor party with her deb "friends":
The guys all wear a uniform: khaki shorts, a polo shirt, and a baseball cap. The girls, on the other hand, look like exotic birds, bright, colorful, dressed to the nines, even though they're out here in this dusty field. The boys bob their heads solemnly to the music and drink seriously out of their red plastic cups; the girls laugh loudly and manage to text nonstop while juggling cigarettes, plastic cups, lighters, and purses and still never missing a beat in their conversations. All of them are slapping at the mosquitoes that swarm their faces. All of them, that is, except Hayes, Madision, and me. I can hear the insects whining in my ears, but for some reason, they aren't biting.

"It's our perfume," Hayes explains, spraying more on me. "Magnolia herbal secret."


"The Magnolia League was into herbal medicine way before anyone else was," Madison says. "Why do you think they all look so forever twenty-one?"

"My mom knew a lot about herbs," I say. "Maybe that's where it comes from."

Alex's plans to return to Mendocino don't play out quite the way she thought they would, and meanwhile, she has met a new guy, the troubled and troubling Thaddeus. She has also made friends with a couple of fellow outsiders, to her grandmother's horror.

As a reader, you may find yourself shocked when free spirit Alex is seduced by the joys of being a member of the league, pulling away from her new geek friends as she discovers that voodoo can give her things like shiny, cooperative hair and easy weight loss. (Alex is a bit on the chubby side.) Then again, she is a teenage girl, and she doesn't completely sell her soul, at least not without some trickery on the part of Hayes and Madison and her own grandmother.

But Thaddeus—and the awful truth about the Magnolia League—aren't that easy to avoid, and Alex finds herself more torn than ever as the book comes to a close and she's hit with a huge, nasty plot twist.

First-person present tense narrative, pop culture references, and a cliffhanger ending: This book is trendy, yet manages to avoid being a paranormal clone. The characters are truly intriguing, especially the Buzzards. The premise and plot twists are satisfyingly dark as well as human, and tempered by the author's sly humor. A bit of a beach read, but a good one!

Note for Worried Parents: The California commune is a pot farm, more so after Alex's mother dies, and Alex herself smokes pot rather casually. She is also fairly casual about the idea of sex and has fooled around a bit with her older hippie boyfriend, though she's never gone all the way.

Visit Katie Crouch's website here. She has written adult fiction set in the South, as well.

My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a review copy of this book.

A Review of Enclave by Ann Aguirre

I'm pretty sure I'm not the first nor will be the last to compare this book to The Hunger Games: tough teenage girl who's a warrior, dark dystopian setting, a race for survival. But believe it or not, Deuce's world is worse than Katniss's. I compare them simply to give you some idea about the book's general tone and level of violence. Really, Aguirre has built her own world here, and it makes the one with those 12 (or 13) districts and televised death matches look downright cheery.

Here the death matches are every day. Deuce is part of a mostly primitive tribe inhabiting the subway tunnels in a post-apocalyptic New York City. She and her bunch are pretty brutal, exiling or killing off anyone who breaks the rules, but they are menaced by worse terrors—the cannibalistic mutants they call Freaks. (These have a whiff of zombie about them, if you're trying to picture it.)

Deuce has survived to the age of 15, so she is marked with fire and given a name instead of a number. She is proud of her training as a Huntress (vs. a Builder or Breeder), but she is dismayed to be assigned to a partner who came to the tribe as an outsider and has managed to survive in their culture. Fade isn't necessarily one for obeying the rules, which means he could get Deuce killed by the tribal leaders. Sent on a suicide mission, the two manage to survive, but when they return with a warning about the Freaks, their leaders won't listen.

Deuce and Fade end up in exile, where they are nearly killed by the Freaks. Then Fade leads Deuce to the surface of the city, a place she has never dreamed of going. They run into trouble with a local gang and with the Freaks who live on the surface. Barely escaping death yet again, they acquire a hardhearted companion and flee the city altogether, unsure where they will wind up, assuming they continue to stay alive.

Yes, there's a sort of love triangle. Deuce and Fade grow close, but their closeness is threatened by the thuggish Stalker. As tough as she is, Deuce is somewhat drawn to Stalker, who is more like her. But she likes Fade partly because he is more compassionate and civilized than she is (though nevertheless a fighter). This plot thread is left hanging at the end of the book.

Deuce's world is an ugly one, but it's heartening to watch her survive and grow and even (sort of) escape to a place that is a bit less vicious—though the Freaks continue to threaten those who are more human even as the book ends. We are definitely heading toward a sequel here!

I've read some of Aguirre's adult sci-fi, and she just keeps getting better. This book is well crafted, from its world building to its character building. Aguirre moves easily between action and emotion, giving Enclave a better balance than some books of this sort. Here's Deuce heading out on her first real hunt:
Beyond the light of the enclave, it was dark, darker than I'd ever seen. It took my eyes long moments to adjust. Fade waited while I made the shift.

"We hunt like this?" Nobody ever told me. Primitive fear scuttled up my spine.

"Light attracts Freaks. We don't want them to see us first."

Reflexively, I checked my weapons as if mentioning the monsters could bring them slavering out of the murk. My club slid free cleanly. I put it back. Likewise, my knives found my palms in a smooth motion.

As we moved, my other senses compensated. I had done visual deprivation as part of my training, but I hadn't understood just how much I would need that skill out here. Now I was glad I could hear him moving ahead of me because I could make out only vague shadows. No wonder Hunters died.

So yes, if you liked The Hunger Games, or Incarceron or The Forest of Hands and Teeth, for that matter, add this to your list of creepy-cool dystopian books!

Note for Worried Parents: Enclave is an intense book for teens and includes graphic violence, horror, and the threat of rape, plus mature themes simply in the way Deuce's grim little society functions.

Also: Click here to watch the book trailer. (Not sure I care much for the casting of Fade. I'm thinking the boy should look a lot less like a friendly spaniel. Oh well!)

Please note that this book was provided to me as an ARC by the publisher.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Oh, the Horror!

Okay, I'm back, a little scuffed, but (almost) ready to post again. My computer has been in the shop for a week with a very nasty virus. Also, I'm packing up to move out of state in three weeks. But I will try to get a couple of reviews up soon, having read some great books lately.

Fun fact for the day: according to my tech guy, a computer virus attacks/crashes your hard drive, but leaves your documents intact, albeit inaccessible. A computer worm actually destroys files. So, even though I had created backup files on a flash drive fairly recently (mm, March?), I am still happy to report that the virus did not kill off my files!