Friday, April 30, 2010

A Review of Flight of the Outcast by Brad Strickland

Finally, flat-out space opera for younger readers! If you like grown-up sci-fi by the likes of David Weber and Elizabeth Moon, you'll be happy to get your hands on this series starter by Brad Strickland, in which an uncommon commoner named Asteria Locke goes to space academy.

Asteria lives on a domed farm with her father on a quiet planet until the day when raiders attack the farm and kill her father and cousin, leaving Asteria alone. A nearby religious community takes her in, but they obviously have designs on the land Asteria will inherit and intend to turn her into a traditional wife in a highly patriarchal system, so Asteria manages to sneak off planet and get into space academy using her cousin's admission papers.

She eventually learns more about the historic space battle in which her father was injured, one where he was more of a hero than she or the public suspected. And Aster, as she now calls herself, runs afoul of some aristos, especially the treacherous Kain Kayser (Count Mastral), who seems determined to destroy Aster—and who will probably remind you of Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter books.

Aster manages to foil at least some of the arrogant boy's plots. She also studies to be a spaceship pilot and tries to figure out the meaning of the odd belt she found among her father's things, which won't come off once she puts it on. By the end of the book, she realizes that the treachery she has observed so far is only the beginning of worse conspiracies, and that there are those who would be perfectly happy to see her dead.

Unused to being around other kids, Aster doesn't make friends easily, but readers will see her worries and loneliness, as well as her determination. Aster's best buddy at the Academy ends up being a boy named Dai, someone she initially dislikes. The author gives us no hint of romance, which suits the story. Aster is too focused on her plans to be mooning over boys. Her long-term mission is to get revenge on the raiders for her father's death.

Here's the book's rather grand opening:

Asteria Locke's world ended quite suddenly one noon in the early summer of her thirteenth Standard year. Before that hour, she had been the daughter of a farmer on the fringe planet of Theron. Before that day, she had no brothers or sisters, but she did have a cousin who—how she envied him—had been destined to travel offworld, to study at the most prestigious school in the Empyrion. She also had a father who had once served in the Royal Empyrean Space Fleet, though her mother had been dead for a long time.
After that day, she had no one.
Yet after that day—after that hour—she set out on the long path to becoming a legend.

There is something satisfying about an epic hero's journey, that long path Strickland points us down with this first book in his new series, The Academy. Fans of the recent Star Trek movie and adventure stories in general will enjoy seeing Aster set out on her journey. This isn't Ender's Game, mind you; it's for 9- to 12-year-olds and is less intense, with more of a Harry Potter books 3-5 feel. But it's a promising series start for the middle grades, and I look forward to reading the next installment. Thanks to Flight of the Outcast and a handful of other recent books, the noticeable dearth of science fiction for the middle grades is beginning to be remedied.

A Review of Attack of the Fluffy Bunnies by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by Dan Santat

If the narrator of A Series of Unfortunate Events got on your nerves, or if you don't think a book like The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity by Mac Barrett is funny, then this spoofy book is not for you. But if you're a fan of satire, not to mention old B horror movies on late-night TV, you should give this one a try.

Not long ago, in a galaxy just beyond the Milky Way—but not quite as far as the Peanut Cluster—there lived a race of fierce, large, ugly, and ferocious furballs known as the Fierce, Large, Ugly, and Ferocious _____. (Fluffs for short—though in reality, there is nothing short about Fluffs.)

The missing word above is supplied on a small insert included with the book (which I used as a bookmark!). It has a mean-looking picture of a Fluff and reads:

WARNING: A word on page 2 was removed for your protection. Under no circumstances should you insert the word "Furballs" at the end of the phrase "Fierce, Large, Ugly, and Ferocious." Doing so might cause this book to make sense.

Yep, this is that kind of book! Andrea Beaty cheerfully mocks summer camps—especially lanyards—glitter-obsessed girls, fluffy bunnies, High School Musical, surfers, B horror movies, and, most notably, SPAM. Since Joules and Kevin Rockman's parents are determined to retain their crowns as the SPAM king and queen, they drop the kids off at the gates of Camp Whatsitooya and roar off to a SPAM festival. (Mrs. Rockman's award-winning recipe the previous year was Funky-Chunky-Chocolate SPAM Pudding.)

Only, it just so happens that the camp is the landing spot for the Fluffs we met in Chapter 2, who have to relocate when their marshmallow planet is destroyed by a meteor. Naturally, or rather unnaturally, complications ensue, also horror and hilarity. The Fluffs' sweet tooth, which in no way detracts from their tendency to eat humans, contributes to plot development. And why are the camp counselors acting so strange, wanting the campers to build a three-stage intergalactic rocket with satellite communications out of popsicle sticks?

One nice touch here is the way Joules and Kevin reference the aforementioned B horror movies. I particularly like Kevin's Chart of Famous Last Words, e.g., "There's nothing in this musty, cursed tomb that could possibly hurt you." Which is from a movie called Curse of the Musty Tomb, in case you were wondering.

This is an adventurous, plot- and humor-driven story, so most of the characters are deliberately one-dimensional, but Joules and Kevin make a likable pair of heroes, with Joules being the risk-taker and Kevin the more cautious sibling.

Attack of the Fluffy Bunnies is not a true graphic novel; however, it does have sections of cartoon panels here and there, nicely drawn by illustrator Dan Santat. At 184 pages, this book shouldn't intimidate reluctant readers. And, as I've mentioned in previous reviews, today's kids don't seem to have any trouble understanding satire, no doubt thanks to having watched a couple of thousand Simpsons episodes each.

As for the plot, simply think of any B horror movie, and you'll have some idea how this tongue-in-cheek sci-fi story for middle grades is going to play out, with Joules and Kevin being called upon to save the planet. But I'll warn you: You'll never look at a bunny—or SPAM—the same way again!

A Review of Boom! by Mark Haddon

Yes, this is by the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and no, it's not anything like that. Well, it does star a boy in an ordinary British town, but that's about it. Boom! is a re-release (albeit revised) of a book published in 1993 called Gridzbi Spudvetch! That title alone should help you understand that despite the "explosive, hilarious adventure for all ages" marketing blurb, this tongue-in-cheek sci-fi offering is really perfectly suited for boys ages 9-13.

Jim is the narrator of the first-person tale and Charlie is his best friend. As our story begins, Jim is on the balcony of his family's apartment eating his latest creation, a Red Leicester and gooseberry jam sandwich—which he proceeds to drop on the head of his teenage sister's thuggish motorcycle-riding boyfriend Terry, AKA Craterface. Craterface threatens to kill Jim, and Becky calls him a little toad. Later, she tells Jim she overheard one of his teachers saying he was going to be expelled from school. While Jim is pretty sure Becky is just making it up to get back at him, he's worried enough to tell Charlie. And Charlie's been dying to try out his walkie-talkies, so he sets one up in the teachers' staffroom to find out what's going on with Jim.

Except, the boys overhear more than they bargained for when two of their teachers start talking in a strange language. Intrigued, Charlie begins to spy on the teachers, and he ropes Jim in to help him. As the clues pile up, strange men in suits start threatening the two boys, and then Charlie disappears. Jim is determined to rescue his friend—if he lives long enough to do it.

Plot-wise, this book is a giddy ride, with the spoofiness getting especially extreme when the boys meet up with the aliens on their home turf. (Funniest thing ever: the kind of people being kidnapped by aliens. Okay, Becky getting all protective about her despised younger brother produces some very funny moments, as well.) The plot is not astounding, but it does give Haddon a chance to do what he does best, which is to write appealingly quirky British characters. For example, we get Jim's father, who has lost his job and is being unmanned by his wife's sudden success in the workforce. First Jim's dad plays with model planes, and then Jim buys him a cookbook, with happy results. Haddon is especially good at writing boys. Here's a little of Jim's narrative voice as he considers the dangers of bugging the teachers' staff room:

Worst of all we might be found by the caretaker. When Mr McLennan caught the Patterson twins in the athletics shed last year he simply pretended he hadn't seen them and locked them in overnight. He was very nearly sacked but the headmistress reckoned it would cut down on vandalism if everyone knew there was a dangerous lunatic looking after the school buildings...
Besides, two people wanted to kill me. A secateur-wielding cook and a kung-fu death metal biker. One lived at Charlie's house and the other spent a great deal of time at our flat. In the greater scheme of things the athletics shed was probably the safest place to be.

Boom! is a quick read, a mere 191 pages. (Have you noticed that a lot of books are now printed with line spacing of 1-1/2, not 1? Which makes them seem longer than they are...) This may not be a rich book, but it's a fun one. The climactic chapter titled "The Big Knobbly Stick" is especially amusing in a Grand Guignol kind of way, and not just because it pokes fun at those ticking-clock deadlines in action films. I'm guessing that your 11-year-old son, not being a literary aficionado, let alone one of the many grown-ups who read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, will probably like Boom! very much.

Note: I requested this book from the Amazon Vine program. It is scheduled to come out on May 11.

A Review of Abby Carnelia's One & Only Magical Power by David Pogue

Technology reporter David Pogue has come up with a very funny premise, although the follow-through is a bit more ordinary. As we learn in the first chapter, not to mention the title, Abby Carnelia has a magical power: when she tugs on her ears, she can make a hard-boiled egg spin.

Only—that's it! No variations, no additional applications, no broad-ranging telekinesis; just ears and egg spinning. (Raw eggs don't work, either.) Here's how the book begins:

You've probably seen the ads for Abby Carnelia's Find-Your-Magic Centers on TV. Or maybe you've seen a Find-Your-Magic Center at the shopping mall, tucked in between the Gap and the drugstore. But Abby Carnelia herself didn't discover her own magical power until she was eleven years old.
This is how it happened.

Once she learns of her ability, Abby naturally wants to know more about magic. She ends up getting into a surprisingly inexpensive summer camp for young magicians. At first Abby is discouraged to discover that the other kids are practicing stage magic, not the real thing. Then she does finally meet other kids with magical powers, and all of them go off to an "advanced camp."

The other powers are just as quirky as Abby's, if not more so. I will just share one: a girl who can float off the floor, but only a quarter of an inch, and then only if she pictures a certain goofy scenario involving buffalos.

One of the best characters is a boy named Ben, who, after he decides Abby isn't nuts, helps her perform her egg act in suitably grand style for the camp magic show. Then Ben joins the kids with magical powers as they change camps, even though Abby is pretty sure Ben's power isn't magical at all.

The rest of the plot, which depends partly on a cleverly censored set of e-mails that the author lets us read, plays out rather typically, corporate villains and all. But readers will find that Abby and her new friends are an appealing bunch. I especially like how they figure out some terrific applications for their odd skills when they attempt to make their escape from the second camp.

Abby Carnelia's One & Only Magical Power is a friendly read, and you'll have fun watching Abby try to find a place for herself in a world where egg-spinning doesn't seem particularly useful. I actually got more of a science fiction than a fantasy feel from this book, perhaps because the powers are so focused and non-wandy. There's obviously a message here about uniqueness and individual worth, but it's plenty palatable, tucked in between the lines of Abby's adventures with her new gift and her new friends.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The How-Did-I-End-Up-with-Two-Copies-of-This? Book Giveaway, Part Deux

Announcing the second How-Did-I-End-Up-with-Two-Copies-of-This? Book Giveaway, wherein I reshelve yet again, ponder the limitations of having a mere 13 bookshelves in a two-bedroom condo, and wonder if it's truly possible to have too many books.

I will therefore send the winner of this giveaway three (3!) books, one clean new hardcover copy of each of the following, which are all very good:

--Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus by R.L. LaFevers (reviewed here, the third in an adventuresome series about a girl with a knack for curse detection whose parents run an antiquities museum in London in the early 1900s)
--The Magic Thief: Lost by Sarah Prineas (the second in a series about a boy who, in Book 1, picked the pocket of a wizard and became his apprentice; now he runs away from home and comes up against a sorcerer-king)
--A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce (a rich, dark retelling of the story of Rumpelstiltskin, this Young Adult book is set in England at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution)

How do you enter? Simply leave a comment in which you tell us what book/s you own just one copy of, but wish you had two of, if only to have a loaner available. This is also a chance to recommend a favorite, whether old or new!

The giveaway will run for about two weeks, ending at midnight on Thursday, May 13. Then I'll draw names to find a winner. So check back and/or leave handy identifying info in your comment.

P.S. I guess I should say which books I wish I had two of! An American Childhood by Annie Dillard and All the Small Things, a collection of poems by Valerie Worth, are the first two that pop into my head. Also The Silver Curlew by Eleanor Farjeon (which I will be posting about soon...).

Update: This contest is now closed. Winners to be announced shortly.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

SuperReview: N.D. Wilson's 100 Cupboards Trilogy

I used to keep up with most of the new fantasy series, but in the post-Potter glut, I'll admit I fell behind. N.D. Wilson's 100 Cupboards is one I initially passed on, mostly because I thought, Another portal book? Just looking at the flap copy and reading a few pages, I thought the book sounded cute, with another boy-and-girl pair of buddies exploring different worlds through cupboard door portals like some kind of video game, implying a plot more episodic than well rounded.

Boy, was I wrong! These are not cute books; in fact, they're not even upbeat, although they have some funny moments. However, they are wonderfully original, well-written, complex fantasy. I read 100 Cupboards a few weeks back and immediately went looking for the other two books. Fortunately, the third and final book in Wilson's trilogy came out a couple of months ago, just in time for me to read all three and review them here in a batch. (Note: There will be some spoilers for the first two books, but I'll try not to get carried away.)

100 Cupboards

Henry York is shy and overprotected, at least till he goes to stay with his uncle and aunt in a small town in Kansas, also named Henry. Dotty and Frank Willis at first seem like just another farm couple with their three daughters, Penny, Henrietta, and Anastasia. Henry's own parents, world travelers who usually park him in boarding school, have disappeared while biking across South America.

Henry is given an attic room, and he's still trying to get used to his new home, especially having girl cousins around, when he hears a weird sound in the wall next to his bed. Eventually he discovers knobs sticking out of the plaster. When he scrapes off more and more of the plaster, he finds cupboard doors of various sizes, made of a variety of materials. His cousin Henrietta catches him at it and wants in on the mystery. Soon Henry is opening the cupboard doors, discovering worlds he wants to explore, along with terrifying spaces. Many of the cupboards are too small to crawl into, adding to the puzzle. At the same time, his Uncle Frank is trying to open up Grandfather's room, which has been locked since the old man died and refuses to budge even for a chainsaw. (And who is the stranger in the purple bathrobe Henry catches coming out of the bathroom one night, but almost immediately forgets?)

Henry begins to make friends and to learn to play baseball for the first time. But even as he comes out of his shell, he and Henrietta bicker over exploring the worlds inside the cupboards, eventually releasing (you guessed it) an unspeakable evil from one of them.

The two nicest things about 100 Cupboards are the characters and the way Wilson unwinds his story. The situation with the cupboards builds slowly, oddly, and ominously, with pleasing suspense. For example, an early discovery is that one of the cupboards opens into the back of somebody's post office box. Another opens into a forest where on one occasion it begins to rain, blowing water and debris into Henry's bedroom.

Henry's efforts to find out what's going on are complicated by Henrietta, who is pigheaded enough to cause ten kinds of trouble. Henrietta isn't one of those cooperative fantasy sidekicks; she's the kind of girl who doesn't see why she should trust anyone's judgment but her own—even after she nearly drowns going into one of the cupboards. Henrietta is both foolhardy and courageous; I must say she grew on me as the series progressed. Throughout the trilogy, Wilson's characters are unpredictable in dimensional ways, just like people in real life. Uncle Frank is another character who turns out to be more than he initially seems, and not just because he's a quirky armchair philosopher.

Even while drawing on traditional fantasy elements like portals and misplaced babies who are heirs to magical powers, Wilson manages to give his book emotional heft and the kinds of twists that will resonate with readers. His prose is also richly crafted, and he has an eye for fresh details. Here's a quick sampling of his descriptive language:

—The bus stopped amid a shower of metallic grunts.
—A mostly white cat sprawled in the yard, looking revolted by something or other.
—He was used to milk with transparent edges, milk that looked a little blue. This milk was more like cream. It was thick, white, and coated the cereal with film as Henry poured. In his mouth, he could feel it clinging to his tongue. His tongue didn't mind.

As the cupboard situation escalates, Henry begins getting letters from the cupboards that address him as the Whimpering Child, ordering him to cease and desist. He also finds letters apparently sent to his grandfather, he of the stubbornly locked door. By the time all is said and done, we learn that nothing is as it seems, and we have been launched into an epic adventure with Henry at its heart.

Dandelion Fire

Henry is about to be sent back to his parents, who have been recovered from South America. But things are different now that he's begun to explore the cupboards, and now that he's released the evil of Endor. Then Henry has a strange encounter with a dandelion, which burns his hand and seems related to a lightning strike, leaving him functionally blind, though the doctors can find nothing wrong.

So begins Book 2 of Wilson's 100 Cupboards trilogy. The cupboards are supposedly locked, but Henry is sure he will find what he needs if he can only get back in again. And he's certain Henrietta has the key to Grandfather's room. Unfortunately, Henry attracts the attention of a dark magic maker, nearly losing his freedom entirely. And his aunt and uncle and cousins get sucked into one of the cupboard worlds—along with a policeman and Henry's friend Zeke. Now Henry tries to save his family while evading Darius and the even more terrifying Nimiane, undying witch of Endor (hmm, biblical allusion there!). Nimiane is draining the worlds to feed her immortality, leaving nothing but ash behind as her invisible greed begins stripping the countryside of life and hope.

Henrietta has her own adventures as Henry weaves in and out of worlds so fast it will make your head spin, racing to find help. His troubles escalate when Henry is captured by the faeries, a bureaucratic, ruthless lot who turn out to have had something to do with the disappearance of his true father, a Green Man. Even after Henry escapes and discovers his birthright in a city beside the sea, he must help fight off an attack by a wizard army led by Darius, now Nimiane's servant.

The Chestnut King

The wizard Darius has been defeated, but Henry and his family and friends scarcely have time to draw breath before the emperor's soldiers come after them. It turns out Nimiane has gotten her witchy claws on the royal family and is using all of the resources of the empire to capture or kill Henry and his father. She has also gotten at Henry another way—a wound she gave his cheek in Book One is festering and growing, threatening to take him over. It lets the witch talk to Henry in his dreams and know exactly where to find him. Now Nimiane has sent out a crew of magically enslaved servants called fingerlings to hunt him down.

Meanwhile, Henry and Henrietta barely escape being burned to death by the emperor's soldiers and must go on the run, while other family members have been taken prisoner on a slave galley and sent to Nimiane in the imperial capitol. Henry and Henrietta search for his father in Endor, hoping he can save the others. But Henry may have to track down the legendary Chestnut King, leader of an unallied and hidden group of faeron, and strike a deal with him instead.

Nothing comes easily to Henry and his family and friends in the 100 Cupboards trilogy, which is one of the keys to good storytelling. Author N.D. Wilson ratchets up the sorrow and peril all the more in this last book. We do get a bit of comic relief from characters like a faerie named Fat Frank, who betrayed his people in Book 2 to help Henry and is now paying the price. Then there's the Faerie Queen. She may be young and ineffectual, but she happens to be sitting on top of a handy portal. One of my favorite moments is when Henry pops up and asks if she minds if he leads an army through her chambers.

And finally, we get the answers to two important questions: Can Henry defeat an impossibly powerful witch using his strange dandelion magic? Also, can he play baseball?

Wilson's trilogy is both epic and down-to-earth, a seemingly unlikely combination that he balances beautifully. There are a lot of fantasy series floating around out there like so much gray dandelion fluff, and you really don't want all of them landing on your lawn. But this trilogy is bright and golden, standing out from the rest thanks to rich characterization, strong writing, original twists, fantasy horror, unique details, adventure, and flashes of humor. The Chestnut King ends this series with an absolute slam-bang, not to mention a smile. Highly recommended.

Note for Worried Parents: The 100 Cupboards books are fairly dark, with some fantasy horror elements that might distress younger readers. I'd say 11 and up, depending on the child.

Update: Based on the Amazon customer reviews, some readers are finding Christian themes in the 100 Cupboards books. I saw a couple of biblical allusions, one of which is mentioned above, but I also found allusions to mythology, philosophy, and literature (e.g., the witch's name reads as a variation of the Niniane, the woman who brought about Merlin's downfall in the Arthurian legends). Frankly, I feel that most fantasy books have a religious connection in the sense that they're about the age-old battle between good and evil.

A Review of Foiled by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Mike Cavallaro

Jane Yolen is known for her amazing career in children's literature, which spans genres as well as decades and will hit the 300-book mark this fall. She's published poetry, short stories, picture books, easy readers, middle grade fiction, and YA novels, including fantasy, science fiction, humor, historical fiction, and a marvelous folklore anthology you should look for at your local library or bookstore (Favorite Folktales from Around the World).

So why not a graphic novel?

Never one to rest on her laurels, Yolen has expanded her already-expansive repertoire with the recent publication of Foiled, a graphic novel illustrated by Mike Cavallaro. Foiled is the story of Aliera Carstairs, a girl who doesn't fit into any particular group, not even the kids in her fencing studio. She's so much better than the others, it sets her apart. Besides, she seems to thrive on being apart—even when she questions it.

Graphic novels lend themselves to third person, but Yolen's book is written in the first person, which I liked. Aliera introduces herself as our narrator, explaining on page two:
The story I have to tell you is not about Avery, it's about me, and fencing, and what I learned while masked.
It's about defense and defenders.
It's about power, and I don't mean electricity.
It's about family.
Most grown-ups will tell you things are revealed when you take off a mask.
But they're wrong, as they often are.
Everything was revealed when I put my fencing mask on in Grand Central Station.
In these chapters, satisfyingly titled with fencing moves, Aliera shows us her isolation, then proceeds to develop a crush on a strange new boy, her lab partner. Amazed by her own giddiness, she tries to retain her dignity around the flirtatious and slightly odd Avery, but doesn't always succeed.

Aliera is also given a new foil, one her mother bought at a junk sale. She believes the huge jewel on the handle is paste and tries to remove it, but it won't come off. Then comes the Saturday when Aliera cancels her usual visit with her cousin Caroline, who is chronically ill, to meet Avery at Grand Central Station for a date.

There she puts on her fencing mask—and sees another world, one filled with fairy tale creatures who are beautiful, ugly, odd, and menacing. Suddenly Aliera is in the middle of a battle, with only her fencing skills and her New York City instincts to save her. And Avery isn't exactly cooperating.

Yolen uses familiar tropes like the kid with special powers and a mission to save the world, magic swords, and hidden kingdoms, but she takes them somewhere new in this urban fantasy, showing readers how powerfully voice can drive a graphic novel. Sometimes the visual elements in a graphic novel (like the art in too many picture books) can mask a weak text. That is not the case here. If anything, Yolen's language elevates the art—although that's well done, too. One nice touch is that Aliera is colorblind and Cavallaro's illustrations represent her black-and-white view until Aliera gets to see the unseen world within her world, at which point color bursts onto the pages and into her eyes for the first time. (This strategy was also used to good effect in the new graphic novel of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight.)

Mike Cavallaro's art is witty and clear, creating satisfying movement across each spread. He is especially good at capturing the tiniest nuances of Aliera's moods with facial expressions and other body language, playfully adding sharp teeth when she is angry.

More than another feisty girl, Aliera is by turns distant and familiar as she struggles with her place in the world, trying to become something, she's not sure what. These themes are woven into the very real feeling of the events depicted in Foiled. I like how Yolen uses things like Aliera's colorblindness and the strategies of fencing to represent this character's struggles with identity and with social interactions. When a distracted Aliera performs poorly in the fencing studio for once, her irate mentor says:

"Aliera Carstairs, what do you think you're doing? OR NOT DOING."
"I was protecting my heart?"
"Defense, yes. But sometimes you have to risk all to win. I thought you understood that."
One more word, and this interchange would lose its power. Instead Aliera shrugs, and her instructor continues: "Perhaps you need to sit down. Or go home. Or rethink your commitment."

During my first reading, I was a little disappointed not to see more action with the otherworldly creatures in the train station. Also, the most obvious of Aliera's problems in that section of the book is solved by outside intervention. However, a second look made me realize that the true battle in the train station is Aliera's "date" and how she deals with it. Yolen uses fantasy elements to heighten the awkwardness of young love throughout Foiled, ruthlessly dissecting it like the frog Aliera and Avery must dissect early on.

Of course, Aliera herself warns us that this story "is not about Avery, it's about me, and fencing." So I should say, rather, that Foiled is about how Aliera learns a little bit more about handling herself in a seemingly black-and-white world. This book is Volume One of a coming-of-age story that uses a foil and a boy and magical creatures in a train station as, well, foils.

From what I understand, Aliera's story will be told in a mere two volumes. Frankly, I'm not sure how that's possible—there's so much potential for a longer series here. But if anyone can do it, it's master craftswoman Jane Yolen.

Note for Worried Parents: Foiled is listed on Amazon as being for ages 9-12, but it has a kind of teen sensibility, with brief references to things like drug and alcohol use, plus kissing. Aliera and her friends are in high school. I think the ideal audience for this book would be middle schoolers, along with 9th and 10th graders. Aha—the publisher's website says it's for grade 6 and up (or age 11 and up).

A Review of Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus by R.L. LaFevers

You know those kids that really should be CEOs of multinational corporations at the age of seven? The ones who look with disdain at the foolish adults who haven't sufficient sense to bow to their wills? The ones you're nice to now because they'll be running for president or prime minister, if not queen, in a couple of decades—and winning?

Yes, Theodosia Throckmorten is one of those kids. Not because she's bossy or precocious in a sitcom kind of way, but because she knows what she knows and doesn't suffer fools gladly. Theodosia is busy, and adults seem to have a tendency to get in her way. As she puts it in the first two sentences: "I hate being followed. I especially hate being followed by a bunch of lunatic adults playing at being occultists."

In Book 3, Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus, our 11-year-old heroine continues using her knowledge of Egyptian magic to remove the curses from objects shipped to the Museum of Legends and Antiquities that her parents run. The year is 1906, mummies are all the rage in London, and sometimes they're even real.

The adults interfering with Theodosia are a motley crew. We have the slightly deranged Aloysius Trawley and the Black Sunners, who seem pretty sure Theodosia is a reincarnated goddess and are cranky about her lack of willingness to come around and share her supposed power. Then we have the traitor Admiral Sopcoate and his cronies, who escaped in the last book and now show up demanding the strange artifact Theodosia's brother Henry has discovered in the museum basement—the Emerald Tablet. Soon it seems everyone is after the tablet, including the mysterious and possibly fraudulent Egyptian magician, Awi Bubu. Theodosia's mentor, Lord Wigmere, is not helping matters any. He keeps trying to pressure her into working with his representative at the museum, Clive Fagenbush, who gets on Theodosia's last nerve.

Really, at this point, I don't mind what shenanigans Theodosia is up to; I just like watching her in action. Whether she's putting a sand-in-the-pants curse on Fagenbush or arranging a secret funeral, it's all about this character's stern dedication to ridding the museum of ancient spells and keeping the bad guys away from objects of power.

LaFever's humor adds a great deal to the books. For example, she has a lot of fun contrasting Theodosia's idea of proper (read: expedient) behavior with what the adults around her think a young lady should be doing. (It doesn't hurt that Theodosia's absent-minded Egyptologist parents never dream that their daughter could be getting herself into quite so much trouble.) Former pickpocket Sticky Will and his brothers continue to add comic relief, along with some much-needed assistance.

As in the previous books, Yoko Tanaka's occasional black-and-white illustrations add to the author's storytelling.

This book reveals intriguing information about Theodosia's ability to sense magic, especially curses, which moves the series arc forward. Although the problems in Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus are solved by the end of the book, we also learn the direction the next installment will take. I look forward to reading Book Four in this clever, rambunctious series.

I do recommend reading books one and two before you tackle LaFevers' latest. While you can catch the gist of what's going on by simply diving in, the story will be that much more effective if you backtrack to read Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos and Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris first. For one thing, young readers will be able to steep themselves in the nuances of Egyptian magical lore, as studied and applied by our heroine.

I'll just end by mentioning that I like how School Library Journal puts it on the jacket flap of the new book: Theodosia is "a combination of Nancy Drew and Indiana Jones."

Note for Worried Parents: There's some occult Egyptian magic in these books, including a case of haunting and a mild ghost removal ceremony, if that sort of thing concerns you.

Update: At writer Ellen Oh's blog, her daughter Summer has done a very nice interview with R.L. LaFevers about this book and the Theodosia series.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

2010 Book Stars

Elizabeth Bluemle of Shelf Talker has compiled a very cool list of books given stars by the major review sources in 2010, grouping them by those that got 5 starred reviews, 4 starred reviews, etc. on down to a 1 starred review. The five books that got 5 starred reviews are as follows:

A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner

Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce

Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

Mirror, Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Jose Massee

You can browse the full list to discover some of the best new books recently published. Thanks to Betsy Bird of Fuse #8 for the link!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Trickster Fiction

I have tricksters on the brain right now, probably because A Conspiracy of Kings just came out and Megan Whalen Turner's trickster Gen is one of my favorite characters of all time. I know why I like Gen, but what, really, is the appeal of the trickster? I suspect that readers delight in being surprised, if only on the page. In real life, a trickster makes us uneasy or even angry. But watching someone else get bamboozled—now, that's entertainment! We feel like we're in on the con, a sort of "Ocean's Two" of trickster and reader, especially when we find ourselves pitted against a ruthless and powerful foe—say, a Mede and his entire army. (Art above left is from Fred Marcellino's award-winning Puss in Boots.)

Tricksters often seem to read as minor gods, or at least, not as major ones—perhaps because they play the additional role of court jester to more dignified mythological figures like Zeus on his great throne or Apollo in his golden chariot. In contrast, there's something kind of tacky about a trickster, more than a slight resemblance to a two-bit grifter or a pool shark. Tricksters are shady, slinking down alleys and flashing bright, untrustworthy grins. They're the kind of characters you expect to get their throats cut early on in Sam Spade stories.

Although the most famous tricksters come from world mythology, Lewis Hyde and others state that the archetype represents eccentric real-life geniuses, e.g., Leonardo da Vinci, Einstein, and Picasso. Such figures think outside the box, thoroughly upsetting the status quo. They walk into the meeting late, tell jokes while everyone else is completely focused, and then, just as a sensible, well-organized plan has been decided, point out a flaw nobody else noticed, but which suddenly seems glaringly obvious and problematic. You occasionally love having these people around, but are just as likely to hate them.

Loki from Norse mythology, Coyote and Raven of the Southwest and Northwest Native American traditions, Hermes and Pan from the Greek myths, British Jack and Puck, Irish leprechauns, Brer Rabbit from the American South, Reynart the Fox from France, Nasreddin of Islamic tradition, the Chinese Monkey King and the West African Anansi, Jewish Hershel of Ostropol and the Nordic Till Eulenspiegel—the list goes on and on. (Check out this discussion of tricksters and a longer list on Wikipedia.) That's not counting modern incarnations like Bugs Bunny, Bart Simpson, and Captain Jack Sparrow.

And what about tricksters in children's literature? Some of them are found in big-name classics like Peter Pan, Tom Sawyer, and Robin Hood, but here are more books you might want to look for in the trickster tradition, whether the characters are freshly invented or are derived from marvelous folktales and legends.


The Anansi stories are among my favorite trickster tales, so here are a number of retellings starring the funny, lazy, and clever West African spider.

Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock, Anansi Goes Fishing, Anansi and the Magic Stick, and Anansi and the Talking Melon, retold by Eric A. Kimmel and illustrated by Janet Stevens—all very funny. My favorite is Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock: just imagine what the trickster does when he discovers a rock that knocks people off their feet when a certain phrase is said! (I will mention that I didn't like Anansi's Party Time as well as the others, which are really terrific.)

Ananse's Feast: An Ashanti Tale, retold by Tololwa M. Mollel and illustrated by Andrew Glass—Ananse is a poor host to the dinner guest he has invited, eating all of the food himself. But the turtle invites him over in turn and gives Ananse some payback. (Aesop's fable, "The Fox and the Stork," has a similar plot.)

Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti, adapted and illustrated by Gerald McDermott; a Caldecott Honor book in 1973—Anansi goes on a journey and gets into trouble, but his six sons help him out. How should he reward them?

A Story, A Story, retold and illlustrated by Gail E. Hailey, won the Caldecott in 1971—the tale of how Anansi wins the stories from the Sky God, who has been hoarding them.

Anansi Does the Impossible! An Ashanti Tale, retold by Verna Aardema, illustrated by Lisa Desimini—another retelling of how Anansi claims the stories from the Sky God so that the people on earth can enjoy them.

Ananse and the Lizard: A West African Tale, adapted and illustrated by Pat Cummings—Ananse learns the secret of the name of a chief's daughter and thinks he will get to marry her, but he is tricked by a lizard and loses out.

Aunt Nancy and the Bothersome Visitors by Phyllis Root, illustrated by David Parkins—I first came across a satisfying single book called Aunt Nancy and Old Man Trouble, in which our heroine uses reverse psychology to get rid of bad luck personified, but this volume includes three other stories. The illustrations are especially good. Note that "Aunt Nancy" is a Southern American folk character derived from the West African spider trickster, Anansi.

—For a collection of these tales, try The Pot of Wisdom: Ananse Stories, retold by Adwoa Badoe and illustrated by Baba Waque Diakite.


The Greek Titan Prometheus is far too dignified to be considered a trickster, but in other cultures, it is the trickster who steals fire or the sun for mortals.

Fire Race: A Karuk Coyote Tale, retold by Jonathan London and illustrated by Sylvia Long—Old Man Coyote steals fire from the fearsome Yellow Jacket Sisters.

Grandmother Spider Steals the Sun: A Cherokee Story, retold by Geri Keams and illustrated by James Bernardin—when the animals agree to steal the sun from the Sun Guards, tiny Grandmother Spider succeeds where larger creatures fail.

Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest, retold and illustrated by Gerald McDermott; a Caldecott Honor book in 1994—how Raven connives his way into the Sky Chief's household and steals the sun for the people of the earth, who suffer in darkness.


Beware of Boys by Tony Blundell—a wolf thinks he's pretty clever to have caught a boy in the forest, but pretty soon the kid has the wolf running himself ragged fetching ingredients for various boy-based recipes. A funny, off-the-wall book and one of my personal favorites.

Clever Beatrice, retold by Margaret Willey and illustrated by Heather Solomon—described as "a tall tale from Michigan's upper peninsula," this story has roots in European folklore, e.g., "The Valiant Tailor." Clever Beatrice repeatedly worries and tricks a rich giant to win gold for her mother.

Duffy and the Devil, retold by Harve Zemach and illustrated by Margot Zemach; won the Caldecott medal in 1974—in this Irish folktale, lazy Duffy sells her soul to the devil in return for a gift of work without any effort, but she soon finds a way to win it back and keep all that she's gained, besides. (Sounds bad, but it's really very funny!)

The Emperor's New Clothes, by Hans Christian Anderson and illustrated by Angela Barrett—there are a lot of nice versions of this story about a clothes horse of a ruler who falls prey to an unscrupulous (and creative) duo, but this is my favorite, with its 1920's-era illustrations. I love the final shot of the emperor's naked bum going away down the street.

The Flim-Flam Fairies by Alan Katz—one by one, an obnoxious parade of fairies comes on-page to work their patter, which is, that you should stop saving teeth for the tooth fairy and save various other bodily substances instead. Meet the Snot Fairy, the Clipped Toenail Fairy, and of course, the Bellybutton Lint Fairy, among other hopefuls. What will the Tooth Fairy do when she finds out?

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship, retold by Arthur Ransome and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz; the Caldecott winner in 1969—wise fool Ivan knows about kindness, loyalty, and friendship, so he gains a flying ship and defeats a duplicitous king to win the hand of a princess.

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, retold by Eric Kimmel and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman; a Caldecott Honor book in 1990—when Jewish folk hero Hershel comes across a village held hostage by a pack of goblins, he uses his wits to defeat them.

Jack and the Beanstalk, retold and illustrated by John Howe—Jack ascends to the sky realm on a magical legume and steals from a hungry giant three times without getting eaten. There are a lot of other versions, including one by Steven Kellogg, but the art in this one appeals to me.

Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book by Yuyi Morales—draws on the Mexican folklore tradition (and Day of the Dead festivities) to show us an old woman who tricks Death into leaving without her.

Puss in Boots, text by Charles Perrault, translated by Malcolm Arthur, illustrated by Fred Marcellino; a Caldecott Honor book in 1991—the classic story of a cat so smart he wins land, a castle, and the hand of a princess for his young master.

Stone Soup, retold and illustrated by Marcia Brown; a Caldecott Honor book in 1948—the timeless tale of a peddler who teaches a selfish woman to make soup from a stone.

Three Sacks of Truth, retold by Eric A. Kimmel and illustrated by Robert Rayevsky—when a king doesn't honor his promise to let the man who brings him a perfect peach marry the princess, Petit Jean uses a magic whistle and wins a battle of wits with the royal family. (Note: Very funny blackmail scenarios involving non-ribald kissing in the meadow where our hero has been assigned to herd rabbits, a task which is supposed to be impossible!)

Tops and Bottoms, retold and illustrated by Janet Stevens; won a Caldecott Honor book in 1996—a tale derived from Europe and the American South, in which clever Hare tricks lazy Bear not once, but twice, each time splitting the crops they have planted and harvested together (with Hare and his family doing all of the work).

Wiley and the Hairy Man, retold by Judy Sierra and illustrated by Brian Pinkney—it takes the smarts of both a swamp-dwelling boy and his mother to win out over the terrible Hairy Man in this tale from the Southern African-American tradition. There are other versions, including one illustrated by Molly Bang.


Here are a few of my favorites from the numerous trickster tales in world literature anthologies, along with some story collections.

—"The Barber's Wife"—an Indian woman tricks a band of robbers, who try to get revenge but cannot win against her wits (from The Serpent Slayer and Other Stories of Strong Women, collected by Katrin Tchana and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman).

—"The Brave Little Tailor"—he starts out killing flies, then sets out to look for bigger foes. When he finds a giant, he must use his wits to win a series of contests. Next he defeats three mythical beasts to win the hand of a princess from a reluctant king. (Grimms' Fairy Tales)

Brer Rabbit and Friends, adapted by Karina Amin, compiled by Joel Chandler Harris, and illustrated by Eric Copeland—I haven't read this collection myself, but the Amazon customer reviews expressed relief that it leaves out the racism of earlier versions while retaining the fun of these stories and joy in the African-American storytelling heritage. (Standalone books of "Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby," the most famous of the tales, are also available.)

—"Molly Whuppie"—another defier of giants from the British tradition, Molly saves her sisters' lives, then comes back over the terrifying Bridge of One Hair three times to rob a giant and win husbands for herself and the other two girls. Gruesome, since the giant kills his own daughters when he means to kill Molly and her sisters, yet lively and empowering. (from Not One Damsel in Distress: World Folktales for Strong Girls, collected and retold by Jane Yolen, with illustrations by Susan Guevara)

Porch Lies: Tales of Slicksters, Tricksters, and Other Wily Characters, by Patricia McKissack, with illustrations by Andre Carrilho—original trickster stories inspired by African-American folklore and other bits of Americana.

A Ring of Tricksters: Animal Tales from America, the West Indies, and Africa, retold by Virginia Hamilton and illustrated by Barry Moser—a collection of 11 well-told tales from the African diaspora, many of them funny.

Trickster Tales from Around the World, by Josepha Sherman—40 trickster stories from a broad selection of cultures. These retellings are brief, 2-3 pages each, but the book covers a lot of territory.


Eight Days of Luke by Diana Wynne Jones—when the modern incarnation of Loki comes to stay (on the run from the other gods, as usual), his new friend David has to deal with ancient challenges to save the volatile "Luke."

A Long Way from Chicago (Newbery Honor Book in 1999), A Year Down Yonder (Newbery Medal Winner in 2001), and A Season of Gifts by Richard Peck—it took me a while to figure out that Peck's Grandma Dowdel is a trickster, but trust me on this; or at least, read these beautifully crafted, hilarious books set in the 1930's to find out why. When her grandchildren come to visit for the summer, they are in for some crazy adventures as Grandma Dowdel takes on pretty much the entire town.

Runemarks by Joanna Harris—Loki features prominently in this book by the author of Chocolat about a girl whose runemarked hand draws the attention of murderous religious leaders as well as quarrelsome gods. Worth reading for the opening sentence alone!

The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, and A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner—Turner is a superb stylist and plotter, not to mention an astute observer of human nature. Her trickster Gen is brilliant, vain, lazy, determined, and all kinds of other adjectives that don't seem like they should meet up in one person.


Trickster's Choice and Trickster's Queen by Tamora Pierce—After Alanna's daughter Ally slips away on her boat because she is annoyed by her strong-willed family, she is captured by pirates and sold into slavery. Pretty soon she is making deals with the trickster god Kyprioth and having the adventure of a lifetime.

The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy—17-year-old Harry (Ariadne) deals with the arrival of three young men who seem ordinary to others, but ominous and supernatural to her. Are they ghosts? Fictional characters? Or just catalysts? A mature coming-of-age tale with supernatural elements by a very talented writer.

I should point out that I've noticed tricksters are more often secondary characters than main characters, especially in middle grade and Young Adult fiction. This is probably because tricksters tend to be extraordinary, and we like to read about ordinary main characters, although they may be thrust into extraordinary situations. Tricksters aren't always easy to relate to, of course; when you're around them, you might just find yourself muttering, "Smartass," and heading for the door.

Now, you may be asking yourself, "Why would I want to give a kid a book about a liar and a cheat?" I know I've caught discussions about Jack of beanstalk fame being a poor role model, a plain old thief. So does reading these books encourage kids to embrace deceit and laziness? My own response is no, and not just because tricksters often fail to foresee the consequences of their devious plans and are shocked when they find that the tables have been turned on them.

I am reminded, rather, of the power of fairy tales as pointed out by Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment. So many times, a weak character triumphs over a powerful foe by using his wits, e.g., in "Hansel and Gretel," a story of truly ghastly peril. The lesson young readers should take away from these tales is that they can solve some pretty tough problems by using their heads. Also, that they'd better not get too full of themselves, because even the most clever tricksters tend to get their comeuppance. Better still, children might just observe that a trickster's talents can be used for good, carrying out such minor projects as stealing the sun for humankind.

Really, tricksters are a lot like kids: they think in unique ways, not yet locked in by society's assertions; they delight in pranks; they are selfish, yet unexpectedly kind. A child is the ultimate trickster.

Please suggest other trickster books for kids in the comments! I'll list them here:

Love and Roast Chicken: A Trickster Tale from the Andes by Barbara Knutson
The Tale of Tricky Fox: A New England Trickster Tale by Jim Aylesworth, with illustrations by Barbara McClintock
My Lucky Day by Keiko Kasza

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

And the Winner Is...

Charlotte's Web by E. B. White! That would be the best children's book of all time. Was there ever any doubt? Okay, I'll admit I put it at #2 myself, but I stand corrected: some 366 librarians, booksellers, writers, teachers, students, and parents can't be wrong!

I am referring, of course, to Betsy Bird's marvelous poll over at her blog, Fuse #8 (School Library Journal). In case you missed it, Betsy has been posting a countdown of the Top 100 middle grade novels for lo, these many weeks. Each post is charming, intelligent, and full of fun facts and links. Here's the link to the full list, which is handily linked to the individual book posts. All I can say is that I'm going to be going into poll withdrawal over my breakfast cereal for the next week or so... But you can still catch up on the whole thing!

Update: I was asked in the Comments which book was my Number 1, so here are the ten books I submitted, with their ranking in the final poll results at Fuse #8 in parentheses afterwards: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (19), Charlotte's Web (1), Maniac Magee (17), The King of Attolia (N/A), Harriet the Spy (16), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (3), The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (4), A Wrinkle in Time (2), The Secret Garden (8), and Little House in the Big Woods (23). Not too bad!

And the ones I missed? From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (5), Holes (6), The Giver (7), Anne of Green Gables (9), and The Phantom Tollbooth (10). The one on my own list that I knew might not make it (and didn't) is The King of Attolia. I will mention that I tend to think of The Giver as a YA book. My reasoning for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory outranking Charlotte's Web was influenced in part by my fourth grade student who said, "This is boring," of Charlotte's Web, but was entranced by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Much as I love the books in the Top 100, I suspect today's kids, left to their own devices, would make a slightly different list. For example, it would include Diary of a Wimpy Kid. However, the final list is a great resource and represents some very good taste in kidlit!

For my own list of 50 great books from the last century and my annotated Top 10 for the new millenium, see this post.

Update #2: Okay, here's something fun to ask yourself--how many of the books on this Top 100 list have you read? (I got this idea from MotherReader.) I tallied them up today and discovered that I have read 89 for sure. There are 7 I know I haven't read and 4 I think I might have read years ago, but can't quite remember. What about you? Let us know in the comments!

Friday, April 9, 2010

A Review of Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne Jones

I was counting the days till Enchanted Glass came out! And yes, I made the clerk at the bookstore find me a copy on the cart because they hadn't been shelved yet. Then I ran right home and read it straight through. So how does Enchanted Glass stack up, considering DWJ must compete with her own amazing list of previous books?

Let me put it like this: This fantasy set in a real-world Britain with magic stirred in does a slow build, but if you like the kind of story that makes you think, you'll enjoy the unfolding of the mysteries of Melstone House. In particular, Jones creates another likable cast of oddballs. We have absent-minded professor Andrew Hope, who inherits his grandfather Jocelyn's house (finding out when his grandfather's ghost flags him down on a darkened country road). Next we meet Mrs. Stock, the housekeeper with the very strong personality who puts the furniture back where she had it every time Andrew rearranges it to his liking. And out behind the house the (unrelated) Mr. Stock gardens crankily, bringing in boxes of humongous vegetables to express his displeasure when Andrew tries asking him to work on the roses for a change.

A one-legged former jockey named Tarquin O'Connor also shows up, and his efficient daughter Stashe is soon working as Andrew's part-time assistant. Another employee thrust upon Andrew is the large and seemingly stupid Shaun, Mrs. Stock's nephew. And then there's whoever, or whatever, is eating the giant vegetables Andrew keeps dumping high up on the roof of the shed out back.

Unfortunately, although Andrew takes over the house, he doesn't remember the important magical information his grandfather taught him when he was a boy. He is supposed to take responsibility for his grandfather's "field of care," but isn't too clear on what that means.

Things get still more complicated when a boy named Aiden (or is it Adam or Ethan or Alan?) shows up, claiming that once his grandmother died, he began to be stalked by ominous shadow people.

Meanwhile, Andrew's neighbor, the elegantly awful Mr. Brown, starts taking over pieces of Andrew's land, putting out an impenetrable kind of barbed wire and sending strange security guards to patrol the borders.

Who is Aiden, exactly, and why should Andrew keep him around? What kind of magic is embedded in the colored glass panels on the kitchen door? In her uniquely intricate, funny, and imaginative way, Diana Wynne Jones starts putting the pieces together for her readers.

The author's subtle humor is half the fun here, especially in subplots like the turf wars between Mr. Stock, Andrew, and Mrs. Stock. Her descriptions are often touched with humor, too:

Mr. Stock came first, in his hat as usual. Aidan was fascinated by Mr. Stock's hat. Perhaps it had once been a trilby sort of thing. It may once have even been a definite color. Now it was more like something that had grown—like a fungus—on Mr. Stock's head, so mashed and used and rammed down by earthy hands that you could have thought it was a mushroom that had accidentally grown into a sort of gnome-hat. It had a slightly domed top and a floppy edge. And a definite smell.

Of course, those giant vegetables play a role in the climactic battle scene—who else would put Puck and vegetable marrows on the same page but Diana Wynne Jones? And who else would use the act of cleaning one's glasses as a source of magical power? The only other fantasy writer quite this wryly whimsical that I can think of is Joan Aiken. (Though apparently Neil Gaiman cites Jones as an influence; he's quoted on the jacket of this book as saying, "Funny, smart, twisty, tricky, and always perfectly magical.")

While I have to admit that I've liked the plots of some of her previous titles better, I thoroughly enjoyed this new book by one of my three favorite children's fantasy writers. Anyone who's read the Chrestomanci books and other wonderful works by Jones will be glad to get their hands on Enchanted Glass. If you're new to this author, I suggest you also look for books like Dogsbody, Howl's Moving Castle, Spellcoats, Archer's Goon, and Charmed Life. Reading Enchanted Glass means you're just beginning to dip your toes in the water of the magical pool of stories created by Diana Wynne Jones.

See my post of 10-25-09, "The Queen of Children's Fantasy," to find out more about the author and her books. Please be aware that Diana Wynne Jones is currently battling lung cancer. Encouragement and fan letters can be sent to her in care of her publisher as follows: Diana Wynne Jones, c/o Greenwillow Books/10 E. 53rd St./New York, NY 10022.

A Review of Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman

I don't normally seek out historical fiction, but I make an exception for Karen Cushman's books. I still smile when I think about the heroine of Catherine, Called Birdy, for example. Like Meggy Swann, the main character in Cushman's new book, Birdy is just so completely lively and real. Cushman has a knack for created characters who seem like someone you know—even as they fit into their historical setting. And that setting will also seem comfortably real. You never feel as if Cushman is a history teacher thinly disguised as a storyteller. She is simply a storyteller who sets her tales in vanished eras.

Cushman doesn't mind taking risks when it comes to writing main characters who are unpleasant, either. But like Mary in the classic, A Secret Garden, these girls tend to become more likable as they face their challenges and grow up a bit. In the case of Meggy Swann, those challenges are formidable: Meggy is a cripple in Elizabethan times, an age when many still thought that physical deformities were the mark of the devil and even a sign of witchcraft.

Meggy's mother, a hot-tempered barmaid, had shuffled the child off on her mother for years. Now that the old woman has died, Meggy's mother washes her hands of the girl, sending her to live with her long-vanished father, an alchemist, in London. When he sees Meggy, he doesn't want her because she is not a boy and is imperfect, besides. Meggy's only friend is a goose named Louise.

Here is a glimpse of Meggy after she has been dumped at her father's by a carter and has forgotten her goose. The carter returns to drop off the bird, but refuses to take Meggy back to her village:
Startled by a sudden banging at the door and in truth a bit fearful, Meggy stood up quickly, grabbed her walking sticks, and made her way into the farthest corner of the room. She moved in a sort of clumsy jig: reach one stick ahead, swing leg wide and drag it forward, move other stick ahead, swing other leg wide and drag it forward, over and over again, stick, swing, drag, stick, swing, drag. Her legs did not sit right in her hips—she had been born so—and as a result she walked with an awkward swinging gait. Wabbling, Meggy called it, and it did get her from one place to another, albeit slowly and with not a little bit of pain.

The banging came again, and then the door swung open and slammed against the wall, revealing the carter who had fetched her to London.

He was not gone! Meggy's spirits rose like yeasty bread, and she wabbled toward the doorway. "Well met, carter," she said. "I wish to go home."

"I were paid sixpence to bring you hither," he said. "Have you another six for the ride back?"

"Nay, but my mother—"

He shook his head. "Your mother was right pleased to see the back of you." He turned, took two steps, and lifted something from the bed of the wagon. Something that wriggled and hissed. Something that leapt from his arms. Something that showed itself to be a large white goose, her wings spread out like an angel's as she made her waddling way over to the girl. Louise. Meggy's goose and friend.
When our story begins, Meggy has no idea how to care for herself because her grandmother did everything for her. She is also frightened of the big city and has no social skills. Yet though some Londoners are superstitious and mocking, others are kindly and reach out to Meggy. She gradually makes friends with a group of players, especially a boy named Roger (whom she begins by insulting mightily!), and with a cooper neighbor and a printer.

As for her father, Master Ambrose, readers get a look at the life of an ever-hopeful alchemist during this period of history. The predecessors of chemists, these men pursued the dream of turning base elements into gold. As we discover in the book, they could be a shady lot. What's more, Meggy's father isn't any better at parenting than her mother was. He can't even seem to remember her name.

Meggy becomes a sort of assistant to her crotchety father, who eventually gets involved with a conspiracy that could lead him into terrible trouble. Meggy tries to set things right, giving the book more of an adventurous flair. But really, the strengths of Alchemy and Meggy Swann are Meggy's growing friendships and the close-up look the book gives us at life during Queen Elizabeth's reign.

It would have been easy for Cushman to transform Meggy's father into a more thoughtful and reliable person, but that would be like turning lead into gold. In real life, it can't be done. Instead the author lets Meggy figure out how to make her own way in life, a far more satisfying resolution. Of course, Meggy's new friends help her, which some might find a little too smooth. Then again, that's what most of us do when the people who should be there for us let us down: we seek out new sources of support.

One nice touch in this book is Meggy meeting two men among the players, one named Master Grimm who looks jolly and friendly, another named Master Merryman who looks, well, grim, with a scarred and twisted face. But as Meggy comes to find out, Master Grimm is selfish and impatient, while Master Merryman is thoughtful and kind. Although Cushman doesn't lecture us about this experience, it does serve to teach Meggy—and us—about not judging by appearances.

Cushman provides an author's note at the end of the book, explaining things like alchemy, broadsides, and the treatment of cripples during the Elizabethan era.

At 176 pages, Alchemy and Meggy Swann is a compact read. It is also a compelling one. Cushman gives us a girl whose favorite expression is "Ye toads and vipers," a girl who wabbles and loses her temper, a girl not wanted by anyone. Yet the author shows us how Meggy succeeds against the odds—and there we have lead that truly does turn to gold. Or at least, we have lead used to build something altogether new and promising.

Note: I requested this book from the Amazon Vine program. It is scheduled to be published on April 26.

A Review of Living Hell by Catherine Jinks

This book's title represents truth in advertising in a big way: the story gets bleak, then bleaker, working its way clear down to bleakest. In that sense, Jinks's new YA science fiction work is ultimately a horror story, Edgar Alan Poe on a spaceship. Or maybe it's just an especially creative example of dystopian fiction. (Spoiler ahead!)

We begin with a seventeen-year-old boy named Cheney who lives on the Plexus, a huge spaceship outbound from Earth many years earlier. More than a thousand colonists live in a perfectly well-ordered environment which supports their every need. But during the middle of a birthday party in a virtual environment, Cheney gets an inkling that something has gone wrong. As the son of leaders, he is able to find out that the ship is about to pass through a strange wave of radiation.

If this were a movie script, the wave would be what is called "the inciting incident." The other movie term I'm thinking of is "high concept." Because—and this will be a spoiler—the radiation essentially transforms the ship into a living organism. An organism whose immune system tags the humans as something along the lines of attacking bacteria.

I tell you this because there is no way to describe the book at all without showing you where Jinks is going with this. The remaining three-fourths of Living Hell describes the terrible struggle for survival of those who manage to get through the first few hours. The author goes all out with her concept, coming up with intriguing details about the problems Cheney and his friends encounter, as well as how they get around the ship and defend themselves.

So this book is action-adventure of a kind boy readers might particularly enjoy (including some grisly deaths), especially if they like horror. Jinks does a great job of depicting the ship's transformation, carefully envisioning what each change might entail. Here's a sample from right after the change:

Slowly, one by one, we clambered through the hole between the door panels. It was becoming so small that by the time Dad squeezed through—nearly falling on his face in the process—the fleshy rims of the panels were sucking at his body.

It was disgusting to watch—like someone being born.

Out in the street there were samplers flying everywhere. The street shuttle had disappeared. All the doors had turned into valves and the floors into slippery paths of tissue, some of it slick and smooth, some of it rough with soggy bristles, some of it bunched into funny pads or pillows that looked a bit like cauliflower heads.

Mum seized my hand.

"I feel as if I'm in somebody's stomach," Dygall muttered, and I glanced at Mum in alarm. She knew exactly what I was thinking.

"We're not in a stomach," she declared. "If we were, those excretions would be eating through our pressure suits."
(Yep, there are quite a few scientific explanations of what is happening!)

Now, I'm usually pretty good at suspension of disbelief. But this one is tough to buy into, and perhaps that's because the change is so abrupt that, in addition to being a shock to the crew of the Plexus, it's a shock to the reader. I would have liked to see the change come on more gradually, with a building of suspense, having people being picked off one by one instead of everyone being completely under attack all at once. It also seems like the characters figure out what's going on and what each change means a little too quickly. (Including an explanation of what the strange radiation is, which isn't entirely satisfying.) Though many readers will appreciate that Living Hell is fast-paced, at times it feels a bit rushed.

As for characterization, we mostly get to know Cheney and an aggressive friend of his named Dygall. Cheney is a likable first-person narrator who is forced to become the leader of a small group of kids in short order. He rises to the challenge, and readers will be rooting for him to succeed.

It's possible there could be a sequel, although I didn't get the feeling the author has decided to write one just yet. For the moment, if you're in the mood for a happy ending, you should probably skip this book. On the other hand, if you don't mind a dose of gloom and doom and have a fondness for science fiction, action-adventure, and horror of the gooshy variety, try Catherine Jinks's latest.

Note for Worried Parents: Living Hell is a book for teens and includes some peril and gruesome deaths, but the author doesn't linger on the gore.

Also: I requested this book from the Amazon Vine program. It is scheduled to be published on April 12.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

In Case You Missed It...

Somebody got gory--and funny--over at Greenwillow in honor of April Fool's Day with "Under the Gruesome Willow." Thanks to teenareena of sounis for the link! I think my favorite is the transformed version of Vera Williams' book, More More More, Said the Baby.

If you start looking at other publishers' backlists, the possibilities are endless, not to mention gruesome and rotting and freakishly drippy... Of course, they couldn't possibly be mocking the overabundance of children's/YA horror and paranormal titles in bookstores all over the country these days, could they?

A Review of Spilling Ink: A Young Writer's Handbook by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter

I haven't come across a "How to" book for kids about writing that has impressed me—till now. Spilling Ink is a chatty, informed, get-real look at writing by two children's book authors, and it doesn't waste time diagramming sentences and listing common spelling errors. Anne Mazer, author of series like Abby Hayes and Sister Magic, and Ellen Potter, author of books like Olivia Kidney and Slob, lay out what it means to be a writer and tell kids how to get the job done.

This book is written in a thoroughly reader-friendly style, with the two authors taking turns giving advice in a manner reminiscent of blog posts. Hayes and Potter know their stuff, and it shows: as a writer, I was pleased to see such good ideas expressed so simply, not to mention humorously. For instance, the chapter and section titles are often entertaining: "More Crawling Lizards, Please," "Truth or Dare," "The Robo-Narrator," and "Belly Buttons" are a few of my favorites.

Here's an example of the book's tone, from Ellen Potter:
Before I started writing seriously, I was under the delusion that "real" writers sit down and write out the entire story in one nearly perfect, spectacularly clever draft. Oh, sure, maybe they would change a word or two, or rename one of their characters "Nathan" because his original name, "Jake," reminds them too much of their cousin Jake who belches the theme music to retro TV shows. But that's about it.
Hugely, profoundly, utterly wrong.

This book offers up instructive analogies, such as comparing a story's setting to a mood ring, and useful techniques, such as "the chicken-nugget circle." The authors provide short writing samples to illustrate their points here and there, which is so much more helpful than mere explanations. A writing activity at the end of each chapter is called "I Dare You," e.g., "Write a scene about a circus, but make the mood dark and grim." These activities are so spot-on that they're practically a shock—I've seen far too many writing practice assignments in literature textbooks and workbooks at schools that weren't nearly as relevant as they hoped to be. (This could be because they were written by teachers, not professional writers out in the trenches. Sorry, teachers!)

A little of the advice in Spilling Ink reminds me quite happily of Anne Lamott's classic book of riffs on writing, Bird by Bird, particularly the Chapter 2 title, "Ugly First Drafts." That's an excellent adjective choice, as I'm sure those of you who are familiar with Lamott's famous chapter titled "Shitty First Drafts" would agree!

As is usually the case with nonfiction, the stories are the best part of the book. I would have liked to see even more of them, but then, I'm a story glutton. There are some good ones here, such as Mazer's account of her enchantment with those calendar kiosks that pop up in malls right before Christmas--illustrating how everyday observation can enrich a writer's work:
...[I] would stop to look at them, even if I was in a rush. There were calendars about outhouses, movie stars, barns, mountain ranges, duct tape, sunsets, puzzles, race cars, words, pigs, mushrooms, rivers, cows, knitting, clouds, state parks, and every type of dog in existence. Since each chapter in an Abby book begins with a quote from a fictitious calendar, the mall calendars inspired me into wild fits of imagination. I had great fun inventing calendars for Abby wtih names like the "Marshmallow" calendar or the "Daily Eyeglass" calendar or the "Supermarkets of New Jersey" calendar.

Other concepts are also explained charmingly, and, more important, clearly. The idea of letting your characters do their own thing and not over-managing them is tricky for many grown-up writers to understand, but Potter uses the idea of "Don't Be a Bully" to explain it. In fact, earlier in the book, she makes a brilliant point about character:
You need to know your characters' deep, dark secrets too, in order to convince your characters that they are alive. I know that sounds weird. I know you're supposed to convince your readers that your characters are alive, not the characters themselves. But if you take the time to get to know your characters well, they will start to think and act for themselves. You'll know this is happening when ideas unexpectedly pop into your head as you write. You'll suddenly know exactly what your character would do and how they would react to something. On the other hand, if you try and make the character do something they really wouldn't do, you might feel like your story is taking a wrong turn (see "Don't Be a Bully" in Section 7 on page 56).

Mazer and Potter share their writing process with us, as well, e.g., by showing how they brainstormed to choose the title for this book. What's more, they think of problems to address that other books about writing don't always pinpoint, such as "Avoiding the Mad Dash," that tendency to slap on an ending that young writers—and some older ones—are prone to. Spilling Ink even covers topics like journaling and working with a writing partner.

Matt Phelan's illustrations further add to the cheerful tone of the book, showing us sturdy young writers in spot art sprinkled throughout the pages.

Respecting their readers, Mazer and Potter make a point of saying that a young writer needs to find what works for her; the ideas in the book are intended as potentially useful strategies, not rules. This is an important distinction to make, and not all adults would have bothered to make it.

One of the book's best treats is the Appendix. Just when you think it's over, you find out that Anne and Ellen have interviewed each other in a section called "Spilling Secrets," which is full of fun biographical tidbits and a bonus slant on what it means to be a writer.

I've seen a number of boring books about how to write interesting books, which naturally struck me as ironic. But Spilling Ink takes its own advice: it's funny, specific, fascinating, and useful. I don't just recommend it to young writers, I recommend it to aspiring (and even published) writers who are in their 20's, 30's, 40's, and beyond.