Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Book Review: A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness (Candlewick, 2011)

Recommended for ages 11-13

A Monster Calls is one of those books that will tear your heart out while you're reading it, but when you're done, you're glad that you went through the experience. It's that good.

Conor is a 13-year old boy who lives in Britain with his single mother, has a strained relationship with his father, who has his own life and new family in the States, and is bullied at school. His mother is fighting a battle with cancer, and losing. Around this time, Conor starts receiving visits every night, just after midnight, from a monster in the guise of a yew tree in his backyard. The monster tells him stories - truths - whose outcomes really play with perspective, and he tells Conor that the fourth story will be Conor's, telling the monster his own truth. It's a truth that Conor doesn't want to think about, but that gives him nightmares every night.
The story, originally an idea by author Siobhan Dowd, whose own life was cut short by cancer, is gorgeously written. Ness' words bring the reader right into Conor's fear, grief and anger at his mother's battle, his grandmother's fussiness, his father's distance, and the numbness he feels as he endures the bullies at school. When the monster allows Conor's rage an outlet, the reader feels it, viscerally. Jim Kay's stark black and white illustations add to the moody feeling of Ness' prose.

A Monster Calls has been shortlisted for several awards including the Galaxy British National Book Award, the Red House Children's Book Award, and the Cybils Award in Middle Grade Fantasy. The author's website features his blog, an FAQ, and information about his books and events.

Book Review: Tuesdays at the Castle, by Jessica Day George (Bloomsbury, 2011)

Recommended for ages 9-12

Princess Celie lives with her brother, sister and parents at Castle Glower, a castle that's alive much in the way Hogwarts is - rooms crop up when they're needed, and new staircases and passages appear seemingly at will. When her parents, King Glower and Queen Celina leave to attend their eldest son's graduation from wizard school and are reported missing after their carriage is attacked, Councilors and foreign dignitaries show up and start ordering Celie's brother Rolf - the heir to the throne - around. The Glower children, the castle staff, and Castle Glower itself all sense that something's wrong, and work together to get rid of the evil prince that's trying to take over Castle Glower - and bring their parents home safely.

Jessica Day George is great at writing princess books without all the saccharine included- her heroines are smart, funny, and can keep their heads about them when things are going crazy. Celie is no different, nor is her older sister, Lilah, which is a pleasant change from the "one beautiful and dumb, one smart and resourceful" sister that tends to pop up in YA and 'tween literature. Their brother, Bran, is an intelligent boy who can defend himself verbally and allies with his siblings and staff to brainstorm solutions and make things happen. Ms. George provides good character development and the action is well-paced. While mostly girls will likely gravitate to this book, there are strong male and female characters for young readers to be inspired by.

Jessica Day George's website has a section dedicated to Tuesdays at the Castle, in addition to her other books, appearances and news.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Book Review; Icefall by Matthew J. Kirby (Scholastic, 2011)

Recommended for ages 10-14

Reading Matthew Kirby's Icefall is like reading an old Norse tale -there is suspense, there is heroism, there are storytellers, and there is battle. The author puts the reader in the banquet hall with the characters, invites you to take a seat and listen in.

Solveig, the middle daughter of a viking king, her older sister and younger brother, are in hiding at a frozen fortress while their father fights a war at home. The king's warriors protect them, joined later by a group of berserker warriors that he sends as additional protection. Shortly after the berserkers arrive, though, things start going wrong - livestock disappears, food is poisoned, and it becomes all too clear that someone in the group is a traitor. Solveig and her siblings have to figure out how to survive the winter until the spring thaw, and Solveig works to discover who the traitor is before he - or she - destroys them all.
It is a compelling read with complex characters and a tense situation - a siege tale from within. Solveig is the middle daughter - she is plain, unlike her beautiful older sister Asa; she is not an heir, unlike her younger brother Harald; she is merely Solveig. But Solveig is smart and figures things out quickly. She strives to be a storyteller - a skald - like Alric, the skald in her father's court, but she learns that being a skald means giving your loyalty to those who may not always warrant it. Solveig finds herself angry at Asa for doing nothing during their days in captivity and she protects Harald as if he is one of her own. The story is told in Solveig's voice, interspersed with Solveig's anecdotes involving different characters from before the time of the seige, to further flesh out the players. There are layers and layers to this story; as each layer peels back, the revelations keep the reader turning the pages to discover more.

This book crosses genres - it can be considered fantasy, it can be historical fiction, or it can be mystery (it was just nominated for an Edgar award). While the main character is female, there is plenty here to pique both boys' and girls' interests: battle, complex relationships, and the frustration of family ties are only part of what this well-written tale has to offer all readers.

Matthew J. Kirby's blog, Kirbside, offers information about his books (with hyperlinked titles to bring you directly to points of interest) and contact information. The Scholastic site for Icefall allows readers to download a sample chapter.

Icefall has also been nominated for a Cybils award in Middle Grade Fantasy.

Book Review: Dragon Castle by Joseph Bruchac (Dial, 2011)

Recommended for ages 10-13

Prince Rashko, a 14-year old prince, is frustrated by his family. They're so dumb. His parents are kind, but simple; his older brother Paulek, while a near-perfect warrior, is content to let Rashko do all the heavy thinking. They all live in Hladka Hvorka, a castle rumored to have magical origins, and there is peace in Rashko's parents' land - until Rashko's parents disappear, and the Baron Temny shows up, expecting his young hosts to accommodate him and his entourage. The Baron also brings his 'daughter' with him as a potential bride for Paulek, who is thrilled to have company. Rashko suspects that neither there is more to both the Baron and his daughter, and works to find his parents and keep Hladka Hvorka in his family's name.

Running parallel to Rashko's story is the story of the legendary warrior Pavol, a hero in Rashko's land. Orphaned when an evil king took his parents' land and murdered them, Pavol is raised by a husband and wife living in the magical woodlands on the outskirts of the castle, and trained for the day he will avenge his parents' deaths. This legend eventually converges with Rashko's story, and he learns that Hladka Hvorka holds even more secrets than he imagined.

Author Joseph Bruchac is Native American and Slovakian, and draws upon his Slovakian heritage for Dragon Castle. The book contains phrases and words in Slovakian, always reinforced in English, and includes a glossary in the back. It is a great way to introduce younger readers to a new language within a fantasy setting.

The story is woven like a classic hero's tale, with adventure and humor in equal parts. Rashko comes across as a bit petulant and stuck-up at times, particularly in the beginning of the book when he spends most of his time lamenting his superior intelligence and his parents' and brother's abject stupidity, but he's an adolescent - he's written well. He also realizes, as he gets deeper into his family's background, that there is more to his parents - and possibly, his brother - than he ever thought possible, and this gives him pause.

Having two male main characters is a great way to bring this adventure fantasy to male readers; supplemental female characters will not draw any female readers in that weren't planning on reading it already, but Dragon Castle is a strong fantasy tale that should appeal to boys and girls who enjoy fantasy, complete with evil sorcery, dragons, and castles.

Joseph Bruchac's website focuses mainly on his music and poetry and features .mp3 files for listeners to enjoy. There is some information about his books and schedule available.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Book Review: The Inquisitor's Apprentice by Chris Moriarty (Harcourt, 2011)

Recommended for ages 10-14

The Inquisitor's Apprentice is the first book in a a science fiction/fantasy adventure series, taking place in an alternate New York City around the turn of the 20th century. Magic exists in this world, and each immigrant group has their own magic that they bring to the New World with them. Inquisitors, a branch of the New York Police Department, patrol to make sure magic is not being abused.

Thirteen year-old Sacha Kessler, who lives in the Lower East Side with his family, has the gift of seeing magic; for this, he is recruited into the NYPD, as an apprentice to Inquisitor Wolf; his fellow apprentice, Lily Astral, is from a wealthy New York family and is an entitled snob who rubs Sacha the wrong way almost immediately.

Inquisitor Wolf, Sacha and Lily are put on a case involving death threats to Thomas Edison, who is creating a witch-detectiing machine - every magician in New York City has a reason to want him dead, but as they delve deeper into the case, things become more complicated for Sacha, who sees the case leading back to his neighborhood - and possibly, his own family.

The book is compulsively readable, with well-drawn characters and an interesting alternate New York setting. Moriarty offers a new way of glimpsing life into the Jewish immigrant experience in turn of the century New York; this book would be good companion reading to a unit on immigration in America as it allows for many areas of discussion wrapped within a solidly enjoyable fantasy setting. Some may struggle with the many Yiddish terms, but context should answer most questions. A paperback edition may consider a guide to terms for some readers. Black and white illustrations by Mark Edward Geyer add to the moody feeling that permeates much of the novel.

Chris Moriarty has an Inquisitor's Apprentice website set up that provides information on the series and on the actual New York City of the time, with photos and information about key individuals that appear in the series, like Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison. There is author event and contact information as well. He blogs at SFness.com about his own books, other author's books, and offers writing advice. His website features his writing about science fiction and cyberpunk, along with other science fiction subgenres.

Book Review: Nerd Do Well by Simon Pegg (Century, 2010)

Nerd Do Well is actor-director-writer Simon Pegg's "journey from a small boy to a big kid". As a Pegg fan, I was really looking forward to diving in and reading about his Star Wars fandom (he wrote his college thesis on the films) and all about the making of some of my favorite movies including Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.

Pegg is all over the place with this book. He spends an exhaustive amount of time on his childhood, particularly some early romantic entanglements. He tangents frequently, usually to discuss Star Wars or Doctor Who - and those were the parts that made me say, "Finally!", sit down to dig in, and two pages later, be right back to his latest teenage paramour. Interspersed between random chapters is a James Bon-esque fantasy adventure novel Pegg seems to really want to have written - with himself in the title role, naturally, and accompanied by a robot butler - that reads like it was a page taken from his high school notebook. I ended up skimming those interludes after a while, then skipping them entirely.
Overall, I felt a bit let down by Nerd Do Well. I guess I was expecting more about Pegg's work and less about his childhood. He addresses this to a degree in his book, claiming that he didn't want to write a conventional autobiography. He mentions his wife and child only in passing, choosing to focus more on his dog when he feels trapped into talking about either of them. Another key area lacking in the book was on his relationship with Nick Frost, who plays his best friend in Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Paul. Frost is mentioned, and Pegg is effusive in praise for his close friend, but I didn't really come away from this book feeling like I knew anything more about Simon Pegg than I did when I began the book - and maybe that's the way he wanted it.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Book Review: Darth Paper Strikes Back, by Tom Angleberger (Amulet, 2011)

Recommended for ages 9-12

After reading Angelberger's first book in his "Origami" series, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, I had to get the sequel. I am pleased to say that the sequel matches up to the original.

The McQuarrie Middle School gang is back, but the happy beginnings we saw at the end of Origami Yoda are nowhere to be found; to top it off, Harvey shows up at school with Darth Paper, his answer to Origami Yoda. In no time, Harvey's managed to get Dwight suspended and under the threat of being sent to a special school for troubled children. Origami Yoda asks Tommy to put together another case file, this time, to show Dwight in a favorable light and get his suspension overturned. With Harvey threatening to throw a wrench in their work at every turn, can Tommy and his friends make everything right again - this time, without Origami Yoda's advice?
If readers enjoyed Origami Yoda, they will enjoy Darth Paper Strikes Back. The book is written in the same fun, first-person style as the original, and the conflict with love-to-hate-him Harvey (and Darth Paper) adds a fun counterpoint to Origami Yoda's sage advice while adding some unexpected depth to the book, particularly at the conclusion.

For more information about The Strange Case of Origami Yoda and author Tom Angleberger, you can see my original post.


Sunday, January 08, 2012

A Guide to Quality, Taste & Style by Tim Gunn & Kate Moloney (Harry N Abrams, 2007)

I know! It's a grown-up book! After my Materials for 'Tweens class ended last semester, I wanted to dig into my seemingly never-ending "to read" pile, and this seemed as a good a start as any. I tend to like style guides when I'm not feeling my best to help give me some ideas. As a fan of Project Runway and Tim Gunn, I figured this would be a fun, relaxing read to transition me into my winter break.

Sadly, I just didn't connect with this book. One failing that many "style guides" tend to have is that they are written for people with no concept of a budget. They try to circumvent this by exhorting readers to "invest" in one designer piece, but for most people reading this book, even that is too much to consider.

The overall tone of the book tends toward the high-handed, with hardly any of the wry humor that made Tim Gunn so popular on Project Runway. It was an overall disappointing read. I think I'll stick to the Chic Simple series, which visually presents style concepts and choices and allows readers to visualize more budget-conscious fashion choices.