Archive for the ‘YA books’ Category

To follow-up on Jen’s post about sympathetic magic, I started thinking about all the other books that have sparked the Code Name Verity Effect–or rather, the [Insert Book Title] Effect. Like Jen, I don’t seek out those experiences to feel closer to the book. It’s the other way around–they introduce me to new concepts/places/things, or they make ordinary experiences extraordinary. For example:

  • In What Came From the Stars, Tommy Pepper hears a haunting rendition of Bach’s Sleeper’s Wake, the same song he used to play on the piano. That compelled Jen and me to find the music and try it out as a flute duet…with cacophonous consequences.
  • I never wanted to learn how to knit until I read The Grand Tour by Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer. I’m far from sending secret messages in coded stitches, but someday…

I also associate certain books with everyday objects. It’s like an inside joke only I can understand:

  • After reading Holes by Louis Sachar, I had a persistent urge to eat raw onions, even though I prefer them cooked. And I still think of Sploosh every time I see a jar of peach jam.
  • Every time I see a rabbit in profile, I’m reminded of the Watership Down book cover. Then I start wondering if the rabbit lives in a totalitarian society, or is a hero intent on saving said society from the tyrant.
  • The effect isn’t always permanent. For the first week after reading Out of the Dust, I couldn’t play the piano without thinking of Billie Jo’s burned hands and wincing in sympathy. Lucky for me, I got over it.

And of course,

  • Tea time is at four. We’ve never had tea time, but we know that’s when it would be, if we did.

Surely we’re not the only ones with literary inside jokes. What are yours?

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I highly recommend heading over to The Book Smugglers as they host daily guest bloggers throughout this December–including Elizabeth Wein, author of Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire. A scholar of folklore as well, Wein chose to talk about the sympathetic magic of reading. In academic terms, she defines it as “objects exerting action ‘on each other at a distance through a secret sympathy.’” For example, a Hershey Bar wrapper and her Pennsylvania childhood.

Wein goes on to theorize that when we give objects and places from works of fiction special significance to bring a fictional world to life, that’s a form of sympathetic magic. I was surprised when she referenced as an example The Code Name Verity Effect, because while I do think we experienced the sympathetic magic of CNV, it wasn’t exactly in the way Wein describes.

In what we coined the “Code Name Verity Effect”, objects, phrases, and places associated with the book gained a certain “cool” status they did not previously possess. At the very basic level, we developed a “secret sympathy” for ordinary items like egg cups and combat boots because they reminded us of Code Name Verity. It was like being in on a secret, delightful. But those vintage egg cups and RAF issue boots didn’t make us feel any closer to Julie and Maddie, or make these characters any more real. Instead, reading about egg cups and combat boots in CNV made us want to geek out over egg cups and combat boots as they exist in our world. Simply put, if Maddie enjoyed eating an egg served in an egg cup, maybe I would, too.

Same idea with flying over the Pennines and visiting the Holy Island Seals. Before reading CNV, we didn’t even know they existed. But once we learned about them from Maddie and Julie, the strength of their (or Wein’s) narrative made these places seem special in and of themselves. It’s Wein’s writing that makes us feel an affinity for the seals, not the seals that increase our affinity for Maddie or Julie. Sympathetic magic, the other way around.

Here, let me explain in a diagram.

Here, let me explain in a diagram.

I’m trying to think of a case in my reading experience where Wein’s application of sympathetic magic–ordinary objects, made special from a treasured book, brought me closer to the world of the book–and I keep drawing a blank. I was too old to hope for a Hogwarts letter on my eleventh birthday when I read Harry Potter for the first time. And no amount of Bertie Botts Every Flavor merchandising will make me less of a Muggle. But a real world experience that allows me to relate better to a fictional character–I suppose that connects me to a fictional world more effectively than any object.

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IMAG0923When moving from book medium to play medium, a good adaptation is just as important as good source material. Sadly, this was not the case for Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. Based on Gary D. Schmidt’s depressing Newbery honor-winning book of the same name and adapted by Cheryl L. West, Emerson Stage’s production more often than not goes through the motions of playing Lizzie Bright without actually capturing the spirit of Lizzie Bright.

As in the book, young Turner Ernest Buckminster the Third, the preacher’s boy, feels like a fish out of water when his family moves against his will from Boston to Phippsburg, Maine. Unlike the book, his family consists of just him and his strict father, a widowed minister, since Turner’s mother was written out of existence. Unable to make friends with any of the Phippsburg boys, to the town and his father’s disapproval, Turner ends up befriending Lizzie Bright, a black girl his age who can throw and hit a baseball like no other. She lives on Malaga Island, just across the bay. Unfortunately, the town leaders see Malaga as an eyesore, especially if their plans to turn Phippsburg into a vacation resort are to move ahead.

Along the way, Turner bleeds all over his starched white shirts, looks into the eye of a whale, and is drafted as punishment into reading poetry and playing hymns for Mrs. Cobb–a crotchety old woman obsessed with documenting her last words. This leads up to a scene that’s as hilarious in person as it is on the page. If only the rest of the book’s nuance was retained as well. (more…)

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Review: The Lord of Opium

“Whatever you may wish, you’re a drug lord now and must learn to behave like one.”  –Celia to Matt, page 11.

(warning: contains spoilers for The House of the Scorpion)

Published eleven years after The House of Scorpion, I finally find out what happens to Matt in Nancy Farmer’s sequel, The Lord of Opium. Now that El Patrón is dead, Matt Alacrán is no longer a lowly clone but the new Lord of Opium, and along with El Patrón’s vast resources and power, he has inherited a boatload of problems. El Patrón’s death–and his convenient murder of all his funeral guests, including the Dope Confederacy’s drug lords and the entire Alacrán family–has left Opium in lock down and the surrounding drug countries in a power vacuum.

Not only must Matt prove to El Patrón’s men that he’s capable of ruling Opium, he must rely on their help without being sure of whether he can fully trust them. Cienfuego, head of the Farm Patrol–Opium’s thuggish security force–knows far too much about border defense. And just outside, super creepy drug lord Glass Eye Dabengwa is itching to invade. Dr. Rivas is the only medical doctor left in Opium, but is clearly keeping secrets of his own. Meanwhile, Matt wants to disband his entire sordid drug empire. That means finding a way to free the eejits who work the poppy fields by removing the microchips implanted deeply in their brains. But the more Matt learns about the process, the more impossible his task seems. (more…)

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Review: Rose Under Fire (Spoilers!)

Cover_of_Rose_Under_Fire_by_Elizabeth_WeinUnlike most of you, I couldn’t finish Rose Under Fire in a day or even a week. It took me months to read it, thanks to an unfortunate incident involving Jen’s temporary ownership of an ARC on a busy weekend for me, which meant I got to read the first half of the book in June but couldn’t finish the rest until it was published in early September. Needless to say, I barreled through the end as soon as I got my copy. Maybe that will teach me to resist future ARC temptations. Or not.

Rose Under Fire is a companion novel to Code Name Verity. You don’t need to read Verity to understand it, but it helps, since some of the same characters appear, and there are a lot of (seriously depressing) references to Julie’s fate. Bonus: I correctly predicted that Anna Engel would show up long before the book was published. I just didn’t expect her to play as large a role as she did.

Plot: Nineteen-year-old Rose Moyer Justice is an American pilot flying Allied planes in England. She joined the Air Transport Auxiliary because she wants to be useful, but England is a harsh change from her idyllic childhood in Pennsylvania. While Rose was eating pink-frosted birthday cakes and writing poetry at school, girls her age in Europe were delivering bombs and joining the Resistance. Rose befriends some of these women when she ends up at the Ravensbruck concentration camp, and their friendship literally saves Rose’s life.

Those friends–Roza and Irina and Karolina and Elodie–felt as real as Julie and Maddie, even though they had far fewer pages to tell their stories. The grind of daily life lacks the glamor and mystery of Code Name Verity, but that doesn’t make Rose and her friends any less brave. Their small acts of defiance, from messing up the roll call to composing poems in the dark, are as exhilarating as any covert operation, and probably more dangerous, since the guards don’t see them as individuals, just numbers to be counted. And even though Rose is writing in her journal so you know early on who survives and who doesn’t, every flashback feels like it’s happening in real time, and I panicked along with the characters. In one scene–when the guards had Rose and Irina and the Rabbits trapped against the fence–I nearly threw the book across the room because I couldn’t cope with the suspense. (more…)

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I’m thrilled to be participating in this year’s YA non-fiction panel for Round Two of the Cybils! I’m especially looking forward to some great reads and stimulating discussions with fellow panelists Terry Doherty, Brenda Kahn, Teri Lesesne, and Susan Van Hecke, as well as YA non-fiction organizer Gina Ruiz.

Last year, the very worthy Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, was declared the winner. Who will take home the prize this year?

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susan_cooperBeloved and best known for her The Dark Is Rising fantasy sequence, legendary author Susan Cooper introduced her latest novel, Ghost Hawk, to audiences at Porter Square Books yesterday evening.

Growing up in England during WWII, Cooper studied English under professors J.R.R. Tolkien (who mumbled during lectures) and C.S. Lewis (who had a flair for Renaissance literature). Because the Oxford curriculum extended only to 1832, she “inhaled myths” at university and read lots of Beowulf, Malory, and Spenser. As one friend put it, “they taught us to believe in dragons!” This, combined with her childhood experiences of being read to in bomb shelters during air raids and walking to school with a schoolbag and a gas mask slung over her shoulders, imbued her writing with a strong sense of place and Good & Evil–no surprise to anyone who’s read The Dark is Rising.

The concept for her “most challenging book yet” hatched from Cooper’s interest in place–this time, the woods surrounding her house in Marshfield, Massachusetts. After a trip to the library, she discovered the land she lived on was once inhabited by the Pokanoket tribe before the English deeded it to a man who was, of all things, a cooper.

ghost_hawkFrom there, she started to wonder how local relations between English settlers and Native American deteriorated so rapidly between the first Thanksgiving dinner and King Philip’s War just sixty years later. “I became obsessed with knowing what went wrong,” Cooper said, but “I wasn’t going to write a history book. I’m a storyteller. I make things up.” So she invented the characters of Little Hawk and John Wakely, who, despite their circumstances, develop a genuine but dangerous friendship.

That’s not to say Cooper’s research wasn’t extensive. She read piles of books and archival materials and all of Roger Williams’ letters. The process of writing Ghost Hawk became as mucha voyage of discovery” for herself as Little Hawk and John Wakely’s story is for us. As for the shocking turn of events midway through the book, Cooper assures readers that despite her penchant for brooding myths and her wartime upbringing, because she writes for children, she always leaves the last line of everything not in despair but with hope.

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Black_ColdestGirl_HCEvery generation has a plethora of vampire lore, and there never seems to be room for another vampire tale until someone comes along with the latest re-imagining. This is what Holly Black kept telling herself as she worked on The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, the book she promoted last night during a talk at the Cambridge Public Library (the event was hosted by Porter Square Books). Yes, there are vampires in Coldtown, and it’s a good thing I didn’t know that until she started reading aloud, because otherwise I might never have gone. But Black’s book seems to be the World War Z of vampire books, more concerned with vampirism-as-a-disease and the societal implications than fanged love. She read a suspenseful, chilling excerpt, and like any good author, stopped just before Something Really Important happened, which means I’ll have to read the whole thing now. No arguments here.

Black has a long, obsessive history with vampire books and movies. When she was little, her mother terrified her with so many vampire stories that she turned her Barbie dolls into vampires, the better to vanquish her fear (there’s nothing like an army of good plastic vampires to beat back the blood-sucking monsters under the bed). Later, when she asked the audience to share their favorite vampire books, she seemed to recognize them all. Since the only ones I’ve read are Bunnicula and Team Human, I got a bit lost, thought it was fun hearing people’s attempts to describe the plots of books whose titles they’d forgotten (there’s a babysitter! who’s a vampire! and his remains get washed up on shore! etc.)


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scorpionAlready a big fan of Nancy Farmer’s The Ear, The Eye, and the Arm, when The House of the Scorpion came out in 2002, I sat down at Barnes & Nobles to speed-read all 380 pages in one sitting while my parents did their Costco shopping. Wolfing a book down is no way to read, but I remember leaving the bookstore in a chilled daze that had nothing to do with the strong air conditioning. Clones grown in cows’ stomachs, a criminal empire controlled by a man who wants to live forever, people made obedient to the point of automation–The House of the Scorpion was unlike anything I had ever read.

Fast-forward eleven years, where futuristic dystopias are a dime a dozen, and Scorpion still holds up brilliantly. Its world is unkind and full of secrets, as six-year-old Matteo Alacrán discovers when his isolated but comfortable existence under loving Celia’s care is shattered by the public realization that he is El Patrón’s clone. Reviled by El Patrón’s family and household, life as the ruthless drug lord’s clone does have its privileges, such as El Patrón’s keen attention, a first rate education, and a canny bodyguard named Tam Lin. In return, Matt adores the old man and wants desperately to prove himself as worthy of taking over the family business as El Patrón’s natural born heirs–even as he uncovers secret after damning secret concerning El Patrón’s empire, true nature, and plans for Matt’s future.


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Fall Reading List

The end of summer/early fall always brings a huge list of book releases, and here’s what I’m looking forward to in the next few months:

9780374379940_p0_v1_s260x420The Boy on the Porch by Sharon Creech (Sept. 3): The premise reminds me of Ruby Holler, one of my favorite Creech books.

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater (Sept. 2): fingers crossed for the sequel to The Raven Boys, which had wonderful writing.

From Norvelt to Nowhere by Jack Gantos (Sept. 24): road trip with Miss Volker! This could get even crazier than its prequel.

Lockwood & Co.: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud (Sept. 17): a new series from the creator of Bartimaeus.

slightlyHeroicCover250The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic by Uma Krishnaswami (Aug. 13): I heard about this through Educating Alice. So glad Dini is back, with all the silliness of her favorite Bollywood star and her wacky entourage.

Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow (Oct. 29): I’m a big fan of Plain Kate. I hope the world and character building are just as good in this one.

The Surprise Attack of Jabba the Puppet by Tom Angleberger (Aug. 6): I would’ve preferred Jabba the Flat, but oh well. A showdown over the principal’s plan to cancel the arts…gee, I wonder who Jabba is supposed to be.

Zombie Baseball Beatdown by Paolo Bacigalupi (Sept. 10): worth reading for the title alone.

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