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Contains grumbling and spoilers.

shadow throneIn contrast to Jen’s enthusiastic review of The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing, my latest encounter with a sequel wasn’t nearly as fun. The Shadow Throne, by Jennifer A. Nielsen, did exactly what I hoped it wouldn’t do. Instead of challenging Jaron by making him stay put and acting kingly (e.g., deal with court intrigue and order people around like commanding a chess board), the book lets him go gallivanting around the countryside again, basically saving the kingdom single-handed. It would be impressive if we hadn’t seen him do this twice before, with much the same formula:

Step 1: panic over a crisis, in this case, the impending war as several armies march on Carthya and the kidnapping of his beloved Imogen.

Step 2: formulate a strategy, one that allows Jaron to do whatever he likes. In the last book it meant running off to confront the pirates. In this book, he sends his right-hand man to save Imogen (following, for once, the counsel of his advisers)—but fate, or rather, the plot, pushes him to mount a one-man rescue.

Step 3: to battle! I don’t remember who they’re fighting against or why they’re important, but believe me when I say there are many battles. One involves a dam scene reminiscent of The Two Towers movie, and there seems to be some improbable physics involving a collision with a cliff. Continue Reading »

The Matter of Who’s Who?

Presentation1Lisa and I were chatting the other day about book recs, and she mentioned a non-fiction YA that she really enjoyed, Pure Grit: How WWII Nurses in the Pacific Survived Combat and Prison Camp,by Mary Cronk Farrell. The title alone has me hooked already. I’m a sucker for anything that combines medicine (this story screams sepsis, dengue fever, and malaria), guts (literal and figurative), women’s war efforts, and the Pacific theater (which is almost always overshadowed by the European front) into a narrative that sheds light on unknown or forgotten moments in history.

 

Lisa’s only complaint–because there were so many accounts to piece together, she had trouble keeping track of all the people mentioned in the book. You could call it the Game of Thrones syndrome, where you’re not sure if you should invest in remembering characters because its uncertain whether they will reoccur. Only one doesn’t feel guilty about it in Thrones because they’re fictional…

 

I asked Lisa to think of a case of non-fiction where recalling who’s who was not an issue, and she offered Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb as a notable example. To be fair, Lisa has taken at least twice as many chemistry and physics classes as the average Bomb reader. Niels Bohr, Heisenberg (of Uncertainty Principle fame), Enrico Fermi, and Robert Oppenheimer aren’t just part of her vocabulary, they were the scientific superstars of countless textbooks.

 

Which is all a very long-winded way to wonder…do you have trouble keeping track of the many main players in non-fiction accounts?

What are some steps you take as a reader to keep all the persons being referenced straight?

What are some things authors can do to help you out? Which non-fiction books in particular worked for you?

ghostsIt’s been grand catching up with old friends Mo and Dale in Sheila Turnage’s charming romp of a sequel to Three Times Lucky, The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing. You read that correctly: Ghosts.

Turnage doesn’t spend very much time wavering back and forth about the existence of the supernatural, and neither should we. Just accept it: the historic inn that Miss Lana and Miss Thorton impulse-purchased is definitely haunted. (This is fortunate for Mo and Dale; they have just impulse-promised to interview said ghost for their sixth grade history project about Tupelo Landing’s past.) As Miss Lana and Miss Thorton try not to deplete their life savings restoring the inn, Mo and Dale’s paranormal investigations make them new friends, new enemies, and one heck of a research presentation as they try to catch themselves a ghost.

To my pleasant surprise, Tupelo’s newest book manages to outdo its predecessor–a feat that cannot be said of many sequels (The Empire Strikes Back, The Two Towers, Act II of Into the Woods notwithstanding). Instead of rehashing old plots (read: Mo’s parent!quest!, a direction Turnage wisely doesn’t take), Turnage builds upon protagonists’ experiences from book one, so readers are able to appreciate how much these familiar characters have matured over time. This is especially true with Dale, who steps up from scrawny comic sidekick to scrawny comic speaker-of-truths. Even better, the moment which I’m referring to is not a Big Teachable Moment. Rather, Dale makes a deliberate but brief comment, and the perspective he offers helps a curmudgeonly character reexamine his guilt about the past in a very natural way.

To sum it up, I liked Ghosts so much I’ll go as far to say that Mo and Dale are four times lucky.

river between usAlong with Bull Run, Richard Peck’s The River Between Us and Patricia Beatty’s Charley Skedaddle complete the Civil War segment of the O’Dell Awards. One is set at the beginning of the war, the other near the end, and both focus on the civilian experience.

River may be Peck’s most depressing book, a far cry from his usual fare of plucky mice and witty grandmas. It uses an odd framing device whose purpose only becomes clear at the end, as a boy journeys to his grandparents’ house on the eve of World War I. In an extended flashback, Tilly, his grandmother, tells him the story of her teenage years during the Civil War. As in many of Peck’s novels, the conflict begins when a stranger comes to town: in this case, two mysterious women from New Orleans who disembark from a riverboat in rural Illinois. The glamorous Delphine and her quiet, darker companion, Calinda, set tongues wagging as Tilly’s mother invites them to board at their house. Gossip and intrigue soon turn to sorrow when Tilly’s brother Noah joins the army, and Tilly gets a close look at the ugly world beyond her small town.

As the title suggests, Charley Skedaddle is about a boy–just 12 years old–who deserts the army. Eager to join the Yankees after his brother is killed in action, Charley dreams of heroism until he pulls the trigger in the middle of battle. He flees, full of self-loathing for his “cowardice,” and finds refuge in the Blue Ridge Mountains with an eccentric old woman (Granny Bent) who could have stepped out of a Richard Peck book. It’s only through earning her trust that he begins to find his self-worth.

charley skedaddleEach novel explores the meaning of courage far from the front lines. River is full of secrets, and the act of keeping of them hidden is at least as brave as the revelations, which continue until the final page. Tilly’s family is not as it seems. Neither is Delphine, whose lazy, gauzy exterior hides tragic secrets from her past. Charley’s story is more of a traditional quest, as the hero learns to redefine his vision of bravery. The “glory” of battle and the dangers of his old street gang life pale next to his new mountain community, where subsistence farmers confront bandits, extreme weather and the occasional panther.

But both stories left me wanting more, especially from the supporting characters. Tilly’s life falls apart when a family member descends into madness. The problem comes with no warning and seems more of a plot device than something true to the character. Charley catches a glimpse of the local men hiding from conscription in the Confederate army. Their situation is such an interesting parallel to Charley’s that I would have liked to see them play a bigger role–yet they ultimately disappear into the background.

Where both books shine is their casual incorporation of historical context. In Tilly’s town, the sight of young men–neighbors–signing up for opposing armies gave me the chills. For Charley, the first shocking moment occurs when he learns that some men have enlisted multiple times to take advantage of the signing bonuses–and that the military now shoots anyone attempting this scam. Details like these fully transported me into the era, and I wish the authors had taken as much care with the secondary characters as they did with the historical facts.

Norton Juster at the BPL

(sorry--no camera on hand)

(didn’t bring the camera)

Tollbooth fans, thank Colonel Lemuel Q Snoopnagle and Juster senior for Norton Juster’s particular brand of humor. Snoopnagle, on his radio program, specialized in spoonerisms (a play on words where two opening syllables are switched) while Juster senior, an architect, would greet his oblivious young son with puns every morning.

“You’re a good kid. I’d like to see you get ahead. You need one.”

Clearly, both influences rubbed off. Light dawned on marble head and Juster has been a gunny pie ever since.

As part of this year’s “Gateway to Reading” Lowell Lecture Series, Juster visited the Boston Public Library last week in an event moderated by Megan Lambert of Simmons college. While Lambert was on a mission to coax Juster into recounting for us some stories he had told her previously over coffee, Juster mostly read some passages from his famous book, The Phantom Tollbooth and shared some stories behind the story. The event was filmed and will be available on the BPL site, but in the meantime:

  • on his writing process: “I discovered as a writer I simply could not start here, end there. I could only do bits and pieces.” So he’d put all his pieces into a drawer and come back periodically to write more bits, until he had an entire story
  • while in the Navy, Juster began sketching, and he would hang his pictures all over the boat to dry. His captain chewed him out for drawing fairies and castles and elves.
  • Milo, of course, is Juster as a boy; Tock is the perfect mentor you can trust; and because life’s not like that, Juster threw in the Humbug
  • Feiffer's portrait of Juster

    Feiffer’s portrait of Juster

    on how Jules Feiffer, a cartoonist for The Village Voice, ended up illustrating Tollbooth: since they shared an apartment at one point, Feiffer was one of the first people to read Tollbooth. He liked it so much, he began drawing little scenes for fun

  • send in the cat cavalry: Feiffer was adamant about not drawing horses, so he begged Juster to put the armies of wisdom on cats instead. Juster said no. In fact, he went out of his way to describe impossible things to draw, for example, the Three Giants of Compromise
  • Feiffer’s revenge: the Whether Man is Feiffer’s portrait of Juster in a toga
  • the one little kid that got it: usually, kids want to know where his ideas come from, or how much he makes. At one school visit, though, a boy asked Juster what was the point of school, anyway, since all he did was memorize boring facts
  • Juster replied, to make connections between the facts–a life-long process
  • the boy: and then what?
  • Juster answered, and then you die.

Juster concluded the event with a Cinderella story ripe with spoonerisms. It ended with the kicker, “if the foo shits, wear it!” (Sigh. And that’s why spoonerisms have gone out of fashion.) Commented another little boy during the Q&A: what did that story mean? It made no sense.

If he had mentioned the lack of Rhyme and Reason, he would have brought down the house.

18480314I just finished the highly-anticipated The Lord of Opium, and like Jen, I found it rather lacking. Though it was trilling to reunite with the characters, this time around the plot didn’t hang together. There were too many plot threads left virtually unexplored, including:

  • What do you do with a problem like Maria? Trap her in a convent, apparently, with the occasional wormhole conversation so she can yell at Matt about his infatuation with Waitress. So much potential, wasted. I hope she has another starring role in the next book, if Farmer writes a sequel.
  • Hearing voices no one else can isn’t a good sign, even if you’re a drug lord. If Matt can hear El Patrón in his head, that’s a big deal. Is it a chip? a memory? a sign of his mental stress? I kept waiting for Matt to take this situation seriously, but he treated it as a minor nuisance. And with the destruction of the chips, the problem seems easily solved.
  • Don’t push the magic button! Matt’s final triumph was all too easy. A single button that solves everything? It’s like something out of Doctor Who.

That said, I did appreciate the complexity of the Waitress situation, and how frustrating it was to get glimpses of her humanity without ever succeeding. (That’s why it seems like such a cop-out when Matt saves everyone else with the push of a button). I also liked the quest aspect of the book, as Matt explores the hidden places of Opium. It felt like El Patrón was playing a game from beyond the grave, laying traps and secrets and puzzles at every turn. Now that Matt has Opium figured out, I hope he’ll return for a final book, one that’s focused on his own growth above all.

Lisa’s thorough study of the “Newbery Curse,” a phenomena that seems to strike Battle of the Kids Books out of contention before they’ve even had a chance to warm up, got me thinking: how can I quantify this?

In statistics, there is a way to measure the efficacy of a test–for example, mammograms as a screen for breast cancer. It’s called the predictive value positive (PV+), the probability that a someone who tests positive for a disease actually has the disease. The closer a test’s PV+  is to one, the better it is at predicting a certain outcome based on a positive test result.

To see whether the Newbery sticker–in gold or silver–affects a book’s ability to proceed through the first round, we’ll let the sticker be our test.

I tallied up the outcomes of Battles from years past and here’s what I came up with:

Presentation1

What I found was that a Newbery sticker of either gold or silver predicts that the book won’t advance past round 1 71% of the time. Of course, these values depend on how I determined if a book was middle grade or not (I did it by age, content, and included non-fiction), but if the rate for “won’t advance” rate for all middle grade books is 56% and the “won’t advance” rate for Newbery winners and honors is 71%, maybe there is a curse after all….

 

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