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images.duckduckgo.comAn E. L. Konigsburg book about an art museum, an irascible old woman, a kid who wants to discover a secret and a mysterious piece of art? You’d be right if your first guess was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but Mixed-Up Files has a lesser-known twin, written 39 years later: The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World (no one can beat Konigsburg when it comes to titles).

If I had to reduce Mysterious Edge to one sentence, I’d call it Mixed-Up Files with opera and Nazi art history. The art museum in question is the Sheboygan Art Center in Wisconsin, home to a historical exhibit of Degenerate art–artwork that was banned by the Nazi government and deemed too terrible for public consumption. As the museum curator, Peter Vanderwaal, works feverishly on the exhibit, his godson Amadeo Kaplan is contemplating his own art mystery in Florida, where Amadeo has just moved with his mother. Like the Mixed-Up Files’ Claudia, Amadeo wants to discover something: a fossil, a secret, buried treasure. He gets a good shot at his dream when he joins his classmate William in clearing out the estate of Mrs. Zender, who in her opera-singing days was known as Aida Lily Tull. Mrs. Zender hovers over their work with an imperial air, and her old-fashioned manners grate on Amadeo’s nerves, yet he can’t help but feel she’s testing him somehow. When he discovers a mysterious sketch tucked away on a bookshelf, and Mrs. Zender manipulates him into keeping it away from antique dealers–nearly costing him William’s friendship in the process–Amadeo begins to wonder what he’s gotten himself into.  (more…)

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chickadeeFor a book about a kidnapped boy, Chickadee, by Louise Erdrich, is surprisingly funny. I first read Chickadee last year, before I’d read the previous books in the series: The Birchbark House, The Game of Silence, The Porcupine Year. And while Chickadee stands well on its own, it’s even better when read in order.

Omakayas, last seen as a teenager in The Porcupine Year, shows up in Chickadee as the mother of 8-year-old twins. That’s a leap in time of at least 15 years, and quite a gutsy move–but Omakayas was instantly recognizable as the calm, resourceful healer-in-training, and Erdrich smooths over the time gap by inserting a scene where the family tells the story of the twins’ birth. Having read the previous books, I enjoyed catching all the references, whether a sweet homage to Old Tallow, or the familiar story of how Omakayas’ brother Quill got his namesake from the porcupine.

Our main character, though, is Chickadee, who’s kidnapped by a couple of dim-witted twin brothers best described as henchmen (muscular, mean, prone to issuing growling threats). As Chickadee gets spirited away into the frozen prairie, the entire extended family follows to track him down. (more…)

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night gardenerI am a day gardener of tomatoes, kale, and eggplants, so I was curious to find out what The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier, is all about. It seems night gardening is far more perilous.

As Molly and her younger brother, Kip, journey to the Windsor estate deep within the “sourwoods,” we are told “‘they were riding to their deaths.” They don’t have much of a choice in the matter. Their parents were lost at sea (literally), leaving fourteen-year-old Molly to fend for the both of them. Using her powers of observation and knack for telling persuasive stories, she plucks Kip out of the orphanage, finagles a fish-cart for their journey, and secures the promise of employment from a man she’s never met in a place she’s never been.

Too bad, because the Windsor house is isolated, derelict, and dominated by a creepy tree far more sinister than the Whomping Willow. In fact, it’s practically parasitic. The inhabitants of Windsor house appear drawn and pale with sickness, from four-year-old Penny to her mother, the pinched Mistress Windsor. Worst of all, a shadowy man appears on the grounds at night, souring their sleep and leaving brittle leaves and muddy footsteps behind. “This house is no place for you,” Mrs. Windsor warns, when Molly uses her talents to wrangle a servant’s position in exchange for room and board.    (more…)

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18405519Understatement: Star Mackie, of Hope is a Ferris Wheel by Robin Herrera, starts the school year on a rocky note. Not only is she the new kid, she 1) sports a mullet ‘do 2)lives in a trailer park on the edge of a dump and 3)starts an after-school club about trailer parks.

In other words, Star has no street cred or friends to speak off. Her teacher unfairly assumes she’s a delinquent and a bad influence on the class because she failed to turn in her first vocabulary assignment, a trend Star continues just to spite him. Meanwhile, Winter, her teenage sister, who used to be close, has become moody and distant with problems of her own. And her mother implodes every time she brings up her absent father, aka “her genetic donor,” whom Star knows nothing about and has only glimpsed once from the crest of a Ferris wheel.

Drawn to the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Star starts a marginally more successful club, the Emily Dickinson Club, and gains two new members, including Eddie, a fellow “delinquent” who memorizes entire poems and has strong opinions on Robert Frost. Along the way, she contemplates what poets have referred to as the “thing with feathers” and “dreams that fly,” and defines–and finds–it for herself in every corner of her life.

The discussions from Star’s club got me thinking, what does the author  think about hope? Robin Herrera gamely answers in this Q&A.

1. Since we already know Star Markie’s response, finish this verse in the style of Emily Dickinson but in the voice and experience of Robin Herrera: Hope is a…..?
I’m very in line with Eddie’s answer – a rock. But I got the idea from the Simon & Garfunkel song, “I Am a Rock,” which is one of my favorite songs. For something more original, I think hope is a cookie. (I’ve been associating a lot of things with food lately.) It takes a lot of work to make a cookie, and how it turns out depends on how much focus and work you put into it. (At least for me. I’m a terrible cook.) Hope is a lot like that as well – you can hope for something, but that won’t make it come true. What makes it happen is how much you work and focus to get it. Even then, you may still burn the cookies.

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aliceConfession: I’ve never read Lewis Carroll’s beloved Alice in Wonderland cover to cover…until now. I tried once as a youngster, and before getting terribly far, decided Carroll was full of nonsense. Alice seemed to drift from scene to scene, from character to character. And why was there no plot? No plot, no point. The whole thing was, ahem, mad as a hatter.

Perhaps I could have avoided Alice for the rest of my natural life, but as a self-professed lover of children’s books, this omission on my reading list made me feel ever so slightly like a fraud. Plus, there are a lot of Alice fans in the kidlitosphere. So over the weekend, I decided to patch this gap in my education.

Going in, I expected Alice to be irritatingly trippy, full of mushrooms with magical properties and hookah-puffing caterpillars. (This was my sole memory of the animated Disney film that baffled me as a child.) Alice surprised me by coming across like a comedy sketch you’d watch on the BBC, deadpan yet absurd. I found myself reading in the pauses before the punchlines.

You promised to tell me your history, you know,” said Alice, “and why it is you hate–C and D,” she added in a whisper, half afraid that it would be offended again.

“Mine is a long and a sad tale!” said the Mouse, turning to Alice, and sighing.

“It is a long tail, certainly,” said Alice, looking down with wonder at the Mouse’s tail; “but why do you call it sad?”

and

Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.

“I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take more.”

“You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter: “it’s very easy to take more than nothing.”

If the people behind Monty Python didn’t read Alice growing up, then that’s curiouser and curiouser. Next question, is Through the Looking Glass just as funny?

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ShadowHero-Cov-final1Grab a timer. I challenge you to name all the Asian and Asian-American superheroes you can think of in one minute. Go.

OK. Who did you come up with? How many were you able to name?

My point exactly. Unless you’re a diehard comic book buff, that was probably a frustratingly long and fruitless minute. When was the last time (or first time) superhero blockbusters, and their inevitable summer sequels and spin-offs, have featured persons of Asian descent gowning up in spandex to save the world?

Enter storytelling geniuses Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew. Their graphic novel, The Shadow Hero, hits all the marks of a great comic book–vibrant action sequences, ruthless villains, hero-defining moments, vigilante justice, justice in upholding the law–while finally giving a face to the mysterious Green Turtle. Take a step back, and his origins story is also a playful and nuanced exploration of the Chinese immigrant experience in pre-WWII America, as well as Chinese history, culture, and personal identity.

Growing up in Chinatown, teenager Hank Chu’s biggest dream is to carry on the family grocery business. Then there are his mother’s loftier aspirations for him. In a comedic turn of events involving a bank heist, a high speed car chase, and an appearance from a caped hero called the Anchor of Justice, Hank’s mom becomes determined to transform her reluctant son into the first Chinese-American superhero. Appropriately, Hank’s initial crime fighting escapades are downright embarrassing until, in true superhero tradition, personal tragedy propels him to embrace a new identity as the Green Turtle.

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I’m partway through Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, and it’s so good I can’t wait to finish it before writing a review. Written in the style of an A-Z guidebook, it’s best appreciated by connoisseurs of the genre, hardcore fans and weary eye-rolling readers alike. Jones skewers clichés, inconsistencies and the often faulty logic found in fantastical realms (as Jones helpfully reminds us, the Rules were created by the “Management,” aka fantasy authors, so it’s no use blaming her). It should be required reading for every aspiring writer. Here are just a few of the delights:

CLOAKS are the universal outer garb of everyone who is not a Barbarian. It is hard to see why. They are open in front and require you at most times to use one hand to hold them shut. On horseback they leave the shirtsleeved arms and most of the torso exposed to wind and WEATHER…It is thought that the real reason for the popularity of Cloaks is that the inhabitants like the look of themselves from the back.

Of course. Who hasn’t wondered at the obvious impracticality of fighting, riding and trekking with a billowing blanket strapped to your neck?

FOREST OF DOOM. This is usually the home of mobile and prehensile TREES. There will be giant SPIDERS too…

One of the many clear references to Middle Earth (“SPIDERS…lair in certain WOODS and in CAVES, where shorter and slighter Tourists may be seriously inconvenienced by their gigantic webs made of sticky, rope-thick strands. Often only a special SWORD will cut these webs, and it usually takes two or more Tourists to defeat the Spider.”)

Jones seems to be targeting copycat Lord of the Rings epics, and because Tough Guide was written in 1996, she didn’t have a chance to reference the Harry Potter craze, so we can only imagine what she would have done with that.

DARK LADY. There is never one of these–so see DARK LORD instead. The Management considers that male Dark Ones have more potential to be sinister, and seldom if ever employs a female in this role. This is purely because the Management was born too late to meet my Great Aunt Clara.

Hmm. Good point. Someone should get on that and invent Sauron’s XX cousin.

More to come once I’ve finished the book, including a note about the guide’s attitude toward names with apostrophes.

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