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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. (more…)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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ad-boxersboxBoxers and Saints may be the first book on this blog to get double reviews from Jen and me. Here’s her take, and mine is below. Major spoilers ahead!

Two weeks ago I wrote about book hype and how it can raise or lower your expectations for a book. Since September, the most-hyped book on my radar has been Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang. It took months for my request to arrive at the library, so in the meantime I read a ton of reviews and grew increasingly psyched. It had everything going for it: starry-eyed praise, a chilling trailer, a historical setting I knew nothing about, and an ingenious setup–telling both sides of a conflict through a two-volume set.

Luckily, it lived up to the hype. I loved the characters, the humor (Yang gets bonus points for putting humor in a book about a bloody revolution), the art. He also avoids one of my pet peeves: too often, stories set in other countries star characters who speak broken English, which is idiotic, since they’re obviously speaking their native language even if the book is written in English. Thankfully, everyone in Boxers & Saints speaks naturally, and it’s the missionaries who butcher the grammar as they attempt to speak Mandarin to the villagers. Also, whenever we see foreign soldiers talking in their own language (French, English or German), their words look like gibberish, or drunken attempts at drawing Chinese characters (if you squint, you’ll notice how each character corresponds to a letter of the alphabet. With enough patience, you could decode what they’re saying. I managed to find “e” and “a” before my eyes crossed in dizziness).

Most importantly, Yang tells a complicated saga through compelling characters, and the story has enough complexity for me to appreciate the shades of gray. As Jen said, there are no winners in Boxers & Saints. Everybody loses. Under different circumstances, Vibiana and Little Bao might have been friends, but the pull of history–and Yang’s masterful storytelling–was too much. While each volume stands on its own, they’re infinitely better when read together (it makes the most sense to start with Boxers)–hence my insistence on calling the series a book instead of books. Yang kept the surprises coming, and I didn’t even know what I was missing until the last page of Saints. (more…)

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boxers saintsIt’s been over two months since I finished reading Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang, and I’m still thinking about it. Told in graphic novel format from the perspectives of two Chinese teens on opposite sides of the conflict known as the Boxer Rebellion, Volume One follows Little Bao, while Volume Two tells Four-Girl’s story. Their narratives intersect briefly as children growing up in rural China during hard times, and then dramatically in a clash of allegiances as the Boxers, a pro-nationalist movement, march towards Peking in an effort to dispel the foreign powers–and their foreign religion–from China by force.

Yang sets the scene with ease, using Little Bao’s passion for folk opera, Four-Girl’s home life, and a host of mortal and supernatural characters, to give us insight into the cultural, social, and political situation influencing China as the 19th century drew to a close. Yang also portrays Chinese culture–even its more outlandish superstitions–with sensitivity and skill. Having read other books about China, I appreciate that his characters are influenced by, but don’t embody these superstitions. Rather, they come across as fully fleshed individuals with human motivations. (more…)

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The-True-Blue-Scouts-of-Sugar-Man-Swamp-2821158Jen was right–Kathi Appelt’s True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp is a book that should be read aloud, not read from the page. The cadence of the text drew me in from the first sentence of the audiobook, narrated by Lyle Lovett. It took me awhile to get used to Lovett’s voice, mostly because I’d always imagined a female narrator (my mind must be stuck on Keeper, narrated by Appelt herself). His narration initially sounded too detached for the humorous, warm atmosphere. But after awhile, Lovett won me over. Perhaps it’s because he relished the intrusive narrator moments (“You heard me. The DeSoto.”), and pulled them off so smoothly I barely noticed the intrusion.* I also appreciated the sly, matter-of-fact tone used for the raccoon brothers’ silly antics (“Blinkle,” Bingo’s dewberry guilt, their POUFing near Gertrude).

Speaking of Gertrude, Lovett has a particular talent for sound effects, including the all-important snip-snap-zip-zap! and the Farrow Gang’s ecstatic squeals. As for Coyote Jim’s howl, it was so loud I had to rip the headphones from my ears. Arrroooooooo, indeed.

*For a true test of Lovett’s skills, I suggest asking Charlotte of Charlotte’s Library if she can stomach the intrusive narrator when read by his voice.

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