Posts Tagged ‘reviews’

grimIt’s with a grimmace that I admit I didn’t enjoy Adam Gidwitz’s The Grimm Conclusion, the third installment of the Grimm books, as much as I had expected to. The fairy tales were as outrageous and un-Disneyfied as before. The narrator was even chattier than I’d remembered. And we the readers were frequently warned to put the book down, lest we encounter upcoming unpleasant gruesomeness. Nevertheless, The Grimm Conclusion read like a pale reflection of its predecessors, as if it were told through a glass grimmly.

See what I did there?

After being reminded by the chatty narrator that these ain’t your grandma’s fairy tales, but the “grimmest, Grimmest tale” of them all, we meet twins Jorinda and Joringel, whose mother may have been impregnated with the help of a juniper tree. When their parents prove inadequate (one dies of happiness the day they were born, the other locks herself away out of fear and illogical psychology), Jorinda and Joringel promise to cling to each other for ever and ever, until their step father decapitates Joringel with a trunk lid and tricks Jorinda into thinking his death was her fault.

Although Joringel is eventually restored to himself, their mother’s shoddy advice informs how they make sense of this and future traumas: bury the stone that represents pain under mattresses until you don’t feel it anymore, and stamp out the weed that is anger until it never comes back.


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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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9780374379940_p0_v1_s260x420I was a big fan of Dead End in Norvelt, and From Norvelt to Nowhere promised more adventure for young Jack Gantos and his off-kilter elderly neighbor, Miss Volker of the arthritic hands and former lover of a mass poisoner. The book even promised a road trip for this zany duo. What could go wrong?

Lots of things, as it turns out. From Norvelt to Nowhere reads like a sad echo of the prequel. The best part of the book actually takes place before the roadtrip. When a new original Norvelter moves back to town, she falls dead on the same night that Jack chooses to dress up as Mr. Spizz (the mass poisoner, now on the run from the law) for Halloween. But Jack thinks the real Mr. Spizz may be back in town, ready to sweep Miss Volker off her feet now that she really is the last original Norvelt resident. After some spooky Halloween antics, doses of Miss Volker’s acerbic wit and an unfortunate accident involving an air raid shelter, Jack is commissioned into accompanying Miss Volker to Eleanor Roosevelt’s funeral.

That’s where the novel fell apart. What should have been Jack and Miss Volker’s Excellent Adventure turns into a heavy-handed (and often confusing) series of monologues on love, hate, history, social justice and fighting our inner demons. There are numerous allusions to Jekyll and Hyde and way too many Moby Dick references (in case you’re curious, Miss Volker is Captain Ahab and she intends to spear Mr. Spizz—with a real spear). While the book is still entertaining, it simply lacked focus. Miss Volker monologues for pages on end while I lost track of where they were and the purpose of their trip (ok, there’s a mystery about who really killed the old Norvelt ladies, but it felt weak). Jack, supposedly the main character, starts to feel like the sidekick—one whose only purpose is to drive and protest feebly when Miss Volker starts to get too outlandish. It felt like a story without a point, like the roadtrip was an excuse for Miss Volker to say everything that she never had time to say in the prequel. And while I would happily read a book of Miss Volker’s speeches, I don’t want them to take over what was supposed to be a well-written and (multiple!) character-driven novel.

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I was going to review the 1937 and 1938 Newbery award winners separately, but I was so unenthusiastic about these books that I can’t be bothered to write them individual posts.

roll1938: Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer

When Lucinda’s well-to-do parents travel to Europe for a healthful vacation, Lucinda enjoys her newly “orphaned” status–and the freedom that comes with boarding at the Misses Peters’ house–by befriending the less rarefied folks of New York City she wouldn’t otherwise meet. Naturally, her transportation of choice–roller skates. While Lucinda is spirited and kind and bubbly and resourceful as she skates through the city, there’s no clear direction to her story. (Spoilers: instead, there’s an incredibly ill-handled murder resulting from domestic violence that Lucinda is witnessed to. The hotel manager’s advice: just pretend the victim went on a very long trip abroad and isn’t coming back. And that’s exactly what Lucinda does. At least the other death in this story is well handled.)

white stag1939: The White Stag by Kate Seredy

About the westward migration of a horde led by the forefathers of Attila the Hun, Seredy decided that a romanticized version of this people group’s history would be far more interesting than their actual story, so that’s exactly what she wrote. Like with The Story of Mankind, she was rewarded for her efforts. RUDE.

“Not so long ago I was leafing through a very modern book on Hungarian history. It was a typical twentieth-century book, its pages an unending chain of FACTS, FACTS, FACTS as irrefutable, logical, and as hard as the learned pens of learned historians could make them… Well, I closed the book and I closed my eyes….Those who want to hear the voice of pagan gods in wind and thunder, who want to see fairies dance in the moonlight, who can believe that faith can move mountains, can follow the thread on the pages of this book. It is a fragile thread; it cannot bear the weight of facts and dates.”   –Kate Seredy in the foreward

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Our friend Taylor guest blogs for us once again!

mioI love exploring new children’s literature, but I’ll admit I have a soft spot for classic lit as well.  In particular, I am a huge fan of Astrid Lindgren (author of the world-famous Pippi Longstocking series).

In Mio, My Son, Lindgren writes the tale of Mio, an orphaned boy living in foster care in Stockholm.  He has one friend and longs to know his father.  Eventually, through a series of supernatural events, he is whisked away to Farawayland, where his father is king.  There, he experiences unconditional love for the first time in his life.  However, like all fairy tales, there is adversity; Mio discovers that he is destined to fight the cruel Sir Kato in the Outer Kingdom.

What I love about this book is not its sophistication; it is a pretty simple and standard fairy tale.  What stands out about this book is the relationship between Mio and his father the king.  As I wrote about in my review of Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter, Lindgren does a superb job of creating excellent unromantic relationships in which unconditional love is the central feature.  Even when Mio is in the hateful Outer Kingdom and doubts his father’s love, he hears a whisper of his father’s voice and gains the strength to continue his quest.

So, regardless of how you feel about fairy tales and genies, this book is worth giving a try if only to take in Lindgren’s excellent writing about the kind of relationships we all long for.

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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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Facebook of Three

90s cover!

90s cover!

Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three is another oldie I haven’t revisited since I was a child. Now that I’m a bit older, I can spot the host of fantasy tropes from a mile away, but Alexander blends high fantasy and humor with skilled storytelling. His characters are surprisingly sassy. Here’s the who’s who:

Dallben, the wise, bearded mentor

Appearing only at the beginning and the end of the story, he mostly goes “hmmm” and drops ominous hints, followed by “I can’t tell you because you wouldn’t understand,” but he’s also full of sage advice. He also sums up Taran’s entire quest in this sassy quote:

We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself. This is one of those cases. I could tell you why, but at the moment it would only be more confusing. If you grow up with any kind of sense–which you sometimes make me doubt–you will very likely reach your own conclusions. They will probably be wrong. However, since they will be yours, you will feel a little more satisfied with them

Taran, the eager, orphaned, wannabe hero who longs for adventure and accidentally finds himself on one

By turns impulsive, brave, determined, loyal, and prone to acts of stupidity, young Taran is Caer Dallben’s resident Assistant Pig-Keeper. He idolizes actual hero Gwydion, one of the Sons of Don, and gets put in his place by everyone he meets. Taran is too sincere to be sassy.

I accused you falsely. My shame is as deep as my sorrow.

Prince Gwydion, of the House of Don

A true and honest hero, Gwydion seeks information only Dallben’s oracular pig possesses. His noble white stead is named Melyngar. He can talk to animals.

Your promises reek of Annuvin! I scorn them. It is no secret what you are.”


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Elijah of Buxton FNL JKTinddGullible, jumpy Elijah was the first free child born in Buxton, a Canadian town settled by former slaves. He has a reputation for being “fra-gile” and wants to be brave–but it’s not easy when most people know him as the baby who did something unmentionable during a visit from Frederick Douglass. Elijah tries hard to grow up, and even manages to keep the tears in at certain times. He’s feeling quite proud of his courage until the real test comes, a catastrophe that forces him to venture into America, where he finally sees what his parents have run from, and the life he could have led without the sanctuary of Buxton.

What made this O’Dell winner work is that it doesn’t feel Historical. The events on the Underground Railroad, though necessary, take up a tiny chunk of the book. Most of the story takes place in Buxton, and so much of Elijah’s life–playing practical jokes, fishing in the woods, sneaking off to the town carnival–carries across all cultures and time periods. Yes, there is historical context, and awkward generation gap moments unique to Elijah’s story. It’s hard not to squirm when Elijah and his friends run off to play slavers and abolitionists just minutes after hearing his mother recall her harrowing escape to Canada. But these moments, while grounding the book in its setting, never weighed it down. They’re nicely balanced by Elijah’s bumbling, often hilarious attempts to understand adults, like the time he and his friend mistake the words “familiarity breeds contempt” for “family breeding contest.” Elijah of Buxton is not a book “for” minorities or about slavery–it’s a middle grade book, pure and simple. It’s a perfect choice from the O’Dell committee, and a great example of what Christopher Myers meant when he wrote about the responsibility of offering “more than slain civil rights leaders and escaped slaves, people whose lives are steeped in violence both literal and figurative…I want to give my readers spaceships, clowns, and unicorns, to depict whole human beings, to allow the children in my books to have the childhoods they ought to have, where surely there are lessons and context and history, but there is also fantasy and giggling and play.”

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I have been looking forward to reading Caddie Woodlawn ever since I started the Newbery Challenge almost three years ago. It was a favorite of mine growing up, and I dangled Carol Ryrie Brink’s book in front of me like a carrot to motivate myself through some of the less than stellar Newbery winners of the twenties and thirties. But when I finally reached 1936 on the Newbery list, I found myself unwilling to start. What if I started reading only to find a cherished book of my childhood just doesn’t measure up anymore?

Fortunately, I enjoyed revisiting Caddie, albeit for different reasons than my childhood self. Caddie Woodlawn, sandwiched between two brothers in a family of seven children, is as spirited a tomboy as I remember. When her family moved from Boston to western Wisconsin, her father struck a bargain with her mother: Mom can have her way bringing up all the other kiddies, but let Caddie run free for the sake of her health. It works, and Caddie is spared from womanly duties to go on all sorts of adventures. Along the way and without shoving this theme down our throats, Caddie learns that people can be much more than they first appear, whether it’s the bully with no regard for education that saves the schoolhouse from a brush fire; supercilious cousin Annabelle (she of the eight and eighty buttons) who’s a lot more resilient to Caddie, Tom, and Warren’s merciless pranks than they’d imagined; delicate fainting Kate who’s bold enough to touch the gruesome scalps on Indian Joe’s belt; Caddie’s father, who may just be English nobility; even Caddie, a tomboy who has the makings of a real lady.


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