6.26.2009

The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson, interior pictures by Sue Porter, 230 pp, RL 3


Eva Ibbotson's The Secret of Platform 13 is a magical romp with creatures almost crawling out of the woodwork - or sewers, in the case of the merrow. Written a few years ahead of JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, readers will wonder if she read Ibbotson's book as she was writing her own. There is a downtrodden but kind hearted orphan boy, an obnoxious mother and her spoiled son and, of course, a magical train platform. And, while the similarities between the Trottles and their treatment of Ben over their birth child, Raymond, are strikingly similar to the Dursleys, Dudley and their abuse of Harry, the precise coincidences end there. Ibbotson, as gifted a writer as Rowling, keeps her writing grounded in the realm of children's literature and is really more reminiscent of classic children's writers like the wonderful Edward Eager (Half Magic) who's works were first published in the 1950s and the magnificent E Nesbit, who published most of her books in the early 1900s. Like Roald Dahl, who's books can also be read as a social commentary at times, Ibbotson's writing does not have multiple layers of meaning. She clearly delights in thinking up magical creatures and placing them in sticky situations more than pondering the forces of good and evil and the nature of humanity.

The Secret of Platform 13 begins with a gump which was once known to be "grassy bump on the earth and in this bump was a hidden door which opened every so often to reveal a tunnel which led to a completely different world." The gump in question happens to be under now unused Platform Thirteen of King's Cross Railway Station where there is a "secret door behind the wall of the old gentlemen's cloakroom." Every nine years, for nine days, the door in the gump opens, leading to a long tunnel that opens onto a secret cove where a ship waits to take those who wish to an "island so beautiful that it took your breath away." The good and modest king and queen of this Island, humans who preside peacefully and happily over a realm of various creatures and spirits, have become parents for the first time and have hired the red headed, human triplets Violet, Lily and Rose to care for him. Deciding that she should not be a hovering sort of mother, the Queen agrees that the nurses will take the infant Prince through the gump and into London for the day when it opens. As soon as the ship sails from the Island toward the gump the Queen knows she has made a mistake, and indeed she has. Once in London, the three vigilant nurses let their guard down for a moment and the Prince in his basket is snatched by mrs Trottle just moments before the gump closes again for nine years.

Thinking that she cannot have a child of her own, the sickeningly wealthy Mrs Trottle decided to steal one, fly to Switzerland and come back a year later claiming the baby as her own. Once she, the baby and her aging nurse from her childhood, Nanny Brown, reach Switzerland, the horrible Mrs Trottle realizes that she is in fact pregnant with a baby of her own. As Raymond Trottle and Ben, the name Mrs Trottle has given the Prince, grow over the course of the nine years that the King and Queen wait to return to London and reclaim their heir, Ben outshines the spoiled, lazy Raymond in every way. Mrs Trottle grows to hate him and banishes Ben to basement of Trottle Towers where he works as an servant and is cared for by Nanny Brown, who has also been banished and threatened with jail if she ever tells about Mrs Trottle's kidnapping of Ben. Ben develops a genuine fondness for Nanny, the only person to show him any kindness, and shoulders his burden admirably, not knowing any different. Meanwhile, as the time for the opening of the gump approaches, the King and Queen set about to choose the Islanders who will return to London to bring the Prince home.

Along with Ben and Raymond, Odge, a young hag from the Island, is one of the main characters of The Secret of Platform 13. From a young age, Odge knows that she should be one of the group who returns to rescue the Prince. When she is not chosen she pleads her case with the King and Queen, telling them that she feels like she knows the Prince and has even picked out a magical gift from the Island to bring to him. Allowing Odge to join the rescue team proves to be a good decision when, once in London, the group assume that Raymond is the Prince and Ben just a helpful and friendly boy who doesn't seem ill at ease with magical creatures like the fey, the wizard and the troll who make up the rest of the crew. How the group deals with Raymond, going so far as organizing a spectacular show at midnight on Midsummer's Eve in Kensington Gardens to show him what he can look forward to if he returns home, and how Odge handles her intense dislike of Raymond coupled with her fondness for Ben, prove for an exciting climax that includes a nuckel and a harpy named Mrs Smith who looks disturbingly like Margaret Thatcher. And, of course, a happy ending.

Ibbotson's other books reviewed here include:  Journey to the River Sea, a marvelous book with an English orphan with prickly, impoverished relatives living in the Amazon rain forest who take her in and the gorgeously magical Island of the Aunts. This review includes cover images for all of her books for young readers.

6.24.2009

Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes, 298 pp, RL 4


Although I count her among my most favorite authors, I have put off reviewing any of Eva Ibbotson's books for almost a year after starting this blog because I knew I'd need to set aside a large chunk of time to do justice to her works. I also knew that I couldn't just review one of her books - I would have to review as many as I could. I thought that I would be able to skim the books, all of which I have already read, then review them. What I didn't realize was that I would get sucked into each and every one and end up re-reading all the books from cover to cover!

Eva Ibbotson is such magnificent writer capable of creating characters that you love and wish were your best friends as well as characters who are devious, self-centered, snobbish and downright mean. While her writing is highly descriptive and visual, it is also plain spoken and straightforward. Whether she is telling a story set in unique geographical location and time period or in a magical world, she always manages to bring together a diverse group of characters with actions and intentions that ring true no matter what their circumstances. In Journey to the River Sea, Ibbotson describes a character who has just received the best news possible as seeming to be made of "something quite different. Not muscle and bone - feathers and air . . . and lightness. He did not actually intend to fly, because that would have been showing off, but he could have done so if he wanted to." On top of this, Ibbotson has a way with writing about magical people and creatures that is deliciously imaginative, touchingly human and frequently funny, especially in her book Island of the Aunts. At times, Ibboston's writing is evocative of classic children's writers such as Frances Hodgson Burnett, Louisa May Alcott and the imcomprable E Nesbit.

Journey to the River Sea begins in 1910 in London, England. Maia, a student at the Mayfair Academy For Young Ladies has been an orphan since her parents, archaeologists who often took her on their travels, were killed in a train crash in Egypt two years previously. During these two years, Maia's guardian and family lawyer, Mr Murray has been searching for a relative who can care for Maia when he discovers the Carters. Mr Carter is a second cousin of Maia's father who has moved his family not far from the city of Manaus in Brazil with the hopes of making a fortune as a rubber planter. When Maia learns of this she begins to study all she can about the Amazon and Brazil, her imagination ignited by descriptions of the jungles and flora and fauna that inhabit it. She also lends her excited imagination to envisioning the Mr and Mrs Carter's twin daughters, Beatrice and Gwendolyn and the fine times they will have exploring together. Miss Minton is hired as a governess for Maia and the twins, who are the same age as she is, and chaperones her on her journey from England to Brazil. On board the Cardinal, Maia and Miss Minton meet a troupe of traveling actors, one of whom is the young Jimmy Bates who goes by the stage name Clovis King. The troupe is preparing their version of Little Lord Fauntleroy for performances in Manaus and will then move on to other venues. Clovis, an orphan who left his foster mother to join the actors, constantly pines for the cold weather of England as well as the fine (that's his opinion, anyway) English cooking done by his foster mother that he has left behind as well as constantly worries that the onset of puberty and the imminent change in his voice will cause him to be expelled from the troupe for no longer being able to play the part of young children in their performances. When this happens during the dramatic climax of the performance in Manaus, Clovis is laughed off the stage and kicked out of the troupe and his story begins.

Maia and Miss Minton, who has a bittersweet story of her own that precedes her journey to the Amazon, arrive at Taphernini, or the House of Rest, as Mrs Carter has named her home, they find things are not at all what they had imagined. The house, reeks of Lysol and the windows are never opened. The twins are spoiled and unwelcoming and jealous of all that Maia is capable of. Miss Minton notices this immediately and, for Maia's protection, separates her from the twins during lessons on the utterly false premise that she is lagging so far behind them in her studies she will only slow them down. The twins and Mrs Carter are so vain that they do not even question this. What's worse for Maia is Mrs Carter's insistence that they replicate their lives in England in the heart of the Amazon. They eat (dreadful) imported British food, treat the native servants with disdain and, worst of all, never leave the house for fear of encountering the nature all around them. Mrs Carter spends her days wandering the house with a flit gun, spraying chemicals into every crack in an effort to keep the bugs out of the house. However, through their innate curiosity and wonder at their situations, both Maia and Miss Minton manage to connect with the world outside of the stifling walls of Taphernini.

When British detectives come to Manaus in search of Finn Taverner, son of the noted British naturalist and explorer, Bernard Taverner, recently deceased, mystery and intrigue are introduced into the plot. With the locals on his side, Finn, who is half Xanti Indian, manages to evade the detectives, sent to return him to his ancestral estate that he is now the sole heir to. Finn has been raised by his father to be wary of the British. It was a British doctor who refused to tend to his native mother in the middle of the night when she went into labor and eventually died. He has also been raised to avoid a return to Westwood at all costs. It seems his father's childhood there was both miserable and brutal as he did not fit the Taverner mold. However, a friendship between the two children blossoms when Finn rescues a hopelessly lost Maia The friendship deepens when Finn introduces Maia, who is now allowed to leave the house after Miss Minton invents "pulmonary spasms," a condition which requires fresh air, to the people and ways of the jungle that she has been longing to experience. Maia, a gifted pianist and promising singer, realizes that, in Brazil, music is always around her. She begins to take an interest in the music of the various tribes and attempts to learn their songs in an effort to learn their folk songs. The lives of Finn, Clovis and Maia become intertwined, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. And, in the end, after a few false starts, the adults meant to guide and protect them come through

There is so much more wonder and joy at the beauty of nature and the discoveries it holds in this book, as well as more misguided, bigoted, spiteful behavior. But, the good outweighs the bad and in the end the Carters all get their just desserts - desserts that are equal to the reconstituted, rubbery puddings Mrs Carter insisted on serving at Taphnernini.

If you do not read any other book by Eva Ibbotson, I highly suggest you read this one. While I am a huge fan of fantasy and adore her books of this genre, there is something so timeless and hopeful about Journey to the River Sea that I think every child - and adult - should experience it. And, while Maia and Miss Minton dominate the story, Finn and Clovis are strong characters who should appeal to boy readers as well.

If you enjoyed this book, I suggest The Star of Kazan and The Dragonfly Pool, Eva Ibbotson's other non-magical stories. I also recommend anything by Gloria Whenlan but especially Listening for Lions another one of my all-time favorites. And, of course, A Little Princess and Little Lord Fauntleroy, both by Frances Hodgson Burnett and both thematically influential in Journey to the River Sea, which, by the way, is what some travelers call the Amazon.


6.22.2009

Island of the Aunts by Eva Ibbotson, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes, 281 pp, RL 4


In Island of the Aunts Eva Ibbotson tells the story three sisters who have dedicated their lives to caring for the injured magical and non-magical sea creatures who manage to find their way to their unplotted island in the Atlantic Ocean that sits within sailing distance of London, England. Eva Ibbotson has to be one of my all-time favorite writers for children and I can't believe that I haven't reviewed one of her many books sooner. She is a remarkably versatile children's writer of both fantasy and historical fiction as well as having written for adults and teens. Born in Austria in 1925, Ibbotson immigrated to England and has lived there ever since. She began her writing career at the age of forty and has since written over twenty books, many of which are illustrated by the wonderful Kevin Hawkes.

Ibbotson has a cheerful sense of practicality in her story telling that makes her works seem timeless even though most of her books were written in the late 1980s and 1990s. Whether she is telling the legend of the Selkie of Rossay, a female seal who could become human at times, or describing a royal family living on a secret, magical island as being "entirely human and always had been. They were royal in the proper sense - not greedy, not covered in jewels, but brave and fair," as she does in The Secret of Platform 13, her straightforward style makes the reader want to believe in the existence of selkies, ghosts, trolls and mermaids. Perhaps it is this sense of practicality, along with her Roald Dahl-like insistence on karmic fairness - all bad children, adults, ghosts and magical creatures get their fair due by the end of her books, and the good are rewarded - that makes her books so enduring and appealing. Whatever it may be, I am certain that a reader who enjoys one of her books will end up reading them all.

While the idea of three sisters living on a secret island where they take care of mostly magical sea creatures is enough interesting material for a whole book alone, Ibbotson ups the ante by adding a few under-appreciated children into the mix. The sisters, Etta, Coral and Myrtle, with the help of their cook, Art, a convicted murdered who has vowed never to take another life (human or otherwise) again and their 103 year old father, the bedridden Captain Harper, have forged a rewarding, although not relaxing, life on the island. As the years pass, the sisters come to realize that they are on the verge of being too old to tend to the creatures properly, especially since the healed creatures have recently become reluctant to leave the island once they are well. Within the first few pages of the book the sisters have resolved to kidnap three children who's "parents don't know how lucky they are" to teach them the ways of the island and serve as their eventual replacements. Posing as nannies-for-hire from the Unusual Aunts agency, they get jobs tending to three different children. Etta, the oldest of the sisters is described as being "a tall, bony woman who did fifty press-ups before breakfast and had a small but not at all unpleasant mustache on her upper-lip." She is hired to accompany Minette, a ten year old girl who has been shuttled between London and Edinburgh forty-seven times in the last seven years since her parents divorced, on her train trip to visit her father. When they reach the half-way mark on the journey Etta watches as Minette changes from the bright, tacky clothes and hairstyle she boarded the train with into a plain skirt and top. Minette explains that her mother likes her to dress one way while her father prefers another and she wants to please them both. When Etta asks her how she prefers to wear her hair, the pom poms that her mother likes or the braids her father prefers, Minette replies, "I'd like it cut short." This convinces Etta that Minette is the right child to kidnap and she slips a sleeping potion into her sandwich.

Aunt Coral finds herself escorting Hubert-Henry Mountjoy to the boarding school called Greymarsh Towers where he will learn to be a "proper English Gentleman," not having been born one. Fabio's (Hubert-Humphrey's real name) father was a wastrel who stole money, gambled and fled to Brazil where he married a dancer. When he returned to England he left them behind in the rural village his wife was from. Upon his deathbed, he begged his family to bring Fabio to England and raise him in the traditional family manner (and manor.) When this proved too taxing for Fabio's grandparents, they began shipping him off to one boarding school after another. When Coral meets up with him, Fabio is determined to put an end to this business in any way he can. However, Coral takes care of that for him. Myrtle is not so lucky with her ward. Lambert, a spoiled child with access to phenomenal amounts of money, is so horrid Myrtle decides almost instantly to give up on the whole kidnapping idea and return home as soon as she finishes caring for him. She is about to pour her chloroform down the loo since she won't be needing it anymore when Lambert storms into the bathroom and grabs it out of her hand, accusing her of stealing. He takes a big whiff of it and passes out. Convinced she can't leave him conked out on the bathroom floor, Myrtle bundles him back to the island along with the other children, knowing she has made the biggest mistake of her life.

The next two hundred plus pages are taken up with Minette and Fabio's adjustment to their predicament, the feelings they struggle with as they grow to love the island, the magical sea creatures and even the Aunts alongside the constant threat of the unhappy, uncontrollable, unpredictable Lambert. The appearance of the most magical sea creature of all, the one who keeps the health of the seas harmonious and balanced coupled with the appearance of Lambert's father, who turns out to be even more self-centered and cruel than Lambert, makes for a tense climax at sea that ultimately is resolved at the Old Bailey. The ending of this book is deeply satisfying, not only for the justice that is served but for the growth of all the key characters and their love for each other, the island and its creatures that sustains them all. Although it was written in 1999, Island of the Aunts has a subtle environmental theme, much like Diana Leszczynski's excellent debut novel Fern Verdant and the Silver Rose, that will hopefully give children a new perspective on the earth's resources and a deeper appreciation of all the creatures who inhabit it.

A few of Eva Ibbotson's non-magical and magical titles readers might enjoy:

























6.19.2009

The Frog Princess (Tales of the Frog Princess, Book #1) by E.D. Baker, 214 pp, RL 4


The Frog Princess by ED Baker is a gentle twist on traditional fairy tales that should put a smile on the face of fans of Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted and her Princess Tales, now collected in one volume titled, The Fairy's Return and other Pricness Tales, which I highly recommend for all fairy tale lovers.

Set in the kingdom of Greater Greensward, there are the familiar witches, spells, curses, talking animals and seemingly indifferent royal parents who are on the verge of arranging a marriage for their unwilling daughter. Princess Emeralda, fourteen when the story begins, is a clumsy girl with a unique, guffawing laugh and the feeling that she doesn't fit in anywhere but in the chambers of her Aunt Grassina, the royal witch. Although Emeralda, or Emma as she is often called, tries to learn magic from her aunt she is hopeless. Upset at the prospect of another visit from the self-absorbed Prince Jorge, Emma heads off to the swamp for some peace and quiet, flora and fauna. Once there, she meets a talking frog who insists he is a prince who has had a curse put on him for insulting the appearance of a witch. Emma doubts him and returns home to talk to her Aunt about the possibility that his story could be true.

Although she doesn't get all her questions answered, Emma returns to the swamp and Prince Eadric and gives him his kiss. Instead of the desired effect, Emma herself is turned into a frog. The two spend the rest of the book trying to make their way back to the witch who cast the spell in the hopes that she can explain why the curse has not been broken. As a frog, Emma finds freedom in her abilities to make her own decisions and revels in her newfound swimming skills. However, she also comes to realize that, as a frog, her life in constantly in danger. Her interactions with Eadric are funny and Baker goes for a lot of laughs in this book making it a bit more light hearted and an easier read that Ella Enchanted. Emma and Eadric are captured by Vannabe, the wannabe witch who took over the cottage of Mudine, the witch who turned Eadric into a frog. With her kind and friendly ways, Emma befriends the other creatures caged in the witch's house and one of them, a bat named Li'l (short for Li'l Stinker, which is what her mother called her) helps Emma to perform a spell that opens all of the cages, including her own. As they race to the castle to find Aunt Grassina and enlist her help, Emma, Eadric and the other animals form friendships and overcome fears and prejudices that lead toward a happy ending for everyone. Along the way, Emma learns about her mother's past and why she treats her the way she does.

Emma is fourteen in this book, and, like all fairy tales, young girls grow up quickly. Her mother is already planning her engagement, Eadric, even after the first one fails to work, repeatedly asks Emma for a kiss, there are jokes about Prince Jorge wearing women's shoes in secret. These aspects may seem too mature for some parents, others may realize that they will probably zoom right over reader's heads. There is clearly chemistry between the two, although Baker is very low-key about it, in true fairy tale form. By the time the series gets to book #4, No Place for Magic, Emma and Eadric are about to get married but must first convince his parents that a witch for a daughter-in-law is a good thing. Book #5, The Salamander Spell, is a pre-quel that tells the story of Grassina's childhood. Book #6, The Dragon Princess, jumps ahead many years and finds Emma and Eadric the parents of a princess who turns into a dragon whenever she gets angry, which is often.

Other fairy tale lovers should be sure to read:

The Sister's Grimm series by Michael Buckley.



6.17.2009

The School Story by Andrew Clements, illustrated by Brian Selznick, 196 pp, RL 4


Andrew Clements is known as the master of the school story and rightly so. His first and most popular novel, Frindle was published in 1996. Since then he has written fifteen young adult novels, many of which are illustrated by Brian Selznick the Caldecott Award winning illustrator and author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Clements has written even more chapter books, beginning reader titles and an handful of picture books and has definintely staked out a place on the bookshelf right after Beverly Cleary and her Ramona books and just before Eoin Colfer and his Artemis Fowl series.

The covers of Clement's books, when illustrated by Brian Selznick, always have the main character holding something representative of the story. The cover of School Story reflects back upon itself, like standing between two mirrors, and the story inside proves to be a bit like that as well. Sixth grader Natalie, is the daughter of Hannah Nelson, editor at Shipley Junior Books in New York City. The two have been on their own since Natalie's father died in a car accident four years earlier. One day while riding the bus home from the city to New Jersey, Natalie asks her mom about her day at work because, "when her dad died, Natalie had decided she needed to talk to her mom more. Sometimes she pretended to be interested in her mom's work at the publishing company even when she wasn't." Natalie's mom tells her about a six hour that could have been summed up in three sentences: "People, we need to publish more adventure books, more series books and more school stories." This gets Natalie thinking, "who knows more about school than someone who's right there, five days a week, nine months a year?" When Natalie shares a few chapters of her book with Zoe, her best friend since kindergarten, the story takes off.

One of the reasons I love School Story is that it is actually a book about books, authors and publishing more than it is about kids in school. My favorite kind of book is one that mentions other authors and other books because I love being exposed to new things. Like Jeanne Birdsall's wonderful instant classic (which also includes a young author and excerpts from her writing,) The Penderwicks, School Story mentions other authors and other books and the best part is that these are likely to be familiar to most young readers who will experience a sense of recognition when reading School Story, especially chapter two titled, "A Portrait of the Author as a Young Girl." They may not catch the James Joyce reference, but readers will appreciate the chapter in which Natalie's love of reading, passed on to her by her mother and father, and her gradual growth into a writer is detailed, having as much to with the books that surround her as the absence of her father. Chapter eight, "Portrait of the Bulldog as a Young Girl" sheds some light on the character of Zoe Reisman and her motivation for convincing Natalie to take part in her scheme to get her book, The Cheater, published. Natalie is the daughter of an entertainment lawyer and a talker and arguer who never loses. Zoe is also a thoughtful and observant child. After reading a book she wants to talk to the author ask tactical questions like, "Why a peach and not a pickle?" after reading James and the Giant Peach. Shortly after Natalie's father dies, Zoe notices the look on her face when, during a sleep over Mr Reisman comes in to kiss his daughter good night. When Zoe reads Natalie's book she realizes that, while it is a school story, it is also a story about a father and a daughter and this, more than anything, makes her want to bring something good into Natalie's life like having her book published.

Although it seems like the easiest thing would be to give the manuscript directly to Natalie's mom for consideration, Natalie doesn't want their relationship to influence the success of her book one way or another. While Zoe does quite a bit of research in her efforts to help Natalie get her book published, there is only so much two kids can do on their own. Thus, they recruit (well, really bully on Zoe's part) their writing teacher Ms Clayton into helping them set up a phony office for the literary agency that supposedly represents Cassandra Day, Natalie's pen name. Ms Clayton is wary at first. She has sees the value in Natalie's manuscript from the start and she eventually comes to see the potential in Zoe's scheme as well. Natalie, who spends the afternoon at her mom's office every day after school, gets an insider's view of the publishing world as she watches her manuscript make the rounds. One of my favorite aspects of the book is the sense of impossibility that she experiences when she sees the piles and piles of manuscripts sitting on her mother's and the desks of the other editors at Shipley Junior Books. Clements also subtly exposes readers to the process of publishing a book, even describing the ways a book is publicized (ARCs or advance reader copies that are sent out to librarians and booksellers) as industry magazines like Publisher's Weekly that review books and the New York Times Bestsellers list that tracks sales.

The relationships and interior lives of the characters are well developed. Even Ms Clayton has some background story that makes it into the text, and makes you root for her as well as the girls and Mrs Nelson, who has an egotistical, attention grabbing boss who repeatedly threatens the path of Natalie's book. Brian Selznick's warm pencil illustrations are spot on, making the characters seem even more real. Of course this is going to be a book that I love, but I genuinely feel that any girl who loves to read will enjoy this book and any girl who loves to write will come away from it with a sense of inspiration and purpose.

Readers who enjoyed this book might also like:

The Sister's Club by Megan McDonald
My Last Best Friend by Julie Bowe
The Book of Coupons by Susie Morgenstern
Secret Letters from 0 to 10 by Susie Morgenstern

6.15.2009

The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd, 323pp RL: Middle Grade

It is rare to find a well written mystery in the world of young adult literature, especially one that doesn't have a "Scooby-Doo" type ending, the kind you never could have seen coming no matter how good your deduction skills may be. Not only is Siobhan Dowd's The London Eye Mystery gripping from start to finish, it is also an entirely plausible story beginning to end. And, most importantly, it is entirely believable that the narrator Ted and his older sister Kat were able to think their way through the mystery to a solution at the end when their parents and the police couldn't.

Although the great artwork for the hardcover edition of The London Eye Mystery caught my eye right away, I didn't pick it up until it was released in paperback a year later. I began by reading The London Eye Mystery during my breaks at work and, when I was about two-thirds of the way finished I stopped reading and flipped to the back of the book thinking, "This woman is a phenomenal writer. Who is she? Where did she come from??" It was then that I got a shock far more surprising than the end of any mystery novel. Because I feel so strongly about the excellence of this book and what I subsequently learned, I am going to print the author's bio in full here.

Siobhan Dowd lived in Oxford with her husband Geoff, before tragically dying from cancer in August of 2007, at age 47. She was both an extraordinary writer and and an extraordinary person. All royalties from her books will go to a trust created just before her death, The SiobhanDowd Trust, a charity set up to support the joy of reading for young people in areas of social deprivation.

After reading this, I knew that I would be buying the book as well as ordering in mulitple copies for the bookstore's summer reading tables. I hope that all of you reading this post will also support this remarkable writer and her amazing literary and humanitarian works by buying this book as well. It has been two years since I first posted this review and I am happy to say that The London Eye Mystery has enjoyed a very healthy (and rare, I might add) shelf life at the bookstore where I work and I am happy to think of Dowd's trust growing. What Dowd's biography in the back of The London Eye Mystery doesn't mention is that, before she was an accomplished writer for young adults, she was a member of International PEN for over twenty years. Her work in included investigating local human rights conditions for writers in Indonesia and Guatemala as well as establishing the Salman Rushdie Defense Comittee USA during the time of the fatwa that was placed on him by the Ayatollah Khomeini for supposed offenses to the Islamic world in his book, The Satanic Verses. Dowd then went on to set up an organization that brings writers to schools in socially deprived areas as well as serving as Deputy Commissioner for Children's Rights in Oxfordshire. Dowd was also very happily married for the last six years of her life to Geoff Morgan, a librarian and musician with whom she wrote and recorded many songs that can be heard on her website. Before she was even fifty, Dowd changed many, many lives for the better with her humanitarian work and brought good things into this world through her literary work, more than some of us can hope for in a lifetime.

The London Eye Mystery seems like a simple story at first, but as Ted, the narrator, discovers, some things are not as simple as they appear, and other things aren't even what they appear to be at all. Although Dowd and her characters never give a name to Ted's disorder, when describing to Salim that he is not sick, not stupid but also not normal Ted himself explains that the "brain is like a computer, but mine works on a different operating system from other people's. And my wiring's different too... It means I am very good at thinking about facts and how things work and the doctors say I am at the high-functioning end of the spectrum." Ted speaks from time to time of his "hand flapping" when he is in tense situations as well as the relief he got from jumping on a trampoline or banging his head against a wall when he was younger. He is also quick to define any figures of speech those around him use as well as point out that he is not good at reading people's facial expressions, however his friend and teacher Mr Shepherd has spent many hours showing him pictures and teaching him what different looks mean. As the narrator, Ted's unique perspective and fascinating thought process take up much of the story, yet, as the mystery unfolds the reader as well as Ted's sister Kat and the sometimes dismissive adults around him, learn that Ted's way of thinking and seeing can be a great benefit, especially in a time of crisis.

Ted and his older sister Kat, a sometimes surly teenager, live in London with their parents. Their mother is a nurse and their father is a demolition expert who's current job involves bringing down a housing project right down the street from their own home. When the story begins their mother's estranged sister Gloria and her teenage son Salim, his exact age is never stated, but he falls between Ted and Kat age-wise and must be about thirteen, are coming to London from their home in Manchester on their way to relocate in New York City. Ted's Dad describes Aunt Gloria as a hurricane and Ted, a weather watcher who spends sleepless nights listening to the shipping reports on his radio, ponders this comparison. The cousins haven't seen each other in several years, but Salim, who is half Pakistani, takes to Kat and Ted right away and the three plan their sightseeing for the following day. While waiting in line to buy tickets for the London Eye, the massive ferris wheel built for the millennium celebration, Kat, Ted and Salim are approached by a man giving away a ticket he can't use for a ride that is boarding that minute. Their mothers are having coffee while the kids buy the tickets, so it is up to them to decide whether or not to trust this person and take the ticket. Since Salim has never ridden the Eye before, Kat decides he should take the ticket. This is a decision she will regret for the rest of the book and she will come to believe that she is responsible for what happens next. For, despite Ted's keen observation of the pod Salim has entered, he and Kat do not see him exit and spend desperate minutes searching for him before they go and tell their mother and aunt.

What follows is the story of how Kat, wanting to be free of blame and genuinely worried about her cousin, turns to Ted to help her try to unravel the mystery of Salim's disappearance. Dowd does such a masterful job with both her adult and child characters that I never felt as though I had to suspend my disbelief at any point in the story. It seems as though there is always a part in a suspenseful young adult book when the children characters should ask adult for help but don't and often, their rational is not always plausible. There is a point exactly like this early on in the book, but the way Dowd works it out I felt as though I completely understood why Ted and Kat did not approach the adults at that point. Dowd manages to end the book brilliantly as well. I wrote the sentence describing how she does this five times before I realized that I couldn't write about the ending without giving something important away and, this book is such a gem, such an amazing, character driven story, that I want readers to be surprised, to gasp and to cry at all the same parts I did.


So, once again, I ask you: If, after reading this review you think you would like to read the book, please consider spending $7.50 ($8.50 in Canada) to buy this book and know that you are getting a book that is worth every penny - most of which will be going to support literacy and reading for children who's parents can't buy them their own books.


Solace of the RoadSwift Pure CryBog Child

6.13.2009

FREE BOOK(s) FOR YOUR KIDS!!!!!

Your kids can earn a free book this summer at
Barnes & Noble.



I would be telling you about this even if I didn't work there because, hey,

FREE BOOK!


Stop by your local B&N (if you have one...) and pick up a form or follow this Summer Reading with Percy Jackson link to download a form. Kids entering grades 1 - 6 are eligible to enter. There is some wiggle room with this age rule. Generally, a bookseller will not hassle you if your child looks a little to old or too young to be participating. The most important thing is to make sure there is a book on the list of eligible free titles (clicking on the link above will provide a list of eligible free titles) that your child CAN and WANTS to read.

Rules: Kids must read 8 books - ANY 8 - library books, neighbor's books, books in the doctor's office, any book. Fill out the form, go to B&N, choose your book and take it to the cash register so a bookseller can ring you up. Even though the book is free, we need to ring it up for inventory reasons.

****Read the fine print on your form carefully. I swear I read that readers can earn 2 free books, not the one listed in the downloadable form on line, when I was checking out the fine print on the form at the store where I work. We used to let kids get 2 free books then stopped doing it last summer.

6.12.2009

The Magic Thief by Sarah Prineas, illustrations by Antonio Javier Caparo, 448 pp RL 4

The Magic Thief by Sarah Prineas is the first in a trilogy and reminds me very much of Angie Sage's Septimus Heap series from its square shape to to it's map of the town and guide to the characters at the end of the story, as well as wonderful illustrations by Antonio Javier Caparo. Both series can serve as the perfect bridge between shorter chapter books and popular, more intense series like Cornelia Funke's Inkworld trilogy or the Harry Potter Series. Where the books differ is in their imaginary settings. While Angie Sage's series has a distinctly medieval, fairy-tale like feel, Sarah Prineas' has a more Victorian air to it, the narrator sometimes using mellifluous phrases like "quick dart" and "skip-tripping."

In what has to be one of the best first lines to a fantasy novel I have read in a while, the narrator, Connwaer, tells us that, "A thief is a lot like a wizard." As his description at the back of the book reads, Conn is a "master pickpocket, a superb lock-picker and lover of biscuits and bacon." His story begins when he picks the pocket, out of pure curiosity, of Nevery Flinglas, a wizard who has recently returned to Wellmet after a twenty year exile. Conn steals his locus magicalicus, the stone through which the free flowing magic in the town of Wellmet can be harnessed. Anyone else attempting this fear would be killed or severely harmed by the powerful magical object, but not Conn. Sensing he could be useful, Nevery takes Conn to the chophouse and feeds him the first warm, filling meal Conn has had in a long time. From there the two, along with the menacing, burly servant Benet, form an uneasy alliance, which they will need.

The magic in Wellmet, which keeps the werelights glowing and the factories running, among other things, has been dissipating. The Magisters, admitting Nevery back into their fold, search for answers to this dilemma. At the same time, Nevery is realizing that Conn has some natural talent, power actually, of his own when it comes to practicing magic. Hoping to train him, Nevery insists that Conn attend school at the Academicos and learn to read runes - in which a secret message is written at the end of the diary entries of Nevery's that conclude each chapter. There he meets Rowan, the non-magical daughter of the Duchess of Wellmet, Willa Forestal. Conn learns to read with great speed and finds himself with the task of discovering his own locus magicalicus and the source of the waning magic in thirty days. Where he finds is and the power it possesses comes as a great surprise to all. And, despite his best intentions, Conn learns that his shady past keeps the people he respects most from trusting him at times.

Conn has an entrancing narrative voice. He is a quick learner and his voracious appetite for biscuits is well documented. A copy of Benet's delicious recipe for biscuits, as well as Conn's not-so-delicious, is in the back of the book along with some other great extras. The character of Nevery and his diary entries, as well as the mysteries surrounding his exile, are interesting. The spells sometimes practiced in The Magic Thief sound similar to science experiments and in the next book, The Magic Thief: Lost, new in hardcover, the scientific nature of magic plays a much larger role in the story, as do explosions...



6.10.2009

Sticky Burr: Adventures in Burrwood Forest, story and pictures by John Lechner, 56 pp, RL 2

Sticky Burr , illustrated and written by John Lechner is one of the most exciting books to come across my path in a while! Aside from being a charmingly illustrated story that packs adventure, humor and a little nature lesson (in the form of the main character's journal) into the book's colorful pages, there is a map, a copy of the Burrwood Gazette (Summer issue) and sheet music for a delightful little song that my four year old son, after he asked me not to sing it while pounding away on the piano, sang to himself for the rest of the day. There is also the great Sticky Burr interactive website with an on going comic strip featuring Sticky and pals as well as a link to John Lechner's other day job at FableVision. As Art Director for the children's media company founded by the amazing illustrator and author Peter H Reynolds, Lechner, who was a puppeteer for many years, directs films and designs children's software and educational websites. The website for FableVision itself kept my son and me pretty busy for a while reading books, watching short animated movies and playing games. We also had the chance to read (although without the great color illustrations) Lechner's next picture book, due out from Candlewick Press this fall, The Clever Stick which reminds me a bit of a William Steig book in it's philosophical bent.

Sticky Burr should appeal to picture book lovers as young as two or three, depending on attention span. Like Susan Schade and Jon Buller's excellent Fog Mound Trilogy and Marissa Moss' engrossing Max Disaster series, both of which are written at a higher reading level in terms of plot complexity and vocabulary, Sticky Burr is part graphic novel and moves at a fast pace. The other part of Sticky Burr is the journal of Sticky Burr ("He's small! He's prickly! HE'S A HERO!" is Sticky's tagline) which includes entries like, "Insects I have Known," "All About Burrs," and "Sticky Situations" which are informative and entertaining. Although he has the heart and soul of an artist and is a lover, not a fighter, Sticky's appearance has serious comedic appeal for little kids. With his big round eyes, continually shocked expression and stubby little teeth, Sticky is just plain funny looking. His friend, Mossy with her eyelashes and hair bow is cute. Scurvy's uni-brow and fang-like tooth add to his menacing demeanor while Draffle, Sticky's dragonfly friend looks like a great pal .



















The first adventure in Burrwood forest sets the scene for Sticky and company. We learn that Sticky likes to paint, write poetry and play his ukulele (which you can listen to a sample of at Sticky Burr the website. There is also an excellent animated short of Sticky as well. Mossy is a bit of a thrill seeker, but she also sees the importance in Sticky's pursuits and Scurvy is a trouble making meanie out to get Sticky. While admiring a view of the forest from the top of a tree, Sticky gets stuck on a squirrel's tail, then a bird's, and, when he finally shakes himself free, he falls through the sky to land on Draffle's back. Draffle goes zooming off through the forest, upsetting a wasp's nest and starting a great chase that ends in the mysterious Maze Tree. Once inside and lost, Sticky and Draffle manage to make their way home, save Oralee the Princess lightening bug as well as Sticky's village, which has been overrun by wild dogs. Like I said, a lot happens in this seemingly little book.



I can't wait to see what's in store for us in the next installment from Burrwood Forest due out this fall, Sticky Burr: The Prickly Peril.




6.05.2009

Time Travelers (Time Quake Trilogy #1) by Linda Buckley-Archer, 400pp, RL 5


I guess because I am like a kid in a candy store when I go to work, coupled with the recent plethora of great new books coming out every month, I never get the chance to go back and re-read a book I love. Since I started reviewing books I have been given a reason to make revisiting beloved books a priority and I am ecstatic to finally be re-reading and reviewing what I consider one of the all-time best children's books published post Harry Potter. I have mentioned this book before in an article I wrote titled, Can You Judge a Book by Its Cover? (I do...) which discusses of the original (and unappealing to me) cover and title for this book, and the new one by amazing artist James Jean, which I think is magnificently haunting and magical and perfectly evocative of the story behind the picture.

Originally titled Gideon the Cutpurse,and now in paperback, The Time Travelers, Linda Buckley Archer's novel interweaves the complexities of love between parents and children in the 21st century with the frequently harsh and unfair aspects of life among those not fortunate enough to be born into an aristocratic family in 18th century England. While it is an antigravity machine that rips Peter Shock and Kate Dyer apart from their families and century and leads the children on a search throughout 1763 to find it and return home, it is the stories of the characters on either side of this rent in time than make this book such a fascinating, emotionally compelling read.

In the 21st century we have the Shock and the Dyer families, previously unknown to each other until the day of December 16th when their lives are intertwined and changed dramatically. Peter, the son of high powered parents, finds himself let down again by his father's commitment to work over family. The last words he speaks to his father are, "I hate you." Margit, Peter's German au pair and family friend of the Dyers thinks a trip to their farm in Derbyshire might change his mood. Dr Dyer, a scientist at NCRDM in the department of cosmology, working on a Van der Graff generator with funding from NASA, is the father of six, and Kate the eldest. As Kate shows Peter around the farm, introducing him to various cows named after famous scientists, it is clear that her family life is the polar opposite of his. When Kate and Peter, along with Kate's loyal golden lab Molly, join Dr Dyer on a brief visit to his office they have a run-in with the Ven der Graff generator and wake up, badly bruised and shaken, exactly the same spot geographically, but in the summer of 1763.

Left behind in the 21st century, the Shocks, the Dyers and the increasingly suspicisous Inspector Wheeler try to make sense of the children's disappearance as mysterious clues begin to emerge. Something about the nature of the time travel the children experienced allows them to "blur" between time periods, appearing as semi-solid apparitions in the 21st century for moments at a time, but unable to stay. When Dr Pirretti of arrives from the United States to oversee the disappearance of NASA property and she and Dr Dyer begin piecing things together it seems that there is hope for the rescue of Kate and Peter after all.

Back in 1763, Kate and Peter's adventures are just beginning. As they slowly and painfully awake, a darkly disfigured man tells Peter he can find their contraption by going to the Black Lion Tavern in Covent Garden and asking for Blueskin, also known as The Tar Man. After this exchange, Peter passes out again and is finally awakened by a cow licking his face. As he and Kate try to figure out where they are and what has happened to them, another stranger watches them from behind a hawthorne bush. He emerges and introduces himself as Gideon Seymour and, over the course of the next 350 pages his complicated story unfolds and the children, traveling under the protection of Gideon and his employer, Mrs Byng and her brother, Sir Richard, make their way to London in the hopes of finding the machine and returning home. During this journey, Peter finds himself looking to Gideon, even though his is only twenty-three, as a father figure and questions his desire to return home. His life in the eighteenth century, although at time dangerous, expands exponentially. However, being a girl, Kate's world diminishes. Laced into a corset and wearing a gown almost as wide as she is tall, Kate finds herself often left behind and more and more angry with the situation. While she takes comfort in playing big sister to Mrs Byng's youngest son, Jack, who suffers from the King's Evill, or scrofula (a form of tuberculosis) and is going to London for King George to lay hands on and hopefully cure him, Kate can think of nothing but returning home.

Kate and Peter are vivid characters who grow and change as the story progresses. Gideon, equally compelling, is a but of a cypher at first, his life story, and the reason for his current troubles and the tag "cutpurse," unfold slowly over the course of the story. As the 1763 group journeys to London, a trip that will take three days by carriage and coach, they meet historical figures (Erasmus Darwin, Charles' grandfather and a renowned doctor in his own right, and Samuel Johnson as well as King George and Queen Charlotte) and seem to suffer one near disastrous (but believable) event after another, thanks in part to the blusterous character of Parson Ledbury, Mrs Byng's cousin, traveling with the group to serve as chaperone and transporter of a valuable diamond necklace of Mrs Byng's that needs repairing in London. The run-ins with historical figures, most of whom Kate has learned about but not Peter, it is fascinating to watch the children struggle with their knowledge of the future and how these people's lives will work out. Kate can't resist telling Erasmus that his grandson will make a scientific discovery that will change the world and she finds tears springing to her eyes as she plays with the infant prince, remembering how King George III will grow to dislike him and how the King himself will die, mad and alone.

Without giving too much more away, I can say that there is a great surprise for Kate and Peter when they fear all hope is lost and a climactic ending that perfectly sets up the next book in the trilogy, The Time Thief. And, according to a bit of digging I did online, book III in the trilogy, Time Quake, for which there is no cover art available yet, was completed October 2, 2008, according to an entry on Linda Buckley-Archer's Blog, and will be released in the UK on July, 6 2009 and in the US on October 6, 2009. Why do they do this to us??? Didn't they learn ANYTHING when they published Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban first in England then several weeks later in the US???


Here is a little treat: One more James Jean, titled MAZE.








6.03.2009

Deeper by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams, 656 pp RL MIDDLE GRADE


 

When I started reviewing books, and inevitably reviewing books that were the first in a series, I decided not to post reviews of the subsequent book(s) in the series for a couple of reasons. Most of all, I figured that the reader of the first book in the series was, at the end of the book, pretty well equipped to decide whether or not to continue on with the series and thus did not require my two cents. Also, with over one hundred books on my shelf waiting to be read, or re-read and reviewed, I felt like my time was better spent elsewhere. However, Deeper, by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams, which is the sequel to Tunnels, caused me to rethink a few things, as well as give up a significant chunk of my life and my personal sense of well being as I powered through it.

Released in the US in February of 2009, and several months earlier than that in the UK, Deeper, based on the jacket flap, did not grab me enough to make me set aside all other responsibilities in order to read it as I had hoped it might. I loved Tunnels and found it to be one of the most inventive, unparalleled young adult books written in recent years. In my review of the book I couldn't stop myself from telling the whole story - with spoiler warnings. And, despite initial impressions, once I started in on Deeper I was hooked - even harder than with Tunnels. As if they had been reading my mind, authors Brian Williams and Roderick Gordon satisfied the two small issues/hopes I was left with at the end of Tunnels. The lack of sympathetic female characters and the fate of Sarah Jerome have both been addressed, and how, in Deeper.

Rather than unravel the whole plot as I did last time, I am going to restrain myself and mention a few highlights only and assume that most people reading this review have read the first book. There are more twists and turns in Deeper than there are tunnels underground. In Tunnels the only significant female characters are Rebecca, Will's younger sister, and Mrs Burrows, who remains a pathetic couch potato from start to finish and finds herself institutionalized by the end of the book. In Deeper, Mrs Burrows comes to life after an encounter with a woman posing as a social worker whom she suspects if Will's birth mother. Indeed, the infamous Sarah Jerome, mother of Will and Cal and only person ever to escape the Colony and the Styx (the secret police, rulers of the Colony and heads of the cult-like religion that keeps the Colonists under their constant rule and frequent persecution) gets lots of page time in Deeper. The survival skills she has learned as well as the tough exterior she has developed in an effort to stay alive topsoil make for fascinating reading. While I am not big on violence, Sarah Jerome does some serious, believable, welcomed butt-kicking in this book. But, she is also a complex character who balances her need to survive with her longing for the sons she left behind.

The other awesome female character in Deeper, one who almost makes their absence in the first book worth the wait, is Elliott. A renegade Colonist, the teenaged Elliott has learned to survive in the deeps with the help of Drake, a topsoiler slave who managed to escape the Styx who had been utilizing his knowledge of cyberoptics for their own nefarious purposes. She is a super survivalist, light on her feet, always out ahead of the group scouting for dangers. And, she is somewhat of a munitions expert, much to the delight of Will and Chester, fourteen year old boys, who sometimes jealously vie for her attentions but always, even when they are distrusting of her, are grateful for and in adolescent awe of her skills.

Much of the book is taken up with Will, Chester and Cal's plight as they travel deeper underground. Unaware of the natural dangers that are all around them, they come to realize that an unnatural danger, the Styx and their elite crew of Limiters, agents who roam the deeps neutralizing renegades and Coprolights as they see fit, are in the Deeps and hunting them. The Coprolights, mentioned in the first book, are more fully realized in this one. Once the slaves of the Colonists, they are now allowed to carry on their hardscrabble existence, exchanging the minerals that they mine for fresh food and light orbs from the colonists by way of the mine train. The brutality of the Styx, as well as their plan for the topsoilers is also more fully realized in this book. In an eerie coincidence with the spread of Swine Flu that paralyzed parts of the world recently, the Styx have been engineering a virus that will cause a pandemic, wiping out the topsoilers completely and allowing the return of the Colonists to the surface. This is all preordained in the Book of Catastrophes, the bible by which the Styx live and, in the course of Deeper, they launch a test run of a less virulent strain of the virus on the streets of Londoon by way of carrier pigeons.

As with the first book, Gordon and Williams' writing is so vivid, immediate and descriptive that I almost felt like I was watching a movie in my head as I read the book. My sense of claustrophobia was alleviated a bit by the fact that much of the action in this book takes place in the open plains of the Depths and there isn't so much crawling through small spaces. However, there were other disturbing, horrific scenes to keep the reader from breathing. These involved a laboratory where the Styx conduct experiments on renegade Colonists and Coprolights that is reminiscent of the experiments that Nazi doctors performed on concentration camp victims. Because of this, as well as a few other acts of violence in the book, I have upped the reading level. I think that it just isn't right to expose kids under a certain age to this kind of human wrought horror, despite the fact that they are probably already exposed to horrible images of this nature in the video games and R rated movies they might watch. I certainly could live without these aspects of the book, and I avoid movies that portray acts of this nature. I think the book could still be as suspenseful even if the Styx aren't as vicious and inhuman as they are portrayed by Williams and Gordon, but, that is their choice, not mine. And, the rest of the plot line is so compelling that I choose to compromise my life choices in order to enjoy the rest of the story.

That said, I have pre-ordered my copy of Free Fall, the third book in the series, from amazon.uk (and paid the EXORBITANT shipping fees, which equal the cost of the book) and hope that it will arrive on my doorstep shortly after the May 18, 2009 release date - IN ENGLAND. That's right, there is NO RELEASE DATE for Book 3 in the US!!! This is a Scholastic title - didn't they learn anything from Harry Potter??? (For those of you non-Potter-geeks, The Prisoner of Azkaban, Book Three, was released six weeks earlier in the UK. Americans were outraged and Scholastic never did that again...) Sadly, this has happened with every book in this series. Book 6, TERMINAL, is out now in the UK and will be available here on October 26, 2013.