2.28.2011

The Piper's Son written by Melina Marchetta, 328 pp, RL: TEEN


The Piper's Son was released in March of 2010 in Australia, right side. 
I can't decide which cover I like better.


The Piper's Son by Melina Marchetta revisits the characters from her 2003 novel, Saving Francesca, some five years after that book ended. Marchetta has a fascination with and an astounding ability to portray (and with great tenderness) the pain of families falling apart and the difficult path to coming back together. Not only are the families in The Piper's Son in pieces, but the family members are grieving the loss of their beloved Joe and the resulting disintegration of a family that they loved deeply and depended on. In The Piper's Son Marchetta focuses on two main characters, Thomas Mackee from Saving Francesca, and his aunt Georgie, who is also the twin sister of his father, Dominic. I'm not sure that The Piper's Son will (or should) have the same impact on a young adult reading this book, just starting his or her life, as it might for someone who has been through an additional twenty years with her or his family, nor should it. But. with generation spanning main characters, this book also spans genres and should appeal to young adult and adult readers equally. The Piper's Son had me in tears almost every other chapter, in part because of forty-two year old Georgie. With Saving Francesca, we watch as Francesca, who's world has already been ruptured by her mother's decision to separate her from her friends and send her to St Sebastian's, a previously all-boys school for the last two years of high school, has her world broken when her dynamo mother is paralyzed by depression and her family slowly falls apart. Finding a group of intuitive, loving and supportive friends forms the lifejacket that keeps her afloat through this time as her family slowly begins to mend. What makes Marchetta's books amazing, besides her brilliance at writing about family, is her skill at crafting characters who are compelling, real and very hard to forget. Their personalities leap off the page, even when they aren't the main character of the story, like Thomas Mackee, a St Sebasitan's student who enters into Francesca's orbit in Saving Francesca and joins his Aunt Georgie as the other main character of The Piper's Son in this new book. Her characters and stories are so amazing that after reading Marchetta's books I feel like I have seen a movie that was so great I have to pull someone aside and tell him the whole plot, scene by scene. For a really succinct, superb review, read Kristin Halbrook's piece at YA Highway. For a great interview with Melina Marchetta (besides mine...) check out this excellent YA blog run by an Australian teacher Persnickety Snark.


While the depression that Francesca's mother suffered in Saving Francesca was an important part of the story, that book remained squarely in the realm of Young Adult literature with seventeen-year-old Francesca as the main character. With The Piper's Son, not only are the returning characters from Saving Francesca adults, almost twenty-two, but there is Georgie who is pregnant for the first time. Marchetta is gifted at creating big families with complex personalities and histories and the Mackee-Finch family is a perfect example of this. A blended family, Bill Mackee married Grace Finch, widow of his best friend Tom Finch, a few years after Tom Finch died behind enemy lines in the Vietnam war. Tom Finch's children, twins Georgie and Dominic, become Finch-Mackees and, when they are eleven, their half brother Joe is born. Joe is the glue that binds the family and they all dote on him. When he goes abroad to teach in London and is killed in the subway bombings of July 7, 2005 the rest of the family falls to pieces. This may seem like a dire beginning, but, as Kristin Halbrook says so perfectly in her review of The Piper's Son, Marchetta,

takes those obnoxious familial tics we suffer through for our loved ones and makes them complex and comfortable and achingly beautiful so that as we read we want these people - these people who know and love us well enough not to hide themselves with us - nearby so we can read bits and sentences and paragraphs aloud to them. Because of the connections: the connection between the reader and the story, between the reader and their own family, between each character in the novel they can identify in their life.

If pain and grief are the roots of this book, then the connections that Marcehetta's writing engenders, on the page and off, are the fruits of her writing.

The Piper's Son begins when the Finch-Mackees are at their lowest. Thomas has dropped out of University and is numbing his pain any way he can. His mother and sister have moved out of the state and his father, Dominic, has drunk himself into seclusion and his whereabouts are unknown. Sam, the father of Georgie's baby is also the man who devastated her some seven years ago when, during a short break in their relationship, he fathered a child with another woman. But, Sam is also the person who, without any discussion of it, steps back into Georgie's life when Joe is killed. The the only Finch-Mackee who is emotionally strong enough to go to London to bring home Joe's remains, Georgie is forced to return empty handed and shellshocked. Sam travels with her and helps Georgie through the process of dealing with Joe's death and the British authorities. Despite this, she cannot forgive him, leaving them in a sad and empty silence. Georgie is clinging so hard to life that she is no longer living it, just passing the days, trying not to see Sam with his son, Callum, unable to even admit that she is pregnant to her family or friends until well into her second trimester. Thomas, in his grief at the loss of his uncle, the abandonment of his father and the distance between him and his mother and younger sister, alienates himself even further when he turns his back on his friends and his deepening relationship with Tara Finke, leaving them feeling raw and wounded, but unwilling to abandon him. They know that Thomas will come back to them.

It is so hard not to tell the whole story to you here. And, while the plot is fantastic and unfolds at a perfect pace, it is all the little details, the things that Marchetta's characters carry with them that make this book so completely compelling. There is the fact that Tom has memorized TS Eliot's 132 line poem, "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock," a task my English teacher senior year of high school insisted my classmates and I complete. There are emails throughout the book, letters Georgie sends to her dead brother's account that has not been closed, letters that Thomas sends to the girl who's heart he broke and letters that he sends to his sister Anabel. Thomas' email address is anabelsbrother@hotmail.com and his sister's address is tomsister@hotmail.com. Details like the intense love that her characters can have for each other make them real for the reader. The conversation between Dominic and Georgie when they finally talk about their brother has me in tears every time I read it. In fact, I am choking back tears time and again as I reread the passages I marked while writing this review. Every detail of the story, every character and motivation has a backstory and when they come to light they can hit you in the gut with their truth, their beauty and their love. But, the pain that we unthinkingly inflict on each other is also part of this story that underlies the motivations of some of the characters as well. Grace Finch-Mackee is a brisk and efficient woman but not always the mother Georgie wanted or needed. When she and Bill arrive at Georgie's house to pull her out of a depression, they burst through the door, dogs, bags and all. Greeting them, Georgie thinks, "Grace does that practical thing where she hugs her quickly and pats her on the back without lingering. Just one second more, Grace, Georgie wants to say, Just one more second." 

These details can also knock you over with their profound sadness, like when Dominic is telling the story of the day he took his last drink at an AA meeting and Thomas, whom he hasn't spoken to for almost a year, is in the audience at his invitation. Dominic tells the story of being passed out on a park bench all night and being helped by a woman jogger who goes through his wallet trying to find a phone number to call. When she comes across a picture of his family and asks who they are, he can name everyone except his son. "I couldn't remember my boy's name. And that was the first day . . ." But this is more than Tom can bear and he "doesn't remember much after that except that there's a bit of a collection over basic costs and then they serve tea, coffee, and biscuits. His father speaks to almost everyone in the hall. They gravitate to him the way people always have. And they all want to meet Tom. To tell him that even though they've only known Dominic a couple of weeks, they all love him. Does his father do it on purpose? Cause people to have a dependency on him so that when he's gone, it's hard to cope?" Dominic is the piper and Tom is his son and, as painful as it can be when things are bad, Tom finds his own way back to his family, without the piper's song to lead him. And, while they may not follow him, people do gravitate to Tom as well. By the end of the novel when he has abandoned his anger and his begun to heal his pain he is able to both realize and embrace this, as well as the people themselves.


2.27.2011

Melina Marchetta Week!!


I am so excited to be part of Melina Marchetta's blog tour for her newest book, The Piper's Son, that I decided to devote a whole week to her amazing books. I first encountered Marchetta's work last summer when I read and reviewed her fourth book, Finnikin of the Rock, and was moved almost beyond words. While I had always intended to read the rest of her novels, the chance to interview her bumped them to the top of my TBR pile. I read Saving Francesca, The Piper's Son and Jellicoe Road (Looking for Alibrandi is still in my TBR pile...) totaling almost 1,000 pages, in about two weeks, which is phenomenal for me. Her writing is so compelling that I was reading on my breaks, while walking my dogs and way past my bedtime. And, I pretty much spent most of that time sobbing, sniffling and generally teary-eyed. Marchetta's characters and their lives are so real and she always finds them at a transitional point in their lives in which they are struggling with family ties, a community of friends (or lack of) and grief, often all three. I hope you will read my reviews and interview and be inspired to pick up her books!

2.25.2011

The Call: The Magnificent 12 Series written by Michael Grant, 243 pp, RL 4


Because The Magnificent 12:  The Call was one of the shortlisted books for the CYBILS 2010 Fantasy & Science Fiction that I was assigned to read and judge, I decided to write my review with a synopsis of the book as well as a digression on how I critically unravelled the merits of each book while determining the best of the bunch.

The Magnificent 12:  The Call begins by telling us what a medium, regular kind of kid 12 year old David (Mack) MacAvoy is.  He goes to Richard Gere Middle School in Sedona, AZ and is among the bullied in a school where there are so many different kinds of bullies that they have organized.  Mack also has a raft of phobias that does not include a rational fear of bullies.  Through a series of mishaps, he ends up almost being punched in the face by Stefan Marrs, the 15 year old 7th grader who is the head bully among bullies, that ends with Mack saving Stefan's life and being taken under his wing.  In addition to this middle school drama, Mack (and Stefan) are witness to a few time-stopping moments in which a smelly, crusty ancient man appears and tries to talk to Mack.  This is Grimluk, one time 12 year old from a parallel but ancient plot line who's chapters always begin with A REALLY, REALLY LONG TIME AGO . . .   Being a person living some 3000 years ago and in possession of less than six teeth, a wife, an infant, two cows and a spoon (as well as a few other objects) Grimluk is almost as unlikely a hero as Mack and his phobias.  Grimluk's life is very simple, which makes for some great humor, my favorite being the amazing creation of the number 12.  The scene in which Wick, the beefy character tries to explain this concept to Grimluk is harkens back to a Spinal Tap moment when Wick says, "Here's what it is:  picture eleven.  Right?  Do you have eleven firmly fixed in your imagination? . . . Well, twelve is one more than eleven."  The story of Grimluk, the Pale Queen that he and everyone else are fleeing and the emergence of the Magnifica (a dozen 12 year olds) and the enlightened puissance that they must possess if they are to stop the Pale Queen and her daughter with twelve lives, the stunningly beautiful, redheaded Ereskigal, is intermittently woven in and out of Mack's.  Mack finds his life turned upside down and tied to Grimluk's because, some 3000 years (almost) after the original Magnificent 12 managed to capture and imprison the Pale Queen for what seemed like an eternity (remember, even though this was the smartest group of humans assembled at the time, they still thought 12 was a big number. Naturally, 3000 seems like an eternity) this force of Evil is about to be unleashed from the spells that have bound her. Grimluk has kept himself alive in an effort to assemble a new group of twelve to defeat her when this day comes.  However, they must also defeat the Pale Queen's daughter, Ereskigal, who, besides being and all powerful shape shifter, has twelve lives.  

But, Mack is not alone, besides having Stefan at his side, a stunning accountant named Rose Everlast scoops him into a long black limo (and out of the reach of an approaching Skirrit - a grasshopper like minion of Ereskigal's) after school one day and informs him that he is the benefactor of a Swiss bank account first opened in 1259 with a strong box full of gold that survives to this day.  Once worth almost a billion dollars, the bank made some bad investments and $1,007,008 is all that is left.  Actually, $7,008 has been used to go toward Rose's fees (implied:  good looks) and, with a credit card and fake passports that have Stefan posing as Mack's 21 year old brother, the two head off to Australia to begin the hunt for the the first of the eleven other twelve year olds who will form the Magnifica and stop evil.  There they meet Jarrah Major, her mother Karri, an Indigenous Australian archaeologist for whom Uluru (Ayer's Rock) is sacred. Inside Uluru Karri and Jarrah have found what amounts to the story of the past and future carved into an interior wall of the rock edifice and this has led them to expect the arrival of Mack.  What they didn't anticipate are the relentless attacks of Ereskigal and her minions, the Nafia, Tong Elves, Skirrits, Weramin, Bowands and Near Deads.  Aware of Grimluk and his attempts to form a new Magnifica as the day of her mother's freedom approaches, Ereskigal is bent on destroying Mack and anyone who gets in her way.

Grant imbues so much humor into The Magnificent 12:  The Call that it is almost unsettling at first.  He maintains a light and jokey tone throughout the book with occasional glimpses of the inner depths of his characters. One of my favorite of these passages occurs as Ereskigal, or Risky as she prefers to be called, is rebuilding herself after her first death after a battle with Mack and Jarrah.  

Hanging over all her thoughts was the realization that she would have to go to her mother and explain that she had failed.

There were times that Risky really didn't get along all that well with her mother.  It wasn't easy being the chief spawn of the Breeder of Monsters.  Sometimes Risky envied girls who were the daughters of the Mother of Cheerleaders or the Mother of Pop Stars.


There are other moments of seriousness, but they are quickly usurped by humor, making this book perfect for the younger crowd clamoring for some brisk fantasy writing but not interested in the human complexities that make books like Harry Potter, Cornelia Funke's Inkworld Trilogy and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy so appealing to adults.  Grant's somewhat slim first book in this new series (will there be a book for each Magnifica and will it take 12 years to publish them all?) and the attendant website with its sweepstakes has a definite whiff of The 39 Clues series to it, and I have no doubt that is intentional.  Created to fill the vaccuum that the end of the Harry Potter series created in the publishing world,  The 39 Clues was conceived to create maximum interest and appeal among boys and girls.  Knowing that it would be next to impossible to get that many kids to read a 400+ page book again, especially in the wake of the simplicity of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the books in the series hover around 250 pages and have clue card packs, secret agent books and a book of "buried secrets" to go along with the website, the online games and clues and the cash prize.  In the absence of the next REALLY big thing, is this the new wave of fantasy books for kids? 



For those of you who are interested, what follows are the details of my thought process as I tried to determine the merits of The Magnificent 12:  The Call.



First Impressions of a Bookseller (Or, How I Judge a Book by Its Cover)

When The Magnificent 12:  The Call by Michael Grant hit the shelves this summer I noted that a) this is the same Michael Grant (husband of THE Katherine Applegate - rememeber Animorphs anyone? Grant was Applegate's co-creator and the series was in print from 1996 - 2001. Scholastic is bringing it back with even cooler new covers!) who is writing the GONE series for teens.  While the post apolcalyptic, dystopian setting in which no one over the age of 16 survives sounds interesting, the doorstop size of the soon to be four books in the series and my limited time for reading teen books has kept me from digging in. b) This book is really short for a fantasy novel, kids or otherwise. c) 12?  Magnificent 12?  Does this mean that there will be 12 books in the series?  That's a lot of books. And, finally, d) there is a website for this book advertised boldly on the back jacket and, the handful of illustrations scattered throughout the book also have the web address framed and highlighted underneath.

I am an old, prejudiced bookseller set in my ways and I do not like change.  I do not like books with a gimmick.  I like books to be books, not websites, games, sweepstakes or Leaderboards.  As intriguing as the concept of 39 Clues series is with its ten books each written by popular and award winning children's authors (why stop at 10?  A new arm (leg? branch?) of the series with six new books is already in the works.  Books 1 & 2 of Cahills vs. Vespers will be published in April and August of this year with the final book in the series being written by best selling adult author, David Baldacci.  Oh yeah, another thing that really chafes me?  Adult authors who, after years of best selling fame, decide to capitalize on the growing kid's book market.)

First Impression:  Not my kind of book.  Don't think I'll be reading it unless a review copy falls into my lap.

First Impressions of a CYBILS Judge Who Has Agreed to Read and Consider a Short List of Books for the Honor of Best Fantasy & Science Fiction (Middle Grade) 2010 


Man.  I have to read this book.  Ok.  First impressions aren't always accurate and when I was invited to be a CYBILS judge, I promised myself that I would approach all books on the short list with an open mind as well as the closest I could get to the mind of a 10 - 12 year old reader.  The CYBILS are about awarding literary merit AND kid appeal, which is a big part of why I wanted to participate in the judging process.  So, I am going to wipe my slate as clean as possible.

First Impressions as I read The Magnificent 12:  The Call:

A 12 year old boy.  Why is it almost always a boy? A boy with phobias.  In this post-Potter world, it seems that fantasy heroes must be both regular kids and specifically non-heroic.  They must be scared before they can be brave.  

A bully.  A school full of bullies.  Ok. This is going to be a fantasy story that takes place in our world, our time with our social ills.  

A REALLY, REALLY LONG TIME AGO . . .   Hm.  Semi-alternating chapters set in the extremely distant past.  The back story.  Told in a funny way.  Hm.  I don't like humor with my fantasy.  Wait.  That's not true.  I love Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl series.  Perhaps I should not be so quick to judge.


Final Impressions:  Literary Merit and Kid Appeal

Literary Merit:  As I said, I am a bit of a book snob and I tend to think less of a book that announces itself as the first in a long series that also has a website with games and cash prizes attached to it. Yes, there are fabulous series on the shelves rich with literary merit, but, since the rise of Harry Potter over the last 13+ years, very few authors have had the courage to write a book that is not part of a series.  

I stop here to note that I AM A BIG FAT HYPOCRITE!  One of THE BEST books I read in 2010 was The Roar by Emma Clayton.  As I devoured the book, I did not know and could not discern whether it would be part of a series and I didn't care.  When I got to the very end of the book and discovered that there would be more, I immediately emailed Ms. Clayton to gush about her book and ask about the sequel.  So, yeah, I want more of a good thing as much as the next guy.  

But, sometimes there just isn't enough of a good thing to go around.  Maybe an author should write two or three tight 400 page books and call it a sequel or a trilogy instead of stretching it out over many books (Are you listening, Lemony Snicket??)  I have this feeling a bit with The Magnificent 12:  The Call.  As entertaining and hilarious as Grant's writing is, I wanted this story to get moving much faster than it did.  I felt like it took too long to unravel Mack's destiny and what his task was, even though it was pretty obvious from the start.  I can accept the pace at which Grimluk's back story unfolds - I think a bit of withholding of information over the course of a tale can heighten anticipation and make for some nice plot surprises.  However, the back story chapters were sometimes without enough detail or depth to give me a sense of place and feel connected to that part of the story.  Perhaps I wanted too much to be able to place Grimluk in time, but the presence of chickpeas and a family goddess, as well as the fact that Grimluk considered an old man at the age of twelve, already having married and had a child, makes it hard to place. The only part of the back story where I started caring and becoming interested in Grimluk as a character (as opposed to a funny medieval guy with 5 teeth who can't count to 12) was when he and Miladew find themselves the last of the original Magnificent 12, heading to (what will one day be known as) Australia in their attempt to track down and kill Ereskigal, the daughter of the Pale Queen.  The idea that the characters will travel all over the world with a credit card account loaded with $1,000,000 dollars and fake passports as they hunt down the 10 other members of the Mag12 while also killing Ereskigal 11 more times then defeating her mother and learning the Vargan language so they can get the job done is intriguing, but again whiffs a bit of the 39 Clues series with the globetrotting kids looking for clues and learning about history and geography wherever they go.  Finally, while Mack's phobias make for some interesting vocabulary, it seems that they are mostly in existence for comic relief on airplanes and in small spaces, they do not seem to give his character much depth - yet.  And, for a person who is so scared of so many things, it just doesn't make sense that Mack stands up to bullies.

Overall Impression:  The elements of the book are diverse and interesting, and as innovative as possible in what has become a very popular genre, but I would like to see the story unfold at a different pace and with a bit more depth.  This first book in the series feels more like the first third or half of a book.
Rating on a scale of 1 to 10 (The Roar and When You Reach Me being a 9 in terms of literary merit) : 5


Kid Appeal: A regular kid with a raft of fears.  A bully who appoints himself bodyguard after Mack saves his life.  A scary, shape-shifting evil-demon woman who is the daughter of the Mother of Evil. And, by the end of the book, a kick-butt girl character (don't they have to be, these days?  Why are there no brainy, save-the-day-with-what-you-taught-yourself-from-books-Hermione type girls proliferating the pages of current fantasy for kids???  It's all mini-Lara Crofts hitting evil forces with shovels).  As the book progresses and the magical characters emerge, they are numerous and interesting: a golem, the Nafia, the Tong Elves and the Skirrit all have appearances and abilities that are either funny or frightening, depending on the setting.  The website attached to the book provides pictures and descriptions of the people, places and creatures from the book which is quite helpful since they become numerous. 

And the book is not too long, which I think most kids like.  I know they exist and that they read Harry Potter Books 4 - 7 and all the Cornelia Funke INK books, but I really believe from my book floor experience that most kids prefer a book that is UNDER 300 pages.  And honestly, I do too.  I love to get lost in a long book, rich with details of another world and the characters who inhabit it, but I only like that about every 4 books or so - in between I need shorter books that aren't as demanding of my time and effort, and I think most kids read the same way.  After all, this is the age of short attention spans when most people don't have the centered peacefulness to be able to wait in a line, on hold, in a waiting room, at a stoplight or whatever for more than 2 minutes before they turn to their digital device (phone, iPad, iPod, Gameboy) to distract them.  

Overall Impressions:  The combination of humorous story telling with a large cast of characters, most of them creatively crafted magical minions of the Pale Queen, along with the contemporary setting and aspects like iPhones, airline travel, credit cards and middle school make for an entertaining story.  The accompanying website and sweepstakes should catch the interest of the more computer savvy readers who will be happy to play the games and follow the books online and on the page.

Rating on a scale of 1 to 10 (The Diary of a Wimpy Kid and 39 Clues being a 9 in terms of kid appeal) : 8


OVERALL SCORE:  6.5

2.23.2011

Dead Boys written by Royce Buckingham, 201 pp, RL 5


Dead Boys by Royce Buckingham begins with a prologue that tells the story of an old sycamore tree growing in Richland, WA in the arid, eastern part of the state.  Just down the road from the Hanford Nuclear Plant, site of some serious toxic waste dumps into the Columbia River in the 1940s.  This dump fills the tree with toxic energy, turning it hungry and violent.  When a twelve-year old boy hides out in the hollow of the tree's trunk one day in an attempt to escape punishment from his father, the tree senses his energy and wants it.  When the boy becomes weak and dehydrated over the course of his stand-off, the tree catches him in the place between life and death and, like the half-life decay of a radioactive substance.  By the time that Teddy and his single mom move to town for her new job, the tree has claimed five other boys, all aged twelve at the time of their disappearance.  However, Teddy doesn't know any of this at first.  He just knows that the menacing sycamore tree in the yard next to his new home seems to be drawing him in against his better judgement and will.  

Having moved in summer, Teddy does not have school to keep him busy or help him make new friends. And, the scorching temperatures outside combined with the internet and air conditioning inside make him unlikely to follow his mom's instructions to get outside and make some new friends.  However, a rupture in the AC unit, which turns out to have been caused by tree roots, gets Teddy out on his bike and riding around town.  At an undeveloped park he finds a chubby kid throwing rocks into the river.  Albert introduces himself, says a few weird things about outdated things like the video game Space Invaders and the original Star Wars movie, and invites Teddy to throw rocks with him.  The two are getting along fine until the school bully, Henry Mulligan, shows up with his gang.  Albert jumps in the river, hoping to float downstream and away from Mulligan and Teddy takes off on his bike.  Albert tells Teddy to meet him at the Bookworm on George Washington Way as he is carried off.  When Teddy bikes into town to find the store, it's not where it should be.  A pharmacy stands in it's place and the sales lady is stunned when Teddy asks where the bookstore, long moved down the street, has gone.  When Teddy bikes back to the park to see if Albert might have returned there, the park is no longer a dusty, tumbleweed strewn patch.  It's developed and green and impossibly new.  

Something strange is going on and it takes Teddy (and the reader) most of the book to piece it together.  We may know that the sycamore tree is a toxic nightmare that seemingly feeds off young boys, but the who, where, how and when unfold in a way that is sometimes hard to make sense of.  Teddy manages to do a bit of detective work on his own, but not much more than the  dates of birth and death of the dead boys is revealed.  Despite this, Buckingham creates an interesting limbo world where the boys are slowly being drained of life - yes, they are all still alive and this has something to do with half-life, which Teddy's mom explains briefly but the author never explains further in connection with the tree, so this is my guess.  In this limbo, each boy has a "home" that mimics the place he was when he died.  Albert's home is at the park by the river, Walter's home is in the skeleton of a tract house in the process of being built, Eugene Sloot's is in the hollow of the tree.  When Teddy travels around Richland, he can see and interact with the dead boys when he visits the places of their deaths.  When he decides to try to defeat the tree, Teddy is thrust into the limbo land where he gets to see the home/death sites of all six of the boys.  He also sees where his home/death site will be as the climax approaches.  It seems that the tree is prodding the dead boys to entrap a new life for it to consume (it does this every ten years) and the dead boys go along with it, not wanting to be drained of life entirely by the tree.  However, some of the boys have have guilty feeling about this and ultimately fight to help Teddy, even if it means their own deaths.

The final battle with the tree is pretty intense and, when Teddy makes his escape and returns to his own time and space, one of the few peripheral adults in the story is there to rescue him.  However, Teddy, knowing that the dead boys are a little bit alive and also knowing the exact places where they died, takes his rescuer, Officer Barnes, all over town pulling twelve year old boys out of the river, out of a ditch, out of an unused chimney in a church and out of a crawl space.  Two of the boys do not make it through the ordeal, but the tree is felled in the end and the dead boys, still twelve, are returned to their families even though the last times they were seen alive were in 1970, 1980, 1990 and 2000.

One cool thing I need to squeeze in:  The image of the tree reaching for the boy appears at the start of each of the 39 chapters.  At first, the boy is very much out of reach of the grasping branches, but as the story progresses the branches get closer and closer...


What follows is my thought process as I tried to determine the merits of the book as a potential CYBILS winner in the Science Fiction/Fantasy Elementary & Middle Grade Category.


First Impressions as a Reader

While hard to keep up with at times, I found Dead Boys to be very different from the kind of books I usually read and pretty entertaining.  There were many points when I wished that the author had employed a different, more vibrant and descriptive writing style, but over all the plot hung together well and the dead boys of the title were interesting, especially when they were trying to trap Teddy for selfish reasons.





First Impressions of a CYBILS Judge Who Has Agreed to Read and Consider a Short List of Books for the Honor of Best Fantasy & Science Fiction (Middle Grade) 2010 


I can see why everyone likes this book and it made it this far in the game.  It is VERY different and entertaining.  However, I definitely have some criticisms for Dead Boys.


Final Impressions:  Literary Merit vs. Kid Appeal




Overall Impression:  



Solidly readable and innovative.  There really isn't that much "horror" writing on the shelves for older readers these days.  I could see Goosebumps lovers moving up to this book pretty well. However, the plot structure might be a challenge for readers who aren't quite at grade level.  There are no girls in this book.  Not that that is a requirement, many girls will read books without girls in them without thinking twice. Boys and the reverse, not the same story.  For this to have genuine kid appeal, should it appeal to both genders?






Rating on a scale of 1 to 10 (The Roar and When You Reach Me being a 9 in terms of literary merit) : 5




Rating on a scale of 1 to 10 (The Diary of a Wimpy Kid and 39 Clues being a 9 in terms of kid appeal) : 8

OVERALL SCORE:  6.5



Below is some very cool, creepy original art based on the book.

The Tree (2) by demonkeeper
Artist: Jillene Smith, Bellingham, WA

2.21.2011

Reckless, written and illustrated by Cornelia Funke, translated by Oliver Latsch, 394 pp, RL: MIDDLE GRADE


With Reckless Cornelia Funke returns to the dark world of fairy tales, however this time the portal to another world is a mirror instead of the magical voice of a reader. Although their last name is Reckless, brothers Jacob and Will seem to be direct descendants of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and the fairy tales that they recorded. In Reckless, the first book in what is to be a series, Funke proves that she has mastered both the magic and the brutality and cruelty that is at the heart of so many of the traditional fairy tales.

The book begins with twelve year old Jacob, the older Reckless brother, entering the untouched study of his father who has been missing for a year. In a silent rage, Jacob tears apart the room and in turn finds a possible clue to his father's whereabouts - a slip of paper that contains "symbols, equations, a sketch of a peacock, a sun, two moons" and one sentence that reads, "THE MIRROR WILL OPEN FOR HE WHO CANNOT SEE HIMSELF." Jacob turns his attention to a warped and dark antique mirror framed in beautifully wrought silver vines.  Gazing at his reflection, Jacob instinctively places his hand on the mirror, obscuring his face and finds himself in another world where a strange creature is attacking him.  Twelve years later, Jacob has built a life for himself in this Mirrorworld while keeping it a secret from his brother and mother, who has recently died, seemingly of a broken heart.  Until now.  The second chapter of the book jumps right to the heart of the story with almost no time to get a feel for the characters or the world they are in.  Will has been attacked by a Goyl, a human like creature made of stone and ruthless in nature.  Through a spell cast by the Dark Fairy, lover of Kami'en, King of the Goyls, an attack by a Goyl can turn a human into one, and Will's skin is slowly taking on the color of jade, a rare stone amongst their kind.  In fact, the Dark Fairy has prophesied that a jade Goyl will be born, a Goyl who will be an invincible body guard to the King, thus assuring the King's dominance over the country.  This makes Jacob's drive to help his brother and stop the transformation even more desperate.  Not only does he have mere days to reverse this spell, but, with a huge reward on his brother's head, Jacob is trying to reverse the spell on the most sought after Goyl in the land.

Making things more difficult is the appearance of Clara, a medical student who works at the hospital where Jacob and Will's mother stayed.  Although the world she has entered is strange and dangerous, she seems to adapt to her surroundings and grasp the gravity of the situation almost immediately.  Rounding out the quartet is Fox, a girl who attached herself to Jacob when she was nine.  At the age of seven, having rescued a vixen her two older brothers were tormenting, Celeste finds a furry russet dress made of fabric that seems to have been "woven from the same silky hair" as that of the fox.  Putting it on, the girl finds she can become a fox.  And, as Jacob often reminds her, the longer she wears the dress that turned her into a vixen, the more likely she would stay in that form forever.  While her love for Jacob is clear, Fox also seems to have an almost desperate need for him, as well as a sixth sense that allows her to know what he is thinking, even when he tries to shield it from her, and protect her, which is often.  She is both fierce and impulsive like a wounded child, but as loyal as one who has been shown love and regard.  The four make an uneasy group and the tension between Jacob and Clara and Clara and Fox is clear from the start.  When Jacob realizes that the only hope he has to help his brother is to find the elusive Red Fairy, once a lover of his, and trick her into revealing a way to bring the Dark Fairy to her knees, he decides to enlist (with force) the help of Evanaugh Valiant, a treasure hunter of magical objects like himself, and dwarf, who double-crossed Jacob the first time he tried to find the island of the Red Fairy.

The various aspects of the story and the setting for this tale are compelling and rich, but the relentless tone of brutality and violence is difficult to bear over the course of the book, an aspect of Funke's Inkworld trilogy that I also found wearing.  As an adult, and knowing that this book, at least according to the classification system of the bookstore where I work, is intended for teens, I found the romantic tensions between Jacob, Fox and Clara fascinating but not explored as deeply as I would have liked.  Also, the aspect of Reckless that I found most compelling, the fact that Jacob makes his living in Mirrorworld "retrieving" magical objects for resale, like the Golden Ball from the Princess and the Frog tale or "needles that healed wounds with a single stitch and owl feathers that restored the power of sight," is the one that I think is least explored in the book.  Items and their abilities are catalogued and even sometimes employed, like the Rapunzel-hair that acts as the strongest, longest rope that it's owner needs, but they are not integral to the story and are almost asides.  Maybe I am just too enchanted by Michael Buckley's Sister's Grimm series, which is big on magical artifacts and their properties and how they affect those who wield them, almost as big on humor and in possession of just right touch of romantic tensions between characters for middle grade readers.  I would love to see that formula taken up a few grades in terms of older readers, but Reckless is not that kind of series. I have no idea how many books Funke plans for this series, but it is definitely a series. Yet, despite the fact that Reckless is a mere 100 pages less than her Inkworld books, it somehow feels shorter and less developed.  Perhaps the next book in the series will bring the back stories and details that feel missing from this one.



First Impressions as a Reader

I think I listed all of my likes and dislikes above. I did like this book and I look forward to reading the rest of the series, although I do find it a bit underdeveloped and brisk in it's story telling as well as bit too dark and violent. Funke is a marvelous, skilled writer and, while I find her too dark and brutal at times, she creates wonderful worlds with Old World European foundations that I enjoy (with trepidation) immersing myself in.  I feel that her Inkworld books did a better job standing alone as stories.  They felt more complete, despite the fact that Reckless does bring closure to one of it's major story lines.  Funke loves to solve one dilemma while creating another that will direct the plot of the next book in the series.  

First Impressions of a CYBILS Judge Who Has Agreed to Read and Consider a Short List of Books for the Honor of Best Fantasy & Science Fiction (Middle Grade) 2010 

This book is not for kids.  As I said above, the romantic aspects and the brutality and cruelty humans (and non-humans) enact upon each other is intense.  As a bookseller and a parent, I would not put this into the hands of a reader under the age of 13 unless I knew his/her complete reading history and the values of the reader's parents.


Final Impressions:  Literary Merit vs. Kid Appeal





Overall Impression: 
Kids who  have read Funke's 
Inkworld books will pick this book up, especially if they find it shelved in the kid's section of the library and not the more appropriate teen section, although I suspect the appeal might not extend much father than . While I can imagine more girls reading this book than boys, I think that there is some definite overlap with John Flanagan's Ranger's Apprentice series from the kid's section and Joseph Delaney's Last Apprentice series for teens



Funke is an marvelous writer and this book is innovative and interesting, if dark.  The world she creates is a complete one, although her characters feel a bit underdeveloped in this, the first book in the series.






Rating on a scale of 1 to 10 (The Roar and When You Reach Me being a 9 in terms of literary merit) : 8





Rating on a scale of 1 to 10 (The Diary of a Wimpy Kid and 39 Clues being a 9 in terms of kid appeal) : 2

OVERALL SCORE:  5

2.18.2011

Fever Crumb, written by Philip Reeve, 323 pp, RL MIDDLE GRADE



Fever Crumb was one of the seven books shortlisted for the Cybil's finalists in the Fanstasy & Science Fiction (Middle Grade) category. While I didn't give it the critical treatment here that I did for the other books that were nominated, I will tell you that it was the top contender for the award, along with Jacqueline West's The Shadows.  All the judges loved it but, ultimately, we felt that is was too mature for the intended readers in this category.  Had it been placed in the Fantasy & Science Ficiton (Young Adult) cateogory, I know it would have given the winner quite a challenge.

With Fever CrumbPhilip Reeve begins a new series that precedes the events of his Mortal Engines Quartet.  While Fever Crumb is a wonderful stand-alone book (albeit one that leaves you wanting to know more about this intriguing character and her world) readers might be interested to learn more about the world of the Mortal Engines Quartet and can do so by visiting the author's website.  First, though, I have to acknowledge this captivating book jacket (and, if you are lucky enough to have a hardcover copy of this book, the great artwork on the cover itself, which can be seen below, created by artist Sam Weber.  The dust jacket image is actually cropped, so I included the full painting below as well. Fever Crumb was released in the UK, Reeve's home, a couple of years ago.  The second book in the series, Web of Air, was released in April of 2010 and book three, Scrivener's Moon, will be released in April of this year - in England. Covers of these books can be seen at the end of the review as well.



Fever Crumb has some of the best chapter titles I have read in a long time. The book begins with the chapter, The Girl from Godshawk's Head in which we find the title character making paper boys, using giant sheets of paper to trace her outline. Once the outline is cut out, the fourteen sheets of paper will be glued together with an intricate, delicate metal musculature inside that will become a killing machine, seven killing machines to be exact. The city world that Fever lives in, the city of London specifically, is a post-apolcalyptic world that is simultaneously medieval and technological. However, all of the technology that exists in this world has been excavated from the remains of the previous world that was destroyed. Archaeology and the trade of the unearthed technology is a is a major source of revenue for the city. There is no electricity in this world, yet machines are made to function either by human power and treadmills or by a mysterious inner power that no one seems to be able to replicate, only set in motion. London, recently liberated, had been under the control of the Scriven, a nomadic tribe from the north that attacked London some two hundred years ago and, after winning the Battle of Barnet,

they dragged their mobile fortress onto the of Ludgate Hill, tore off its wheels, and converted it into the Barbican, the stronghold from which Scriven kings would rule over the city for the next two centuries. They were brilliant, cruel, and party mad, and they were not exactly human beings.  In the black time after Downsizing all sorts of mutations had come whirling down the helter-skelter of the human DNA spiral, and the Scriven claimed to be a new species entirely.  Homo superior they liked to call themselves, or sometimes Homo futuris, the idea being that they had come into the world to replace dull old Homo sapiens. They were strange in a lot of ways you couldn't easily put your finger on, and in one way that you could: Their pale skin was blotched and dappled with markings, like leopards' spots. Some Scriven's spots were freckle-colored, others were dark as spilled ink.  The Scrivens prized dark markings most. They believed that they had been written on by a god called the Scrivener, who had inscribed the future history of the world upon their skins.

I have to stop myself here or I will end up quoting the whole book and run into some legal trouble.  Reeve's writing is magnificent, richly descriptive and it is a challenge and a joy to unravel the mysteries of this new world, to uncover artifacts from the previous world - words, places, names, lyrics - mostly things that readers, especially American ones, will miss.  In a nod to David Bowie, there is a pub called Scary Monsters and Super Creeps and "This ain't genocide! This is rock 'n roll!" the lyrics from his song  "Diamond Dogs" were the rallying cry for the fighting Londoners that is resurrected as the Scriven rule seems to be coming to an end. Another pub is called the Mott and Hoople, the London neighborhood Battersea becomes B@ersea, there is a Celebrity Square and St Kylie's (as in the singer, Kylie Minogue) and a street named Endemol after the entertainment conglomerate. The citizens of London  swear by "Poskitt," a reference to Kartjan Poskitt (who is thanked in the author's note), author of the wildly popular (in the UK) Murderous Maths series of chapter books that blends humor and math, much like the FABULOUS Horrible Histories Series of books (most of which are no longer available new in the US) written by a handful of authors including Terry Deary, both of which were illustrated by Philip Reeve. But, the crowning glory of this book is Reeves' use of the word "blog" as an expletive, as in "What the blog?" and "blogging hell." How could I not love that?


Now, for Fever Crumb, the girl from Godshawk's Head with two different colored eyes and a small scar on the back of her head at the base of her neck.  Auric Godshawk is the recently deceased Scriven overlord who "had planned to commemorate his rule with an immense statue of himself but had gotten no further than this metal head, seven stories high, which stood near Ox-fart Circus on a patch of waste ground surrounded by the huge, abandoned smelting and rolling sheds where it had been constructed." After the overthrow of the Scriven and the rioting that ensued, a housing shortage was created by the burning down of buildings and the Order of Engineers, most of whom had worked for Scriven masters, were turfed out of their big Guildhouse on Ludgate Hill, taking up residence in the fire-proof head.  Fever Crumb, the youngest member of the Order of Engineers and the only female, is the ward of Dr Crumb who, some fourteen years ago, found her in a basket and brought her back to the Order of Engineers, a previously all male institution.  The Engineers practice the observance of reason and logic above all else, shaving their heads because they believe that hair is unnecessary and drinking hot water because it is unreasonable to import the dried leaves of a plant from such a distance to make a flavorful drink. Fever is content with her life in the Order.  It is all she has ever known. Until Kit Solent, a former member of the Order, requests Fever as an assistant on a dig he has begun working on.  And, while she "didn't want to go. She wanted to stay in the Head forever. She wanted Dr Crumb to hold her hand and lead her back inside," she tells herself that these are not rational thoughts and she must suppress her instincts and board the wind tram that will take her to Solent's home.

The rest of the novel unfolds over the course of a few days and at a very fast pace.  Her trip from the Head to Solen't house exposes Fever to a world she has never known, a world that turns on her.  Fever's eyes bring her to the attention of the decrepit Bagman Creech, hero of London who has taken on the task of ridding the city of Scriven until the day he dies.  Rumors spread and Ted Swiney, owner of the the Mott and Hoople, sends his employee, the young Charley Swallow to be Bagman's boy and help him in his hunt, seeing this as a way to gain status in a city that he hope to soon run.  All of Reeve's characters are so thoroughly crafted that even the minor ones have deep inner lives.  Charley, having never been treated well before, is so overwhelmed by the kind attention that Bagman shows him (nothing more than seeing that he is well fed and not verbally abused) that, at first, he sees no problem with hunting down a girl who may or may not be a Scrivener.  As the story progresses and Fever becomes real to him he beings to become a moral being, questioning his actions.  Even Bagman seems to have glimmers of a sense of conscientiousness toward the end of the novel.  Moral questions also swirl around Fever as she is manipulated by Kit Solent, an archeologist in possession of vital, secret information regarding Auric Godshawk, who was a multitalented genius, great thinker, keeper of round notebooks and pursuer of immortality, as well as Dr Crumb who has not been entirely honest with her.  The secrets that are unearthed are profound and thought provoking.  The landscape of the story that the characters travel over as they make these discoveries is a fantastic one that is cobbled together from the wreckage of the past, which we get glimpses of in the thirty page flashback that shows London in a time before the riots when the still Scriven ruled. The secrets that Fever uncovers and where they take her, as well as Kit Solent and Dr Crumb, are amazing and lead to my favorite line in the book, one that the whole book turns on but one which I think I can repeat here without giving too much away.  Near the end of the story, a character who shall go unnamed says to our heroine, "Poor Fever! All these years you've been hidden in Godshawk's Head, and now you find out that he has been hiding in yours. . ."  

Like Lois Lowry's Newbery winner The Giver and the other two books in the trilogy, as well as Janice Hardy's Healing Wars Trilogy, the dystopian setting of Fever Crumb opens up a world of ethical and moral questions that are great discussion starters with your kids. And, like these other trilogies, the setting also makes for some amazing action, violence and pain.  Fever Crumb contains some disturbing imagery. The mottled skin of the slain Scrivens is used to make flags by the resistance and the invaders from the north who approach London near the end of the novel utilize a kind of warrior called a Stalker, which is a dead body that has been fitted with metal armor and robotics that allow it to be brought back to life as a dedicated warrior, sort of like a creepy cross between Frankenstein's monster and a Storm Trooper.  One of the main characters in the story is made into a Stalker (one who becomes one of the main characters in the Mortal Engines Quartet) at the end of the novel and the description of it as Fever watches is somewhat gruesome. Thus, the MIDDLE GRADE reading level for this book.

One last aspect of Reeve's incredible story that I could not find a place to squeeze in is the Scrivens' love of scents and their distribution of smells through the use of a scent lantern.  There are wonderful descriptions of the latest scents by Prince Nez and they are used by Kit Solent to trigger memories in Fever.  Such details!


Below are the UK covers for the first three books in the series as well as the complete painting from book one, showing Godshawk's Head and a land barge.








2.13.2011

CYBILS Announced Tomorrow!

Cybils2010-Web-Large

Way back in January I told you that I was a second round CYBILS judge and showed you the seven books we would be reading and picking a winner from on February 14, 2011. That seemed like forever ago, but the day is finally here!  We have picked our winner and tomorrow the official announcement will be made.  Also, starting tomorrow with the winner, and for the next four posts, you can read my reviews of the finalists and my thought process for choosing the winner. I know, one plus four does not equal seven. I reviewed one of the finalists, Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker-Rhodes back in December before the finalists were announced. I also chose not to review one of the books that made it to the final round.


The Dead Boys by Royce Buckingham: Book Cover

2.11.2011

Mudshark written by Gary Paulsen, 83 pp, RL 4



I have only read one other book by Gary Paulsen in my life and, while I find that mildly embarrassing because he is a prolific, award winning author, it makes sense. Paulsen, a two time competitor in the Iditarod dog sled race, is known for his outdoor adventure/survival books like the superb Hatchet, Newbery Honor winner, being a prime example of this. Hatchet follows thirteen-year old Brian Robeson who, after a plane crash, is forced to survive in the woods with only a hatchet. This is the only other Paulsen book I've read and I adore it, especially the way Paulsen's writing style changes the longer Brian is alone in the woods. And, while I do branch out from time to time, outdoor adventure/survival books are not at the top of my to-be-read pile.  However, Gary Paulsen is a very diverse writer and very deserving of your attention. His six Mr Tucket books, which take place from 1847 to 1849, follow the fourteen-year old Francis Tucket as he travels west on the Oregon Trail with his family and is captured by Pawnees.  Over the course of the next four books and two years Francis tries to return to his family. Paulsen has a handful of other historical fiction books as well as some non-fiction, including Guts, which tells the real stories behind the Brian books, and My Life in Dog Years, which is about the amazing and unforgettable dogs that have been part of his life. And, Paulsen is also brilliant at writing very short, very funny books about (mostly) every day life. Mudhsark falls into this category, along with Lawn Boy, Lawn Boy Returns, The Boy Who Owned the School and Molly McGinty Has a Really Good Day, to name a few.

There are thirteen chapters in Mudshark and each one begins with an overhead announcement from the principal that had me cracking up and reading it out loud to the nearest set of ears. I have to share at least one of them here with you, but I first have to say that the severity of the emergencies described increases with each chapter. One of my favorites, Chapter 5, begins, "This is the principal. Would the custodian please report to the faculty restroom with a plastic shield, a hazardous waste suit and a large container of pepper spray?" The announcements also go on to address the escaped gerbil from room 206 and the continuing disappearance of the erasers. Next, we meet Mudshark, who was cool, "Not because he said he was cool or knew he was or thought it. Not because he tried or even cared. He just was." Mudshark, who's real name is Lyle Williams, got his nickname while playing Death Ball. Death Ball is a "kind of soccer mixed with football and wrestling and rugby and mudfighting, a citywide, generations-old obsession that had been banned from school property because of, according to the principal, Certain Insurance Restrictions and Prohibitions Owing to Alarming Health Risks Stemming from Inhalation and Ingestion of Copious Amounts of Mud." Lyle earned his nickname by performing a spectacular move when, apparently knocked out by a tackle, his hand snaked out of the mud and took down an opposing player. Turns out Lyle acquired these skills by being the older brother to triplet sisters who are more than a handful and often left in his care, which also make for some funny passages.

But, stealth is not the only thing that makes Mudshark who he is.  When he was five, he told his mother that he thought all the time. When she asked about what, he answered, "Fingernails grow exactly four times faster than toenails, but it's not like we need toenails because we don't even use them for scratching and did you know that an octopus doesn't even have toenails . . . It makes a man think." On top of this, Lyle has grown up in the library where his mother works reading anything and everything that crossed his path and developing his razor-sharp memory, among other things. Lyle learned to, "pay attention to every sight, smell, taste and sound every minute of every day. As with any skill, practice made him more proficient, and, over time, he'd developed a nearly photographic memory." The kids catch on to this and, whenever they have a question or problem, someone inevitably says, "Ask Mudhsark." His skill at finding lost items prompts him to open the Mudshark Detective Agency, Problems Solved and Items Found. When a parrot arrives in the library through a series of very odd events, Mudshark finds the talking bird is soon challenging his status as detective on campus.

In addition to the troubling presence of the bird and the escaped gerbil, Mudshark begins to ponder the missing erasers while helping out his classmates. There is Willamena Carson, who, after deciding to be a doctor carries a life-sized model of a skull with a removable plastic brain with her everywhere she goes so she can study during free time. But, she is always losing her brain. Then, there's Kyle Roberston, an aspiring magician who has made his father's new car disappear. Finally, there is Betty Crimper, budding scientist who likes to create creams, salves and other smelly things that might make her money someday but mostly just make bad smells throughout the school. When Mudshark eventually figures out where the missing erasers are going, he is faced with an ethical and aesthetic dilemma that requires the help of his friends, the janitor and the librarian to solve.  Being such a short book, I don't want to give too much of the plot away, but I can tell you that I was pleasantly surprised by just how funny Gary Paulsen can be and I HIGHLY suggest this book as a read-out-loud that will be both appropriate and entertaining for kids as young as 5.

Fabulous cover art by Peter Ferguson, illustrator of the wonderful Sister's Grimm series by Micheal Buckley, the engrossing Enola Holmes series by Nancy Springer and he has taken over the helm for the hilarious Pals in Peril series by MT Anderson and the Hattie series by Clara Gillow Clark.

      


Below is the cover of another funny Paulsen book from my TBR pile, 
Masters of Disaster
Masters of Disaster