Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Beware the Brontesaurus!

A Miniature World: The Night Fairy by Laura Amy Schlitz

This is really a tiny treasure of a book, and it comes so beautifully wrapped.  Before reading  a word I was impressed by its beautiful thick glossy paper, rich shimmery blue-black endpapers, elegant typesetting, and the lovingly detailed, full-colour illustrations by British illustrator Angela Barrett.  The level of craftsmanship that has gone into creating this book prepares its audience well for the special experience of reading it. 

 Laura Amy Schlitz, a Newbery medal winner for Good Masters!  Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village,  makes me realize just how flat and boring those popular fairy series books that girls have been reading for the past few years really are.  Her writing overflows with intelligence, imagination, literary quality, and respect for its audience.  I love how she uses vocabulary that is so flavourful  and precise, vocabulary which I'm guessing will gently stretch a lot of children's boundaries while never overwhelming them:

"On the night of Flory's peril, she was less than three months old.  It was a windy night:  cool and sweet with springtime.  Flory was coasting on the breeze, letting it toss her wherever it liked.  She was still very tiny--as tall as an acorn--and her green wings glittered in the moonlight.  A little brown bat swooped down upon her, caught her, and crunched up her wings." 

One of the many things I loved about this book was its depiction of the natural world.  Fairies are the only supernatural entities in this book, and Flory is actually the only fairy we ever see.  A night fairy by virtue of her time of birth, she turns herself into a day creature when she loses her flight, and makes her home in the garden of a "giantess" (in the birdhouse, actually).  Her life there is populated with squirrels and  raccoons and hummingbirds and insects and spiders.  The animals talk to her, but otherwise they stay completely in character.  Flory is not altogether benevolent at first;  she can be selfish and irritable, and it is interesting to see how organically her feelings develop:

"Flory felt a funny ache in her throat. She was not the kind of fairy who cried easily, and she didn't think the hummingbird cried at all.  But the words "the chicks will die" made her feel queer, as if her heart were swollen and sore.  She gave herself a little shake, trying to replace the queer feeling with crossness...".  

Schlitz's writing contains echoes of The Secret Garden in places;  doesn't that paragraph read like it could be about Mary Lennox?  And in the end, Flory's wings regrow and she is at last able to fly again, just like Colin is able to walk.

 Much of the fascination in The Night Fairy comes from seeing our world in miniature through Flory's perceptive eyes.  It's also a treat to see how resourceful and adventurous she becomes, as the lone fairy in her environment.  This would be a beautiful read-aloud or the perfect book for an imaginative child to curl up with on a summer afternoon.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

Oh my gosh, what a lovely romantic book this is.  I can totally see a well-worn (but still impeccably clean) copy of this sitting on a teenage Emma Pillsbury's bookshelf, right next to Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and Perrault's Fairy Tales.

Jessica Day George, author of Sun and Wind, Ice and Snow, has given us another beautifully executed and bewitching fairy-tale-turned-novel.   Princess of the Midnight Ball is based on the Grimm story The Twelve Dancing Princesses, in which twelve princesses disappear nightly into a magical land below the earth with trees of silver and leaves of gold, to dance the night away.  The king, their father, offers a reward of marriage to the prince who can discover why his daughters' dancing slippers are fresh each evening and worn out by morning. After various princes fail to do so, a soldier succeeds in the task with the help of a cloak of invisibility, and is rewarded with a princess and a kingdom.

George's version sticks closely to the original plot, but it's the embellishments that make it special.  The soldier, Galen, is a wonderful character. Raised by a soldier father and a mother who washed the soldier's clothes, Galen has no love for battle and is glad to return to civilian life at the end of the war.  He finds work as the apprentice to his uncle, Master Gardener at the Royal Palace.  It's sweet to see him courting the eldest Princess, Rose, as he works among the flowers.  And he knits, too!  He's an interesting blend of valour and domesticity.   The older princesses are well-developed characters, Princess Rose in particular. I liked how they have so much family feeling and are so protective of each other throughout the story, and how interested they are in Galen, even though he is a servant.

I always found the original Twelve Dancing Princesses to have an eerie, otherworldly mood.  It's not altogether clear what kind of magic creates the opulent underground kingdom, and whether the princesses go willingly to their ball.  Princess of the Midnight Ball darkens this otherwordly quality;  here, the girls are trapped by a bargain their dead mother made with the fearful  King Under Stone, who rules the underground land (truly an underworld) with a cold and relentless hand.  They cannot speak of the curse they are under, and when they try and rebel by staying away, the sons of the King Under Stone erupt into the Palace garden and climb the Palace walls as a warning.   They are menacing presences, these sons, and the story's suspense builds when the ultimate goal of the King Under Stone, to have the twelve princesses marry his twelve sons,  is revealed.

The daylight world, in contrast, is downright pastoral.  Although there are hints here and there of an impoverished, war-torn kingdom, the bulk of the daytime action takes place in the Palace or its lush gardens, which are so descriptively drawn you can practically smell them. The king is kindly, Galen and Rose are exceedingly well-matched, and when the King Under Stone is finally defeated, there is no doubt that our new friends will all live happily ever after.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Nothing Like You by Lauren Strasnick

"Holly".  The way he kept saying my name over and over made me feel so totally small.  "You're not my girlfriend."  You're not my girlfriend.  You're not my girlfriend.  It echoed in my ear.  I hate you, I thought as he dragged me across the taupe-colored field to the bleachers.  We ducked underneath.  "Do we need to set some ground rules?...I like you, Holly, I do.  But I'm not going to do all this girlfriend-boyfriend bullshit with you, okay?  I already have one relationship I have to manage...What we have should be easy."
I remember a few years ago reading an article in one of our city newspapers about how the "friends with benefits" relationship trend is aging down to high schoolers and even middle schoolers, who apparently now don't bother with crushes,  courting, or building relationships. According to this article, arranging with an  acquaintance in one's social circle to meet for sex, rather than dating and all it entails, is now an accepted norm for some teens.  This struck me as kind of bizarre and creepy at the time, not to mention prematurely jaded.  After all, loving emotional bonds are one of the chief pleasures of life.  And  learning how to form and maintain romantic connections is widely considered to be one of the important developmental tasks of adolescence and early adulthood.  Who wants to reach adulthood knowing nothing about romance?

Nothing Like You confirms my initial impression.  This kind of relationship is indeed bizarre and creepy.  Especially if you're in denial about being in emotional crisis, and your partner is a borderline sociopath.

The book opens with Holly, our protagonist, losing her virginity to Paul in the back seat of his stale, smelly car. She wonders " if this feels any different when you love the person or when you do it lying down on a bed.".  Paul already has a girlfriend, Saskia, who is lovely and popular, and Holly knows that what she is doing with Paul isn't going to change that.  But she is emotionally numb after losing her mother to cancer,  and Paul's physicality somehow makes her feel less frozen.

Paul begins sneaking into Holly's bedroom several nights a week, while making the boundaries of their relationship very clear.  He doesn't want to talk to, touch, or acknowledge Holly at school, or anywhere they might be seen together.  No one is to know about them, especially not Saskia.  It becomes more and more of a mystery to me why Holly stays with him,  really, because he just gets colder and nastier as the story goes on.  Meanwhile, Saskia and Holly wind up getting to know each other after being partnered for a school project, and Holly's best friend Nils, seeing how troubled Holly is, tries unsuccessfully to reach out to her.

Holly makes some pretty poor decisions in this book, and although you sense that they're really all about her grief at her mother's death, that grief is never directly addressed.  There's a dingy sense of worthlessness that seems to follow her around like a cloud, and when she is outed as Paul's sexual partner and comes into school to find the word "whore" written on her locker and no one speaking to her, it simply serves to bring her outer world into correspondence with her depressing inner world.

Strasnick has written a serious book about difficult situations and complicated feelings.  She's done a good job, although sometimes I did want to give Holly a good whack upside the head.  All that self-destructive behavior gets a bit frustrating, and her continued "I don't know why I did that" attitude doesn't help.  The ending is bittersweet but hints at the beginnings of some emotional resilience and a chance for a fresh beginning. 

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Advice on Dumb Boyfriends

Today, John Green is giving out advice on his vlog Sparks Fly Up.  Here's his response to the question:  "My boyfriend says I am too smart for him, but I really like him.  Should I try to act dumb?"

"I've said it before and I'll say it again.  The venn diagram of boys who don't like smart girls and boys you don't want to date is a circle!"

In about three years, this goes on Katrina's wall.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper

"Words have always swirled around me like snowflakes--each one delicate and different, each one melting untouched in my hands.
Deep within me, words pile up in huge drifts. Mountains of phrases and sentences and connected ideas.  Clever expressions.  Jokes.  Love songs.
From the time I was really little...words were like sweet, liquid gifts, and I drank them like lemonade.  I could almost taste them.  They made my jumbled thoughts and feelings have substance...
Every word my parents spoke to me or about me I absorbed and kept and remembered. All of them....
I have never spoken one single word.  I am almost eleven years old.

Out of My Mind did a terrific job of taking me inside the mind of a bright young girl with cerebral palsy and very limited means of communication.  Melody cannot speak or control her most of her movements.  To converse, she needs to point at letters on her communication board with her thumbs, one slow letter at a time.  She cannot eat or drink by herself or use a toilet or bathtub independently. In school she is placed in a special needs class, where for years teachers treat her as though she were intellectually disabled.

While doing some research on Stephen Hawking,  Melody discovers the Medi-talker, a computer/communication device which could give her a voice.  The Medi-talker lets Melody demonstrate what her parents and caregivers had long suspected, that she is easily one of the brightest children in her school.  However, Melody's dream is to actually make friends with the other students and be part of the group of "normal" kids, and her new-found communication skills don't alleviate the other student's discomfort with her physical differences.  To most of her peers, Melody still seems downright strange and sometimes even repulsive. Being seen with her in public embarrasses them.  When Melody competes to be on her school's Whiz Kids team, the other kids are shocked when she gets in.   Being on a school team doesn't lead to the social acceptance that Melody had hoped for, and in a moment of crisis, Melody comes to understand that some people just aren't worth the struggle.

"I'm not trying to be mean--honest--but it just never occurred to me that Melody had thoughts in her head."

Draper is a talented writer and Melody's voice is very believable.  Although I'm not really fond of books that set out to "teach" kids about life, I do like books that can help them empathize with difference.  I think Draper has nailed that here.  Because the truth is, kids like Melody aren't that weird or scary once you get to know them--it's the initial step that's hard.  Draper lets us get to know Melody from a position of relative safety, but I'm betting that once readers get to know her, they won't forget.  And we'll be one step closer to having that inclusive world that  kids all deserve.   

Possessions, Book One: Unclean Getaway by Ray Fawkes

"So... what do you like to do for fun?"
"Gurgazon likes to vomit, cackle, and make things DIE!"

Ahhh, book serendipity.  Even though I spend untold hours obsessively reading book reviews, some things still manage to slip past my radar.  Like Unclean Getaway by graphic novel writer Ray Fawkes.  But one day last week it arrived in our branch, all new and shiny, and after one look I just knew I had to take it home to Ewan.  And when we sat down to read it, we laughed so hard that everyone else in the house wandered in to see what we were up to.  After it was done, Ewan asked plaintively, "Do we have to take Gurgazon back to the library?".  He's never said that about any book before, ever.  But he's right.  This one's a keeper.

Gurgazon the Unclean is a pit demon embodied as a little girl who looks a bit like a possessed muppet.  She has rows of razor-sharp teeth and an unfortunate propensity for green vomit, but when her mouth is shut, she's pretty cute.  As the story begins, she is captured and brought to live in the Llewellyn-Vane House for Captured Spirits and Ghostly Curiosities.  While the other supernatural inhabitants (including a headless lady ghost, a poltergeist, a haunted juke box and something called the "Ice Field Lights") appear pleasantly domesticated, Gurgazon the Unclean will not be bound.  She is unholdable!  TREMBLE before Gurgazon!  SHUDDER at Gurgazon's unholy power!  Gurgazon will have her REVENGE on the world!!!!

Or maybe not.

Unclean Getaway is the chronicle of Gurgazon's increasingly frustrated  attempts to escape.  But the plot is a minor note.  The real pleasure in Gurgazon's story is the perfectly-timed deadpan humour, from the wacky send-up of horror conventions to the way the characters all play off Gurgazon.  Ewan and I especially loved Polly, the impulsive, emotional poltergeist who communicates by scrawling on the wall.   She tantrums and sulks hilariously when Gurgazon rejects her offer of friendship. The Light is pretty funny as well, with his reasonableness and civility a great counterpoint to Gurgazon's raging fits.

Gurgazon: "Gurgazon will open a hell pit right here and DEVOUR you ALL!"
Light: "Listen.  We're having a pretty good time carving pumpkins over there.  Why not come and join us?"

Ray Fawkes gives an interesting interview about the world of Possessions here.

But remember..."Gurgazon is not entertainment!  Gurgazon is your DOOM!". 

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Foiled by Jane Yolen and Mike Cavallaro

"The story I have to tell you is not about Avery.  It's about me, and fencing, and what I learned while masked.  It's about defense and defenders.  It's about power, and I don't mean electricity.  It's about family.

Most grownups will tell you things are revealed when you take off a mask.  But they're wrong, as they often are.  Everything was revealed when I put my fencing mask on in Grand Central Station.  Everything. "
Jane Yolen, wildly prolific and revered author of fantasy, fairy tale, poetry, myth, and picture book (Owl Moon, anyone? Or that fabulous How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight series?) has just published her debut graphic novel.  As one might expect, it's a gem. 

Foiled follows Aliera Carstairs, a young woman who has been fencing since childhood and draws great emotional strength and a sense of identity from the ancient sport.  A whiff of the mysterious follows her through school, as Avery, a strangely beautiful new boy whose looks contrast with his odd and sometimes cold behavior,  becomes her lab partner.  Crows seem to follow Aliera at a discreet distance. On weekends Aliera  fences and then visits her disabled cousin  Caroline to immerse herself in fantasy role-playing about an imagined kingdom.  "We play with more passion than it deserves.  Than either of us really understood."  One day Aliera's mother buys her a used foil at a garage sale, with a strange red jewel on the hilt.  And when Avery asks Aliera out on a date and she brings her mask and sword into Grand Central Station, she and Avery step into a fantasy world where Aliera is the Defender of the Seelie Court in the Kingdom of Helfdon, and Avery turns out to be a creature of darkness. 

Yolen is adept at hinting of fabulous worlds projecting into the ordinary, and showing  teens rising to otherworldly challenges. Hers is the ancient world of faerie, with courtly laws and and deceptive glamours.  Foiled maintains a tone of adventure rather than malevolence, however, making it perfect for a younger audience than, say, some of Gaiman's faerie-tinged graphic novels.

Cavallaro's art is very accessible and easy to read visually, but still quite dynamic and expressive.  I especially love how the real world is drawn in black and white, reflecting Aliera's colour blindness, and the world of faerie is in vivid, eye-popping colour.  It reminds me of the dichotomy between the gritty world of Kansas and the extraordinary world of Oz in The Wizard of Oz. And I like the tiny stars in Aliera's eyes on the book cover.  Nice detail. 

Foiled leaves lots of room for a sequel.  Aliera's story is clearly just beginning.  Here's hoping we see more of it soon.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Hearts at Stake by Alyxandra Harvey

I'm starting to think that the reason my adolescence was so bereft of yummy, adoring, mesmerizingly sexy guys is my lack of vampire blood.  Vamps clearly seem to be getting all the good action these days.

Hearts at Stake is a fine addition to the current craze for teen vampire romance.  It's funny, adventurous, seductive, and has two smart, enterprising best-friend heroines.  I loved the idiosyncratic chemistry and unquestioned loyalty between Solange, born to an ancient vampire family, and Lucy, her human bff.  According to an ancient prophecy, Solange is destined to be the next vampire queen.  Neither Solange nor the current queen is really enamoured of this idea (Solange's idea of a good time is throwing pots in her backyard ceramics studio, preferably wearing mucky jeans).  In fact, Lady Natasha, the current queen, is so offended by the possibility of being dethroned by Solange that she plots to snuff out the entire Drake family to make sure the prophecy will never come to pass.  Plot leads to counter-plot, and soon Solange is kidnapped and Lucy roars off to find her with Solange's rather distracting brother Nicolas. And while Nicolas and Lucy are busy hunting her down, Solange and her kidnapper Kieran are finding themselves falling for each other as well.

BTW, I like the fact that the girl on the cover is believably sixteen.  I'm getting sick of covers showing twenty-two year old girls posing as fourteen-year-olds (I'm looking at you, Clique!).

Bloomsbury Kids have given us not just one but two book trailers, one for Solange, and one for Lucy:

Every Soul a Star by Wendy Mass

"And as streams of light fan out behind the darkened sun like the wings of a butterfly, I realize that I never saw real beauty until now."

Let's see if I can sum up my reactions quickly.

1)  Pretty good plot.
2) Pretty good characters
3) Pretty good writing style.
4) AMAZING descriptions of the night sky, what you can see in a remote campground with a telescope at night, and why people chase eclipses.

I like books that can make me see the world a bit differently.  This is one of them.  Now waiting for my next starry night....