Summer Camp Rec: A Snicker Of Magic (if you liked Rooftoppers)

I may be cheating a little with this recommendation, because I don’t know if Rooftoppers is such a smash hit at other bookshops. I’ve been recommending it non-stop ever since we got it last year. It was one of my favorite gift ideas for the holidays, what with the read-aloud appeal and enchanting atmosphere. Now, a lot of the parents who enjoyed reading Rooftoppers with their kids are looking for something for summer travels. Another book that’s not too scary, with totally unique characters and language that just transports you. And, for younger kids who are just starting to spend time on their own this summer – (I think it’s around age nine that sleep-away camp starts to get serious?) – something captivating enough to distract from possible homesickness. A Snicker Of Magic is a sweet book about making the best of things and feeling at home in the world. It has a colorful setting, a delicious cast of characters, and some of the tastiest language I’ve had the pleasure to read all year.

snicker of magic collage

These two middle grade novels are very different reading experiences, but they have some great qualities in common. They’re both fairly safe bets as far as content goes: no many-teethed monsters or twisted villains to keep kids awake with noises from the woods all night. They have bittersweetly hopeful endings. Sophie, the heroine in Rooftoppers is a scrappy bookworm on a quest to find her mother. Felicity Pickle is a budding poet – a collector of words – with dreadful stage fright, trying to help her mother settle down someplace that makes their family happy.

But while Rooftoppers is told in the third person, keeping with the timeless style of narration, we read A Snicker Of Magic in Felicity’s utternly charming voice. This is a southern story, as home-grown and twangy-sweet as Rooftoppers was classicly British. Natalie Lloyd obviously loves writing; she relishes words and writes beautifully about how everything we say has meaning. Her characters speak in unexpected ways, turning phrases and coining terms to express whatever feelings bubble up behind their tongues.

 “Sometimes I see words hovering around people… The more interesting the person, the more fantastic the words. Words come in all sorts of shapes: stars, spaceships, pretzel words. Some words glow, and some words dance. Sometimes I think I see words people are thinking about, or the words they want. the words that circle around my aunt Cleo’s head are usually words I’m not allowed to say.”

But some people can’t express themselves, and they leave things unsaid. Some people carry around heavy burdens in their duffel bags. Some people eat magical blackberry ice cream to remember happier times, and some people avoid that ice cream because they wish to forget. And some people, like Felicity’s Mama, can’t bear to stay in one place too long, though they can’t find the words to explain why. She left Midnight Gulch when she was young, and has brought her two young daughters back to stay with their no-nonsense, sassy aunt for awhile. But while everyone else in the family can see that Midnight Gulch is a special place, Holly Pickle can’t bear to stick around and put down roots. It’s really too bad, because Felicity feels an instant connection with the vibrant town. Readers will sympathise: it’s a pretty spindiddly place to read about.

Hang on, did I said magical ice cream up there? Yes sir. With flavors like

“Orangie’s Caramel Apple Pie,”

“Virgil’s Get-Outta-My-Face Fudge Ripple,” and

“Andy’s Snickerdoodle Sucker Punch.”

A Snicker Of Magic is full of whimsical little notions like that. The town of Midnight Gulch used to be full of magic: one woman could call up storms. The Ponders could bake bravery into pies. And the legendary Brothers Threadbare could once play music so good that everyone in town would get up to dance even if the musicians were far away. But ever since the Brothers Threadbare parted ways after a disasterous musical duel, Midnight Gulch has lost its magic. As Felicity’s new friend Jonah explains, all that’s left is a “snicker” of magic here and there: little bits of wonder left over. But Felicity’s teacher has decided to stage a “duel” of her own. This time, it will be like a talent show, showcasing the spectacular talents of Midnight Gulch. Jonah thinks that maybe if Felicity performs some of her poetry, her Mama will see that Midnight Gulch is a town worth staying in. But in order to perform, she’ll need some help to get over the fear of sharing the words she collects as they soar around her.

(img source)

I can’t decide if I liked the setting or the characters better in A Snicker Of Magic. Natalie Lloyd is from Tennessee, and her depiction of a quirky Southern town charmed me in spite of my Very Northerner Attitude. But all my local coldness, my foggy unfriendliness, was sent away in a magical gust of wind when I first heard Natalie reading aloud from her book. Midnight Gulch is like a really happy daydream, whereas Rooftoppers was like a starlight night. It’s sweet but not sugar coated, which is why I’m not more critical of the book’s cute-ness. People still struggle in Midnight Gulch. There are failures to deal with and judgements to overcome. In the absence of magic, some of the harsher realities of life have snuck in. But it’s a reslient place, predisposed to beauty, and I love how Felicty takes joy in everything around her.

And the characters. Oh, the characters. First of all, a challenge for anyone who reads A Snicker Of Magic while at summer camp: become The Beedle! Do secret nice things for people, not for credit, just because it’s fun. My favorite story Natalie Lloyd told us earlier this summer was about a class that had read her book aloud, only to have one student take the role of The Beedle upon herself. No one knew who it was, but she whispered it to the author in secret. Consider me impressed. And, as a pirate, I don’t usually like do-goodery! Felicity’s friendship with Jonah is so genuine, because even when they don’t agree they’re able to appreicate how nice it is to have someone who likes you and wants to understand you better. The family tensions between Holly Pickle and her siblings will be recognizable to anyone who has opinionated family members, but no matter how they argue there’s real love holding everyone together. And the minor characters are so much fun. Some of them are silly, some of them are mysterious, and some of them have a bit of tragedy about them. They all make Midnight Gulch what it is, though, and I love that Felicty takes time to get to know so many people. By the end of the book, I would have happily moved to town, myself.

So maybe it’s the setting that makes the characters, and the characters that make the setting. Combined, they make for one uplifting, vibrant, satisfying story. And it’s not the beginning to a series! Glory be! ‘Cause what could be more frustrating than to finish a book at camp, only to find the ending unresolved without access to a library? I’m alarmed just imagining the situation.

For strong readers as young as seven, or for anyone who liked Rooftoppers and wants something good-hearted and smart to cool down with this summer, A Snicker Of Magic is my best suggestion. And for parents who send their kids off with this as a good luck charm, be sure to borrow it when they return. It’s perfect to read aloud, and I can garuntee that this is one book you’ll want to savor more than once. If you read it again, you can you can marvel at how well Natalie Lloyd brings together the pieces of her story. The first time around, drink up the words themselves like melted ice cream.

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Summer Camp Rec: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (moving up from Diary of a Wimpy Kid)

Last post, I recommended Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern to anyone who loved The Fault In Our Stars and wanted a similar book to read this summer. But how about something for younger readers who are into faster, sillier books? There’s frequently a disconnect between the kids themselves and the Parents On A Deadline (gotta get books in the bags and the bags on the kids and get the kids in the car and the car to camp). That futile volley of

“Read something new.”
“But I like these books!”
“They won’t last you a day, pick something with more words,”

is a back-and-forth dispute which I can basically follow like a script by now. And the summer’s not even half over! One tenacious fellow finally asked me, “D’you have anything like Diary of a Wimpy Kid but harder?”.

I understand how Jeff Kinney’s series is fun reading. It’s not hard to relate to a humorously downtrodden narrator stumbling through the weirdness of social life. Haplessness loves fictional company. Plus, the illustrations break things up nicely for more reluctant readers who might get daunted by so many pages of just words. Yeah, it’s good to challenge your kid with books, but you want them to actually read the damn thing, too. Especially at camp, where everyone’s exhausting themselves with projects and socializing all day. Pick a book to get excited about when settling down for an hour.

So what could I give to kids who want funny narrators, self-deprecating humor, and illustrations in their books? Something for kids who have outgrown Wimpy Kid, but still told in the conversational manner Kinney does so well?

We have a winner: Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian. (Recommended for ages 12 and up.)

book cover

The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian tells the story of Arnold’s first year at high school, and the misadventures therein. Here’s what’s up with Arnold Spirit Jr. (a.k.a. “Junior”): He wants to be a cartoonist. He’s small for his age, with a few birth defects which make him an easy target for bullies. After a disastrous first few weeks at the Spokane reservation high school, he leaves to go to the big all-white school twenty-two miles away. Arnold is a resourceful and determined young lad, and when he sets his mind to leaving he’s not going to let any guilt-tripping or bullying stand in his way. He’s also sarcastic and unapologetically astute with his opinions about himself and the people he knows, at least in his private diary. But at the high school, he’s pretty much the only Indian kid around, and kind of awkward to boot. Not everyone’s interested in making new friends. Most everyone there has more money than his family. Some people back home think that Junior is turning his back on his people by leaving the reservation for school, while the differences between his upbringing and his classmates’ marks him as an outsider in his new surroundings, too. Thus, “A Part-Time Indian”. Even some impressive basketball skills might not be enough to get him accepted, but he’s determined to find a place to belong against all the odds.

Since The Absolutley True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian is about a high-school student, the subject matter in Alexie’s book is obviously a little more mature than those illustrated confessionals set in middle-schools. The book has actually been challenged and banned in a number of schools around the country for its portrayal of racism, alcoholism, sexual content, and offensive language.

[Sarcasm warning!] ‘Cause we can’t acknowledge that teenagers being wrung through a cycle of hormonal upheaval would ever swear or think dirty thoughts. Heavens forbid. And let’s do our best to ignore how tons of American conventions and icons make use of offensive Indian stereotypes. Junior dryly calls the white community out on common, ignorant displays of utter disregard for diverse cultural awareness. What?!? A kid mentioning the micro-aggressions he encounters every single day in his journal? How unexpected! And Junior’s life on the reservation is bleak? Oh dear! It’s almost as though the country has marginalized entire groups of people and then turned a blind eye to the ensuing difficulties. Can’t have that in our kids’ books, can we?!? [End sarcasm.] I’ll stop whining about ignorance and censorship now, before I get into full book-dragon mode. Suffice to say: Junior faces real issues in the book, and readers get exposed to important cultural perspectives on American attitudes which we should have re-evaluated centuries ago.

And did I mention that the book is funny? Because it might sound all biting and serious right now, but Junior is one hilarious narrator. He can laugh at himself and look back on mistakes as stories. Maybe that’s the part of him that wants to write cartoons. And he’s a thoughtful, sincere kid, too. People can be real jerks, purposefully or not, but he’s willing to see things from the other side and will admit when he’s been wrong to judge somebody. The diary-style format is great for these moments, because we get to watch his personality grow in real time.

Sherman Alexie is a fantastic writer and he’s not going to go all moralizing. No hitting kids over the head with tragic facts. Instead, he gives us a really likable hero on the sort of personal journey so many readers have had to face themselves. Things go wrong in Junior’s life, but he faces everything with strength and wit and good perspective. And when things do go right for him, its hard not to throw a victorious air-punch and shout “woo!” wherever you’re reading.

I think that The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian would be a good choice for kids who are going start high-school soon. Part of the appeal in reading these journal-style books is the camaraderie you feel with the main character. Moving to a more grown-up school can be really daunting, but with a friend like Junior paving the way they’ll know how to face any situation with a sense of humor and an eye to how every mishap can inspire a great story. This will probably be one of those books that gets passed from friend to friend at summer camp, until everyone feels like they’ve shared in Junior’s year of ups and downs. Between the easy language and the unflinching point of view, Sherman Alexie doesn’t talk down to kids or hide anything from them. He’s right at the perfect level, writing with warm respect and all the sharply poetic irony which shines in his writing for adults. (If you haven’t read any of his short stories yet, you’re missing out. Go read them now!)

So when somebody doesn’t want to branch out from the style of the Wimpy Kid diaries, but has outgrown that particular series, give Arnold Spirit Jr. a try. It could be like cramming a friend into a backpack and hearing his crazy life story whenever things get dull. That’s a weird image, but I think you get the point.

Screenshot 2014-07-06 21.36.52

Proof that Sherman Alexie is funny and kind of perfect. Look at the homepage of his website! (I might have a little brain-crush on the man. He loves local bookshops after all.)

Book Review: Queen Of The Tearling by Erika Johansen

Star Ratings:

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: ** (2 1/2  stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Overall: **1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Age range recommendation: 14 and up (Medieval violence including sexual violence.)

Let it thus be known: I read an advanced copy of this book, and some details may have changed before the official release on July 8, 2014.

It’s been an weirdly long time since I read a novel set in your typical fantasy world, with queens; outlaws; and miserable serfs. I can’t remember the last time I sat in the Fantasy section at the library with a heavy paperback – cheesy illustrated cover and all –open on my lap. While The Queen Of The Tearling brought me right back to the familiar world of contested borders and names I can’t pronounce, I’m struggling to find a category for it in my head. The world and logic weren’t described clearly enough for me to associate it with those extensive, detailed series. And while the writing; characters; and plot were more right for the YA market, certain “mature” details would prevent me from recommending it to anyone under 14. (I don’t always like the term “mature” when it comes to saying that there’s NSFW content, because I know plenty of younger readers who have better critical reading skills than most adults. The point here is: there’s a bit of grossness that’s definitely not for children.) Basically, The Queen Of The Tearling was a fairly quick read with a decent plot, but it doesn’t promise anything new or exciting for habitual browsers of the fantasy shelves.

We first meet Kelsea near woodland cottage where she was raised in hiding by adoptive parents. The Queens Guard, a troop of her mother’s dedicated knights, have come to bring her back to the castle. Kelsea just turned nineteen, and so it’s time for her to become queen. Even though Barty and Carlin taught Kelsea as much as they could about nature, humanity, and The Tearling, she still feels completely unprepared to fill her mother’s powerful shoes. Actually, they were probably just fancy shoes; Kelesa’s started to notice that her mother wasn’t a very good queen at all, and has resolved not to be so vain and out of touch with her own people.

Their journey to the keep is a long one, endangered by her guards’ certainty that the current regent – Kelsea’s uncle – will try to kill her en route rather than give up his power. Throw in some dashing outlaws; scary assassins; and bloodthirsty hawks, and it’s a miracle she makes it to the throne at all. Growing up isolated from the kingdom, Kelsea had no idea how badly the general population was doing. Her subjects are treated as bargaining chips by the corrupt court in an attempt to keep the the domineering neighbor kingdom’s evil “Red Queen” at bay. The Tearling needs a True Queen and it needs one fast. But in order to help her people, Kelsea will have to remain true to herself while everyone nearby tries to sway her to suit their own needs.

I assume that The Queen Of The Tearling is the beginning of a series – or maybe a trilogy – because the history and nature of Erika Johansen’s world only came through in partial references throughout this first installment. From what I gathered, The Queen Of The Tearling takes place in the future, with mankind there being descended from people who left our known Earth in “The Crossing.” When was the crossing, exactly? What did William Tear and the other emigrants even cross? An ocean? A magical portal? Space? I’m still not quite sure. What I do understand is that William Tear brought along some utopian Americans and British, and attempted to establish a new colony where things would be simpler. Based on the presence of other races and countries in the new world – Mortmesne seems to have a lot of French influence I think – there must have been some other groups who made the journey for various reasons.

By the time Kelsea comes into power, the high ideals brought over by settlers have regressed into a medieval type of society. Few people can read, all the medical science went down in one sinking ship, and the Red Queen of Mortmesne has spent over a century terrorizing neighboring countries into submission. How has she lived for so long? The answer to that is just as mysterious as the reasons for her cruelty. Despite the several chapters illustrating just how wicked the Red Queen is, there’s no point in this book which clarified her motives.

And then there’s the question of these magical jewels Kelsea inherits, which have unexpected control over some situations. Kelsea is only just discovering their uses as she learns to be queen – figuring out everything as she goes along – but by the end of the book I was less curious about their magical properties and more frustrated with them. Fantasy worlds should still have rules, but it seems we’ll have to wait for another book to learn how they work. Twinned relics containing some sort of destiny aren’t too surprising in fantasy literature. It will be hard to justify their use without some really unique twist about their powers in some future installment.

The writing was just so-so: it could get dully obvious at times, but wasn’t noticeably bad. The characters, on the other hand, were sympathetic in some cases and completely flat in others. Kelsea’s struggle to make the right decisions and her attempts to inspire loyalty without fear were certainly noble, though her disdain for vanity almost came off as snobbish at times. I did like her enthusiasm for literacy, and the fact that she didn’t get entangled into any sordid romance during the book. Nearly everyone at court was so shallow they barely stuck in my mind, though Kelsea’s lady-in-waiting might show some secret bad-ass-ery later on. “The Fetch”, our dashing outlaw, is a similar case: he has the potential to become a really fun folk-hero or a force to be reckoned with, but in this book he just appeared and disappeared without much rhyme or reason. Most minor characters either faded into part of the scenery or stood out as a stereotype. A few exceptions would include the priest who is supposed to spy on Kelsea (his love for learning made his moral dilemma easier to forgive), the gate guard who damns himself by assisting a traitor (he wants to do the right thing but is desperate to save his wife), and the Mace – Kelsea’s main guard.

The Mace was easily my favorite character. Even though he keeps much of his past a big secret I thought he had more depth than anyone else. The Queen’s Guard definitely gets the most page-time besides Kelsea herself. In fact, I might have preferred to read a book all about their own part in the growing political unrest. Not all of the guard members were fully developed characters, but their actions were genuine and I actually cared about what might happen to them. The only time I felt truly distraught at any character’s misfortune was in relation to the Queen’s Guard. They were also the most grown-up element of the book.

The Queen Of The Tearling was an entertaining diversion into familiar fantasy grounds. I liked some of the characters and appreciated the lack of any one-true-love nonsense. Erika Johansen’s ideas about how society will fall back into past patterns when starting anew made a good basis for a fantasy setting, and I wish that she had developed the background of that world better before finishing her debut. While I won’t be recommending this book to readers looking for something similar to those heavy series out there right now, I can see it acting as a gateway to more intricate fantasy novels for slightly tentative fans.

Will I be racing to read the sequel when it comes out? Probably not. Next time I want to read about courtly intrigue, I’ll finally get to reading Dark Triumph, the sequel to Robin LaFever’s Grave Mercy. That series about assassin nuns in medieval Brittany has excellent writing and a really smart grasp of history. That being said, The Queen Of The Tearling is a fast read with the potential to grow into a darkly enjoyable series.

Mini Review: At The Point Of A Cutlass by Gregory N. Flemming

A nonfiction book review?  Rather uncharted waters we’re in, eh?  Well, not entirely, but it’s true that I rarely read a nonfiction book cover-to-cover.  But when this one arrived at my bookshop, my fearless manager/Captain said that he’d ordered them with me in mind.  Of course I had to see what manner of swashbuckling was contained therein.  Here are a few of my thoughts on Gregory N. Flemming’s lovingly-researched pirate narrative.

At The Point Of A Cutlass follows the thrilling adventures of Philip Ashton, an unlucky fella who was kidnapped from his fishing vessel by pirates, forced to serve on their ships of lost souls, and eventually marooned on a Caribbean island.

Even though I almost always prefer fiction over fact, At The Point Of A Cutlass had enough anecdotal detail to keep me interested.   Facts and figures and numbers get all jumbled up in my brain, but good characters make a story come to life.  And shiver my timers, were there some unbelievable individuals in this here yarn!   The wicked captain Edward Low was one such menacing figure – behaving so badly as to chop off and roast pieces of his captives’ faces!  Pirates always needed able-bodied men to replenish their crews, so talented sailors were just as valuable as gunpowder and fresh water when they looted a vessel.   Given Low’s vicious reputation, it’s understandable why Phillip Ashton didn’t manage to take the noble way out of his predicament upon being captured and forced into the lawless life.

I feel like maybe there wasn’t quite enough information about “the pirate capture, bold escape, and lonely exile of Philip Ashton” to fill an entire book. As a result Greg Flemming filled out the pages with various anecdotal details about key players in the nautical history of the same place and period.  I’m really not complaining, because too many pirate stories will never be a problem in my reading adventures. I actually found the chapters detailing Ashton’s personal journey less interesting than the information about the various pirate crews who terrified the American East Coast during the Golden Age of Piracy.

(I was also reminded, while reading, that Cotton Mather was a complete asshole and one of my least favorite figures in New England’s history.  Medical proficiency aside, that guy needed to stop.)

Flemming introduces his readers to ambitious captains; desperate escapees; adventurous priests; and some hapless pawns in the early 18th century’s war on piracy.  We revisit the gallows multiple times in the course of the book, and now I’ve added Nixes Mate Island – a gibbeting site right near my own Boston harbor – and Rhode Island’s “Gravelly Point” to my list of morbid places to visit.

Pirate Captain Edward Low. source

Reading about ruthless pirates marauding my own neck of the woods as they sailed between Newfoundland and the Caribbean Islands was very encouraging to my own ambitions.  I’m actually quite surprised that the pirates Low, Lowther, and Spriggs aren’t more notorious nowadays.  Their methods of “coercion” puts modern-day frat boys to shame: captives had to eat plats of wax candles and run the gauntlet until they agreed to sign the ships’ articles, and that’s only one of the least-disfiguring punishments they practiced.  Not necessarily my style, but pretty exciting stuff. My attention waxed and waned a little as the book’s style switched capriciously between character-driven adventure stories and different subjects.  Nonetheless, At The Point Of A Cutlass was a pretty fast read which I’d recommend to anyone who likes swashbuckling history and adventure stories.

Star Ratings:

Subject: **** (4 stars)

Pacing: *** (3 stars)

Key Figures: ***** (5 stars)

Wiring: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

(My thoughts on the book were originally posted on my blog.)

Book Review: The Islands of Chaldea by Dianna Wynne Jones

Star Ratings (out of 5 stars):

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 8 and up

Just to say: I read an advanced readers’ copy of this book, so some details may have changed by publication.

The Islands of Chaldea is a middle grade fantasy adventure which was nearly completed by Dianna Wynne Jones before her death.  (I’m still not over that tragedy.  Waaahh.)  Her sister, Ursula Jones, put the finishing touches on the book. That being said, the story-telling and sense of magic absolutely feel like something out of a Dianna Wynne Jones book, full stop.  This is a stand-alone novel, so anyone can start reading it without having prior knowledge of Jones’s impressive bibliography, and there’s no unresolved ending to trample our souls.  The plot and world-building in The Islands of Chaldea aren’t quite as impressive as in some of my favorite D.W.J. books, but it was an enjoyable read and brought me back to happy days reading this sort of book in the library when I was a 5th grader.  Any book which would have made 5th grade Sarah happy makes 23 year old Sarah happy, too.

It’s a fairly traditional story, described with Dianna Wynne Jones’s beautiful language. Aileen’s aunt Beck is a wise-woman of Skarr, and young Aileen will be one too.  That is, she’s supposed to become a wise-woman someday. When she doesn’t witness any magical visions at her initiation it looks like she might not have any special powers after all.  There’s not much time to worry about that, though, because Aunt Beck and Aileen are soon sent on a quest by the high king: a voyage across the great magical barrier to the island of Logra, where the prince has been held captive.  In order to get across the barrier, which has separated Logra from the other islands for political reasons largely unknown, Beck and Aileen will have to bring one individual from each island with them on their quest.  Joined by Aileen’s favorite whiny prince; a castle servant who got left on the wrong side of the barrier; an invisible cat; a sprightly man with an omniscient bird; and some artistic distant cousins, Aileen and Aunt Beck will do their best to find the prince and finish their mission.  Along the way they meet mythical figures reminiscent to the Tuatha De Danann; suspicious sailors; and magical monks, all the while weird weather and strange luck greets them at every turn.  Too bad there are people who don’t want them to succeed at all.  People like evil enchanters and a queen who likes turning people into donkeys, but also someone from Skarr who may be hoping they don’t ever make it safely home.

The not-so-merry band of heroes cover an awful lot of ground on their quest, so it’s no surprise that the world-building in The Islands of Chaldea was a bit rushed.  However, the setting here is quite similar to what we encounter in so many fantasy stories – a magical land heavily influenced by European geography and mythology – so the brief encounters with faraway lands aren’t necessarily hard to imagine.  I like how Jones pushed the similarity between typical old-timey fantasy worlds and our own world to the point of obvious parallels; with Skarr being so very much like Scotland (plaids and all), Bernica’s green hills and Leprechauns as Ireland, and the other British Isles represented as well.  Each island has an animal spirit associated with it, and those guardians had wonderful personalities of their own.  Even though Aileen and her companions don’t get a chance to thoroughly explore each island on their way to Logra, their quick but memorable encounters do make a strong impression.  It could be the authors’ ability to boil down the essence of a place into a few anecdotes which keep the pace moving so swiftly, or it could just be the sense of familiarity which would strike any reader of similar fantastical children’s books.  The former option seems quite likely, though, especially given Jones’s legacy of creating wonderful fantasy worlds which always have a twist or two to keep them unique.  (The Dark Lord of Derkholm, for example, bends the magical land with traditional fantasy creatures rules so very amusingly with its Earthly tourists.)  Chaldea isn’t nearly so inventive as some of her other settings, but the story staged on these islands is a traditional, comfortable tale.  The recognizable landscapes, one after another, still seem magical because of the adventures they host and the wonderful characters who dwell there.

The plot was pretty detailed but not so complex as other DWJ books.  I think that The Islands of Chaldea is aimed at a slightly younger crowd than my favorites of hers.  Books like Fire and Hemlock are packed full of legendary references and fairy-tale traditions, but featuring twisty plots which are staggeringly unique.  Her earlier works are so rich in detail, they invite multiple re-readings and have almost always surprised me with something new even years later.  This book is more up front, and the twists are more predictable. Compared to the Chrestomanci books, which are good for a similar age range of readers, the plot of the first 300 pages in The Islands of Chaldea is a little tame. The last few chapters of the book threw a whole bunch of action and twists into relatively few pages.  Things get nicely resolved – perhaps they even fall into place a little too nicely – but I felt that the conclusion was rushed, with so much complexity appearing all of a sudden. It’s the writing and the characters which make it such a likeable fantasy book, then.  Because it really is likable.  The descriptions are lovely, feeding our imaginations with the sights, sounds, scents, and atmosphere of Aileen’s surroundings without straying from the young narrator’s believable point of view.

The characters are just so much fun.  I want to be Aunt Beck when I grow up.  She’s snappy and impressive and looks really great in plaid.  Her relationship with Aileen is brusque but caring, and when their authoritative roles get reversed due to a curse gone wrong halfway through the adventure I found the ensuing character development to be quite satisfying.  Prince Ivar and his teenaged servant Ogo are banterous and amusing; they act as nice foils to the girls’ attempts to keep things in relative order.  The animals have wonderful personalities, too, and the various travelers who join up on the quest ensure that things stay interesting along the way.  Alas, the villains were a little underdeveloped, mostly appearing in the already-rushed end of the novel.  But Aileen’s personal journey as she tunes in to her own powers and the magic of her lands is the real pulse of The Islands Of Chaldea, and not so much the results of the quest itself, and she becomes a very interesting young lady by the story’s end.

I would say that it was an enjoyable escape into a good old-fashioned fantasy world, and will appeal to fans of Dianna Wynne Jones who still aren’t ready to say goodbye.  New readers will probably like The Islands of Chaldea as well, especially anyone who likes wise women who don’t stand for any nonsense (fans of Morwen in Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles, for example), or likes the traveling bits of high fantasy more than the political entanglements.  For older readers who want something a little more challenging and inventive, I would recommend Fire and HemlockHowl’s Moving Castle, or The Dark Lord of Derkholm. Really, pick up anything by the late and very great Dianna Wynne Jones, and you’ll have a magical experience ahead of you.  She was one of the best.

Book Review: Pointe by Brandy Colbert

source: goodreads

Star Ratings (out of 5):

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 and up.

Pointe is Brandy Colbert’s debut novel: a realistic YA story focusing on a kidnapping. And ballet. And eating disorders. And high school. It’s about Theo, who had to face the challenges of the dance world and recovery without her best friend, ever since Donovan disappeared when they were thirteen. At first she thought Donovan might have just run away, only a few days after her boyfriend left without saying goodbye, which was confusing enough on its own. But years went by and when he didn’t return, Theo had to agree with everyone else that he must have been kidnapped.

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But all of a sudden, in her junior year, Donovan returns to the neighborhood. Between the media frenzy and the rush of memories about their mysterious last conversation so many years ago, Theo’s nerves are understandably frayed. Donovan won’t speak – about his kidnapping or anything else – and he won’t even see her. Theo’s life gets very hectic very quickly. At school, all her friends have opinions about the Donovan case, and old memories won’t stay buried. At ballet, the new pianist (who happens to be her friends’ dealer and a casual acquaintance from school) has broken the wall between Theo’s two separate worlds of dance and everything else. And when a new development in the identity of Donovan’s kidnapper comes to light, Theo has no choice but to question everything that happened between them when she was thirteen. Time is running out to separate memories from self-delusions, because the trial’s coming up and her testimony could change everything. With her own future in ballet to consider and uncertainty about Donovan’s experience weighing heavy on her mind, pressure from every aspect of Theo’s life threatens to take a toll on her physical health as well as her grasp on what has made her who she is.

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So, Pointe had a lot going on in it. There were so many subjects Colbert chose to deal with, I was worried that certain threads of the plot would have to be abandoned for the conclusion to work. And it’s true that the focus did jump around a little to much in the first few chapters of the novel. We read about Theo’s love fer dance, her recent experience at a recovery center for her anorexia, they dynamics of her friend group, and some intriguing hints about her previous relationships with Donovan and her ex.

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I was especially worried that the eating disorder would drop out of the picture without being thoroughly discussed, if not resolved. Too many YA books describe a character as anorexic as an easy fix; just to supply a set of pre-formed judgements to otherwise under-developed character traits. Other books glamorize the notion of starving one’s self past the point of fragility. As someone who has experienced firsthand how un-glamorous and challenging anorexia really is, I was relieved to see that the triggers and emotional responses were considered throughout all the external drama. Theo’s thoughts about food were certainly skewed, but since the majority of Pointe is told in the present tense of a first person point of view, her own rationalizations and justifications go hand-in-hand with all the unpleasant symptoms. Because the disordered thought patterns are so accurately portrayed – Theo works hard to hide her relapse and ignores the danger she’s in – I would caution anyone struggling with their own recovery against reading Pointe until such thoughts get a good bit of objective distance. Otherwise the whole eating issue was treated fairly well, though I do think that there could have been a few more details about the nasty physical repercussions of Theo’s self-enforced restrictions, just to remind readers now and then that it’s really awful to have your body eat itself out of desperation. Maybe that would have been veering near the edge of preaching, though, and Pointe strives (pretty successfully) to stay away from any obvious moral lessons in favor of a real, honest attitude towards the multitude of dilemmas.

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What about the other dilemmas, then? The most gripping layer of Pointe’s premise was always going to be the kidnapping, though the angle might be different than some readers expect. The victim himself doesn’t feature as an active character even when he returns. He appears in Theo’s memories and thoughts way more often than he does in the flesh, so we get a unique spin on the abduction narrative. I really liked how Theo couldn’t be sure whether Donovan meant to disappear or not, and refused to make a judgement for years until she could get a clearer picture of his intentions. Her reaction to learning that the suspect is someone she knows is actually the pivotal revelation in that storyline, not Donovan’s return. This twist ensures that Pointe continues to be a book about Theo more than anyone else: her own tangled past, her own conflicting fears, and her own big decisions. Big questions about consent and maturity get pulled into the limelight, but since most of the discussions about these topics come from teenaged characters talking naturally amongst themselves, Colbert has resisted the trap of letting Pointe turn into one of those books where problems are either fixed or trivialized with too much external intervention.

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The characters in general are pretty excellent, and nicely varied. One or two individuals were too over-the-top for my tastes: too slimy with money or unbearably vapid, but these weak links were mostly just the minor characters who filtered in and out of Theo’s school surroundings. Her closest friends were very likable, with witticisms a’plenty but also showing true friendly concern even when she doesn’t think she needs their help. I liked the portrayal of Theo’s family: her parents are mostly supportive and she clearly doesn’t want to hurt them with her own struggles. There can still be conflict and secrets without every adult functioning as the enemy, and Colbert showed that nicely. I also admired the fact that Theo and her parents are one of the only black families in their neighborhood, and while this obviously impacts her life, race never becomes her sole defining feature. She’s a ballerina who happens to be black, just like she’s a young girl who happens to struggle with a disorder, and a teenager who happens to have a secret. Three damn cheers for dancers of color taking center stage – and for popular YA novels with main characters of color, in general. I hope Pointe gets a whole lot of readers (and subsequently, publishers, etc) realizing that it’s easy to relate to any character who is written skillfully and who can illicit our sympathy. On that note, too, the ballet scenes are interesting without descending into insider-jokes and the like. I haven’t had one ballet-themed thought since I was about eleven, but rather than going on technical tangents the sport is just described as Theo’s artistic passion, and passion is – I hope – fairly universal.

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The pages of Pointe are absolutely stuffed with drama and angst, but the main character’s earnest struggles are what make it so readable. You could honestly take away the sometimes-melodramatic romantic entanglement, which didn’t add much to the story. I would have liked to read a little more about Donovan’s family and a little less about high-school assholes. But all in all I got thoroughly wrapped up in Colbert’s story, and read the book in pretty much one go. Read Pointe if you like realistic YA with true-to-life main characters. Theo doesn’t run around speaking in poetical jargon, and there are no tragic one-liners here. It’s a good book for anyone who likes the drama of mysteries but without the sleuthing, too.

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I would suggest that anyone under the age of 13 think carefully before reading this one, because the topics of anorexia, sexual assault, and drug dealing are portrayed quite frankly and without any tiptoe-ing around the harsh facts. Any ballerinas read Pointe? Please tell me what you thought of it, since I’m not familiar with that world. In the end, this was a really exciting debut novel and I love how Brandy Colbert pushed her material into new and different directions. You can bet I’ll be reading anything she might write in the future.

Book Review: Talker 25 by Joshua McCune

Star Ratings (out of 5):

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Writing: **1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Age range recommendation: 12 and up

In the not-too-distant future, America has a dragon problem.  No one knows how or why they arrived, but the enormous creatures destroy towns and eat humans.  The medieval fears weren’t myths after all, but instead of knights in metal armor, mankind now faces the threat with special military divisions and dragon-slaying reality TV.

Sporty, sullen Melissa Callahan has always hated the dragons; they killed her mother and present a constant threat to her military town.  When some friends convince her to join them on a prank – breaking into the “rez” and taking photos with the big blue dragon there – she unwittingly sets off a chain of events which will jeopardize her family’s lives and shatter her illusions about the war between man and monster.  Melissa can hear the dragons talking, and it’s hard to see a creature as nothing but scales and teeth when it knows your name and wants to chat.  Soon enough, she finds herself set up, trapped, and caught in a battle between a group of renegade pro-dragon insurgents and the military “D-men.”  Both sides want to exploit her talents as a “talker,” and every choice seems to drag Melissa deeper into moral quandary of deceit, double-dealing, and political turmoil.

This debut YA novel caught my attention for several reasons.  Most importantly, it’s been too long since I read a great new dragon book for teenagers.  I’ve got old favorites from elementary and middle school, and there are obviously some exciting adult fantasy books with plenty of dragon action. But what with the futuristic bent of Young Adult literature these days, my scaly friends have been unjustly ignored.  So when an action-packed, modern dragon story came into my sights, you can bet I sank my claws right into it.

I was also intrigued by the concept of dragons in America, set on a “reservation”, inaccurately thinking that this would be a story which featured Native American protagonists as well as dragons.  It’s old news that fiction for children and teens still needs way more diversity amongst characters and authors. A mythology largely inspired by European folklore transported to a modern American reservation could have been a really excellent blending of worlds, if written well.  Alas, though certain characters could conceivably have Native American heritage, the “reservations” had nothing to do with tribal lands.  The military-suburban town where Melissa lives and attends school is fairly commonplace for white suburbia, except for the fact that everything is painted black (since dragons have trouble seeing that color when looking from the sky for prey) and everyone’s parents are professionally invested in some sort of national security. The later settings of the novel — which include rugged secret hideaways, unreal reality TV sets, and terrifyingly remote military camps — are much more exciting than Melissa’s hometown but strangely less vivid.  McCune’s descriptive style definitely lost steam as Talker 25 progressed, though the plot was charged enough to keep me interested in how things would turn out.

My favorite part of Talker 25 was unquestionably the dragons themselves.  All the flying around and inter-species alliances were interesting enough, like a more inventive Eragon (with much better writing).  But it was the different voices for each draconian character, and the various personalities Melissa encountered as she navigated the frightening world as a “talker”, which really made a good impression.  Conversations between Melissa and the of-course-he’s-handsome rebel lad who befriends her sounded very canned  now and then.  Even amongst military personnel and the rock-stars of the dragon slaying media, dialogue felt stunted at times.  Luckily, this is not the case with the dragons.  Some really are bloodthirsty nightmares full of spiteful fire.  Some are old and tired, just wanting to be left in peace on their comfortable mountain tops.  Fans of Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles will be pleased to meet more than a few devastatingly sarcastic creatures.  A few young dragons can only communicate through feelings and physical expression, and one baby in particular will probably win the hearts of even the most skeptical readers.  Human characters’ bonds with various dragon are significantly more emotional than their bonds with each other, in this book.  Maybe in the coming sequels I will care more about Melissa’s discoveries about her family, and perhaps in further books the fraught romantic elements might make a little more sense.  But based on McCune’s debut, I hope that he plays to his strength in future writing and gives us a lot more dragon dialogue and fewer formulaic human characters.

People will definitely be touting Talker 25 as “The Hunger Games with dragons,” and it’s not an entirely inaccurate label. This book checks off several themes which are getting pretty repetitive in popular, futuristic YA fiction. The violence against conscripted young people; the omnipresent government spooks; the teenagers working under captivity; the gore and mental trauma; even the shock-factor reality TV angle are all present here.  I found several of these elements to be rather unnecessary, though they did make way for some big plot points in the second half of the book, when style and pacing started to lag and something had to keep the story going.

Even though Talker 25 has trouble containing McCune’s energetic ideas, and despite some flaws with style and pacing, I had lots of fun reading this new futuristic YA adventure story.  It was gritty and stressful, and I’m intrigued enough to think that I’ll try to read the inevitable sequel.  My advice to would-be readers is this: try to see this debut novel as a modern fantasy story instead of just another grim teenage thriller with the odd magical creature thrown in.  If you focus on the dragons and the fresh take on knights training  for battle, then the gratuitous make-over scenes and underdeveloped government goons might just fade into background noise.  Because the dragons are great and the concept is fun. If you’re after an exciting series with a few unexpected twists then give McCune a try.  Ever since finishing the book I’ve been gravitating towards my collection of great dragon books from a decade ago, and if this starts a new scaly trend in YA fiction I’ll be happier than a hungry wyvern in a field full of slow-moving cattle.

Book Review: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

source: goodreads

I often wonder if I’m in danger of becoming a fairy-tale villain. I don’t like little children. I’m greedy, I’m selfish, and I occasionally think about cursing people into small amphibians or enchanted sleeps. Like Boy, the main character in Helen Oyeyemi’s new novel, I spend an awful lot of my time looking in mirrors. It was fascinating to watch Boy’s progression from abused daughter to possibly evil stepmother, especially since it’s easy to see how we might follow the same path if we were in her place.

It’s 1953 and Boy Novak has run away from her abusive father, the rat catcher, in New York City.  She chooses to make her home in a Massachusetts town peopled by skilled craftsmen despite her lack of any artistic occupation. The magazine quizzes tell Boy that she might be frigid, and there are times when mirrors seem to enchant her while she sees truer reflections of herself walking across the street, invisible to everyone else. It takes Boy a little while to get her bearings, though she’d never admit this to the characters who try to befriend her, but eventually she puts a past love behind her and marries a teacher-turned-jeweler; a widower with a stunning little daughter whom Boy can never quite figure out. “[Snow] was poised and sympathetic, like a girl who’d just come from the future but didn’t want to brag about it.” (p 71) Just as Boy starts to grow comfortable in Flax Hill with Arturo’s family the Whitmans (that’s right: Snow Whitman and her stepmother…) she gives birth to a little girl of her own. Snow is the one to suggest the name Bird, and Bird grows into an inquisitive and lively young teenager who does the name justice. Bird also comes out brown skinned, which exposes the Whitmans as having Black ancestry in the not so distant genetic past. They might live in a fairly accepting Northern town, but this is still 1950s America, so everyone is pretty shocked when Boy chooses to send Snow away to stay with Arturo’s estranged sister and her more obviously  Black husband instead of Bird. Thus begins Boy’s transformation into something of an evil stepmother, something of a protective mother despite the cultural obstacles, and something of a confused fairy tale heroine in her own right. As family secrets get tangled into legend or pulled out into the open, a realistic portrayal of self preservation versus difficult truths mixes with the stuff of bedtime stories to create a touching and clever novel which enthralled me completely.

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of re-told fairy tales. I like stories which are fairly obvious in their parallels and I also like mostly-original novels which follow an understated pattern of fairy tale logic and contain hidden references along the way. Oyeyemi has borrowed the fairest-of-them-all conflict, the child-sent-away plot catalyst, and the magical qualities of names for her novel. She has sprinkled her tale of new beginnings and re-shaped families with references to “Snow White,” most obviously, but also a whole library of other myths and legends.

That being said, Boy, Snow, Bird is not really a fantasy novel. I mean, there are no dwarves and no magic apples, but there’s also no concrete suggestion that all this talk about curses or fate might be truly serious. Maybe the fact that all three title characters don’t show up in mirrors, sometimes, should be read as pure metaphor. Maybe Boy Novak runs away from her vicious father with the grim profession to a secluded town just because the time is right, and not because she’s following the well-trodden path of all those girls who struck out, cursed, for unknown lands in the storied traditions before her. Maybe Bird can’t really talk to spiders. Maybe the mystical powers girls like Snow and Sidonie hold over boys – regardless of race in such a racially aware time – comes from something within them that isn’t so much magical as genetic or psychological. Who knows? All I know is that Helen Oyeyemi did a marvelous job integrating some of my favorite themes and traditions into her writing. Every few pages, I have passages underlined in pencil or sticky notes pointing out of my copy of the book, marking my favorite references both obvious and minute. I bet there are plenty I’ve missed, too. There were connections with the German and English tales we’re all quite used to, but also some references to the Black American legends of John the Conqueror and the more Romantic poem Goblin Market; mixed allusions are hidden all over the place and I wanted to high-five Oyeyemi from afar every time I noticed one of my favorite obscure little legends.

Aside from the layer of magical motifs which embellished Boy, Snow, Bird, there were several other aspects which rather enchanted me. Yes, the characters were memorable – though I thought that the male characters were distinctly less developed than the vivid female ones – and the setting made a nice stage for the volatile time period in which the story takes place. (It was pretty odd to read about a fictional New England town which was meant to be less than an hour away from mine. Every time the characters went to Worcester I couldn’t help but picture the streets and restaurants I’ve personally encountered.) But it was the way that certain characters interacted with each other and learned to distrust their first, second, third impressions which really caught my attention. When Bird gets work as a coat check girl on a party cruise simply because she’s got blonde hair – the 1950s were absurd – and strikes up a friendship with Mia, who masquerades as a blonde to write an article about the whole shindig, there’s a bit of foreshadowing there for the bigger disguises which will reveal themselves in time.  All clever plotting aside, it was entertaining to watch their friendship develop, and to see how Mia’s doggedly inquisitive personality rubbed against Boy’s challenging one. The bookshop owner who later employs Boy is an ornery old English lady who turns out to be full of little surprises, not the least of which being her patience and understanding to the three precocious young black children who spend their afternoons reading at the shop instead of going to school.  Since Boy, Snow, Bird is a novel which focuses on race, I was glad to see these kids through the eyes of a lady who has absolutely no time for racist nonsense. Think Aunt Eleanor from Inkheart, dispensing thoughtful advice about theoretical curses rather than facing down real magical villains. The supporting cast of ladies, including those who had ugly pieces of their souls hidden away, were as carefully characterized as they were diverse. I didn’t really mind the fact that Boy’s husband and the other menfolk weren’t so interesting. They just seemed more realistic, less complex, a little drab; and maybe that’s part of what made the book seem to follow Anderson’s and the Grimms’ formulas. The honest woodcutters (or jeweler, in this case) and the kingly fathers rarely have any clue what’s going on under their noble, hardworking noses. It’s the women and children who notice the threats in nature and in their own reflections.

My favorite interaction to witness was probably the correspondence between the nearly grown up Snow and her half-sister Bird in the middle section of the book, which was told from Bird’s perspective. We get such a romanticized picture of Snow from Boy’s chapters – not always in a good way – that it’s hard to see her as a real person for the first half of the narrative. But she finally gets to have a bit of her own voice in the letters she exchanges with Bird, who doesn’t have any set opinion of this beautiful but incomprehensible girl just yet. “I don’t think Mother Nature likes us much,” Snow writes to her sister once they finally make contact. “If she did, she wouldn’t make the things that are deadliest so beautiful.” (p 230) It’s observations like that one which turn Snow into more than just a beautiful concept against which other characters can hurl their dreams and prejudices and insecurities. For all that Boy finds herself at internal odds with her stepdaughter once her own daughter is born, this is an observation which sounds like it could have come straight out of Boy’s head.

The conflicted stepmother and the fairest of them all aren’t so different, and in the end I read every one of their own encounters with my breath held a little, waiting to see if there would be violence, or tears, or retribution, or forgiveness. This book isn’t a fairy tale, it just shows us a picture of diverse life half a century ago through the window of the folklore we recognize, so no one falls asleep after eating a poisoned apple. The forgiveness and acceptance we seek while reading Boy, Snow, Bird does come to pass in the end, up to a point. But it’s a fraught road to get there, and you can’t be quite certain that things won’t soon tumble back into the deceptive, treacherous world of hidden identities and quiet manipulations. I’m choosing to hope that there might be a happy ending for Boy, Snow, and Bird, though, because I grew attached to all three of them. Even if true happiness isn’t an option, I closed the book wishing that they might survive whatever harrowing journey through the woods they three had embarked upon together.

Star Ratings

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing : ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 stars)

Book Review: Bird by Crystal Chan

source; goodreads

I had absolutely no idea what to expect with Bird when I sat down to read it over the weekend.  It could have been a ghost story.  It could have been a heart-wrenching tale of family tragedy.  It could have been silly, or mystical, or preachy, or boring.  I chose to just dive right in and see what happened.  Bird not a terribly long book, and as it’s written for middle grade readers I was able to get through it in one evening.  It turned out to be quite different from any of those adjectives, though I’m not sure which ones would fit better.  Personal, maybe, or truthful, or heartfelt.  I don’t usually like to use the term heartfelt.  It sounds sentimental most of the time.  But this is the sort of book you feel in your heart, though I was happy that the author doesn’t try too hard to reach inside your chest and prod that bloody muscle into pieces.  Jewel’s narration is poignant enough without much meddling.  Even though Bird had its slow moments and got a little introspective for my tastes, I found myself watching Jewel’s family and friendships build themselves up from near breaking with devoted interest, and cheering inwardly for every small victory along the way.

Jewel’s grandfather didn’t murder her older brother John, but he did give him the nickname “Bird” and joke that the little boy could fly.  So, when Bird actually did jump from a cliff and die — at the same hour as Jewel’s birth — Grandpa got the blame.  Jewel’s dad believes that his father called unwanted attention from duppies, which are ghosts and tricky spirits common to their native Jamaican folklore, by bestowing the unusual nickname.  Now Jewel is twelve and her home is still rife with silence and tension, so many years after the accident.  Her grandpa hasn’t spoken a word since Bird died, and the old man exudes anger and sadness from behind his closed door and closed mouth.  Jewel’s father insists that she learn about duppies and how to avoid them, while her mother insists that spirits don’t exist and wishes Jewel would focus on the real world.  So much goes unsaid in Jewel’s household, it’s no wonder she sometimes feels like Bird’s memory matters more than she does; the living sister who never met her brother but feels his presence everywhere.

When Jewel meets a boy named John perched in her favorite tree, she can’t decide if it’s coincidence, fate, or something a little magical which has brought them together.  John claims to be staying with his uncle in the small town, but some details of his story are puzzling and vague.  His appearance quickly catches the attention of everyone in Jewel’s family.  Her mother really smiles for the first time in many years when she talks to Jewel’s new friend.  Her father gets suspicious.  And Grandpa gets furious,vigorously duppy-proofing the house and making it clear that John’s not welcome near his family. But John understands Jewel’s passion for geology — a passion her family disregards entirely– and together they manage to have fun in the moment rather than dwelling on tragedy.  So she isn’t ready to give up her new-found friendship just because the grandfather who has never spoken to her sees a trickster ghost in John’s appearance.  Nor is she willing to question the strange discrepancies in John’s stories about himself, until it might be too late to ask.

Bird is a story about belonging and forgiveness.  As Jewel and her family try to work through the memories which are burdening their present, Crystal Chan shows how what we choose to believe in can change the way we see life, the afterlife, and the people who make life worth living in the first place.

For all its talk of ghosts and untimely demises, Bird is not a fantasy at all, nor is it much of a wild ride.  The entire tone is resolutely true to life, which makes Jewel’s father and grandfather even more interesting as characters when they dwell on the superstitions of their heritage.  I think that one of my favorite things about Bird was the inclusion of Jamaican folklore, and the way it blended or clashed with reality.  The writing might be realism, but names hold just as much power here as they do in fairy-tales, and there’s always a little hope of magical intervention as long as characters believe in it.

Jewel’s mother is partially Hispanic, but doesn’t speak Spanish, and her father is Jamaican, so our young heroine sort of stands out in her Midwestern town.  Chan handled the mix of cultures pretty well; all the vivid details about heritage served to give the characters memorable personalities rather than just appearing like forced “fun facts” scattered throughout the text.  Jewel’s mixed race background in a predominantly white town was mentioned with a matter-of-fact and candid honesty I very much liked about the character.

John, too, voices some really poignant observations about the nature of belonging.  In the way he brushes off any awkward questions about his being adopted by a white family, and then the true frustration which he eventually reveals, the novel shows that even kids whose parents pay them plenty of attention can feel legitimately alienated.  One moment which really stuck out to me was when John explained to Jewel that he acts cheerful and nonchalant about his background because no one wants to hear his real opinion about it.  There’s a lot in Bird about how hard it is to live up to adults’ warped expectations, especially when you’re young and full of life with not enough living going on around you.

At the same time, the hardships grown-ups have to face are treated fairly.  When Jewel and her Grandpa finally find a way to communicate, I felt a weight lift off my shoulders, a weight I didn’t even realize had descended upon me while I read.  Grandpa was definitely my favorite character, even though he wasn’t very likable for the majority of the book.  For a man of very few words, he had such an emotional history and it was wonderful to watch Jewel’s perceptions of him change over the course of the novel.

Bird is a sort of quiet, detailed, sensitive novel.  Kids who need action and peril to hold their interest in a story would find it hard to race through the pages.  There’s death, and a few near-misses, but not much in the way of swashbuckling or saving the world.  Instead, Jewel and John and the small cast of other characters are trying to salvage and re-build their own little worlds, pursuits which are equally important.  Fans Kate DiCamillo’s more serious books and Sharon Creech will enjoy Bird, and follow Jewel’s discoveries with sympathy and interest.  I’m recommending it to thoughtful kids and to their parents, too, because Bird is full of moments which shed light on how the living — and the dead — from very different generations sometimes struggle to see things as they truly are.

Star Ratings

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ***** ( 5 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing : **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 9 and up.

Valentine’s Day Special: Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

source: goodreads

Daniel Handler, please be my Valentine.  There’s not a single damn thing you’ve written that I don’t love.  This includes the new picture book 29 Myths On The Swinster Pharmacy, which was authored by some suspicious bloke named Lemony Snicket. (Snicket writes an awful lot like Handler.)  But today is Valentine’s Day, so here is a love story which implodes spectacularly before Valentine’s Day even comes around.  Talk about good timing!  But honestly, I don’t like romantic stories very much, so this is the best I could do upon remembering the date.  February 14th?  So that explains the sudden, raging success of Junie B Jones And The Mushy Gushy Valentine at my shop.  (If I had to give a more thematic recommendation, that would be the one.  Can’t go wrong with Junie B, but Daniel Handler is even better.)

Min Green and Ed Slaterton aren’t necessarily made for each other, but they fall in love and stumble around through a passionate high school romance until – quelle surprise! – they break up.  The book begins at the end of their story: Min is returning a box of relics from their relationship, and what we read is her long letter to Ed that goes with it.  Maira Kalman’s illustrations of each object – items like a file which meant to be baked into a cake, a weird spiky seed-pod thing, and a meaningful box of matches – are simple and interesting and make the reading process rather a joy.  Ed’s the basketball team co-captain.  His friends are jerks and he goes through life with the blinders of popular-senior-boy success blocking out a great deal of his surroundings.  Min has long been part of those surroundings, obsessed with old movies and drinking fancy coffee with her artsy friends.  But, she insists, she’s not actually artsy. She’s not good at art.  She doesn’t make good grades or like beer very much.  Yet, somehow, she and Ed start talking at a party. They start to date, stalk a possible movie star, insult each other’s friends, behave explicitly in parks, tell each other secrets, give each other weird gifts, and eventually break up.  Min’s bitter, tender, stream-of-consciousness letter is like one very long Tumblr quote, in the best of ways.  Open up to any page and you’ll come across something like this:

“And it wasn’t just us. It wasn’t just that we were high school, me a junior and you a senior, with our clothes all wrong for restaurants like this, too bright and too rumpled and too zippered and too stained and too slapdash and awkward and stretched and trendy and desperate and casual and unsure and baggy and sweaty and sporty and wrong.”

or this

“There are so many movies like this, where you thought you were smarter than the screen but the director was smarter than you, of course he’s the one, of course it was a dream, of course she’s dead, of course, it’s hidden right there, of course it’s the truth and you in your seat have failed to notice in the dark.”

It’s a surprisingly heartfelt story, and I don’t have much of a heart with which to feel.

Why We Broke Up is probably the most mainstream of Daniel Handler’s books: it distills all the sublime dialogue and weird adolescent energy so prevalent in The Basic Eight into something more realistic. In The Basic Eight, the teenaged characters are extravagant, and their lives go totally nuts as the plot gets weirder and weirder.  (Read my review of The Basic Eight here.  It was my favorite book I read in 2013.)   The opposite seems to be the case in Why We Broke Up.  Stylistically, the books are similar.  You’ll recognize your favorite weird Handler/Snicket-isms sprinkled throughout.  Big words.  Pretentious drinks.  Vintage pop culture.  Interesting food.  But Min, Ed, and the other characters just feel so vividly real, so tragically similar to the people you encounter on a daily basis – just with better one-liners.  Even the minor characters are excellent, and perfectly evoke the awkward balance teenagers almost always fail to strike between love, family, and friends.  And, since they’re minor characters in Daniel Handler’s capable hands, you know they’ll be witty and judgmental and possess obscure talents.  In this particular book, though, teenagers are distinctly teenagers even when they’re making igloos out of cubed eggs for an aging film star’s secret birthday party.

My favorite part of the book?  They steal a sugar dispenser at one point, to make a cake which requires stolen sugar.  That’s just one of the Various Fictional Details which make Why We Broke Up an indespensable part of the Handler/Snicket universe I love so much.  Adults in this book are almost entirely useless, and that never fails to make me happy.  We’ve got kids navigating the treacherous world of romantic nonsense guided only by their disobedient hearts and terrible judgement.  We’ve got nerdy references and sordid affairs. If you want more nerdy references and sordid affairs, check out the Why We Broke Up Project, in which many of my favorite writers and some hapless readers share their own tales of heartbreak, woe, and bad music.  Isn’t that what this holiday is all about?  So happy Valentine’s Day, readers.  Don’t screw it up.

Star Ratings for Why We Broke Up

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4  stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 and up