It's one of my favorite times of the year - kids' book awards! I waited with baited breath for the new Printz and Newbury winners and the resulting pile of spanking new stories to discover. I started with the Printz winner, MidwinterBLOOD, by Marcus Sedgwick, and oh, what delicious fun!
Multiple, seemingly unrelated tales spanning thousands of years but that nevertheless all take place on the same island with two repeating character names slowly reveal themselves as the stories of the multiple lives of two star-crossed lovers that culminate in their final breaths. And even throws in a vampire and a WW II aviator.
This sort of storytelling mesmerizes me. It takes the short story and incorporates it into novel length. It's a two for one that cleverly takes short stories arcs and layers them into a longer, overall novel arc. It's pretty cool how Sedgwick pulls that off. How he takes elements in one story and reworks them, nevertheless expanding and revealing backstory in another about those elements, and the two characters they revolve around.
There were a few stories in the set that I understood less quickly and had to reread, but I'd say this is a reread all the way around, it's that rich with story and new author tools to tell story.
For other stories that will put a spring in your step before we tumble forward this weekend (hopefully out of the snow and into the flowers!) check out Barrie Summy's site. Happy reading!
I got hooked on graphic novels when my second daughter was diagnosed with a convergence defect. This basically means that her eyes do not move from object to object at the same time. One is a little behind the other, which makes focusing an interesting challenge...and reading, a nightmare. While she went through eye therapy, I attacked the reading challenge. I tried a Kindle so she could increase letter size. I tried easy readers. But it was graphic novels that did the trick. The minimum amount of text, yet sophisticated story line with artful, detailed illustration helped her become the reader she is today. And has made a graphic novel junkie out of both of us.
Yang's most recent masterpiece, Boxers and Saints, looks at opposing faces of war, specifically the Boxer Rebellion in China during the late 1800s, depicting both sides in characters we grow to love and empathize with, and then leave us wondering how two such deep, passionate individuals can hate each other so profoundly. The story also gives explanation as to why the Boxer Rebellion occurred, what happens when cultures clash, why both sides had their reasons for going to war. It never ceases to amaze me how a book format with so few words can do so much.
Overall, I find the prose in graphic novels less inspiring than the illustrations. It's rawer, less refined, and I may seriously be missing the boat. It may be necessary for the text to be less artful so as not to overwhelm the text. Is this the nature of heavy dialogue - which graphic novels tend to be - that and transitional text, i.e. meanwhile, back at the ranch... Still, if you've got a recommendation for a graphic novel where the text
is as breathtaking as the illustrations, please pass it on. Maybe one of these days I'll understand words well enough to collaborate with them effectively in any format. Here's hoping!
I thought about doing this book set in Russia in February since the coldest days I've ever spent in the world were in Russia in February, but this story is too good to wait a month.
So here we go!
If you love dogs, if you love conflict, and if you love visions, you'll love Lara's Gift. The basic premise - Lara, daughter of the kennel master for an aristocratic breeder of borzoi in Russia living shortly before the Russian Revolution wants to grow up to become the kennel master, an almost unheard of feat, given she is a girl. She also has prescient visions about the dogs, which, given the role Rasputin and his "visions" played in Russian politics makes for a dangerous situation for Lara.
The story begins with the birth of a litter and Lara's vision about the runt, Zar, her father would put down. Lara convinces him otherwise, but in return she must raise the dog, a challenge she readily accepts. Flash forward 3 years and Zar's and Lara's stories begin to unfold together as her family attempts to prepare her for marriage, but her visions of Zar begin to come true, putting him, her, and other dogs in the kennel in danger.
Spoiler alert (for all of you who love books about dogs, or have readers who do, but worry about the dead dog factor) - This book does have a dead dog, BUT, it's not Zar, and it's also not a dog we really come to care about, which makes it a lot more bearable.
The setting of this book is such a breath of fresh air in kidlit. Russia! How many children's books are set in Russia?!? Culturally, it's a smorgasbord of other. Also, it's way more accessible for the slightly older audience, who enjoy Russian literature but, say, gave up after 500 pages into War and Peace and called a truce.
Stylistically, O'Brien interweaves multiple, related plots with ease. Her characters are genuine, believable and interesting. And she is gifted in her ability to make a foreign culture so accessible. At the climax, however, I felt the emotional conflict inside Lara gave way to pragmatism perhaps a little too easily. Without spoiling the ending, let me say (rather vaguely), Lara's sacrifice isn't given enough emotional weight, which diminishes what would otherwise have been a far more bittersweet (Russian?) and satisfying ending for me.
I understand the O'Brien's plot choice. The audience isn't predominantly an adult one. How far can we go as children's writers to do justice to the emotional reality of choices without overwhelming our younger audience?
Full disclosure - I know Annemarie from my MFA at Vermont College; however, I was not solicited to write a review and purchased this book with my own rubles.
I don't know about you but picking out holiday presents for the men in my life is like going fishing. I never know if I'm going to land a keeper, or... a guppie. The Dog Stars is THE guy book of the year, and by guy, I mean, actual manly men who do manly things. Not only that, once your giftee finishes, you can mine the book for all kinds of thought-provoking writer tricks.
So, without further ado, basic premise: Man vs. Nature, Man, and Himself. Use this as your lead line when said present is unpacked. It will hook 'em. When asked for further details by other (likely female) interested parties - Hig, a survivor of a pandemic flu that wipes out the known human race, retreats to the community, now deserted, around the air strip where he keeps his plane, with his dog, Jasper (warning, Jasper is old), and fights to survive. He makes an ally, who is a weapons master. They are attacked by unfriendlies. Hig eventually leaves to find more survivors, cue - Eve.
This book has got everything a guy reader could want - guns, planes, dogs, fishing, hunting, fighting for survival, Adam and Eve (note: this is NOT a kids' book), even poetry. Didn't see that coming, right? Neither did I, but Heller uses it boldly and uses it well.
What can the writer can take away from this piece? Heller is a poet, so the very style of word on page is as unique as a fingerprint. Rules of grammar aren't just bent or broken, they've been reinvented. For instance, Heller uses no italics to set off dialogue. Often, he doesn't even set it off at all. That made reading, at times, a little harder. It also, for me, distanced the story from the here and now. On the other hand, his overall style came across as journaling, so for some, it could make the telling more intimate. At the very least, not using "quotation marks" is a very nifty tool, if you can figure out how to use it. I'm still working on that part.
For more great stocking stuffers, bob over to Barrie Summy's site, and stock up for a very Happy New Year!
The Very Nearly Honorable
League of Pirates
Book 1: Magic Marks the Spot
by Caroline Carlson
To say I have been waiting for this book's release like a dog waiting for a mouthwatering steak is, well, an understatement. Caroline and I were fellow classmates at Vermont College. Go Extraordinary League of Cheese Sandwiches!
I had the awesome pleasure of getting to hear an excerpt of Magic Marks the Spot during our last residency. To say the deck was stacked in favor of my liking this book is to state the obvious. But don't let my bias sway you (much :-) My girls were there too, and they were literally lining up to buy the not-yet-sold ms before the reading was over.
This is one of those books you dream about coming along. The one you'd dearly love to write and happily disappear in when you found someone else has.
Basic plot: Hilary wants to be a pirate. Her father, the admiral, is for obvious reasons grandly opposed. Her mother, a member of high society, is swooningly opposed. Hilary's magical gargoyle, and sidekick, is swashbuckingly not. The two escape boarding school to try out their piratical-ness on the high seas and find adventure galore.
Got your google browser open to download a copy?
Carlson keeps the reader magically entertained while at the same choosing Pirates of the Caribbean humor over blood and gore, which, for young readers, is such a godsend. There is no persisting nightmares in which dementors chase said child, or take up residence in her closet (which happened many many nights to my youngest after we read one of the Harry Potter books). Instead, there is laughter and merriment and general tomfoolery all around.
From a writer's perspective, admittedly, the lack of gore and ever present possibility of sudden death gentles the emotional ride for readers. At the same time, a young reader isn't emotionally put through the ringer either.
If for no other reason than authorly curiosity, read the story and ask yourself, what does this mean to have a plot that doesn't hinge on pain of death, but rather, uses humor to skirt the darkness that could overwhelm? It's definitely had me thinking for a long long while.
While I sit in my ivory tower and mull, check out Barry Summy's website for an autumnal gourd o' reading plenty!
With the movie quickly approaching, I got my hands on a copy of this almost cultish book. As a kid, I gobbled up science fiction - Dune, anything by Mary Stewart, Martian Chronicles, every Stars Wars book ever written. But Ender's Game came out way after my science fiction phase. I was well into battling my way through such wonders as the far more scientific (than fictional) Charles Monod's Chance and Necessity. Sigh. Hours of my life I'll never get back.
For those of you who haven't had the pleasure yet, Ender's Game is a battle heavy book about a boy who has to save humankind from the perceived threat of an alien race, much like the Borg for all you trekkie fans, that have attacked earth twice. There will be no third invasion. Instead, we're taking the battle to their home world and Ender must lead the attack.
Despite a zillion fight scenes and at times unsettling brutality, I enjoyed Ender's Game. The premise was intriguing and the characters all Byronic heroes in their own way, but more than anything what kept me coming back for more was that the writing perplexed me. Card defies boxes.
Ender is a child who writes, speaks and acts like an adult. Entirely. There is nothing childlike about him. Either this is genius on Card's part, a particularity of the genre science fiction (there are no childlike characters) or an inability to create a child protagonist. Either way, unchildlike child protagonists are definitely Card's calling card, which has led me to theorize as to what good they do. I've come up with three: 1) this kind of character holds up a mirror up to the way we treat children in war zones; 2) this character portrays the way children view themselves, and 3) these characters create stories that defy categorization.
Three intrigues me most because Card's protagonist appeals to a young audience and well as older ones, and has created a cultish following among none other than teen readers. How's that for defying/embracing all categories at once? Seems like genius on Card's part. His work defies the neat boxes publishing has attempted to erect and divide books into. In getting rid of the boxes and making a jederman character, Card's stories unsettle me, and in unsettling me, challenge me as a reader to think, reassess, reenvision the world around me, and as a writer to challenge boundaries too. Yep, definitely genius.
Summer has come and gone so quickly, fortunately packed with a lot of amazing reads. Which made choosing this first Fall review hard! I decided to go with my fellow Vermont College friend and amazing writer, Melanie Crowder's first book, Parched. You might argue that I'll be slightly biased in my review of this work, but this story, from its inklings to final version, won a few prestigious VCFA awards, landed Melanie her agent and first book contract. It doesn't need my bias. It stands... shines... all on its own.
Very succinctly, the story chronicles the struggles of a girl surviving on the parched African savanna and a boy escaping a d(r)ying city in search of water.
In only 160 pages, Crowder develops characters and situations so powerful they have followed me throughout all of my other reads. It's a little bit magical how she does this. It's as if she discovered Hemingway's secret for parsimony. The writing is sparse but fully packed. In some ways, it's as if poetic style has been applied to prose. For that reason alone, if you're looking for tricks of the trade, Crowder's work will keep you up nights deconstructing to figure out just how she does it.
POV is used extremely deftly. Whenever the story follows either child, POV is omniscient/close 3rd. However, this is interspersed with an unusual 1st person perspective from the POV of the main hunting dog. These short chapters are like a raw, direct, honest emotional punch that jolts the reader and pulls them deeper into story.
Finally, this story itself works like a dip into the pool of all the story that is going on around the characters. Crowder shows only what needs showing, while nevertheless belying a sense of extreme depth to her characters.
Spoiler Alert: Dogs do get hurt in this book. Yes, it is another dead dog book. My kids may never forgive me for buying it for them and urging them to read it. Protest signs against parental evilness line the walls of our house. I can think of no greater compliment for Crowder. She pulled them in. She made them care. She made them mourn and KEEP READING.
Move over Where the Red Fern Grows. There is a new contender for greatness.
For more great reads, stroll over to Barrie Summy's site. She's serving them up cool and refreshing!
I am a writer, a mom, a researcher, a carpool specialist with a zillion hours of overtime, a chef-wannabe with a penchant for any recipe with chocolate in it, a sucker for a good story, and a wife - in a stream of consciousness sort of order
I review books that surprise me, jar me, make me think. They are books I've bought, borrowed from the library, or been given as a gift. I do accept ARCs, but will only review a book if it moves me. It's about the writing. If I'm moved, I pass it on in a review.