Looking for a story to drive away the long hours that pile together in huge drifts winter break? This is just the tale.
Milo Pine is settling in for the long winter break at his family's hotel, The Greenglass House, when not just one but six unexpected visitors arrive. Milo, who feels most comfortable when things are exactly as they are supposed to be, is thrown off-balance, especially when Meddy arrives. About his age, Meddy is all about adventure, and finding out why the visitors have all descended on the hotel at the same time. A mystery is afoot. As it turns out, the house--which mostly serves the area's smugglers--was the home of the greatest smuggler in Nagspeake, Doc Holystone, who died under mysterious circumstances. Cue--ghost and increased tension. Then things begin to disappear, or are they stolen? Meddy and Milo play Odd Trails, a role-playing game to discover the truth, and it's more than either bargains for.
Yep, this book version of Clue is sure to keep readers on the edge of their seats and far away from winter boredom as they track down thieves, smugglers, cat burglars, hidden trains, ghosts, lost smugglers, last cargoes, hidden treasures, famous stained glass artists, and the like. Throw in a snow storm and hot chocolate, and winter break is over before anyone realizes it's begun, both in the book and in real life.
Admittedly, there are a host of characters to keep track of, and it took some getting used to when both Meddy and Milo took on different names for their role-playing characters, and switch back and forth depending on whether their playing or not. And then there are the multiple stories within the story itself. It's a lot, but it works. I suppose some might say such complexity could challenge, even confuse, a young reader. Young readers are often grossly underestimated. They are far better at keeping track of characters and details with their spry little minds than almost any adult, and this one gives them so much to chew on.
So pull up a chair, get a cup of hot chocolate, and dive in. Just remember to get up and grab a cheese sandwich now and again.
Of late, I have been deep in middle grade. What a wonderful place to be. If Adult is all about "letting go" and YA is all about "getting a grip", then I'd say MG is all about unbridled exploration. Gene Rodenberry was a middle grade writer at heart.
The Adventurer's Guide to Successful Escapes (AGSE for short) doesn't disappoint. There are some significant archetypes in this story: orphan, arch villain, a quest. Yet, Wade embraces them as archetypes and then delves below in novel and unexpected ways. Imagination abounds.
Basic premise: Anne escapes St. Lupin's orphanage with her friend Penelope via a gauntlet and unexpected quest she is now bound to complete or die trying (or get thrown in jail for life if she fails). Hiro, a magician whose spells have some dire kinks, joins them as they race to solve the Quest Riddle and find Anne's true home in a world akin to our own, but filled with magic, divided into tiers, and based on a computer system with an error, and the clock is ticking. Oh, and don't forget the registered villain, St. Lupin's Matron, who has sworn to stop Anne or die trying.
It's a fast-paced, fun adventure. What got me thinking is the use of omniscient third. The older I get, the more ambivalent I become about POV. Is there really only one voice that could fit a story? That seems like saying there is only one true soulmate for me in the whole world, which means if anything happens to him, I'm doomed to a life of lonely solitude (brightened only by middle grade reads). Given how we women tend to live A LOT longer than our male soulmates, I kind of hope that's not the case (no offense to the middle grade books out there). Or to POV. But come on, even Monet did his waterlilies from multiple angles.
So what does POV do for a story? In this case, omniscient third allows White to take both a bird's eye view and a soulful look into his characters, although that really only occurs for Anne, so this may be more of a case of close third. Nevertheless, I find that getting outside the character's skin makes a story feel more "told" ... in a good way. There is distance between the reader and what's happening, one that for young readers, creates a safety barrier. Coupled with simple past, they are in the story, but it's a story that already happened, that already had a resolution. Things are gonna be okay. Probably. It's truly ancient storytelling at it's best. "Sit back," the writer says, "And listen. I'm going to scare your socks off, but you'll get them back at the end. Probably."
Omniscient third also creates a bigger picture. We get to see more of the angles to the story. It gives it a more epic quality, perfect for a quest.
And finally, omniscient third allows us to take a break and look elsewhere, thus keeping the storytelling fresh as we move from one fast-paced turn to the next.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon
You know those books that make you feel like a kid again and full to bursting with all that could be? That's The Girl Who Drank the Moon. Luck seems to be smiling on me because the last couple of months I've stumbled across some incredibly delicious middle grade novels, and this is yet another one.
Basic premise: Oh gees, where to start...there are a number of intertwined storylines in this book. One focuses on Luna, who is abandoned in the woods, found by a witch, and instead of being taken to a family, raised by said witch. Don't worry, she's a Glinda, not a Wicked, although Xan is over five hundred years old. She accidentally turns Luna into a new witch by letting the baby drink moonlight. And that's when the magic starts.
Luna's mother is locked up for defying the Elders, who would sacrifice her child. Antain, nephew of one of the Elders who started the child sacrifice tradition to keep the people of the Protectorate in line, breaks with the Elders and becomes a carpenter instead, then later a father, whose child is to be sacrificed. All the while, Xan, together with a friendly Swamp Monster, Glerk, and dragon, Fyrian, work to raise Luna, who leaks magic onto everything and changes it. All of the story lines wind tighter and tighter around each other until they knot and then literally explode with the volcano underneath the woods. Did I mention there are paper birds that are enmagicked?
It's so much imagination to keep a reader riveted, and yet, I drank this book slowly, to savor all there is to discover. The one part I found slightly confusing is that many chapters begin with an unknown narrator telling a child a part of a story. I never could quite figure out who the narrator was. At one point, I thought it was Luna, looking back, but it wasn't entirely clear to me. I'm not sure if it was meant to remain uncertain and a little confusing, but that was the lasting effect for me.
Otherwise, I found this to be a nearly flawless weave of imagination into story. While there may be other flaws that other reviewers would find, the end effect was deep satisfaction, as if I'd finally found the kind of chocolate cake that actually leaves you feeling pleasantly full.
For other great reads this pumpkin season, roll on over to Barrie Summy's website. She's harvesting a bumper crop!
The Mark of the Dragonfly
middle grade / fantasy
This was my best summer read. It's a great beach book, and since I can't quite let go of sand and sun, I'm reviewing it.
Basic Premise: Girl saves world
A little more detail, you say?
Piper is a scrapper from the Meteor Fields of the Merrow Kingdom in the northern reaches of Solace, a world in which things fall through a hole in the sky from one world to another. There are hints that the world losing objects is ours and Solace is a parallel universe, but that isn't spelled out in book 1.
One of those objects turns out to be a girl, Anna, who is part human and part mechanical. She is sold to a ruthless politician/engineer (a new combination), Doloman, from the Dragonfly Kingdom. Merrow and Dragonfly are at war. Anna could be the key in turning that war, giving one side a weapons edge. Only problem - she seems irreparably broken. She won't wake up. Doloman journeys back to the north to find the scrapper who sold him Anna, hoping to learn more, but his caravan gets caught in a meteor storm. Enter Piper, who has a special (magical) gift with anything mechanical. She is a synergist. She discovers Anna in the caravan wreckage and takes her home to nurse her. In her presence, Anna reawakens, and they begin a journey of discovery that turns into one of flight as Anna's true identity as a machine becomes apparent, and her value.
It would be hard to sum up the story in fewer words. There is so much to discover. And I haven't even gotten to the chamelin on the train, Gee, who is a boy and also a winged creature. Or the train! For those who are Lord of the Rings fans, this will give you the same cozy, curl up and disappear in a fantastical adventure feel. Granted, there is a lot of world-building, and yes, information dumps. Watch out for those. The beginning is pock-marked with them. And, homage to Hunger Games. Piper is from Scrap Town Number 16 in the Territories and they're dirt poor.
Yet, the characters are interesting enough, the pacing fast enough, the mashing of steampunk and fantasy novel enough (and the sun and sand perfect enough) to forgive Johnson the dumps. In the end, I just had fun on this adventure, and I haven't said that in a good long time.
So, if you've feeling up for a jaunt into a fantastical world in which anything is possible, pick up The Mark of the Dragonfly. And for more great Fall Fun, take a gander through more Book Review Club reviews on Barrie Summy's site.
It's not your typical beach read. It's better. There's all sorts of taboo, broken rules, and heartbreak, not to mention great writing in How I Live Now.
I discovered the book after Meg Rosoff won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (which she received last night in Stockholm). She has written more recent work, but this is the one that catapulted her to recognition, and a host of awards. It does not disappoint.
Basic Premise: Daisy (from NYC) is sent to live with her mother's sister and family in England. Her father is remarried and he and his new wife are awaiting their first child. Daisy and the stepmonster do not get along. She is also suffering from anorexia. I'm guessing the idea is that by sending her away she may get her life together (we had this very experience with an exchange student, but that's another, harrowing story). Instead, war breaks out and Daisy and her cousins are caught up in the middle of it, with all of war's tragedies, from starvation to random murders, death due to lack of medication, and slaughter.
In the midst of the death and destruction, Daisy falls in love with her cousin, Edmond, and vice versa. Yet, they are separated by the war and spend the rest of the book finding their way back to each other. It's Lolita light, i.e. illicit, taboo love affair, in this case between blood relatives, that's however mutually consensual. I didn't want to root for the star-crossed lovers (but I did).
The craft aspect of the book that has me mulling is one I've come across before but can't quite figure out. It's the inclusion of dialogue within the body of the text without separating out with quotations. Example: "...when I notice everyone's gone except this kid who comes up to me and says You must be Daisy. And when I look relieved he does too and says I'm Edmond."
Is this tool used to make the text read more from the perspective of a teenager who ignores punctuation and "proper" grammar in informal writing/texting?
The effect the tool has on me every time is to leave me feeling simultaneously more inside and apart from the story. I never can quite get my footing. I also stumble across the passages that are dialogue more often and have to re-read once I realize it is a conversation, not internal dialogue in the protagonist's head. Again, perhaps that emphasizes the way life feels to a normal teen, jumbled and coming at them every which way but straight on.
I'm all for rewriting the rules of grammar. I honestly haven't figured out, though, how to use this rewrite to my advantage since I can't seem to read it properly, or decipher how it is supposed to alter the reading experience. This one has me baffled, and it's the third or fourth time I've come across the tool and been left wondering.
So there you have it, a great read AND a craft riddle for your summer reading pleasure. Some of you may have already figured out the answer. If yes, please share! I'm eager to unravel and understand this writing conundrum/tool.
The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle
Janet Fox is a writer-friend I met while in the debut novelist marketing group, Class of 2k8, and then again at Vermont College. This is the first novel of hers I've treated myself to.
And what a treat! Part mystery, part paranormal, part thriller.
Basic premise: It's WW II and the Blitz is full on in England. Kat, Rob, and Ame are sent to live at a castle-turned-school in the Scottish highlands, while their mother weathers out the war in London, and their father is deployed to spy for the British on the continent. The castle-turned-school is run by The Lady, who isn't all she appears. She has lived for hundreds of years, collecting magic via the souls she steals from children. She only needs a few more to be immortal. Hence, the school. Yet, for each child's soul she takes, she loses a part of herself, turning more and more into an automaton. One of the teachers she employs is a secret German spy. Kat and Peter, an American sent to the school too, discover the spy and work to stop him. Time, however, is short. A different child disappears each day. And soon, the core of children fighting the spies and the witch fall prey to her magic. Until only Kat is left with the seemingly insurmountable task of defeating them all.
I can hear an editor saying, "This is a very ambitious project." And yet Fox pulls it off...I won't say effortlessly because anyone who has spilled a little ink knows just how hard writing is...marvelously. This is multiple character, genre mashing done well.
You know how Scooby and Shaggy are always saying "It's a witch! It's a witch!" (Or, is that Monty Python...) And then Thelma, Daphne and Fred prove it isn't a witch. It's the cook! Secretly, I was always pulling for Scooby and Shaggy. Just once, I wanted the witch to be, well, a witch.
I've finally gotten my comeuppance. This time magic is real and the witch is a witch. What's more, she's dangerous. So are the spies. And they are very real, too. Basically, there is something for camp Shaggy and Scooby and camp Thelma in this story.
Fox chooses an omniscient third POV to relay her story, arguably the only voice that could work, unless the writer were to use first person going from character to character, which seems a lot more cumbersome than omniscient third, given the host of characters. Her deft use of the voice reminds me of Susan Cooper's use of the same POV in a similar story, The Boggart. They are both excellent examples of how to use third person POV well.
I was charmed by The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle. It's an entertaining, solid read. It also got me thinking. There are many similar objects and storylines in the piece that suffuse middle grade at present - automatons (steampunk), World War II, magic, England, the lone girl heroine. It makes me wonder where the field will go next. These themes have been incorporated into some incredibly creative conceits. But conceits, plural. See: Miss Peregrine's School for Peculiar Children, The Boggart, Code Name Verity, How I Live Now, The War that Saved my Life. Is it time to go in a new direction? Are there stories buried in the deeper folds of history that aren't being told, or haven't been told in a while? Although I say that, indeed, all of the books listed above are on my Kindle. So perhaps it's me. Still, I may go a'diggin'...
I love the books I struggle with. It's all about the challenge. Alexandra Bracken challenged me with The Passenger. And she's still challenging me. So let's hit the ring!
Basic premise: On the night of violinst extraordinaire and lifelong New Yorker, 17 year-old Etta Linden's premiere recital, her teacher is murdered, a hole opens up in time, and Etta is thrust into a centuries-old battle for control of basically all of humanity. Her only friend, Nicholas, is fellow time traveler, and secretly sent to keep Etta in line in her quest for the one object that can tilt the scales of power in favor of the least favorable hegemon, who now holds Etta's mother captive.
Get ready for a ride. Bracken takes readers from 1776 New York to WII London, the jungles of Cambodia, late 1800s Paris, and the deserts surrounding Damascus. There is nary a dull moment. Add to that a fierce romance between Nicholas and Etta, and you've got yourself perhaps the first summer read of the Spring.
What challenged me most about this piece was the balance of romance and action. Etta is no damsel in distress, but Nicholas, a former slave, comes from 1700s America and does have a bit of the hero to him, which is at once a fabulous twist on the hero and yet a hero nonetheless. Etta, however, coming from the present day, sees them as partners. Thus, there is a tension in expectations throughout the story - Nicholas trying to live up to an ideal no human can, and Etta not expecting it and working to redirect, to get him to see relationships in a different light. Again, kudos to Bracken. It's a struggle this generation of women, if not my own, faces with the cultural expectations through which the opposite gender has been raised to see itself.
So, despite all of that, because of the strong male character, this piece does devolve into a somewhat more, seemingly predictable romance novel. Granted, it does not end that way exactly. However, you've got to stick with it to find that out, and that may be hard if you're looking for something that doesn't tiptoe into classic romance lit, complete with swooning and getting swept away. I'm not saying that's a bad thing. It's just a predictable one.
Which makes me question where YA is headed these days. This is just one book of many coming out, but it seems to be that we're falling back into old patterns. There are the realistic YA novels, such as the Fault in Our Stars. They're nothing new to literature (see, Catcher in the Rye). And there are the Twilight sagas, such as The Passenger. The one book I have a hard time categorizing, honestly, is The Hunger Games or Divergent. Dystopian? Sci-Fi? But yet YA?
Categorization is a fun hobby, like collecting stamps, but it doesn't change literature. Nonetheless, stepping back and looking at literature as a categorizer can give a writer an idea of where the tide may be headed. Perhaps Suzanne Collins great contribution has been - aside from a riveting read - genre mashing, pushing dystopian and YA together. It begs the question, what other unique mashes can we come up with? Writers of the world unite. Let's break some new boundaries!
For more great reads, and less revolutionary calls to arms ;-), skip on over to Barrie Summy's site. She's serving them up fresh and tasty!
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Illuminae The Illuminae Files
By Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
"First, survive. Then, tell the truth." That's one of the better loglines I've read in a while. And this is one of the better novels I've had the good fortune to read in the YA category in a while.
Basic premise: The morning Kady breaks up with Ezra their colony on the outskirts of the populated section of the universe is attacked and destroyed by a corrupt company. The "marines" of the galaxy beat back the attackers and rescue a handful of survivors. Their main ship, however, takes heavy damage, and it's a race against time to make it to the next outpost before they're attacked and destroyed by the same company. What they don't realize, until it's too late, is that the bioweapon used by the company to attack the outpost goes viral, starting a plague on the fleeing ships. The Artificial Intelligence, which runs the battle cruiser, has also taken heavy damage--mentally--and can't be trusted.
Basically, the odds of survival are stacked against not just Kady and Ezra, but everyone on the fleeing ships. Will anyone survive to tell the tale and bring the offenders to justice? Because, hey, we evil authors can and do kill of main characters all of the time.
Cue mad scientist evil laugh: Bwahahahaha.
Tongue and cheek aside, I haven't enjoyed a read this much in a long time. I had begun to despair that the realistic fiction bandwagon had set up shop, and it was going to be a long time before YA fiction came around to be fun and entertaining again. While this is touted as dystopian, don't let the moniker fool you, or put you off. This is sci fi. Fun sci fi. Edge of your pants sci fi. Star wars YA style. In other words, a breath of fresh air within the angsty teen lit of late.
The story is told mainly from Kady's POV, although using different formats for information sharing, i.e. texts, emails, reports, interviews, etc, does allow the authors to introduce different POVs. Again, breath of fresh air. Admittedly, I'm getting a wee bit tired of the female dominated genre.
While studies may show that mostly women and female teens read YA, that doesn't mean we'd only like to read female POV. Yes, it's AMAZING to have a female heroine. Love it. Love it like chocolate cake. But, if that's all you get, after a while, even chocolate cake gets boring. Please, please, please, if the world of publishing is listening, can we have a few more male POV stories? By that, I don't mean heroes who rescue the damsel in distress, just male POV. That's all. Let's get inside the mind of the male teen. What I wouldn't have given at that age to understand this mysterious anomaly.
For more warm winter brain food, stomp on over to Barrie Summy's website. She's serving them up with a healthy does of California sun!
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.