Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category

I’m of the belief that there are certain authors who can do no wrong, GloryObrienaccording to book reviewers, and A. S. King seems to be one. So it must be me who’s missing the point. If writing an absurd book is a satirical way of looking at our absurd society, she’s done a bang up job in Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future. Otherwise, she’s merely written an absurd book and/or I’ve missed the point completely.

Gloria O’Brien and Ellie Heffner live across the street from each other, Glory in a normal house and Ellie on a commune. Glory and Ellie’s parents moved to rural Pennsylvania together to live in a non-materialist world but had a falling out. Days before Glory’s high school graduation they drink beer laced a disintegrated bat (absurdity number 1) and wake up the next morning able to see into people’s ancestry and progeny for millennia (absurdity number 2).

Glory’s mother, Darla, committed suicide when Glory was only four, by putting her head in an oven. Glory and her dad have been living oven-less for the past 13 years. No one, friends or family, seem to have discussed Darla’s actions with Glory (absurdity number 3 or 4—I’ve lost count).

Glory doesn’t care about the normal materialistic things teenagers care about: clothes, jewelry, make up. She’s a loner and Ellie is her only real friend, although Glory is reconsidering their relationship. She considers Ellie self centered and neither has really had a serious conversation with the other. The fact that Glory may be equally self centered never seems to dawn on either girl.

Darla was a photographer and Glory has taken up the art. She carries her camera virtually everywhere. Darla’s darkroom has been unused for 13 years, but after graduation Glory gets the courage to ask her dad, Roy, if she could use it. There she finds Darla’s sketch books, one of which was entitled Why People Take Pictures which  seems to record some of Darla’s anguish.

AskThePassengersThere are two stories here, which somewhat intersect: Glory’s search for her past and memories of her mother juxtaposed against her visions for the future. There was enough material in the first story for a book in and of itself without adding the second, which really, in my mind, diluted the impact of Glory coping, 13 years later, with the loss of a parent.

I really enjoyed Ask the Passengers by King. Her other books never really sparked my interest enough to open the cover. I was hoping Glory O’Brien would be different. Alas, I was totally disappointed. If you go by the review journals, Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future got starred reviews. I, however, would only give it a 3.

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SeptemberGirlsI was reluctant to read September Girls by Bennett Madison. I heard it was something about mermaids and I thought it wouldn’t interest me. But I needed something to read so I picked it up. I found September Girls to be a tender love story tinged with fantasy.

Sam’s father decides that the boys, Sam, his father and his brother Jeff, should summer in the Outer Banks. It’s been six months since Sam’s mother abruptly left the family, basically to find herself, without the company of men. So, off they go, a trio of unspeaking men. When they get to their destination, they find a town inhabited by the most beautiful girls they’ve ever seen, all perfect, all blonde, all able to toss their hair alluringly. There is something mysterious about them all, besides the fact that they look very much alike.

The story unfolds primarily through Sam’s narrative, interspersed with the story of “we“, the September Girls, the myths and legends that rule their lives.

September Girls is a story of love, of accepting, of sacrifice, of destiny, of growing up. As we (I) age, we want those perfect relationships that sprout and grow almost unannounced. Madison says it so well.  “So I waited, and it happened. The way you put your hand on my shoulder. The way you smiled at me when I was talking, the way I’d tell a joke and not even realize it was a joke until you were laughing. The way you kissed me, the way I saw you ambling toward me down the beach, still in the distance. In your small movements and gestures, something happened: the girl you thought I was began to acquire form…and she was beautiful in a way that had nothing to do with what I’d thought of as beauty.”

This is the love I want. I wonder whether it exists other than in books.

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ImaginaryGirlsImaginary Girls is Nova Ren Suma’s (Dani Noir) second novel. I’m finding it hard to explain what it’s about, so I’ll give you the beginning and maybe a few comments from the book flap. Fourteen year old Chloe idolizes her nineteen year old sister Ruby, as well she should. Ruby practically raised her. Ruby would do anything to protect her and is also proud of her. Swimming with friends one night down at the reservoir created to provide water for New York City, Ruby brags that Chloe can swim the  width of the reservoir and come back with a souvenir from Olive, the town that was drowned in order to create the reservoir. Halfway across, Chloe tires and as she loses strength, a rowboat magically appears. She grabs on and as she feels around the boat, she realizes there’s a body in it…a classmate, London.

That’s as much as I’m going to tell you.

On the back of the book jacket, Nancy Werlin calls is “A surreal little nightmare in book form.” Aimee Bender calls it “eerie and gripping…” The book flap says “…a masterfully distorted vision of family…” If this doesn’t have you totally confused…

Suffice it to say, Suma does a masterful job. I like the way she writes. It’s descriptive and literary. You can visualize the characters, the setting, the action. You constantly wonder what’s going to happen next. Yes, it is surreal. It is eerie. But I had to keep on reading.

For an out of the ordinary book, it’s Imaginary Girls.

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If one thinks there is a lack of imagination in the world, one need look only as far as Lauren Oliver’s TheSpindlersThe Spindlers. It is full of wonderful imaginary characters (or are they imaginary?). Everyone knows that the spindlers come at night and steal children’s souls, replacing them with spindler eggs so that more spindlers can be born. When Liza wakes up one morning and her brother Patrick isn’t really Patrick anymore, with his glassy eyes and lack of emotion, she is panic-stricken. While brothers and sisters have their ups and downs, generally they do love each other.

Of course her mother sadly thinks she’s making up yet another story, but Liza knows she must rescue Patrick’s soul before it’s too late. She ventures into the basement, with a broom as her only weapon, moves a bookcase covering a hole in the wall and enters the Below.

The first thing she meets is a rat almost her size named Mirabella. Mirabella is wearing a newspaper skirt, a hideous wig, a hat and enough makeup and mascara to scare anyone…including Liza. This is the delicious beginning of a dangerous journey the two take to reach the spindler’s nest, meeting along the way troglods, nids, lumer-lumpens, nocturni and more.

These days, when kids grow up too fast, when they are bombarded at a young age with activities that will get them into a good college, a good dose of fun and fantasy is the prescription for bringing back childhood. (It even works for adults who have forgotten the wonders of childhood.) Lauren Oliver has supplied a goodly dose of adventure. I was with Mirabella and Liza every minute of their journey, beside them on the dangerous River of Knowledge, there when Liza had to outsmart a three headed dog, there in the troglod market. Knowing in my heart that Liza would save Patrick’s soul, I couldn’t wait to get to the next adventure, to get that much closer to what I knew to be a satisfying ending.

We all know that Lauren Oliver is a talented writer. She writes in multiple genres for middle schoolers and high shcoolers. Liesl & Po is another wonderful fantasy book of hers. So, if you’re looking for something wonderful for your child to read OR you yourself want something wonderful to read, pick up The Spindlers and Liesl & Po. It is imagination at its best.

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Are you in the mood for just the right amount of magic and puppetry and suspense and thievery? SplendorsAndGloomsIf that’s the case, then you’re in the mood for Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz, whose previous book, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village was a Newbery Award winner. Splendors and Gloooms is no slouch either, being a 2013 Newbery Honor Book.

Since I’m having trouble these days describing books, I’ll take the description off of the Association for Library Services to Children website: “Lizzie Rose, Parsefall and Clara are caught in the clutches of a wicked puppeteer and a powerful witch in this deliciously dark and complex tale set in Dickensian England, where adventure and suspense are interwoven into nuanced explorations of good versus evil.” It is deliciously dark and scary. You can feel the London fog wherever Lizzie Rose and Parsefall travel.

Parsefall is the perfect Dickensian ragamuffin and Lizzie Rose is his prim and proper, although poor, partner in crime, both dominated by greasy, master puppeteer Grisini–a perfect name for him. When these three perform at Clara’s twelfth birthday party and she  disappears soon thereafter, the plot thickens. How the bigger than life Cassandra, the powerful witch in her remote castle, enters into the story is for readers to find out. Even Ruby the spaniel is adorable.

Readers will feel like they are living through an 1860s London winter.They’ll certainly feel like they are part of the story, not merely reading it. They might find themselves shouting out loud, “No Parsefall, don’t do that!” or “Watch out. Grisini’s hiding there!” Even I was afraid of Grisini.

My daughter recommended this book to me, before it was voted an honor book, indicating her good taste in books. For some reason, Splendors and Glooms, to me, was a middle school version of Night Circus because they had that same foggy aura (although their subjects are somewhat different).

So, my 2013 has started off with a bang. I’ve finished Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool and now Splendors and Glooms. Next up is Courage Has No Color, The True Story of the Triple Nickles: America’s First Black Paratroopers by Tanya Lee Stone which is getting great reviews and The Spindlers by Lauren Oliver which has gotten great reviews. And then coming down the pike soon is Beth Kephart’s Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent, a prequel to Dangerous Neighbors. I know, also, that Susan Campbel Bartoletti’s new book, Down the Rabbit Hole: The Diary of Pringle Rose, is due out in March.  If my reading keeps up at this pace, 2013 is going to be a banner year.

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For some reason, I always have trouble summarizing a Sharon Creech book and The Great Unexpected is no exception. So, maybe I’ll just give you a sample from the book.

Naomi and Lizzie are 12 year old best friends in Blackbird Tree. On the first day of school their teacher gave an assignment to write about their families. “So the next day, we straggled in with our precious essays about our ragtag families. She made us read aloud. Well, the first five people, that is. Angie lived with a foster family with eight children and four donkeys and seven cats and three snakes. Her real parents were still in jail. Lizzie lived with her foster parents, who were definitely going to be her adoptive parents…Her real mother had had headaches…; her father died ‘of the maximum grief’. Carl lived with his uncle, who lost both his legs in a car wreck, and so Carl had to do all the cooking and cleaning and grocery shopping and it wasn’t too bad except when his uncle got ahold of the liquor. Delano said he wasn’t allowed to write about his family while they were under investigation. And then there was me. I told about my mother givng birth to me and on the second day of my life, she looked at me and said, “Gosh, I feel peculiar,” and then she dropped me on her stomach and died of a blood splot that went where it wasn’t supposed to go. I started to tell about how my father died of an infection, but the teacher stopped me.”

What does this have to do with anything? Well, one day, Naomi is walking in the woods and an unfamiliar boy falls out of a tree and knocks her over. This opens the door to Ms. Creech introducing interesting characters in both Blackbird Tree on this side of the ocean as well characters in Ireland “Across the Ocean”. And there is a connection, that, through fantasy and innuendo and wonderful writing, Ms. Creech makes credible and fun. And, I’m sure you can guess, by the sample of the book I gave you, it’s all about family.

Sharon Creech is one of a handful of authors, who writes wonderful books for that hard to write for age, 8-12, along with Joan Bauer (who maybe writes for a slightly older age bracket), Kathi Appelt, Rebecca Stead, to name a few. Give your children and yourself a treat with The Great Unexpected.

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The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson has been one of my daughter’s favorite books since she read it upteen years ago. It was one of mine too, but I forgot why until she suggested I read it again. So I did…in a day. I’m not going to tell you the story. Many of you already know it. But if you don’t, it’s populated with wizards and hags and witches, mermaids and ogres and “wonderful creatures called mistmakers”.

Eva Ibbotson has captured a world we’d all love to live in. The Secret of Platform 13 is a delight for all ages.

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For a while, I thought I’d be hard pressed to come up with a 2011 Top 10 list for YA books. It was only in the past two weeks that I heaved a sigh of relief. Late reads solidified my list. So, here goes:

Topping my list at Number 1 is You Are My Only by Beth Kephart. I commented that, “As always, Kephart chooses her words with care, and while the language is not as ‘ethereal’ as in some of her recent books, her images and descriptions and wording remain essential in understanding the characters and surroundings.  There are secrets that need to be unearthed and things to ponder.  There are relationships that you are jealous you are not a part of and those you are glad you have not experienced.  You can read You Are My Only quickly and enjoy the story or you can read it slowly and savor every word and nuance and description.  Either way, you must read Beth Kephart’s latest addition to Young Adult literature.”

Night Circus by Erin Morganstern may or may not be considered a YA book, but I’m sure it will appeal to teens, so it comes in at number 2. It takes place in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Night Circus is dream-like.  Celia and Marco are unwilling pawns in a competition between two magicians, one that will last years, if not decades.  The competition’s only rule: there are no rules and neither player knows what to do and how a winner is determined. Erin Morgenstern has written a dream-like book similar to the dream state of the book’s Circus of Dreams.  It’s indescribable.  A must read.

Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet, a late comer to my 2011 reading, lands the number 3 slot.  Peet masterfully merges two stories, the first about England during WW II and and the second about the Cuban Missile Crisis into a book you can’t put down. His language, his sarcasm, his observations, his stories keep you reading way past bedtime.

Any Top 10 without a Brian Selznick book is lacking, so I must include Wonderstruck. Ben lives in Gunflint, Minnesota in 1977.  Rose is a lonely deaf child, living in Hoboken, NJ, overlooking the Hudson River, in 1927. Similar to Mal Peet, how these two stories, taking place 50 years apart, converge is one of the wonders of Wonderstruck.    There are more, such as the fact that Ben’s story is primarily written while Rose’s story is presented entirely in illustrations.  Selznick’s illustrations entice the viewer to scrutinize every line, every object, every picture, they are just so amazing. While you’re at it, reread The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I’m sure you’ll find something new in each drawing.

You know how much I love Joan Bauer and Close to Famous was as good the second tiem around as it was the first time. Number 5 on the list, it’s got great characters, a good story, and luscious sounding baked goods. It teaches you how to overcome adversity.

Coming in at nubmer 6 and 7 are Liesl and Po by Lauren Oliver and Widsom’s Kiss by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, two wonderful fairy tales with amazing characters, wonderful writing and absorbing stories. Liesl and Po is geared more for upper elementary or lower middle school while Wisdom’s Kiss is for slightly older audiences.

Eona: The Last Dragoneye by Alison Goodman is an action adventure with roots in Chinese astrology. The sequel to Eon: Dragoneye Reborn, it is action packed. This will attract boys and girls since there are  protagonists of both sexes. It is a marvelous way to introduce teens to the 12 astrological signs.

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine got great reviews and rightly so. Twleve year old Caitlin has to deal with the death of her mother from cancer two years earlier and the recent middle school shooting death of her older brother Devon.  It’s a lot to contend with even if you don’t have Asperger’s.  While her father understands her, he must deal with his grief, and is unable to translate that to Caitlin.  It was Devon who really understood her and explained the world to her.  Caitlin’s special nature comes through loud and clear; her drawing ability, her affinity for dictionaries and the meanings of words, the comfort she feels when she puts her head under the couch cushions to feel closer to those people who sat on it.  Erskine doesn’t downplay the socialization difficulties Asperger children have because of their unique nature.  What you come away with after reading Mockingbird is a real sense of who Caitlin is–she is a real person and you want to get to know her, to be her friend.  There is a love and warmth that emanates from Erskine’s writing…you get the feeling she really loves Caitlin, not an emotion you often get when reading a book.   I had picked up Mockingbird back in mid-September and put it down within a chapter.  I guess I wasn’t ready for the book.  This time, I read the book in one day; that’s how much I liked it.  Mockingbird is a book for all age groups.  It is beautifully written, tender and informative as well.  It is worthy of its award (not something I can say about every award winner).

Forgotten by Cat Patrick was an unexpected find. Each night at precisely 4:33 am, while sixteen-year-old London Lane is asleep, her memory of that day is erased. In the morning, all she can “remember” are events from her future. London is used to relying on reminder notes and a trusted friend to get through the day, but things get complicated when a new boy at school enters the picture. Luke Henry is not someone you’d easily forget, yet try as she might, London can’t find him in her memories of things to come. When London starts experiencing disturbing flashbacks, or flash-forwards, as the case may be, she realizes it’s time to learn about the past she keeps forgetting-before it destroys her future.

I hope you pick up a few of these books and enjoy them as much as I did.

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I’ve talked before about author’s split personalities. Catherine Gilbert Murdock seems to fall into that category. I first encountered her writing in Dairy Queen, the first book in a trilogy about a girl wanting to play football and getting roped into coaching the opposing team’s quarterback. I really enjoyed it and highly recommend it to anyone interested in sports. (The second and third books of the trilolgy, while still worth reading, veered off the sports theme a bit, and in my humble opinion, lost a little something.)

Then, all of the sudden I see Princess Ben, a fairy tale, written by Catherine Gilbert Murdock.  Can it be the same author? Yep. Princess Ben was a fun read, but it is surpassed by the enchanted Wisdom’s Kiss: A Thrilling and Romatic Adventure Incorporating Magic, Villainy and a Cat. Duke Roger of Farina, at his mother Queen Wilhelmina’s insistance, is sent to court Queen Temperance of Montagne. However, he falls in love with her sister, Wisdom (nicknamed Dizzy), much to Queen Wilhelmina’s dismay.

When he proposes and she accepts, Princess Wisdom and her retinue must journey to Farina.  Accompanied by the Queen Mother, (Ben)evolence and her cat Escoffier,  her ladies in waiting and guards, they begin their trek. The ladies in waiting, however, get violently ill at one of the inns along the way (I won’t tell you why). In order to save face and arrive with a smidgen of a retinue, they ask a serving girl, Trudy, take on the role of lady in waiting.

Arriving in Farina, Trudy comes face to face with Tomas, a boy from her childhood who had been sold off to an adventurer six years prior and with whom Trudy is love.

Oh, the complications Murdock tells us. Why does Wilhelmina want the marriage? What has Tomas been doing for six years? What does Dizzy really want? Are Ben’s letters getting through to Temperance? How does Trudy fit into all of this? And what of the cat?

All of this begins as a play Queen of All the Heavens: A Play in Three Acts penned by Anonymous. But it unravels in letters from the Queen Mother to Temperance, entries in Dizzy’s diary, a story told by Trudy to her daughters, letters from Tomas to Trudy and so many more writings, enough to make you dizzy. Wisdom’s Kiss has remarkable characters and a wonderful story. As it says in the title, it is “a thrilling and romantic adventure, incorporating magic, villainy and a cat.” It is a late entry into my 2011 Top 10.

I don’t know whether I want Catherine Gilbert Murdock to continue her fairy tales or go back to realistic fiction. Whatever she writes, it is anxiously anticipated.

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