Archive for the ‘Fiction and Non: Book reviews’ Category

So, I reviewed this book way back before I was even compiling Newbery lists. But I had to bring it up again since it is one of the few that I’m saying Yes! to.

The Summer of May post


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This is a charming, nostalgic tale. Birdsall has the feel of so many gentle novelists I grew up with, Louisa May Alcott or L.M. Montgomery. I know that I should have recognized this book as the 3rd in the Penderwicks series, but in spite of being a children’s librarian I hadn’t actually read either of the first two. Not that it hurt my enjoyment of number three, but if I had known the characters, I may have cared more about the oldest Penderwick, Rosalind.

You see, Rosalind is not really a part of this book, as she is heading off for the summer with a friend, leaving Skye as the OAP (Oldest Available Penderwick). This is a frightening prospect for all sisters, especially Skye, who would much rather ponder black holes than brush 6-yr-old Batty’s hair.

There are 2 deliciously enjoyable aspects of Birdsall- her characters and her writing. Here is what I mean.

By characters: The responsible, good-hearted Rosalind who everyone manages to keep in the dark about the near tragedies that ensue during their time apart because they don’t want to worry her. The straight-talking, no-nonsense Skye, who is desperate to fulfill her OAP duties but completely falls apart if “feelings” ever edge near her. The dreamy, loquacious Jane, who decides her latest book must be about love, aside from the unfortunate hiccup that she herself has never experienced it. And energetic Batty, who struggles the most with the absence of Rosalind, yet, through harmonicas and golf balls, manages to come into her own. These and other characters are so rich and so perfectly drawn that you truly feel as if you have known them, if not your whole life, at least for a summer.

And by her writing: It is magical the way Birdsall is able to create such a timeless, perfect feel. Except for scant references to recent books the children read or the occasional cell phone, this story could be set in almost any time within the last century. Yet the incredible thing about it is that none of it is forced in any way. And in particular with dialogue (especially children’s dialogue) that is next to impossible to achieve.

Still, this story is rather tame. The “big issues” that tend to push a book towards Newbery are not present, nor are the originality and excitement of a fantasy adventure book. The Penderwicks is a perfectly crafted, marvelously delicious Thanksgiving apple pie, in a world that is looking for the book version of an Asian-Euro fusion confection. But, flashy isn’t everything.

Newbery Contender? Maybe. But probably not.

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I realize not everyone is fed up with the vampire/werewolf craze in YA lit, but if you are, this is a refreshing supernatural read.
Almost from the time she learns to speak, Mellie Turpin knows that the Parvi Pennati absolutely hate being called fairies. After all, she has a “small person with wings” as a best friend. What she doesn’t know is that most kids don’t. And when she tells her kindergarten class about her winged friend, she finds herself alienated, not only from them, but also from her Parva Pennati.

Now a cynical, jaded 13-yr-old, Mellie has put up with years of carrying the label “Fairy Fat” and has completely sworn off anything that is not scientific fact. When her family inherits her ornery grandfather’s ramshackle inn, Mellie is in for a shock. Not only do the Parvi Pennati soon overrun her new home, but she discovers that her family are their ancestral guardians.

This was an enjoyable romp. Truly. Mellie is funny in a snide sort of way, and very believable as a strong girl who has been at the receiving end of bullying. The whole SPWW world (sorry, but “small persons with wings” is just too long) was very unique.  There is more depth to this book than I expected, mostly dealing with bullying and family relationships.

In spite of their dippiness, I loved Mellie’s parents, more even than I liked her.  It is such a treat to have a loving set of parents in a teen protagonist’s life. Of course, they are incapacitated for a significant part of the plot, or how else would Mellie remain the main character?

But the development of the SPWW history and magic (the 3 different kinds of magic, the circulus, the moonstone ring) were a bit overdone and tedious. There was too much, explained too poorly for it to really “work.” Also, the “mystery” of the antagonist’s identity seemed rather obvious. The plot in general felt more elementary than young adult, yet with a teen protagonist this book seems a bit unsure of the age group it is meant for.

Newbery Contender?  No, though a fun read.

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Kelly Barnhill writes a fresh fantasy, mysterious and eerie. Jack is sent to live with relatives for what he believes is a short stay. But the odd relationship he seems to have with the rest of the world, is a haunting indication that there is something permanently unique about him. At first, his comments about being “invisible” sound like the usual interpretation of an adolescent introvert. But at his crazy aunt and uncles oddly animate house, he is noticed, for the first time ever. Not only do the town inhabitants notice him, but some of them take a somewhat unhealthy interest- namely the powerful mayor who just might wish him dead.

This twisted fairy tale is about greed, destiny and mostly, belonging. Jack is painfully out of place, a misfit who wishes desperately to have his family return his affection. He is a likable character, and as he unravels the mystery surrounding the town and himself, we eagerly wait for him to recognize his own role. I’m trying not to give too much away, but when Jack comes “into his own” I did feel somewhat thrown. As if the person we were first introduced to as protagonist is suddenly gone.

Thankfully there is still Frankie and Wendy, who I thoroughly enjoyed. The layers of story in this book are interwoven so seamlessly, including the mystery of mute, damaged Frankie and his tough sister.

The dreamlike quality of this book comes just as much from the writing, (disembodied narration from a dark and hidden “someone”) to the plot itself (a dark sacrifice in the town’s past, magical guardians, children who disappear and the town’s memories of them fade within days or even weeks).

There are too many plots devices that seem shallow or unexplored to truly make this as solid a book as it could have been. The characters are many and interesting, but not what I would call rich. And while the uniqueness of this fantasy is part of it’s appeal, I tend to think it’s just a little too “out there” for Newbery.

Newbery Contender? No.

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Gary Schmidt’s novel is like a sepia photograph that is too achingly present to let you slip into nostalgia. Nothing about this book feels distant, in spite of it’s 1960s era setting (think Vietnam and baseball).  The voice of 14-year-old Doug is perfect, so matter-of-fact, yet ironically honest in the way he keeps secrets from us readers. Describing an incident with his older brother, he says he, “Pummeled me in places where the bruises wouldn’t show. A strategy that my . . . is none of your business.”

Despite his best attempts to avoid the subject, his father’s presence is a heavy, smothering shadow. Shcmidt is a master at revealing the entire, heart-breaking, unraveling web of Doug’s family. He does it slowly, almost gently, through small vignettes or off-hand remarks that reach deep into your gut.

And then comes the moment that Doug’s life begins to change. Entering the library in “stupid Marysville”, he spies a painting of a bird in book of Audubon’s art. From there unfolds a connection with art that sweeps him away despite his resistance, through the crusty old librarian whose son is missing in Vietnam.  When feisty Lil, the grocer’s daughter, decides to give him a chance, a couple of teachers start to look a little closer at some of his secrets, and the kindly old gentleman at his dad’s company picnic befriends him, things begin to happen.

Doug is the quintessential flawed hero, wounded, battered but strong enough to stick it out. When he determines to stop the town from selling off pages in the Aubudon book one by one, it seems an impossible task. Yet not as impossible as crafting a believable, gripping story for kids that includes Vietnam, child abuse, paintings of dead birds, Jane Eyre, and terminal illness.  Somehow, Schmidt pulls it off, and beautifully.

The only weakness I find is in some plot devices that stretch the imagination (the Broadway play, for instance). Also, I’m torn between feeling that his father’s redemption is a welcome balm on the spirit and wanting to watch the bastard suffer instead. 

But overall, I have to say…

Newbery Contender?  Yes!!!

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Well, it’s about time for a Hunger Games read-a-like list!  If you haven’t read Suzanne Collins gripping trilogy set in the believably dystopian world of Panem, then you should really stop reading this post now.  Come back after you’ve read it. (oh, and did you see they cast the movie!)

Hunger Games has become such a definitive series for this kind of writing, that it is nearly impossible to have this conversation without it. But when you’ve exhausted the story of Katniss and are ready for another devastating assault on your understandings of social constructs and freedoms, here are some starkly depressing (yet so addictive!) worlds to delve into.

Divergent by Veronica Roth (My top pick!)

Beatrice’s world is divided into 5 factions, each of which believes that one trait is superior to all others. In her family’s faction (Abnegation) selflessness dictates how to dress, when to talk, what to eat… But Beatrice finds herself drawn to the daredevil antics of the Dauntless who prize courage. And when Beatrice turns 16 and takes the simulated aptitude test to determine which faction she is suited for, she discovers that her aptitudes cross over those faction lines to Erudite and Amity as well. She is one of the few, feared and dangerous, Divergent. The whispered word is a death sentence if the authorities ever were to discover it, and as Beatrice scrambles to understand this new label and its meaning, she also wrestles with her own identity and the new faction she chooses to the shock of her father. The action is intense and Beatrice is a gripping character, a tough yet real teenager facing her fears with wit and courage. This is not a  happy feel-good romance, though there is just enough to sweeten a darkly disturbing story.

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

Incarceron is more than a prison. It is a living, sentient entity, shifting forms and toying with the multitude of lives trapped in its endless bowels. Legend tells that there was once a man, more mystic than human, who escaped. Finn clings to this legend, certain that he is more than a ordinary cell-born, a product of the prison’s recycled human cells. He is certain that he belongs to the outside, and that his sudden seizures bring real memories, not simply abstract visions of the stars. But the fearsome warden who controls Incarceron from outside, is powerful and clever and will not allow any to dream of escape. Yet his daughter Claudia, promised as a child to the kind prince whose future was blotted out long ago, is not content to accept her father’s secretive role. And when she and Finn discover a mysterious link between their worlds, a dreamlike, nightmarish adventure unfolds before them. Rich, mesmerizing and deliciously disorienting, Incarceron is a fresh, creative story.

Inside Out by Maria V. Snyder

As a “Lower” Trella is part of the crowded mass who cleans and slaves for the “Uppers,” though she spends much of her time resenting both groups as she cleans the vents and pipes running through the confined levels that make up her world (reminiscent of Incarceron, though a much paler story). Yet the lines between the deeply segregated classes begin to blur as solitary Trella develops an unlikely friendship with an “Upper” boy and begins to realize life in the Uppers is not quite what the pop cops would have her believe. And the mythical Gateway is perhaps more real than anyone, especially Trella, ever imagined. Trella was a difficult character to fully believe in. The animosity she receives from the other scrubs is insubstantial, and her reasons for refusing to hear about her parents are weak. Trella needed a bit of a stronger back story to truly sell her situation to  me, but she is a tough and clever heroine.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

After a terrorist attack devastates his home town of San Fransisco, Marcus is kidnapped and thrust into a dark and frightening interrogation. But he is being held not by the enemy but by his own Department of Homeland Security, and though Marcus is eventually released, his friend has become one of the disappeared. The DHS crackdown on not only his own liberties but the freedoms of all citizens are chilling in their believability. Marcus is a perfectly depicted, frightened yet stubborn teenager, whose ability with computers allows him to undermine the regime of terror that has been setup for the protection of the public. His determination to find his friend transforms him and his growing underground following of tech-savvy teens into a formidable force. It’s a reassuring story for those who only see the apathy in our teens, and the rallying cries to not trust anyone under 21 are, frankly, inspiring.

Gone by Michael Grant

When everyone 15 and over disappears one day from their town, Sam Temple finds himself attempting to bring order to a group of terrified and unsupervised children. With his genius friend Astrid and her autistic younger brother, Sam begins to piece together some form of society and to uncover the mystery behind the disappearances. In a moment of failed heroism, he discovers a supernatural ability to shoot beams of light from his hands, and little by little more abilities surface in those left behind. They find that there is a kind of force field that seems to encircle the area of the town, and they discover that anyone turning 15 also vanishes. In obvious Lord of the Flies parallels, power struggles and survival dominate the landscape while the addition of sci-fi phenomenon create a complex and dizzying storyline. In fact the sci-fi bit was a little too dizzying for my taste…

The Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

This series needs no introduction. I get a little giddy discussing these books, so I apologize in advance, but these books are a masterfully crafted story, with a heroin beautifully flawed, achingly familiar and inspiringly brave. Not to mention it is a complex and entertaining exploration of almost everything wrong with society. Tally Youngblood spends her nights sneaking out of the dorm for young “Uglies”, illegally spying on the glittering world of the Pretties across the river, and anxiously awaiting the day of her 16th birthday when she can undergo the required operation to become Pretty like them. But when her friend discovers a mysterious rebel society and flees the promised operation to join them, Tally is given a choice. Follow her friends obscure directions and lead the Special Circumstances to the rebel’s hideout, or never be given the pretty face she has been waiting for her whole life. As the truth behind the world as she knows it becomes clear to her, Tally’s own values and deep-seated desires are questioned. And for us readers, we are given a clear and piercing mirror reflecting our own dutifully formed beliefs of beauty, identity, self and worth.

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It’s been a long time since I fell for a character quite this hard. I love May.  She is one of the most flawed (and wounded) middle school protagonists I have ever read. Which endears her to me completely.

May is well on her way to juvenile delinquency, and Cecilia Galante perfectly conveys the bitter, defiant attitude of a teenager whose actions are quickly spiraling beyond her control.

Her circle of loved ones is bleak, the entire family separately nursing the wounds left behind by her mother. A grandmother who rarely leaves her bed, haunted by guilt and living in memories. A father, rarely home, whose pain and anger clash with May’s in shouting matches that reverberate through the projects where they live.

When May is ‘sentenced’ to summer school with the teacher she most despises, Movado ‘the Avocado,’ she is a coil of pent up rage. As she puts in her time with Movado, discovering things like “imagery” and “personification,” her anger does not lessen. But she does, very slowly and believably begin to find her voice.

The tone and pacing of this novel is perfect.  May’s journey to understand herself and to discover the underlying factors behind her mother’s choice to leave her is wonderfully true to life. The emotional lives of May’s family, her teacher and her absent mother are revealed through actions perfectly nuanced and sometimes harshly raw.

The only bit I didn’t love was May’s too perfect best friend Olive, who spouts words of wisdom parroted from her mother (a life coach) and behaves in general like a 30-yr-old mentor might. I liked her, I just didn’t love her.

The tension, both inside May and between her and her family members, carries the reader along on a wave that swells with pain and glimmers with hope.  May’s actions and feelings always make perfect sense, right up until the turning point, and the resolution is a satisfying balm.

I just reserved The Patron Saint of Butterflies and I am greatly looking forward to it!

11/23/11 UPDATE: I’m adding this book to my Newbery Contenders! I’m frankly surprised I haven’t seen it on other mock Newbery lists…

Buy The Summer of May

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