Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The BFG by Roald Dahl

The BFG by Roald Dahl is the story of an orphan who goes on an unexpected giant adventure.

One night, when Sophie can't sleep, she goes and looks out the window -- even though she knows she will get in trouble for being out of bed if the orphanage matron catches her. On the dark street, she sees a humongous figure doing something mysterious with a trumpet-like instrument and a suitcase. When his gaze turns toward her window, she leaps back into bed, but it is too late: an enormous hand reaches in and snatches her. Fortunately, Sophie has been captured, not by a man-eating giant, but by the Big Friendly Giant (BFG) who eats only disgusting snozzcumbers and spends his time catching good dreams and sending them to children around the world. There are some nasty giants, though, and they do eat people regularly. The BFG would like to stop them, but it takes him and Sophie working together to come up with a plan.

I didn't like this one quite as much as Matilda, but it was all right. It has definite kid appeal, with the wild plot and a few touches of gross humor. Maybe if I had read this as a kid, I would have liked it -- but I think I waited too long to truly appreciate it.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Monday, April 15, 2013

Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby

Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby is set in the fading glory days of the circus in America.

First Portia's mother left, then her cousins and most of her extended family. When Portia's father goes away also, Portia is left with just a strict and unsympathetic aunt -- and Portia soon proves to be too much for her, as well. Portia is sent to a School for Wayward Girls, presided over by a man the girls know only as Mister, who neglects and mistreats his charges. When tragedy strikes, Portia runs away. She runs to the circus, in hopes that she will be able to somehow discover what became of her father after he left. At Mosco's Traveling Wonder Show, Portia negotiates for a job and safety -- despite the fact that she is a "Normal" and so has little to offer the Wonder Show. As she travels with them, Portia gets to know the sideshow characters who at first seem fearsome to her. And, even more slowly, they begin to accept her as well. However, the threat of being caught and returned to Mister hangs over Portia even as she travels with the Wonder Show -- because Mister doesn't ever let go of the things or people who belong to him.

This book is strong on atmosphere and characters, with an adequate but unexceptional plot. You can almost see the haze of dust hanging over the carnival grounds as you read, and by the end of the book each character will seem as real to you as if you had been introduced to them in person. Portia's story is interspersed with vignettes from the perspectives of the various characters at the Wonder Show. An Author's Note at the end provides historical context for many of the characters described in the story. I found this an enjoyable read, and would recommend it to fans of circus stories like Water for Elephants.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Peculiars by Maureen Doyle McQuerry

The Peculiars by Maureen Doyle McQuerry is steampunk with goblins -- what's not to like?

All her life, Lena has been ashamed of her unusually long hands and feet, which her family doctor claimed were evidence of a Peculiar (part-goblin) heritage. Since Lena's father disappeared from her life when she was a young child, she doesn't know if there's any truth to the doctor's supposition or not. When she receives a letter and an inheritance that he left for her on her eighteenth birthday, she sets out for the north, in hopes of discovering the truth about her father. Along the way, she meets Jimson, who has just taken a job organizing the library of the mysterious Mr. Beasley, who may have some dealings with Peculiars himself. Is Mr. Beasley to be trusted, or is he performing unspeakable atrocities in his hidden laboratory? Perhaps Lena would be better off trusting charming lawman Thomas Saltre, who seems to have her best interests at heart -- and may know something about Lena's father, as well. . . .

This story reminded me a little bit of Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede, and a little bit of Chime by Franny Billingsley, so fans of either of those books might like this one. Lena has a few Too Stupid To Live moments, but it's not her defining characteristic. Her growing friendship with Jimson is easily the best part of the story. The ending of this book, while somewhat conclusive, left an opening for a possible sequel -- if so, I look forward to seeing what happens with these characters.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Clementine and the Spring Trip by Sara Pennypacker

Clementine and the Spring Trip by Sara Pennypacker is the sixth book in the adorable Clementine series.

In this volume, Clementine meets a new classmate who also has a food name, goes on a class field trip, helps her father with a top-secret project, and discovers a cause that she feels strongly about.

Kids who are already hooked on the series will love it, I'm sure, but I found it a little lacking, somehow. I still adore the Clementine series and recommend it to children constantly -- this is just not one of my favorites from the series. I can't pinpoint what's the matter, though, so perhaps I just read it on an off day.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare

The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare is an historical novel about a young teen who is left to care for his family's homestead and is befriended by native Americans.

Matt and his father have been working hard to prepare their homestead in Maine for the arrival of Matt's mother and sister. Now, Matt's father must make the long journey back to Massachusetts to fetch them -- and Matt must stay and take care of the cabin and the crops. When Matt's gun is stolen by a sketchy trapper who happens by, he worries how he will get along without the ability to hunt. He sees a lot of fish in his future! When Matt gets into trouble with a swarm of angry bees, a Native American man Saknis and his grandson Attean come to Matt's rescue. In gratitude, Matt offers them one of his prized possessions: a copy of Robinson Crusoe -- but the Native Americans do not know how to read English. Matt agrees to teach Attean to read. At first, Matt and Attean do not get along very well, but over time they come to understand one another better. When winter comes and Matt's family has still not arrived, Matt must make a difficult decision: will he keep waiting at the cabin, or will he travel with Attean and his tribe? What if Matt's father never comes?

This is a gripping story, but it has many problematic aspects, particularly in its treatment of Native American culture. Some of the author's word choices are especially poor -- Attean and his grandfather tend to speak in "grunts," women are sometimes referred to as "squaws," and when Matt observes a ceremonial dance, he compares it mentally to a clowing routine. On the other hand, by the end of the novel, Matt has come to a greater appreciation of Native Americans, recognizing that they have taught him how to survive is the wild and have extended hospitality and friendship to him, and there is a sense that he regrets the fact that the Native American hunting grounds will soon be full of white settlers. Matt's nuanced character development is probably what earned this book its Newbery Honor, but it isn't enough to offset the problematic attitudes inherent in the book, and I'd have a hard time recommending this book to young readers of today.

I listened to the audiobook version, and was not particularly impressed. The author has a tendency to use too much emphasis, a delivery that comes across as forceful and distracting to me.

(Reviewed from an electronic audiobook borrowed through my library system.)

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Breathing Room by Marsha Hayles

Breathing Room by Marsha Hayles is the story of a young girl who is sent to a tuberculosis sanatorium in 1940.

When 13-year-old Evvy is sent to the Loon Lake Sanatorium, in hopes that she will recover from her tuberculosis there, she does not know what to expect. Many of the staff members treat the patients brusquely, or even harshly, and there are many rules that limit patients' activity, as rest is the top priority for sanatorium residents. As she acclimates to life at the sanatorium, Evvy starts to make friends with the other girls in her room. All of them long to be cured and return home -- but for tuberculosis sufferers in 1940, a return to health is certainly not guaranteed.

This is historical fiction of the classroom sort -- interesting and enjoyable enough, but probably not something that kids will eagerly pick up on their own. Hayles does a good job of integrating her research into the story without it seeming too overt, and an author's note at the end will answer further questions about tuberculosis sanatoria for the curious reader. Books featuring dying children walk a fine line between being emotionally evocative and emotionally manipulative. While I wouldn't classify this book as manipulative, I think the writing is a little constrained and sanitized, limiting the emotional impact of the story. It's a fairly good book, but not a great one.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Spindlers by Lauren Oliver

The Spindlers by Lauren Oliver is a fairly typical fantasy quest story for middle grade readers.

When Liza's brother's soul is stolen by the Spindlers, evil spider-like creatures who live Below, Liza knows that she is the only one who can save him. Armed with only a broom, she crawls through a hole in her basement wall and finds herself in an underground world populated by various magical creatures. She is immediately befriended by Mirabella, a rat who is trying desperately to look human, and who promises to lead her to the Spindlers' lair. Liza must face many dangers in order to rescue her brother's soul and escape back to her own world.

This book is fairly strong on writing, but rather weak in plot and creativity. There are just a lot of juvenile fantasy books out there about the quest to save a missing/stolen/trapped sibling, and a book has to be truly unique to rise above the herd. This one will be enjoyable enough for young readers, with their fresh outlook and ravenous appetite for anything in the genres they enjoy, but it left me feeling like a jaded grown-up reader who needs to take a little break from this type of story before trying again.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall is a lovely little summertime story.

When the four Penderwick sisters, along with their father and their dog, take a vacation home in the mountains for a few weeks in the summer, they expect the usual summer vacation adventures -- but they get even more fun and adventure than they had bargained for when they meet their neighbors and landlord.

If I had to pick just one word to describe this book, it would be "charming." There's a timeless, classic feel to this story -- not that it's set in nostalgic Days Gone By (there are references to the trappings of modern life, though those things are generally peripheral to the story), but the relationships between the characters, the situations they find themselves in, and the tone and pacing of the story all pay homage to the sort of books that were already dusty and deliciously old-book-scented when I read them as a child.

This time around, I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Susan Denaker. She does a fabulous job of bringing the story to life, with different (but not too different) voices for each character, and a reading that manages to be gentle but not sleepy. So, I would highly recommend both the book and the audiobook of this sweet story.

(Reviewed from an electronic audiobook, borrowed through my library system.)

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Matilda by Roald Dahl is the story of a neglected genius with hidden powers.

Matilda's parents don't realize that she is an exceptional child -- they're only interested in watching television and making money. Matilda's extraordinary intelligence is noticed only by the local librarian -- and, when Matilda starts school, her teacher Miss Honey. But the headmistress of the school, Miss Trunchbull, unfairly pegs Matilda as a troublemaker. While being bored out of her wits in the kindergarten class (Miss Trunchbull won't let Matilda move up to a more suitable grade), Matilda learns that she can do amazing things with the power of her brain. Can Matilda solve her own problems, and Miss Honey's as well?

Confession time: I've never been a Roald Dahl fan. Some kids read everything by him that they can get their hands on. I remember one of my cousins talking about his books with a sort of evangelical fervor, but I just never cared much for him while I was growing up. (This may have been because I was a stubborn and contrary child, and if a book was recommended to me too often, I resisted reading it.) Now, as an adult and a children's librarian, I am quickly catching up on some of his books because I have to do a classroom visit featuring Roald Dahl. I'm enjoying his books now, and I probably would have enjoyed them as a child, if I had given them half a chance. Don't be stubborn like me, kids!
(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Hokey Pokey by Jerry Spinelli

Hokey Pokey by Jerry Spinelli is a fascinating juvenile fantasy.

"All children, except one, grow up."

One morning in Hokey Pokey, when Jack wakes up, everything is different. It's not just that his bike Scramjet has been stolen (by a girl!), but there are other differences, too. The tattoo on his stomach, the one that every kid gets when they arrive in Hokey Pokey, is fading. And . . . well . . . things just feel different. Jack finds himself doing unexpected things, like giving away his prized baseball glove, and wandering off without his amigos LaJo and Dusty. He's listening to the sound of a train whistle that nobody else can hear. And he's thinking about a story, the story that all of the kids in Hokey Pokey know, the story of The Kid . . .

This book inevitably evokes Peter Pan, though the similarities are actually rather few. Jack is no Peter -- he resists his eventual fate for a while, and his emotions are certainly mixed, but in the end he makes a choice. And Hokey Pokey is not a watered-down version of Neverland -- it has its own mysterious geography and landmarks that will appeal to any kid, and any adult who remembers what it was like to be a kid. Spinelli's writing is excellent, though I suspect some readers will have a hard time getting past the quirks and fully engaging with the story. Once they do, though, they will find it a rewarding experience, indeed -- and one that sticks with the reader long after the last page is read. I highly recommend this book to fans of children's literature, and I suspect this is another title we'll be talking about in the fall when awards season rolls around.
(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Dodger by Terry Pratchett

Dodger by Terry Pratchett is not a novel about the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist, but it is a novel about a boy named Dodger, who happens to meet Charles Dickens and perhaps inspires more than one beloved Dickens character.

Dodger is a tosher, thief, and ragamuffin from London's East End. One stormy night he goes to the rescue of a woman he hears crying for help, and that is how his adventures begin. Over the course of the story, Dodger meets an array of historical and pseudo-historical figures: Dickens, of course, but also Disraeli, Angela Burdett-Coutts, Sir Robert Peel, Sweeney Todd, and even Queen Victoria, among others. (I was reminded of the Bloody Jack series, which is similarly littered with unlikely meetings with historical figures.) So, don't expect a gritty and realistic historical novel; Pratchett readily admits that he has romanticized Dodger's London quite a bit. But if you're in the mood for something fun and fast-paced with a plucky hero and a damsel in distress, this book is for you.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Emperor's Soul by Brandon Sanderson

The Emperor's Soul by Brandon Sanderson is a short book, but an excellent one. This fantasy novella is one of my favorite books of the year so far.

Shai is a forger: using a mixture of magic and art, she can make an expert copy of just about anything. When she is caught in the emperor's palace (on a heist involving a priceless painting and a royal treasure), she is imprisoned and expects to be executes. Instead, the emperor's closest advisers set her a task more challenging than any she has yet faced: to forge a new copy of the emperor's soul. The emperor sustained a near-fatal injury in an assassination attempt, and while the royal healers were able to repair his body, he is now basically brain-dead. Shai has just a few months to complete this incredibly complex task -- to forge a copy of a soul, she must know everything there is to know about the person in question. Usually Forgers only replicate their own souls, and even that is a task that can take years. Shai doesn't have years -- in fact, she suspects that she doesn't have even the three months they have given her, because what is the likelihood that a forger who has copied the emperor's soul will be allowed to live after the task is completed? In addition to making the forgery, Shai must find a way to escape her prison. It's not going to be easy, but escape is her only hope of survival. And successfully forging the emperor's soul is the only thing that can prevent the country from sinking into civil war.

This novella is set in the Elantris universe, but it is not necessary to read Elantris before reading The Emperor's Soul. This little book is complete in itself, with a unique and fully realized magic system (Sanderson's specialty) and detailed, interesting characters -- plus a fast-moving plot, which is surprising since the main character is imprisoned for most of the book. Highly recommended -- in fact, I'd recommend this as a good introduction to Sanderson's writing for those who might be put off by more lengthy tomes like Mistborn or The Way of Kings.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)