Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Nothingness of Octavian

Anderson, M.T. 2006. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Volume 1: The Pox Party.

Unless the 'astonishing' quality of this book is how boring it is, Octavian Nothing is anything but astonishing. That doesn't mean that critics aren't praising Octavian, they are if the National Book Award is any indication. It won in the category of 'Young People's Literature.' Here is how they described this book: "Set against the disquiet of Revolutionary Boston, this novel, the first of two parts, re-imagines the past as an eerie place that has startling resonance for readers today." I have two comments. First, The National Book Award has in my opinion always been slightly out of touch with reality. When a book wins an award decided by adults it doesn't reflect or have any connection with how that book will appeal to its targeted age group. Sometimes a book wins that does. Sometimes the book is a dud. Second, I would like a full ten-page explanation as to how the book could possibly have any startling resonance for readers today. Seriously. The book is boring, boring, boring. Then dull. Then back to boring. The only thing that resonates in this reader's mind is: how could a book EVER be so boring and unappealing? In case you're thinking that I am put off because it's historical fiction, know that historical fiction is one of my favorite genres. I am also not put off by the novel's length, theoretically speaking. Its 351 pages is only tedious because of the book's content and drudgery style.

Octavian Nothing is set in Boston in the early years of the Revolutionary War. It is his 'memoir' of his unusual life beginning with his earliest recollections and continuing at least through his fifteenth or sixteenth year. He is a slave, though for the first eight to ten years he is unaware of this fact.

Right thinking is ever a battle, and often I cast my mind back to these early lessons and pursue these early ideals, though now the ghastly purpose of that dim college has been made clear to me; and he who ran it appears to me not like a man but some monster who instructed me, some beast endued with the speech of man, as the centaur Chiron wrote out lessons for young Achilles with his human hands, and spake his lectures with his human mouth, while his glossy hindquarters dropped faeces upon the Senate lawn. (12)

A man in a topiary maze cannot judge of the twistings and turnings, and which avenue might lead him to the heart; while one who stands above, on some pleasant prospect, looking down upon the labyrinth, is reduced to watching the bewildered circumnavigations of the tiny victim through obvious coils--as the gods, perhaps, looked down on beseiged and blood-sprayed Troy from the safety of their couches, and thought mortals weak and foolish while they themselves reclined in comfort, and had only to snap to call Ganymede to their side with nectar decanted.(37)

And so the answer to my perplexities, which must appear in all its clarity to those who look from above, was finally clear to me: that I too was the subject of a zoological experiment (51).

And in case you hadn't picked up on it, the language, sentence structure, and style of Octavian Nothing is grandiose, archaic, and rarely if ever 'resonate.'

Here is how Octavian describes his tutor:

His knowledge was prodigious; his mastery of philosophic depths was total, though his notions were somewhat eccentric. He worked with me word by word, leaning over my shoulder as I parsed my way through Tacitus and Homer; which instruction much have seemed to him not unlike the sea-captain, who having braved the catastrophic blasts and giddy precipices of the maelstrom, and but skated to their side; having passed with expert haste through the clashing Simplegades; having sat in the sick green eye of the hurricane, surrounded by the hulking wrecks of other, less fortunate, fleets; now wades with a little nephew in the warm shallows, collecting trash and pretty bits of shell. He must have looked out to sea with his glass sometimes, and wished for the spray, and men with whom he could truly speak of the rigors of navigation. (58-59)

Perhaps the only resonate line in the book I discovered was: Shed no tear for me; for I shed none for myself(67).

Add to the confusing language and style of the text the fact that only three or four people are given names and the rest are referred to by numbers. It is hard as a reader to care about these characters and what happens to them. How can you get emotionally involved with someone named 03-01 or 09-01, etc.

What I will grant is this, after about 130 or 150 pages into the novel, the reader is finally able to get adjusted to the style and begins to warm up slightly to these characters. But before that each page is dull drudgery. And I ask you this...what reader...what young reader...would ever be patient enough to sit down with a book that is so boring and dull and pointless for over a hundred pages? It is only towards the end of the novel when Octavian is beginning to contemplate escaping from his masters, once he becomes more like the 'average' slave--forced into work, receiving beatings and punishments--that the book becomes slightly worth all the effort the reader had put into it up until that point.

This is hardly best-book-of-the-year material, but I'm sure other best-lists will follow suit and pay homage to this National Book Award winner. My opinion, this is a year where the winner is a fine example of the Emperor's New Clothes. Lots of praise, lots of acclaim and prestige, but the average, honest reader (with a head of common sense) will find a whole lot of nothing.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Wait for Me

Na, An. 2006. Wait For Me.

An Na’s first novel, A Step From Heaven, was a National Book Award finalist and Michael L. Printz Award winner. Her second novel, Wait For Me, features older protagonists. Mina is the imperfect daughter trying desperately to live up to her mother’s high expectations. Since she can’t meet them naturally--no matter how hard she tries--she has formed the bad habit of lying to her parents, her friends, and to some extent herself. Mina is a complex character torn between finding herself and living authentically and continuing to live the lie of a ‘perfect’ and ‘obedient’ daughter that her mother expects and demands. She is also desperately trying to be there to support her younger sister, Suna, who is hearing impaired. Suna is mistreated (verbally abused) by the mother and has been since childhood when her problems came to light. The father is also pushed around (manipulated) by this domineering, controlling woman. But how long can one live a lie? Wait For Me chronicles the summer before Mina’s senior year in high school as her ‘perfect’ world begins to crumble and be replaced by a truer more authentic one. It is told through both Mina’s and Suna’s voices.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Twilight Child

Warner, Sally. 2006. Twilight Child.

I could honestly say that I've never read a historical fiction book set in Finland and Scotland in the mid-eighteenth century until I picked up a copy of Twilight Child. It has long been said that when a baby is born at twilight, the precise moment that hangs between day and night, that child is given a special gift. She is able to sense other in-between things. Eleni, our heroine, is a twilight child. She is able to see and therefore communicate with both Finnish and Scottish 'mythological' creatures: the tonttu of the sauna, the blue men of the Minch, and the brounies of the Scottish highlands. But her life while full of magic is also full of sorrow.

Prologue: Eleni and her best friend Matias are out walking in the forest discussing the war between Sweden and Russia. Their fathers are being called upon to join the army, though neither are too fond of Sweden. (Sweden apparently was in control of Finland much like England was in control of Scotland). It is only a few pages long, but it serves to present the idea of a peaceful childhood and a best friend she could trust.

The First Few Chapters: Taking place at least five to six years later, Eleni's life is radically different. Her father is an outlaw after leading an unsuccessful rebellion. Her mother is sick and dying. And Eleni is a maid in a lady's household. Mattias has been 'missing' for years on end. She has no idea what happened to him or his family or if they're even still in Finland.

The book takes a while to get into the 'main' part of the story. After the death of Eleni's mother, she is 'kidnapped' by her father and his friends. He is a captain of a small vessel, a vessel barely sea worthy. They are on their way to Spain where he will leave his teenage daughter with his new lady-friend. Eleni is far from pleased. Her father's friends turn out to be brutes, well, all except for one who gets killed tragically in a storm. So when Eleni is out on deck and sees the blue men of the Minch, she is told that everyone on board will die at sea but she'll be allowed to live because she is 'one of them' (aka a Twilight Child). She is told to escape from the ship at the next port which happens to be in Scotland--near the town of Tobermory. She is weak but she manages with the help of some creatures to make it away. And sure enough the rest of the crew are lost at sea a bit later on. She is rescued by a wonderful family and taken into the first real home she's had in a long time. There she meets another child touched by magic.

As Eleni gets used to her new life: meeting new people, regaining strength, learning a new language, making friends, etc. she has to decide where she belongs and who she really is. Is 'home' a place in Finland, a place in Scotland, or a place with her future-husband wherever that may be. As different men pay court to her, she must rely on her heart to lead her to a place she can truly call home.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Teen Angel

Spencer, Katherine. 2006. Saving Grace.

Grace Stanley is a troubled teen. But she didn't used to be. In the midsts of her grief, her brother was killed in a car accident over the summer, Grace is finding it hard to start her junior year in high school. Surrounded by her old friends who can't understand and her brother's former friends, she is trying to escape the pain by becoming someone new. Turning her back on school work and extracurricular activities, Grace begins hanging with a new crowd--a different crowd--a 'popular' crowd into drinking, partying, and hooking up. But can Grace truly become a different person overnight? What Grace is learning--although it's very slowly, is that alcohol may numb feelings...but that the feelings never go away. What Grace needs, what she truly needs, is a guardian angel. How convenient then that she is befriended by Philomena Cantos, a mysterious new girl at school. Philomena seems to know her inside and out and is always ready to listen and help. Katherine Spencer's novel Saving Grace is an interesting novel that shows a family in grief in a very honest and authentic way.

Other YA titles that deal with grief include Maybe by Brent Runyon, Looking For Alaska by John Green, The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen, Pepperland by Mark DeLaney, Going For the Record by Julie Swanson, Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata, and What is Goodbye? by Nikki Grimes.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Just For You To Know

Harness, Cheryl. 2006. Just For You To Know.

Cheryl Harness is not new to the field of children’s literature; she has been an author and illustrator for many years. However, with the publication of JUST FOR YOU TO KNOW, her first novel, she has targeted an older audience. (It is her twenty-fifth book.)

Set in Independence, Missouri, in the summer and fall of 1963, JUST FOR YOU TO KNOW tells the story of a young girl and her family as they experience some of life’s harshest lessons and greatest joys.

The Cathcart family could be described with many words, but ‘quiet’ and ‘organized’ won’t be among them. Carmen Cathcart, the oldest girl in the family, has five younger brothers and if that wasn’t enough noise and chaos for a twelve year old to deal with--she discovers to her dismay that another one is on the way. The book begins with their noisy transition to the new town and new home. Carmen is tired of her father’s reckless “pick up and go” attitude of living. Can’t they stay in the same town more than a year? This is her ninth home in twelve years! Carmen is embarrassed of her family. Embarrassed of the noise, the mess, the turmoil of all the voices yelling and tattling and whatnot. Tired of being perpetually on babysitting duty. She dreams of having free time to read books, to draw, to paint, to dream.

But Carmen’s priorities are about to be turned upside down when on her birthday her mother unexpectedly goes into labor. She walks into the kitchen to find her mother doubled over in pain and blood all over the floor. With screaming children in a panic she sends one of her brothers to find help at a neighbor’s house. The neighborhood bully--who up until that point hadn’t one redeeming quality--saves the day when he drives the mother to the hospital. But the panic and uncertainty remain with the kids as they wait and wait and wait to hear news from the hospital. Hours later they get the news they never wanted. They have a sister, BUT their mother is gone.

JUST FOR YOU TO KNOW shows how one family deals with the pain and grief of life along with the typical daily agonies of growing up, making friends, and learning responsibility. Longing for things to be the way they were, they learn to cope with life one day at a time. The novel is not forced in that it shows them one day waking up and everything being wonderful and perfect and problem-free. The novel instead shows that grief is a process, a struggle, something that doesn’t go away overnight. It’s a journey with many twists and turns along the way.

Some of her other works include: Our Colonial Year, The Remarkable Benjamin Franklin, Franklin and Eleanor, Ghosts of the Nile, Thomas Jefferson, The Revolutionary John Adams, Rabble Rousers: 20 Women Who Made A Difference, Ghosts of the Civil War, Remember the Ladies, George Washington, Ghosts of the 20th Century, Midnight in the Cemetary, Mark Twain and the Queens of the Mississippi, Young Teddy Roosevelt, Ghosts of the White House, Abe Lincoln Goes To Washington 1837-1865, They’re Off! The Story of the Pony Express, Young Abe Lincoln 1809-1837, PaPa’s Christmas Gift, The Amazing Impossible Erie Canal, Young John Quincy, Three Young Pilgrims, and The Queen With Bees in Her Hair.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

He Said, She Said

Colasanti, Susane. 2006. When It Happens.

WHEN IT HAPPENS is a delightful and entertaining novel narrated by alternating our two main characters Sara and Tobey. Sara is a bit on the naive side, a hopeless romantic; someone waiting for something real to come along. Her dream for her senior year? To find true love and not just settle for any boy. Her imagine him, to picture him, to daydream about him, write about him, etc. She keeps a sketchbook where she glues words and pictures of what she thinks real love looks like. The problem? She's trying to attach these traits to 'cute' boys she barely knows. Case #1: Dave. Dave is a jock. He's cocky, arrogant, and not who Sara imagines him to be. Tobey is in a band. A guitarist. He writes his own songs. A bit on the shy side UNLESS girls approach him, he also has his nerdy side. He blends in with his classmates rather than being a target for bullies, but not really popular with the ladies. Tobey's dream senior year involves getting Sara to be his girlfriend. He has dreamed about her from afar for quite awhile. His friends help him with his plan which is slightly more concrete than Sara's. His plan? To 'accidentally' run into her in the halls. To stare at her in class until she (or one of her friends) notices. To make friends of HER best friend.

WHEN IT HAPPENS is an enjoyable read. The chapters narrated by Sara read like chick lit. They showcase the romantic, bubbly feel of your average romantic comedy set in high school...pure enjoyment if you like that kind of thing. As a reader I found myself just smiling through it all. The chapters narrated by Tobey are quite good as well. It's interesting to read 'romance' from the male point of view. This isn't the first YA book to do so by any means. These chapters remind me of KING DORK, THE ASTONISHING ADVENTURES OF FANBOY AND GOTH GIRL, MAYBE, LOOKING FOR ALASKA, etc. To read both perspectives is a real treat. You feel like you KNOW the characters, sometimes you feel you know them even better than other characters do.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Gordon Korman

Korman, Gordon. 2006. Born to Rock.

Born to Rock is an enjoyable novel narrated by Leo Caraway. Leo's life may not seem typical at the outset--he's president of the Young Republican's club, has a 4.0 GPA, and has already been accepted by Harvard on scholarship--but his life is about to get even more untypical. When Leo is falsely accused of cheating, his future looks bleak--at least if he's determined for that Ivy League education. But things get even weirder when he reads his friend's essay on her punk rock idol. Let me explain. As a child, he had no idea that his 'father' wasn't his biological father. When he discovers his birth certificate with a stranger's name on it--Marion X. McMurphy--he's confused. Fast forward ten years or so in the future when he reads in his friend's paper that King Maggot was born Marion X. McMurphy and you've got some idea of his reaction.

"I'd always assumed I'd learn about my father in the long run. But it would be from Mom. . .whoever thought that such pivotal, life-altering information would come from Melinda Rapaport's essay on punk rock?" (41)
"When I finished the essay, I wasn't done yet. Google came up with 175,000 hits on the keywords "King Maggot." I thought of the years I'd spent agonizing over the identity of my stealth sire. If I'd bothered to do a simple Internet search, I'd have learned the truth on day one" (44).

Armed with this knowledge, Leo embarks on a new adventure: to meet his famous dad. Luckily, a reunion tour is just beginning. Will Leo's dad believe his story? Will he welcome Leo with open arms? Will be become 'Prince Maggot'? Or is Leo's future as uncertain as ever?

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving!

Runyon, Brent. 2006. Maybe.

"The second hardest thing to do in life is to change from a child into an adult. There are so many ways to mess up. So many ways to get lost. It's like crossing the ocean in a rowboat."--Brent Runyon

Random House Author: Brent Runyon

Brent Runyon's The Burn Journals was an incredible memoir of a major turning point in the author's life: a chronicle of his failed suicide attempt. The book met with much praise as well, just read a few of the reviews and you'll see.

Maybe is the author's first novel. Told in first person, it chronicles Brian's first semester of his senior year. Charting the various emotions and events of a young man's life, the reader gains new insight into his troubled life. Yet behind the somewhat shallow routines of daily life (school, girls, friends, parties), the reader sees an intimate portrait of grief as our narrator begins to feel and react to the loss of his brother tragically killed in a car accident the previous year.

Maybe is a great coming-of-age novel, and would pair well with Looking For Alaska by John Green.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

From the Earth to the Moon...

Rupp, Rebecca. 2006. Journey to the Blue Moon: In Which Time Is Lost and Then Found Again.

Journey To The Blue Moon is an entertaining read for young readers; I’d say it would be great for fourth graders to sixth graders. But readers of all ages will find--if they read with open minds--that parts of Journey to The Blue Moon are very cleverly done. Our young hero, Alex, is your typical kid. He finds school pointless, a waste of time. He has difficulty concentrating on his homework. He wants to have fun and not waste his time being bored with learning stuff he finds irrelevant and pointless. His difficulties have only increased since he lost his grandfather’s pocket watch. Time has changed for him since then though he doesn’t quite understand how or why.

A weird encounter with an old woman, Lulu, at the library sends the young boy on a trip to the moon. Let me explain the premise of the novel. Have you ever wondered what happened to all the things we lose? Where do lost things go? Rupp answers this quite seriously by having ALL lost things go to the moon. Everything from the straightforward items like lost keys, books, watches, pencils, pens, toys, clothes, homework assignments to more abstract items like hearts, ways, intentions, memories, dreams, etc. Perhaps my favorite is when the hero and his friends find the place where all books which have been started but never finished are sent and as one of the character points out...they still have the original bookmarks. Our hero, Alex, has three days to find what he has lost and reclaim it or he will be stuck on the moon until the next time it is blue. Many travelers have been wandering lost on the moon for years, centuries, etc. But Alex is determined to go on his quest and suceed. His friends he meets on the way add to the story reminding me of such books as The Wizard of Oz. Each friend has his/her own goal. Each decides its best to have the support of friends along the way.

Overall, I must say I found myself enjoying Journey to the Blue Moon despite the unfortunate book cover--although perhaps that is just my opinion. I find myself liking fantasy novels, but hating their covers. I don’t know how typical that is. But anyway, I would definitely recommend Journey to the Blue Moon.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Alphabet of Dreams

Fletcher, Susan. 2006. Alphabet of Dreams.

Set in the Ancient MiddleEast (Persia/Babylon/Judea), Mitra and her brother Babak are beggars who are not what they appear to be: royal children on the run hiding from an evil king who murdered their parents. They have escaped notice from the adults so far, but when Babak starts having "true" dreams about other people, attention begins to fall on them. In some ways, they are better off than before. They now can pay for food instead of steal it, but in some ways it is dangerous for people are talking about these strange foreigners who have dreams that foretell the future. When Babak is 'captured' by a/the magus (magi), he begins dreaming of stars, kings, and a newborn baby. Mitra and Babak travel with the three magi on a long journey that ends in Bethlehem.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Braid

Frost, Helen. 2006. The Braid.

Set in Scotland and Canada in the nineteenth century, The Braid tells through a series of poems the story of two sisters separated by an ocean but still fiercely devoted to one another. Jeannie narrates the poems told from Canada, and Sarah narrates the poems told from Scotland. How did the sisters become separated? The family was living in Scotland when their landlord forced them off the land and gave them a deadline. The grandmother refused to go with the rest of the family to Canada. She wanted to return to the village where she grew up. One sister, Sarah, didn't want to be separated from her grandmother and didn't like the idea of her being alone. She was also, of course, rather attached to the land herself. So when the day comes for the family to depart, Sarah disappears in the middle of the night leaving in the bed she shared with her sister Jeannie a braid of her hair. Filled with emotion and heartache, each sister tells her own story, yet their stories connect in some ways as the reader discovers as the plot unfolds...

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Michael Cadnum's Nightsong

Cadnum, Michael. 2006. Nightsong: The Legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Adapted from Ovid’s epic Metamorphoses, Michael Cadnum presents the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, a pair of lovers torn tragically apart not once but twice. Orpheus, the son of Calliope and a mortal (and the grandson of Jupiter himself) is beloved by the gods--or so everyone believes. Playing a lute he received from Apollo, he spends his time traveling through various countries and cities entertaining the crowds and enchanting the maidens. Until one day he falls madly in love with a princess, Eurydice. All seems to be going well until tragedy strikes on their wedding night. Now it is up to Orpheus to brave the underworld and seek an audience with Pluto and Persophone to plead his case. (Those familiar with the tale knows the rescue doesn’t go quite as planned.) Nightsong is a friendly introduction to a mythological classic tale of love and loss.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Shepherd, Monsters, Heroes...

Druitt, Tobias. 2006. Corydon and the Island of Monsters.

Interesting facts about the authors: Tobias Druitt is the pseudonym for Diane Purkiss and her son, Michael Dowling. Diane is Tutor in English at Keble College, Oxford, and the first Oxford English Faculty member since C S Lewis and JR R Tolkien to publish a children's book. Her key academic interests are classical literature, and women in literature. Her co-author, Michael, is nine years old. They live in Oxford and have two cats, Thelma and Louise, who inspired the characters of Euryale and Sthenno, the gorgons, in the novel.

About Tobias Druitt

Corydon and the Island of Monsters is the first in a trilogy written by the mother-son duo of Diane Purkiss and Michael Dowling. The son is quite young, still in school, I believe he was 9 when they began writing together. The book came about when he was excluded from a school assignment where each child was to write a book with a parent’s help. The two decided it wasn’t quite fair they should miss out on the fun and began working on Corydon, a tale Purkiss describes as “a book about mothers and sons, really, about how difficult and important that love can be.”

Corydon could further be described as a twist on the traditional monster tale. Here the reader sees life through the eyes of the outcasts, the monsters. They see these supposedly ‘scary’ creatures up, close, and personal. They also see the so-called ‘good guys’ (the heroes) come to destroy them for alleged wrong doings...essentially the heroes motto is to destroy anything that is different from yourself and that you don’t understand.

In particular, Corydon is the tale of Perseus’ quest to kill Medusa told from the point of view of a young shepherd, Corydon, and in some ways through Medusa herself. The main characters are Corydon, Medusa, and her two gorgon sisters, Euryale and Sthenno. Perseus is not depicted as a hero, rather as a dimwitted coward.

The second book in the trilogy, Corydon and the Fall of Atlantis, is (according to Amazon) going to be published in February 2007.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Runaway Princess

Coombs, Kate. The Runaway Princess.

Although the cover art is not appealing, Kate Coombs first novel for children, The Runaway Princess, is a charming, entertaining read about one princess’ determination to win her own hand in marriage. In the kingdom of Greeve, the prime minister convinces the king that his daughter is old enough to be married to an eligible prince. And, he asserts, that having a contest for princes to enter would help the economy of Greeve and at the same time rid the country of some of its unpleasant inhabitants--a witch, a dragon, and group of bandits. Choosing the word of his prime minister over that of his wife and daughter, the king announces the contest and the prize at a banquet.

Meg, the princess, hears the news not from her parents privately but in front of the entire kingdom. Anger doesn’t even come close to describing her reaction. Locked away in a tower until the contest’s conclusion, Meg worries about what her father has unleashed on the kingdom. Evil princes are on the loose...if only there was a way she could escape and warn the witch, the dragon, and the bandits. Teaming up with her friends, mostly servants both male and female, Meg escapes the tower and does just that. On a mission to win the contest herself and protect the kingdom against the recklessness of greedy princes.

All the usual characters are presented in THE RUNAWAY PRINCESS, the princess, the princes, the ‘evil’ witch, enchanted frogs, fire-breathing dragons, etc. But Coombs comical take on the traditional fairy tale is unforgettably charming. Readers expecting the novel to end in the trite “and they lived happily ever after...” will be disappointed to discover that instead it is “once upon a time there was a princess who knew she was meant for more than twirling her tresses and swooning” (279).

Related books...
Levine, Gail Carson. Ella Enchanted.
Hale, Shannon. The Princess Acadamy.
Hale, Shannon. The Goose Girl.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Princess Academy

I have had so much fun reading and re-reading the works of Shannon Hale. And my review of Princess Academy will be my final installment in "Author Spotlight: Shannon Hale." I hope she has a long career in the field of children's literature because she is very talented!

Hale, Shannon. 2005. PRINCESS ACADEMY. New York: Bloomsbury. ISBN 1582349932

PRINCESS ACADEMY written by Shannon Hale, author of THE GOOSE GIRL and ENNA BURNING, is a delightful novel set in the fictional locale of Danland. In a setting reminiscent of "long ago and far away," Miri and her companions are selected to attend a "princess academy" to prepare themselves to meet the prince. (The priests have forseen that the future bride of the prince will come from this small town on top of a remote mountain.) The girls range from twelve to eighteen. For the first time in their lives, they are learning to read and write. Of course, there are other less essential items taught at the school as well: conversation, poise, curtseying, dancing, diplomacy, etc. As the school year draws to an end, however, some of the girls are realizing that they do not want the prince to choose them. They begin to doubt that the royalty lives "happily ever after." After all, how much do they actually know about this prince? Then the girls realize something: this education they're receiving is empowering them. It's not about who "wins" the prince; it's about gaining knowledge of themselves and the world. This education is something that they will have the rest of their lives no matter where they live or who they marry.

PRINCESS ACADEMY is narrated by Miri, a fourteen year old with a sensitive insight to her own emotions and of the emotions of those around her. She has always felt like an outcast in her village, but through her experiences at the academy, she learns that she has many strengths. Her academy experiences make her smarter, wiser, and ultimately a strong leader. PRINCESS ACADEMY is a delightful and enjoyable read with a satisfying ending.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

River Secrets

Hale, Shannon. 2006. River Secrets.

Razo, a character first introduced in The Goose Girl and further developed in Enna Burning, is the narrator of Shannon Hale’s third companion novel in the Bayern series. Set several months after the second novel, it begins with discussions of the peace treaty between Bayern and Tira. But can the two countries forget the war so quickly? The two decide to exchange ambassadors in order to further the process. Razo, Enna, Finn, Conrad, and Talone are among those in the Bayern guard protecting Lady Megina in Tira. Risking their lives in the name of peace, they live day by day questioning how long the peace settlement will last as Tiran rebels try to murder them all and drag the nation back into war. Will Lady Dasha, the daughter of Tira’s ambassador, hold the secret to keeping the peace or is she part of the rebellion?

As Razo becomes friends with various Tirans, the reader is led on a mysterious quest. Who is behind all the burned bodies they keep discovering? Who is trying to frame them for murder? And who is so anxious to begin the war again? Can people from these two nations ever learn to trust each other?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Enna Burning

Hale, Shannon. 2004. Enna Burning.

Enna, a character first introduced in Shannon Hale’s first novel The Goose Girl, is the narrator of Hale’s second novel, Enna Burning. Set a year or so after the the first novel, Enna has returned to the forest to care for her brother, Leifer, who is unknowingly about to unleash a dark power that will either save or destroy Bayern. What he has discovered buried deep in the forest is an ancient parchment that reveals a secret kept hidden from mankind for centuries: the power of fire.

Isi, now the princess of Bayern, has the power of wind--the ability to control the wind and learn its secrets. But now a young man is about to teach himself the power of fire. After an incident where his anger literally burns his sister, Enna, she flees to the city--to the palace--to seek her old friend’s advice. She wants to know just how dangerous her brother could be. Enna is already curious wanting to know if it might not be better for everyone if she could learn this power to in order to help her brother learn how to control his new gift. Isi makes her promise never to try to learn the power. It is a gift as much as a curse to be able to commune with nature and control it.

But all promises are forgotten when Bayern is attacked by the neighboring country of Tira. Could this ‘curse’ be the secret weapon that will save the country from years of war? Is risking one’s sanity--and one’s life--worth it if it means a victory in the end? What will Enna decide? And can she live with the conseqences...

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Goose Girl Revisited

Yesterday's review of The Goose Girl focused on the similarities between the traditional tale and Hale's new novel. Today I'd like to briefly revisit the novel to prepare the reader for the companion novels Enna Burning and River Secrets.

1) Friendships. The Goose Girl did an excellent job of portraying the friendships of "Ani" or "Isi." From her most trusted guard, Talone, to her first new friend, Finn, whose home she took refuge in when she was most distraught to her fellow animal-yard workers Enna, Razo, and Conrad. It was her ability to learn to trust again that strengthened her spirit and enabled her to rise from obscurity to reclaim the prince and earn her happily ever after ending. Her success was a group effort. These people MATTERED to the story. So it was to Hale's advantage that they were so well-developed thus opening the door up to companion novels drawing not from traditional fairy tales but new original stories.

2) Important magical concept. In The Goose Girl, Anidori Kiladra Talianna Isilee was raised in her early years to be open to certain magical ideas. An aunt told her nursery stories of people having the ability to 'speak' other languages and communicate with different animals, the wind, fire, and water. These 'fanciful' stories were forbidden by the king and queen especially after they heard Ani speaking to swans as a young child. But these stories--and the notion that one could learn to communicate with others in a secret language--formed an important part of Ani's heritage. As the reader finds out in THE GOOSE GIRL, Ani or Isi has the ability to speak with birds (at least swan and geese) and she learns to speak with the wind and have it do her bidding.

Orson Scott Card's review of Shannon Hale's Goose Girl
Orson Scott Card's review of Shannon Hale's Enna Burning
Orson Scott Card's review of Shannon Hale's The Princess Academy

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Goose Girl

Hale, Shannon. 2003. The Goose Girl.

Drawing from the richness of the Grimms fairy tale 'The Goose Girl,' Hale expands the simple story of a bride's mistaken identity into a beautiful, romantic novel adding new layers of depth to an already promising tale. Whether the reader is familiar with the Grimms' text or not, they can't help but be swept up into the story of the bravery and strength of a young princess robbed of her title, her groom, and her freedom by a lady in waiting who has been waiting for a chance all along to betray her.

Anidori Kiladra Talianna Isilee was born to be Crown Princess. Raised to be the future queen of Kildenree. But plans change when her father dies and her mother arranges her marriage with a foreign prince in order to ensure peace for another generation. Ani accepts her fate with patience and hope. Hope that her new country, her husband will treat her well. But on the long journey to her new home, Selia, her lady in waiting, charms the royal guard and plans a violent upheaval before they arrive in Bayern. Escaping with only her life, Ani must take on a new identity until one day when she can reclaim what rightfully belongs to her.

Her disguise? What better way to stay hidden than to work as a goose girl tending the flocks of the king and queen. As "Isi" (her new name) befriends her fellow workers, she begins to discover new things about herself. New strengths. New determination. New confidence.

What the reader discovers while reading The Goose Girl is that 'happily ever after' endings don't come easily. And that the journey to 'happy endings' are often paved with disappointment, frustration, injustices, and unexpected difficulties.

Grimm 089: The Goose Girl
The Annotated Goose Girl
Shannon Hale's Official Site Page for Goose Girl with discussion guide, deleted scenes and chapters, quizzes, etc.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Author Spotlight: Shannon Hale

Who is Shannon Hale?

Shannon Hale is the author of the companion books The Goose Girl, Enna Burning, and River Secrets (fall 2006). She received a Newbery Honor for her New York Times–bestseller, Princess Academy. She and her husband are working together on a graphic novel, and live with their son in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Her writing...

The Goose Girl, her critically acclaimed first book, is an ALA Teens' Top Ten and Josette Frank Award winner. Enna Burning and River Secrets are companion books to Goose Girl, continuing the Bayern books series. Princess Academy is a Newbery Honor Book and a New York Times best seller. She's working on Austenland, an adult novel, and Rapunzel's Revenge, a graphic novel co-written with Dean Hale (husband) and illustrated by Nathan Hale (no relation).

Her website...

An interview with Shannon Hale from EMBRACING THE CHILD

I will be reviewing The Goose Girl, Enna Burning, River Secrets, and The Princess Academy in the upcoming days. I have finished reading three of the it's just a matter of writing the reviews and posting them!

Friday, November 10, 2006

Words of Wisdom...

Portman, Frank. 2006. King Dork.

King Dork is by far one of the best young adult books released this year. The books I fall in love with at first sight are few and far between, but I must say that King Dork had me from the very first paragraph:

They call me King Dork. Well, let me put it another way: no one ever actually calls me King Dork. It's how I refer to myself in my head, a silent protest and an acknowledgement of reality at the same time. I don't command a nerd army, or preside over a realm of the socially ill-equipped. I'm small for my age, young for my grade, uncomfortable in most situations, nearsighted, skinny, awkward, and nervous. And no good at sports. So Dork is accurate. The King part is pure sarcasm, though: there's nothing special or ultimate about me. I'm generic. It's more like I'm one of the kings in a pack of crazy, backward playing cards, designed for a game where anyone who gets me automatically loses the hand. I mean, everything beats me, even twos and threes. (5)

And the genius continues throughout...the reader finds phrases that resonate with wisdom, truth, and/or humor.

There's always a bit of suspense about the particular way in which a given school year will get off to a bad start (7).

King Dork is one teen boy's (Tom, aka "Moe" or "Chi-Mo") story of the first semester of his sophomore year (August-December). The characters are memorable and the story unforgettable. A coming-of-age novel that will entertain teens and adults alike.

Recommended books: Looking for Alaska by John Green (reviewed September 11, 2006) and The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga (reviewed October 20, 2006).
Video trailer for King Dork
Frank Portman's Listmania List for "King Dork"

Thursday, November 09, 2006


In yesterday's post I reviewed BURNED by Ellen Hopkins a verse novel about a teen girl whose life was spiraling out of control. Today's review of SWEETBLOOD by Pete Hautman continues that theme of 'troubled' teens, but has a much happier ending.

Hautman, Pete. 2003. Sweetblood.

Lucy Szabo is a troubled teen. No doubt about it. Dressing most often in black--including lipstick and nail polish--she might be considered your typical angry and rebelling teen. What makes Sweetblood unique is its twist on vampire fiction. Lucy is not a vampire--there are no vampires in Sweetblood--but her theory that she is Undead because of her type one diabetes is quite interesting. Obsessed with vampires, Lucy is convinced that her exposure to an ill bat as a small child (she picked him up and took him home) led to her onset of diabetes a few months later. Now as a teen, blood is both her friend and her enemy. Anger is a factor in some of her choices, and her addiction to vampire-dedicated chat rooms may lead her into a dangerous situation or two...

Lucy's life is spiraling out of control, but unlike Pattyn in yesterday's novel BURNED, she has the support of friends and family to balance her out so she doesn't feel her life is hopeless.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Ellen Hopkins

Hopkins, Ellen. 2006. Burned.

BURNED by Ellen Hopkins is a verse novel set in Nevada following the life struggles of a troubled teen. Reading about troubled teenagers is nothing new to those familiar with the field of young adult literature and Ellen Hopkins presents a memorable heroine, Pattyn, who is dealing with the complexity and unfairness of life. Why, for instance, does her father repeatedly abuse her mother? Why can't her father go a day without drinking? Why does her mother not only stay in the abusive situation but continue to have child after child after child after child? Why doesn't the community step in and help? The answer to all these questions turns out to be quite simple. At least in Pattyn's mind. Because her family is Mormon and leaving in a Mormon community, her life is essentially doomed to be miserable. Is this a fair assessment of the faith? I would presume not. But like most teen literature the narrator is not objective!

Pattyn's life takes a downhill turn when she discovers boys. She's not drawn to the Mormon boys, the boys her parents would approve of her seeing and dating. No, she likes the bad boys. The popular boys. The boys who are interested in only one thing. After being discovered in the desert "alone" and with a strange non-Mormon boy, her father sends her away to live with her aunt, aunt J, her father's sister whom he hasn't spoken to in decades. But sending her away turns out to be both the best and worst thing that ever happened in her life.

What happens when you take a girl out of a controlling, manipulative, stifled existence and transplant her to a place where she's free to be herself and explore the world? She blossoms. She grows. She transforms. But what happens when her freedom is taken away and she has to go back home? How can she go back to who she was before? How can she survive after tasting what life is supposed to be like?

Pattyn's brief taste of love, freedom, and acceptance is enjoyable to read. But her dismal existence in an alcoholic, abusive home can be painful. Especially since she can't change who she's now become and the hard realization that all actions (whether you regret them or treasure them) have consequences.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


Wallace, Karen. 2006. THE UNRIVALLED SPANGLES.

Meet the Spangles. A highly dysfunctional spirited circus family living in London's East End in the nineteenth century. Ellen, Lucy, Sam Spangle are used to performing in front of large crowds, but do they have the strength and courage it takes to persevere when they're hit with a long run of bad luck?

Ellen is the oldest child in the family. Practically a young woman who could be ready for love and marriage when the right man comes along, she is tired of performing in the spotlight and dreams of life away from the circus. Lucy, the middle child is spoiled rotten--too rotten as it turns out. She majors in selfishness and minors in manipulation. Sam is the baby of the family. A good-natured sort of boy who gives Ellen hope that maybe the family isn't as crazy as it seems. The parents? One is controlling, domineering, and has a temper. The other has a more calming effect on everyone and balances out the pair.

When one of Ellen's suitors sends her a mirror as a present, the selfish Lucy grabs it out of her hands and accidentally drops it. Though no one wants to say that they're 'cursed' with seven years bad luck, everyone is thinking it. And it turns out they're not wrong to be concerned. As one thing after another goes wrong....can Ellen hold her fragile family together? And will she ever live the life she wants? Or is she doomed to live in her sister's shadow?

Monday, November 06, 2006

Psyche In A Dress

Block, Francesca Lia. 2006. Psyche in A Dress.

Psyche In A Dress is a verse novel told in first person narrative that can be at times confusing, yet if the reader is persistent he/she will be rewarded for their effort. Why the confusion? There are two possible reasons the reader might find himself/herself confused: 1) being plunged into characters and story lines from Greek mythology with no explanation or context from the author and 2) having the narrator transform herself from one heroine to another metaphorically speaking. The good news? If the reader keeps reading, by the end of the book it will make a lot more sense. The bad news? If the reader gives up after the first confusing chapter or two or gets tired of metaphors and symbolism...then they'll be missing the big picture that Block was trying to paint.

The narrator who sometimes refers to herself as Psyche or Soul has various lovers throughout her life who take on the personas of gods and other characters (mortal or immortal) from Greek mythology). With each new lover--love, heartache, pain, etc, her persona or personality is transformed or changed to take on the characteristics of female goddesses or characters (mortal or immortal) from Greek mythology. Therefore she switches from representing one goddess to another to another in rapid succession which can be more than a little confusing to the reader with only a mediocre frame of reference to these myths. Who are some of these lovers? Love, Narcissus, Orpheus, and Hades. And the female personas she wears like a dress? Psyche, Echo, Eurydice, Maenad, Persephone, and Demeter.

It's a good book, perhaps one that will improve upon second reading. And if the reader is well-versed in Greek mythology and knows the stories backwards and forwards and can recall the small details that make each story unique, perhaps Psyche in a Dress will be an easy, enjoyable read. But the book remains a clever examination of what it means to be a woman by examining the roles women play, the lies they tell themselves, and the things they'll do to feel loved and accepted.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Life As We Knew It

Imagine waking up one day to find that everything had changed practically over night. All over the world massive destruction due to one natural disaster after another. And what if there was no way to turn back the clock. To wake up knowing that each day will be worse than the one before. No electricity. No phone service. No gas or oil. Limited food supplies. What is there left to hope for? How would you live your last days?

Meet Miranda your personal guide through this terrifying adventure.

Pfeffer, Susan Beth. 2006. Life As We Knew It.

When we first meet Miranda she is a happy, practically care-free young girl with so much to look forward to. It's May of her sophomore year. She's sixteen and dealing with ordinary problems. Friends. Boys. Schoolwork. But less than one week after our narrative opens, Miranda's world is about to change and she doesn't even know it. When they first hear that astronomers are predicting that a meteor will hit the moon, it's a time of light-hearted celebration. Teachers assign students moon-based assignments. After all, wasn't meteors hitting the moon how the moon got all those craters to begin with? What's the big deal? But what astronomers failed to predict--or failed to announce--is that this would be the largest meteor to ever hit the moon. Still families make plans to sit out on the lawn, some even baking cookies or popping popcorn to celebrate this once-in-a-lifetime event, to watch history in the making. Miranda and her family witness the meteor hitting, but what no one could have predicted is that they are witnessing the destruction of life as we know it. The meteor hits the moon setting it not only off-tilt but bringing it dangerously close to Earth. Scary to witness, but Miranda has no idea what it has set into motion. Tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, wild fires. And that is just the beginning.

Journey with Miranda through these terrifying months (May-March) as everyone struggles to survive.

Susan Beth Pfeffer has created a very exciting novel sure to leave an impact on her readers. Writing since 1970, she has written over sixty books for children and young adults.

Randomhouse's Author spotlight

Finding Everlost

Neal Shusterman is an award-winning author whose works include Full Tilt, The Schwa Was Here, Downsiders, and the Dark Fusion series among others. (See his website for more titles.) A versatile writer, his works include realistic fiction, science fiction, and fantasy; he writes for children, young adults, and adults.

Shusterman, Neal. 2006. Everlost.

Nick and Allie are our hero and heroine. Though they never met in life, they are united in death and in their quest to figure out this strange realm of Everlost. Nine months before the novel opens, the two are traveling with their families when for whatever reason the cars have a head-on collision. Thrown from the cars--neither were wearing safety belts--the two find themselves traveling towards the light at the end of the tunnel. However, something or someone stops them from transitioning to their final destination.

Nine months later the two awake in the middle of a forest. A young boy in strange clothes, who has forgotten his name, welcomes them to Everlost and tries to convince them that they're dead but that is okay because they can have great fun playing together. Allie insists on naming the boy Lief and persuades the two--she's very headstrong--that they leave the forest and its relative safety to journey home.

They set out determined and fearless...but the longer their journey...the more they become aware of the dangers posed not only by mingling in the human world (gravitational forces) but by other Afterlights (dead spirits) as well. In particular, Mary Hightower, aka Mary, Queen of Snots, the McGill, and the Haunter. These Afterlights for the most part are harmless, young children who like to do the same things in death that they did in life: laugh, jump, play, tease, etc. But a few are power-hungry wanting domination over the others. Can Allie, Lief, and Nick find the peace that will prepare them for their final journey home? Or will they spend an eternity held captive by a vicious monster?

Everlost is an exciting novel by a talented writer. I encourage readers to seek out his other books as well.

Orson Scott Card's Review of Everlost

A small excerpt from OSC's review: The result is a marvelous adventure story filled with people and places and situations that I promise you've never seen before in fiction. Shusterman, always an inventive writer, has exceeded even his own high standards with this beautiful, terrible world. And yet when we reach the climax, he brings us to a moment of joyous relief, as our heroes -- even Nick, with chocolate permanently on his face -- become so ennobled that you realize that even though they died tragically young, they still found a way to turn this purgatory-like existence into a place where epic deeds could still be done. They have, in other words, a good life, rich with meaning.

Friday, November 03, 2006

This Is All

Chambers, Aidan. 2006. This Is All: The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn.

This is All: The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn is a massive undertaking for almost any reader numbering over 800 pages long (808 to be precise). Told in first person narrative, This Is All is the diary--or edited diary--of our young heroine Cordelia. Preparing for the birth of her first child, this nineteen-year-old decides to make a gift of her 'pillow books' to her daughter for her sixteenth birthday. Keeping in mind her future audience, Cordelia relates her very personal and intimate story chronicling her life from the age of 15 to the age of 19. Drawing from her pillow books (as best as I can tell something very similar to a diary format), she preserves her teenage years for posterity weaving new commentary with old entries. The book is divided into six parts. And each one tells a unique part of the story.

But what is the book about? Her friendships, her loves, her heartaches, her confusion, her search for meaning in life, and just relating very intimate and detailed portraits of growing up: some funny, some embarrassing, some sad. Within its pages, the reader feels Cordelia Kenn isn't a figment of some writer's imagination--but that she is a real woman.

There is the Cordelia I show to others. And there is the Cordelia, the real Cordelia, the private, secret Cordelia, who I never show to anyone. Well, here I am, the secret Cordelia laid bare for you, embarrassing flaws and all (485).

The fact is, I've never even as a child, felt that I'm only one self, only one person. I've always felt I'm quite a few more than one. For example, there's my jokey self, there's my morose and fed-up self, and there's my lewd and disgusting self. There's my clever-clogs self and my fading-violet-who-can't-make-up-her-mind-about-anything self. There's my untidy-clothes-everwhere-all-over-my-room self, and my manically tidy self where I want my room to be minimalist and Zen to the nth degree. There's my confident, arrogant self and my polite and reasonable and good-listener self. There's my self-righteous self and my wickedly bad self, my flaky self and my sentimental self. There are selfs I like and selfs I don't like. There's my little-girl self who likes to play silly games and there's my old-woman self when I'm quite sure I'm about eighty and edging towards the geriatric. And especially there's my Little C self and my Big C self, both of whom will make their entrance into my story soon. The self on show and in action at any moment depends on where I am, who I'm with, and the circumstances of the situation, and my mood at the time. Are you the same, or is it only me who's like this? (5).

Aidan Chambers is a talented writer, winner of three prestigious awards: The Carnegie Medal (1999) Hans Christian Andersen Award (2002) and the Michael Printz Award (2003). His most noteworthy book is the award-winning Postcards from No Man's Land. While the length of the book may seem daunting or overwhelming at first, dedicated readers (and those who search out long books) will find This Is All to be worth the time and effort.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Diary of Ma Yan

The DIARY OF MA YAN is an incredible story of how one girl's determination, diligence, and hope impacted not only her life...but the lives of those around her.

Ma Yan is a young girl determined to continue her education despite the hardships and struggles that ensue. Knowing that an education is the only thing that could rescue her from a life of poverty, Ma Yan continues her fight to stay in school. Her resilience is inspiring.

The book contains Ma Yan's diary entries from September - December 2000 and July - December 2001. The entries are brief and from the heart. She writes of poverty, hunger, frustration, desire for an education, and hope for a better future for herself and her family.

When Ma Yan's mother gave her daughter's diaries to a foreign journalist--it paved the way for an incredible outpouring of love and financial support--not only for Ma Yan but for other poverty-stricken children in China as well with the establishment of the Association for the Children of Ningxia which has helped over thirty children.

It is a wonderfully honest book.

Ma Yan's Story

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Burying The Past

MacCready, Robin Merrow. 2006. Buried.

Buried is a strange unfolding mystery of what happened one night when Claudine's alcoholic mother disappears after another drinking binge. Claudine is more parent than a child to her mother. But what happens to Claudine when her mother vanishes from her life altogether? How is she able to cope? And how is she able to fool the world into thinking that her mother is in rehab? Yet with one lie after another, Claudine manages to fool everyone including herself until her mother's whereabouts are even a mystery to her. Her friends and teachers have a right to be concerned as Claudine's behavior spirals from perfect control to chaos proving that what you don't know can continue to haunt you.