Smek for President

It took my son and I about two months to read this book aloud together – very good value for our entertainment dollar, even if means we’re starting on Jinx’s Fire a little later than we’d hoped. I am still anxious to make it to the theater to see Home, even if it can’t possibly be as good as the book.

Smek for President! Smek for President by Adam Rex. Disney-Hyperion, 2015.
More crazy adventures with aliens ensue in this sequel to The True Meaning of Smekday. J.Lo, Tip (now 13) and her mother are all living peacefully in a small town on a lake.  The slimy politician Tip caught trying to make a deal with the Gorg in the last book has now taken credit for defeating them, as Tip decided that she didn’t need the notoriety that would come with the world knowing that she and J.Lo actually drove them out. J.Lo is now part of the family, but he still wishes that his fellow Boov didn’t blame him for the whole Gorg invasion thing.  He gets it into his head that if he just journeys to New Boovworld, the moon of Saturn where the Boov are now living, and tells the High Boov Smek his story in person, that all will be well.

Tip, meanwhile, is chafing at her mother’s new attempts at involved parenting after a childhood where Tip did most of the nurturing.  That fuels her decision to travel to New Boovworld with J.Lo in a newly souped-up Slushious, without asking her mother first.  It’s just supposed to be a quick trip – but that hope fades as they find New Boovworld in the middle of its first-ever presidential election, pitting long-time High Boov General Smek against a new populist candidate, Ponch Sandhandler.  General Smek is on edge, and his reaction to J.Lo’s confession is (not to be too spoilerish) terrifying.  Wild adventuring ensues, the adventure going above and under-ground, with both Tip and J.Lo being chased both by official guards and an unknown assassin in black.  All the while, election politics carry on, with footage broadcast across screens everywhere.  And now that there is no clear way to get home, Gratuity would really, really like to see her mom again.

This isn’t quite the same level of social commentary that there was in The True Meaning of Smekday.  But it is still a lot of fun, and is still a winning combination of action and humor.  (My son, I’ll note, was slightly bored at the beginning, even for the space journey, until actual chasing started.)  There’s some relationship evaluating as well, both between Tip and J.Lo and Tip and her mother. This could be a fun introduction for middle grade kids to start looking at election politics and how far people will go to get elected.  My verdict: still well worth reading, even if we didn’t love it quite as much as the first one.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Three for Picture Book Monday

My daughter has been requesting chapter books more and more often at bedtime of late – but here are three picture books we enjoyed recently.

Have You Seen My Dragon?Have You Seen My Dragon? By Steve Light. Candlewick Press, 2014.
A little boy looks for his dragon in New York City.  Though the dragon is in every picture, the boy finds other things to count instead, going all the way up to twenty.  The illustrations are detailed pen and ink on white paper, with just the objects being counted filled in with bright color washes.  Maps in the endpapers show the route through the city.  The whimsical concept and detailed art made for a book that both my kids enjoyed looking through, and the hide-and-seek element made it one that my pre-reader could enjoy just as much on her own.

Maple & Willow TogetherMaple & Willow Together by Lori Nichols. Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014.
This sequel to Maple, a Cybils picture book finalist, shows Maple and her little sister Willow now old enough to play together – kind of.  Willow certainly wants to play with Maple, but she’s at an age where destroying is much easier than building.  Still, the sisters do a lot together, exploring nature, speaking in pig Latin – and lots of fighting.  Plus making up when being mad at each other gets too lonely.  This manages to be sweet without downplaying the real challenges of living with siblings, good for preschoolers and up.

The Princess GownThe princess gown by Linda Leopold Strauss. Houghton Mifflin, 2008.
This came highly recommended by my colleague, Mrs. M., a favorite of both her and her daughter.  It’s a meatier story than the previous two, more for the early elementary audience than the preschoolers of the first two books.  Young Hanna watches the princess playing in her private garden with a pet squirrel.  She then races home to her family, where her father is putting the final touches on a masterpiece – a wedding gown for the princess, if it wins the dress competition.  All the Abraham family’s funds have been sunk into this dress, in hopes of winning the coveted title of Embroiderers to the Queen.  But as Hanna goes to put the last stitch into the gown that every family member has helped with, she notices a black smudge right on the front.  Is there a way to save the dress and her family’s business? Based on a scrap of the author’s family history, this is a beautiful story with (I think) casual diversity, as the Abraham family appears to be Jewish, though it’s never explicitly mentioned. The gorgeous pictures give a background to the beautiful dresses so many girls love.

Posted in Books | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Enchantment Lake: Review and Giveaway

Preus Tour BannerToday I’m honored to be the last stop on the book tour for the upcoming book Enchantment LakeThanks to the publisher for an ebook review copy for me, and for three signed hard copies of the book to give away to my readers!  Please see the end of the post for details on the giveaway.

preus_enchantment coverEnchantment Lake by Margi Preus. University of Minnesota Press, April 2015.
Teen TV detective Francie is in New York, about to audition for a new part, when she gets a crackly but urgent phone call from her (Great) Aunt Astrid.  It sounds like someone is trying to murder Aunts Astrid and Jeannette.  When neither police nor the grandfather with whom Francie lives takes her seriously, Francie ditches the audition and gets on first a plane and then a bus to get out to the tiny Minnesota town on Walpurgis Lake where they live.

Once there, she finds things both better and worse than she feared.  Her aunts assure her that they don’t consider themselves to be in any imminent danger – but neighbors have been dying off at a suspiciously rapid rate.  A development company is trying to buy up small cottages and build support for a large paved road instead of the boats-only access to the town, and Astrid and Jeannette are convinced that the real estate agent in particular is willing to stop at nothing to get his hands on potentially valuable properties.  They’ve told everyone that Francie is a real detective, not just a TV one, and seem seriously to expect her uncover the shady dealings and restore peace to Enchantment.

This shares a lot of appeal factors with the Nancy Drew books I devoured as a third-grader, though as people die (off-page) over the course of the book, I’d say it’s aimed at a slightly older audience.  Like Nancy, Francie is one of the cool kids, confident and wealthy enough to make her own way across the country without permission from any adults.  Both these and the older adults’ confidence in Francie’s ability to solve the mystery unaided reminded me of the heroines of early mystery series, clearly more wish fulfillment for kids than realistic. There are close calls, shady characters, midnight expeditions, and possible lost treasure.  But this is at the same time an ode to rural Minnesota (which sounds very much like rural Michigan), with the small, familiar town filled with quirky characters, kitschy souvenirs, and lots of loving described natural beauty.  There is more than one cute boy, as well, and a hint of middle grade appropriate romance.

Francie herself is more than the cool kid she appears at first – still trying to recover from her father’s unexplained death some years ago, normally living with her grandfather, she pictures her heart locked away in a silver box.  Even so, it’s her genuine affection and concern for her aunts and for the town itself that brings her back to Enchantment. This should appeal both to mystery lovers looking to move on from Nancy Drew, as well as fans of small town fiction.

This might pair well with the more whimsical A Snicker of Magic for those interested in the small town angle, while mystery fans might also want to look at Eddie Red Undercover: Mystery on Museum Mile.

Preus, Margi credit to Shirleen_Hieb_PhotographyCheck out the other stops on the tour for other takes on the book, interviews, excerpts, and more chances to win the book for yourself:

The giveaway for three signed copies of the book, one per winner, is open to residents of the US and Canada. To enter the giveaway, please leave a comment with your favorite rural north book for kids/teens OR your favorite kid/teen detective by midnight EST April 24.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Brown Girl Dreaming and The Crossover

There are years when I feel entirely unexcited about the Newbery and Caldecott awards… and then there was this year, when I looked up all the winners and honor books and got everything into my hands as quickly as I could.  I’d already read El Deafo, one of the two Newbery Honor books, and both of the two remaining books were already on my want to read list because of the love from around the KidLitosphere.  Both of these may be said to contain the dreaded Death by Newbery  I loved them both and was thrilled to see the Newbery committee paying attention to #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Because we do.

Brown Girl DreamingBrown Girl Dreaming  by Jacqueline Woodson. Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014.
This book has been showered with book awards – it won the National Book Award, the Coretta Scott King author award, and (closest to my heart if not media attention) was a Cybils poetry finalist, in addition to the aforementioned Newbery Honor.  So… does this autobiography in verse live up to the hype?  I myself was not disappointed.  In short poems, usually just a page or two long, Woodson tells the story of her growing up, from her birth in Ohio, to living with grandparents down South, followed by a move to New York.  There’s rich family history on both sides, as well as her relationships with her siblings and her friendships, the music they listened to and the Civil Rights activities that surrounded them.

The poetry made me want to read it out loud – I often did, though reading aloud over breakfast carries the risk of kids being late to school as I’m not finishing my breakfast or packing their lunches.  A poem describing Woodson’s grandmother’s garden in lush language – the colors, the curves, the scents – all destined to be side dishes – made the kids laugh out loud.  Woodson tells how her sister would curl up under the dining room table with a book, oblivious to the world.  Woodson herself struggled with reading even as she loved stories, another poem I had to read aloud to my dyslexic boy.  The mix of universal and particular is seductive, and I found myself pushing to read just one more poem until I reached the end.  I read about fifteen minutes to the boy when he went to bed too angry to sleep one night, and they worked beautifully to calm him down.  This would be a great book for classroom read-alouds, as the individual poems are short enough to fill tiny schedule gaps and the language is beautiful to listen to.

crossoverThe Crossover by Kwame Alexander. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.
My blogging friend and fellow Cybils panelist Brandy over at Random Musings of a Bibliophile first brought this to my attention.  Since her middle grade reading is largely fantasy, I pay extra attention when she’s as impressed by a realistic title as she was by this one.  Realistic fiction about basketball, no less – not really a passion for either of us – which maybe paradoxically made me more excited to read it.

Josh and Jordan are twins, and middle school basketball stars.  Their father is a former professional player, while their mother, vice principal at their school, keeps them equally focused on academics.  In poems that span a range of styles from rap to jazz or haiku and more, Josh (aka Filthy McNasty) tells the story of a momentous school year, the year that Jordan (aka JB) started ignoring him in favor of a girl, a very pulchritudinous girl.  At the same time, he sees his father ignoring increases signs of health problems, still taking the boys out for donuts after practice.  There is a lot of basketball, lovingly and energetically described. There’s also some really rich vocabulary – that “pulchritudinous” is straight from the text, and there are some meditations on “churlish” as well.  But the real focus of the story is family, from Josh’s so believeable 13-year-old perspective,with looks at the relationships between all of the characters, from the two brothers’ newly strained relationship to that of the parents, overheard through bedroom walls.  I read it straight through in one sitting and loved it.  Except the sad part.  But maybe, even if I’m tired of that kind of sad in middle grade and teen books, it wouldn’t have gotten the Newbery and therefore the attention it so richly deserves, without it.

Here is a very short video of Alexander taking the #SpeedRead challenge with a selection from Crossover.

If you’ve read either of these books, please let me know what you think!

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

3 Cybils Nonfiction Finalists: Feathers: Not Just for Flying, Handle with Care, Chasing Cheetahs

Time for more true confessions: as a child I was quite opposed to nonfiction books, and would even skip over nonfiction articles in Cricket, otherwise my favorite magazine. Then I had a son who will bring home nothing but nonfiction from the library given a choice.  And of course the real world is full of interesting things. It’s essential to find books that are able to convey to kids just how cool the world is, while of course sticking to accuracy. Here are three of this year’s Cybils Elementary/Middle Grade Nonfiction finalists, all guaranteed to keep kids hooked.

feathersFeathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart. Illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen. Charlesbridge, 2014.
The winner, and for good reason! Large-type text compares different kinds of birds and the way their feathers help them to everyday objects in the human world: “Feathers can distract attackers like a bullfighter’s cape… or hide a bird from predators like camouflage clothing.” Smaller text goes a little more into detail on each of the birds and their feathers. Beautiful watercolor paintings form a scrapbook, with close-ups of feathers, pictures that look like photos of the bird in their natural habitat pasted or clipped into the book, and bits or pictures of the everyday items the feathers are acting like also on the spread – sponges, umbrellas, blankets and sunscreen. This book is immensely appealing to look at for all ages – I found both of my kids, five years apart in age, curled up looking at it. The large text makes it easily accessible to younger kids, while the smaller type can go more into depth for those who want it or are old enough for it. It made for a great read-aloud, with both kids listening again. This one could work from preschool on up, with even older kids finding new things to learn. Take a look at the interview with Stewart and Brannen on the Cybils blog for a look at the mind-blowing amount of research that went into this book!

handlewithcareHandle with care: an unusual butterfly journey by Loree Griffin Burns. Millbrook Press, 2014.
It’s fairly common for schools and museums to have butterfly pupae for children to watch turn into butterflies – but where do those caterpillars come from in the first place? Many of them from Costa Rica, it turns out, and Burns traveled to a butterfly farm there, El Bosque Nuevo, to see how it works. She’s able to give us the inside scoop on things like the sound of thousands of caterpillars eating all at the same time, and the large area of empty dirt needed around the caterpillar conservatory to keep the tasty little things safe from predators. There’s also, of course, good information on the butterfly life cycle with gorgeous close-up photos. The main text on this one is a little more advanced than that of Feather – still I’d say a great level for early elementary aged kids, and would work well read aloud to younger kids. This was a hit with my five-year-old daughter.

Chasing CheetahsChasing Cheetahs by Sy Montgomery. Photographs by Nic Bishop. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.
So often conservation stories can be depressing – it’s a real treat to find this story of how one woman’s efforts to save the cheetah are proving effective. The author and photographer traveled to Namibia to visit Laurie Marker at the Cheetah Conservation fund. A former farmer herself, she’s been able to talk with the farmers there to solve the problems that cause them to kill cheetahs – rather than just trying to leverage bigger and bigger punishments. This is a lot of information, and the photographs are gorgeous. It is not, however, one of those mostly-photo books that visual learners like my son can learn from without looking at the main text. That text is meaty, and the photographs are there to support it, not the other way around. It was too dense for him to get into by himself, but he listened avidly over several days as I read it to him, and even had Grandma finish one day when I was at work because he was just too excited to wait. Great information with a bonus section on how kids reading the book can make a difference themselves. This one is definitely more for the upper elementary to middle school end of the spectrum.

Posted in Books | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Cybils Teen Spec Fic: The Living, Death Sworn, and Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future

Here’s the first half of the Cybils Teen Speculative Fiction finalists, with more to come. Three very different speculative fiction books, but all good solid choices.

gloryobriensGlory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King. Little, Brown 2014.
Glory O’Brien, aimless and disconnected, is about to graduate high school, while her home schooled best friend Ellie is not. Feeling crazy and directionless and having drunk a bit too much alcohol one night, they drink a powdered mummified bat. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense even to the characters the next morning, but after drinking it, Glory starts to have visions of the future, a dark future in which a man called Nedrick the Sanctimonious takes over a large part of the US with a strong anti-woman agenda. Glory writes down these visions even as she tries to figure out what her near future should be, what to do about her father who has more or less lived on their sofa since her mother killed herself eight years earlier. She tries, not always successfully, not to be judgmental about Ellie being sexually active when she’s not. The visions of the future are dark and terrifying, the present bewildering, with both Glory and Ellie caught in understandable if annoying selfishness. There’s been a lot said about how we put too much pressure on female characters to be likeable – Glory would be one of those characters. She makes sense and works well for the story without really being sympathetic. I feel a little ashamed to admit that I really do prefer my characters likeable. I still couldn’t put the book down, and there’s a lot to think and talk about, so I think this would be a great choice for a teen book club.

deathswornDeath Sworn by Leah Cypess. Greenwillow Books, 2014.
Ileni is a trained sorceress of the Renegai, a group that has seceded from the Empire they consider to be evil. Every child of the Renegai is born with magical power, but in only a few does it last to adulthood. Ileni was supposed to be one of those few, and she was among the best in her training. But as she nears 20, her power has begun to fade after all. She’s bent on serving her people in the only way left to her: by traveling as a sorcery tutor to the secret cave hideout of the assassin clan which, by working to bring down the Empire, is an uneasy ally of the Renegai. The alliance is uneasy both because of the assassins’ methods, and because the last two sorcerers have gone missing. She’ll be the youngest tutor ever, the same age as her students, and the only woman.

Once there, the Master of the assassins gives her a brutal demonstration of the absolute power he has over the assassins. She’s given a guide, the handsome Sorin, who is fiercely loyal to the Master’s plan, even if he doesn’t know exactly what it is. And she begins to learn the politics of the students and teachers, concealing the limits of her dwindling magical powers even as she must use them to protect herself and solve the mystery of the dead previous sorcerers. Some of this mystery was easy for me to figure out – but so much of this was done so well that I didn’t mind. I loved the twist of Ileni having complete mastery over a tiny bit of magical power, and I so appreciated that she was able to enjoy a romantic relationship without subscribing to her assassin boyfriend’s belief system. I don’t have the book with me right now, but “I love you, but I don’t trust you” is what I remember her saying. And I really, really enjoyed Ileni’s maturing from seeing the world in black and white to a more nuanced view, all while staying true to herself. Plus, assassins and magic! I have the sequel, Death Marked, out right now.

livingThe Living by Matt de la Peña. Delacorte Press, 2013.
Shy Espinoza thought working on a cruise ship would be a great summer job: good pay, exotic locations, and hanging out with a diverse crew of other good-looking kids his age. He’s bonded especially closely with the beautiful but unavailable Carmen, who grew up like him in a poor Southern California town and also like him, lost a close family member to the new and frightening Romero disease. The close friendships with the other crew might come close to balancing out the classism and racism they experience from the vacationers on the cruise ship, but nothing is stopping the nightmares Shy now gets after unsuccessfully trying to stop a rich older man from throwing himself overboard.

And then disaster strikes. Shy is battling for his life, as the story quickly turns into a thriller, both survival and med tech.

This is the book that won, and I can see why. So often in thrillers, all other considerations are thrown under the plot bus as it barrels along, but de la Peña gives us characters to believe in and a lot to think about afterwards on top of that. I still resent it a little when books make me stay up late turning the pages – but this is really, really well done.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

I’ll Give You the Sun

I picked this up, a finalist in the Cybils Realistic Fiction for Young Adults, even though I don’t do much realistic fiction these days, because I needed an audiobook right then, it was there, I’d just been talking up all the Cybils finalists to a room full of teens, and I remembered some of my blogging people really liking (or I thought I did – now I can’t remember or find who that might have been.) Since then, it’s gone on to win the Prinz award and is on the Michigan Thumbs Up! Top 10 (voting now open for Michigan teens to pick a winner from that list.)

I'll Give You the SunI’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson. Performed by Julia Whelan and Jesse Bernstein. Brilliance Audio, 2014.
Jude (a girl) and Noah (a boy) are twins whose relationship seesaws between devotion and rivalry. Noah introduces us to them in middle school, when Jude is wearing short skirts, bright red lipstick, and unenthusiastic about their mother’s plan for them both to get into CSA, a local art high school with a national reputation. Noah is long-haired, not really popular in school, but open about his art and doing everything he can to get into CSA. The two are each other’s best friends.

The chapters alternate between Noah telling the story of middle school and Jude telling their story starting three years later, when everything has changed. Their mother is dead; Jude is at CSA wearing baggy clothes and keeping everyone shut out while Noah is at the public high school with short, short hair and pretending to be straight. Now Noah is the popular one, with crowds of people around him, and Jude is on her own. They are not talking to each other.

Neither Noah in the past nor Jude in the future knows exactly what happened to their relationship, and it’s the journey of the book to figure it out and try to put it back together again. Noah knows from the get-go that he’s gay, but isn’t sure that his father will accept it. His slow romance with the baseball-playing, astronomy-loving boy across the street was so beautiful it hurt.

In between the two narratives is a host of complicated things that the characters have to work through. Just where was their mother going on the day she died, and what put her in such a state that she drove off the road? There’s lots going on with the characters, both of them needing to get to know themselves and each other better, both working towards hard-earned romance. Grandma Sweetwine’s ghost appears rather frequently to give Jude not always welcome advice. The supporting characters are wonderful as well, including a slightly crazy English art model and the middle-aged sculptor Jude wants to be her mentor. I don’t want to spoil it by telling too much – but this was one where I kept finding myself wanting to drive a little farther just so I could find out what happened next, wondering how things would work out as I was falling asleep at night. Yes, there’s a lot of sadness, but also the effects of truth and lies, forgiveness and love.

As is only right for such a book, Noah and Jude have separate narrators. Jesse Bernstein is excellent as always at a young male voice, while Julia Whelan gives Jude an assured, lower-pitched voice that sounds just right. I have to agree with the PW review that her Spanish accent – wasn’t really quite – but otherwise, both performances were spot-on. This is the kind of audiobook that takes an already great story and makes it even better, bringing the characters to life and sucking the listener into their world. It’s one that pulled my heart right out, just hoping that everything would turn out for the characters.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Top 10 Re-Read Fantasy Books from Childhood

Once again, I’m ignoring the long list of reviews waiting to be written in favor of an interesting Top 10 Tuesday.  It’s hosted as always by the good folks at The Broke and the Bookish, and I was sucked into it this time by the lovely list put together by Maureen at By Singing Light.Top Ten Tuesday

The topic as originally presented could include teen books, too, and I might interpret it to mean new favorites that I’ve already read – but that list would get out of hand….  As a child, I was much more cautious about the books I read.  I read and reread, with favorites from my home library and the public and school libraries that I’d read every year.  Here are a few of those – some I’ve re-read and even acquired since, some I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t.  I’m feeling more inspired to do so after writing this!

beautyBeauty by Robin McKinley – As previously told, I discovered this at the library (oddly, with the fairy tales, not the youth fiction), and checked out every year until I bought my own copy in college.

bookof3The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander – A wonderful introduction to epic fantasy, though the scary bits were much scarier for me than for my son at the same age.

darkisrisingThe Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper and The Children of Greene Knowe by L.M. Boston  – both of these are British fantasy books for winter.  They scared me to nightmares as a child, both of them, yet I reread them nearly religiously.

enchanted-castle-oldThe Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit – An annual summer read, featuring a group of children, an old English house, and a magic ring. I really need to read this to my kids soon!

DragonsongDragonsong by Anne McCaffrey – we wore out multiple paperback copies of more than one of the Pern books, and used to keep back-up copies.

linnetsandvaleriansLinnets and Valerians by Elizabeth Goudge – The blissful ignorance of childhood!  I read this numerous times from my school library, without ever noting the author’s name or realizing that she was an award-winning author with other books I could try to read.  I haven’t reread it since the eighth grade, and I really need to fix that.  I just read The Little White Horse for the first time, though!

parsleysageParsley Sage, Rosemary and Time by Jane Louise Curry – I got this from the library without fail at least once every summer.  I think that Jane Louise Curry must have been my introduction to time travel – this one involves a danger-filled trip back to Puritan America.

steelmagic_medSteel Magic by Andre Norton – another book from the elementary school library, which I fondly reread one last time before graduation, but never thought to ask my parents to buy for me, though we had many of her adult books.  Another one to realize existed outside of that library, and could still be looked up today.  It even has sequels!

wrinkle50thA Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle – I loved this so much that I refused to read the sequels for a couple of years, sure they couldn’t be as good, and still come back to it.

Were any of these your favorites, too? What else would you add?

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

2014 Cybils Graphic Novels for YA Finalists

There were six finalists this year in the Cybils Graphic Novels for Young Adults category. One of them I’d already read – Shadow Hero, by Gene Luen Yang. Two of them I was unable to find through my local libraries; the other three are reviewed here. All of these had been on my radar, but In Real Life was the only one I was really thinking about reading before this list came out – the others had been coded as “probably great, but not my thing.” I read them anyway, and am glad for the stretch.

In Real LifeIn Real Life by Cory Doctorow & Jen Wang. First Second, 2014.
Anda, teen programmer and gamer girl, is new in Arizona and not fitting in. Then, she receives a school-led invitation to join an all-girls’ guild on Coarsegold, a new MMRPG. Joy! Friends! Adventure! When her guild leader offers to hook her up paid work that she can do in the game, she’s all in. The work turns out to be killing gold farmers, low-level characters who mine gold in the game to sell for real money to other players. It feels like helping to root out cheating in the game, and Anda finds it great fun at first. Then she gets to know one of the gold farmers, who goes by Raymond. He’s a Chinese boy just a little older than she is, working long hours for low pay in the least dangerous job he can find. Anda wants to help him – but even that goes awry as what had been a simple black-and-white situation explodes into horrible shades of grey. This is a nicely told story of Anda noticing injustice in her world for the first time, and I really appreciated that she wasn’t allowed to be the white savior of helpless natives. Jen Wang’s art work felt somewhere between Western and manga style, and bridged the real and the virtual world very nicely. I enjoyed this one lots, and was happy to see it come away the winner.

Harlem HellfightersThe Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks. Illustrated by Caanan White. Broadway Books, 2104.
This is a stirring story based on the true experiences of the 369th Infantry Regiment in WWI, an all-Black unit that terrified the Germans, won medals in France, and came home the most decorated American unit abroad ever, all in the face of horrific prejudice. This was a story that drew me right in, told in a way that made me believe it could have been a movie. Caanan’s black-and-white art work told the story clearly, and I really appreciated the lack of color for keeping the focus on the story rather than the copious gore. I confess that I usually have a hard time keeping the characters straight in war movies (so many people of the same gender dressed and hair cut identically!), but White did a fabulous job of keeping everyone distinct. An important story, for sure, but also one that works well just as a story. It’s a little old for my son yet, but I could see him devouring this in a couple of years.

Through the WoodsThrough the Woods by Emily Carroll Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2014.
Horror is really not my thing and only my resolution to read all of the finalists that I could induced me to pick up this book. I carefully read it on break at work, so as not to risk too many nightmares by reading it before bedtime at home, or where my kids could see the pictures. The tales have a timeless folk feeling and brought to mind the time I accidentally read some of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales at the dentist’s office. (I still don’t know what that book was doing on the shelf next to the coloring books.. The art is beautiful, in saturated colors with lots of contrast, the text woven through – a ghost’s song written in trails of blood is particularly vivid in my mind. There are mysteries, ghosts, murders. Everything ends badly and there is no hope. I’m still not a fan of horror, but highly recommend this for those who are!

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Demon Catchers of Milan and The Halcyon Bird

I was lucky enough to win The Halcyon Bird from Charlotte at Charlotte’s Library (in a rare-for-her YA book giveaway), which naturally meant that I had to go back and read the first one from my library’s copy.

demoncatchersofmilanThe Demon Catchers of Milan by Kat Beyer. Egmont USA, 2012.
American teen Mia is unexpectedly possessed by a demon, involving terrifying yet seductive out-of-body experiences and freakish displays of strength, cruelty and mind-reading. The Church says they won’t help a Della Torre – so previously unknown relatives fly out from Italy to help with the exorcism. These include the grandfatherly Giuliano and handsome cousin Emilio – on whom Mia would be crushing were it not for the super-embarrassing way they met, with her in a puddle of her own urine due to the possession. But the possession has left her vulnerable, so she’s flown out to her family’s magical candle shop in Milan, where she starts to learn the family demon hunting trade. This involves a crash course in Italian, lots of history, and meditations on the Virgin – despite the family’s uneasy relationship with the church. Tension builds as Mia grows increasingly bored with staying inside, but feels the demon waiting for her whenever she ventures outside. There are unquiet ghosts and lots of noisy and food-loving relatives.

My short take on this is that it’s Buffy meets Farmer Boy with a hefty dose of Italian food love and close-knit but sparring family members taking the place of the Scooby gang. There are a lot of well-drawn characters with varying opinions on the family business and the best course for Mia to take, including two women who’ve made themselves part of the historically male side of things, one a model and one a lawyer with a Rwandan fiancé. And while Mia is thrown into a strange situation – she hadn’t known about her family’s historic business previously – she also sees quickly that she can’t just sit around doing as she’s told and waiting for things to happen. There is a hint of romance, even as Mia knows it’s inappropriate.

halcyonbirdThe Halcyon Bird by Kat Beyer. Egmont USA, 2014.
In this sequel, Mia has gained a lot of self-confidence and her own demon-catching kit. She’s a full member of the team doing lots of research to help them defeat a “demon of place” that’s threatening a client. As this project involves building a door to the spiritual side of the house, Mia also meets a handsome and single young carpenter, Bernardo. Romance ensues, though happily not the exclusion of other plot elements or thoughts in her head, despite the romantic cover. And always, though she’s learned better how to defend herself from it, she’s on the lookout for the demon which first possessed her in America and is still trying to get through to her. The demons are terrifying, and no one around her is safe (cue ominous music)… but this is a highly satisfactory book. The only sad note to this is that just as I was finishing it, word came out that Egmont, the publishing house is closing, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the third book in this series will be published!

Pair this with Buffy, of course, and perhaps also with Robin McKinley’s contemporary teen fantasy Shadows.

Posted in Books | Tagged , | 1 Comment