Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

It is 1899 and Calpurnia is the only daughter in a sea of six brothers. After making some astute comments about grasshoppers that show a talent and inclination for observation, she is taken under her grandfather’s wing and a whole world of scientific discovery opens up to her.

I loved Calpurnia from the first page, which is no small feat, really. I often tend not to like historical fiction with girl characters simply because they often feature girls with modern sensibilities plunked down in historic settings. I just don’t believe in them or the places their stories go. Now, Calpurnia, on the other hand, I believed. She is mildly dissatisfied at the beginning of the book, she’s prone to bending the rules a bit, but she seems to be a creature of her time. The catalyst for change is her grandfather. Once she begins spending time with him, her mind grows and expands, she senses and desires new possibilities. She is fully aware that there is a great chance her dreams will go unfulfilled, despite the fact that her “womanly arts” of sewing, knitting, and cooking are sadly lacking in inspiration.

I truly enjoyed her burgeoning relationship with her grandfather. It is amazing how their feelings for each other grow into such a loving respectful inter-generational partnership. Especially when you consider where they were at the beginning of the book:

The old man had fierce tufty eyebrows of his own, rather like a dragon’s, and he was altogether too imposing a figure for me to have clambered on as an infant. He had never spoken to me directly that I remembered, and I wasn’t entirely convinced he knew my name.

The description and language in this book was heavenly.

I have to hand it to the author, she didn’t take the book where I thought it would go. There was no pat, happy conclusion to this novel where Calpurnia gets to set off to college and study science. No siree. The novel ends and we have no definite answer to tell us whether or not Calpurnia achieves her dream of university. Frankly, I think the book is stronger for it. We know Calpurnia is a strong-willed, smart girl, but we are also well aware she is subject to forces beyond her control. I like the open-endedness. That way children reading can hope and adults don’t have to feel too sad thinking how Calpurnia most likely spent the rest of her life in a position similar to her mother.

I did have a few reservations. The book is told first person, but I never did catch on whether or not it was a in-the-moment-as-it-happens story or a grown Calpurnia memoir-ish retelling. In all honesty, it felt like sort of a mish-mash of the two. It didn’t bother me so much, but I felt like the point of view got confused on occasion and recollections or observations that would be obvious and appropriate for a grown-up Calpurnia to make sounded odd if this was an as-it-happens story. I’m specifically referring to a couple of the jokes told about her mother’s tonic and its alcohol content. Humorous for sure, but perhaps out of place?

The race relations (the few and far between times they arise in the story) also gave me occasional pause. It wasn’t so much what the characters said, because what they said made perfect sense in context to the time period and their social status, it was more that the author did not present a fuller reality. When Calpurnia asks her grandfather about how Viola, their black cook, can stand her never-ending hard workday he replies, “It’s all Viola knows…and when something is all you know, it’s easy to stand it. There is one other thing she knows: Her life could be much harder.” It wasn’t that this was a terrible response, it just felt inadequate. Yes, it is very true her life could be much harder than her life working sun up to sun down every day with no holidays. I believe that was her life. It is just that she isn’t in that situation because “that’s all she knows,” it is also that Viola is sorely lacking in options because she is black. It is after all only 1899, not a terribly long time after slavery ended. I’m not sure how old viola is, but there is also the chance that she was the Tate house slave before emancipation and entangled in the bindings that would bring. And I should say that does Kelly deal with this issue, albeit with great subtlety. Viola, for what little she is part of the book, is a remarkably well-rounded character. She speaks little, but what she says speaks volumes and the sub-text (at least for this adult reader) was loud and clear.

Despite my reservations, I thought this was a delightful book. I enjoyed Calpurnia’s story immensely and was happy to have followed her on her journey of self-discovery.

Book Source: Library Copy

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Thanksgiving at the Inn by Tim Whitney

Life has been tough for Heath Wellington III since his mother walked out on him and his father, Heath Wellington, Junior (aka Junior). Junior is a recovering alcoholic with failed literary aspirations, and he seems to take all his frustrations out on Heath. He shows very little affection toward his son, makes him do chores when he isn't in school, and forces Heath to wake up at 6:00 in the morning, even during vacations and holidays. It's even worse when Heath is wrongly suspended from school and his father believes that he really did cheat on the history test. But then Heath's grandfather (aka Senior) dies suddenly, and they travel to Massachusetts to attend the funeral and to fulfill the stipulations of a very unusual will: they must manage Senior's bed and breakfast inn for three months, as well as fulfill a host of other stipulations.

At the inn, Heath works out his punishment for the school suspension by doing almost all of the chores. At the same time, he meets a motley assortment of characters. There's Winsted, the elderly man who used to lead the prayers at Senior's factory. Then there's Mustang Sally, a tattooed ex-convict who works as a mechanic and a children's author. Carter, the very quiet Harvard graduate who spends his time watching the news, and Mrs. Farrel, a woman giving away her late husband's fortune. As Heath works on the farm and gets to know these people, he finds new ways of living and new ways of looking at life. Unfortunately, Junior continues to serve as a harsh and unyielding taskmaster, ignoring his son for the most part and shirking his responsibilities at the inn. Readers will wonder: will Junior ever change? Will we learn why Heath was suspended from school? Will Heath and Junior ever have a good relationship? Will they be able to keep the inn? Do they even want to?

On the whole, I really enjoyed reading this book. The story of a father and son's struggle is classic and always relevant, and Tim Whitney breathes new life into this telling. He has also created some truly memorable characters and offered insights into human nature with "The Three Kinds of People" and the "Secret Garden." It's a nice read that you can easily get through in a few sittings but packs quite a punch at times.

My only real criticism is based on the end of the book. This is going to be hard to explain without spoilers, but here goes. I know that the author could only write so much or the book would be too long, but I almost felt that the resolution came too quickly, that the characters changed too fast. I would liked to have seen more development in that area so that the ending seemed a little more possible. As it stands, it's not impossible, but I do wonder if it would have actually happened that quickly. I think the author, in the afterward, attempts to address this issue, but a better solution would have been to develop this part of the plot further in the main body of the book.

That being said, I really did like Thanksgiving at the Inn. I can see it being popular with older middle grade and younger high school students. I think boys might be more drawn to the book, but girls can also relate to the parent-child struggle portrayed in the book. I would love to see more from Tim Whitney in the future. Maybe a sequel?

Book received from the publisher for review

The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick

Homer’s 17 year old brother is sold into the Union army by his awful Uncle Squinton, who may not be the meanest man in state of Maine (“there was a meaner man in Bangor once, that poisoned cats for fun”) but according to Homer, he surely is the hardest man in their home county. This, obviously, cannot stand and Homer runs away to save Harold from the war before it is too late. Hi-jinx and Grand Adventures ensue.

This one has been getting a lot of buzz throughout the blogosphere, so I was a little nervous picking it up – expectations getting raised and all that jazz. I’m happy to report that I really enjoyed it. Homer was an exceptionally fun character to hang around. His descriptions were full of life, he’s scrappy and more of a tale-teller than anything. And frankly, he needs to be, since as soon as he gets himself out of one scrape he lands feet first into the next one!

I actually found this book rather refreshing. Philbrick somehow manages to keep this a humorous and light-hearted story (air balloons! travelling circuses/medicine shows! spys!), while maintaining the gritty (slavery, battle scenes, brothers sold into the army against their will). He makes sure to add a gravity and seriousness to the story without any heavy handedness or sugarcoating, and somehow manages to make Homer’s upbeat voice work. It’s a matter of balancing Homer’s dueling and contradictory never-off-the-farm-innocence and his world-weary-street-smart natures. It was extremely well done.

The book is chock full of fun characters. We meet a kindly Quaker who helps to set Homer on a different path (and helps readers to understand that there is more than one way to be a brave man), awful bounty hunters/slave traders named Stink and Smelt (because a stink is not a stink unless it can be smelt), some con-artists, a foolish guardian, a travelling circus/medicine show man and his interesting entourage, and more.

The language must also be mentioned, because it really is what makes this story stand above others. One of my favorite chapters was when Homer was entrusted to poor, naïve, foolish Mr. Willow:

Mr. Webster B. Willow don’t look much older than my brother, Harold. The fine blond hair on his narrow chin hasn’t decided if it wants to be a beard, and his eyes are so close together it looks like he’s studying his nose or trying to see around it. Mostly he seems to be upset about forgetting to take off his hat like a gentleman does when entering a house, and he looks like he wants to leave the room and try again.

I also particularly enjoyed Homer’s description of his Uncle Squinton, which I used in my opening paragraph:

Squinton Leach was the meanest man in the entire state of Maine. I tell a lie – there was a meaner man in Bangor once, that poisoned cats for fun, but old Squint was the hardes man in Somerset County. A man so mean he squeezed the good out of the Holy Bible and beat us with it, and swore that God Himself had inflicted me and Harold on him, like he was Job and we was Boils and Pestilence.

How can someone not fall in love with language such as that?

I’m excited to read the rest of the Mock Newbery titles.


Book Source: Library Copy

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

We are Mocking You

Yes, our library system is holding our second annual Mock Newbery, and our first Mock Printz! Needless to say we are excited. I think it is safe to assume you'll be seeing reviews of these books on our blog, perhaps even multiple if more than one person wishes to discuss them (and probably even if we've talked about them before.

There were some constraints on our book choices - mainly, because of our system's fiscal year we could not choose books published past Oct. 2009 because we feared we might not get them in time.

Books were chosen not only because of their literary excellence, but also with a mind on genre and stylistic differences.

So without further ado, here are the books we will be reading:

Mock Newbery:

Baskin, Nora Raleigh. Anything But Typical

Burg, Ann E. All the Broken Pieces (review #1)

DiCamillo, Kate. The Magician’s Elephant

Kelly, Jacqueline. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

Peck, Richard. A Season of Gifts

Philbrick, Rodman. The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg

Stead, Rebecca. When You Reach Me (review #1)

Stone, Tanya Lee. Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream

Walker, Sally M. Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland (review #1)

Woodson, Jacqueline. Peace, Locomotion

Mock Printz:

Anderson, Laurie Halse - Wintergirls

Burg, Ann E. – All the Broken Pieces (review #1 and yes we are doing this for both Newbery and Printz!)

Chen, Justine Headley – North of Beautiful (review #1)

Chima, Cindy Williams – The Demon King (review #1)

Larbalestier, Justine – Liar (review #1)

Ryan, Carrie – In the Forest of Hands and Teeth (review #1)

Tan, Shaun – Tales From Outer Suburbia

Thompson, Kate – Creature of the Night (review #1)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Ice by Sarah Beth Durst

Cassie lives with her father and his research team in the arctic. They study polar bears and it is because of this that Cassie encounters the big-poppa of all polar bears. A huge specimen that she chases for an entire day over the ice until he mysteriously disappears into an ice cliff. Embarrassed at losing the chase and knowing she’s coming home to a whopper of a lecture, Cassie is rather surprised when her father instead freaks out and says she has to leave the research station to go live with her grandmother.

And so begins a rather original retelling of the East of the Sun, West of the Moon fairy tale. What I found particularly unusual was the integration of science into a fairy tale setting. Cassie has GPS, gore-tex, and other advanced technologies that she isn’t afraid to use to her advantage. Durst also incorporates aspects of Inuit spirituality. Not to mention other neat details that are probably sort of spoilerish so I won’t mention them. Although I will say that she added a cool adventure/survival aspect to the story. Cassie’s journey to the troll castle was filled with interesting characters and dangerous events.

There were a few things I would have liked fleshed out more. I would have liked more development between Cassie and her estranged mother. I would have liked to have known why it was important that her mother wore impractical clothing and wore makeup (or if it was simply to highlight the personality differences between the two of them which it may have been).

***Possible Spoiler***

I also had a few LOST moments (as in moments when I was reminded of the TV show Lost) and thought that like the TV show, open communication would have prevented many a problem before they started. Yes, I realize that it is played up for drama and suspense – but had Cassie and Bear had a talk about reproduction, many problems, many many many problems, could have been averted. I fully understood Cassie’s anger, but I also sympathized with Bear, who as a presumably ancient magical creature, probably didn’t have a good working concept of the pill. He probably really thought he was magically solving her hormonal “issues” for the good of their family. The lesson learned? Communication is important. Especially with magical creatures (or on unusual islands).

***end of possible spoiler***

Re-told fairy tales are an interesting undertaking, simply because readers are often so familiar to the story. Durst does a nice job making this story fresh and new. Her take on the trolls was particularly inventive and just darned cool. And that cover! Beautiful.

Book Source: Tayshas Review Copy
Disclosure: Ms. Durst follows this blog (Hello there!)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Demon Chick by Marilyn Kaye

Jessica Hunsucker’s life is going to Hell. Literally.

On her sixteenth birthday she discovers that her mother sold her to the devil in return for unprecedented power.This, conveniently happens after a makeover which makes Jessica, no pun intended, totally hot.

There are a lot of things I liked about Demon Chick. I loved how Hell was portrayed. Instead of fire and brimstone, it was just incredibly and endlessly boring. Things are kind of grey and beige, furniture mix-matched and worn, not much to do, only fast food to eat – which to a teenager might seem sort of great at first until you get sick of the permanent gut-rotty feeling fast food gives you. Early in her stay Jessica finds a book, hoping for some sort of escape she picks it up:

The back cover of the book hung limply, and I could guess why, even before my examination of the binding confirmed my suspicion. An entire section of pages had been torn out. The last section, of course. A mystery with no resolution. I could read it, get into it, and never know whodunit. Well, what did I expect? This was Hell.

Funny right? The entire book has this breezy tone which makes this more of a comedy than anything else. It is total light enjoyment reading. Even so, there are occasions when I would have preferred more of a serious look at things.

For instance, it gave me the major yucks that Jessica was given (yes given!!!) to a demon who was much older than she was. Now granted, he wasn’t such a bad guy, but the whole situation was sort of floated over and it gave me the creeps.

***spoiler alert***

Jessica’s mother is pure evil, bent on world domination, so I really wasn’t all that upset when she was assassinated. However, it kind of made my stomach flop when Jordan (the mastermind of the assassination and Jessica's temporary lover man) doesn’t experience any repercussions.

Jessica describes him as seeing the forest, but losing the trees (or something to that effect). He gets the big picture, cares about saving the earth and so forth, but isn't that interested in saving individuals. As is evidenced by his blantant manipulation of every female within arm's reach (not that Jessica seems to realize this – she’s much too busy adoring him regardless of everything).

I half wondered if Jordan hadn’t made his own deal with the devil. Now if the author had gone that route, I wouldn’t have been so bothered that one of our "heroes" was such a total sleaze. And he was. Sleazy. An assassinating sleaze. Maybe my problem is that I thought he should have had a comeuppance. There was no comeuppance! Jessica just thinks, "oh I'll always be second to saving the world, I'll just trot back on down to hell where Brad with make me his main priority. Toodles." And I found that unsatisfying.

***end of spoilers***

Book Source: Tayshas Review Copy

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles

Alex is a gangbanger, Brittney a little rich princess, together they equal star crossed love. The story is told from both of their perspectives and we soon discover appearances can be very deceiving. Not to mention, kind of hot.

Teen girls will gobble this up and pass it on to all of their friends. It is total teen girl wish fulfillment. Hot bad boy, good girl more complicated than she appears, love that conquers all. It wasn't quite my cup of tea, a little too melodramatic, but that is a taste thing - not a fault of the book. The dialogue was a tad unrealistic, but I find it often is in romances and so I think that those looking for a romance won't mind. I was breezing through it until about the half way point and that's when it all got a bit much for me.

But what I really want to talk about is the cover. Hot Latino teen boy, check. Hot white chick, check. So far so good people. I'm loving the pose of the couple. I'm loving their intensity. Ok, moving on...Hot Latino teen boy with Supposed Latino teen gang kid with tribal tattoos?!? Yes people. It is true. Apparently if you are in the Latino Bloods you do not go with the regular gang tattoos you go tribal. (*Urgent Update* I can't seem to find the cover which graces my personal copy online - it all has another cover which appears to have a much more appropriate tattoo. Apparently someone went wtf is this sh*t and changed it. Hmmm, does that mean I got some reject cover? And if so, rant over, but what's up with me getting some crazy defect cover?)

If you click on the picture it is a lot less blurry. I could not find a picture big enough to really examine the replacement tattoo. And, in full disclosure, it's not like I'm some gang tattoo expert (because I know you were all thinking I totally was ha ha) I just feel strongly that they don't sport tribal tattoos that hit their height of popularity in 1995).

What I can say is it has the absolute, most awesome, best ever book trailer. Sassy and sarcastic. Me like. HOWEVER, if you watch the book trailer you will see that the book the kids are holding looks suspiciously like the copy I have. El Scandaloso!

Book Source: Tayshas Review Copy

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Bride's Farewell by Meg Rosoff

It was a happy day on my vacation last month when I discovered that Meg Rosoff had a new title coming out. Once again it is not YA in the States, but the protagonist is a young woman.

I am pleased to report that unlike my 2007 review of What I Was I did not feel compelled to flip to the back of the book and sneak a peek. Why? Because this story is wonderful. Oh, it is so deliciously good! If you read What I Was, and even Just In Case, and thought they were perhaps too murky and meandering, then this may be the title to win you over full stop. Gorgeous cover. Gorgeous story.

It's 1850s England and Pell Ridley does not want to marry the boy next door. She leaves the morning of the wedding on her horse for Salisbury Fair to find work. Pell has a gift with horses. Think horse whisperer, but less corny and more magical & kick butt. As you can guess knowing a thing or two about young women out on the open road, things aren't going to go well for our broke-single girl-without-a-man-walking-through-rural-England-looking-for-work. Pell leads a classic YA storyline: on the verge of adulthood, craving independence, establishing her own identity, and finding a place in the world, but still yearning for a connection to family and home.

The story builds, branches off into other stories, twists and intersects and all the while moves swiftly to a satisfying conclusion. One quick mention of the
white horse in the hill made me cheer. I wouldn't have known to what Rosoff was referring without having read the Tiffany Aching books by Terry Pratchett .

Makes me wonder what other little things I missed.

Rosoff builds pleasantly odd, slightly magical, and beautifully detailed stories. See for yourself and
read part of the first chapter on her site. Her writing style and storytelling remind me of Polly Horvath. Am I alone in this? (A sequel to My One Hundred Adventures out early next year!)

I think I'm going to check The Bride's Farewell on audio and listen to it all over again.

Meg Rosoff be in San Antonio in October. Wah!

2009 Viking
library copy

Vacation Reading

I'm back from a lovely vacation, but alas, I had so much fun I only read two books the entire time! And they were both adult books! For shame! I find myself busy so I will review in haiku. Enjoy!

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Had I liked Quentin
I would have enjoyed this much
much more than I did.

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

Meena seemed too good
to be true, but it was still
compelling reading.

Book Sources:
The Magicians
- ARC taken from library staff share shelf.
The Book of Negroes - purchased by self.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

My Life According to Books Read So Far in 2009

Thanks to the lovely Educating Alice for this. Some are fun just for the book titles, some more for the content of the book. What's yours?

Describe yourself:
An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination

How do you feel?
Anything but Typical

Describe where you currently live:
Salamander Dream

If you could go anywhere, where would you go?
A Northern Light

Your favorite form of transport:
Along for the Ride

Your best friend is . . . ?
The Last Invisible Boy

You and your friends are . . .?
Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd

What’s the weather like?
Catching Fire

Favourite time of day?
When the Whistle Blows

What is life to you?

The Treasure Map of Boys

Your fear?
The Graveyard Book

What is the best advice you have to give?
Peace, Locomotion

Thought for the Day?
So B. It

How I would like to die:
Magic Trixie and the Dragon

My soul’s present condition?
A Season of Gifts