Category Archives: Reviewing

José Manuel Mateo and Javier Martínez Pedro’s Migrant

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The recent attention being paid to the many young undocumented immigrants coming across our country’s southern border brings to mind the remarkable book, Migrant by  José Manuel Mateo’s and illustrated by Javier Martínez Pedro. This story of one young boy’s difficult migration from Mexico to the United States is one spectacular book. Beginning in a rural village, readers learn why the young boy’s mother makes the difficult decision to leave. Their father has already left and, when he stops sending money and she cannot find work locally, she decides to leave with her two children, the narrator and his sister. The rest of the story is of their hard and frightening journey as they make way to Los Angeles. What really makes the book stand-out is that the poignant words are illustrated by one huge piece of art. Inspired by the codices the early people of Mexico and Central America, the intricate black and white art is viewed in an accordion format, something you fold it out as you read the story of the family’s journey. You can get a sense of this and the art itself at Jules’ featured post about it here.  Highly, highly recommended.

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Jude Watson’s Loot

I love me a good caper story. Lighter, smarter, funnier, and a lot less gory than many other sorts of crime fiction, done well, they are great fun to read.  And when a heist is involved, ideally in some exotic locale, all the better.  I’m not an expert by any means, but my favorite of these sorts of stories involve some sort of initiating event and then a super cool and super smart individual assembling and leading a motley crew to steal something from someone who doesn’t deserve to have it in the first place. Say the movies, “How to Steal a Million” or “Ocean’s Eleven.”  Now along comes Jude Watson‘s Loot: How to Steal a Fortune. Her name may not be terribly familiar to you, but what she’s written probably is, say a bunch of the 39 Clues books and many (many) Star War titles. But what caused me to snap up and read this title was when I learned that Jude Watson happens to also be Judy Blundell who wrote the fabulous National Book Award winner What I Saw and How I Lied.

It starts out darkly with a job gone very, very wrong. We meet almost-thirteen-year-old March McQuinn, who has spent his whole life traveling around with his father, helping him with his cons and heists, mostly homeschooled in a desultory way. Now Alfie McQuinn has fallen off an Amsterdam roof and March is  sitting next to him listening to his dying words, “Find jewels.” The moonstones, the grieving March assumes, seven otherworldly gems that are the central objects of desire in this novel. But it turns out that his father means something else entirely. It seems March has a twin sister named Jules from whom he has been separated his whole life. She, like March, has had an unconventional upbringing and is equally  savvy in  the murky world of con artists and thieves. The two soon meet and end up in a dreary American foster home. There they join forces with two other smart young people and head off to solve the mystery of their father’s death, get those moonstones, and do a whole lot more that is far too complicated to describe in brief, not to mention potentially spoiling if I do. What I can say is that it is loads of fun.

As in the best caper and heist stories, this one is full of snappy dialog, razor-sharp sentences, and clever plotting. The baddies are deliciously nasty and deserve what they get, the kids are endearing, and all in all it is a great edge-of-your seat read.

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Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey

I read Val McDermid’s reinvisioning of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey a while ago, courtesy of one of the egalley sites, and very much enjoyed it. This surprised me because Austen’s original is perhaps my least favorite of her novels, but McDermid pulls this new version off glowingly.

First of all, a well-known writer of adult crime fiction, McDermid does an excellent job with her sentence-level writing — that light wit and cleverness of Austen is nicely channelled. Having read a number of mediocre attempts to update Austen, this mattered to me enormously.  And then, she plays most amusingly with the recent obsession so many young woman had with the Twilight novels, a clever updating of Austen’s original heroine’s obsession with gothic romances.  Finally, she uses Edinburgh during the Book Festival as stand-in for the original’s Bath. Last summer, I was there for the first time and fell in love with the city and event. And so I can say for sure that McDermid does a lovely job capturing the sensibility of that time and location.

Now I’m delighted to see that Jo Baker, whose own Austen reinvisioning, Longbourn, was rightly celebrated last year (my review here), has enthusiastically reviewed this title for the New York Times.  She concludes:

Austen’s “Northanger Abbey” was in part a playful response to what she considered “unnatural” in the novels of her day: Instead of perfect heroes, heroines and villains, she offers flawed, rounded characters who behave naturally and not just according to the demands of the plot. So while everything in Austen is made up, nothing is ever a lie. McDermid’s writing has a similar honesty: She doesn’t let easy clichés or stereotypes slip by. In her crime fiction, the situations may be extreme, but her characters are human. This is also true of her “Northanger Abbey.” It may be an adaptation of someone else’s novel, which itself is woven with references to other, earlier books, but nothing feels forced, nothing feels untrue. McDermid makes it very much her own, although any skeletons in the cupboards remain strictly metaphorical.

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Coming Soon: Gregory Maguire’s Egg & Spoon

Gregory Maguire’s Egg & Spoon is a rich and layered story, full of gorgeous images and sentences, a matryoshka doll sort of tale. That is, like those nested dolls that show up themselves in the story, this book involves bits and pieces of stories, one inside the other and then coming out again. We begin meeting Elena Rudina, a peasant girl starving in a village with a dead father, a dying mother, a brother taken off to serve the Tsar, and the other as a servant for the local landowner. One day, out of nowhere, a train appears containing the wealthy Ekaterina, another young girl, on  her way to visit the Tsar in St. Petersburg.  Things take off from this point — journeys, mistaken identities, magical eggs, magical beings, mysterious monks, a prince, a magical festival, the Tsar, and — most wonderful of all, Baba Yaga and her house on chicken feet. This fabulous witch of Russian folklore is a fabulously written character,  funny, scary, wry, and just about everything possible in Maguire’s capable hands. At moments she reminded me of some of Diane Wynne Jones’ similarly gorgeously cranky and wonderful characters.

The plot is unique and complex, swirling around in highly unusual directions. It is staying with me and the more I mull it over the more I love it. Kids who are able and flexible readers, those with a predilection for older books of complexity and rich language and the ability to go with it wherever it goes will love it too I think. The child characters are delightful, brave and smart and complicated. And those magical characters — wow. This made me think of so many classical books I have loved over the years. Fairy tales galore, Russian and Scandinavian, especially, but other tales too — at one moment I thought of a favorite of my childhood, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. A unique and wonderful read.

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Albert Marrin’s A Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown’s War Against Slavery

I confess, until recently what I knew about John Brown was pretty much limited to a vague awareness of his foolhardy attack on Harper’s Ferry. Then, last summer, I read this review of James McBride’s historical novel about Brown, Good Lord Bird,  listened to it, thought it terrific, and  was very pleased when it won the National Book Award. And so, having Brown much more on my radar, when I first saw Albert Marrin’s nonfiction book A Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown’s War Against Slavery I was eager to read it. Having now done so I can say without reservations that it is excellent.

The excellently-titled A Volcano Beneath Snow is a book that is much more than a biography or history of one man. Rather, it is a book about slavery (both in history and in the United States), about politics, about war, about Lincoln, about religion, about history, about belief, and about terrorism. By placing Brown deeply within the context of his time, Marrin gives a unique and fascinating perspective on familiar and less familiar aspects of actions, people, and the ideas that led up to the Civil War. His portraits of Brown, Lincoln, and many other players are highly complicated, fascinating,  and thought-provoking. While the concepts in play are not always simple, Marrin writes about them clearly and elegantly, trusting in the intelligence of his young readers. This is a book that makes you think. Hard.

Highly recommended.

 

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Deborah Wiles’ Revolution

Deborah Wiles’ Sixties Trilogy is set in the time of hers (and my) youth.  The first book, Countdown, is a vivid, compelling, and moving view of the Cuban Missile Crisis seen through the eyes of  eleven-year-old Franny and was, I thought, splendid causing me to wait on tenterhooks for the next one.  When I saw that the second book was coming out this year I was both elated and nervous. Could Wiles pull it off again?

Here’s my tweet after reading it:

 Mar 31 I spent most of the weekend reading ‘s Revolution and it is fabulous.

So, yes, Wiles pulled it off again. In spades.

Revolution is set during the civil rights movement’s Freedom Summer of 1964. Two smart young people are at the center of the novel, observing and wondering and questioning the vicious racism and segregation that has ruled their Mississippi community for so long. We meet our protagonist, white twelve-year-old Sunny as she and her slightly older step-brother take an illicit nighttime dip in the municipal pool. Relishing the cool water and thrill of doing something slightly dangerous, Sunny is mulling over the pleasures of the forthcoming lazy summer when she has an encounter that jerks her out of reverie and onto a path of profound knowledge and change. It is a path that Raymond also travels, a boy all too aware of what it means to be young and black in 1964 Greenwood, and who wants to do something about it.

Greenwood has been filled with “invaders” as Sunny calls them, young civil rights activists who have come to do voter registration, set up Freedom Schools, and otherwise support local blacks in gaining their rights. Wiles does a superb job weaving in the many threads of life for white and black Greenwood citizens at this time, powerfully and, sometimes brutally, evoking real life events. She also brings in wider pieces of the time, the Vietnam War, the Beatles, and Willie Mays among others.

Sunny and Raymond are beautifully drawn — highly believable young people of their time and place. There isn’t a false note.Those around them are nuanced too, from the young northern civil rights workers to those in both of the young people’s families who are responding in different believable ways to the changing events. And Wiles excelles at sensory detail, giving readers the sounds of the young people’s different neighborhoods, the feeling of summer heat, those fans and the occasional air conditioner, the shiny floors of the courthouse, and much more. Using present tense, she creates scenes of drama and action and others that are quiet and pensive, all moving and unforgettable.

Then there is the nonfiction material that, as in Countdown, is interspersed throughout. Photos, quotes, excerpts from documents and news articles, song lyrics, and more are evocatively presented, deepening and making even more real  what is going on around Sunny and Raymond.  The back matter offers more along with a solid bibliography. But for those who want to actually hear and see more I encourage them to explore Wiles’ Pinterest page.

Revolution is one spectacular novel. I highly, highly recommend it.

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Margi Preus’s West of the Moon

Mixing fairy and folktale with harsh historical reality, Preus has created a gorgeous story of migration set in 19th century Norway. So many stories of immigrants to America focus on their lives when they arrive. Here is one about the old country inspired by something Preus read in a diary her great-great-grandmother wrote as she traveled to America.  Thirteen year-old narrator Asti is a complicated girl: brave, smart, difficult, angry, foolhardy, imaginative, and in the end, endearing. I dare you to read her story and not care deeply about her when you are done. Asti and her younger sister Greta have been stuck working for their aunt and uncle on their hardscrabble farm after their father has gone off to America, promising to send for them when he has the money. The girls’ lives are harsh and miserable; the lack of letters from their father makes it challenging to hold onto hope. But they do, Asti fiercely. But then, although it would seem to be impossible,  things get worse. Asti is sold to a truly horrific goat man and this remarkable tale takes off from there. Swirling in and out of Asti’s narrative of her harsh life with the goat man, her escape, and her efforts to get to America with her Greta are the stories she tells, ones of folk, of enchantment, and of magic. Beautifully considered and written, I can’t recommend this book enough.

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Thoughts on Newbery: Patrick Ness’s CBAITS

Some of you may bristle (or already have) about this topic, but I think it is one to take very, very seriously. It is Patrick Ness‘s provocative point in his SLJ Battle of the Kids’ Book decision this week about what he has termed CBAITs:

Crappy Books About Important Things; you know exactly what I’m talking about: books with either important subject matter or important formats that are so terrible-but-worthy they turn reading into medicine for young people.  People tend to be far too afraid to give these books bad reviews and they often go on to win prizes.

I think Patrick has a point, an important and enormously complicated one. First of all, what Patrick may consider a CBAIT may not be what someone else does. That is, our criteria may be different, our idea of what is good, our taste, and so forth. Which is why, presumably, some end up winning prizes. That is, enough people on a particular award jury may have the same sense of what is good even if it isn’t what others think. And so they are going to give an award to a book they sincerely think is good not crappy.

And that gets to the heart of Patrick’s issue: what do people consider to be a good book? Many indeed think a book is good if it takes on an Important Thing and will dismiss questions about the quality of sentence level writing that would be something I’d be paying attention to . While Patrick and I probably would agree that something with painfully poor sentence level writing is crappy there are some who might feel differently. Not to mention what I might consider overwrought writing might be something someone else would think is wonderful, and vice versa.

That said, I do think there is a tendency for those of us who review and/or participate in selecting best books, award books, and such to pay a lot of attention to books that deal with topics that we feel need to be more known. And sometimes we excuse weaknesses in such books because we think they are so important. Because they are so few and because we so badly want young people to take in the topics, to know about these Important Things.

I think this has special resonance when considering the Newbery award. While the criteria are clear that it is for literary merit not popularity or didactic intent, I suspect most  of us can look back at the books that have received the medal and find one we’d call a CBAIT.

Thank you, Patrick, for pointing out that metaphorically children’s book award emperors sometimes have no clothes.

 

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William Grill’s Shackleton’s Journey

I have always been fascinated by polar expeditions. I’ve viewed many documentaries, visited museums such as Oslo’s Fram Museum and Tromso’s Polar Museum, and read a lot. One story that has long enthralled me is that of Earnest Shackleton’s extraordinary 1914 expedition and successful attempt to get his whole crew to safety after their ship was consumed by the ice. This story has been told many times and many ways, say by Jennifer Armstrong in  Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World and by the American Museum of Natural History in their exhibit years ago where they created an awesome room with the James Caird (the small boat Shackleton used) itself featuring huge images of waves on every wall and sound effects. Now it is being told anew by William Grill in his gorgeous new book, Shackleton’s Journey.

This is a large, beautifully designed and produced book from Flying Eye Books, a small newish publisher doing absolutely terrific stuff. With a unique illustrative style, Grill balances small images with massive ones to evoke vividly Shackleton’s preparations, the early days of the expedition, the closing in of the ice on the Endurance, and their subsequent efforts to survive, and travel to safety. Grill’s text and images do a fabulous job communicating this incredible story. The large size of the book, the ample use of white to evoke the snow and ice of the region, and some jaw-dropping full-page images make this a book to look at over and over. (Jules at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast featured the book and a whole lot of its art here.)

My one reservation is the lack of documentation.  There are several quotes, a glossary, and much provided to learn about Shackleton, his men, the ship, polar exploration, and so much more, but there are no citations. I would have dearly loved to have seen even a brief list of sources.

That said,  the book is absolutely spectacular to browse through and worthy of owning. Kids and adults are going to pour over it and, hopefully, want to then go learn more.

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Eva Ibbotson’s The Abominables

 … this is a romp that balances Ibbotson’s trademark whimsical humor with understated opinions about outsider and animal rights.

Read my whole Horn Book review of this entertaining title here.

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