Category Archives: Review

Jason Reynold’s Long Way Down

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This was a book I knew I needed to be in the right place emotionally to read. Which I did, at last, yesterday.

And I thought it magnificent.

While I’ve read and admired other works by Reynolds, this may well be my favorite to date. The man has a way with language that is remarkable. Structured as a series of experiences/encounters/events for fifteen year old Will as he heads down in an elevator to take revenge on his brother’s killer, Long Way Down is powerful, gut-wrenching, and, all and all, extraordinary. Reynolds weaves together what happened, what is going through Will’s mind and his body, glimpses of the pain of others (notably his mother), layering who Will is within his progression down and engagements with a series of people from the past, some close to him, all connected to him somehow. The sensory details are blowing in your face, literally as many of the visitors are smoking, but vividly and viscerally throughout. The boy’s fear, anger, confusion, and pain are communicated in a myriad of ways, obvious and not. Reynolds plays with words in so many ways — with titles, with placement on the page, with anagrams (and these were so perfect and that isn’t always the case when writers try to do them), and far more.

This has definitely shot to the top of my list of favorites of the year.

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Paul Mosier’s Train I Ride

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As I’ve written here before, I’m extremely wary of books that are described as heartbreaking, poignant, tender, et al. Too often I feel that I’m being manipulated into tears as regularly happens in the movies with music. Happily, there are books thus described that DO work for me. Such a one is Paul Mosier’s Train I Ride. The structure is that of a girl with a very sad past traveling on Amtrak to a new life. Over several days on the train she meets people, builds relationships. has a romance, and slowly reveals her complicated history. What makes this book work so well for me firstly is the lovely character development. There is, of course, Ryder, but — as the book moves back and forth in time — also her recently departed grandmother, Amtrak employee Dorothea who is looking out for her on the train, Neal at the train cafe, a caring school counselor, some scouts, and a kind crossword puzzler fellow-rider. I’d read that Allen Ginsberg’s Howl featured in the story and was very skeptical, but it works beautifully and in a way that is necessary. Best of all is the sentence level writing which is a delight. Here’s a taste: “It was comfortably dreadful.”  Glad to see this getting some Newbery buzz and hope this little post helps.

 

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Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust Vol. 1: La Belle Sauvage

There will be many paths into this book. Some will come to it cold having not read His Dark Materials, curious about what the fuss is all about. Others will come to it having read His Dark Materials long ago and so with a vague sense of the world they are re-entering. Some may read it because of an encounter with The Golden Compass movie. Others may have had the early books read to them when young.  And some will come to it with a deep love and appreciation of the previous books, having read and reread them many times.

I’m definitely one of the latter. I came across The Golden Compass shortly after publication and fell madly in love with it, a feeling that only solidified when I read The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Since then I’ve read the books and listened to the full-cast audio recordings many, many times. It is a comfort experience, one of solace, one that has me admiring the trilogy more and more with each encounter. When the play was put on at London’s National Theater I went. With heart in my throat I followed the controversies around the movie and finally went to see it — yes, reader, I was disappointed. And now I wait eagerly for the forthcoming BBC series.

All this is to say that I entered La Belle Sauvage with high hopes, with high fears, and with a deep knowledge and appreciation of the previous books and their world, characters, and themes. And so my response to the book is predicated on all of this. Someone on a different path will likely have a different response.

I began with some anxiety — it had been seventeen years after all–but it was like dropping into a scented warm bath surrounded by flickering candles — in other words, a delight. The world was that of His Dark Materials, the characters multi-faceted whether major or secondary. the pacing tense and urgent, the ideas demanding and true. Best of all is the writing — Pullman is a wordsmith like few others. Again and again I just stopped to reread a gorgeous sentence, to admire a word or phrase, a clever construction, or the elegant weaving of information. Just look at this very first sentence:

Three miles up the river Thames from the center of Oxford, some distance from where the great colleges of Jordan, Gabriel, Balliol, and two dozen others contended for mastery in the boat races, out where the city was only a collection of towers and spires in the distance over the misty levels of Port Meadow, there stood the Priory of Godstow, where the gentle nuns went about their holy business; and on the opposite bank from the priory there was an inn called the Trout.

Taking us from the great colleges to mastery of boat races to  misty levels to gentle nuns he lands us at the unadorned (no adjectives for it) Trout. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. As a writer I aspire to create anything even remotely close to that opening.

Moving into the story proper we meet eleven-year-old Malcolm (and his daemon Asta) whose parents run the inn and so he works there too. As good in his own way as Lyra and Will, but a person distinctly all his own, this is a boy who is inquisitive, loves to make things, supremely sensible while also able to dream, honest (but able, in dire circumstances to lie effectively),  solid (with adults and peers), and with a heart that is as big as the flood that comes midway in the story.

In the first half, Pullman chillingly evokes a time when the country is still nominally free, but the various ecclesiastical dark forces that figure so prominently in His Dark Materials (set around a decade later) are rearing their ugly heads. Familiar characters appear or are referred to, notably Mrs. Colter and Lord Asriel. But most of all there is Lyra, a beautifully realized baby of six months old. Pullman’s development of her character at this age is masterful — I mean, it isn’t easy to show personality with a child who doesn’t have words yet. I suspect it is his remarkable invention of daemons that makes this possible as he describes wondrous moments throughout the book of baby Lyra and baby Pantalaimon.  At one point there is a description of the tiny daemon trying to change into another creature, but unable to because he doesn’t know it yet. At another point an adult points out that their babbling to each other (made me think of the private language that sometimes exists between twins) is a way of learning how to speak.

The plot involves saving the baby Lyra from the various nefarious people and organizations who are after her. Among them is an absolutely chilling villain (or malefactor as Malcolm might well call him), George Bonneville, who proves in horrific ways to be completely mad. Pullman sets things up in the first half of the book —- showing Malcolm’s cosy home life with his sensible parents, his enjoyment in helping out the nuns at the priory across the street (where he meets baby Lyra), his stolid firmness with friends and at school (where a creepy Hitler-Youth-like organization takes hold), and his handiness, especially with his beloved canoe, the eponymous La Belle Sauvage. And then things take off literally — there is flood of Biblical proportions and Malcolm along with Alice, a somewhat older and sulky worker in his parents’ inn, are off in the canoe to save Lyra. They are chased, they have narrow escapes, harrowing experiences, and otherworldly encounters.

I enjoyed every moment of the book which I both listened to and read on my Kindle (so as to avail myself of the highlighting option). I attempted to savor it, but it was impossible to slow down during the second half any more than could the children in the canoe as it was born away in the raging flood. Now I’m planning to go back and listen to it again. (I am such a speedy readers that I love listening, especially when the writing is gorgeous, as it is much slower.) And again — in preparation for the next in The Book of Dust, set evidently some twenty years later. I waited seventeen years for this one so I think I can wait a bit longer for the next one.

Thank you, Philip Pullman, for giving all of us, so completely and wonderfully, this chance to be lost again in your remarkable literary world.

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Rick Riordan’s The Ship of the Dead (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, #3)

Just finished this last night and the more I think about it the more impressed I am.  A few months back I wrote a post celebrating Rick Riordan and all the things I noted there are in his latest, The Ship of the Dead. Here’s what I just wrote on Goodreads:

Highly enjoyable. Interesting how Riordan reuses a plot trope (deadly deadline) so freshly and imaginatively in different titles including this one. I think this is because he develops each character so distinctively, brings in the mythology smoothly (so not didactic), and has a crisp and witty writing style. And also, regarding those characters — he is brilliant at weaving in so many different life experiences. The gender fluid Alex and the devout Muslim Samirah stand out here most of all. And in this case, he takes on religious belief — really terrific. Then there’s Magnus’s (the main character) love life. How often do we see this in the main character of a highly popular work of genre literature for middle grade readers? (Right now, as I’m hoping that this will change in the next few years.) Hmm…. started by giving it four stars because the plot seemed a tad standard, but as I write this I am in such admiration for what this writer has done here that I’m bumping it up to five. Yay to Rick Riordan!

 

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Auma’s Long Run by Eucabeth A. Odhiambo

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Set in a 1980s Kenyan Luo village during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Auma’s Long Run is a piercingly honest account of the struggles, pain, hardships, deaths, famine, and challenges faced by a determined young girl and her community with grace and fortitude. Debut author Eucabeth A. Odhiambo, who grew up in a Luo village, beautifully brings out the complicated ways thirteen year old Auma, her family, and neighbors cope with the scourge. Lack of resources, traditional practices, personalities, and more make this a riveting and complex read. While this is not a story that wallows in misery — Auma is too determined to ever give up — there are still many loses; in one case after the death of a friend’s parents, lack of food causes her little sister to die of malnutrition. How to get to the clinic to see a doctor, whether to consult with a traditional healer, where to get money for school fees and school uniforms, frightening cure mis-beliefs (one causing a man to threaten Auma sexually), and more swirl around this tale. Auma desperately wants to go to secondary school, to become a doctor, to then learn more about this disease and help find a cure. But her obstacles are daunting. Odhiambo relates Auma’s story in clear and direct prose, as practical and realistic as her protagonist. Her descriptions of Auma’s life are vivid and authentic, her scenes raw and real.  While there is indeed sorrow and sadness, there is also humor and joy. Highly recommend this one.

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Allen Say’s Silent Days, Silent Dreams

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A few weeks ago I visited New York City’s Whitney Museum and became besotted with a new-to-me artist, James Castle. Obsessed I took the following photos:

Perhaps a week later I saw Betsy Bird’s review of Allen Say’s Silent Days, Silent Dreams, was gobsmacked that this fictionalized overview of Castle’s life was in the works, and eager to get an advance copy. Now I have and think it completely and utterly superb. It is fiction, the text and the art, carefully and respectfully researched. Some have wondered if the art is all Say’s, but I feel confident it is. He writes about his own research, process, and materials in his author’s note and indicates that his wife made the constructions of dolls and birds. There is a solid bibliography. (For more of Castle’s art, check out online exhibits here, here, and here.)

And it is all quite fabulous — the text (a fictionalized memoir of Castle’s nephew) and the art, the hues and viewpoints very much in the style of Castle’s work.

One of my oldest friends is the curator of the American Folk Art Museum so I’ve long been aware of the work outsider/self-taught artists. In fact, one reason Castle’s work caught my eye at the Whitney (along with several others ) was delight in seeing it in such a museum in the same space of more famous conventional artists. Well-known outsider artists include Henry Darger, James Hampton, Achilles Rizzoli, Simon Rodia (who did the Watts Towers), Bill Traylor, Howard Finster, and Adolf Wölfli.

While I don’t want to make any assumptions about those artists whose lives for one reason or another were outside of the world of art as we usually know it, I can’t help being fascinated by those like Castle who, lacking certain ways of communicating, find others in spectacular ways. What we know of his life — being deaf and never speaking and living on a very isolated farm — makes his work all the more wonderful. Say has absorbed the man’s life and given us a gift to know about him, it, and his art.

Thank you, James Castle and Allen Say, for beautiful, beautiful reveries on the world.

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Jason Reynold’s Patina

A year ago I received a box of ARCs from Simon & Schuster and, poking around, came across Jason Reynolds’ Ghost. While I’d heard a great deal about wunderkind Reynolds and read with respect some of his YA work, that he had a middle grade book coming out was a complete surprise to me. About track — my one competitive sport — no less. And so I jumped right in and fell madly in love with it. (You can read my gushy review here.) And so now here we are a year later with the next in the Track series, featuring team mate Patty aka Patina.

On the very first page of Patina we are brought back to the track meet that ended Ghost, Patty telling us what happened and why. No spoilers from me though! Just moving on as this story is Patty’s not Ghost’s. It is one of legs, strong ones, missing ones, relay race ones, and more. These real and metaphoric legs make their way through the novel, effectively raising and highlighting important themes. They serve beautifully as Patty watches, acts, considers, and grows in her understanding of the world.

Where Ghost was about racing for and against yourself, Patina is about teamwork. There is teamwork practice of all kinds for the track team members who will be running relays in an upcoming meet. As well there is the group assignment at school where Patty is resigned to doing the bulk of the work, as usual, sensing no action on at least two of the group members. There is the teamwork of her family — her little sister, her diabetic and legless mother, and the aunt and uncle the siblings live with. The adults around them are good and caring, supporting the girls in the best ways they can. Reynolds’ scenes are beautifully done full of sensory details. You can just see those family meals, smell the uncle’s nasty truck, hear authentic conversations, and feel Patty’s body as she pushes it as hard as she can in workouts. The relationship between the sisters, Patty and Maddy is especially warm and delightful.

What for me elevates this book and its predecessor to such a high level (goodreads five stars:) is Reynolds’ fabulous writing. He’s got a way with a few sentences that stops me in total admiration, again and again. Say these:

Deep breaths, Patty, my mad slowly mellowing. This temper ain’t a new temper. Breaking invisible teacups. Smashing them everywhere. No this ain’t new. I just be keeping it pushed down, all the way down in my legs.

I highly, highly recommend this book and eagerly await the next in the series.

 

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