Wednesday, August 1, 2007

To Curb Your Cravings

Here are some of my top recommendations for books to curb your cravings for the next Harry Potter fix. (News flash: there won't be any more new Harry Potter books.) The following reviews were lifted from The Book Trolley, a book review column authored by yours truly. I started by picking the ones in which I said something like: "This is the best book I've read since the last book about which I said the same thing." Please don't be startled by this repetition; these reviews were written over the course of several years.

by Neil Gaiman
recommended for ages 12+

This is an excellent and very scary modern fairy tale by the award-winning, English-American author of Stardust and American Gods. Diana Wynne Jones compared it favorably to Alice in Wonderland, though the story that came to my mind (for some reason) was James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks. Witty, macabre, full of original imagery and a fast-paced plot and a plucky heroine, this could really be the best book I’ve read since Order of the Phoenix.

I am at an awful loss as to what to say about the story without ruining the whole thing for you. Let’s say, for starters, that it really has more in common with Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass than in Wonderland. It takes place in the present day, but it has elements of classic fairy tale combined with a pinch of horror and a dash of fantasy.

One cold, boring summer, Coraline Jones finds herself wishing for a better deal than living with her inattentive parents in part of a house that is divided into flats. Dividing their flat from the one next to it is a door, opened by a cold black key, that only leads to a blank brick wall. Sometimes. But sometimes, it leads to another flat just like Coraline’s where another mother and father want Coraline to stay with them. For various ghastly reasons, their offer isn’t very tempting. But Coraline soon discovers that it will take an awful lot of courage, luck, and cleverness to get back to the home and the family where she belongs.

Here’s a tantatlizing tid-bit that I hope the author will forgive me for quoting...

“How do I know you’ll keep your word?” asked Coraline.

“I swear it,” said the other mother. “I swear it on my own mother’s grave.”

“Does she have a grave?” asked Coraline.

“Oh yes,” said the other mother. “I put her in there myself. And when I found her trying to crawl out, I put her back.”
The Tears of the Salamander
by Peter Dickinson
recommended for ages 14+

I have long enjoyed the books of Mr. Dickinson’s wife, Robin McKinley. Until now, I have never read anything by Dickinson himself, though his titles include the winners of 2 Carnegie Medals, 2 Whitbread Awards, 4 ALA Best Book for Young Adults awards, a Michael L. Printz Honor Book, a Mythopoeic Society Fantasy Award, and other honors. His books include The Ropemaker, Eva, AK, A Bone from a Dry Sea, and many other enticing fantasy titles. I believe The Tears of the Salamander to be the best book I have read since The Half-Blood Prince. So, my discovery of Peter Dickinson’s writing has been both late and wonderful.

In this amazingly original and unique fantasy, the main character is a baker’s son and cathedral choir boy from a northern city in medieval Italy. Alfredo loves music, loves to tend the fires in his father’s oven, and loves his family. His life is completely happy until a terrible fire changes everything. Suddenly, he has no one in the world except a rich uncle who has never laid eyes on him since his christening. But now, Uncle Giorgio comes to take young Alfredo away with him to his mansion on the slopes of an active volcano in Sicily.

Uncle Giorgio, himself seriously ill, gives Alfredo a new name and begins to prepare him for his inheritance. But it is a strange and terrible legacy, involving vast powers over the fires of Mount Etna, dreadful sorceries, and monstrous cruelty. To be sure, Giorgio is kind to Alfredo – perhaps suspiciously so. But toward his dumb maidservant, to his idiot son, and to an enslaved creature from the fiery heart of the mountain, Giorgio shows nothing but cold and deadly hatred.

As Giorgio begins to teach Alfredo about his great works of alchemy, the boy cleverly unravels the truth about his family, and about his uncle’s plans. Suddenly, his life becomes a high-tension race to take a terrible vengeance, and any false step can mean doom for all.

For a tale that weaves horror, magic, love, hate, music, religion, and pulse-quickening suspense, you won’t find any better than this book. I would love to say something like, “If you loved ____, you have to read this!” But I am at a loss for another book to compare to The Tears of the Salamander. So I’ll make it simple and just say, “You have to read this!”

P.S. – I looked up Peter Dickinson’s official website, and among the goodies there I found an essay explaining why children should be allowed to read stuff that adults consider to be “rubbish” – i.e., having no artistic or instructional value. This is exactly what I’ve been talking about for years!

by Frank Cottrell Boyce
recommended for ages 11+

“Now a major motion picture,” says the cover on the paperback, above an adorable picture of the actor who played Damian Cunningham in the film based on this book. Or rather, the film on which this book was
It’s like the old chicken-or-egg question. Which came first, the book or the movie? It seems that the book was still being written when the movie was being filmed. Yet the book is certainly more than just a novelized version of the screenplay. I suppose it doesn’t matter. The same author wrote both the book and the screenplay. I liked the book so much that I immediately went out and bought a video of the film, and I like that too. But for once, when I say that I liked the book better than the film, I can’t blame the screenwriter for changing it! Maybe it’s because Mr. Cottrell Boyce had a chance, with the book, to perfect what had begun as a screenplay. Or perhaps it’s just that Damian is a character who has to be imagined, and believed in...rather than seen.

The story is set in the last 17 days of the old, British sterling money, before it was replaced by the Euro. Everyone has that long to spend, or exchange, their pounds and pence for Euros, before the old money becomes worthless. At just that time, a huge bag of money falls out of the sky – or maybe off a train – into the hands of a very special fourth-grader named Damian. A boy of whom the world is not worthy, as one might say.

Damian is the narrator in this story, and within the first few words of his narrative I fell in love with him. Don’t look at me like that, I don’t mean that kind of love. I mean that he made me giggle on nearly every page, and he filled my eyes with tears a few times, and he made me want to be his Dad, so I could protect him from the cruel world. His real Dad (the one in the book, I mean) has his job cut out for him. Damian aspires to sainthood, which means that he wants to do good. It also means that he knows everything about the saints, talks about them a lot (in situations that make you squirm), and even talks with them now and then. And when over 200,000 pounds sterling fall right on top of him, there’s a lot of good he can do – and a lot of trouble he can get into.

In the trouble department, Damian is helped by his older brother Anthony, whose mind is as fixed on material things as is Damian’s on the things above. To Anthony, beyond playing cash Jenga, a sackful of cash that has to be spent in two weeks means a lot of sugar, a lot of toys, a lot of favors from other kids at school, and possibly a bit of real estate speculation. Inflation runs rampant on the playground as ten-pound notes move about the student body.

Meanwhile, a real creep – maybe the one who stole the money in the first place – is on the boys’ trail, closing in every day. Tension rises as the cut-off date for the old pounds draws nearer, and so does the bad guy. And the boys wonder more and more who they can trust with their secret, and whether their dreams for the money have a chance of coming true.

The book is many things at once. It is a touching story about a family pulling itself back together after a tragic loss. It is a fantasy-adventure on multiple levels – first, the “what would you do with millions of money” fantasy; but also the bit about the saints and spirits who commune with young Damian. Could they be real? Or is his brother right when he says that Damian is a loony who should be locked up?

No, clearly he is not. Damian may not be going about sainthood the right way, but he is an unforgettable, good little boy, and his story will fill you with joy.

by Lilli Thal
recommended for ages 12+

John Brownjohn – who both translated and probably inspired a character in the Golden Hamster Saga – is responsible for bringing this German youth-novel into the English language. I must begin by praising him, because he must be a great writer in his own right, to take a wonderful book in German and turn it into an equally wonderful book in English. Yet I do not want to stint in my praise of Lilli Thal, an award-winning young adult author who deserves a loud round of applause for dreaming up this inventive and devastatingly powerful story.

The novel takes place some time in the Middle Ages. As far back as Prince Florin can remember, his father – King Philip of Moltovia – has been at war with the neighboring King Theodo of Vinland. Now, it seems, peace has been reached at last. Florin rides for 10 days to reach the court of Vinland for a banquet celebrating the new peace, and perhaps to be betrothed to the Princess Alix. His joy is shattered when banquet turns into betrayal. King Philip is thrown into a dungeon, and Florin is apprenticed to the razor-tongued court jester named Mimus.

The next 180 days are a wrenching testimony of suffering and endurance, despair and hope, tragedy and mockery, dangerous scheming and rigorous training in the arts of fooldom. Old Mimus teaches “Little Mimus” all the tricks of his trade, while the prince is tortured, starved, humiliated, betrayed by longtime allies, and worried sick about his father and their surviving men. But Florin also makes new friends, finds scraps of comfort and joy to cherish, and occasionally receives messages telling him not to lose hope — even as the final hours of his captivity approach in a rush of breathtaking suspense.

Prince Florin goes through a physical, emotional, and spiritual wringer in this story. You will too. But above all, you will be fascinated by the frequently contrary and always contradictory character of Mimus – his cruelty and tenderness, his shameless degradation as well as his surgically-sharp wit.

I wish I could quote to you my favorite line in the book, in which Mimus comes as close as ever to explaining himself...but it would ruin your enjoyment of that great moment. You’ll know it when you see it. Which is to say, you WILL read this book. Why? Because I declare it to be the “best book I have read so far this year” – a distinction I have only bestowed twice before in the history of The Book Trolley. If you want to know why, you know what to do!

This is a seriously good, great, awesome story from the imagination of an author who would be fascinating in any language, in the words of a translator so gifted that you can’t believe you’re reading a translation. It is set in a special place and time when clowns really could change the course of history, and it has jokes and riddles in it that will make you shudder, cringe, laugh, and cry, one after the other and sometimes all at once.

by Edward Bloor
recommended for ages 12+

Paul Fisher is a seventh grade soccer goalie who wears very thick glasses because, technically, he is legally blind. He really sees fairly well, though -- but in a way few others see.

The book begins as Paul and his family move to Tangerine County, Florida, where his older brother Erik is about to start his senior year of high school. Everyone but Paul seems caught up in the Erik Fisher Football Dream, and no one seems to pay much attention to Paul’s middle-school soccer career. Another thing no one understands is why Paul is terrified of his brother. Even Paul himself does not fully remember why—until, piece by piece, it comes back to him.

You could say it is a story about memory. Told in the form of a journal that Paul keeps on his computer, it explores the strange way truths unfold in the mind of a frightened, yet brave, young man. It also builds up a cloud of danger, dread, mystery, and irony. The Fisher family lives in a palatial suburban housing development that, under the surface, seethes with corruption, treachery, and decay. Meanwhile, Paul goes (by choice) to an inner-city school where fierce, competitive, even threatening people turn out to have a heart of gold.

Friendships, family ties, and even the whole basis of a community are tested. The paradise of Tangerine County is threatened by plagues of insects, fire, ice, lightning, mud, crime, and death. Atheltic triumphs, athletic disasters, a fight to save a citrus grove, and the first hints of juvenile romance combine with shattering revelations about a family, a school, and a town in this surprising, moving, and thought-provoking book.

I think you will like Paul. And I think his story will really grab you. Here’s an example of the way Paul speaks...

In addition to my regular glasses, I have special goggles, prescription goggles, for playing sports. They’re made out of some kind of astronaut plastic that could crash-land on Venus and not break. Nothing can break them. If the dinosaurs had worn these goggles, and the Earth had been bombarded by mile-wide asteroid boulders, the dinosaurs would still have died, but their goggles would be intact. Nothing can break these goggles.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
by Susanna Clarke
recommended for ages 15+

A Time Magazine review quoted on the cover of this book likens it, very aptly, to a meeting of Jane Austen and J.R.R. Tolkien. Chiefly set in Regency England, it affects the style and even spelling quirks of the early 19th century so convincingly that one could easily take the author for a contemporary of Dickens. First-time novelist Susanna Clarke combines gentle satire of the delicate manners of that age, yearning for the magic of even earlier times, and a crystal-clear syntax that does not wear out the brain or the eyes with endless sentences like this one.

It was, in fact, very exciting to read. Though the plot unfolds over some 10 years (and 800 pages), it does not seem to move slowly. Certain chapters would make captivating, stand-alone stories, and the last half of the book gathers momentum toward a climax of shattering power. At times it is suspenseful, shocking, humorous, tragic, romantic, and chilling. At least once I became so angry at some of the characters that I started swearing at them out loud. Another time I found myself pounding on my desk and yelling, “Yeah!”

So who in the world are Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell? They are the first two practicing magicians in England since the “Silver Age” of magic, hundreds of years before. They live in a version of history closely allied to the real world, up to a certain point. Napoleon, Wellington, George III, Lord Byron, and many other contemporary figures are here, mostly unchanged. But the England of this history was once split into two kingdoms; the northern half was ruled for 300 years by the Raven King, a powerful magician who consorted with fairies, angels, and demons.

The Raven King, also known as John Uskglass, is still out there somewhere, and his return is expected. Since he went away into Faerie, the practice of magic has declined until only one man claims to be more than a theoretical magician: Mr. Gilbert Norrell of Yorkshire. Norrell is very little like your idea of the “greatest magician of the age.” He is a crabbed, awkward, small man who fusses about his library, who destroys other magicians as a hobby, and who is determined to put magic on a modern, scientific footing.

Jonathan Strange is his one student: a handsome, active, outgoing young man who is both disciple and rival to Mr. Norrell. The contrast between them could not be greater; yet Strange is also a surprising magician – happily married, socially adept, and creative. He has to be creative, because Mr. Norrell is so stingy with his books that Strange has no other way of learning than to invent. And invent he does, achieving fame as Lord Wellington’s military magician from Lisbon to Waterloo.

But a certain fairy gentleman threatens to bring tragedy on both men. Of all people, it is Norrell – opponent of all dealings with the fairy realm – who summons this gentleman. So begins a trail of trials that could destroy both magicians. While master and student become increasingly estranged from each other, both of them – and the future of English magic – are headed toward freakish danger.

This story has much to appeal to a grown-up Harry Potter fan. It’s a thick, richly detailed book that you can’t put down. It’s full of colorful characters – some loveable, some hateable – and gosh-wow magic tricks. It even has magic that simply couldn’t be done in Harry’s world; and magic that shouldn’t be done either. It has horrors and gruesome surprises that are definitely not for the faint of heart; but it also has a hero you care about, even when he’s not particularly well-behaved. As for the villains, you find yourself hating most of them with a very personal hatred, yet pitying them later. It’s all marvelously done.

Hidden Talents
by David Lubar
recommended for ages 11+

Martin Anderson has been expelled from one school after another. Now he is sent to Edgewood Alternative School – a boarding school housing “difficult students” from half a dozen counties. Right away, you learn that Martin is a good-hearted kid. But he has a really smart mouth. So smart, in fact, that his own father hates him, and every one of his teachers soon comes to regard him as one of their hardest cases.

Martin’s atrociously tactless remarks make him unpopular with the teachers. I mean, seriously – the whole school is basically a form of detention, so there’s hardly any point in giving detention – yet Martin gets detention after detention. Nevertheless, he does make some friends. Misfits with nicknames like Torchie, Cheater, and Flinch, whose behavioral problems (like Martin’s smart mouth) disqualify them from going to ordinary schools. They have very little to hope for, other than to get old enough to drop out of school, if the school bully – appropriately named Bloodbath – lets them live that long.

But even amidst angry teachers, lousy cafeteria meals, and encounters with Bloodbath, Martin’s friends find joy. First they find it by sneaking out of the school on Friday nights to play games at the arcade in town. Later, after a period when they all stop talking to Martin because they think he is either crazy or making fun of them, the boys find joy in realizing that Martin is right – they do have psychic powers! For Martin’s five friends, at least, the cause of their “behavioral problems” comes from something weird and special that each of them can do – and that, with Martin’s help, they learn to control.

Martin becomes an honorary member of this group of psychic superheroes – hey, maybe that’s how the Super Friends got started! Have you ever wondered what it would be like growing up with powers/problems like that? – but at the same time, Martin is sad because he does not have a psychic talent of his own. Or does he? What if Edgewood Alternative isn’t the worst place these kids could go? What if the only way to keep the state from closing the place down calls for Martin to discover, and master, the special power within himself?

Sure, this is a cool story with an awesome fantasy concept, solid characters, plenty of action and tension, a social conscience, and some heart-warming, mushy family stuff. But what is most impressive about this book is how outrageously funny it is. I did not just chuckle. I laughed out loud, squirming helplessly, shouting with laughter until my neighbors upstairs stomped on the floor. I laughed until I squeaked; I laughed until I thought I was going to burst a blood vessel. And I did this once every two pages or so. Sometimes I would come back from the bathroom after washing my face and catching my breath, and would try to re-read the part that had set me off so that I could make sure I didn’t miss anything – you know, from tears blurring my eyesight, and the book shaking up and down – only to laugh even harder the second time!

Whew. I needed that. Thanks, David Lubar.

Here is a first novel that is so good that it made me worry. Worry, because such a fun-to-read debut novel might mean that a gigantic new talent has arrived...or it might mean the author has shown us all that he’s got, and our hopes of greatness to follow will be disappointed. Fortunately, I didn’t have to worry long. Immediately after reading this book, I got hold of Lubar’s second novel, Flip. And it is just as good!

Dying to get started on another awesome series of books that will absorb you as much as the Harry Potter series? Here are my top six "package deal" recommendations:
  • Megan Whalen Turner's Eugenides series: The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia
  • Timothy Zahn's Dragonback series: Dragon and Thief, Dragon and Soldier, Dragon and Slave, Dragon and Herdsman
  • Diane Duane's Young Wizards series: So You Want to Be a Wizard, Deep Wizardry, High Wizardry, A Wizard Abroad, The Wizard's Dilemma, A Wizard Alone, Wizard's Holiday, Wizards at War
  • Jeanne DuPrau's Books of Ember: The City of Ember, The People of Sparks, The Prophet of Yonwood
  • Steve Augarde's Touchstone Trilogy: The Various and Celandine (so far)
  • Kenneth Oppel's Matt Cruse series: Airborn and Skybreaker

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