Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Celestial Globe

The Celestial Globe
by Marie Rutkoski
Recommended Ages: 12+

When evil Prince Rodolfo of Bohemia discovers the persons responsible for plundering his Cabinet of Wonders were clockmaker's daughter Petra and her gypsy friend Neel, he sends his Gray Men - monsters created from the corpses of condemned criminals - to arrest Petra, or worse. But she is saved by her mental connection with John Dee, a magician and spy in the service of Queen Elizabeth I of England. Her friend Tomik runs to her rescue too late, finding the headless corpses of four Gray Men and a magical rift leading to a beach in Portugal, where he is abducted by sea gypsies who plan to sell him into slavery. Luckily, Tomik befriends Neel, who is on board their ship. Unluckily, Petra finds herself stuck in England, worried sick about her father and forced to learn magic from Dee, sword-fighting from an untrustworthy scamp named Kit, and the identity of a murderer who has stuck within the queen's inner circle. Her bargain with Dee is that if she solves the murder before he does, she can go back to Bohemia.

Meantime, back on board the Pacolet, Tomik has earned a position of trust among the sea-gypsies. But his search for Petra has gotten mixed up with the gypsies' search for an artifact called the Celestial Globe, which is crucial for exploiting all the rifts that lead magically from one side of the world to another. In the wrong hands, it could be a weapon of unthinkable power. In the gypsies' hands, it might mean salvation for their downtrodden brethren in scattered lands. But they aren't the only ones looking for it. Dee and the queen want it in England. Rodolfo and his minions want it in Bohemia. And someone has already proven willing to murder for it. When the resourceful young heroes of this book finally get together in a final search for the globe, it will be just on time to be caught between all the other forces in play.

This story has a lot of exciting action and fascinating historical details. The character of John Dee is intriguing, and the developing relationship between Tomik and Neel was fun to watch. Petra's familiar, a talking mechanical spider named Astrophil, is really a marvelous creation. The only thing about this book that irritated me was, frankly, the character of Petra. I found her chronically hard to sympathize with - negative, bad-tempered, sharp-tongued, and a little historically anachronistic. I kept feeling sympathy for the people she was antagonizing - with a couple of exceptions. What I didn't feel was chemistry between her and either Tomik or Neel; I had to take their word for it on their feelings for her. I guess it is possible for a strong-willed character to come on too strong. But with that reservation, I had fun reading this book, and immediately picked up its sequel.

This is the second book of the Kronos Chronicles trilogy, between The Cabinet of Wonders and The Jewel of the Kalderash. Rutkoski's other fiction includes the more recent Winner's Trilogy, comprising The Winner's Curse, The Winner's Crime, and The Winner's Kiss, and the stand-alone novel The Shadow Society. A sometime lecturer at Harvard with a Ph.D. from that university, she has actually lived in Prague - a fact that perhaps influenced her depiction of the historic city in this series.

The Diabolic

The Diabolic
by S.J. Kincaid
Recommended Ages: 14+

Nemesis is a Diabolic. That means she is a humanoid creature, bred and conditioned for one purpose: to protect the life of Sidonia Impyrian, the daughter of a senator of the galactic empire. She is a flawlessly engineered killing machine, biochemically programmed to love Donia and no one else. If anything were to happen to her, Nemesis would feel compelled to tear out the heart of whoever was responsible - but after that, her life would be worthless.

Up to a certain point, it isn't a bad way to live. Other than her memories from before she imprinted on Donia, of the awful things done to her and that she was forced to do, Nemesis leads a fairly soft life in the Impyrian family fortress, doted on by a sweet and loving girl, rather like a life-sized, living dolly. But then Donia's senator father falls out of favor with Emperor Randevald von Domitrian, by daring to take the wrong side of an ideological division within the empire.

The emperor is a devotee of the Helionic faith, which worships the Living Cosmos and considers all attempts to learn about science and technology to be blasphemy. Senator von Impyrian, meanwhile, thinks the empire is running out of time. The machines that keep its starships running are breaking down, and the starships themselves soon follow - with devastating results spreading across huge regions of space. No one understands how they work any more, let alone how to repair or replace them. Soon there won't be anywhere mankind can go, or any means for going there.

When the emperor decides to purge his realm of dissenting views, he begins by outlawing all Diabolics (except his own). Then he orders Sidonia to come to his court - which, if history is any guide, means she will either be a hostage to keep her father in line, or a scapegoat to suffer punishment for his crimes. Donia's family flouts both decrees, first by concealing the fact Nemesis was not put to death, then by sending her to court in Donia's place. After a crash course in comportment and a series of microsurgeries to change her appearance, Nemesis sets out on the most perilous assignment a Diabolic ever performed - protecting Sidonia by becoming her, when detection means a death sentence for both of them.

But that's just the setup for an exciting, complicated, and extremely romantic adventure in a totally engrossing, far-future fantasy world. Also involved - though I haven't space to explain how - are rival heirs to the imperial throne, among them a magnetic young man who feigns madness to survive in a royal family in which murder is almost an everyday occurrence. And though Nemesis has always been impatient with her mistress' unshakable belief that there is more to her than her deadly conditioning - that, perhaps, even a Diabolic might have a soul - it isn't until she meets Prince Tyrus that Nemesis starts to experience real emotions and explore the possibility that her life may have a purpose outside of protecting Donia.

The upshot is, perhaps surprisingly, one of the most emotionally convincing and moving depictions of romantic love I have ever read in a science fiction book that, also surprisingly, doesn't stoop to the near-pornographic. If it deserves an Adult Content Advisory, it is mainly for frequent and extreme violence. There is a core of kindness and hopeful humanity at the heart of this book, and a story structure that times its surprises, its emotional revelations, and its stretches of suspense to perfection.

S.J. Kincaid is an American author, also known for her trilogy of Insignia, Vortex, and Catalyst, plus their prequel novella, Allies. This review, made possible by a pre-publication proof via NetGalley dot com, has convinced me Kincaid is a talent to follow. The book goes into U.S. release Nov. 1, 2016.

Sunday, October 23, 2016


by Sam Gayton
Recommended Ages: 10+

Lilliput was just one of the places Lemuel Gulliver visited on his well-known travels. Even if you don't remember much about the other stops on his trip, it's very likely that if the title Gulliver's Travels means anything to you, you've heard of this island nation whose miniature people look up to us regular humans as we look up to giants. So imagine the terror six-moon-old Lily feels when Gulliver rears up out of the sea, making a return trip just to snatch her and bring her back to England as proof of his stories from his previous visit. She spends the next six months of her fairy-sized life in a birdcage, hatching 33 escape plans, none of which succeed. Meanwhile, Gulliver obsesses over the journal of his travels, which he hopes to finish soon so he can show Lily to the King of England and prove his story is one of scientific discovery, not madness or tomfoolery.

Then one day, a message Lily sneaked out of Gulliver's garret on the tail of a friendly mouse brings an answer. She finds a friend in the apprentice of the evil clockmaker who is also Gulliver's landlord. Forced to wear a wristwatch that tightens painfully after every wasted minute, Finn is not just Mr. Plinker's apprentice; he's a slave. But the two orphans help each other escape Mr. Plinker's vile clutches, experiencing wonderful and scary adventures together. Finally, they join a couple more colorful characters to plan Lily's escape back to Lilliput. But Mr. Plinker has also been making plans, plans that put Lily and all her friends in terrible danger.

An afterword to this book notes its place among a large body of "Gulliveriana" - basically, the oldest body of fan-fiction in English literature, dating back to 1726, the very year Jonathan Swift first published Gulliver's Travels. Considering that, plus the abiding impact of Swift's book on the shared imagination of western (or at least English-speaking) culture, and the fact that his title character was the first literary hero to wear spectacles, Gulliver blazed a trail for Harry Potter in many ways. But perhaps it is this book's origin as a tale a young man told his brother during a ramble along seaside cliffs that best explain its compelling drama, its fast-paced and exciting action, its winning combination of friendly and villainous characters, and its magical depiction of the tiniest of heroines prevailing against a gigantic and dangerous world. It's an unexpected sequel to Gulliver, but a wonderful little adventure in it own right.

This was the second published book by the British author of Hercufleas, but his first to be released in the U.S. I snapped up a copy of the edition illustrated by Alice Ratterree as soon as I spotted it in the children's fiction section of my local public library, and was richly rewarded for the time I spent reading it. Piecing together snippets I have read about the author in both of his books that I have read, and on his website, he is keen on stories about miniature people, and he has a master's degree in writing fiction for children - the first I have heard such a degree exists. Gayton's other books include The Snow Merchant, published in the U.S. as The Adventures of Lettie Peppercorn, and His Royal Whiskers.

The Final Exam

The Final Exam
by Gitty Daneshvari
Recommended Ages: 12+

The final book of the School of Fear trilogy breaks the pattern of series of books about weird and whimsical schools, by continuing from where the second book ended without breaking until next year. School of Fear's four, I mean five, "contestants in the pageant of life," as the eccentric Mrs. Wellington calls them, have succeeded in luring Abernathy, the wild man of the forest who was once the student Mrs. Wellington couldn't help, back to the school for another try. But overcoming his novercaphobia is going to be tricky, since it's the fear of stepmothers... and, well, Mrs. Wellington is his stepmother. Now an elderly man himself, Abernathy is in a state of arrested development, stuck at the age when the glamorous beauty queen and phobia fixer came between him and his widower father. As the object of his neurosis, and an oddball in her own right, Mrs. W is in no position to help him. But some way must be found to bring Abernathy to forgive her, before a strangely pig-like tabloid journalist publishes a tell-all article that will destroy School of Fear and embarrass everyone connected with it.

Once again, a lot will depend on youthful phobiacs Lulu, Garrison, Madeleine, Theo, and Hyacinth. Even while the stress of the situation makes them irritable and triggers minor and major attacks of their respective problems, they must pull together to survive an expedition to yet another off-the-grid school for kids with special problems - the stupid-risk-taking Contrarians, whose teacher, the one-eyebrowed Bishop Basmati, practices a method of therapy that makes Mrs. Wellington's methods seem totally grounded and reasonable. For while Basmati may be the only person who can bring Abernathy out of his decades-long fugue state, it's up to the School of Fearians to solve the mystery of a missing canary named Toothpaste. If they don't find the smart-beaked bird, Basmati will turn Abernathy against his stepmom again, right in time for an interview with the reporker (ha ha, I just made that up) who has been sniffing at the kids' heels all summer.

As usual, Gitty Daneshvari serves up a goofy and hilarious, yet also insightful and sensitive, interplay of oddball characters who come fully loaded with their own built-in conflicts. Maddie doesn't want to go through life wearing a shower cap, but her fear of bugs (especially spiders) has come back with a vengeance since she smashed a brown and burgundy spider on her own forehead. Garrison wants to be a real surfer dude, but his fear of water almost keeps him from crossing the drawbridge over the Contrarians' moat. Theo's obsession with safety has made him more irritating than ever, and even tough cookie Lulu loses it big-time when her claustrophobia catches up with her. But thanks to their shared fear of failure, and their need for School of Fear to survive this latest threat, the kids rise up to face a challenge that terrifies all of them. So while their adventure is ridiculous (in a fun way), it is also kind of inspiring.

It was nice to discover this complete trilogy on the young adult fiction shelf of my local public library. School-of-magic fans should be just as happy to see it, though it depicts more of a summer-school of unconventional psychotherapy. It is, however, a place just as secretive as Hogwarts, and a place that provides a different kind of escape from the misery of its students' ordinary lives - one that helps them face their ordinary lives with less misery. It also abounds in warm friendship, sharp dialogue, smart humor, and bizarre surprises. I'll be on the lookout for Get Smart-ish, the sequel to this author's equally funny book The League of Unexceptional Children.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Class Is Not Dismissed!

Class Is Not Dismissed!
by Gitty Daneshvari
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this sequel to School of Fear, a year has passed since batty beauty-pageant maven Mrs. Wellington started four quirky kids on the road to recovery from their phobias. But during that year, they have all secretly relapsed. Madeleine, the arachnophobe, lives a mostly normal life, but she still sleeps with an insect veil over her face. Formerly water-phobic Garrison now tries to pass himself off as a surfer dude, but he still hasn't put one toe in the ocean. Lulu, who armors herself with sarcasm to cover a deep and abiding terror of enclosed spaces, is exhausted after a year of faking trips to the bathroom and waiting for someone to share a trip in an elevator with her. And though Theo no longer drives his family crazy trying to confirm their "alive or dead" status every hour of the day, he thinks they might soon realize he is secretly spying on them. So they all have to go back to Mrs. Wellington's secretive School of Fear for another summer.

Unfortunately, they are joined by a chatterbox named Hyacinth, who is so frightened of being alone that she instantly anoints everyone she meets as "besties" and clings to them, I mean physically, until their fingers grow numb. She claims to understand her pet ferret Celery, to whom she attributes all her snotty remarks and naughty impulses. And when the other kids try for a moment of privacy from her, she throws a Category 4 panic attack. I just made that category up, but when it comes to creating offbeat characters and putting them in woolly situations, it's hard to out-do Gitty Daneshvari. If you think nothing can top the bizarre setting of the first installment in this series, wait till a burglar's blackmail note leads Mrs. W, her faithful manservant Schmidty, five kids, one ferret, and a fat bulldog named Macaroni on a race to a beauty pageant for dogs - complete with reckless driving, atrocious wardrobe decisions, a police interrogation, and a disruptive confrontation in front of a crowd of people dressed as their pets.

But the real crisis happens when one of the kids - don't ask me to hint about who - rats out School of Fear to a tabloid journalist. Now the secrecy, the very existence, of the only program that has ever helped these fear-afflicted kids is at stake, and that scares them most of all. To have any hope of saving School of Fear, they need (once again) to face their fears, get to the bottom of the mystery of Mrs. Wellington's one disastrous failure, and try to lure the one patient she couldn't help back for another go.

This is the middle book of a trilogy, which concludes with The Final Exam. It is also rich in the type of comedy that develops naturally from the interplay of several oddball characters. Their hopes and fears, their flaws and good intentions, their mutual frustrations and friendships, all play into a constant stream of hilarious repartee, embarrassing mishaps, and touching moments. In many ways School of Fear is too silly to be believed. But on the human level, it engages the reader's full sympathy and willingness to imagine. Whoever Gitty Daneshvari is - and I still think her head-shot is too good-looking to be true; besides which, her copyrights are registered to Cat On A Leash, Inc. - she knows how to cue laughter, build sympathy, and mine the heroic potential of ordinary, mostly unheroic kids.

The Boy Who Knew Too Much

The Boy Who Knew Too Much
by Commander S.T. Bolivar III
Recommended Ages: 11+

Commander S.T. Bolivar III seems to be one of those authors of the school of N.E. Bode, Pseudonymous Bosch, and Lemony Snicket, whose true identity may perhaps eventually become known, but who currently enjoys the freedom to paint himself into the background of a tale of hero kids measuring themselves against grown-up villains. In this first book of the "Munchem Academy" series, the Commander aims to set the record straight about the greatest thief who ever lived, starting with Mattie Larimore's first and only arrest - for stealing a subway train. A disappointment to his loud, bossy businessman father and his Dominican telenovela starlet mother, Mattie is condemned to join his juvenile-delinquent older brother Carter at a reform school called Munchem Academy.

As soon as he arrives at Munchem, Mattie can't wait to go home. He tries and tries to be good enough, but somehow he keeps getting into trouble. Call it an impulse-control problem, like when he hits the class bully on the nose with a wet washrag. Call it a conflict between wanting to be the son his parents want and the brother Carter wants. He tries so hard to make the teachers like him that he makes enemies of the other students, but still it isn't enough. In desperation, Mattie recruits his two best friends - technology nerd Eliot and his bossy, animal-rescuing sister Caroline - to break into the headmaster's office in search of a handbook on how to be good. Funnily enough, he doesn't spot the book (though an eagle-eyed reader might). Instead, he finds himself in the middle of a scary adventure involving a conspiracy to replace bad students with good clones. And his biggest worry is that if Carter doesn't shape up - Carter, who never listens to him - he'll be next.

This is a heart-warming, funny, exciting introduction to the career of a crook with a heart of gold. I know, I just used the word "heart" twice in one sentence, but this book has plenty of heart, as well as some wickedly clever banter, over-the-top goofy characters, strange-enough-to-be-almost-believable adventure, and a reform school setting that is both grim and quirky. It will be fun to visit again. And though there are many ways Mattie Larimore and Munchem are unlike Harry Potter and Hogwarts - notable examples including the older-brother character of Carter and the substitution of crime instead of magic - there are many more reasons to expect this new series to catch fire with fans of the boy wizard.

This review is based on a free Kindle proof made available through Netgalley dot com, though the book was already released in September 2016.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Etiquette & Espionage

Etiquette & Espionage
by Gail Carriger
Recommended Ages: 13+

I first became a fan of Gail Carriger through her frisky, adult "Parasol Protectorate" series, a quintet of paranormal-steampunk-comedy-romance-thrillers set in the 1870s. For a long time I've been hankering to try her "Finishing School" series, a young-adult prequel quartet set in the 1850s. Recently, during a raid on my local library's YA section, I discovered a full set of them, which is an excellent cue to get started.

This, ahem, debut book in the series introduces Miss Sophronia Temminick, the unladylike youngest daughter in a large family of country gentry somewhere in Wiltshire. Her curiosity about the inner workings of the clockwork- and steam-driven domestics (known, in the Parasolverse, as "mechanicals") and her habit of causing scandalous accidents with jam tarts leads to Sophronia being recruited to an exclusive finishing school that puts an unexpected weight on the word "finishing." At Madamoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy, girls receive lessons in seduction, poisoning, intelligence-gathering, and defending themselves against vampires and werewolves, all in the charming environment of a three-balloon airship floating above Dartmoor. It's so very hush-hush, even Mlle. Geraldine doesn't know the true nature of her school; practicing deception on her is one of the girls' lessons.

In her first term at Mlle. Geraldine's, Sophronia learns to dance, to dress, and to dissemble like a fine lady who will, presumably, one day marry well (perhaps more than once). She also learns to elude the mechanicals that patrol the hallways, to visit the "sooties" who shovel coal in the boiler rooms, and to hide a steam-powered sausage dog in the dormitory she shares with five other girls of varying trustworthiness. A couple of her friends may be familiar to those who remember the Parasol Protectorate. But friends aren't all she has. Sophronia also, very quickly, develops a full dance card of enemies, including airborne pirates known as flywaymen, tophatted hoodlums called Picklemen, an especially roguish clique called the Pistons at a boys' school for evil geniuses, and one of her own classmates.

Everyone is after a prototype thingummy, which has something to do with the fact that telegraphs don't work in the Parasolverse. Don't expect me to explain this, other than "because steampunk." As Sophronia gradually learns enough of the arts of a finished (or finishing) female to attend her older sister's coming-out ball during the holidays - and no, "coming out" doesn't mean what you think, you 21st-century goof - she also pieces together the mystery of where the prototype may have been hidden. Wouldn't you know, keeping it from falling into the wrong hands depends entirely on what one resourceful young lady does at a memorable evening of social disaster and fashion mayhem.

Other books in this series are Curtsies & Conspiracies, Waistcoats & Weaponry, and Manners & Mutiny. Carriger's other writings include the on-going "Custard Protocol" series, so far comprising Prudence and Imprudence; the "Finishing School" spinoff series "Delightfully Deadly" with, so far, only the book Poison or Protect; the LGBT "Supernatural Society" series, also with only one book so far, Romancing the Inventor; and a "Carriger Quartet" of racy short fictions in full-cast audio productions. It's safe to assume an Adult Content Advisory applies to all of them; but the "Finishing School" series seems, so far, to be quite teen-friendly, with only a far-off sparkle of sexiness to come. Mostly, it's just subversively funny, with all the steampunk hallmarks of high fashion, satirical wit, technological oddities, secret societies (frequently sporting octopus-themed bling), and class warfare sometimes, but not always, depicted in terms of the social attitudes of and about the undead. And even though it lacks the Gail Carriger hallmark of scenes that oblige you to take a cold shower after reading them, it radiates her love of all things 19th-century British, with frills and stays and petticoats and, now and then, a flash of tartan plaid. In four words: charming, adventurous, good fun.

Monday, October 17, 2016


by Kristin Cashore
Recommended Ages: 14+

Bitterblue is the young queen of Monsea, one of seven kingdoms in the world as she knows it. It is a world in which most of the kings exploit Gracelings - people "graced" with superhuman powers - to stay in power, and tax their people to the point of starvation to enrich themselves. Bitterblue's father, the late King Leck, was one of the worst such kings - a sadistic psychopath who, even ten years after his assassination, left a crippling mark on the national psyche.

Bitterblue wants to move the kingdom forward, but is frustrated at every turn by haunting remnants of her father's time. People seeking the truth about what happened during Leck's reign are being murdered, or framed for crimes and falsely imprisoned. Strange crimes are being committed in Bitterblue City, right up to and even within the walls of the castle. People she needs to be able to trust keep betraying her. And her most trustworthy friends, a council devoted to overthrowing the worst of the kings, are too busy putting her kingdom at risk by using as a base for destabilizing the neighboring kingdom of Estill to be there when she needs them most. On top of everything else, the young queen has become attracted to a very dangerous type - a rebellious thief of things already stolen, whose greatest heist puts his neck into a noose from which she will be hard put to save him.

This third book in the Seven Kingdoms trilogy turns out to be equally the sequel of both the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award winner Graceling and its companion novel Fire. It explores the heartbreaking emotions of a young woman experiencing the loneliness of power, the difficulty of doing the right thing during complicated times, and the lingering pain of a society that has long been ruled by a monster. It touches on the long-term effects of surviving abuse, the burden of keeping terrible secrets, the fascination of cracking cyphers, and the awful feeling of being unequal to a great task. Bitterblue and her friends wrestle with illicit romantic feelings, special abilities that have to be kept hidden, and the qualms of discovering a whole world that has been hidden from them until now.

It is a grueling emotional journey, equal to the serious, exciting, passionate book Kristin Cashore has written around it. It is an unusual fantasy in that its action never leaves the city of Bitterblue and rarely even leaves the confines of the castle. It nevertheless inhabits a rich landscape of history, art, architecture, politics, and personalities. It has fascinating touches of cryptography and linguistics, strange kinds of magic, and potent atmospheres of mystery and dread. It is also worthy, please note, of an Adult Content Advisory, partly due to the disturbing glimpses of Leck's vile proclivities, partly because of graphic violence - including attempted rape and murder, assault, and suicide. There is also a moral outlook on issues like, for example, same-sex marriage that may prompt Christian parents and families to opt out. To-date, this trilogy is all Kristin Cashore has written. It will be interesting to see what else her imagination holds in store.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

School of Fear

School of Fear
by Gitty Daneshvari
Recommended Ages: 12+

Madeleine of London, U.K. is terrified of spiders and insects. She wears a mosquito-netting veil and a belt lined with bug spray at all times. Lulu of Providence, R.I., has a disabling fear of small, windowless spaces. She would rather handcuff herself to the landing gear of an airplane than ride the elevator at her city's Air and Space Museum. Theo of New York, N.Y., is obsessed with death. He memorizes mortality statistics and can't stand not knowing the "dead or alive" status of everyone he cares about. Garrison of Miami, Fla. is perhaps the most "together" of the four kids, unless someone mentions a body of water from swimming-pool size up. Then he falls completely to pieces. They all meet one summer outside the bus station in Farmington, Mass., on the last leg of their journey to a school they hope will help them take back control of their lives - a "referral only" establishment that promises to succeed where everything else they have tried has failed - a zealously guarded secret place called the School of Fear.

Then they find out the School of Fear is a nightmarishly weird, decaying mansion inhabited by a batty, way-past-her-prime beauty queen and her devoted, but mostly blind, manservant Schmidty. Mrs. Wellington subjects the kids to a ridiculous regime of tips for beauty pageant contestants. She exposes them to stunningly bad smells, an indoor polo ground with Astroturf and stuffed horses, a "fearnasium" where they practice imagining themselves exposed to their worst fears, food that tastes like maggoty cheese, and the awful spectacle of herself without her make-up or her wig on. She subjects them to an unrelenting barrage of passive-aggressive sarcasm, the company of four cats who (she claims) have been ingeniously trained to act entirely untrained, the affections of an overweight bulldog named Macaroni, and the pernicious influence of a sneaky, grasping, compulsively gambling lawyer.

The four kids get on each other's nerves. Their personalities bristle against each other. They bicker about Maddy's bug spray fetish, about Theo's non-stop histrionics, about Lulu's eye-rolling meanness, you name it. But as much as they differ among themselves, they all agree Mrs. Wellington's "treatment" is unlikely to help them overcome their fears, even the tiniest bit. And there's little chance of them escaping, since the School of Fear is situated on a plateau above an impenetrable forest.

Then... nah, I'm not going to tell you. Let's just say stuff happens that forces these self-absorbed, argumentative pre-teens to work together as a team, to think about someone besides themselves, and to begin - just begin - to face their worst fears. More detail than that would spoil their whimsically unexpected (even if, on a basic level, somewhat predictable), hilarious and exciting adventure.

See what I mean?
Gitty Daneshvari, an Iranian-American author whose supermodel-perfect headshot looks like an avatar someone created for a first-person-shooter computer game, has me convinced of one thing: her ability to write crack-me-up comedy. I first got this impression when I read The League of Unexceptional Children, whose sequel, Get Smart-ish, I look forward to reading. This book confirmed it, with a rhythmic groove of situational funniness that, several times, made me close the book to have my laugh out. It also has characters whose interplay gels nicely, with pointed dialogue and dueling personality quirks. I heartily plan to borrow the local library's copies of the two sequels to this book, Class Is Not Dismissed! and The Final Exam.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Hold Fast

Hold Fast
by Blue Balliett
Recommended Ages: 11+

To most people, they're the Pearl family. To each other, they are Dashsumearlyjubie. That's the unit comprising Dashel, the father; Summer, the mother; Early, their 11-year-old daughter; and Jubilation, their preschool-age son. The fourness of the Pearls is important to this close-knit Chicago family. Then, one cold January day, Dash disappears on his way home from work at the Harold Washington Public Library, the largest library facility in the world. His bicycle, some groceries, and a notebook are found. A few days later, four masked home-invaders destroy or steal everything the Pearls own, leaving the remaining Pearls homeless, penniless, and tormented by worry about whether Dash will ever come back and turn their threeness back into four.

The spell of homelessness that follows for Sum, Early, and Jubie takes a gradual toll on their mental and physical health. The sense that being homeless has not only deprived them of a home, but also made them less, saps Sum's hope and willpower. Conditions in the homeless shelter put Jubie in the hospital. The way students at the nearby school treat Early provokes her to quit attending. They are always standing in lines. They have to eat, sleep, and wash when they are told. They are surrounded at close quarters, night and day, by people who are only little farther along in the process of losing hope. And worst of all, their situation makes them invisible. Being homeless makes it hard for Sum to find a job, find a daycare for Jubie so she can work, find a listening ear at the Police Department who is interested in helping them find Dash, rather than accusing him of a crime they know he would never commit.

Yet Jubie finds a spark of hope in the poetry and prose of the great African-American writer Langston Hughes. She tries to figure out the message her father's last scribblings in his notebook might be trying to send her. She reaches out to a teacher who inspired him when he was a boy. And she goes to the library to do some digging. Little by little, she uncovers a conspiracy connecting a traffic in used books with the greatest diamond heist in world history - a discovery that, if her father is still alive, puts him in greater danger than ever. Meantime, she also sets wheels in motion that will bring hope to many other homeless families.

This is a standalone example of the type of book Blue Balliett perfected in her Calder Pillay mysteries, including Chasing Vermeer, The Wright 3, The Calder Game, and the only one I haven't read yet, The Danger Box. They are highly unusual, thoughtful mystery-thrillers that combine experimental approaches to children's education, underappreciated works of literature and art, in-depth research of real-world events (such as the 2003 Antwerp diamond heist - which, in our reality, has never been solved), and smart, brain-teasing, vocabulary-building, kid-friendly puzzles. They depict emotionally gripping family problems. They conjure urgent suspense. And they tickle the reader's social conscience. They are superbly original blends of art and entertainment, from an author who has taught at the same University of Chicago Laboratory Schools where Langston Hughes worked for a while. In this book especially, she pays tribute to the courage it takes to "hold fast to dreams," as Hughes put it.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Al Capone Does My Homework

Al Capone Does My Homework
by Gennifer Choldenko
Recommended Ages: 12+

Moose Flanagan, 13, once had to write 200 times for his English teacher that he does not live on Alcatraz Island, even though he does. Also, the teacher who made him write the lines didn't apologize when she found it was true. One of the other children of the guards at the infamous prison off the shore of San Francisco was sent by her Sunday School teacher to a priest to confess that she doesn't live on Alcatraz; the next day she went back to the priest to confess to making a false confession. People with "Alactraz Island" on their personal checks or ID have been refused service or even turned into the cops as suspected jailbreakers. It's tough to live on the island where the most slippery and dangerous inmates in the U.S. penal system are locked up.

It's the winter of 1936, and Moose Flanagan knows even more reasons its a tough place to live. He is confused about his feelings for two girls - warden's daughter Piper, whom he has kissed one and a half times, but whom he doesn't trust; and his tomboyish best friend Annie, another guard's daughter, who is suddenly growing into a beautiful young woman. He is worried about his father, a sometime prison electrician who recently became associate warden and, thereby, a high-ranking target in a savage game that gives inmates varying numbers of "tough guy" points if they spit on, stab, or kill a guard or a warden. And Moose feels responsible for his older sister Natalie, who has a problem that today would be diagnosed as autism, and that makes her a handful when she is home on break from the special school she attends in the city.

Living on the island gets even tougher when the Flanagans' apartment burns one night when Moose is babysitting Natalie. He can't get over his worry that he might be responsible, since he fell asleep when he should have been watching Natalie. One of the other guards, who covets Mr. Flanagan's job, suspects Natalie of starting the fire. The guard's wife raises the shrillness quotient to the point of calling Natalie's school and getting her suspended, even before the results of the fire investigation come back. Desperate to find out the truth before rumors and innuendos destroy his family, Moose and his friends sneak around, trying to find a way to get the inmates to tell them what they know about the fire. Their attempts involve cockroach messengers, eavesdropping on an interrogation, and Moose's homework being swiped and returned by prisoners repairing the Flanagan's apartment. But instead, they learn about a completely different plot, unexpectedly linking a convicted con-man who once (almost twice) sold the Eiffel Tower as scrap, a civilian member of the island community, and one of Moose's closest friends.

This is the third book in the Moose Flanagan series, a (so far) trilogy of really well-researched historical fiction set during the 30-year era when Alactraz was operated as a federal prison. The main characters are fictional, but among the prisoners who really lived on Alcatraz were Victor Lustig, the alleged author of the Ten Commandments for Con-Men, and, of course, Al Capone. The book is filled with a mish-mash of genuine aspects of living on Alcatraz, such as the guards' families living in an apartment building that didn't have fire escapes and the prisoners using cockroaches as pack animals, with intriguing feats of imagination, such as the point-system for stabbing guards and wardens. But at the heart of all the humor, the local and historical color of the setting, the juvenile romance and the light touch of hard boiled mystery, is a serious human drama of a family struggling with their child's affliction, a young man learning an unexpected lesson that he can't hold himself responsible or everything, and a conflict within a close-knit community that almost tears it apart. It is a powerful, moving story with a payoff worthy of the first to books in the series, Al Capone Does My Shirts and Al Capone Shines My Shoes.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

How to Review a Book

I may not be the world's leading authority on this. My book reviews were not the most trafficked pages on MuggleNet, when they were even still being posted there. I no longer possess an advanced enough computer to meet the technical requirements to post my own stuff on MuggleNet, and it's been about two years since the staffer responsible for posting my reviews has bothered; but for a while there, the Book Trolley was a point of pride. But I have amassed a collection of more than 1,500 book reviews, besides ones that have slipped through the cracks, never to be seen again. If you follow this link and then click the first letter of an author's last name, rinse and repeat, you can find all the ones I can find. I've developed a bit of a rhythm for writing them, which pleases me and, I hope, is helpful to other people looking for suggestions about what to read next.

1. Know Your Mission
I pitched "The Book Trolley" to the admins at MuggleNet in 2003, and for quite a few years, it was my main outlet for sharing the joy of reading with the internet. I got some good feedback about it, while the MuggleNet feedback system was keeping me in the loop, and lots of suggestions for readers about books to review - more than I could ever keep up with. This wasn't how I started writing book reviews, however. I really started reviewing books - and some of my MuggleNet reviews originated - by way of correspondence with a college friend who taught school several years in an Alaska town north of the Arctic Circle.

My original mission a reviewer, therefore, was simply to offer ideas for books she might enjoy during a long winter trapped indoors, and books she could share with her students. She reciprocated by sending me some books she thought I should read; many of them are represented by reviews on this blog. But as I re-purposed my existing reviews for MuggleNet and moved forward with the Book Trolley, my mission as a reviewer took on the added wrinkle "If you like Harry Potter, you may also like..."

Sometimes the connection to Harry Potter is pretty thin, though. Some books are really close to what a Harry Potter addict would most likely go for. Some are pieces of literature that I think may have influenced J.K. Rowling at some point in her creative process. Some are just good books for teen readers, people who like fantasy, or people who just like a well-constructed and emotionally satisfying story. And some are listed there because, as someone who likes Harry Potter, I reckon anything else I like could fit the bill.

On a deeper level, my mission as a book reviewer is not to be a cultural critic, an ideologue, or an apostle of style. I think of myself, rather, as a "book booster," pushing the awareness and appreciation of good books and the pleasure of reading, especially on younger readers who may not have a lot of experience picking stuff they like to read.

2. Describe the Book
One of the dangers of writing 1,500-plus book reviews is the tendency for many roughly similar books to blur together. So it becomes increasingly important to lead each review off with a tight, clear description that identifies distinctly what this book is about - what kind of main character(s) it has, what situation they're in, a sketch of what happens. This part is tricky, because it is sometimes hard not to give too much away, and sometimes to avoid that (or to avoid getting bogged down in an endless explanation of the book's complexities) you have to hold back so much that you can only vaguely tease the story. So you must be able to live with a frequent sense of not having done justice to a book in your description of its contents.

I admit that at times, I have fallen into the ditches on both sides of this narrow road. In my review of Kappa, for example, I am aware that I pretty much forgot to say anything about what happens in the book. (Some mental patient explains how he fell down a hole and found himself in Kappaland, learned to speak Kappanese, and observed the social foibles of the Kappas, then escaped back to the human world and lived to regret it. All right?) On the other hand, I have caught myself spoiling practically every detail of a story in some of my reviews; at times, I deleted a lot of what I had written and changed it to a "long story short, don't want to give away too much" summary. Then there were times when I didn't check myself, and the review went out there, spoilers and all. Which is too bad, because those are probably my most boring reviews!

A goal I must strive for, and that I recommend to other would-be book boosters, is to tell just enough of what happens in the story to give a mental picture of what to expect in general, and perhaps to pique someone's interest.

3. Evaluate the Book
Another thing I often have to remind myself is not to end the review without saying in a sentence or two, or a paragraph or two, what I thought about the book - to "sell" what I liked about it, while being honest about my reservations. Since my audience of habit, even years after parting ways with MuggleNet, remains kids, parents, and book nerds of all ages for whom Harry Potter is a gathering point, I often mention precisely why I think this book should appeal to them, even if the reasoning is somewhat twisted. And because kids and parents are part of that expected audience, I also try to light up "Adult Content" and "Occult Content" advisories and other content warnings where they seem needed - not to censor the books, but to allow individuals and families to brace themselves for challenging material, or to self-select whether they want to proceed.

When I post my reviews on starred review sites, such as Netgalley, Goodreads, and the late and lamented Shelfari, I take the opportunity to apply a second round of evaluation to each book. But I would rather not review a book at all than say nothing but negative things about it; and I want to encourage people to read books to the limit of how positively I can evaluate them, while doing justice to my concerns about them. So my starred reviews tend to err on the side of having more stars than I think the average "book critic" would provide. To me, 5 stars means it's a book I really enjoyed; 4 stars means I strongly recommend it, but with a few reservations; and by far the majority of my reviews take 4 or 5 stars. Books that I deeply, personally cherish get added, if possible, to an additional list of "favorites."

As for 2- and 3- star reviews, they seldom happen, and they tend to mean something about the book seriously disturbed my reading pleasure. This doesn't, however, mean there is nothing about the book that I would recommend. I don't remember whether I've ever given a 1-star review. I would, in effect, be saying I hated the book, since giving it zero stars would be equivalent to not reviewing it at all; and whether or not I opted for that route would depend on how strongly I wanted to urge people not to read it. Whenever it comes to that decision, I tend to remind myself to be a book booster first and a critic second.

4. Put It All in Context
My usual procedure for ending a book review is to say a few words about the author, putting the book concerned in the context of a writing career and/or a series of books, and suggesting other books in the series or by the same author that might be fun to read. Also, it's important to acknowledge when my review was based on a pre-publication proof and how I came by it.

Occasionally, I also enjoy an opportunity to brag about having corresponded with an author. In my current day job, I get to interview a lot of local people and write feature stories about them for the newspaper. I've interviewed three local authors now, though only one of those interviews was mainly about their writing career. Those interviews are nowhere on this blog. But I am still proud of the handful of interviews I have blogged with authors whose books I had reviewed. I hope I will have more chances to do this in the future.

5. Optional Stuff
Most of my reviews go straight to the point. But sometimes, it's fun to indulge in a little fancy verbal footwork, building my comments on a book into a brief essay to entertain. On these occasions, I often relate my experience reading the book with aspects of my personal life. Or, I may compare the present book with one I read a while ago, and riff on their similarities and differences.

If I have a genuine, strong emotional reaction to the book, such as laughing, crying, being frightened out of my wits, or (in a recent case in which I let loose a loud stream of profanity before realizing the whole neighborhood could hear me) becoming exasperated with the book, I'm almost sure to mention it in my review. I think that kind of thing brings the reviewer and the reader of the review closer together in their shared experience of reading.

I'm not too big a man to argue with a book that I think is wrongheaded (if you'll excuse the fancy that books have heads). I'm not too little a man to praise a book with which I disagree. I'm not so rigid in my ideas that a book cannot change my mind. And sometimes, the only way I can explain what a book means to me is to drop a reference to another book in my review. Occasionally, I'll include a quote from the present book as a taster.

6. Nuts and Bolts
A few other things deserve mention. I like to include links to a site where the reader can find the book; usually it's Amazon, unless I can't find the book there, although Amazon dumped me as an affiliate after my state made some change or other to its sales-tax law. I also try to include a link to the author's website or, failing that, their Wiki page or, failing that, a page about them on Fantasticfiction - I site I often consult to learn what else an author has written, or which installment in what series a book is.

I also like to include cover art from the book. In the past, I also tried to dig up a picture of the author, but I gave that up for a number of reasons, including simply needing to simplify things to speed up the process. I also used to try to ensure there was a picture on the screen at all times while viewing any post on my blog; but these days, I'm content if there's at least one picture embedded in the post.

And finally, going back to that index page of the Book Trolley, I try to remember to add a link to each new review to the catalog of books I have reviewed, listed alphabetically by author's last name. That way, when I am preparing to review a book by an author whose work I have read before, I can remind myself how their other books struck me and put my review in context with them.

Wow. There's a lot to this. But when you've done it more than 1,500 times, most of it becomes second nature. En route to that point, you go through a phase when you try really hard to make each review different from all the others that have gone before. It doesn't last long. Then you just write what you enjoy writing, and accept that you'll have written stuff much like it, many times before. The thing that matters is the book. And as long as books don't stop being interesting to read, there will always be something interesting to write about them.

Friday, October 7, 2016


by Katherine Applegate
Recommended Ages: 10+

Jackson, a fifth-grader, is a bit too old to have an imaginary friend. At least he thinks so. Also, he is a very fact-oriented kid, who wants to be an animal scientist someday. So he naturally takes it as a sign he is losing his mind when his all-but-forgotten imaginary friend Crenshaw, last seen in first grade, turns up again.

Crenshaw is a tall - taller than Jackson - anthropomorphic cat of the black-and-white tuxedo persuasion. He isn't a typical cat, for reasons besides his size, his taste in T-shirts, and his ability to walk upright. Crenshaw can speak, snap his fingers, surf, skateboard, and parasail using an umbrella. He likes taking bubble baths and has an inexplicable taste for purple jellybeans. Also, Jackson's dog Aretha can see him.

Jackson tells Crenshaw he doesn't exist, but the cat begs to differ. He tells Crenshaw he wants him to go away, but Crenshaw insists he is only there because Jackson summoned him. Like all good imaginary friends, Crenshaw never entirely goes away, but always waits in case he is needed again. And right now, Jackson needs him.

Jackson needs Crenshaw to remind him to be honest with the person who matters the most. Is that his father, who lost his full-time job when he became ill with multiple sclerosis? Is it his mother, who works three jobs but still can't quite pay the rent or utility bills? Is it little sister Robin, who is frightened of sleeping alone in her empty room after all her stuff, except a few favorite keepsakes, was put in a yard sale? Is it the girl down the street, with whom Jackson shares a dog-walking business? Who?

Someone certainly needs to hear the honest truth during a confusing time when there is never any food in the house and the family may be about to become homeless... again. The last time Crenshaw appeared was during a 14-month stint the family spent living in their minivan. Jackson is tired of his parents not trusting him with the truth. But Crenshaw seems to be there to remind Jackson to tell the truth himself.

Crenshaw is a clean, direct, touching story about an ordinary American family living on the edge of hunger and homelessness. It has endearing characters, moments of wonderful fun and magic, and a backbone of courage flexing in it, finding its strength. Without shrillness or blame, it lays open to the reader a sympathetic case of a family dealing with problems that are not their fault. Jackson's parents have admirable qualities that make their plight even more poignant, such as their incessant but sometimes self-deceiving cheerfulness, and the pride that prevents them from accepting outside help even when it is available. Jackson himself has flaws - like the occasional lying and shoplifting - for which he suffers pangs of conscience later. The conclusion is left there for you to draw: This could happen to anyone. It's happening to a lot of people right now. But Crenshaw represents a magic that a boy like Jackson needs to believe in, while he still can - a magic that just might be described as hope.

Katherine Applegate, also known as K.A. Applegate among several other pen-names, is best known as the author of the Nickelodeon-TV-series-inspiring "Animorphs" series, of which there were eventually 52 books plus companion volumes - though most of the second half of the series was ghost-written. She also won the 2013 Newbery Medal for her novel The One and Only Ivan, and has co-written several books with her husband Michael Grant, author of the "Gone" series. Her long list of titles includes several series of tween romance novels, the fantasy-thriller "Everworld" and "Remnants" series, the standalone novels Sharing Sam and Home of the Brave, a couple picture books, and the lower-grades' chapter-book series "Roscoe Riley Rules," which begins with Never Glue Your Friends to Chairs. Excuse me for saying it, but she seems to specialize in disposable junk. It's nice to see her stretching herself a bit.

Gypsy Rizka

Gypsy Rizka
by Lloyd Alexander
Recommended Ages: 10+

Lloyd Alexander is one of those authors who wrote many books, the more of which one reads, the more one fancies oneself to be on a mission to read them all. I have already read a lot of them, but I still have a long way to go. I am happy about that, especially after reading this book, which does nothing if it doesn't spread happiness.

Rizka is a clever, spirited gypsy girl whose mother died and whose father left her alone at an early age, promising someday to return. She lives in a caravan, or vardo, on the outskirts of the backwater town of Greater Dunitsa, where the main attractions are a town clock that doesn't run, a town square with a horse trough in the middle, a town council full of bickering fools, and a town hero who never really fought in a war - nobody believes he did, but they never let on even as "General" Hatvan promotes himself up the ranks and says "hup, hup" a lot.

Rizka lives by her wits, but because she has quick ones, she lives well. This book relates a whole series of her merry pranks, including the time she hoodwinked a gormless traveler into being happy the inn's bedding gave him fleas, the time she got her cat acquitted of stealing the chief councilor's chicken, and the time she tricked that same councilor - the nasty Sharpnack - into letting her stick feathers all over him. She leads the town clerk on a tour of Ali Baba's cave, where he falls head-first into a simmering pool of mud; she convinces the whole town the clock tower is haunted, then exorcises the ghost; she gives General Hatvan a hilarious cure for stupidity that results in all the village's dogs following him around; and at one point, she contrives to be appointed mayor.

Sometimes the hilarity is the result of Rizka's howlingly funny pranks. Sometimes she has to intervene in problems created by the silliness of the Greater Dunitsa town fathers. Sometimes she comes to the rescue of people who cry out for help, such as lovesick couples and a litter of adorable kittens. Often she is seconded by an "apprentice demon" who is actually one of the mayor's daughters, or by a gang of rowdy youths, or by the kindly blacksmith who has watched over her since she was very small. But her biggest dilemma will roll into town with the other gypsies, who propose to take her away from all this "gorgio" foolishness - and so, silly or not, from the only family she really has.

Everything about this book pleased me, from the lighthearted episodes to the emotionally touching payoff at the end. I especially appreciated, on behalf of clever young readers, the fact that its tone never talks down to them and how it continually challenges them to build vocabulary. It has a lot of tongue-in-cheek wordplay, such as when the town constable confused the words "obsequious" and "ubiquitous" - giving kids a chance to laugh, learn, and feel smart at the same time. And of course, Rizka herself is a heroine to cherish.

This was only the 16th book I have read by Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007), an American writer whose output ranged from a translation of Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea to the Newbery Medal-winning conclusion to the Prydain Chronicles, The High King. If I read just the Westmark trilogy and the six-book Vesper Holly series, that will make 25; but those aren't the only interesting titles of his that remain in store for me. For an author to keep surprising and giving pleasure after so many books, he must be onto something. Something like, maybe, a top-ten list of best American juvenile fiction writers of all time. I'm just saying.

School Ship Tobermory

School Ship Tobermory
by Alexander McCall Smith
Recommended Ages: 12+

Twins Ben and Fee MacTavish feel a little nervous about starting their first school term on the School Ship Tobermory, an actual ship based on the Scottish isle of Mull, where children learn sailing and navigation while also taking regular classroom subjects. It's like a boarding school that doesn't stay put; but it is full of new experiences for the siblings, even though they have spent part of their childhood on a submarine with their scientist parents. They get to make new friends, such as an American boy named Badger and an Australian girl named Poppy. Surprisingly fast, they also make some new enemies, with such sinister names as Hardtack, Flubber, and Shark. They get to test their nerve against heights, seasickness, diving, and uncharted rocks. And before they have sailed out of Scottish waters, they are already embroiled in a mysterious adventure.

The twins and their friends smell a rat on board a nearby ship, the Albatross, where a movie is supposedly being filmed. Several Tobermories, including Ben, are invited over to serve as background extras in the film. The press even comes aboard to shoot a news story about them. But something just doesn't feel right about the Albatross. The Tobermory's captain's dog Henry senses it. But what could be hiding in plain sight, on a ship that has so many visitors tromping over its decks? The question, as the Tobermories find aboard their own vessel, may be misleading; the answer lies below. Even though Captain Macbeth doesn't believe the kids, with a little initiative and a little luck, they hope to find out.

This is a rare children's novel by the author of many, many charming books for grown-ups, such as the "Number One Ladies' Detective Agency" series, the Isabel Dalhousie mysteries, and more. Its tone has an innocence and wholesome straightforwardness that seems to place it in an earlier generation - like the teen adventure novels I used to find at my grandparents' house, lining the shelves of rooms my parents and their siblings grew up in. On the other hand, it has some up-to-date technology in it, like digital video cameras; up-to-date social ideas, like a co-ed boarding school; and a strain of facetiousness in such details as the naming of characters, hinting at a layer of self-deprecating fun. It's a gentle thriller, with almost-too-intelligent animals, almost-too-silly adults (one of them, for example, has a mustache that can be used to gauge wind direction), almost-too-silly background details (like the dog that caught a mermaid), and nobody getting seriously hurt in spite of some moments of deadly peril.

It is, in short, like a lot of Alexander McCall Smith's stuff, except it is designed specifically for kids. And in spite of the solidly G-rated dialogue, the endearing over-literalness of its heroes, and the bland comeuppance for its villains (also hallmarks of AMS's writing), it never seems to talk down to the younger reader. It patiently guides its main characters, and the reader with them, through some elementary lessons in seamanship and nautical vocabulary. And it leaves room open for a sequel - which, in the U.K., already exists; its title is The Sands of Shark Island. In the U.S., however, this first book in the series is scheduled for release Oct. 11, 2016. This review was based on a pre-publication Kindle proof made available through Netgalley dot com.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Crossover

The Crossover
by Kwame Alexander
Recommended Ages: 12+

Josh Bell and his twin brother Jordan, a.k.a. JB, are seventh-grade basketball phenoms at Reggie Lewis Middle School. But their dream team is in for trouble when a girl comes between the once inseparable brothers, and when their father - a one-time international sports celebrity - chooses to ignore warning signs of a serious health problem. After an impulse to lash out gets him suspended from the team in the middle of a championship season, Josh feels more alone than ever before. Before he gets back into the good graces of his team, his mom, and his brother, he will have to face more responsibility than a trash-talking, hip-hop music addicted 12-year-old would have expected in his wildest dreams.

This is an excellent and fascinating book, told in a succession of poems in various forms, ranging from a Japanese Tanka to dramatic free verse, plus a number of rap songs enhanced by fancy typesetting, as though to guide the reader in performing them out loud. It spotlights complex family issues. It hints at a magical connection between two brothers, who can seemingly read each other's minds even when they aren't on speaking terms. And in the often proven and seldom matched manner of sports fiction, it taps into a strongly moving current of emotion.

This 2014 young-adult verse novel is both a Newbery Medal winner and a Coretta Scott King honor book. Its author, the founder of the Book-in-a-Day program that encourages teens to write, is a poet, TV writer, publisher, radio host, teacher, musician, globetrotting goodwill ambassador, and all-around mover and shaker who has also written the teen novels He Said, She Said and Booked, six poetry collections, four picture books including Acoustic Rooster and His Barnyard Band, and two non-fiction books about writing.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

When the Moon Was Ours

When the Moon Was Ours
by Anna-Marie McLemore
Recommended Ages: 14+

Here is a strange story of young adult romance, with a thick line under "adult," featuring a girl who has roses growing out of her wrist, a boy who hangs painted moons in the trees, a woman who specializes in curing broken hearts, and four red-headed sisters who specialize in breaking them. It glitters with the magic of stars, of flowing water, of colored glass, of different colors of pumpkins and lemons and eggs, of the power of secrets, and of the courage to face nameless fears.

I had a short window of time to do a pre-publication review of this new book by the author of The Weight of Feathers, based on a Kindle proof made available through Netgalley dot com, but unfortunately I muffed it. The book was released in the U.S. yesterday, Oct. 4, 2016, while I was still racing to finish it. Between being on assignment day and night for my local newspaper and having to recharge my Kindle's battery at an inopportune moment, I just didn't have time between receiving the proof and the pre-pub deadline. So, my apologies for that.

As for my review, let me state up front what I liked about this book, in the spirit of my policy never to review a book about which I have nothing good to say. I thought the language was very rich in description that appealed to several senses at once. It showed a keen eye for color, a nose for scents, a taste for spices, and an ear for the vibrations of magical energy and weirdness under the surface of present-day life. It takes place in a lyrical world of magical-realist teen-romance melodrama with a bold thread of folklore and some strikingly original fantasy brushstrokes. It is not afraid to move the reader beyond his or her comfort zone, with an uncompromisingly non-traditional teen romance and some disturbing, dark magic.

BUT - and there are some big "buts" for me - it qualifies for a mild Occult Content Advisory and a bracing Adult Content Advisory. I recently heard from some Christian parents about how difficult it is for them even to take their kids to the public library, where a moral agenda opposed to what they are trying to teach them is flaunted in their faces; I can sympathize with their discomfort, and I would not recommend this book to them. What I didn't guess until after I started reading this book was that it was going to have such strong sexual content, including frankly LGBT material, with an emphasis on the T. The story seems to have some personal significance to its author, who includes both a foreword and an afterword relating her fiction to her real-life marriage to a transgendered man and her desire to preach the gospel of diversity. I'm not opposed to her expressing her views, though I think there is more room to disagree with them than she would probably grant. Parents and children should be aware these issues are there, and be prepared to discuss them before delving into this book.

My other main "but" with regard to this book, entirely aside from its ideology, is an effect I have almost never experienced before. It might best be called "lyricism fatigue," or perhaps "a surfeit of sensual beauty." To put it in more prosy terms, I liked the style of the book at every point throughout (except for an occasional burst of profanity, which seemed out of place), but its cumulative effect built and built until I felt I'd had enough - about a third of the way through. I soldiered on regardless, though perhaps not reading as many pages a night as I normally would have. Then I got to the end of the story and was surprised to find out it wasn't the end of the book. I read the next chapter and was surprised again to find it wasn't the last. Nor was the next chapter. Nor was the next. At one point, as anyone within a block of my house can bear witness, I screamed aloud, "Is this g**d*** book never going to f***ing end?" And then I realized the window at my elbow, facing the quiet street in front of my house, was wide open. Sorry, neighbors! Sheepishly, I shut the window and, within a few minutes, finished the book.

Hand to heaven, I do not fish for negative things to say about a book. Quite the contrary. I would recommend this book as an example of a descriptive style that appeals vividly to the senses, and of a strain of magical realism that inspires dread, sorrow, and a sense of mystery. But it also has its flaws. From a literary standpoint, I was most exasperated by its pacing. From a personal standpoint, I am concerned about the fresh new twist this book embodies in the moral character of today's juvenile fiction.