Friday, August 28, 2009

The Joy of Spooking: Fiendish Deeds

Spooking is the perfect place for Joy Wells. She is as easily creepy as the old neighborhood, obsessed as she is with the stories of E.A. Peugeot and forever sneaking out to walk through the cemetery and the bog dragging her brother Byron along with her. It’s too bad that the Spooking area is considered obsolete by the mayor of Darlington --the newer part of town. The Darlings as they’re called, like things clean, neat and in rows, and Spooking does not fit the mould.

One day when Joy and Byron are out exploring the Spooking bog in search of the bog fiend, they come upon an old woman foraging. She says her name is Madame Portia and she tells the children that she lives in the bog. Her late husband was a naturalist who studied the unique ecosystem. When she invites them home Byron has visions of child sized ovens, but Joy has no fear…even when Madame Portia’s house turns out to be a rat filled submarine shaped building on stilts.

Not everyone enjoys the bog like Madame Portia and Joy, however. There is a plan in Darlington to turn the bog into “The Misty Mermaid Water Park”, which means that Darlington would be creeping even closer into Spooking territory.

P.J. Bracegirdle has written a deliciously dark story filled with mystery, murder and fiendish characters. From the embittered Mayor’s assistant Mr. Phipps, to the dark hearted Guy Smiley character of the Mayor, adults are clearly not to be trusted. Teachers play popular favorites, and children are cruel. There is bloodshed in this title of the ends justifying the means variety. Bracegirdle takes on the sanitized version of life that suburbia has to offer with scathing results. After Mr. Phipps spends time in Kiddie Kastle (a themed birthday party place) he muses, “What a pathetic operation. A case of chicken pox would have been a more authentic medieval experience, and arguably more fun…” (p. 98).

Others have said that this series will appeal to fans of the Addams Family, Edward Scissorhands and the like. The Joy of Spooking has hit that rare place of appealing to tweens and teens both because of the smart writing, societal commentary and the fact that it’s creepy without straying into silly.

Fans of Basye’s (Heck) and of Bellairs (The House with A Clock in Its Walls, etc.) should be intrigued.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

The second that I saw this cover at ALA in Denver, I knew I wanted to read this book. The title, the illustrations, everything called out to me. Unfortunately, there were no arcs left while I was on the floor, but I kept thinking about it. Now, loving a cover and title has backfired on me before, but I was hoping that this time would be different. A few reviews popped up in the blogs and I knew for sure that I wanted to read it, so I ordered my copy and waited for it to arrive!

It’s 1899 and Calpurnia is wilting away in rural Texas. She is eleven years old and the only girl in a family with 7 children. When her oldest, and favorite brother Harry hears about Callie’s inventive way to find earthworms in the packed Texas earth, he gives her a red leather notebook to record her findings and Callie’s summer as a naturalist truly begins.

One of the first things that she notices is that there is a new kind of grasshopper around. There were the quick emerald green ones that Callie has seen every summer, but there are also big, bright yellow ones. Callie asks everyone in her house (except for her formidable grandfather who lives with them, but tends to keep to himself studying in his laboratory) about the yellow hoppers, but nobody else has any knowledge of them at all. So Callie screws up her courage and goes to grandfather’s laboratory in order to ask him if in all his years he has seen the yellow grasshoppers before. His answer? “I suspect that a smart young whip like you can figure it out. Come back and tell me when you have.” (p.11) Callie figures that if her grandfather cannot help her, maybe Mr. Charles Darwin can, so she begs a ride into town from her brother for a trip to the library.

The librarian, however, is quite offended over Callie’s request. Without any help from grandfather or Mr. Darwin, Callie has only her own wits to help her out. After spending more time thinking about it, Callie does figure it out. Once she gets the nerve up to speak with her grandfather again, she tells him about her discovery. Her grandfather is quite impressed that Callie has figured this out on her own, and has her follow him into his library, where the children are never allowed. He hands Calpurnia his copy of The Origin of Species and at that moment, Calpurnia and her grandfather are bonded together as scientists.

Grandfather starts taking Calpurnia on his daily outings to gather specimens, brings her in on his experiments trying to distill drinkable spirits from pecans, and he begins to tell her about the World. Over time, Callie really feels like she is a scientist. She can’t help but be disinterested in the handicrafts and cooking in which her best friend Lula seems to excel. But while her grandfather believes that Calpurnia can be a scientist, her mother has other ideas, and is soon imposing cooking and knitting lessons, and letting Calpurnia know that she will be expected to “come out” as the only girl in the Tate family. Callie feels so confused; will she have to put aside all of her aspirations in order to be a wife someday? Will she have to be like her mother, with a passel of children, taking doses of Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound just to get by?

Jacqueline Kelly has written a piece of historical fiction with depth, detail and characters that leap off the page. From the first telephone coming to town, to Callie’s grandfather’s first time sitting in an automobile, to the kerosene powered “wind machine”, readers will find themselves immersed in the sweeping changes that were happening at the dawn of the 20th century. Social commentary on class and slavery are worked in naturally, and the bold idea of evolution is front and center in the story. The heartbreaking aspect of Callie’s position of being a girl is perfectly placed and I hope that young readers will ponder their own privilege and position, or even the lack thereof upon reading this book. I slowed down at the end, simply because I wasn’t ready to let go of Calpurnia.

Simply wonderful.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Fablehaven: Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary

Now that alliances have been exposed, Kendra and her Fablehaven bunch are deciding whether or not to try to find the remaining artifacts that are needed to open the dreaded prison before the Sphinx and his followers do, or whether they should just leave everything be.

The decision is made when Kendra is taken and her sting bulb doppelganger is left in her place. She is being held by the Sphinx's minions and finds out that they have stolen the Oculus; the artifact from the Brazilian preserve that allows users to see everything at once. Kendra knows that the Sphinx can use this to find all of the artifacts needed to open the dreaded prison Zzyxz. She needs to escape and try to get to the artifact that Patton told her about in his journal before the Sphinx figures out how the Oculus works.

Once she is reunited with her grandparents and her Fablehaven family, it is quickly decided that they must venture to Wyrmroost, the dragon sanctuary where humans are NOT welcome, in order to get the artifact. The team is assembled and includes Kendra, Coulter, Tanu, Gavin, Warren, Trask, Mora, and Dougan. All have gifts that will help with the mission, but Kendra is still scared. She is happy that Gavin is coming, and not only for his dragon taming abilities. They have been exchanging letters, and Kendra is still harboring a bit of a crush.

All feelings have to be pushed aside once they reach Wyrmroost. It is a very dangerous place, and everyone has to be on his/her game to survive, let alone succeed.

Brandon Mull has written another fast paced, twist and turn filled adventure, where people aren't who they seem, and death lurks around every corner. The pacing is perfect and will keep readers on they edge of their seats as they expect the worst but hope for the best. In this installment, Seth is exploring his dark side, and is developing a depth that he didn't have before. He is quickly becoming a favorite character of mine.

I have always thought that Fablehaven would translate well to screen, and it is about to! It has been optioned, and I for one, can't wait to see the film version. Head on over to Brandon's site to find more information.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Dear Julia

So a quick internet search yields over 43 million hits for "Julia Child". In these times of celebrity chefs and reality food shows, you may think that Julia wouldn't catch hold with the younger set, but you'd be wrong. With films like Julie & Julia opening to the tune of $20 million, Julia Child is as much of a pop culture phenom as she's ever been.

Elaine Hamilton has been writing letters to Julia Child since before she could spell. Elaine is the eye in the hurricane of her family, calmly waking before her 4 brothers and parents and preparing filling breakfasts, packing delicious lunches, and serving Friday dinners that could rival the local French Restaurant. Elaine is obsessed with Julia Child and haute cuisine.

Lucida Sans (aka Isadora Wilhelminetta Fischburger), on the other hand, wants to be FAMOUS! For what, she's not sure, but with her costumed existence, two mom headed family, and penchant for over-the-top solos during theater auditions, she certainly gets noticed.

Elaine and Lucida cross paths at the New Paltz Festival on the Green, when Elaine is handing out fliers for her feminist/politician mother, and Lucida's interpretation of Juliet brings about a chain of events of epic proportions resulting in some serious flames. Lucida takes a liking to Elaine, and being a girl with few friends herself, Elaine accepts an invitation to Lucida's for dinner.

Thus begins an opposites-attract friendship that brings Elaine out of her shell, and helps to tone down Lucida. The pages are filled with amazing foodie moments, characters that are bigger than life, and wacky revenge plots. Amy Bronwen Zemser has written a fun-filled book examining what it means to be a family, a friend, and oneself. Elaine's brothers are hilarious with cross-dressing Chris taking the cake, and Lucida herself is a delight. As Cindy Dobrez of Bookends puts it, "the whole book was so over the top that those crazy elements work."

While the setting is high school, this is the perfect book for a more sophisticated tween reader. There is a dash of romance, lots of ups and downs about friendship, and two odd-girl-out characters who are totally endearing and independent.

A laugh-out-loud read for girls...finally.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Blue Shoe: A Tale of Thievery, Villainy, Sorcery, and Shoes

How can you not love this title? And this gorg cover?

Aplanap is one heck of a place to live. Seemingly quaint, it’s known for its “tilted streets, cuckoo clocks, and Finster cheese…” (arc p.3) yet it harbors a bit of a dark secret. Okay, not so much a secret, but a mayor who is slightly certifiable in his disdain for beggars (who are instantly banished to the working jail of Mount Xexnax) and his love for his greedy wife Ludmilla.

Ludmilla is quite fond of gems, and since she is the mayor’s wife, she need not pay for anything that she wants. When the mayor hears about an exquisite shoe that local shoemaker Grel has fashioned out of all sorts of blue gemstones, he insists on seeing it. Not surprisingly, he then wants it wrapped and delivered to his sweet Luddy. Grel refuses and the mayor reminds him of the agreement he made prior. Grel had saved the life of a pickpocket boy named Hap by promising to apprentice him on the agreement that he would in turn give Luddy any shoes that she wants. Grel stands his ground, however, since the stranger who commissioned this one shoe paid for it in full – he asks the mayor if he really would like to steal it (thievery being frowned upon in Aplanap by way of Mound Xexnax as well).

Before long a curse seems to fall on the sleepy little village. The weather turns making tourists scarce, and soon there are actually beggars on the street. Hap feels a kinship with a beggar girl who he spies, and tries to help her several times before she gets caught by the mayor’s police for begging. Hap remembers Grel’s kindness to him, and decides that taking a gem from the shoe that has never been picked up to pay the girl’s fine is worth the risk. What Hap doesn’t count on is all of the gems fading into regular river pebbles on the removal of the single stone. Hap again is charged as a thief, this time with the disastrous sentence of Mount Xexnax.

Roderick Townley has written a fantastical adventure that is filled with action, close calls, magic and a dash of romance. Truly a rollicking read, The Blue Shoe has equal appeal to boys and girls, and is a fun single volume (shocking!) fantasy. I found myself reading well into the night wanting to see what Hap and his friends were going to do next. Illustrations by Mary Grand Pre bring this book to the next level. While I read the arc version, the first edition will be printed in blue ink and have a cover worthy of the shoe. Good versus Evil hasn’t been so rich in a while!

Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, thieves, socio economic class, race struggles, fantasy, Goddess, greed, cobblers, politics, arc 10/09