Archive for January 2013
A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan, illustrations by Todd Lockwood
I must admit that I have an extreme (and possibly unhealthy) fondness for romance novels that feature bluestockings. Even more so for ones that pair the heroine up with an equally nerdy hero. A Natural History of Dragons is not that kind of novel, it’s something much more – and much more fabulous.
Isabella’s story is about love and passion, but rather than being about romance, it’s about a young woman’s love of natural history and her passion to learn all that she can about dragons. Yes, dragons. DRAGONS. Did I mention the dragons yet?
Treating genres as toys to play with rather than rules to follow (the only proper way to deal with them, in my opinion), Brennan uses the format of a memoir to tell the story of a proper young lady who is far from content with merely finding the right man to marry. Like many second world fantasy novels, Isabella’s home bears a deliberate resemblance historical Europe. Unlike the typical medieval fantasy, the time period, setting, and tone has more in common with the romance novels mentioned above, as well as the type of historical fiction that tends to get labeled as “for girls.”
Yet Brennan doesn’t romanticize this fantasy past; one of the wonders of the book is the way that Isabella, writing in retrospect, admits to the ways that privilege has warped her understanding of the world – and that she does so in a manner that explains her thoughts without excusing them. As if all of that that wasn’t intriguing enough, the plot of the novel revolves around scientific discovery and research, thus blending fantasy and science fiction in a way that is both unique and lovely.
It’s enough to make a nerd swoon.
Foiled by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Mike Cavallaro
I found the characters (fencing champ Aliera, her cousin and rpg partner Caroline, and an odd pretty-boy named Avery) memorable and the illustrations to be very well done, especially the use of color to mark the transition to magic. The plot felt more like a prologue than a book in its own right, but that’s not unusual for graphic novels and it was an intriguing set up. All good, yes?
Unfortunately, the combination of these elements did not create a story that was greater than the sum of it’s parts – quite the opposite. There was too much telling with words and not enough showing with pictures; it’s not just the balance of text vs. illustration that was off, it’s what the story focused on and how it communicated ideas overall. It was quite obvious that Yolen, while a master storyteller, is not (yet?) nearly as adept at writing graphic novels. Alas.
It was fun and well done enough that I’d be happy to see it in my collection at work – especially since one of the characters is disabled! – but the flaws were frustrating enough that I’m also not making sad faces that we don’t have it.
The Crowded Shadows by Celine Kiernan
The Crowded Shadows finds Wynter on the run and in search of both her friends and the lost prince. It lacks the delicate politics of the The Poison Throne and the angst includes a secret that resembles the dreaded Big Misunderstanding a bit too much. It’s also very much a middle book. Things happen, but not much is resolved.
Despite these flaws, this is a thoroughly enjoyable and suspenseful book. I was very tempted to send it with a note to J. K. Rowling saying “THIS is how you do hiding out in the woods for weeks on end. Without making your readers want to kill your characters.” For a plot that involves a realistic amount of waiting around and repetitive travel, Kiernan manages to keep the pace brisk and the characters fresh. She also deserves kudos for presenting Christopher’s adopted family in a way that explains how they come across as barbarians to Wynter’s people without excusing this perception. Plus, the werewolves are just plain creepy.
The Rebel Prince by Celine Kiernan
The good news is that the plot of The Rebel Prince involves a return to the political intrigue that made The Poison Throne so awesome. Kiernan also does a wonderful job of creating tension between Wynter and Christopher in a way that encourages us to empathize with both.
The bad news is that the book suffers from the problem of having a Big Reveal that has been building up for ages and doesn’t quite live up to expectations. Not because the mysterious machine we have been hearing about is not, in fact, dreadful. But rather because of the inherent flaws in having two and half books worth of time for readers to let their imaginations run wild; the reality is always bound to be a disappointment after that – even a fictional reality.
The Rebel Prince is not the most satisfying ending to a trilogy (it also has an epilogue that wraps up everything a bit too neatly, considering) but it does have it’s moments and is well worth the read. As with The Crowded Shadows, this novel’s biggest problem is that it suffers by comparison to The Poison Throne. But! not as good as “excellent” and “amazing” is still pretty damn good.
Machines at Work by Byron Barton
Like all good books for toddlers, Machines at Work‘s strength lies in it’s simplicity and use of repetition. What makes it an excellent book for young children is the way that the simple elements are layered to create patterns that encourage discovery. By showing a full day in the life of construction vehicles and the people who work them, and by rebuilding in the afternoon was what torn down in the morning, Barton uses familiar scenarios to both impart factual knowledge and create a recognizable structure to the story, despite the text consisting of little more than a handful of basic sentences. It may look like a typical and generic book for little ones, but in reality it’s a bit of a hidden treasure. Highly recommended.
Plus! The people working the machines are wonderfully diverse.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
This was a gem of a story and completely deserves it’s mention as a Newbery honor book. Minli lives in poverty with her parents, growing up with little food and fewer possessions but plenty of tales of daring and great deeds. Until one day she sets out on her own adventure in the hopes of bringing fortune and joy to her family and her village. Along the way she makes new friends, performs many amazing tasks, and, of course, collects even more stories.
Part of what makes this novel so wonderful is the way that Lin uses Minli’s experiences to emphasis how much she and her parents had to be thankful for in the first place, while still making it clear that the journey was ultimately a good decision, not some foolish dream better left alone. It’s so common for western stories with a similar premise to either fail to interrogate our constant quest to consume more or to come across as discouraging children to want better for themselves; Where the Mountain Meets the Sea manages to maintain an elegant balance between these two extremes.
I don’t know enough about Chinese culture or fairy tales to say whether Lin represents them accurately,* but to me at least her stories appear respectful and she manages to present a thoroughly non-Western fantasy at a level that elementary school children will enjoy and connect with.
Half Magic by Edward Eager
A magic coin that only grants half of what you wish for should not be so easily thwarted by four juvenile siblings, even in a lighthearted fantasy. It makes for an entertaining and interesting children’s novel though. I’m not sure what it says about me that I found what happened with Katharine’s wish to be completely unfair** and that I was rather unsettled by the bit near the end with the mother thinking she was crazy. Other than that it was a fun story with not too much fail, considering it’s age. I picked it up to give to my niece, but I suspect it will be more useful as a research book for me, so I might hold onto it for a bit longer.
The Time Between Us by Tamara Ireland Stone
The second half was entertaining, if flawed. I must admit that I got choked up a bit once or twice at the angst and moral conundrums of teen lovers torn apart by time and teleportation. Unfortunately, I had to read through the first half of the book to get to the actual drama. During which not much happened and there is plenty of opportunities for my mind to wander to such thoughts as “why is it always the boyfriends that have super powers?” and “why is she putting the money in the safe for the night and then going to lock the store entrance?” and of course “why did the editor not edit the first 150 pages right out of the book?” and so on. While the second half was promising enough that I will consider trying more by this author – maybe, possibly – I can’t recommend this particular book.
Crow Girl by Katt Cann
I made it through 14 pages of this and that was about 13 1/2 too many. Lilly is dealing with bullying and weight issues; the author seems to think this means she should spend a lot of time cataloguing what her middle school protagonist eats. I stopped reading at “Lilly wasn’t aware of it, but walking in the woods and the change of diet were making her look a lot better.” Because this is what is important when someone is being bullied to the point that they miss half a semester, yes? That she is finally looking a certain way.
So sad, because that cover really deserved a much better book. More importantly, I am never getting those 5 minutes back.
Peek-a-Moo by Marie Torres Cimarusti
Has everything a picture book for toddlers is supposed to have: animals! making sounds! flaps! to fold down! repetition! bright and simple graphics! etc. It is a good, solid book to own if you have (or work with) two or three year olds. No more, no less.
*fyi – I hope to write up a longer review later, and will do research on this before I do so.
**Why yes, I am a middle child. Why do you ask?
A bit of a disappointment, sadly. I’ve enjoyed the other books by Myracle that I have read, but this one never clicked. It felt very aimless and disjointed, which wasn’t helped by the conceit of: one chapter = one month. Most of all, Winnie ever really seems to grow; there is a lot of judging people without context and not much of Winnie learning from her own mistakes.
I don’t expect kids’ books to always be about the morals, but 8-12 is exactly the age at which they become capable of learning that other people have different points of view and about how there isn’t always just one right answer. You’d think a book that’s really just all about family and friendships would cover this in some meaningful way. Instead there was a lot of Winnie being told she is unique. The overall impression being that Winnie can be however she wants to be, and tolerating less cool or less fortunate people is good for her, but somehow this does not translate into her actually learning to walk in other people’s shoes.
I suspect that I am not the right sort of person to appreciate Pratchett’s humor. You may commence throwing rotten vegetables at me.
I didn’t hate it, but the naked women were too many (even knowing they were there as a parody of the kind of fantasy that features naked women) and the humor not quite enough to make me really like it.
I shall give Pratchett another chance…eventually. Mostly because the luggage won me over. But that was about all. (Also, because friends have told me to start with other books in the series.)
(not including picture books)
Pinky and Rex and the New Baby by James Howe
Pinky and Rex and Go to Camp by James Howe
Babymouse: Cupcake Tycoon by Jennifer and Matt Holm
Babymouse: Mad Scientist by Jennifer and Matt Holm
Squish: Super Amoeba by Jennifer and Matt Holm
The Onts by Dan Greenburg
Middle Grade Novels:
The Black Book of Buried Secrets by Rick Riordan, etc.
Eight Keys by Suzanne LaFleur
Addie on the Inside by James Howe
Crispin: the Cross of Lead by Avi
Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
Betrayal at Cross Creek by Kathleen Ernst
Torn by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Vespers Rising by Rick Riordan, etc.
Palace of Stone by Shannon Hale
Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
Bunnicula by James Howe
Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz
More Scary Stories to tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz
Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones by Alvin Schwartz
Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn
Starting With Alice by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass
Hereville: How Mirka Met a Meteorite by Barry Deutsch
Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
Young Adult Novels (and Anthologies):
Liar by Justine Labalestier
Nightschool Vol. 3 by Svetlana Chmakova
Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
Looking for Alaska by John Green
Nightschool Vol. 4 by Svetlana Chmakova
The Bermudez Triangle by Maureen Johnson
Death Cloud by Andy Lane
Forever by Judy Blume
I’d Tell You I’d Love You But Then I Have to Kill You by Ally Carter
What Can(t) Wait by Ashley Hope Perez
Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block
Son of the Mob by Gordon Korman
Bad Girls Don’t Die by Katie Alender
Double Helix by Nancy Werlin
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Awakening by Robin Wasserman
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson
Going Bovine by Libba Bray
Matched by Ally Condie
The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart
Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty
Monster by Walter Dean Myers
Crank by Ellen Hopkins
Karma by Cathy Ostlere
The First Part Last by Angela Johnson
Above by Leah Bobet
The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
Drama by Raina Telgemeier
Shine by Lauren Myracle
Black Heart by Black Holly
After edited by Ellen Datlow
The Off Season by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Fire Season by David Weber and Jane Kindskold
Thief’s Covenant by Ari Marmell
Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande Velde
Dramarama by E. Lockhart
Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan
Enclave by Ann Aguirre
Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy by Ally Carter
Flora Segunda by Ysabeau S. Wilce
Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
The Boy Book by E. Lockhart
Daja’s Book by Tamora Pierce
Diverse Energies edited by Tobia S. Buckell
The Friday Society by Adrienne Kress
Come August, Come Freedom by Gigi Amateau
Frozen by Mary Casanova
Among Others by Jo Walton
God Stalk by P. C. Hodgell
Dark of the Moon by P. C. Hodgell
Seeker’s Mask by P. C. Hodgel
To Ride a Rathorn by P. C. Hodgell
Bound in Blood by P. C. Hodgell
Honor’s Paradox by P. C. Hodgell
Soulless: The Manga Vol. I by Gail Carriger
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Timeless by Gail Carriger
Kingdoms of Dust by Amanda Downum
Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear
Rivers of London/Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch
Kindred by Octavia Butler
All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear
Just Like Heaven by Julia Quinn
Tune: Vanishing Point by Derek Kirk Kim
Cold Magic by Kate Elliot
Cold Fire by Kate Eilliot
By the Mountain Bound by Elizabeth Bear
The Sea Thy Mistress by Elizabeth Bear
The Poison Throne by Celine Kiernan
The Lego Ideas Book by Daniel Lipkowitz
They Called Themselves the K. K. K. by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
Children’s Book of Music by Deborah Lock
I’m a Scientist: Backyard by Lisa Burke
That’s 103 folks!