May 31, 2012

Tales of the unnatural

Creepy, yet oddly beautiful stories can be found in Cat in Glass and Other Tales of the Unnatural by Nancy Etchemendy.

Consider these intriguing plots: 

Two children are tempted by a man with a hot-air balloon, who shows them other worlds and helps them get rid of a despised aunt (Clotaire’s Balloon). A woman returns to Earth to reunite with the son that she left behind (Shore Leave Blacks). A woman is unaware she’s having lunch with corpses (Lunch at Etienne’s). And a patch of slime threatens a boy's family (The Tuckahoe).

Good for reading around the campfire at sunset.

May 29, 2012

Gothic romance horror mystery

Darker Still: A Novel of Magic Most Foul
by Leanna Renee Hieber

For fans of historical romances, especially those set in Victorian times, here is a novel sure to get their hearts beating. Written in diary form, the story is told by Natalie Stewart, who is bewitched by a painting of one Lord Denbury, presumed dead by drowning. But, as Natalie soon discovers, Denbury is still alive - and trapped in the painting. Meanwhile, the man who has ensnared him has taken Denbury's likeness and is murdering prostitutes in London. Natalie must find a way to break the curse before she becomes the murderer's next victim.

The danger is made more acute by Natalie's inability to speak. She can only speak when she's in the presence of Lord Denbury, whom she is able to visit by actually going inside the painting. Having been inexorably drawn to the painting, it's inevitable that Natalie and Jonathon (Denbury's first name) fall in love, though it takes a long time before they touch lips. Natalie must enter and exit the painting many times before she figures out a way to destroy the demon Denbury. She is aided in her task by Evelyn Northe, the painting's owner. Mrs. Northe is also a spiritualist, and knows a great deal about magical symbols and curses.

Hieber builds up the horror and tension quite well, and has created a brave heroine in Natalie, who is not as timid or as helpless as she appears. The diary format works well for the most part, but you do have to wonder how Natalie is able to write while in the midst of covert activities. It also means that she carries the diary everywhere, which surely would be a problem if she were to lose it. Her descriptions of Jonathon Denbury make him out as an Edward Cullen-type, but without the fangs. A possible rival for his affections is Mrs. Northe's niece, Maggie, but she isn't really put to good use. Mrs. Northe is pretty dismissive of her and Natalie doesn't really like her, so she ends up behaving like the stereotypical spoiled rich girl. There were hints that Maggie could have been a potential murder victim, but in the end she was simply a distraction.

Since a few questions were left hanging, namely why Denbury was targeted in the first place, and what he and Natalie will do next, be assured that Hieber has already penned a sequel, and perhaps another one as well.

May 24, 2012

The immigrant divide

Tell Us We're Home
by Marina Budhos

Eighth-graders Jaya, Maria, and Lola are best friends in wealthy Meadowbrook, New Jersey. They want the same things the other kids want - to wear nice clothes, have a popular boyfriend, attend the spring dance. But there's one big thing that sets them apart: their mothers are maids and nannies. And they work for families whose kids go to the same school. 

Budhos introduces the girls individually, revealing the stresses in each girl's immigrant family, as they wrestle with financial difficulties. The tension is gradually heightened as the girls and their families repeatedly face painful situations which serve to reinforce their feelings of exclusion. For Jaya, it's her mother losing her job when she's falsely accused of theft. For Maria, it's wanting to date a rich white boy, having a mother whose English skills are poor, and a cousin who clashes with the high school kids. For Lola, whose father is unable to find a job, it's enduring the insults from Rachel Meisner and her snobby friends.

As their problems escalate, it drives a wedge between the girls, breaking their close friendship. Suddenly, they're each left alone to struggle in a world that doesn't notice they exist. In this painful and heart-breaking novel, Jaya, Maria, and Lola try to find a way to call America their home.

An important and enlightening book.

May 22, 2012

The easy life with Duke Ellington

Riding on Duke's Train
by Mick Carlon

A nine-year-old boy jumps on a train and ends up touring with Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra. It sounds like an interesting story, but it's strangely lacking in conflict and excitement. I think the main problem is that everything happens a little too easily. Our protagonist, Danny, buries his grandmother, immediately leaves town, hops onto a train, and is taken in without question by Duke Ellington and his mates. He then goes on tour with the orchestra as a luggage handler and drum polisher, eventually becoming a musical copyist, a job he holds until Ellington's death. So the story is really told in one extended flashback. This isn't exactly a bad thing, but it means that Danny's memories are almost all good. His impressions of the band members are filled with admiration and appreciation, while his experiences on the road seem very carefree and easy. He doesn't experience any hardships; he's treated well by nearly everyone he meets. They all treat him like an adult, and even I kept forgetting how old Danny was supposed to be. He behaves and speaks like a twenty-year-old.

There are brief glimpses of the racism of the era, with one brilliant line - policeman to Ellington: "Duke, if you'd been born a white man, you'd've been one great musician." But the threat of war is merely hinted at, and a brush with arrest by Nazis in Germany is not as exciting as it could have been. Danny and his friends are conveniently rescued by a man who just happens to be a big jazz fan.

This is Mick Carlon's first novel. He's a jazz fan himself, which explains the nostalgic mood throughout the book. It's a very easy, undemanding read, which may get kids interested in Ellington's music. The concert scenes, the devoted fans, and the musicians themselves are well-described. 

Carlon's next book will be about Louis Armstrong, due sometime next year. Called Little Fred and Louis, it sounds like it'll be another easy, happy tale.

May 17, 2012

When writers and illustrators don't get along

Chloe and the Lion
by Mac Barnett
illustrated by Adam Rex

A girl named Chloe gets lost in the forest and is attacked by a huge lion. But Adam draws a dragon instead because it would be cooler. His reasoning doesn't sit well with Mac, who loses his temper and fires Adam. Mac hires another illustrator, but that doesn't work out either. So it's up to Chloe to fix things.

I've read this book four times and it always makes me laugh. The story is funny and irreverent and the artwork is very appealing. The three-dimensional figures and sets turn the story into a play which the audience will heartily applaud.

A standing ovation.

May 15, 2012

Fun with poetry

My Dog May Be A Genius
by Jack Prelutsky

Jack Prelutsky writes fun, light poetry, with strong rhythms and clever wordplay. There are also several concrete poems with interesting fonts, shapes, and upside-down letters. Kids who like nonsense, fantastical animals, tongue-twisters and laughter will enjoy this book.

Here's a sample:

My brother poked a porcupine,
which was a great mistake.
My mother had hysterics
when she stumbled on a snake.
My sister fell into a creek,
she's cold and soaking wet.
My aunt upset a hornets' nest,
an act we all regret.

I sat in poison ivy,
I'll be itchy for a while.
A skunk sprayed both my uncles,
now they smell extremely vile.
My father stepped in something
he would rather not discuss -
we love our weekly nature walks,
they're always fun for us.

May 10, 2012

Pay attention!

When You Reach Me
by Rebecca Stead

Miranda is a sixth-grader who lives in New York City. She knows how to be safe and who to avoid. Like the crazy guy on her corner. But she's unprepared when her best friend, Sal, gets punched for no reason. Sal stops talking to her. Then the spare key to her apartment gets stolen, and she receives a mysterious note. More notes arrive, and Miranda gets a little spooked. The writer seems to know things that no one else should know. The writer asks that she write him/her a letter about herself, but there is a problem - you cannot begin now, as most of it has not yet taken place.

Miranda's favourite book is A Wrinkle in Time, which forms a key part of the story. The notion of time travel, the past, the future, and the moments that exist between them blend into a seamless, challenging and seductive novel. It's about being conscious of the way we perceive things; what is real and what is not, the possible and the impossible.

A book that deserves to be visited many times.

May 8, 2012

What really happened in the forty-first hour?

Crush. Candy. Corpse.
by Sylvia McNicoll

Paradise Manor is depressing - the smells are bad and the residents are old. Sunny would much rather be doing her volunteer hours at Salon Teo, but her teacher won't let her because it's not a charitable cause. But working with the Alzheimer's patients has a surprising effect on Sunny. As she warms to the residents, she begins to see that they don't have much more choice about their lives than she does: what they eat, how they are treated by staff, even what they do for entertainment. So Sunny does what she can to make the residents happy - even if she has to break some rules to do it. She is supported in her decisions by Cole, whose grandmother lives at the manor.

When Cole's grandmother passes away, Sunny finds herself charged with manslaughter. Cole had made a promise to his grandmother about her life…and her death. He had told Sunny about it, but she never agreed to help him. At least that's what she tells herself. As we follow the trial and hear her side of the story, McNicoll leaves it up to the reader to make their own decisions about Sunny's choices.

Sunny's character is flawed but moral - she likes her boyfriend Donovan, but doesn't condone his shoplifting - and is an accurate representation of a teen well on her way to becoming a mature adult. The other characters are also depicted realistically, from the humorless supervisor Mrs. Johnson to the achingly sad and beautiful Alzheimer patients.

A bittersweet, yet thought-provoking novel.

May 3, 2012

Events that change a life

Thirteen Reasons Why
by Jay Asher

I hope you're ready, because I'm about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended. And if you're listening to these tapes, you're one of the reasons why.

Horrified, Clay Jensen doesn't want to listen. He hardly knew Hannah Baker. He tried to, but she never opened up to him. How can he be responsible for her suicide? But others have already heard the tapes. What did Hannah say about him? Even though he dreads the answer, he has to know. 

Clay spends the rest of the day and night listening to Hannah's voice and going to the locations she wants him to visit. Hannah reveals a trail of  betrayals, secrets, and seemingly insignificant actions which, cumulatively, led her to decide to end her life. Its effect on Clay is devastating and ultimately life-changing.

This is a book that will haunt you. It makes you more aware of how people treat each other. There are consequences to every action, even if the giver is unaware of it. Clay doesn't know what the other people felt as they listened to the tapes, but at least one of them, Marcus, refuses to accept that he could be blamed for Hannah's suicide. In a way, you can understand Marcus' reaction. It can't be easy when you're the object of a person's revenge. Hannah herself is not free from guilt; you have to wonder about her own mental health, the health of her family, and her inability to ask for help.

At times, Asher's message can be a bit heavy-handed, but you cannot stop reading. Mesmerizing, addictive, and suspenseful, the book has been garnering high praise from both readers and critics. A very worthwhile read.

May 1, 2012

Female warriors

Blood Red Road: Dustlands: 1
by Moira Young

Eighteen-year-old Saba lives with her father, her twin brother Lugh, and her young sister Emmi on the shores of Silverlake. But with no rain, the lake is slowly drying up, and their hardscrabble life is becoming even more difficult. Lugh wants to leave, though he knows that their father will not. He's never recovered form his wife's death. She died giving birth to Emmi, for which Saba has never forgiven her. 

Saba's world is brutally torn apart when a group of armed riders kidnap Lugh and kill her father. Saba is determined to get Lugh back, and will stop at nothing to find him. She drops Emmi off with a neighbour and sets off across the desert with only a few supplies and her crow companion Nero.

The straight-forward plot turns into quite an adventure when Saba is taken prisoner and forced to become a cage fighter. She escapes with help from the Free Hawks, a fierce band of female warriors. She also finds herself drawn to a charming daredevil named Jack. Together, they hatch a plan to save Lugh. 

A mix-up of Mad Max, Dune, True Grit, and Cowboys and Aliens, the book is dreadfully exciting and suspenseful. The females are super kickass, especially Saba herself, who is ruthless, fearless, prickly and rude. She can also be jealous and ungrateful. It makes her relationship with Jack quite difficult. But her gruff exterior belies a soft heart underneath.

A rollicking read that can be devoured in one sitting.

The next book in the trilogy is Rebel Heart: Dustlands: 2, in which, hopefully, the author will shed more light on some of the plot points not yet fully explained.