Category Archives: children’s review

Review: Georges and the Jewels

The Georges and the Jewels – Jane Smiley

This is a very gentle, old fasioned sort of book.  And not to say that’s a bad thing.  It takes place in 1960’s California and focuses on 7th grader Abby, her family and the horses they’re training.  When Smiley was interviewed at Day of Dialog, she talked about writing a book for every year that Abby ages.  I personally don’t care, and I’ve never really pretended to leave personal preference out of my opinions here, but would also happily recommend this to middleschool kids, if I still worked with any.  I’ve never read any of Smiley’s adult books, but every once and awhile try to read something that is exactly the sort of thing I would never read hoping to be pleasantly surprised.  And while this didn’t manage to rekindle any long dormant girl-and-her-horse fantasies I may have had when I was little, I did really enjoy it and felt transported and like I really learned something about the place and time and horses.

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Playing Catch-Up

Tap and Gown – Diana Peterfreund

Just as promised, Amy finally stopped acting like an idiot about her kidnapping in this book.  But it took her way too long to stop acting like an idiot about her relationship with Jamie.  I did not love-love-love this the way I did the earlier books in the series, but it also didn’t make me angry like those books sometimes did.  I think I’m ready to move on from Amy, but am very happy that as I do, I have a soon-to-be-released YA book of Peterfreund’s to look forward to.  I think, like Fire below, that my passionate crush on this series did this volume in it no favors.

Fragile Eternity – Melissa Marr

I don’t think I ever recorded here the related novel in this series, Ink Exchange, which I really liked.  But I loved this one and Wicked Lovely.  The plot goes to surprising places and I didn’t even mind that the budding romance of the first book was no longer as budding or romantic (which allowed the plot to move forward and the relationship to mature).  If I ever read another modern Fairie story again it’ll just be because I’m chasing after the appeal of this one.

Fire – Kristin Cashore

I know I’m pretty much alone in liking Graceling more, but I keep reminding people that it’s only because of how much of a crush I have on that book and not because this isn’t a stronger book.  I agree that this probably is.  And it tackles the male gaze, which is one of my favorite things ever to think about.  But I love the way that Cashore writes banter and sexual tension and those were missing from this book.  So I’ll just anxiously await whatever bits of Katsa and Po I’m given in her next book.

Once was Lost – Sara Zarr

I don’t personally find faith interesting, but I find Zarr interesting enough to go along for the ride when she explores it.

Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins

I’m sad that the first book in the series lived up to my expectations but this couldn’t handle the pressure.  I didn’t hate it, or even dislike it, I just hate that I only liked it.  The spoilery text of an email I sent to a friend in white text:

But one of my biggest frustrations with Catching Fire was the pacing of her “radicalization.”  That she was intuitive enough to read intention into the timing of the gifts she was receiving in the arena, but not to understand that her pin had become a symbol of the resistance.  And that an organized resistance was clearly forming but that it took her until the end to see it.  And I didn’t buy that the resistance would trust using her without her knowledge to go well, when that clearly didn’t work out for the government the first time around.  I did like the way she adjusted to the arena, that she realized things were going on that she didn’t understand and went with it.  I just felt more manipulated by the plotting of this story than the first one.

Lips Touch: Three Times – Laini Taylor

This book had the great premise of three fairytale love/forbidden desire stories that hinge on a kiss  and ended up being so much better than I expected while not really fulfilling the promise of the hook.  Another instance where David Levithan lied to me (I’m writing this bottom-up, see the review below) but I’m happier this time to have listened to him anway.  And as much as like Jim Di Bartolo’s illustrations, I don’t like the cover design.  Because it’s a much more serious, even grown-up, book than it seems.  And yes, each story in some way revolves around a kiss and the manifestation of physical desire, but I often related more to the other wishes and dreams of the characters.  The third story is an epic love story crammed into 110 pages that improbably has you siding with the evil witch-type by the end.  I’m not entirely sure how that narrative flip was even accomplished, but it was very skillful.  The first two stories have their charms, but the last is the one that really wowed me.  I don’t know if I’ve ever bought myself a real copy of a book after having read the ARC, but in this instance I might just for the illustrations.

Shiver – Maggie Stiefvater

Ultimately, I don’t think I liked this book.  At Day of Dialog, David Levithan swore up and down that this book transcended the otherworldly creatures (werewolves in this case) genre but I don’t think it does.  I think it was just okay with hints of being something wonderful.  Maybe someone else will read this and see what I’m missing.  There’s another story of doomed love that this reminds me of, but I can’t figure out what. *UPDATE.  The Universe just handed this to me on a plate: The Time Traveler’s Wife. It’s got the same “when will he disappear..possibly forever” tension.* It is very moody and atmospheric, but I never became fully invested in it.

Ash – Malinda Lo

Other than the lesbian love story aspect of this, it’s a pretty traditionally told Cinderella story.  The Fairy Godfather is actually a tricky, non-altruistic fairy, and it’s here and with the love story, where Lo carves her own space, that the book is the most successful.

Juliet, Naked – Nick Hornby

Technically this book has no business being here, as it has zero teen appeal, but I really enjoyed it.  And will stretch and say that it explores the flip side of the “Nick and Norah” music-obsessed-teen coin.  But it’s all about being a grown up, the disapointments and compromises and joys, and how not even a rock star can escape that.  This is the first Hornby book in years that I’ve enjoyed as much as I wanted to.

Scott Pilgrim vs.the Universe – Brian Lee O’Malley

I didn’t mind that Scott’s life kind of falls apart during this volume, I guess I’m turning into a cold-hearted grown up who didn’t expect his slacker lifestyle to be sustainable.  The cover is also very shiny and pretty.

Gregor the Overlander and Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane – Suzanne Collins

I’d been interested in this series ever since reading Hunger Games, but didn’t want to read a library copy because the paperback is both cheaply printed and very popular.  So I finally bought my own copy and once I’d finished, went out and immediately bought the second, which I read in one sitting.  I think the strength of these is Gregor.  He’s really likeable and resourceful.  And if too many of the books in this roundup feature kids who are destined to save the world, having a character who doesn’t act too stupid about the whole thing helps the over-used conceit go down easier.  I’m a little bit worried, and will have to be careful not to get too spoilery, that Collins may rely to heavily on formula with her plots.  These two books both follow similar arcs and this worry of mine is related to the aspect of Catching Fire that I wasn’t too impressed by.  I really wish these were collected in one volume, something with higher quality paper, so that you could easily read the whole saga in one go.

Blackbringer (Dreamdark) – Laini Taylor

I’m upset because I thought the sequel to this was already out but will instead have to wait until September for it.  So while that’s lame, I really enjoyed the story.  I like the way it maintained internal logic really well, how the strength of the god character was used to trick it, how the evil character was as much an important part of fairy history as anyone, how it feels like a complete story while making you want more, and how it might have the first fairy world I’d actually want to live in.  It would be really easy for me to talk about appreciating this book for all of the pitfalls it avoided, but that’s not very exciting.  This books seems to have initially been marketed as middle grade but then as YA for the paperback edition.  Which is funny, because I think it’s an easy sell to adults as well.

Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Diary of a Wimpy Kid – Jeff Kinney

Greg Heffley is a dork and kind of a jerk in that way kids can be to whoever’s smaller than them when they’re used to being picked on themselves.  Nothing really goes his way, but he doesn’t ever see his own role in his problems.  Despite all that, he has fun and acts stupid and hatches plots and gets right back up when things don’t go his way.

I’m not a pre-teen boy, so I can’t say I “get” this book.  But it’s funny and takes middle-school problems seriously.  And boys love it, so that’s cool.  Adrien Mole would be a good follow up for slightly older kids.

2008 Roundup

When I was counting up how many books I read this year (somewhere between 140-150) I was expecting it to be a lot less than last year when I’d taken a YA lit class in library school and was reading a book a day for a couple of months.  But I think I read about 180 last year, so it’s not as big of a difference as I expected.  My list this year is similar to the one from last year in that it doesn’t accurately represent my reading as a whole.  There’s a higher percentage of nonfiction and even adult books than make up my normal reading diet, which I attribute to the fact that when I do pick up adult or nonfiction books I am already pretty certain I will like them, where I will read any old YA vampire book.  7 of these books are adult, 7 YA and two are children’s.  3 are nonfiction and 2 are graphic novels.  I reviewed 142 books this year which leaves out the adult books I’ve been reading since I started writing on this blog.  Most surprising is that only 3 have a New York City focus, whereas last year the majority did.  If I count the Tim Gunn book, 4 have strong gay themes (though I admit that Dan Humphrey’s bi-curious kiss isn’t exactly a “strong” gay theme, Chuck’s winning queerness pushes Gossip Girl over the edge).

Some of my original reviews can be found on this blog and those have been linked to, the others were all from my other, personal blog.

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan – So it’s pretty obvious that I really loved this book and was going to put it on this list.  A fairy tale retelling of “Snow White and Rose Red” never had it so good.  Violent and scary and sexy, this book about learning to leave heaven behind is one of my most favoritists ever.

Tamar by Mal Peet – I read this at the very beginning of last year and so while some of the more complex plot machinations now escape me, I will always remember it as a devastating love story on par with the Time Traveler’s Wife.  Along with Tender Morsels, this was classified as YA but could easily have been adult.  Betrayal and friendship and Nazi’s and finding out that the people you love are both more and much much less than you ever could have imagined.  Melodrama at its finest.

Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – Addictive, can’t-put-it down novel about post-apocalyptic sacrificial gladiators as a reality show.  The kick-ass heroine of the story doubts her chances only so long as it takes her to realize she’s perfectly suited to kill and survive and manipulate the emotions of the viewing audience.

Band Fags by Frank Anthony Polito – Really touching book about what it’s like growing up in a place that doesn’t fully accept you, while in some sense remaining a product of that environment.  You can leave, but you can’t escape who you were while you were trying to survive it.  But it’s not as grim as all that, it’s funny and charming and Jack is so lovable and heartbreaking.

Trespass by Valerie Martin – Multiple, interwoven plot lines about the many different ways that people encroach on our lives and threaten what we think we know about ourselves.  There are some really terrifying passages about the Serbo-Croatian war that I think are literally the only time a book has made me fear for my own future safety.  Both intellegent and entertaining.

Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8 Lee – Broad examination of how Chinese food came to be so popular and ubiquitous in America (and the world), how it’s evolved to suit American tastes, and its effect on the Chinese immigrant community.  I was personally very invested because I work with the Fujianese immigrants who now make up the bulk of restaurant workers and all of the peripheral businesses that serve the industry are within about two blocks of my library.

Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan – Melancholy, last day of summer camp-type book about the last night of a Red Lobster located in the parking lot of a mall.  Working class, middle America at its most sympathetic.  The main character, the restaurant’s general manager is a decent guy who works hard and cares about his customers and employees.  But even though his best is really pretty good, it’s not enough.

Everything Bad is Good for You by Stephen Berlin Johnson – It’s not that video games or television are better for you than great literature or going to see a symphony orchestra, but that high art has only ever appealed to a small group and the mass entertainments that we’re all gobbling up are better and more complex than ever before.  I went into the book expecting to agree with it, but was surprised by how well argued and thought out it was, helping me to think deeper about its issues.

A Guide to Quality, Taste and Style by Tim Gunn – Tim Gunn is wonderful.  I would do anything he told me to, and after reading this book I threw away about half of my clothes.  It has fundamentally changed the way I think about fashion and style and dressing well.

Freak Show by James St. James – The costs and joys of letting your fabulous freakishness all hang out while going to high school in the most conservative and judgmental of environments.  Almost getting killed for dressing in drag leads Billy to “Footloose up” his private, southern school.  He’s everyone’s funny, dynamic friend who seems to put it all out there while really just being an elaborate defense mechanism.  Here you get to peer behind the facade and see the pain he isn’t letting himself feel as well as going on a thrilling roller coaster ride with him.  One of my favorite characters of all time.

Gossip Girl (series) by Cecily von Ziegesar – What can I say about this series that hasn’t already been said?  It doesn’t have a whole lot of plot in common with the show (though the 2nd season has been pulling out a lot more stuff) and some of the characters are really hugely different.  But they are all mockably, hilariously well-developed and lovable against all odds.  This series is addictive and often laugh-out-loud funny.  I’d just like to add my voice to the small choir of adults praising these in the hope that more people give them a chance.

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery – I read this when I was about 8 or 9 and loved Anne Shirley and everything about Prince Edward Island.  The books, the tv shows, everything.  I’ve been meaning to reread this for years but finally got around to it with all the publicity surrounding their 100th anniversary.  Anne is still as cool and kickass as I remembered.  She makes a mess of everything but never comes out the worse for it; Bella Swan could learn a trick or two about how to actually be an independent woman while still worrying about your friends and family and place in the world.

Rapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon and Dean Hale – Other than the uncategorizable Anne, this is the only children’s book and one of two comics on my list.  Rapunzel is coming to the rescue and she isn’t taking any guff.  The iconic American folk tale that the 21st century deserves, with beautiful illustrations and a seamless blend of fairy tales and folk lore and everything we all love about the wild west.

Sweethearts by Sarah Zarr – I love the way Sarah Zarr explores class issues and family relationships.  The emotional force of this story doesn’t come from the severity of the shared secret at its center, it comes from the effect a moment and a friendship can have on a person’s entire life and how people can let things drag them down.  Anyone who’s ever loved someone they couldn’t save will find a lot to relate to.

Breaking Up by Aimee Friedman – Insightful and wonderfully illustrated comic about female friendship.  The people who know you the best are the most capable of hurting you and it doesn’t always have to be a “mean girls” situation.  Sometimes the mean girl is you and none of the justifications in the world will make a broken friendship right again.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson – This is a deeply creepy book.  Not scary, just haunting.  Would be fun to read after Trespass, as it explores similar themes of invasion and security but in such a different way.  In a creepy, creepy, gothic way.

Review: People of Sparks

The People of Sparks – Jeanne DuPrau
Very different in tone and setting than the first book in the series, The People of Sparks is a kind of in-between book.  The people of Ember have to learn to make their way in the world, a hostile place where they can’t understand the simplest things and their survival is dependent on the largesse of others.  It continues to have a lot of big ideas about human nature and overcoming our baser selves.

The plot doesn’t really seem to be the point of this book, it’s more about establishing new places and characters.  The first and last parts of the book were interesting and exciting, while the middle dragged.  Such care was taken with the sequence of events that the story got bogged down and moved too slowly.  Which is a shame, because the first hundred pages were full of ideas worth chewing on.  And not the big obvious themes of the rest of the book like cults of personality and war and greed and generousity, but there was room for the reader to make comparisons between Ember and Sparks.  Luckily, the end picked up and stuff happened and the very end was exciting and hopeful and makes me want to keep reading.

Review: City of Ember

The City of Ember – Jeane DuPrau

I’ve been in the mood for a good dystopian novel and the release of the movie reminded me that I’d been wanting to read this. I like how straight from the beginning, Ember is set up as a dying city that has outlived its usefulness but the people there don’t know it. It’s not a very big city, and the people there live with a strange mix of socialism and black markets with a little bit of capitalism thrown in. There’s no sun, no moon, and when the lights are turned off (or during the increasingly frequent blackouts) the world is plunged into absolute darkness. Lina and rediscovered-friend Doon are the only ones who seem serious about finding a way out. Lina thinks she has the answer, but it’s inadvertantly turned into a puzzle by her teething little sister. The mechanics of this puzzle are skillfully handled and answers reveal themselves at opportune moments believably, a “the knowledge will come when you need it” sort of thing.
I really enjoyed this and am already a hundred pages into pt. 2. The worldbuilding is good and becomes more interesting as its contrasted to…other spoilery things in that second book. Also, I really liked the end of this one, but can’t talk about the specifics of why without giving too much away or it seeming overly simplistic. Faith takes a bit of skewering, as does complacency and greed. There are a lot of good-hearted people in Ember, but also a lot of people falling prey to a mob mentality, I would guess that the extremes of human nature (for good and bad) will continue to be a focus of the series.

Review: Arthur of Albion

Arthur of Albion – John Matthews, illus by Pavel Tatarnikov

This is a big and beautiful book.  I can’t help but think it’s the kind of thing grandparents are going to be giving as a gift and kids are going to be hopelessly bored by.  Unless it finds the right kid to be completely enchanted by it. 

It’s almost an encyclopedia of Arthurian stories, with brief descriptions of people, places and objects and then a retelling of one of the related stories.  Those retellings are what might capture children.  And the illustrations really are gorgeous, especially Tatarnikov’s Klimtian women. 

I imagine this will be most interesting to kids who have already read something about King Arthur and want to know more, or that it would make for good bedtime reading.  It’s something to enjoy in bite-sized pieces.  There is a lot of fighting and beheading and dead knights, but nothing gory or gruesome.  I love Arthurian legend, and will definitely be trying to push it on my theoretical and unborn children.  I’ll be happy to have this age-appropriate book to add to that shelf.