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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Review: The Girl who Fell Beneath Fairylandand Led the Revels There by Catherynne Valente

One of the biggest challenges of the second book in a series is the lack of surprise. Catherynne Valente's The Girl who Fell Beneath Fairylandand Led the Revels There did suffer somewhat in my estimation because I was not surprised by how good it was – I simply expected it to be so. I had been so charmed by Valente's first Fairyland book that the experience could not be duplicated. I knew what to expect; however, this is still a very satisfying sequel. The world Valente created is so vibrant that there is plenty of room for many more stories.

Here we are taken beneath Fairyland to Fairyland Below where a new ruler (Halloween, the Hollow Queen) has taken over and has her minions out stealing the shadows of the dwellers of Fairyland. The only person to stop this reign of terror and halt the progression that is leading to the destruction of Fairyland is September herself, our hero who circumnavigated Fairyland. Halloween is after all September's shadow, which she surrendered in a plea to save the life of another on her previous journey into Fairyland.

If the first Fairyland book was about growing up then this one is definitely about what you lose in the struggle. This is a darker Fairyland wherein the lessons are stronger, the truth more fluid, and the consequences to our hero's actions are more clearly drawn out. It is more grown up, but that makes sense. Time has past for both September and Valente's readers. They've experienced new troubles and joys. The have grown regardless of how much they wished they had not.

That Valente is working in the realm of fairy tales is simply perfect. Everything falls in line, from the fantasies to the realities highlighted by them. The fairy tale is meant to explain life through fantasy. The trials and tribulations of September are there to help explain why people sometimes lie or lash out when they get angry and many other valuable lessons hard taught in reality. Valente has proven how it is possible to be honest with children about darkness and light, actions and consequences without being dull or overbearing.

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There has all of the charm of its predecessor and I'm definitely looking forward to encountering September and her friends again.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Review: The Giver Quartet by Lois Lowry

Lois Lowry's The Giver has long been one of my favorite books. I read it during the greatest reading year of my life – the fifth grade. I was a reader before fifth grade, but the books I read that year and my amazing teacher really opened me up to what books could be. You know, beyond The Boxcar Children. I reread The Giver and its sequels in anticipation of Lowry's conclusion to the Quartet, Son. I've probably read The Giver four or five times (and it amazes me each time), but this was my first encounter with the other books of the series.

The Giver is the story of Jonas who lives in a Community where he never has to make any decisions and all responsibilities are assigned. Everything is orderly and controlled – perfect. Until Jonas is assigned the role of Receiver, the one person who holds the Community's collected memories of true pleasure and pain. Once he realizes what life can be and the mockery of life that the leaders of the Community have created Jonas risks everything to save those he has just learned to love. I have never quite been able to put my finger on what it is that makes The Giver so powerful. Is it the warning Lowry gives us? Is it that this book was my first real brush with the darkness of the world that can lie just beneath the surface? To this day I can't be sure. What I do know is that this novel amazed me as a kid and it continues to do so to this day.

Reading Gathering Blue and Messenger for the first time as an adult took away something of their power. I hate to say it that way because the books are still great and worth reading, but I can only imagine how moved I would have been to encounter Kira, the heroine of Gathering Blue, as a preteen. Kira, a physically disabled orphan living in a cruel and medieval world. Seriously, medieval. There is no electricity, plumbing, or running water. Brute strength is favored above all. It is a fallen world and in the beginning I interpreted this fallen state as a consequence to Jonas' actions in The Giver. It turns out I was wrong and Kira's world in Gathering Blue is close in both proximity and time to that of The Giver. Looking at the communities side by side is a fascinating comparison. Jonas' world is made up of secrets and order – the horrible lengths to which the leaders and citizens of the Community will go to keep everything uniform and perfect are hidden. The suspense comes from and unknown menace as the reader is slowly shown how bad things are. In Kira's world the horrors are more outright. She lives in a place where there is never quite enough to go around and the weak are cast aside. Both stories are about conforming to
the norm and what happens when you can no longer conform. 
Messenger is my least favorite book in the series. The menace in this story is supernatural rather than human and it just doesn't pack the same punch. Messenger takes the theme of conformity from the first two books and spins it in a different direction. Instead of taking place in a society that enforces conformity, the novel creates a world that celebrates difference. It is an outside force that causes strife in the village and because of it Lowry's message was not as strong.

Son is the conclusion to the series, the final book in the quartet, and it is a much more adult novel. Son puts us back in the Community of The Giver at the same time that the events of Jonas' tale are taking place. This is the story of Claire, a birthmother in the Community and her search for her son. Each of the books is about love in some way, but Son anchors the series in love by telling the story of a bond that cannot be broken by time or distance. Son is not exactly the conclusion I wanted for the series, but it feels like the book Lowry needed to write about the loss of her own son.
Lois Lowry is my favorite type of children's writer. She trusts children to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions and, more importantly, she trusts them with the truth. There is no sugar coating here. These books are raw and honest and that is why kids respond to them. It is certainly why I did.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Review: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan is a bookseller’s dream, even ending in the mantra “the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.” The novel is a bookish mystery involving a literary cult, Google hackers, and code breaking – what’s not to love?

This is the story of Clay Jannon, a jobless postgrad who happens into a night clerk position at Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore. He never sells anything (is chastised for even attempting to make the store profitable), but is encouraged to take extremely detailed notes of the members of a secret club who come to the bookstore in order to borrow centuries old encrypted tomes. Out of sheer boredom, Clay creates a model of the store and stumbles upon a method to what he supposed was the madness of Penumbra’s customers. That discovery sends him spiraling down a rabbit hole of mysteries with a hunt for immortality at its core.

The plot may sound more silly than charming, but this is a great novel full of wit and charm. There is also a lot here to think about as Sloan takes turns skewering both the old guard and the new of literature and technology. People have been bemoaning the death of literature as we know it for as long as they have been decrying the end of the world. It was nice to read a novel that poked fun at the overblown idea, especially as it merged past and future. Not only is a physical bookstore (that supposed relic of the 20th century) literally recreated in the virtual realm, but the creators, Clay’s friends Kat and Mat, are each ensconced on one end of this spectrum. Mat creates effects for the movies the old fashioned way; he uses real materials instead of computer generated images. Kat works at Google and longs for a time wherein man is one with machine –
the ultimate dream of the technological age.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a comic literary adventure, but if you can take a breath and think about what Sloan is attempting to convey, it becomes obvious that this is more than a “high brow beach read.” Sloan has written a novel that deals with the cultural schizophrenia of our fast moving technological age with a wink and a smile at both stalwarts of old and new knowledge. Great read with a wonderful tone; definitely recommended.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Review: Keeping Safe the Stars by Sheila O'Connor

Sheila O'Connor's Keeping Safe the Stars feels destined to become a classic on par with Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia. It is the story of three orphan children who must fend for themselves when their grandfather (their only caretaker) is taken to a hospital far from their home. Pride, Nightingale, and Baby have been raised to be fiercely independent and loyal to each other above all else, so when things get tough, Pride, the oldest, starts coming up with ideas to keep her siblings safe. This is not the easiest thing to do, especially when neighbors, a traveling journalist, and a truly loathsome tourist begin asking questions.

Keeping Safe the Stars is really a perfect middle grade novel. It takes place in 1974, a time that will seem like ancient history to kids, but will be remembered by their parents and grandparents. The material is rife for family and classroom discussion. All of the actions in the story take place against the backdrop of that colorful era: long haired hippies, Nixon's resignation, and a fearful and angry political climate. Yet O'Connor handles these heady topics with aplomb. The children, even without iphones and a wifi connection, can be related to by modern kids. They are real people who are frightened and curious and sometimes a little desperate.

The three Stars are the type of children that stand out in children's fiction - they are different than their readers only in as much as their story demands it; at their core the Stars are the kind of kids readers want to really know. The best childrens’ books serve as friends and companions of their young readers. I feel that my battered, old copies of some of the classics can really atest to that. Sheila O'Connor's Keeping Safe the Stars seems ready for that type of relationship. It is a book that is ready to be read, reread, carried around and shared, discussed, and loved.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Review: Summer and Bird by Katherine Catmull

If you followed my advice and read Cathrynne Valente's Fairyland books (and I know you did) or if you are a fan of Neil Gaiman's fantasies, I mus impress upon you the importance of reading Summer and Bird by Katherine Catmull. It is a perfect sort of fantasy filled with adventure, love, and danger.

Summer and Bird is the story of two sisters whose parents have gone missing overnight. Summer, the older sister, is very like their father. She is practical both in life and the way she interacts with nature. The much younger Bird favors their mother. She lives with the spirit of nature, spending her time becoming a part of the natural world around her rather than observing and attempting to understand it. The relationship between the sisters is so wonderful; they are so different and so similar - they are real sisters.

As the girls travel through the forest looking for their parents, they begin to discover the magic that has been hidden from them their whole lives. Their mother is the queen of birds, but her mantle was stolen by an evil puppeteer who longed to be a bird herself. Now, their mother is trapped and Summer and Bird must work to free her before the false queen destroys all of the birds of the forest.

What sets this novel apart from any other middle grade fantasy is the writing. The author has a way of taking the norm and making it otherworldly, as in the description of falling asleep that has stayed with me: "sleep opened its dark mouth and swallowed her." Haven't you felt that same way when falling asleep into a nightmare? Catmull's voice is pitch perfect for the genre - it is a blend of magic, fairytale, and authentic young characters. Summer and Bird is a wonderful novel that has been beautifully illustrated, and I want to hand it out to every twelve year old I know - and their sister.


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