Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Keturah and Lord Death, by Martine Leavitt, 2006

How to summarize this remarkable novel? It feels blasphemous to do so. Its power lies far, far deeper than its mere plot. Meet Keturah, meet Lord Death, and be swept away, and changed. Young adult fantasy. Most urgently recommended.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Ludie's Life, by Cynthia Rylant, 2006

Ludie grew up in Alabama in the 1910's, married at 15, and with her coal miner husband, moved to West Virginia to live her life and raise her six babies, which may have been five too many. This novel in verse was shelved in the YA section of my library; I can't help feeling this book belongs on the adult shelves, and may in fact have been intended to land there. Unimpressive verse and a jaded air to most of the selections. It may appeal to some, and fit bitter with the sensibilities of literature for adults, but from me: not recommended.

The Sea of Monsters, by Rick Riordan, 2006

Percy Jackson almost makes it through a year of school without incident, until fire-hurling Laistrygonian monsters show up in gym class on his last day. His not-so-little little brother, Tyson, saves him, and together they flee with Annabeth to Camp Half Blood, which has had a leadership shakeup and fallen on hard times. Could this be another step in Kronos' bid to return to power, aided by disgruntled heartthrob Half Blood and Percy's old nemesis, Luke? Like good Greek tragedy, a full cast of monsters for our hero to battle; like good middle-grade fantasy, a loyal if complicated band of friends to join in the quest. Fun, fast, furious. Book Two of Percy Jackson and the Olympians is strongly recommended. Read the books in order.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Squire's Tale, by Gerald Morris, 1998

There's something unusual about Terrence, squire to Sir Gawain of King Arthur's Round Table, and neither he nor anyone else -- except Merlin -- seems to know why. Time and again his instincts and courage save Sir Gawain on their quests, and as Gawain comes to better understand women, Terrence learns about his origins, saving the king in the process. Terrence calls to mind Taryn in Lloyd Alexander's Prydain chronicles. True to the form of knightly romance, the story wanders from quest to quest, and modern critics might wish for a more character-driven narrative where knowledge isn't so often magically handed to the main character. Nevertheless, a satisfying read. Recommended.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Moorchild, by Eloise McGraw, 1996

Old Bess could tell that the baby in the truckle bed was different than before -- its eyes changed color, and it screamed night and day, especially when the iron-wearing blacksmith came indoors! But Yanno and Anwara, the baby's parents, wouldn't hear what Old Bess had to say: that the baby was a changeling, one of the Moorfolk, swapped for their own infant. So Saaski grew and tried to do as a human child would, but that didn't stop the villagers from calling her freaky-odd, and blaming their troubles upon her. Engrossing middle grade fantasy, complex, psychological, atmospheric. Most strongly recommended.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Place Where Nobody Stopped, by Jerry Segal, 1991

For a place that's hardly a place, just a cluster of cottages between Smolensk and Vitebsk, the place where nobody stops keeps getting visitors. First Yosip the lonely Baker, the Sergeant Major and his platoon of cossacks, Mordecai ben Yahbahbai the impractical scholar and his intelligent wife Ginzl, then their ten babies ... An original story in Russian folktale's clothing, with many layers of sweetness and horror and complexity: love and loneliness, poetry and practicality, valor and violence, and the collision of cultures and ways in turn-of-the-century Czarist Russia. Recommended for middle grade and up.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

How I Found the Strong, by Margaret McMullan, 2004

Frank "Shanks" Russell watches as his father and brother enlist in the Confederate Army, full of promises to be home by Christmas. He stays home with his mother, his grandparents, and Buck, the family's slave. The family endures the mounting horrors and privations of the war amid departures, deaths, and births, and Shanks finds his courage tested without ever going to war. Elegant, thoughtful, compassionate writing; a moving and convincing portrayal of the Civil War and its moral dilemmas. Strongly recommended.

Changing Tunes, by Donna Jo Napoli, 1998

When Eileen's dad moves out, he takes the piano with him, forcing her to practice in the school auditorium every afternoon with a janitor for her audience. But she can't bring herself to tell her best friend Stephanie why she plays at school every day, or what's really going on at home. A middle grade divorce story with disappointingly stiff characters and unremarkable events. Not recommended.

Fame and Glory in Freedom, Georgia, by Barbara O'Connor, 2003

Bird's looking for a friend, and when gangly, squinty-eyed, tight-lipped Harlem Tate moves into town to live with can-scavenging Mr. Moody, Bird figures he's unaccounted for and might be won over. With the help of her neighbor / fairy godmother Miss Delphine, she persuades Harlem to be her partner in the sixth-grade spelling bee. A surprising, satisfying, funny, believable, oh-so-Southern middle-grade novel as warm and fragrant as Miss Delphine's apple pie. Strongly recommended.

George and the Dragon Word, by Dianne Snyder, 1991

When George's ugly word turns Greataunt Agatha into a dragon, she drags him to a goaty-looking linguist named Wordsmith who makes custom words to order, so he can create a word to undo the damage. A light and short read perfect for elementary readers who are discovering the power of words, of sounds -- and of kindness. Recommended.

Marcy Hooper and the Greatest Treasure in the World, by Stephanie Tolan, 1991

The one thing Marcy Hooper feels she can do well is read -- maybe not so well that she remembers how the words are spelled, but well enough to be carried away to the magical worlds of princesses and dragons in the stories she likes best. But one day when she runs away from home she finds herself in a cave where her storybook tales are real, and her search for treasure brings unexpected results. Geared for elementary school readers.

The Green Book, by Jill Paton Walsh, 1982

Father says they may only bring one book each on the ship that will carry them from Earth, on the verge of destruction, to the nearest habitable planet. Joe brings Robinson Crusoe, and Sarah a pony story, but Pattie brings The Green Book, which is blank. Their new planet, which Pattie names Shine, has air and water and sparkling vegetation as if made of glass -- but can it sustain them? A lean, graceful text, simple yet compelling, with not a word out of place. Its unusual point of view stance is ultimately rewarded. Strongly recommended.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Witch's Wishes, by Vivian Vande Velde, 2003

Well-intentioned wish granting goes awry on Halloween night -- and so does the attempted reversal -- when a witch rewards a kind young girl by making her costume magic wand turn real. Whether Sarah's wishes come true or turn upside-down, the results are disastrous, just as the witch's wise-cracking broomstick warned her. A short and lively early grade light fantasy novel, full of whimsy and a surprising level of complexity for the length and readership age. Strongly recommended.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Beyond the Deepwoods: Book 1 of The Edge Chronicles, by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell, 1998

When long-legged Twig learns he's not really a woodtroll, he sets off through the Deepwoods to locate his adoptive cousin and perhaps find his destiny. He's waylaid by a parade of the bizarre and predatory inhabitants of the Deepwoods, and nearly digested on more than one occasion before discovering his true origins. A collaboration between author and illustrator, this episodic novel's great strenth is its vivid menagerie of frightful beasties, wonderfully drawn by Chris Riddell. Its weakness is its overreliance on those beasties, and on the illustrations themselves, which liven up a sometimes disconnected narrative. Points for each time the word "sticky" is used, and the text's bonus word is "juddered." For readers fond of monsters and goo, recommended.

Wintersmith, by Terry Pratchett, 2006

When she hears the music of a Morris dance ushering in the winter, Tiffany Aching can't keep her feet still. That's how she catches the attention of the Wintersmith, or elemental god of winter, as cold, persistent, and dense a suitor as a 13-year old girl can have. But he's determined to prove himself to her, and the Nac Mac Feegles -- and Roland, the Baron's son -- have an Olympic quest to undergo to save Tiffany and restore the balance of nature, even if Tiffany's not used to being rescued, thank you very much. The third Tiffany Aching story contains more of the same Pratchett absurdity, and plenty of Feegles, but it lacks the luster of books one and two. Recommended.