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The Magician's Elephant The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

Oh boy, I wanted to like this one. I adored The Tale of Despereaux Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup and a Spool of Thread, I enjoyed Because of Winn-Dixie, I was fascinated with The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (and loved the illustrations), but this left me a little cold. I’ve been trying to put my finger on it, since this is on this year’s OLA Mock Newbery list and I’ll have to back up my opinion. I didn’t feel that it went deep enough – it stayed on the surface of a potentially interesting story, and that simplicity, which felt intentional, ended up feeling too much like a fable for me. I detest novel-length fables. I want characters, not archetypes. I just skimmed across the surface and thought, “pretty sentence” and waited to be caught up in the story. There were too many characters introduced too quickly and too briefly. This is, perhaps, a matter of taste. I’ll have to work on my argument before the discussion rolls around in January.

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Grave Goods (Mistress of the Art of Death, #3) Grave Goods by Ariana Franklin

I wasn’t quite as hooked by this one as I was by Mistress of the Art of Death and The Serpent’s Tale, but still a compelling combination of history and forensics. The plot didn’t feel quite as tight as the first two – there were many, many small mysteries to solve along the way which stole some of the excitement from the finale. Listening to the audiobook, I kept thinking “there are really three discs left? What on earth can happen?” Still, fans of the first two books will want to give it a read or a listen.

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The Court of the Stone Children The Court of the Stone Children by Eleanor Cameron

I’m not sure how many times I read this as a child, but I was a big fan of Eleanor Cameron’s realistic fiction, so it’s likely I read it a few times. Picking it up again as an adult, I can tell exactly what I loved about it. First of all, Nina wants to grow up to be something in a museum. Did books like this make me love museums, or did I love this book because I loved going to museums? Not only is there lots of time spent in the museum – a building full of recreated rooms from a Napoleonic era French house – but there’s a ghost, the diary of a girl who lived long ago, and a mystery buried in the past.

On top of that, Nina is a girl who cares deeply about her surroundings. Her family’s new, ugly apartment is horrifying to her – she wants a view, and light, and beautiful things, even if they’re shabby and worn. I’d forgotten that part of the story – that Nina is obsessed with finding her family a new apartment, that she takes refuge in the museum not only because of the history and her “museum feeling” but also to get away from the ugliness of her apartment and the city. It certainly didn’t matter to me, in the 1990s, that the book was published in 1973. There’s not too much to date it, other than Cameron’s writing style, which is perhaps a little more old-fashioned. But for girls who devour old-fashioned stories – L.M. Montgomery’s books have a similar sensitivity to the aesthetics of settings and homes – this feels relatively modern.

Nina is a character that will appeal to quieter, bookish types – the girls who live half in their imaginations anyway, and kind of wish they lived in a different century. And the story is nicely balanced between her personal story and the story of the historical mystery – she’s not just a device for bringing in the more dramatic 19th century story, but a character in her own right, and in the course of solving the mystery she finds her own place in the world. This is one I’m glad I reread.

Also, I’ve ALWAYS been a sucker for anything with a Trina Schart Hyman cover.  I probably made a lot of reading decisions based on that as a kid, and I’m still drawn to them.

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Another title from the Mock Printz list – I’ve only got two more to read, The Eternal Smile and All the Broken Pieces.  Review of The Miles Between coming soon.

Crazy Beautiful Crazy Beautiful by Lauren Baratz-Logsted

I was expecting something slightly different – I’d heard the premise, and I expected lots of darkness, and more fairy tale overtones, and more longing and angst and romance. Instead, some of those elements became secondary to a high school story about choosing who want to be, how you will face the world, etc. Sure, that corresponds to the Beauty and the Beast story in some ways, but this is more a story that happens to have those dynamics than a book that I would press on anyone who loves fairy tale retellings.

So then the question is, does this succeed at telling a good coming of age, high school story? On some levels it does – the alternating points of view paint a picture of high school in all its cruelty and shallowness, as well as those moments where you see the light and connect with someone. There were a few times when the dialogue or details pulled me out of the story, and I found myself was wishing the story had gone a bit darker, because a more melodramatic tone in the story makes me more forgiving of not-quite-believable dialogue. The characters are sophomores, and it’s really a story more about first love than passion.

I was left wanting to know more – about what Lucius was like before he lost his hands, because I never got a solid feel for that. Still, I think this would appeal to kids who don’t really want a dark story, but want just a hint of darkness and tragedy and self-destruction, and I think it would appeal to both boys and girls, because Lucius came across to me as a bigger character despite the balance between the two points of view.

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Umbrella Summer Umbrella Summer by Lisa Graff

A sweet, engaging story of a girl dealing with fears after her brother’s unexpected death. For all of that, it manages to be funny and avoids becoming maudlin, helped along by a cast of likable characters. Its strengths are a depiction of childhood fears that feels real and the avoidance of any preaching or pat answers, combined with story that should appeal particularly to elementary school girl who like the occasional sad moment and realistic stories.

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Thursdays are my half day at work, so as usual I’m catching up on reviews.  Putting together my thoughts on A Broken Vessel got me thinking about my favorite mystery series, and what it is that makes them stick with me.  Of course, I typed it all up in the same post as the review, but it managed to disappear when I hit publish.  Sigh. Apparently it wants to be its own post.

Kate Ross’ Julian Kestrel books remind me, in the way they have both a satisfying mystery and endearing characters and strong writing, of some of my favorite series.  These are the ones that you want to reread you want to spend more time with those characters and in the mind of the writer.  And since I’m already planning to reread Ross’ books (and I’m only halfway through the series) I thought I ought to add them to that rarified list.

  • Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter books, starting with Whose Body? and peaking with Gaudy Night.
  • Josephine Tey’s Inspector Alan Grant series – my favorite is The Daughter of Time – as well as the stand-alone Brat Farrar.
  • Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books, starting with Case Histories – these are of a different style, but memorable and complicated and nuanced in a way that should hold up well in a reread.

There are a few other series that I enjoy while reading, but don’t plan on going back to, like Ariana Franklin’s series starting with Mistress of the Art of Death and Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs books, but which I don’t hesitate to recommend.  Then there are the fluffier, funnier series, like any of Elizabeth Peters’ books or Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia series – you only reread these when you need brain candy, not something filling (but sometimes you really want brain candy).

What else should I have on my list?  Or any of the lists, really, because you can’t read Gaudy Night every week.

Title quote from the last sentence of The Daughter of Time.

A Broken Vessel (Julian Kestrel Mysteries, #2) A Broken Vessel by Kate Ross

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A fantastic follow-up to Cut to the Quick, with a very different mystery and setting, but even more of the inimitable Julian Kestrel. Julian’s getting more into the swing of things, as a detective, and now he’s on his own turf in Regency London. He is thrown out of his element a bit by the introduction of Dipper’s sister, Sally, who brings a crime his way and provides him with an often hilarious counterpart. I’m curious to see how Sally figures into the later books, but I’m trying not to gobble them down too quickly because there are only four. Definitely read Cut to the Quick first, if this blend of historical fiction, mystery, and sharp-witted characters sounds appealing.

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Tales of the Madman Underground: An Historical Romance 1973 Tales of the Madman Underground: An Historical Romance 1973 by John Barnes

This is a big book – figuratively and literally – and it’s hard to know where to start. It’s one of those books where you completely buy into the world of the story – it’s character driven, and you never doubt for a moment that this is how they would act or think. But because it feels so real, it’s that much more difficult to read. Each of the high schoolers is so painfully messed up, each family has so many issues. It never reads like a problem novel, partly because it’s so well crafted and partly because there are so many problems that it would be hard to sum up the issues in a simple sentence. It’s a book about teenage alcoholics. It’s a book about abuse, neglect, alcoholic parents, trying to get out of a small town, violence, therapy, the social worlds of high school. It’s not really about romance as much as the desire for, er, romance. And when I say romance…let’s just say that the book is frank about a lot of things. Substance abuse, sex, cussing, violence – it doesn’t try to pretty things up. It does have a surprisingly happy ending, which at first felt a bit pat and easy. But as I thought it over, I realized that the book just happens to take place over a few days when a corner is turned in Karl’s life. They start out as fairly ordinary days, the first of his senior year, but they turn out to be significant days. Mixed into all of this are the stories – the tales of the Madman Underground – that introduce the reader to the characters and their history. It’s a combination that works well, and while the book is not an easy read, it moves along quickly considering the length. This one will definitely be interesting to discuss at the Mock Printz workshop – I just hope that everyone else manages to work their way through the whole thing. View all my reviews >>

Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman

A surprisingly fascinating portrait of Charles and Emma Darwin, from the time Charles made up his mind to marry, until Emma’s death. They come to life vividly – their marriage, Charles’ work and his feelings about publishing a controversial theory, their children and home life, their illnesses and tragedies. Recommended if you want to know more about the Darwins or are looking for satisfying but not overwhelmingly long biography. This might appeal best to high schoolers and up, with the focus on relationships and family.

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In addition to the Mock Printz this January, I’m also going to a Mock Newbery workshop.  For some reason, I’m not as fired up about these titles, but it’s been a few years since I went to one (the infamous year of Criss Cross, which I couldn’t even bring myself to finish for the workshop), so I’m looking forward to it.  This is a longer, full-day workshop, so hopefully that will mean more time to discuss each title.  Here’s the list:

  • Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone. Candlewick, 2009.
  • Heart of a Shepherd by Roseanne Parry.  Random House Books for Young Readers, 2009.
  • How Oliver Olson Changed the World by Claudia Mills.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.
  • The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo. Candlewick, 2009.
  • Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors by Joyce Sidman.  Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2009.
  • A Season of Gifts by Richard Peck.  Dial, 2009.
  • When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead.  Wendy Lamb Books, 2009.
  • Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2009.

So far I’ve read When You Reach Me and A Season of Gifts, and out of the two my choice would be When You Reach Me.  I like that they’ve thrown some non-fiction and poetry into the mix, and all in all they’re fairly short books, which works in my favor when I’ve got two lists to read through.  I am disappointed that my personal favorite, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, didn’t make the list, but such is life.  I’ll update as I work through the list and add more reviews.

Also, for anyone who enjoys the whole Mock Newbery thing, the SLJ blog Heavy Medal is a must read.  They’ve discussed A Season of Gifts and When You Reach Me at length, and there are some interesting conversations going on about plot, style, nonfiction, age level, and where picture book texts fit into things.  Always thoughtful and occasionally riling – and definitely look at the comments.

November 2009

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