Monday, February 25, 2008

Iris, Messenger

Okay, I just finished this book and I loved it!  Iris, Messenger, by Sarah Deming, tells the story of a middle schooler named Iris Greenwold who lives with her mother in Middleville, Pennsylvania.  Iris, like many other protagonists, hates going to school and really doesn't have any friends but she loves daydreaming and does her best to just get through the day avoiding detentions.  Which she is not very good at.  

Slight Spoiler Alert
Then on her twelfth birthday she receives a copy of Bullfinch's Mythology and is captured by the stories as well as the notes scribbled in the margins.  Of course the notes lead her to the world of gods and goddesses living right in her hometown, carrying on their own lives and trying their hardest to do a job similar to their immortal powers: Aphrodite owns a beauty shop, Hephaestus works as a mechanic, Artemis is a private detective and, my personal favorite, Hades is the principal of Iris's middle school ("Middle school is the closest thing we've found to hell."  How great is that quote!?).  Greek myths are woven throughout the story as the deities help Iris to discover her identity as well as help Iris's mother (a soybeantologist) get her job back.  

The book was a completely exhilarating read.  Iris had a delightful personality and the story was both witty and poignant.   I also love books where the author redeems the characters from another story (The Game by Diana Wynne Jones is another) and Deming kindly saves the poor, dilapidated Greek gods and goddesses from their tragic lives to a happily ever after in a hilarious epilogue (and I would have been very jealous of Iris's happy ending in my middle school years, that's for certain).  I actually learned more about myths from this fun book (and I considered myself an intermediate myth-lover, if not an expert); I can't wait until Ms. Deming comes out with another.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Alex and the Ironic Gentleman

This quirky and action-packed story is about a ten-and-a-half-year-old girl named Alex (who is constantly being confused with being a boy because of her short hair, feisty attitude and dislike for skirts) who lives with her kindly uncle and goes to a prestigious private school (because her uncle is on the Board).  Although she loves learning, she dislikes school because of her shallow classmates and her old-fashioned teachers.  But this all changes when she gets a brand-new teacher, Mr. Underwood, just as she begins sixth grade, who teaches her to fence and use correct grammar.  Alex and her uncle befriend the teacher and he reveals to them that he is heir to an enormous hidden treasure garnered by his piratical great-great-great-grandfather, the infamous Wigpowder.

Slight Spoiler Alert
Of course, the current infamous pirate Steele kidnaps Mr. Underwood so as to have to treasure for herself, kills Alex's uncle and leaves Alex homeless.  Whereupon, Alex sets off to find her favorite teacher (taken aboard the notorious pirate ship, The Ironic Gentleman) and rescue him.  Her journey takes her on a number of adventures, from placating a ginormous Octopus to becoming a mind-reading personal assistant to rescuing a train of partiers having their souls stolen from them.  Naturally, the story concludes on the high seas in a swashbuckling climax.

Alex and the Ironic Gentleman was action-packed and took many unexpected twists and turns, (I was particularly intrigued by the moral dilemma Alex struggles with during her captivity on the pirate ship).  I enjoyed the unusual experiences and the chummy tone of the author- similar to E. Nesbit- as well as the very well-defined characters.  And anyone who has ever gotten yelled at (or whispered at) when visiting a museum will enjoy the comeuppance of the villainous Daughters of the Founding Fathers' Preservation Society.

The one problem I had with the book was the amount of character casualties. I know that the Harry Potter books, especially the final one, had no problem killing off many of the readers' favorite characters; J. K. Rowling said it was to exhibit the horrors of war.  Yet this book didn't really go as dark and foreboding as the Potter series; having characters, side characters or otherwise, drop like flies was a bit disturbing.  I like happy endings and everyone coming out okay.   

If Ms. Kress decides to release another novel, I will certainly read it- I loved her page-turning plot and her larger than life characters.  Yet I will be careful not to get too attached to any characters in the story... just in case.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The End of the Beginning

I actually had the opportunity to meet Avi in person at a book talk and I told him that my absolute favorite of his books was The End of the Beginning.  He sighed resignedly (clearly he has heard that before) and said it was a book he wrote over the course of several days.  He was trying to help a friend and aspiring author by telling him how easy it was to write, saying that he could complete a book in one day.  He said that although he wasn't quite able to finish it in one day, he did finish it within a week!

It makes complete sense to me that my favorite (sorry, Avi!) of Avi's books, The End of the Beginning, was written in a brief amount of time.  The End has a sweet and light touch and there is no evidence of over-thinking and complicating.  Its collection of vignettes contrasts with the more elaborate plot lines of his other books.  It concerns a snail named Avon as he leaves his cozy home looking for adventures with his new friend, an ant named Edward.  The events that follow, while adventuresome to the heros, are humorous to the readers: guarding a caterpillar in her cocoon, dueling another snail, teaching a cricket a new song and, biggest of all, discovering the end (the beginning?) of the branch they've set out on.  

The language is clever and endearing and Tricia Tusa's illustrations are precious.  The whole book has a Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet spirit and the illustrations even evoke Ernest H. Shepard's whimsical style.  It's a quick, refreshing and delightful read.  
Very highly recommended!

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio

This was Lloyd Alexander's final book he wrote before he passed away so I felt a little sentimental reading it.  He is definitely a beloved author of mine and I hoped that it would be genuine Alexander goodness.  It has a lot of his trademarks: a ne'er-do-well hero on a quest, a feisty, quick-tempered love interest, a journey that is more than it seems and ruthless, cutthroat villains (led by one particularly ruthless, cutthroat villain). 

Slight spoiler alert...The story concerns a lazy dreamer, Carlo, who discovers a treasure map in the back of a book of fairy tales.  After his hardworking uncle tosses him out because of one mishap too many, Carlo decides that it is the perfect opportunity to find the treasure on the "Road of Golden Dreams."  Along the way he joins up with a diverse cast of characters, chief among them, the fiery Shira, the wise Salamon and Baksheesh, a smooth-talking conman who ends up having a heart of gold.  Of course, Carlo also manages to make mortal enemies and endanger his life and the lives of his companions but, like all Alexander's books, it has the happy, "everything turns out for the best" ending. 

I enjoyed this book; Alexander is brilliant at creating a world that is at once intriguing in its foreignness and then comfortable in its familiarity.  However, I thought the characters lacked the spark of those in his other marvelous books: The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha, The Arcadians, The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian, etc.  Also, there was a bit more "moral" than in his other books and the adventure didn't have as much suspense and humor as some of his others.  Yet, it was still an engrossing read and I would certainly recommend it. 
 But I'd also recommend picking up a copy of Sebastian on the same trip...