Monday, December 28, 2009

The Thirteenth Child

Happy 2010, Readers! I hope you've had a wonderful holiday season and received many books as gifts. I was lucky enough to receive this marvelous read by the terrific Patricia Wrede and thought it would be a great book to kick off a new year of reviews.

The Thirteenth Child is about a girl, Eff, who has the misfortune of being the 13th child in the family. To make matters worse, her twin brother, Lan, is the seventh son of a seventh son, making him the luckiest one can magically be. In this alternate, mid-19th century America (called "Columbia"), one's birth order is monumentally important, particularly to Eff and Lan's relatives who have taken to tormenting poor Eff to the point of trying to get her arrested and jailed at the age of five. Eff's parents decide that it isn't good for either of them to grow up around so much prejudice and scrutiny and pack up the family and move west to the prairie very close to the Great Barrier that separates civilization from the untamed and treacherous Far West. As she grows up in this completely different environment, Eff discovers her own talent beyond what is expected of her and ends up being the only person who can save the rest of the magical world.

I have adored Ms. Wrede's books for a while but this book surpassed all others. Her world is so perfectly realized, so detailed and thought out, I was completely lost in it. I loved how she would mix history with fantasy - her wildness has steam dragons as well as buffalo, Benjamin Franklin and magician presidents. Although it is very heavily focused on magic, it has such a realness to it, it seemed more Little House on the Prairie than Harry Potter. She perfectly juggled the myriad of characters and I got a wonderful feel for their growth and development. Often I believe that sequels are unnecessary and take away from the first book but I hope so much that Ms. Wrede writes many books in this captivating world. I enjoyed this book cover to cover.

Any books where you got totally lost in the world? Where their setting felt as real as your own?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Howl's Moving Castle

Hello everybody! Long time, no see! Actually, in my case, it's a bit of case of never-seen. You see, this is my sister's blog and she cordially invited me to join in the fun! I think I should preface this review with a loving nod to my sister's flawless taste in books. Practically everything I've read was recommended by her (often on this blog!). She's been recommending books to me for a while now but I rather think that this one, Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, can be seen as the first in a long line of good recommendations. So, without further ado...

Howl's Moving Castle is about a young girl, Sophie, who is the oldest in her family and, therefore, believes she will inherit all of the misfortune. And when an insulting discussion with the Witch of the Waste results with Sophie's transformation into a 90-year-old woman, she believes she has merely received her lot in life. After this transformation, Sophie sets out to seek her fortune and rid herself of the spell. She journeys to the floating castle of the wizard Howl, strikes a bargain with his fire demon, and takes up permanent residence. And, as is customary in Diana Wynne Jones's books, hilarity and charm ensue.

Upon reading this book, it quickly became one of my all-time favorites and Jones instantly became a favorite author. I love her humor and her characters are simply delightful. Sophie's confidence and wry humor are disarmingly fun in a main character. The vain and wacky Howl is hilarious, frustrating, and charming all at once. I only added this book to my private collection three years ago and the binder is already well bent with multiple re-readings!

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Little Princess

Alright, this book, in some ways, doesn't need to be reviewed; it's a mainstay in a children's literature bookshelf. However, if you're like me, then you haven't read the book for years and have vague memories of the story mixed with images from film/t.v. of varying qualities. So, to do the book justice, I reread it.

A Little Princess is about a girl, Sara Crewe, who possesses a precocious intellect, a global worldview (having been raised in India), a vivid imagination and a very doting father (who lavishes luxuries upon her). Her father, the wealthy Captain Crewe, takes her from her happy home in India to a strict and cold boarding school in London under the tutelage of the aptly-named Miss Minchin. She spends several years there, befriending unlikely students and scullery maids, and garnering the growing resentment and jealousy of some other students as well as Miss Minchin herself. On her 11th birthday they receive word that her father has died and all of his money gone in a bad investment leaving her penniless. Miss Minchin now takes the opportunity to avenge her long-standing animosity to the child by making her one of the lowest and most poorly-treated servants in the house: depriving her of food, humiliating her in public and having her room in an attic with the rats. However, despite this ill-treatment, Sara maintains her pride and spirit and (as you likely know) ultimately triumphs.

In my head, I had remembered Sara as a sweet and cheerful protagonist, almost bubbly. Upon rereading the book, though, I saw that Sara is completely different- very thoughtful and quiet- even described as solemn. What keeps her spirit up isn't effervescence but equanimity. Her insistence on behaving as though she is a princess is very striking (not the princess/diva manner I would normally associate with the word) but rather a combination noblesse oblige and tranquil pride. Her few slips into discouragement and anger only highlight her general way of being rather than contradict it. I was quite inspired by this book and struck by Frances Hodgson Burnett's non-condescending manner of writing. If not for the slight classism in the book, it could easily have been written today. If you haven't read this book in a while, you should definitely revisit it- I guarantee the story will both pleasantly surprise you and might even move you.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Princess Ben

Like many books I review, I'll read a mention of the book from some lucky bookseller who has an advanced copy.  I'll get excited about the book, rush to my neighborhood bookstore or library and then realize the book doesn't come out for several months.  Sigh.  

Princess Ben was one of these books so I was pleasantly surprised when it arrived at my library.  And promptly settled down to read it...

Princess Ben is about a young free-spirited and slightly overindulged princess, who after her doting parents are tragically murdered, is left to the devices and education of her cruel aunt.  Her aunt, Queen Sophia, becomes more frantic about the quest to cultivate Princess Ben with hopes for making her marriage material when the neighboring kingdom (the chief suspect in the parents' deaths) begins to put pressure to overtake the kingdom.  After one particularly bad interaction between the Queen Sophia and Princess Ben, she is shut up in a cell behind her aunt's room.  However, the room holds an unexpected escape by way of a secret passageway that leads to a mysterious magical room...

Princess Ben started off with a bit of an angsty feel and, when coupled with the tragic circumstances, I steeled myself for a typical tortured heroine fairy tale.  However, by the Part Two of the book, I realized that this story was far from the typical fairy tale!  For start, the heroine isn't a delicate golden-haired beauty or even a feisty brunette beauty.  She's a sulky, strong-willed girl with a voracious appetite.  Her maturing and growth throughout the book is only one of many; it amazed me that characters that I made immediate judgments about (oh, she's the villain, he's the love interest) would change through the story as the narrator, the irrepressible Princess Ben, changed.  Catherine Gilbert Murdock's clever interweaving of fairy tale references only add to the cleverness of the story rather than serve as distraction.  

This story was deeper than the average "fairytale retelling" genre and delivered humor, adventure, and dare I say it, a valuable moral.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Dragonfly Pool

I was so excited when I first heard about the release of The Dragonfly Pool; I completely adore Eva Ibbotson and the story sounded perfect.  

And, of course, it was.

The Dragonfly Pool begins in pre-WWII London where feisty Tally has to leave her beloved doctor father, and the danger of the city, for a progressive boarding school in southern England.  Despite missing home, she soon has friends and mentors that help her feel at home and she is renewed with a sense of purpose.  After seeing a special on Bergania's king bravely defying Hitler, Tally is inspired to visit and when she hears of an international dance festival taking place there, she rallies her classmates to participate.  Of course, things don't go as planned: there is an assassination, a prince on the lam, two hideous henchman, a rare Outer Mongolian pedestal dog, among many other things.  

I think that if I could have written a novel as a child, I would have wanted to write just like Ms. Ibbotson.  She has marvelous lead characters- definitely not cookie-cutter heros and heroines- some are spirited, some are shy but all are completely three-dimensional.  Her villains are delightfully abhorrent and usually quite repulsive (one villain kept a picture of Hitler in a locket, another collected rare glass eyeballs).  Her plots are usually outlandish and difficult to summarize (as I proved by my above paragraph) but, when reading, are easy to follow.  Her books move at a perfect pace and always have just the ending one wants.  The Dragonfly Pool was classic Ibbotson but classic Ibbotson with a cherry on top.  It was one of those read-straight-through-the-night-until-I-finish books.  Loved it.

What authors write the way you, as a child, wanted books to be written?

Monday, March 30, 2009

So Sorry!

I have been quite swamped with work and other distractions.  I promise to begin again in April with fresh reviews.  Thank you for reading!

Monday, January 26, 2009


I was suffering from a rather nasty bout with the flu when a kind friend brought home Masterpiece to distract me from my ills.  I doubt he could have chosen a better book to take me away from my troubles completely!

A beetle, Martin, and his family, live under the sink in the Pompaday's house.  Although the beetles like the son James, quiet and lonely, they don't care much for the rest of his family (made up of his pushy mother, complaining stepfather and messy baby brother).  After James has a disappointing birthday (ruined by his mother inviting the sons of potential clients to his party rather than any of his friends), Martin paints him a tiny landscape using the pen and ink set James' father gave him.  The painting bears an uncanny resemblance to the work of Albrecht Dürer.  James is well aware that Martin, his new friend, is the true artist but all the adults around him assume that the painting was done by James himself.  When several people who work at the museum see the painting, they enlist James (and inadvertently Martin) to help them catch an art thief. 

I knew I would love this story, having loved Shakespeare's Secret so well.  Elise Broach's characters are just so marvelous!  Martin and his family, in particular, were refreshingly well-adjusted as a contrast to James' dysfunctional one.  There is even a bit of wise philosophy spoken by Martin's mother that I found quite inspiring (pg. 171).  The mystery, while quite complicated in parts (it took me forever to boil the book down to a one paragraph summary!), was fast-paced and exciting all while gently displaying the delightful characters.  The illustrations of Kelly Murphy added perfectly to the story of quiet friendship and intricate mystery.  

Somehow, like Master Dürer himself, Ms. Broach was able to create a masterpiece with tiny details and warm, enduring images.  

I also loved that Dürer was the featured artist in this book!  I thought he was an unorthodox choice; most books would feature an artist along the lines of Da Vinci or Michelangelo.  I would love to see a book that incorporates the art of one of my favorite artists maybe Alphonse Mucha or Maxfield Parrish.  What do you think?  Any artists, obscure or known, you would like to see in the plot of a book?