Review: The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2013. Library copy. NBA Shortlist.

The Plot: Raccoons Bingo and J’miah are the two newest True Blue Scouts of the Sugar Man Swamp, charged to watch over the swamp and in case of emergency, wake the sleeping Sugar Man.

They’ll have to figure out how to wake him, when they realize the Swamp is threatened. Bingo and J’miah think the only threat is the dangerous Farrow Gang, wild pigs who eat and destroy everything in front of them.

Twelve year old Chap Brayburn knows about the other threat: Sonny Boy Beacoup, owner of the Swamp who doesn’t believe in the Sugar Man. Sonny Boy is joining forces with alligator wrestler Jaeger Stitch to build a Gator World Wrestling Arena and Theme Park. Sonny Boy doesn’t care it will destroy the swamp, or that Chap and his mother will be left without a home or a business, or the impact on the sugar that Chap’s mother uses to make her delicious pies. Sonny Boy doesn’t care he’s doing this just after Chap lost his grandfather. Give me a boat load of money, Sonny Boy laughs, and he’ll stop the development.

Grandpa Audie knew the swamp and its creatures better than Sonny Boy ever did. Grandpa Audie even believed in the mysterious, mythical Sugar Man. But Audie is gone, and Chap’s just twelve.

What can do raccoons do? What can a twelve year old do? You’re about to find out.

The Good: I read The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp for one reason, and one reason alone: it was on the National Book Awards shortlist. I read primarily young adult or adult books these days; and I’m not a fan of books about animals.

I am really, really glad that the NBA “made” me read this. (I also wish I had the audiobook version read by Lyle Lovett! I KNOW.)

I quickly fell in love with the raccoons. Appelt creates a whole world and mythology for them that I believed in and enjoyed. And Chap! He’s a great twelve year old. He’s trying his best to do what he can in a really tough situation. One of the things he does? Starts drinking coffee (or rather, trying) and I had to laugh at Chap’s not liking it but feeling he “had” to. Oh, and he takes the “boat load” of money literally by wanting to fill up a small boat with the money he and his mother make off of their fresh sugar pies.

But, what really won me over was the plotting. While the main stories are those of Bingo, J’miah, and Chap, the other characters and their stories are also fully fleshed out. And — eventually — all those various threads come together in one momentous event. When I went back to the start and began rereading, I was delighted to see how some of that was foreshadowed. This is a book I would love to mark up with highlighters and sticky notes, to be able to get a firmer understanding of the genius behind it. It was delightful to see how an event in Bingo’s story overlapped with Chap’s. One example, without being spoilery: as a young man, Audie spent a lot of time in the swamp. He loved the wildlife, taking photos and drawing pictures. He was especially intrigued by the maybe-extinct ivory bill woodpecker. Due to a very bad storm, Audie’s car was lost within the swamp, along with his photos.

Guess what is the home of Bingo and J’miah? If you guessed the car, you’d be right!

Chap’s mother makes her pies out of a very special type of sugar, muscovado sugar, “sweeter than honey, sweeter than maple syrup, sweeter than candied apples.” Do you want to know how badly I want a pie? And do you know how much I love that muscovado sugar is a real live thing? Because, yes, raccoons aren’t really true blue scouts and there is no such thing as a Sugar Man (he’s like Sasquatch or the Yeti), but aside from that, the history and nature in The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp is true. And interesting. (Like the part about wild pigs!)

And the language! Appelt is telling us a story, and it’s written as if someone is indeed telling me a story and there was something that just felt so right about that. Comforting or safe — no, those aren’t the right words. Rather, it was the coziness of feeling as if someone was sitting next to me, sharing. It made the story seem personal; it made it seem mine.

It was tough to pull quotes to fully give the flavor, but here are some I liked:

[The two raccoons] both cracked open their eyes, they both robbed their bellies, they both noticed that the dark was growing thinner, they both reminded themselves that they were, in fact, nocturnal and morning was upon them. They both went right back to sleep. And there you have it, sports fans: two hungry raccoons with hours to go before they ate.

And this, from Chap’s cat: “then again, there was the whole hair ball thing. Humans. They had such weak stomachs.”

That tone! That voice! That humor!

I should point out at this point that while animals are point of view characters, they are always animals. Chap’s cat doesn’t “speak” to him, even though we know it’s thoughts.

This is a Favorite Book of 2013. And friends, since it’s about animals – -that tells you something.

Other reviews: BookEnds, a Booklist blog; The New York Times; Author Interview at SharpRead; Nerdy Book Club.


Review: Ask the Passengers

Ask the Passengers by A.S. King. Little, Brown. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Astrid lives in a small town where everyone knows, or thinks they know, everyone’s business. Everyone judges. So Astrid keeps some things to herself: like that her father is smoking pot. Like how she and her younger sister Ellis are no longer close. Like she’s sure her mother dislikes her.

Like Astrid has been kissing Dee, a girl from work. For months.

Astrid doesn’t even tell her two close friends at school, Kristina and Justin, which is both amusing and sad because Astrid knows their secret, that the popular, well-liked couple are not really a couple, both are gay, and both are covering for each other because being gay in their small,  perfect town would be impossible. Besides, just because Astrid like kissing Dee, it doesn’t mean she’s gay.

So Astrid plays a game, giving love to strangers, staring up at planes and sending love. And the passengers flying over Pennsylvania wonder why suddenly they feel hope, or love, or calmness.

The Good: Oh, such a complicated, complex book, much like Astrid and her family.

Astrid and her family relocated from New York City years before, and A.S. King tells us only what Astrid knows, only what we need to know, but there are threads and hints of things going on beyond what we are told. King also respects the reader to not tidy this story up with a bow. Oh, there is a resolution, yes, and I felt so happy and hopeful finishing this book you’d think Astrid was sending me love from it’s pages.

It’s  not just that somethings remain unknown or unresolved; for example, is the mother agoraphobic? Did they leave New York City for reasons other than a yearning for small town life? So, too, are the relationships not easily resolved. Rather, they remain as messy as they were at the start of the book, just messy in different ways and with more truth-telling and less secrets.

Astrid is struggling not so much with her feelings for Dee, but, rather, what those feelings mean. Is she gay? One of the things I really like about Ask the Passengers is Astrid’s process, not just internally (what she feels) but externally (what she does.) There is reference to a boy Astrid briefly dated (her mother plotted against the relationship because she didn’t like the boy), but not much about that. Astrid isn’t so much uncomfortable with being gay as she is uncomfortable with a label, because, good or bad, she’s seen in her small town the damage any label does to someone, how it limits them.

Dee is a bit more experienced than Astrid, even though they are the same age, and I loved how their dynamic worked. It’s the complications of their being together and it being hidden, but also Astrid not always being on the same page as Dee about just how physical the two should be. It’s awkward and honest and tender, and sometimes Dee is a bit aggressive, but Astrid is no pushover and vocalizes her wants and needs including what she doesn’t want. I loved seeing a couple work through what they were both physically ready for, using words as well as touch and kissing.

I said how Astrid sends love to the passengers she sees in the planes flying above her. I love that, and that image of Astrid, lying on a picnic table and looking up, up not see the planes as escape as others would but instead to share love. To be positive. And I love that every so often, we meet one of those passengers who are on the receiving end of Astrid’s love: where they are going, what is happening, that the burst of love helps in a way Astrid never knows about.

Yes, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews: Someday My Printz Will Come; Abby the Librarian; Presenting Lenore; Stacked (Dual Review); The Book Smugglers; Slatebreakers; Reading Rants.




Review: The Demon’s Surrender

The Demon’s Surrender by Sarah Rees Brennan. Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2011. Book 3 in The Demon’s Lexicon Series. Book One: The Demon’s Lexicon; Book Two: The Demon’s Covenant. Reading anything after this point is spoilers for the rest of the series. Personal copy.

The Plot: Sin and Mae have been named as the two potential future leaders of the Goblin market. For Sin, 16, a fourth generation Dancer in the Market, the Market is her life. Life used to be simple. Her enemies were the Market’s enemies: demons and magicians. Tourists, even her own father, are best kept at arm’s length. Take care of your own: those in the Market and her younger siblings.

How can Mae possibly become a leader when she is just a tourist, even if she is able to Dance up a demon? Plus, Mae’s brother Jamie is a magician in the deadly and ruthless Aventurine Circle. It’s not just magicians Mae seem close to; there are also the Ryves brothers. Know it all Alan, so self righteous, who Sin owes because he saved her baby brother. And Nick . . . Nick, whose handsome exterior masks a demon.

Will Sin win leadership of the Market? Or will she lose everything?

The Good: First things first; yes, this is a series, and yes, these books are best read in order. At this point, please check my prior reviews (links above) for The Demon’s Lexicon and The Demon’s Covenant. The bigger question, with this being the last book in the series, is — is it worth it? Should a reader invest their time in reading this series? The answer, I’m happy to say, is “yes.” Those of you who were waiting because you want to read a series all at once will be richly rewarded with this intricate examination of magic, power, politics, choice, family, and love.

Each of the books in the series uses a different point of view to tell the story: first Nick, then Mae, now Sin. This shift in perspectives not only changes the knowledge and emotions motivating the narrator, it also shifts the story priorities and world-view. The Market as Nick and Mae saw it is different than how Sin sees it. Sin’s loyalty to the Market is so great, she hasn’t told her father about her younger half siblings.

As a born and bred Market girl, Sin often sees the trees and not the whole forest. Sin also has secrets of her own, that risk her future. Sin is a good choice to narrate the third book: it bring the reader into the tight, clannish Market world in a way they weren’t before, because the Ryves brothers were visitors with some knowledge and connections and Mae was a tourist overwhelmed with the newness of it all. It makes sense that now that the reader is more familiar with and comfortable with the Market world, that a Market girl tells the tale. It also increases the stakes of what could be lost if the Market is lost, because Sin — unlike Alan, Nick, Mae and Jamie — has no where else to go.

Sin has many different balls to juggle — sister, daughter, Dancer, friend, potential leader, student — much like Rees Brennan has many plot points that need to be addressed to create a satisfying end to this series. What can I say without spoiling the ending? Rees Brennan takes those threads and weaves a fulfilling and exciting story. Like the previous two books there are twists and turns and much plotting and the reader only knows what Sin knows. What Sin doesn’t know is that she’s in a Sarah Rees Brennan book. I know that not everything is as it looks, and people lie and hold back information. I figured out one twist (one of about, oh, a dozen) and I liked finding out I was right about at least one thing. And wrong about others. Further complicating it are certain things the reader has learned: Alan lies, a lot; and demons like Nick always tell the truth.

Sin and Mae’s relationship was refreshing, because they are two strong-willed, opinionated, ambitious women. It would have been easy to make them enemies, but they are not. They are friends who want the same thing. At times, on Sin’s behalf, I wish she got angrier at Mae. Sin recognizes it is better to have the warmth of friendship than the coldness of enmity. Can I also add that I loved that the Sin/Mae triangle was not a love triangle (who will get the boy?) but a power triangle (who will become leader)?

The Demon’s Surrender, like the two books that came before, is full of action and fight scenes: knives, swords, guns, and, of course, magic. People die; people get hurt. I’m not sure why,but the violence in this book really hit home, seemed more real, even though the earlier books had violent deaths. Maybe it was because Sin was not just fighting, as the others fight, but also protecting: a younger sister and toddler brother who depend entirely on Sin.

Oh, I’ll give one spoiler. There is a love interest for Sin. The unlikely Alan. Unlikely, because while readers of the series have adored Alan since the start (or, at least, this reader), Sin did not. It takes her a bit longer to come around to our side.

Alan, Alan, Alan. I have one critical thing to say about Alan, or, rather, the jacket illustration. I’ve been picturing him as Eric Stoltz (circa Some Kind of Wonderful), so the cover made me go “that’s not MY Alan.” But picture in my head aside, I love the colors and illustration: the burning sky, the London skyline (most of this is set in London), Alan and his bow and arrow that hints of battles to come.

I heartily enjoyed The Devil’s Lexicon trilogy and recommend it for its adventure, action, twists, turns, humor, and romance. Sin is a terrific, conflicted, complex character. For all this (and for how the book ended!), this is one of my Favorite Reads of 2011. I’m looking forward to rereading these books one right after another.

Review: Small As An Elephant

Small As An Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson. Candlewick. 2011. Brilliance Audio. 2011. Narrated by William Dufris. Reviewed from audio from Brilliance.

The Plot: Jack Martel, 11, wakes up on his first day of vacation, hot and worried that he’s overslept. He struggles out of his tent, looks around the camp site and sees — nothing. His mother’s tent is gone; his mother’s car is gone.

His mother is gone.

Jack believes his mother will be back soon. He goes about his day, finds something to eat, plays with some other kids staying at Acadia National Park. But then it’s the next day… and the next day… and Jack realizes his mother isn’t coming back, school is about to start, he has no way to get home to Jamaica Plain and if anyone realizes that his mother is gone, there will be big, big trouble. It’s up to Jack to figure out what to do next.

The  Good: Jack breaks my heart.

Jack loves his mother. She loves Jack; she is fun, inventive, energetic, kind. Sometimes, though, she gets caught up in what Jack calls “spinning.” It’s not the first time she’s left for a couple of days, but before at least he was home, in his apartment, by friendly neighbors. Now he has $14 and not much more than the clothes on his back. And, Jack loves his mother. Another kid would go to the police, tell a grown up, call a grandparent. Not Jack. He is afraid that once he does that, people who don’t understand his mother will get involved and split them up. Jack is afraid of losing her forever and tries to keep it together until she returns.

Jack breaks my heart; at eleven, he is just old enough to take care of himself, or rather, to try to take care of himself. Just old enough to know that if lets any adult know, they will decide he shouldn’t stay with his mother, take him away, maybe lock her up. Jack is also young, just young enough to believe that he can get away with hiding from the attention of adults, that he can somehow make it from Maine to Massachusetts on his own. Young enough that he makes mistakes, like leaving his cell phone in his shorts pocket before going into the water.

I rooted for Jack, and I didn’t want him to be caught even though I knew at some point his journey had to end. As time passed and his mother didn’t return, I knew that what Jack wanted as his happy ending could not happen. As an adult reading this book, I also knew what Jack took the entire book to realize: his mother needed help. Also, as an adult reading the book? I was less kind than Jack, in that I wanted to take his mother and yell at her for leaving her child.

But for the age group for this book? For tweens? They will be making both the emotional and physical journey that Jack makes. They may have an adult in their lives like Jack’s mother, they may not, but they will understand the love and bond between the two.

What readers will also like? That Small as an Elephant grants the deepest wish and fear — of being left alone, of not having a grown up telling you what to do, of being able to take care of oneself. They’ll be impressed with some of Jack’s survival tricks, and may think of things they would do differently.

Review: The Last Little Blue Envelope

 The Last Little Blue Envelope by Maureen Johnson. HarperCollins. 2010. Review from ARC from ALA Midwinter.

The Plot: In Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes, Ginny Blackstone was left thirteen envelopes by her late aunt, resulting in a tour of Europe that pushed Ginny outside her comfort zone and gave her some insight and understanding into the life of her Aunt Peg. Unfortunately, it all ended with the unopened thirteenth envelope was stolen.

It’s a few months later and Ginny is in her senior year, trying to figure out her future as well as to keep living the lessons she learned over the summer. To her surprise, she is contacted by a stranger who has found the stolen envelopes … and a new adventure begins.

The Good: I’m sure I’m not the only one who threw Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes across the room when the last envelope was stolen. ARGH. And while I understood and it made perfect sense for the book, I still was very ARGH about it. So I was pleased as punch when I heard that there was going to be a sequel and my torment would end.

Yes, this is a sequel, so yes, I recommend reading the first book first. I read the first one when it came out and yes, I forgot some of the key points and no doubt my reading experience would have been richer had I reread the book. But, I didn’t, and I still enjoyed it.

Ginny is hilarious. I love her observations and internal commentary on what is happening. From early on in the book: “She looked at the calendar she had made for herself out of sticky notes on the wall next to her desk. Today’s note read: Sunday, December 12: FINISH ESSAY!!!!! NO, SERIOUSLY, THIS TIME FINISH THE ESSAY!!!!! And a few lines down, the due date: January 5. She pulled it off the wall and tossed it into the trash. Shut up, note. She didn’t take orders from anything that had a glue strip.” The whole book is like this; so if you’re looking for smart humor, read The Last Little Blue Envelope. (Which, for some reason, I keep wanting to call The Thirteenth Envelope.)

The mysterious Oliver contacts Ginny about the found letters; he is all and “come to London now if you want your letters back.” Kind of like Aunt Peg was to Ginny: “do what I say in the blue envelopes.” Ginny takes her winter holiday break to go to London, stay with her Aunt Peg’s husband, and, honestly, to see Keith, her “kind of something” flirty-kissy friend she met in the first book. And, yes, to get the envelope. It all turns out to be exactly what Ginny planned… and nothing like Ginny planned. The last envelope contains new directions that send Ginny to a mix of new and old places, and this time she has friends to keep her company. 

By the end of this book, I was resolved to start saving my money immediately to go to London, Paris, Dublin, and the other places Ginny visits. Johnson does a spectacular job of conveying a range of settings, in a way that makes you wish you were there. Except, I wouldn’t stay in hostels. Unless I had my own bathroom and my own bedroom.

Oliver and Keith are two very different, very interesting boys with a realistic mix of good and bad characteristics. Both, at times, do things that make you want to hit them — you know, a back of the head “thwap.” Both, at times, do things that make you go “awwww”. Neither is perfect. To say much more would give away those things I enjoyed learning for myself, so I will leave other readers the joy (and sorrow) of reading it themselves.

One quibble I had about the first book was that the free-spirited, artsy Aunt wanted to shake up her niece’s world and make her niece more free-spirited and artsy and did so by providing specific rules and “to do”s. On one level, it worked in that Ginny is the type of girl who needed that push and needed, well, those specifics. Also, since Aunt Peg wasn’t going to be around to do it in person — to take Ginny on a spontaneous tour of Europe — she was trying to do the next best thing. At the time, I told myself “this is the conceit of the book. Accept it, move along.” Still, it was a bit too “planned spontaneity.”

I was really pleased that halfway through The Last Little Blue Envelope, one of the characters raises some of the exact questions I had: “”Those rules, they were a bit mental.” “Did you ever think that she expected you to break some of them?”Maybe you like all the rules, the backtracking, the games.” I liked someone in text thinking what I had, and also leading me to new answers, such as Aunt Peg knowing Ginny would enjoy the game-aspect of the letters. Ginny didn’t just need that guidance; she wanted it. Aunt Peg knew her niece. And knew how to reach out and give Ginny what she needed and wanted.

I had forgotten how much of the first book was about art, creation of art, and the way an artist looks at the world. Aunt Peg’s last letter to Ginny is as much about giving Ginny a quest as it is about giving Ginny some training and education on art. Actually, I have a theory about that… when more people have read, let’s discuss.

Review: Family

Family by Micol Ostow. Egmont USA. 2011. Reviewed from ARC picked up at ALA.

The Plot: Melinda Jensen is seventeen, lost and broken, looking to be healed. She goes to San Francisco where she is found and made whole by Henry. He is her answer, her salvation, a promise. He brings her into his family, a family of people whose bonds are created not by blood but by wanting to be together. What is more beautiful, what is more healing, what is more hopeful than that?

But blood will come. Because Henry is both more and less than what Mel wants and needs. Eventually she will realize that Henry is broken, that Henry is not giving but taking. What she sees as beauty and healing is a lie. By that time, though, there will be blood and it may be too late.  

The Good: Melinda, Henry, the family. As the publisher’s website explains, Family is a “fictionalized exploration of cult dynamics, loosely based on the Manson Family murders of 1969.”  Ostow uses fiction, verse, repetition and a fractured timeline to help the reader understand  how and why someone could fall under another’s spell so completely that they do things they otherwise wouldn’t. It may use the broad bones of the summer of 1969, but it could any cult, any guru, any strong personality who captivates and betrays.

When Mel meets Henry, she has fled “uncle Jack” and his abuse, and she hasn’t eaten in days. Henry offers coffee, understanding, and shelter as well as drugs and sex. “Henry says there is no before, and He knows how to bring me to the now. He is magic, alchemy. chemistry. soothing serum, an elixir. He offers potions, medicines to break down inside my body, invade my cells. my mind sparks and my limbs loosen.” Already, Henry is “He”. Already, he knows just how to connect to this broken girl.

Make no doubt, Mel is already broken. Upon her arrival in San Francisco, “I was tired, the sort of tired that creeps into your spine. I wanted to sit. no, I wanted more than that: I wanted some sort of infinity.” Henry does not break her, he just takes and gives her what she wants (belonging) while hiding that he is using her and her pain. My own heart breaks for Mel, for how she has been shattered, and knowing how the people she turns to for infinity — Henry and his girls, Leila and Shelly and the others — will betray her, just like her uncle Jack and her mother.

The reader only ever knows Mel’s story. Hints of Henry’s is also given, a story of being sold for a beer — “you wouldn’t believe the sorts of things that some people throw away.” Henry, Mel, all the others, have been thrown away. Shelly had been a stripper when she met Henry. Leila’s smile is “closed and mysterious, like she’d read your diary or visited you in  your dreams at night. like she knew your dirty secrets.” Mel doesn’t know Junior’s story but knows that if he is with the family, with Henry, “he is broken. must be broken.”

On page one, Mel says “I have always been broken,” and on page two “my hands are streaked with blood that is not my own. my hands are streaked with blood, and there is screaming.” Pages are turned with the question not being whether there will be an upcoming slaughter (it will happen, the blood is not her own) but whether Mel will ever be complete enough to stop betraying herself.

When I was younger, I read an excerpt of Child of Satan, Child of God by Susan Atkins in my grandparent’s Readers’ Digest. What I remember most is feeling horror, horror not just at what was done but also the fear of somehow being caught up in such a nightmare as the person doing it, dipping a towel in blood. The terror of losing oneself so completely, and finding oneself doing the unthinkable. Family explores just how a person gets to that point in a way that is devastating.

The book jumps in time, repeating words and paragraphs, reflecting Mel’s own sense of being fractured and trying to make her self and her story complete and whole. Mel at age six, Mel at 12, Mel meeting Henry, Mel and Shelly, Mel and blood, all is jumbled and mixed and twisted and turned, sometimes repeated. Even knowing what is happening, what will happen, what has happened — the blood — the reader hopes against hope that it will not end in blood.

The reader familiar with the Manson Family will no doubt try to see parallels to that story. Henry, of course, is Charlie; is Junior Tex? Is Shelly Sadie or Squeaky or a little of both? Who is Melinda and how far will she go? Fictionalizing the story of the girls who joined the Manson family allows Ostow to look at the greater truth of why someone would voluntarily join such a group, rather than be caught up in the individual stories of the real life young women who lost their futures by following Charlie.  Ultimately, in Family, the answers given are the ones for Mel. Personally, it is hard for me to think of Charles Manson as anything other than Charles Manson. I can look at a photo of Ted Bundy and think, “yes, he was attractive,” but Manson —  no. All I see is someone scary and frightening. Ostow’s Family allows a reader like me to not have a knee-jerk “no” reaction to Henry, because the book, and Mel’s actions, hinge entirely on the reader believing that Mel would believe in Henry. And yes… I believed. I believed Mel would believe.

Because the language is deceptively simple. Because phrases haunt me. Because I want, so desperately, for Mel to find herself. Because I found sympathy for the most unsympathetic actions. Family is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.

Review: White Cat

White Cat (The Curse Workers, Book One) by Holly Black. Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2010. Review copy from publisher. Also listened to the audiobook version, copy from the library.

The Plot: For Cassel Sharpe, 17, life is about family, curses, and the con. His family is full of curse workers — people who with a touch of the hand can curse you. Make you fall in love, invade your dreams, alter your memory, even kill you. Cassel is the lone non-worker in a family of workers.

As Cassel knows from helping his family, all criminals of one degree or another, you don’t have to be a worker to run a con. You don’t have to be a worker for people to be afraid of you. You don’t have to be a worker to kill someone.

When Cassel was 14, he killed his best friend, Lila. The daughter, and heir, of one of the big crime families. His family sent him off to a fancy boarding school, to protect him and to hide him and keep him out of the way. He keeps his hand in the game by doing a little bit of bookmaking.

One night Cassel almost dies: he has slept walked onto the roof of his school while having a disturbing dream about a white cat eating his tongue. He goes home and notices that his brothers are keeping things from him. Is he being kept out of the family’s biggest con because he’s not a worker? Or, even worse — is he being used? Is he being worked?

In a life full of lies, where even memories and emotions can be manipulated, Cassel has to figure out the truth.

The Good: This is an amazing mash-up of genres and I am head over heels in love. Maybe an emotion worker touched me with an ungloved hand while I wasn’t looking, but no, I think my love for White Cat is real and true. It’s difficult enough to write about a con, to write a mystery, to write about the supernatural or the mafia or family or friendship. To write about them all at once? For each to be spectacular? For all of them to be woven together flawlessly into one story? Amazing and impressive.

Any con caper has to balance two competing storytelling techniques: it must be simple enough for the reader to understand, and it must be unpredictable enough for the reader to be surprised. The reader, in a way, is the mark. I confess, the TV show Leverage has spoiled me because it balances these two perfectly, which means that I began White Cat with high expectations. It has to be at least as good as the TV show. Usually, that type of expectation put on a book is a problem and slightly unfair to the book. Not the case here, because White Cat is note-perfect in how it plays the con. In White Cat, the reader feels like they are in on the con, as smart and clever as Cassel and his family, yet as surprised and fooled as any mark when the full con is played out. As a reader, I love having a book not just meet but exceed high expectations.

If the structure of White Cat is a long con, at it’s heart, White Cat is a murder mystery. Did Cassel kill Lila? Why? Will he kill again?

In Cassel’s world, curses are real, and Black has created a realistic, detailed universe that is not just about the logic of curse work but also the consequences of curse work on society and culture. Since a touch of the hand can curse a person, glove wearing becomes the norm. A naked hand in public is a shocking thing; a naked hand in private is the ultimate show of trust. Consequences to curses exist: after a curse, the curse worker experiences blowback. Play with someone’s memory, lose a bit of your own. Cassel’s grandfather is a death worker, and he has lost a finger for each death curse.

All curse work has been banned. At different times, in different places, prejudice and discrimination have resulted in terrible acts against curse workers. Making curse work illegal, which basically criminalizes curse workers themselves, has created and strengthened organized crime. At one time, people feared curse workers because of the ability to cause harm; now, it’s combined with a fear of the criminal world. Cassel’s family is all involved, in one way or another, in crime. His brother Philip has the markings that show he owes his allegiance to one of the big families. These crime families involve themselves in illegal acts beyond curse work, but curse work is used to assist the illegal actions. Being outsiders have created a sense of family amongst workers, but the family activities include murder and drug dealing. White Cat manages to be both sympathetic to the criminals and to paint them in a horrifying, chilling light.

White Cat is also a fascinating take on alternate history. No, really! Cassel’s world is ours. He lives in New Jersey, and the details about Trenton, Princeton, the Pine Barrens all add dimension to the story and make it real. Yet at the same time it’s not our world, because it’s a history where curse workers have always existed and impacted history.

Cassel has been taught that in a world of liars and cons and curses, family is the only thing that matters, the only people who you can trust. After that, well, it’s all just part of the con. “Actually trusting someone when they have nothing to gain from me just doesn’t make sense. All friendships are negotiations of power.” The power, control, and structure of the different criminal worker families demand their own version of loyalty, including loyalty exhibited by the blood and ash of keloid necklaces.

Black’s use of language is delightful. I kept on marking passages, like this one, where Cassel thinks back on his childhood friendship with Lila: “I couldn’t tell if [Lila] hated me half the time, even when we spent weeks hiding under the branches of a willow tree, drawing civilizations in the dirt and then crushing them like callous gods. But I was used to brothers who were fast and cruel and I worshipped her.” Or, this: “I can’t trust the people I care about not to hurt me. And I’m not sure I can trust myself not to hurt them, either.”

Because White Cat explores loyalty and love as Cassel negotiates the criminal and curse workers world and realizes that he cannot trust what he was taught or how he was raised. Because I was up till two in the morning reading it. Because I immediately began reading the sequel, Red Glove. Because Black has created a world and a group of people that has made me care so much, and intrigued me so much, that after I finalize this post I’m off to find the fanfiction to give me a fix until the third book comes out. For all these reasons, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2011 (and is why I don’t limit my favorites to books published in one year!)

I’m not sure I did a good enough job conveying just how much I enjoyed this book. As usual, Reading Rants has a terrific review. And after reading White Cat I promptly began listening to the audiobook version, which gave me an even better appreciation for the scattered clues and delicate plotting.

Review: Rosie and Skate

Rosie and Skate by Beth Ann Bauman. Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House. 2009. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Rosie, 15, and Skate, 16, are left alone in a falling-down Victorian when their dad, a drunk, serves three and a half months for shoplifting.  Their cousin Angie moves in to help out. Rosie, the shyer of the two, goes to meetings and hopes that this time her father stays sober. Skate, more cynical, moves in with her boyfriend’s mother while he’s away at college.  Together and apart, they try to figure out their lives.

The Good: Rosie and Skate is set at the Jersey Shore during the off-season, after all the tourists (cough MTV’s Jersey Shore crowd cough) go home. The author wisely creates her own towns (Ocean Heights High School, Little Mermaid, Sea Cove) while using recognizable landmarks (“Old Barney” (the Barnegat Lighthouse), Asbury Park Press, Ocean County College). It’s just the right mix of grounded details so that someone like me, who is familiar with the area, knows where it is, but just enough freedom for Baumann to create a geography that works for her story. My favorite part? The train Skate takes to Rutgers to visit her boyfriend, Perry. A handful of you are sitting up straight saying, “New Brunswick isn’t on the North Jersey Coast line.” To which I say, Baumann never says Skate doesn’t change trains.

The real shore is the shore after summer ends, when the crowds and tourists go away, the party ends, life returns. What I love about Baumann’s use of an off-season tourist town is it works as a metaphor for the family. The party: the family great grandparents, that could afford to build a beachfront Victorian complete with butler’s pantry. The party: the drinks that warm and make one glowy and happy and dizzy. The season ends; and now the house is falling down and leaking and full of splinters and decay, the rooms shut up, just like Rosie and Skate’s family has come undone, with a dead mother, a father in jail, grandparents summering in Florida, and the sisters not even living together. The season ends; and getting drunk is not the fun laughs, it’s a father passed out on the sun porch and stealing his child’s summer job money from her sock drawer.

Both sisters have been affected by their father’s drinking, but both deny it. Rosie is shy and lonely and wants friendship and love; both to be loved and to love. She awkwardly tries to connect with a classmate, Nick, who she meets an an Alateen-like meeting. Awkward, because she’s not quite sure what to do, how to balance what she needs with what she wants with what is smart.

Skate (really Olivia, but nicknamed for her skateboarding) is in love with Perry, and Perry loves her, but he is now a freshman at Rutgers. Skate lives with Perry’s mother, an understanding woman who gives the motherless Skate just enough support, love and mothering without overwhelming her or chasing her away. Problem is, Julia is also Perry’s mother and Perry, while professing his love for Skate, calls less and less and visits less and less. Julia is in a tough place, wanting what is best for both Perry and Skate, knowing that what is best may not be what makes them happy. Skate reacts the way she reacted to her father being put in jail: running away. Instead of running back to her home, she runs instead to her boss, Frank. Frank is twenty-one and has a line of girlfriends and it is a credit to Baumann that as the friendship between Skate and Frank deepens I never once thought, “eww” or “oh, she’s just looking for a father figure.”

Together, Rosie and Skate are sisters who know they can always depend on each other whether or not they sleep in the same house. They also learn that sometimes, despite what history has taught them, they can depend on other people.

Review: The Things a Brother Knows

The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt. Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House. 2010. Review copy from publisher. 2011 Sydney Taylor Award for Teen Readers.

The Plot: Three years ago, Levi Katznelson’s older brother Boaz surprised his family and friends by announcing that rather than going to college, he was joining the Marines. Boaz has returned from his tour of duty, back from the fighting, back from the war. But is he really back? Boaz spends all his time in his room, communicating more with people online than he does with his family or friends. Levi, seventeen, doesn’t know what to think or do especially because no one wants to say it out loud: that the Boaz who came back is not the same person who left. When Boaz announces his intention to go on a lengthy hiking trip, Levi, concerned about what Boaz isn’t saying, forces himself along on a trip that becomes one of discovery for both brothers.

The Good: The relationship between Levi and Boaz is heartbreaking: before Boaz left, the two brothers were not in an idealized relationship but were typical siblings. It was older brother with his own life, younger brother catching up. As Levi explains at the beginning, “I used to worship him too. All little brothers worship their big brothers, I guess.  . . . Your brother’s  face is one of the first you ever see. His hands are among the first to touch you. You crawl only to catch him.” Boaz leaving, leaving for the military, shifts the family and family dynamics and Levi has been at home with the altered family ever since.

The Katznelsons are part Israeli. Boaz and Levi’s father, Reuben, is an Israeli who was raised in a kibbutz; his father, Dov, moved to Boston to be near his son’s family after his wife died. This adds both depth to the family – Abba’s interactions with his family are impacted by his own upbringing – and layers to how the family reacts to Boaz’s enlistment. Abba moved with his American wife to a Boston suburb before either boy was born. That the Katznelsons come from a family of military service (father, grandfather, and grandmother all served in the Israeli military) doesn’t change that the parents do not embrace Boaz’s choice. Rather, “Abba and Dov said little that night. It was pretty clear where they both stood. Joining up for a war without a clear mission, when it wasn’t part of the price of citizenship in the country we all called home, wasn’t a choice either of them would have made themselves. And they said this later, each in his own way.” Boaz’s girlfriend Christine says bluntly, “that’s not what people like us do. . . . People who have other opportunities. Who get into Ivy League schools.” Levi’s own discomfort over his brother’s choice is both more personal and prescient about what will come: “It wasn’t so much that I had an opinion about the war, or even any understanding of what Boaz was signing up for. It was more that I couldn’t comprehend a distance so far, a change so big, and I was already feeling the change start to happen right there, right then. That night.”

Boaz is now home, locking himself in his room, as his family tiptoes around him, happy he is back yet afraid to ask any questions, reassuring themselves that he got a clean bill of health (including mental health) before he was discharged. One of Boaz’s secrets turns out to be that he refuses to get in a car. When he announces a plan to hike the Appalachian Trail, his mother especially is overjoyed and throws herself into planning and purchasing mode. Levi, who has been keeping an eye on what Boaz does on the computer, knows that the only maps and plans Boaz has is to walk to Washington, D.C. Levi keeps Boaz’s secret but joins him on the walking trip.

Brothers: the brothers of blood. Levi and Boaz. Brothers: the brotherhood of Marines, Boaz and Loren and Jack. Also the brothers of friends (Levi, Zim, Pearl); the brothers of those who have had similar experiences (Boaz and his grandfather Dov), the brothers of family — the Katznelsons. All these links, all these relationships, and also — what do we know about our brothers and ourselves?

I love the Katznelsons. I want to go to Friday dinner at their house. It’s such a layered family. For example, Levi recalls a card game his grandfather Dov taught him and assumes that Dov also played with Boaz, but Boaz says no. It could be that Boaz doesn’t remember, but I think it shows how grandchildren can have unique relationships with a grandparent and they don’t realize it. Levi doesn’t realize that this card game may have been something Dov shared just with him.

While Boaz walks to D.C., he stays with fellow soldiers and the families of soldiers. On the one hand, it is a practical solution, cheap. On the other, it is also a gift. Boaz, whatever his struggles are, came home. His presence in the homes of his brothers is a silent message to those families, a message of prayer and hope: your son will come home.

The Things a Brother Knows also has humor, some of it supplied by Levi’s two best friends, Zim and Pearl. Pearl breaks up with someone for using the word penultimate wrong. Pearl puts on a two-year-old mix CD she made and quickly stops it, saying “Jesus, I had bad taste at fourteen.”. When Levi prepares for his trip, his best friend Pearl asks him to tell her what he packed. “It’s kind of like porn for girls.” Funny but true, at least for me!

Review: The Piper’s Son

The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta. Candlewick. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Tom was aiming for oblivion and he got it. Along with ten stitches, and a concussion, and Francesca Spinelli, who used to be his friend, staring at him in the hospital room, staring not in judgment, but worse, with compassion and empathy. Five years ago, would anyone have guessed that the tight group of friends and family that surrounded Tom would become so fragmented and distant?

But that was before. Before a bomb killed his uncle, not leaving a body to be buried. Before his mother and younger sister left. Before his father started drinking too much. Before his father left. He would see his friends and it would be all tears and crying and Tom didn’t want that and so he dropped out of university, dropped his friends, found flatmates who didn’t care, and found that weed dulled his senses, and helped him to not remember. “And suddenly the room is spinning and when he hits the ground, headfirst off the that table, his life doesn’t flash before his eyes because Tom can’t remember his life. Can’t remember the last year, anyway.”

Now his flatmates have thrown him out and the only place he can go is his Aunt Georgie’s who has her own problems. At work, he’s forced into seeing those people who used to be his friends.

Slowly, Tom and Georgie discover that even though people and friendships and family can be broken, they can be mended.

The Good: The Piper’s Son left me breathless with heart pounding — it is a beautifully written love song about the flaws and strengths of family and the long journey of grief, about the love and laughter and disappointments that tie people together.

Marchetta weaves together two stories: Tom, just entering his twenties, floating through his life because what he loved, what he valued, is gone. What isn’t gone he threw away, better to leave it behind than risk the hurt of more loss. Georgie, twenty years older, is single and pregnant with mainly Tom for support. If Jellicoe Road was a puzzle, and Finnikin of the Rock a rough immersion into an unknown world, The Piper’s Son is an onion, something known but full of layers and secrets.

From the first pages, we know Tom’s hurts: “memory taunts him and he’s back at the cemetery where they’re burying his uncle in an empty grave” and “that was a world before dropping out of uni and parents splitting and two nights of everything with a girl whose face you can’t get out of your head and relationships falling apart and favorite uncles who used to call you Tom Thumb being blown to smithereens on their way to work on the other side of the world.” Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son…. Tom is hurt and hurts others. He admits he can be a bit of a bully.  He gets angry. He can use words, use them cruelly. He can lash out. Tom is not a perfect young man, but he is real — he’s the boy you pass on the street.

For the next 300 pages, the layers of Tom’s life are explored, the past years, to feel the hurt as if it happened the day before. All of these events are safely in Tom’s past, if any loss can ever be safe or in the past, so Marchetta can concentrate on the heart of the matter — not what one does in the first hour, the first week, the first month, but how one lives the rest of their life. It’s also about how nothing happens in isolation. This is not just about Uncle Joe’s death. It is also about how Tom’s father, his hero, the “piper” who was the leader of his friends and family, proceeded to disintegrate and fall apart, not because Joe died (how easy an answer that would be!) but because we are all the sum of our lives, not one incident or day, and the “piper” was not as strong as everyone liked to believe No, needed to believe.

Sharon Hancock, Executive Director of School & Library Marketing for Candlewick, says “no one does families like Marchetta.” The Piper’s Son is about families, three generations, of love and hurt. Tom’s family is not idealized or romanticized, but it is real with its angers and hurt and also love and laughter and support. Healing from loss isn’t easy, and it can be selfish, and that selfishness can keep others at arms-length which just creates more rifts. We know the plot going in: what happened in Tom’s life over the last few years and that this book will be about him putting his life back together as he restores relationships with friends and family. While “will Tom get the girl back?” may be a bit of a page-turner, the real reason for turning the page is the deep, complex, familial relationship explored in these pages, including the family that is made from good friendships. For all their flaws and sorrows, a reader cannot help but fall in love with the entire Finch-Mackee clan and want to be part of that family.

Halfway through the book there is a fight between Georgie and her mother, one that is about “now” and “then” and Georgie reminds her mother of something said years ago, “That’s what you said to me and those words killed me more than anything.” Her mother replies, “Oh, you’re a cruel girl, Georgie, to remember that over everything else.” That, there, is the brilliance of Marchetta: in two sentences she shows a lifetime of hurt, and continuing hurt, and misunderstandings,  in a family.

Georgie’s story– OK, I’ll admit that part of the reason I loved Georgie’s story is I’m an adult in the same age bracket as Georgie. Georgie’s story is a bit of a surprise, with a few more twists than Tom’s. Georgie is pregnant and single. Her brother Dominick, Tom’s father, her twin, had been the leader of a group of friends whose friendship goes back almost twenty years: Dom and his now estranged wife; Lucia, her husband, her sister; and other friends, Jonesy and Sam. Sam…  Georgie’s ex. Georgie may be older than Tom, but hurts are hurts and age does not give wisdom in terms of how to handle love and betrayals and reunions and what does forgiveness really mean, anyway? What is the reality of day to day living it, rather than just saying it?

This is a book about love — so yes, there is healing and the hurt that comes from healing but it is also about love. Love between family, between friends, between lovers. So there is love and tenderness also; and there is laughter, from sibling jokes (an email is signed “love, the better-looking sibling“) and teasing to laugh out loud moments.

What age is The Piper’s Son for? Tom and his friends are in their early twenties, still at university (or having dropped out of university). Georgie and her friends are in their early forties. Is this is a young adult book or an adult book? Both. This is the perfect crossover book, to be bought and shelved in both the adult and teen fiction sections of the library and bookstore. The readers of young adult books are getting older, into their early twenties. For those still in their teens? The appeal is Tom and his story of being broken and put together. It doesn’t matter that he is 21 and not 15. Does a sixteen year old want to read about someone just a few years older, to see that the “real life” of post-high school is complex and messy? I say yes. I also say Georgie will be of interest, because she may sound older (and, well, she is) but for all her years she is dealing with an unexpected pregnancy, handling both as wisely and poorly as any teen mother. I think, also, that teen readers are smart enough to want a book that shows adult lives as being as messy and full as their own.

Every now and then, someone complains about parents not being in young adult books. The Piper’s Son gives a whole extended family: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles. To make those adults real, and not caricatures of either good or evil, they come with their own stories, their own strengths and weaknesses and flaws. Does the inclusion of adults as something other than villain or saviour make that book one just of adults? I don’t think so. If anything, it tells the teen — your family is normal. It’s not just you. No family is “normal” or “typical.” Here, in The Piper’s Son, is the story of one family. Are teenagers interested in books about families, when they are at a time and place in their lives to begin to realize “not all families are like mine”? I say yes.

The Piper’s Son is a companion, a sequel of sorts, to Saving Francesca. Francesca, the main character in Saving Francesca, is one of Tom’s group of friends. Tom was a character in Saving Francesca, but not a main one. The Piper’s Son takes place about five years after Saving Francesca, and stands alone quite nicely. Because Tom hasn’t seen some of his friends for a year or so, he is getting re-introduced to them in a way, so the reader is also getting introduced to them.  For those who haven’t read Saving Francesca, I find the covers and descriptions don’t do it justice. It’s a book about depression, really; about finding oneself; and about how one thinks they see things and how they really are can be two different things.

The Australian cover is quite different from the US one; I guess I should add that Tom is a musician and playing and singing music is one of those things that connected him to his family and friends, so, of course, it is one of the things he abandoned.