Review: Bossypants

Bossypants by Tina Fey. Reagan Arthur Books, an imprint of Little, Brown. 2011. Audiobook narrated by Tina Fey (Little, Brown 2011). Listened to audiobook, borrowed from the library. Vacation reads (aka, when I talk about books for grownups and post them before holidays. St. Patrick’s Day counts.)

It’s About: Tina Fey writes about her life.

The Good: Tina Fey writes about her life. Or, rather, in this case because it’s an audiobook, Tina Fey talks about her life, so it was like I was carpooling with Tina Fey for a week and she never shut up and it was AWESOME.

It’s Tina Fey’s book, goshdarnit, so she writes what she wants to — about different things in her life, primarily about her career but also some personal anecdotes as well. This is not a linear autobiography, but rather a story of a journey to being the creator and star of 30 Rock.

So, yes, this is funny; and it shows the path to where she is now. You want some laughs, you want to find out how she got into the TV business, you’ll enjoy this book.

I wasn’t going to read this book; oh, yes, I appreciate Tina Fey’s work, but it’s not like I was a fangirl. Then Sophie Brookover told me I had to read this, not just read but listen to Bossypants, because of what Tina Fey says about gender and being a working woman and working hard and being accomplished and sexism. And, well, when Sophie tells you to something, you do it.

And now I am a fangirl. Because yes, Tina Fey is funny and I laughed myself silly but even better, Tina Fey is smart and observant and knows how to explain just what is wrong and why and what to do about it, about work and life and feminism and careers and everything. And much as I loved carpooling with Tina Fey, now I want to buy the book so I can mark it up for all the quotes I’m going to be using forever.

Don’t waste your energy trying to educate or change opinions; go over, under, through, and opinions will change organically when you’re the boss. Or they won’t. Who cares? Do your thing, and don’t care if they like it.” This, this, this. Who cares. Just do. your. thing.  Note she’s not saying to be quiet, she’s not saying not to do your stuff, she’s saying don’t waste energy on closed ears and don’t let that stop you from your path. Tina Fey (I’m sorry, we’re not friends so I cannot call her Tina) also makes terrific points about women being bosses: not because women are better or smarter or more compassionate but because being the boss means you can do your thing.

And this: ““My unsolicited advice to women in the workplace is this. When faced with sexism, or ageism, or lookism, or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: “Is this person in between me and what I want to do?” If the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people that way. Then, when you’re in charge, don’t hire the people who were jerky to you.” Of course, the trick here is determining whether the person is indeed between me and what I want to do. And note again, the reason to be in charge — to control who you work with. Or who you don’t.

And this, about the falseness and reality of competition: ““This is what I tell young women who ask me for career advice. People are going to try to trick you. To make you feel that you are in competition with one another. “You’re up for a promotion. If they go for a woman, it’ll be between you and Barbara.” Don’t be fooled. You’re not in competition with other women. You’re in competition with everyone.”

And, finally, (and finally only because otherwise I’d be quoting the entire book) when someone talks to you in a way that is demeaning, insulting, or bullying (her context is being called the c-word but I think it works in other areas): “A coworker at SNL dropped an angry c-bomb on me and I had the weirdest reaction. To my surprise, I blurted, “No. You don’t get to call me that. My parents love me. I’m not some Adult Child of an Alcoholic that’s going to take that shit.”

So. Yes. Read this book. And of course it’s a Favorite Book Read in 2013.


Review: The Unseen Guest

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: Book 3, The Unseen Guest by Maryrose Wood, illustrated by Jon Klassen. Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2012. Review copy from publisher. Website for the book (with games, etc.) Book 1: The Mysterious Howling; Book 2: The Hidden Gallery.

The Plot: The three Incorrigible children (Alexander, Beowulf and Cassiopeia) and their governess, Miss Penelope Lumley, have returned from their London adventure and are happily ensconced in Ashton Place. Nothing ever remains safe and comfortable for these four, and unexpected guests of both the animal and human kind lead to new adventures and new questions about their mysterious origins.

The Good: I just love how smart the Incorrigible Children books are. The words, the references, the allusions, all of it. This book alone mentions dodos, derbys (the race and the hat), pince nez, ostriches, Edgar Allan Poe, rhetorical questions, puns, and synonyms.

If a reader stumbles upon this without having read the first two, there will be no confusion; Wood handily explains the premise: children raised by wolves now being raised by teen governess whose own parents abandoned her at a girls’ school. They will enjoy this one so much they will go back to read the first two; and, based on how carefully crafted and well-structured these books are, as a series, that reader will probably pick up on clues to the origins of the Incorrigibles and Penelope that the in-order readers like myself missed.

The unexpected guests are Lord Ashton’s widowed mother Hortense, her fiance, Admiral Faucet, and Faucet’s ostrich. The ostrich, the basis of Faucet’s several money-making schemes, has escaped and must be tracked down and found. Faucet wants to find it alive; Ashton, the hunter, wants it dead so he can place it amongst his other trophies. Faucet recruits the Incorrigibles to his cause, using them because their skills at tracking are superb. The scenes of Miss Lumley preparing for the expedition are hilarious, as her “must have” lists basically mean bringing all the comforts of home with them.

I could make this entire post quotes from the book; I’m showing my restraint by avoiding those that are too spoilery, or need to be read in context. Here is one that makes sense no matter what: “ a person who had recently made an error herself, and had gone to the trouble of correcting it, [Miss Lumley] knew better than to expect other people to be perfect at all times.”

Also fun? All the sayings of Miss Angela Swanburne, the founder of the school that Miss Lumley attended. Has anyone put together a site just of her sayings? Here are to classics: “new boots never fit as well as old” and “patience can untangle the knottiest shoelace, but so can a pair of scissors.”

The background mystery of these books — the origins of the children and Miss Lumley herself — continues to move forward. It does so at a slow pace; a few hints revealed, with the reader often guessing more than the characters. When the Incorrigibles go on their expedition, they gleefully recall their pre-Ashton Place days of living in a cave. With quilts and sandwiches. Sandwiches, Miss Lumley asks? The children laugh at Miss Lumley’s ignorance; of course, sandwiches! There are also the wolves, and the encounter with the wolves and the hints of other wolfish things continue to pile up.

Because this series continues to be smart, funny, and respects the readers; because I have no idea what the mystery concerning the Incorrigibles and Lumley will end being; because Miss Lumley is so brave and proper and smart, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: Educating Alice; YA Librarian Tales; Compulsive Reader (guest post); Good Books and Good Wine (guest post).

Maryrose Wood went on a Blog Tour for this book earlier this year; a complete list of stops is at her blog, at Did you miss the Incorrigible Blog Tour? Here are the links.

Review: The Hidden Gallery

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 2: The Hidden Gallery by Maryrose Wood, illustrated by Jon Klassen. Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. 2011. Reviewed from copy from publisher. Sequel to The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1: The Mysterious Howling.

The Plot: The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1: The Mysterious Howling introduced readers to fifteen year old Miss Penelope Lumley, intrepid governess and recent graduate of  the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, along with her three young charges, the Incorrigibles. The three children had been raised by wolves (no, really) and Miss Lumley was hired to civilize them and teach them Latin.

Miss Lumley and young Alexander, Beowulf, and Cassiopeia now venture off to London, armed with a slightly-odd Guide Book. How much trouble can they get into, really? The three children wear their clothes, do their lessons, and only start howling when there is a reason to, such as the moon or a tempting squirrel. That incident at the Christmas ball — well, best not talked about, right?

It turns out that London has secrets of its own; or, rather, is an occasion for Penelope and her three charges to discover secrets about themselves.

 The Good: This series is so much fun! Penelope is a hoot and a half, especially because half the time she doesn’t quite realize either she or the children are funny. Or maybe she does? Here, from the start, as she begins her discussion with Lady Constance, the young, spoiled, and often ignored wife of the rich Lord Aston: “”Pardon me, Lady Constance,” she said, in the same soothing voice she used to calm the Incorrigibles when they were in the presence of a small, tasty rodent, or during a full moon, or when they had gotten worked up over a particularly thrilling bit of poetry.”

Incorrigible Children falls under the “better to read in order, but doesn’t hurt if you don’t” category. Each book, so far, has a standalone plot: The Hidden Gallery is primarily about the children’s London adventure, just as The Mysterious Howling was about Penelope and the children getting acquainted. However, there is a series mystery going on: the origins of both Penelope and the Incorrigibles. Tantalizing clues are given: after Penelope stops using the school-issued hair “tonic,” her hair color changes to one more resembling that of the three children. One character shows an odd reaction to the new moon.

Part of the brilliance of this series and the writing is just how all-ages it manages to be: Penelope is a teen, and she does have responsibilities appropriate for her age and role as a governess. She takes good care of Alexander, Beowulf, and Cassiopeia and does her best to teach them. At other times, she acts younger, such as with her continuing obsession with the Giddy-Yap, Rainbow! series about the pony-crazed Edith-Anne. This makes Penelope the perfect main character for kids (including tweens or younger teens) who want to read about teenagers. And even those who may find Penelope too young won’t find the narrator too young. The humor is the type that works on two levels, like a great kid’s movie: funny enough for those who don’t get the jokes, even funnier for those who do. There is a play on words with matador/minotaur/metaphor that was brilliant.

The Incorrigibles in London had me laughing out loud. Penelope’s former teacher and mentor, Miss Mortimer, sends her Hixby’s Lavishly Illustrated Guide to London: Complete with Historical Reference, Architectural Significance, and Literary Allusions. It is howling good fun, especially as the illustrations are all of wildflower meadows and snowcapped mountain peaks. Is it good as a guide, though, especially when the directions to the zoo are “The way to the zoo your nose will tell, [f]or elephants are not hard to smell“? As for any more plot detail, well, part of the fun is seeing the trouble that these four manage to get into, despite the best intentions.

And did I mention the pirates? Oh yes, pirates.

I’m happy I waited to read Book 2 until Book 3 came out, because now I can dive right into The Unseen Guest.

Other reviews: Emily Reads; Book Nut; Eva’s Book Addiction.

Review: Carter’s Big Break

Carter’s Big Break by Brent Crawford. Hyperion. 2010. Brilliance Audiobook. 2011. Narrated by Nick Podehl. Reviewed from audiobook from Brilliance.

The Plot: Will Carter survived his freshman year — he’s got his friends, he’s got his girl, and he even passed all his classes. Sweet! What could be sweeter? How about starring in a movie? You heard me right! In this sequel to Carter Finally Gets It, Carter finds himself starring in in a movie with teen sweetheart, Hilary Idaho.

The Good: Carter, Carter, Carter. As with the first book, I listened to the audiobook narrated by the brilliant Nick Podehl. Podehl does such a terrific job of channeling Carter that I sometimes thought I was carpooling to work as the book played. He captures Carter’s attitude, his bravado, his sweetness, and his general, inevitable tendency to be a total dumbass. Just as important, Podehl had me laughing so hard I was crying. Carter is — well, he’s a teenage boy. He sometimes talks before he thinks. Acts before he thinks. He is often clueless. But, underneath the friendly insults with his friends and his fumbling romance with Abby, he is a good, sweet boy (who would hate me saying so).

I was a little hesitant about the sequel, because it seemed to be a literary equivalent of  The Brady Bunch Hawaiian Bound. Carter’s strength is that he is a typical teenage boy in a typical suburb. Really, I wondered, does it have to have that, well, surrealness added to what is otherwise a very grounded in reality book? Silly me; I  should have paid more attention to the author’s website. See, here’s the thing: Brent Crawford is an actor. Carter’s Big Break is full of details that show Crawford knows the business, and not just from sitting in a movie theatre watching a film. His portrayal of teenage actors and producers and others related to movie making further reflect his insider’s knowledge. At the same time, Crawford doesn’t take the business too seriously; part of the fun is Carter screwing up and the movie director misinterpreting and believing Carter is the next Daniel Day-Lewis or Marlon Brando.

Carter lives in the type of town where a bunch of teenage boys get on their skateboards and bikes and don’t come home until dinner. Despite the Hollywood in this book, the best moments are still ones about friendship, about Carter’s family, about his love for Abby. About Carter’s tendency to do and say the absolute wrong thing. While listening to Podehl, it was easy to picture Carter and his friends — so easy, that I began to wish that these books would be turned into a TV series.

Because sometimes, you just need to laugh so much it hurts. Because Carter is like so many teens, trying to be tough and mature and to know all the answers. Because at the end of the day, there is a bit of dumbass in each of us. This is a Favorite Book  Read in 2011.

Review: Jenna & Jonah’s Fauxmance

Jenna & Jonah’s Fauxmance by Emily Franklin & Brendan Halpin. Walker Books for Young Readers, a division of Bloomsbury Publishing. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Who doesn’t love the hit TV show, Jenna & Jonah’s How to Be a Rock Star? It’s on the Family Network, and it’s so fun, especially how Jenna and Jonah are next door neighbors who fall in love and also are rock stars! Their songs are just so fab! And isn’t it cute how Charlie Tracker, who plays Jenna, and Fielding Withers, who plays Jonah, are dating each other in real life! I know all about it because I’ve seen the photos in Celeb Weekly.

Meet Charlie and Fielding. It seems like these two teens have it all; at seventeen, the world is theirs! Well, if you ignore the fact that Charlie has been legally emancipated for two years, when at age fifteen she found out that her parents had spent all her money. Fielding’s on his own, also, since his parents are back home in Cincinnati, believing at seventeen he’s old enough to be on his own. Luckily, they both have their agents — the same agents who concocted the idea, years ago, for Charlie and Fielding to be a “real” couple. Yep, it’s a fauxmance for the sake of cameras and photographers and publicity.

Darn, you just cannot believe anything you read or see.

By the way — Fielding’s real name? Aaron Littleton.

The Good: Confession: I like TV. Further confession: I’m equal opportunity in my viewing, and I’ve been known to watch both movies and TV shows aimed at teens and tweens. Further, further confession: I subscribe to People and Us Magazine, and have been known to read TMZ.

In other words…. Franklin & Halpin wrote this book just for me. Which, actually, is a bit dangerous because, being as I respect the shows and the actors, I’m not going to accept the easy laugh, the mocking, the making fun. A shallow look at the television industry just won’t do for me. Luckily for all of us, Franklin and Halpin address the issues of teen stardom, publicity, acting, talent, professionalism, entertainment, and celebrity with equal parts humor, respect, and cynicism.

Charlie and Fielding are in musical sitcom aimed at tweens; they’ve grown up on TV. Charlie was born and raised in the industry and doesn’t want to be know as a former child actress; Fielding doesn’t know what he wants, but he sees how hard his blue collar father works and realized the best thing to do was save his acting money so he’d have financial security to do whatever comes after teen stardom. Part of what makes their show popular is the belief that the actors behind it — Charlie and Fielding — are a couple, just like their characters. Truth is, the aren’t a couple and can barely stand each other. I loved the parts where Charlie and Fielding go on fake-dates that maximize their brand and appeal: go to the open food market and buy strawberries together! Go to dinner and order carefully selected meals; Fielding is a vegetarian in real life, but that won’t do for the fans, so he’s forced to order meals he doesn’t eat. I loved this look into lives on the other side of the camera, and wondered how much was the result of research and how much was over the top. For example, I can believe the pre-arranged photo ops, the restrictions against the teens getting drastic haircuts or tattoos, but limiting their ice cream choices?

It doesn’t take too long for the carefully constructed farce to come crashing down and Charlie and Fielding flee to a safe, remote house. While there, Fielding slowly reclaims his name, Aaron, and the two begin to be honest with themselves and each other.

I enjoyed the Hollywood and acting background, but the heart of this story is the layered romance between Charlie and Aaron. They are two teens playing teens who like each other playing teens who like each other. The faking has been going on so long that neither is aware of what their real feelings are; much like how both have been doing sitcom acting for so long, they’re not sure if they really have any talent as actors. This is a bickering romance book, much like Much Ado About Nothing, a play that figures prominently in the plot. The “we argue as if we hate each other but really don’t” plot can be hard to pull off; Franklin and Halpin do a terrific job of conveying the tension between Charlie and Aaron that masks their deeper emotions. Since the two teens were forced to “fake it” years ago, any initial feelings of something more being possible between them was never given the freedom to develop. Plus, there’s the model of Shakespeare’s famous Benedick and Beatrice. Finally, the book is told in alternating chapters so the reader knows first hand that Charlie and Aaron are conflicted about their complex feelings for each other.

Bottom line: this is a fun book! Charlie and Aaron know each well enough to push each other’s buttons and I enjoyed their verbal sparring. I loved the look at what life may be like for tween and teen stars caught up in the Hollywood machine; and I liked the inclusion of people who love acting so much they do Goblin 3: Son of Goblin to help subsidize participation in Shakespeare Festivals. Summer may be over, but it’s always time for a fun beach read like Jenna & Jonah’s Fauxmance.

Review: Beauty Queens

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray. Scholastic Press. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from ALA.

The Plot: A plane full of teen beauty queens crashes on a remote tropical island.

No, really.

The Good:  What I’m fast appreciating about Libba Bray is that she’s always doing something different as an author; but, each time, it’s awesome. It’s like she’s the Meryl Streep of authors. Without the accents. Wait, Gemma Doyle was British so I guess maybe that counts? Anyway, so far Bray has given us a historical fiction lush with fantasy; a road trip that explores life, death, and spirituality; and now a satire about commercialism, beauty, and modern priorities and pirates. What’s next, westerns? (Actually, I know the answer is the Roaring Twenties. But still.)

Here’s the short pitch: America’s Next Top Models plus Lost multiplied by Arrested Development.

There will be quoting. Because Bray’s writing is humorous and biting and insightful, and because the best way to know if you’ll like her style is, well, by reading it. There is a plane crash, but don’t worry! The book begins, “A Word From Your Sponsor. This book begins with a plane crash. We do not want you to worry about this.  . . .  But there are survivors. You see? Already it’s a happy tale. They are all beauty queen contestants. . . . Such a happy story. And shiny, too. This story is brought to you by The Corporation: Because Your Life Can Always Be Better (TM).” Now you know: an arch tone, slightly over the top, and from the start satire about consumerism and the companies that convince is that if we just buy that terrific button down white shirt, our lives will be better. (They won’t? But I bought the shirt already!)

The crash happens in the prologue (“the pilots and copilot, whose names are not important to our tale, are trading stories with each other“) and Chapter One stars with Adina Greenberg (Miss New Hampshire) opening her eyes. Adina is a journalist and she, like us, at first views her fellow dozen-odd survivors as simply pageant girls: “the waving goddess stood outlined by the smoking metal wing as if she were a model in a showroom of plane wreckage. She was tall and tanned, her long blond hair framing her gorgeous face in messy waves. Her teeth were dazzling white.” “I want to pursue a career in the exciting world of weight-management broadcast journalism. And help kids not have cancer and stuff.” “They were both artificially tanned and beach-blond, with the same expertly layered long hair.”

As Beauty Queen progresses, the teenagers turn out to be more than Adina thinks. Taylor (Miss Texas) may eat, breathe, and drink the pageants, but she is also a leader, an organizer, and has some very interesting military skills thanks to her her general father. When days pass with no hope of rescue, it is Taylor who digs up a grub because “it’s packed with protein. My daddy says his unit had to survive on these for a whole month once.” And then — to cement her leadership status — Taylor gets Adina to be the first person to eat a grub. Shanti (Miss California) turns out to have written her junior thesis on “micro forming and sustainable agriculture. I could come up with some plans for planting a garden and constructing an irrigation system. And I know how to make a system for drinking water.” It’s like Gilligans Island, with the teens each a mixture of Ginger and the Professor.

Bray shares with us what Taylor, Adina, Shanti and the other contestants are thinking: their fears, their motivations, what being in the pageant and succeeding means to them. The reader, the other contestants, and the young women themselves begin to see themselves, and each other, as more than the “nice, happy, shining, patriotic girls” the pageant showcases. What is terrific about Beauty Queens is that it does so with respect and without trashing the contestants. It trashes the pageant system, yes. Beauty Queen‘s satire also targets commercialism and the way things are sold, reality TV, and overuse of PowerPoint.

I adore this type of humor; but like rich chocolate, for me it was best read over several days instead of all at once. And it’s a humor that masks some deeper issues and observations. The tag line to one of the commercials for breast implants? “Breast in Show. Because “you’re perfect just the way you are” is what your guidance counselor says. And she’s an alcoholic.” It’s not all deep — there is also this very serious warning about dolls: “But you should not put anything on a pedestal, least of all dolls who watch you while you sleep, waiting to suck the breath from  your lungs.”

And I still haven’t talked about how Beauty Queens is also about ambition, and friendship, and what happens when a bunch of reality TV pirate hunks show up, and sex and sexuality and race and gummi bears.

Because it’s Libba Bray. Because beauty queens are so much more than pretty faces. Because there are footnotes. Because there is romance. Because there is happy ever after, and hopeful ever after, and happiness isn’t about being all coupled up. Beauty Queens is one of my Favorite Books Read in 2011.

Links: Bray uses footnotes in Beauty Queen; so Melissa Rabey at Librarian by Day uses them for her review. Reading Rants calls it Lord of the Flies meets classic 90210.

Review: Hold Me Closer, Necromancer

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer. Lish McBride. Henry Holt & Co. 2010. Copy borrowed from friend.

The Plot: Sam is your typical slacker — college drop out, working at a fast food restaurant to pay the bills for his tiny apartment, hanging out with his friends. Until the day he accidentally breaks the headlight on a Mercedes while playing potato hockey with his best friends, Ramon and Brooke. The car owner goes from angry at the damage to downright scary as he asks Sam who gave him permission to live in Seattle and why he hasn’t consulted the Council.

With that chance encounter, Sam starts finding out secrets — secrets he didn’t know about, secrets he didn’t want to know about. Sam thought Seattle and his world was normal. Turns out, it’s full of supernatural beings including necromancers. Turns out, Sam is one of those beings — he’s a necromancer. As in talking to and raising the dead.

The Good: As I explained in The Freak Observer, the Morris Shortlist books should be on your must-read list just because. If you need more than the equivalent of my saying “because I told you so,” for Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, know this: as the title indicates, it’s funny! Sam and his friends may be slackers, but they know how to quip. This book gives you supernatural, horror, humor, and even a touch of romance. It’s also done with wonderful style: Sam tells his story in first person, and other parts of the story are told in third person subjective, so you get inside their heads, their thoughts, their memories and background but without the same type of immediacy and closeness that Sam’s story gives you. The structure is also fabulous, with McBride quickly creating Sam’s “normal” world and then just as quickly introducing the supernatural, and just as the reader is processing the “new” of it all it switches to a  more knowledgeable point of view. This provides the reader with more context and background than Sam has, and offers great world-building.

What else? This book has crossover appeal for your adult readers of supernatural and horror.

Alright, so for all of you who don’t like spoilers, that should be enough to get you going. Go, read, and then return, because there will be spoilers. Oh, and there is an excerpt at the publisher’s website.

As explained above, Sam finds out there is more to his world — witches, necromancers, werewolves, fey, vampires, well, you get the picture.

What fascinates me (and makes me angrier than Sam, but that’s OK) is it turns out that his mother has known this, known many things all along, and kept it from Sam. It’s actually a classic parent move — withhold information to protect a child from being hurt, yet by never telling the child more damage happens. Here, long story short, Sam’s mother was aware of his otherness. I KNOW. And, honestly, I’m happy that Sam is shown as so close to his mother to forgive her but his not knowing means that when the big bad showed up? Sam was unprepared. I could deal with that. But then the big bad killed one of Sam’s good friends, and while Sam doesn’t blame his mother for that, I DO. Because I’m that type of reader. What this means from the book point of view is that McBride has created such engaging, flawed characters that I am getting mad at people who aren’t real. And getting mad for the best possible reason — because the characters are real and I have invested in all of them, including Sam, his mother, and his dead friend.

The secret leads to another strength of Necromancer. It’s all tied together. Sam’s floating, feeling disconnected, being, well, a slacker isn’t just because, well, he’s a slacker. As he realizes late in the book, if such an important part of himself was hidden, denied, unknown, no wonder he always felt as if he didn’t belong! So note that while this book is a funny as hell horror story, it is also classic coming of age — discovering oneself and accepting responsibility, with an emphasis on needing to understand and accept oneself fully in order to have a whole, integrated life. That the story comes with a talking head and a hot naked half-fey half-were hound girl in a cage is just extra goodness.

Finally, I love that Necromancer stands alone. Much as I love series, I also love not having to wait for a second (third, fourth, fifth…) book to find out what happens and to wrap up the story. That said, McBride has created such an interesting world that there could easily be other stories set in it, including stories about Sam as he learns more about his abilities. And, as Sam himself says near the end, “I froze. No corpse? Not good. No corpse meant he could still be around. Anyone who has ever watched a soap opera or a slasher flick knows that.” Thank you, Lish McBride, for that, because I am so tired of people in books and films and TV who don’t know that!

A Favorite Book Read in 2010 because: humor, supernatural,and  horror, all while balancing humor and a dead-serious plot.

Review: The Ring of Solomon

The Ring of Solomon: A Bartimaeus Novel by Jonathan Stroud. Disney Hyperion Books. 2010. Reviewed from unedited version from publisher.

The Plot: Jerusalem, 950 B.C.E. King Solomon (yes, that King Solomon) rules Israel with wisdom and strength. And a ring — a ring that gives him unbelievable powers. King Solomon controls Israel, including the magicians of his court. Magicians control djinni. One of those magicians has a djinni named Bartimaeus.

The Good: I’m addressing this to three different readers. Sort of like choose your own adventure! First, new readers to this series; next, members of awards/lists committees; finally, people who have read the other books in the series.

New Readers: In The Ring of Solomon’s world of magic, magicians bind djinni and other creatures to do their bidding. Bartimaeus is one of those djinni, summoned to do a master’s bidding. Djinni are rarely willing conspirators; elaborate spells and ceremonies are required to both summon and bind them and one misstep by a magician frees the djinni. The djinni are not happy to be summoned and commanded, so those missteps usually don’t end well for the magician. Usually the magician ends up eaten. So there is danger and risk in magic. The djinni do have some free will. With Bartimaeus, that means he is snarky, looks out for number one (that would be himself) and always tries to figure a way out of serving his current magician. Oh! And whatever you do, don’t call a djinni a demon. It’s rather insulting.

In The Ring of Solomon, Bartimaeus serves a magician who serves the mighty Solomon and, of course, it is Bartimaeus’s story. It is also the story of Asmira, personal guard to the Queen of Sheba. Sheba hopes to protect herself and her country from the personal, political, and military advances of Solomon so she sends Asmira on a secret mission. Kill Solomon. Take the ring. 

There’s no way you cannot like Bartimaeus, in part because he’s funny, sarcastic, and smart. Does Bartimaeus speak the truth? “Dissemblers as we sometimes are when conversing with humans, higher spirits almost always speak truth amongst themselves. The lower orders, sadly, are less civilized, foliots being variable, moody and prone to flights of fancy, while imps enjoy telling absolute whoppers.” An example of Bartimaeus’s behavior is, despite Solomon’s power, Bartimaeus sings bawdy songs about him and, at one point, takes the appearance of hippo that bears a startling resemblance to one of Solomon’s wives.

Asmira is also very likable. First, she’s strong — as a member of the guard of the Queen, she’s been taught to fight from the time she could walk. Second, she’s smart. She even knows a bit of magic. She’s on a journey anyone can respect: save her queen, save her country. Since Bartimaeus is linked to someone who protects Solomon, and Asmira is out to get Solomon, well, you know these two kids will hook up at some point.

So, you have action, humor, great characters. You also have a continuation of a series, but set several thousands of years before the other series, so you do not have to have read the trilogy to understand this book. Be warned: once you read this book, you will want to read the entire trilogy.

People on awards and lists: while this is a part of a series, because it is set so far before the trilogy, this book truly stands alone.

If you have read and enjoyed The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Stroud, here’s what you need to know: it’s the Bartimaeus you know and loved. The Ring of Solomon is set thousands of years before the trilogy, so none of the humans mentioned in the trilogy appear here. It’s a whole new cast of characters. If, like me, it’s been four years since you read the books, that’s OK because the only character you need to know is Bartimaeus and how can you forget him? You don’t have to worry about remembering anything about plot or characters from the other three books. The final version of the book will have a list of main characters as well as a map.

Is The Ring of Solomon stand alone? Yes; no cliff hangers here. As someone who loves Bartimaeus and his unique voice, which makes me laugh out loud, I hope that The Ring of Solomon is just one of many additional books about Bartimaeus.

Is this one of my Favorite Books read in 2010? Does a djinni call when summoned?

Review: The Kneebone Boy

The Kneebone Boy by Ellen Potter. 2010. Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan. Review from ARC provided for review.

The Plot: These are the three Hardscrabble children. Let them introduce themselves: “Otto was the oldest, and the oddest. Then there was Lucia, who wished something interesting would happen. Last of all was Max, who always thought he knew better.”

Something interesting happens when their father goes away on business and sends his children, ages ten to thirteen, to stay with an aunt in London. The problem is, the aunt is herself away on holiday. When they realize that staying in London on their own is not a great idea, Otto, Lucia, and Max set off to find their great-aunt Haddie Piggit. Details such as having never met her and not quite knowing where she is won’t stand in their way, especially when there is a possibility that their great aunt knows something about the disappearance of their mother years before.

The Good: The story of the three Hardscrabbles are told by one of the three. They won’t tell, but my guess is Lucia because of one of the chapter headings: “In which we meet the Hardscrabbles, unearth a triceratops bone, and begin to like Lucia even more.” Yes, that “even more” is part of the reason I suspect Lucia of authorship. But perhaps it is Max, because later we are told “No one knew what Max did up on the chimney, and no one cared enough to try to find out. Which just goes to show, you should always pay attention to the youngest.”  But perhaps it is Otto, because this observation sounds more like a thirteen year old speaking: “They never enjoyed it when adults playfully lied to them. The adults always think they’re being amusing and imaginative, just like children. But kids never lie playfully. They lie as if their lives depended on it.”

How best to describe the humor? It is dark, delicious, biting, sarcastic, arch, and smart. The story itself is smart — almost deceptively so — and with the many layers, I can easily see this appealing to middle school kids , who are about the age of Otto and Lucia. Oh, the language — “All in all they were in that gorgeous state of mind in which they felt free and unafraid and sharply aware of how large and exciting the world was. In other words, it hadn’t gotten dark outside yet.”  Here is a bit on Max “knowing better” about the definition of the word “restive,” showing also how the unknown narrator adds asides to the reader: “”Restive doesn’t mean tired,” Max said finally. “It means nervous.” It does actually. I looked it up later. However, I woudn’t advise using that word because it will only annoy people, and they will think you are a giant-size prat.” Maybe Lucia is the narrator after all.

The Hardscrabbles have not had an easy life. Their mother disappeared years ago, and rumors fly in their tiny village, including ones about Otto, thirteen. It’s said that he strangled his mother with the very scarf he wears day and night, summer and winter. (Don’t worry, he didn’t. It’s not that kind of book.) Their father is an artist whose specialty is painting portraits of former royalty, that is, royalty who have lost their thrones and kingdom. It doesn’t pay well and it requires frequent travel. The isolation brought about by their mother going missing (“you can’t have dogs sniffing through your garden to find your missing mum without their being some serious damage to your family’s reputation“) makes these three siblings a tight group, so tight that even though Otto does not speak Lucia understands everything he says with his invented sign language.

The reader finds out that all that the narrator tells us in that first sentence is true. Otto is not just odd; he likes odd things, including odd stories. He manages to acquire a cat with a fifth leg and becomes caught up in the tale of “the Kneebone Boy.” When the children finally find Great-Aunt Haddie, she is living near the Kneebone Castle. The Kneebone Boy is the first boy born in the Kneebone family every generation, a boy with bat ears and claws and other things that require his family to keep him locked away from prying eyes.

Lucia’s desire for adventure leads her to push the three to not go home when they discover their original plan to stay in London has fallen apart. This leads to a day of freedom in London, a scary encounter by a river, and the ultimate discovery of Great-Aunt Haddie.

Max is really a know it all. He deciphers the clues in the one letter they have from Haddie, helping them to discover her. These three threads, the three interests of the Hardscrabbles, weave together to form not just an adventure (children alone, figuring things out!) and a mystery (what happened to their mother? is there a real Kneebone Boy?) but also a story about finding out the truth of things. Sometimes the truth is fun (a secret passage!) and other times, not so much (the mystery of their mother).

Readalikes easily spring to mind: Lemony Snicket, The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Maryrose Wood. For example, one chapter heading warns “in which something awful happens but I can’t say what it is.” Where The Kneebone Boy differs from these books is that, despite the initial appearance of being set in a universe as odd as Otto, it turns out to be very real. When I got to the end of The Kneebone Boy, and realized how story and the tales told shape people, their expectations, their lives, I shivered with the wonderful deliciousness of it all.

What else? A folly! It has a castle folly. And the cover. I love seeing a cover created just for a book. More on the tale of the cover at the MacKids blog. I think it captures Lucia, Otto, and Max perfectly. They look, I think, the way Lucia wants them to look: you’re not quite sure of them. And hidden in the trees…the legs of…who? And is that a crumbling castle in the background?