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: Doll Bones

Doll Bones by Holly Black. McElderry Books. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Zach, Poppy, and Alice  get together nearly everyday to play an elaborate game with dolls, action figures, and stories that grow and twist and turn, all related to the “Great Queen” doll that Poppy’s mother keeps locked in a cabinet.

They’re twelve now and things are beginning to change. Zach is playing basketball and his father is telling him he’s too old to play pretend games. Alice is acting different at school.

The game seems over, as does their friendship, when Poppy shares that she’s been dreaming about the “Great Queen” doll and a little girl who died years ago. The ghost of the girl is demanding that her doll be buried with her.

Zach, Poppy, and Alice are about to go on a real adventure.

The Good: A ghost story — is the Great Queen doll haunted?

An adventure, as Zach, Poppy, and Alice find out the background of the “Great Queen” doll, where she was made, and try to figure out who the dead girl is.

And, a story about growing up and, maybe, growing apart, and the intense, physical sense of loss that brings.

Doll Bones is a great book for those in middle school, or about to go in. There is the haunting (though some may argue that it’s all just a story that Poppy has made up, like the stories she makes up for the games she, Zach and Alice play). There is also a terrific adventure, and I liked how the three figured out bus schedules and how much money they had for food and all those sort of details. These three had to investigate and research and do — all great; plus, since this is about growing up, all those things are showing how, yes, these three are getting older and more responsible. Well, more responsible if you ignore the running away (technically) to do so.

Growing up —  what Doll Bones is really about is growing up and growing apart. I adored the game the three played, and I got so mad at Zach’s father for trying to stop his son from playing, and at the same time, I read about the game and the play-acting and knew that what Poppy is fighting is true, no matter what: that they are outgrowing the game. That some of them may be outgrowing it faster than others. That children grow and change and it happens. The ghost that will haunt Zach and Poppy and Alice will not be the ghost of a long dead child, but rather the ghost of their childhood and their games, even if some things (friendships, creativity) will survive. It is also the games, and all they learned pretending, that makes them able to go on a real adventure, and that, also, is growing up, taking the skills practiced in games and doing it for real.

Because there is so much in Doll Bones — on one level, a ghost story and an adventure, on another, about the loss of childhood — this is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews: A Fuse #8 Production.

 

 

 

Review: Goblin Secrets

Goblin Secrets by William Alexander. Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Rownie is one of “grandchildren” of the witch, Graba, children she’s collected to run her errands. His mother is dead; his older brother, Rowan, brought Rownie to Graba knowing the shelter she offered was better than nothing. Now Rowan is missing, and Rownie is looking everywhere for him.

Rowan was an actor, something illegal in the town of Zombay. When Rownie finds an acting troupe made up of goblins, he finds out that they knew Rowan. Can the goblins help him find Rowan? What causes a human to change into a goblin? And will Graba let Rownie go?

The Good: One of the good things about reading the National Book Award Finalists after they’ve been announced is that I read from a place of, “why this book? what made this special?” It also makes me read outside my “same old, same old.” The bulk of my reading is usually young adult, so it was nice to be pushed into reading a middle grade book for younger readers.

With Goblin Secrets, quite a few things made my list for “why.”

There is the world building in Goblin Secrets: and what a world! There is magic and science. Graba is a witch, with gearwork legs shaped like chicken’s legs. She uses magic to move her house around. (I know! A twist on Baba Yaga!) Goblins were once human, and now that they are changed operate under different rules than humans. Humans acting is disallowed, both because it is frowned upon to pretend to be something you are not but also because there is real power in wearing a mask. Rowan was discovering that power, and it may be the reason he is now missing. Perhaps, overall, what I liked best about Goblin Secrets was its mix of familiarity (goblins and witches and curses) and originality (coal made from hearts, gearwork legs and soldiers, dangerous pigeons). I’m reminded of the books I loved as a child, the ones that gave me enough for my imagination to wander in the world even after the story was done.

The magic — this is a magic both real and magic created by belief. Yes, when Rownie puts on a mask he feels different and acts different and there is power. But it’s not perfect power: at one point, Rownie loses that magic when being pursued: “the charm was broken. The Grubs had broken it with a look and a smirk, without even trying.” What at first seems to be just a quirk in a fairy tale (acting is outlawed) turns out to be have more serious and sinister meaning. Not everything is explained; it’s Rownie’s world, and things are the way they are.

And Rownie: finally, Rownie, who Gaba says is eight but Rownie himself is sure he is closer to ten. So young, to be practically on his own. Living with Graba means a roof over his head, and errands to run, but it doesn’t mean food or comfort. His brother was all Rownie. The adventures he goes on once he meets up with the goblins: the risks of illegal acting, hiding from Graba, running from her “Grubs” (her “grandchildren”), saving the city of Zombay. I can easily picture him running through the streets as his oversized coat billows out behind him.

I said “finally” and I lied. As I put this review aside for a few days, different parts of the book came back to me. The other characters, from Rownie’s “sister” Vass who is being taught to be a witch by a witch jealous of any competition; and the goblins themselves, full of secrets and knowledge: Patch, Semele, Essa, Thomas, Nonny. The plays and the masks; the town and the river. A real ending, not a start of a trilogy. An examination of family: brothers Rowan and Rownie; Graba’s “grandchildren”; the goblins.

Other reviews and links: Enchanted Inkpot interview; Heavy Medal review; The Book Smugglers; the book website.

Review: The Whole Story of Half a Girl

The Whole Story of Half a Girl by Veera Hiranandani. Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House. 2012. Reviewed from copy from publisher.

The Plot: When eleven-year-old Sonia’s father loses his job, she has to leave private school for public school. At her old school, everyone knew her; now, they wonder if she’s Indian like her father or Jewish like her mother. She’s trying to make new friends and keep in touch with old ones. To make matters worse, her father’s unemployment is taking more than a financial toll on her family. It’s also emotional. One day, he just doesn’t come home.

The Good: Sonia’s old school was a private school, yes; but it’s not that type of private school. It was one that emphasized nurturing and non-traditional learning and not having tests. Honestly? It sounds like a terrific school, and I can understand why Sonia doesn’t want to leave! On the other hand, her parents say that part of the reason they want to send her to public school is so she can receive more traditional learning. I can understand that, also.

Sonia makes new friends, yes, but she is also exposed to cliques for the first time. Her old school was just too small (and touchy-feely) for that. Also? Sonia observes that the students self segregate by skin tone. She wonders, what table does she belong at? She also has to put up with obnoxious/ignorant remarks about her parents, especially about being half Indian. Because her mother isn’t very religious, she also wonders whether she’s really Jewish or not.

The Whole Story of Half a Girl is a fascinating look at class and money. Sonia’s family is well educated, live in a big house, travel, and (until recently) paid private school tuition. One of her new friends, Kate, has a stay at home mother. Kate’s mother shops a lot and the family eats take out all the time, but they live in a smaller house than Sonia’s. Kate (and her mother) also introduce Sonia to cheerleading, something Sonia’s mother frowns on. Sonia doesn’t make any conclusions about careers or spending, but it’s interesting to read between the lines. Students are bussed to Sonia’s school, and that, too, adds a socioeconomic spin to this story. It’s done with a soft touch, such as when Alisha invites Sonia home with her after school, a trip that is more complicated than walking home with someone.

Kate is the popular girl; it would be easy to say she’s the “mean” girl. It’s more complex than that, and I ended up feeling sorry for her. Kate ends up letting Sonia down, true; but Kate comes to the friendship with her own complex background that impacts what Kate does or does not do. I’d be curious to discuss this aspect with others; am I letting Kate off the hook? One more thing: the mean comments about Sonia’s ethnicity (and they are mean) come just as much from the boys as the girls. I liked that touch, because sometimes it seems like books (and people) use “mean” as something girls do and that boys don’t.

Sonia’s father suffers from depression.  I like how it’s handled; it’s shown over an extended time period, and the impact on the family (especially Sonia) takes center stage.

One last thing: there is no forced happy “we’ll all sit at one table together” ending. It’s not an after school special. I was so relieved by that!

Other reviewsThe Happy Nappy Bookseller; S. Krishna’s Books; Mixed Reader; Masala Reader.

Review: The Humming Room

The Humming Room (a novel inspired by The Secret Garden) by Ellen Potter. A Feiwel and Friends Book, an imprint of Macmillan. 2012. Middle grade. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Orphaned Roo goes to live with her newly discovered rich uncle. Neglected and will, she loves nature and the out of doors. She prefers being alone.

Her uncle lives on an island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, in a former children’s TB clinic. Roo is now cared for, but isolated, seeing only a handful of her uncle’s employees.

Roo hears a mysterious humming, and it leads her to a secret garden.

The Good: As someone who has also read The Secret Garden, I enjoyed seeing what Potter used, and what she tweaked, and what she re-imagined. She’s done such a good job, especially with what she discarded.

Roo’s life before she moves in with her uncle is pretty grim: her mother abandoned her. Her father is charming, but he also neglects her. He, with his current girlfriend, are murdered by drug dealers in a trailer park. She is a neglected child, used to taking care of herself.

Uncle Emmett, her father’s brother, is in his own way as neglectful of family as his brother. He gives her no warm greeting; no love. Eventually, the reader discovers what has happened in Emmett’s life that results in his being unable to welcome her. Unlike his brother, Emmett is a financial success and can take care of his niece’s physical needs: a home, clothes, food, education. That he is not entirely cold to her needs is that he observes the old clothes she wears, that she doesn’t put on the new ones that his assistant bought her, and orders her new clothes in the style and fabric she likes. That is a kindness. Still, he doesn’t give her what she needs: love. Attention. Guidance.

Instead of a moor, the uncle’s house is on the river. The setting is beautifully shown; count this as one of the books that makes me want to travel to where it is set. And that is before Roo discovers the secret garden!

Some further parallels: Roo finds out about Jack, a half-wild boy who doesn’t seem to belong to anyway and who is almost magical in his knowledge of the animals and river. Jack = Dickon, of course, but without a link to any family. Perhaps modern readers would only believe that such an independent child is actually independent?

Of course, Roo discovers a cousin: Phillip (Colin). Instead of Colin’s mysterious ailments, Philip is a lonely child, spoiled and neglected by his father following the tragic death of his mother. Phillip’s illness, that keeps him combined to his house? Depression and grief. He is still mourning the loss of his mother and it is compounded by the physical abandonment of his father, because his father is also grieving. Emmett also feels guilt over his wife’s death: it is tragic, and it is connected to the garden, and I understand why he destroyed it and shut it away. As with The Secret Garden, Phillip is more than Roo’s cousin. He is also her mirror, a way for Roo to see her own flaws.

The garden: I loved how it is hidden and secret! A hint of magic leads Roo to it: she is so in touch with nature that she senses living things, the “humming,” and it is this humming that leads her to search for the garden. How and where it is hidden: not telling.

The Humming Room is, like The Secret Garden, about finding meaning in life by looking outside yourself. Caring for a garden, bringing it back to life, makes Roo (like Mary before her) part of something bigger than herself and establishes a connection with the world that she didn’t have before.

Roo begins, and ends, as a mostly solitary person. Part of it is that emotionally she has been shut off from others; this changes as she works on the garden with Phillip and Jack. Part of it is that not everyone is a people person. As someone who loves alone time, I respect Roo’s need for solitariness and to have alone time. Still, we all need people, and to see Roo begin to trust others, especially those who respect who she is and her needs, is beautiful.

Other reviews: Welcome to My Tweendom; Kirkus Reviews (blog post by Leila Roy); WSJ Bookshelf; the Book Smugglers (joint review).

Review: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente, illustrations by Ana Juan. Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan. 2011. Reviewed from copy from publisher. 

The Plot: September is washing teacups in the kitchen when the Green Wind comes, asking if she’d like to come away with him and go to Fairyland. Of course, September says yes. What child wouldn’t? And so begins September’s quests and adventures in Fairyland.

The Good: How lovely, just how quickly September accepts the invitation of the Green Wind and how easily and deeply she believes in it, the Green Wind and his flying leopard, Fairyland and witches and dragons. September makes friends and accepts challenges and jumps into adventures. It’s not risk free. There are real dangers, both to herself and her new friends, and important decisions have to be made.

September’s seamless acceptance of the magical makes this a read for both those young enough themselves to believe that Fairyland may exist in the back of wardrobes, but also those old enough to no longer care what others think of their reading choices. This a delightful, rich, inventive book for both children and adults, readers understood by another writer whose magical world just happened, without explanation. As C.S. Lewis says in the dedication in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe: “I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” Sometimes, a reader has to be old enough for fairy tales.

The language of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is rich and deep, with much for both those for whom it is all new and for those who recognize other times, other places, other books, deeper truths. Chapter headings are elaborate and old fashioned, such as “Chapter 1. Exeunt on a Leopard. In Which a Girl Named September Is Spirited Off by Means of a Leopard, Learns the Rules of Fairyland, and Solves a Puzzle.” There is wordplay, not always obvious at first: “All children are heartless. They have not grown a heart yet, which is why they can climb tall trees and say shocking things and leap so very high that grown-up hearts flutter in terror.” Observations are made to the reader: “[September] felt quite bold and intrepid and, having paid her own way, quite grown up. This inevitably leads to disastrous decisions.” And this, so true: “ . . . you can have grief without adventures, you cannot have adventures without grief.”

As you can tell from the quotes, there is humor. Other parts that will make the reader smile and chuckle: a wyvern who believes his father is a library. Yes, a library, not a librarian. A woman made out of soap and is called Lye, with the word “Truth” on her forehead.

Some other perspectives:

At Finding Wonderland: “I quickly found myself absorbed in this charming, whimsical, offbeat tale peopled with a vast range of quirky and memorable characters, from the humanoid to the animal to the animated-inanimate. There are surprises and adventures at every turn in this book, which is suitable for middle grade audiences (although fans of creatively written fantasy might enjoy this book at any age).”

At The Book Smugglers: “it is a book that is so beautifully written and full of incredible imaginative twists and ideas that I constantly had a sense of wonderment reading it; but above all, this is a book I will treasure forever and keep close and go back to, many times in the future” and “each creature has an underlying idea or concept or issue that is addressed with subtly and beauty: from a search for self-identity (if Wyvern is not the son of a library, then who is he?) to the horrible truths of slavery; from selfless devotion to political unrest. This is a book that celebrates fairytales without ever being derivative and never forgetting that they can be dark and gruesome.”

At Fuse #8:Here you have an author who clearly enjoys writing. And if that enjoyment seeps through the page and into the reader’s perceptions, then here is a book that they’ll clearly enjoy reading. A true original and like nothing you’ve really ever seen before.”

Review: It’s The First Day of School . . . Forever!

It’s The First Day of School . . . Forever! by R. L. Stine. Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan. 2011. Review copy from publisher. Middle grade.

The Plot: Artie, eleven, is nervous about his first day of sixth grade at Ardmore Middle School. From the moment his alarm rings and he falls out of bed, everything that could go wrong, goes wrong. Syrup in his hair, water splashed on the crotch of his pants, inadvertently getting the wrong people at school mad at him. As the day progresses, some of it is just weird, like the randomly numbered classrooms and having to get measured for books.

The next day begins, Artie’s alarm, goes off, he falls out of bed… “Again?” He thinks. Well, yes and no –he didn’t fall out of bed again, he fell out of bed the first time again. That horrible first day of school is on permanent repeat.

The Good: Every single thing a kid worries about happening on the first day of school happens to Artie, from locker mishaps to lunch missteps.

There are also some things kids don’t worry about. Like the possibility that their school is built on a graveyard. Or a principal that takes the side of the popular kids and makes threats that no adult should make to kids.

Poor Artie. He just wants to make a good impression, because not only is it the first day of school, it’s the first day at a new school. As the days repeat, he keeps trying to do it better: don’t stand near the puddle, don’t throw the ball at the back of the cool kid’s head. Avoiding one thing just brings about something worse. He hardly has any time to figure out what is going on.

I don’t want to give away the ending — but it’s delicious. Everything that didn’t make sense, that seemed scattered, falls into place, with an answer that is both satisfying and scary.

The kids who have been reading and rereading the tattered copies of Goosebumps will be pleased with this latest tale; and those who are being introduced to Stine for the first time are going to be asking for those older titles.

Review: House of Dolls

House of Dolls by Francesca Lia Block, illustrated by Barbara McClintock. Harper Collins. 2010. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Middle grade.

The Plot: Dolls Wildflower, Rockstar, and Miss Selene live together in their house, which was first owned by Madison Blackberry’s grandmother. The three dolls are happy enough, with Wildflower’s boyfriend Guy and Rockstar’s B. Friend, and all three have wonderful dresses made by Madison’s grandmother.

Then, one day, Madison becomes bored — bored and jealous of the attention the dolls get as “family heirlooms” with their fancy dresses. Madison’s grandmother has never made her a dress.

The combination of boredom and jealousy is a dangerous thing. Especially when the person feeling those things is so many times larger than  you are.”

Madison begins by taking away Guy and B. Friend. It doesn’t end there, and it turns out, it didn’t begin there, either. What can the dolls do?

The Good: The quick, non-spoiler review: for readers who like the idea that dolls are real, living their own lives. At 61 pages, this is the perfect pick for readers who want a book with substance but don’t want hundreds of pages.

Madison takes away the boyfriends. Wildflower, faced with loss, decides she wants to change the world.  Rockstar reacts with wanting to change herself. As for Miss Selene, well, “after the disappearances [of Guy and B. Friend], Miss Selene just wanted to change clothes. This made perfect sense to Miss Selene. The world was much too big. Especially for a doll! The idea of changing herself felt overwhelming. And besides, in a way, changing clothes was changing herself. It might even change the world, in a tiny way, mightn’t it? Somehow make things just a tiny, tiny bit more magical?”

Then Madison takes away the clothes.

On one level, this is about the power Madison can exercise against her toys because she can. On another level, it is about the power anyone can exercise against those who are smaller, who are less powerful, who are within the control of another. It is scary and terrible. Because this book is about power, and abusing it, I’m reviewing it and suggesting it for middle schools. It’s a sophisticated topic wrapped in the package of a short chapter book. It’s a good pick for younger middle grade students, as well as reluctant readers.

Madison’s grandmother figures out what Madison is doing: “that little girl just doesn’t understand, does she?” What is terrific is that Madison isn’t punished. Rather, the grandmother realizes the role she has and has not played, and shows Madison some of the attention she had previously given the dolls. Madison responds by returning what she had taken to the dolls. House of Dolls illustrates both the abuse of power, and that anger and jealousy can be stopped in ways other than violence.  It is, perhaps, overly optimistic, but if it is it is not because this is a children’s book but because “and they all lived happily ever after, with gorgeous clothes,” is Block’s style. All kidding aside, there is power in clothes and I liked that Block acknowledges that. There is also power in choosing – choosing to wish well for others, choosing to include rather than exclude, choosing to connect. Choosing to be overly optimistic and, in doing so, creating our own happiness.

 

Review: Darius Bell and the Glitter Pool

Darius Bell and the Glitter Pool by Odo Hirsch. Kane Miller. 2010. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: The Bell family did some great things generations ago; they received the Bell House and the surrounding land. In exchange, every twenty-five years a Gift must be made. Cornelius Bell gave the first Gift: an enormous marble statue of himself. The next Gift was a copper spire. The third Gift was a bronze bell. The time for the Bell Gift is approaching, and everyone watches to see what the Bells will give this year, including young Darius Bell.

His father, Hector Bell, is responsible for the current Bell Gift. Problem is…. the Bell family has the Bell house. And the Bell name. And the Bell history. And a lot of Bell pride. But not a lot of money. As the day of the Gift rapidly approaches, Darius wonders what his father can possibly give.

The Good: This is more of a middle grade novel than a young adult novel; but when Charlotte’s Library called it “a lovely book that isn’t fantasy, although it is certainly fantastical” I knew I had to read.

The Bell House is no longer the grand house it once was. Wall paper is coming off walls, furniture is falling apart, windows are cracked. There is no money. Hector Bell lives in his own world, in denial of the genteel poverty in which the family lives. You see, jobs and careers aren’t what Bells do. “The Bells — or the Arbuthnot-Huntingdon-Castleton-Bells, to give them their full name — as a rule didn’t get jobs. They didn’t work in business, or practice law, or carry out any other activities of a commercial or industrial nature. Traditionally, they had been statesmen and generals.” Hector Bell is neither statesman nor general; he writes short stories which he doesn’t publish (and, from his family’s reaction, that is a good thing) and lives off family money which is in short supply. Part of being a Bell in Bell House is having a gardener. The Bells have one, but instead of paying him, Mr. Fisher farms the land, gives the Bells a portion, and keeps the rest to sell. Mrs. Simpson, the housekeeper, likewise lives rent free in the Bell House (it’s a big house) and sells cakes in town. And so on and so on. It’s the type of peculiar arrangement that is so weird it makes perfect sense. The Bells have created their own world, making adjustments as necessary, always with pride.

The primary plot is “What is the Gift?” The Bells can get away with quid pro quo for most of their daily needs but there just isn’t money for a Gift. Darius’s father deals with it the way he deals with everything: tells stories, uses three words for one, and imagines that something will happen to solve the dilemma. Darius tries to think of ways to help, and he thinks all his prayers are answered when he discovers a secret cave that is full of rubies and gold: the Glitter Pool.

But, this is not a plot driven book. The story of the Gift unfolds slowly, because what is really important is not so much the Gift as the semi magical Bell House, not fantasy but fantastical, to quote Charlotte. An old house, quirky people — for both Hector Bell and those who take him up on his odd arrangement are the definition of “quirky” — and a boy looking to help the ones he loves, that is the reason to read this book. The plot just serves to help the reader learn more about this odd cast of characters and how they interact. It also serves to illustrate that time in childhood when belief is still constant — belief that things will work out, belief that the hidden cave you find is filled with rubies and gold.

Darius is about twelve or so, and this book works for middle grade up to middle school. It’s for those who read for character; Darius’s journey in discovering just how he can and cannot help his father, as well as his father’s own journey to both maturity and acceptance. The Kneebone Boy by Ellen Potter is more plot driven than this book and is also more over-the-top in its characters eccentricities; however, the reader who likes the mix of reality with a touch of whimsy and fantasy will like both these books. This book is also for the reader attracted to the big house and genteel poverty — the reader who in a few years will want I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith and A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper.

As I reread Charlotte’s review, I want to emphasize a point she makes: “And it is this dignity that comes to the fore toward the end of the book, when the author explores what really constitutes a good Gift (there’s a fine lesson here, not made into a Moral with a capital M, but still very much present).” This book is not religious, nor is it about any particular holiday, but it is a brilliant book to use and recommend for those who want to read about the true spirit of gift giving and receiving.

Review: Reckless

Reckless by Cornelia Funke. Little Brown. 2010. Reviewed from Advance Limited Edition from publisher.

The Plot: When Jacob Reckless is twelve years old, he discovers a mirror in his father’s study that takes him into a world where fairy tales are real. Twelve years later, his brother Will follows him through the mirror, eager to discover his brother’s secrets and to visit this strange new world where dreams come true. Nightmares are also dreams, and fairy tales are not safe and cozy. Will is hurt and Jacob has to use all he has learned in the Mirrorworld to save his brother.

The Good: If Percy Jackson and the Olympians sent kids to the library asking for Greek myths, Reckless will have them wanting the original fairy tales Funke weaves throughout her story.

Gingerbread houses and children-eating witches? Real in the Mirrorworld. Jacob has spent years escaping into the mirror, away from his mother who mourns a lost husband and a brother with his own needs. In Mirrorworld, Jacob’s freedom has allowed him to be fearless. With no one to care for but himself, he becomes a treasure hunter, seeking out the magical and cursed objects of stories: glass slippers, spinning wheels, talking mirrors. “There was always something to hunt for in this world. And most of the time it helped him forget that he had never been able to find the one thing he really wanted.”

Dark magic has hurt Will and Jacob races to save him. Jacob isn’t alone; Fox, a girl who can change into a fox, is his friend and companion in the Mirrorworld. Will’s girlfriend, Clara, a medical student, senses something wrong and enters the Mirrorworld. The Mirrorworld isn’t all medieval fantasy. Oh, yes, there is an Empress with a princess daughter and Fairies and Dwarfs and Ogres. There is darkness and death. It is also industrial — in the past few years, trains and guns and factories have sprung up. What have also risen is the Goyl, a people made from stone, who have left their caves to battle humans. Instead of being hunted for sport by humans, they have attacked, organized an army, and are winning. Jacob doesn’t care about politics and battles. He only cares about the hunt: before, treasure hunting, now, hunting for a cure for his brother.

Those who insist that you can tell the audience of a book by the age of the main characters will be puzzled by Reckless. While Jacob and Will are children in the first chapter, they are adults for the rest of the book. A book for children and teens about a twenty-four year old? Yes. It is a book about Grimm’s Fairy Tales come real, full of adventure with real risks. Children and teens will eat it up, and adults will remember that such Fairy Tales are also for grown-ups.

Reckless is also a book about love: love for friends, love for family, love between brothers. In some ways, Jacob is still a twelve year old boy who misses his father and doesn’t want to share with his younger brother while feeling responsible for that younger brother. In that, it doesn’t matter to the reader that Jacob is older than they are because he feels what they do, wants what they want: adventure! fun! freedom! Here is the pesky younger sibling who wants to tag along, also, and of course, doesn’t the younger brother muck things up? Of course Jacob will fix it, and show all his gifts and talents and courage. This is about Jacob figuring out his place in the world and his family and taking responsibility instead of running. It doesn’t matter that Jacob is twenty-four. If anything, his age will help expand the audience for this book to teens and adults. It’s a book for those of us who were always more interested in Mo and Dustfinger from Funke’s Inkheart books.

I loved the writing, the story telling, the language, so credit to three people: Cornelia Funke, who wrote it; and, as the credits say, to Cornelia Funke and Lionel Wigram who “found and told” the story; and Oliver Latsch, translator. My copy of the book is full of post-its to mark sentences I loved. The first sentence, after the chapter heading of Once Upon a Time: “The night breathed through the apartment like a dark animal.” And this is what you need to know about Jacob even before he finds the mirror: “Jacob loved the night. He felt it on his skin like a promise. Like a cloak woven from freedom and danger.” And this, which is true for all of us, Mirrorworld or no: “The present swiftly became the past, and the future suddenly wore strange clothes.”

If you’re looking for happily ever after… You’ve come to the wrong place.”

Because Funke breaks the rules by making a book for children that features adults; because anyone, of any age, who wants a good story will love this; because of its smart use of fairy tales that expects the reader to understand the references; because Jacob’s journey is heartbreaking; because the adventure is full of twists and turns and the unexpected; Reckless is a Favorite Book Read in 2010.

Links:

Cornelia Funke’s Brave New World at The Los Angeles Times