Monday, February 25, 2013

tara reviews A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff

Books definitely come out in waves.  While not necessarily original topics, subjects tend to reemerge and ride the popularity train while they can.  The perfect example would be the vampire phenomenon, which has come back into vogue with Stephanie Meyers and Twilight.  Who can blame authors and publishers for providing what readers want?  The trick is to publish early enough in the game, before overexposure takes over and ruins the market.

When I read the synopsis for A Tangle of Knots and saw that it involved special "talents," I instantly thought of Graceling and Savvy - both of which have characters that are born with, or later develop, unique abilities.  Because of this, I was afraid it was going to feel very familiar, and in some ways it did.

The story revolves around eleven-year-old orphan, Cady, who has a remarkable talent for baking delicious cakes that perfectly match the recipient.  Actually, the story has so many characters, it is hard to say who is the main character.  There are nine main characters, all introduced with their own chapters at the beginning of the book.  Each character seems to have a problem they are trying to sort out - and throughout the story, a mysterious man with a talent for tying knots and a fascination with powder-blue suitcases appears to flash a grin "that suggested he knew more about the world than he was letting on" and helps the characters work out their Fate (131).  

Cady's story also includes the recipes for each cake she makes, (reminiscent of Gingersnap, Everything On a Waffle, One Year In Coal Harbor, to name a few).  Cady is a likeable character because her only desires are to make people happy with her cakes and to finally be adopted.  The other players in the story include Mr. and Mrs. Asher and their three children:  Will (whose talent is getting lost), Zane (with a talent for spitting) and Marigold (who is desperately trying to figure out what her talent is).  There is also Mrs. Mallory, who runs the orphanage and V, who was in an accident and can't speak. 

The premise is interesting and the story has a real element of mystery, complete with a creepy "Owner" with an equally unsettling talent, and his hapless errand boy, Toby, who has seen happier days.  There are so many characters and plot lines introduced, that it seems unlikely that they would tie together.  Luckily, by the end most of the questions that pop up are answered, although, a lot of the pieces don't entirely fit into place.  The charm of this book is how the seemingly unrelated characters are woven together with a common thread and with each revealed secret they are more tightly tied together.  

A Tangle of Knots
by Lisa Graff
Published by Philomel
February 2013
Recommended for ages 8 and up

Monday, February 18, 2013

danyelle recommends Hattie Ever After by Kirby Larsen

Have you ever finished a book and found yourself hoping that the author would NOT write a sequel, not because you didn't like the book, but because you loved it?  You know how it feels to immerse yourself in a story and live, albeit briefly, in another time and place, and come to know the characters so well that at the end of the story you are content to shut the cover and let them live on in your imagination, with their lives unfolding in a way that you feel they inevitably must?  When I feel like that about a book, I don't want anyone to interfere with the experience, even if that someone happens to be the characters' creator.  And so, I felt a little nervous picking up Hattie Ever After, the sequel to Hattie Big Sky.  One of the things I loved about the first Hattie book was the verity of Hattie's world where a plucky orphan learned hard lessons, developed friendships, and found her way in a world full of possibilities.  Whether celebrating small victories or struggling with big disappointments, Hattie felt genuine.  And, I'm happy to report, in Hattie Ever After, Hattie stays true to herself as she moves from her life in Montana to a new adventure.

Following her failed attempt at homesteading, Hattie wants to make a place for herself in the world, but she's torn between her feelings for Charlie, who has returned from the war, and her desire to do "grand things."  The problem is she's just not sure where her place is.  Hoping to become a reporter like Nellie Bly or Ida Tarbell, she accepts a job with a vaudeville troupe that takes her to San Francisco, where she wants to also uncover secrets from Uncle Chester's past.  Hattie manages to get a job as a cleaning woman at the Chronicle newspaper office; not what she came to the city for, but she has to start somewhere, and she knew it wouldn't be easy.  She spends her lunch breaks searching the newspaper morgue for hints of Uncle Chester's life and tries to find a way to get a job reporting the news.  But the hardest part of her new life is figuring out whom she can trust in the Golden Age of Con.  With determination and a little luck, she finds her way into the newsroom, and along the way--despite betrayals and set-backs--she figures out what she wants from life.

Hattie's voice is warm and optimistic, peppered throughout with homespun similes that recall her time in Montana.  She feels "as cantankerous as [her] old cow, Violet" (28), "the water rolls on as vast as Montana's sky," and she stands out "like a square of gingham in a fancy silk quilt" (33, 50).

Hattie takes the reader into 1919 San Francisco, describing with wonder the smells, sites, and sounds of the big city.  In an author's note, Kirby Larson describes herself as a "compulsive researcher . . . studying old newspapers and atlases, and reading personal journals and accounts."  It shows.  She smoothly incorporates details about buildings, transportation, restaurants, and lodging into the story and creates a vivid image of a newspaper office.  Even simple things like hats get detailed treatment: straw boaters tipped by businessmen, cloche hats covering "stylish bobs," wide-brimmed bonnets on mothers, and enormous satin bows atop girls' heads (36).  All wonderfully combine to establish time and place.

After her adventure in San Francisco doing "grand things," Hattie moves on--as all of us do in our lives--to another.  In my imagination, I can see her in her new home, tackling her new challenges.  Best of all at the story's end, I knew that Hattie's story had unfolded as inevitably as it should have.  Lucky for me, Ms. Larson wrote that sequel.

Review copy received from the publisher.

Hattie Ever After
by Kirby Larson
Published by Delacorte Press
February 2013
Recommended for ages 10 and up

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Cybils 2012

If you want books selected with literary merit and kid appeal in mind, look at the Cybils Awards.  The 2012 winners, chosen by children's and young adult literature bloggers, include some great books.  I am especially pleased to see A Home for Bird on the winners list!  And A Trip to the Bottom of the World with Mouse (the Easy Reader winner) is the one book I left off my favorites of 2012 list that I wish I would have included.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

tara recommends The Runaway King by Jennifer A. Nielsen

I thoroughly enjoyed The False Prince when it came out last year and have been eagerly awaiting its sequel.  I expected adventure and a fast-paced plot.  I anticipated the continuation of richly drawn characters and unexpected twists and turns in the story.  But, what really made The False Prince so fun to read, was its main character, Sage – so, I mostly was looking forward to more of his mischievous wit, reckless abandon, and total disregard for doing what was expected of him.  I was not disappointed.

If you haven’t read The False Prince, pick it up before you read any reviews so you can be fully immersed in the story without any spoilers.  Because, even though the final twist seems pretty obvious to an adult, the foreboding hints should keep a younger reader engaged, figuring out the story as it unfolds.  

The Runaway King was everything I expected it to be, not the least of which was the development of Sage’s (i.e. Jaron’s) character as he struggles to be king amidst intense opposition and betrayal.  The story begins with the newly crowned Jaron struggling to gain respect from his regents and his people, as he narrowly avoids an assassination attempt and tries to stop the obvious war advancing on Carthya.  Unfortunately for him, nobody else can see the danger, and the regents ship him away with plans to name a steward to rule the country in his stead.  Of course, Jaron will do everything he can to save his throne and his people - so, keeping in perfect character, he comes up with a reckless plan and sets out to see it through – alone. 

This book pulls in all the elements of a good adventure – fighting, pirates, greedy kings, beautiful princesses, danger, and a main character with a wicked sense of humor.  At one point in the story when Jaron has sustained a particularly painful injury, he is asked, “How does it feel?” and with utter sarcasm, he replies, “Like butterfly kisses, what do you think?”   That is just a taste of his flair for getting into trouble and his typical contrary response and devil-may-care attitude. 

The fun of this book is trying to figure out how Jaron will dig himself out of every danger he jumps into (including joining up with pirates) and hoping he can make things right as he burns bridges with every friend he has ever had – all while he is fighting to save his kingdom and stay alive.  I am definitely looking forward to Book 3 in the trilogy to continue in this vivid world with such spunky, flawed, but ultimately relatable characters.

Review copy received from the publisher.

The Runaway King
by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Published by Scholastic Press
March 2013
Recommended for ages 10 and up

Saturday, February 2, 2013

danyelle recommends One Came Home by Amy Timberlake

I'm not exaggerating when I say that visiting the ALA's exhibit floor last week in Seattle was exhilarating.   There is something about stacks of new books that makes me want to celebrate.  And while my plane ride home from Seattle (picture closed airports, circling in the air, diversion to Boise, a long wait on the runway) was miserable, my flight to Seattle was quite enjoyable because I took along one of those new books, Amy Timberlake's One Came Home, to read on the flight.  (Also, I had excellent company.)

After Georgie's sister, Agatha, goes missing, Sheriff McCabe brings back a body, and the town mourns Agatha's death.  But Georgie isn't so sure that her sister is dead, and she runs away to look for her in the last place anyone saw Agatha alive, Dog Hollow.  When she tries to buy a horse from Billy McCabe, she confides her plans to him, and Billy, much to Georgie's chagrin, decides to join her on the journey.  Billy knows that Agatha, his one-time sweetheart, is dead, and Georgie is just as certain that her sister is alive, and as they travel, the two spar, but they also develop a friendship that is tested as secrets are revealed.  Through flashbacks, the reader glimpses events leading up to Agatha's departure and realizes that there is much that Georgie doesn't understand.  Her search for answers takes her on an adventure that includes confronting a cougar, an encounter with counterfeiters, and a good ole' western shoot-out.

The story is set in 1871 Placid, Wisconsin, and as you might expect, Timberlake composes her setting with scenes of the Wisconsin River, hills that "push out of the ground for no discernible reason," and small frontier towns (143).  But more intriguing is the wild (passenger) pigeon nesting of 1871-- the largest recorded nesting -- that is the backdrop for the story.  Timberlake describes the sound, the smell, and the spectacle of innumerable birds hovering "over the woods in a thunderhead."  Readers are treated to a picture of  something they can only imagine: "The sky was a feathered fabric weaving itself in and out, unraveling before my eyes" (13).  Here are time and place masterfully depicted.

All this is related by 13-year-old Georgie, the story's narrator.  Smart, sensible, determined, and independent, she is also self-absorbed, scared, and claustrophobic, and, at times, she allows what she wants to be true to cloud her judgment of what is true.  Georgie says that she is "the rock that started the landslide" and the guilt she feels at that, makes her even more determined to find Agatha alive (176) .  In the first chapter, she makes a convincing case for why her sister "would never die and then lie there," but after a frustrating search, she is convinced ("for the most part, probably, almost certainly, yes surely") that Agatha is dead with "a d at the beginning, a d at the end. No forward or backward." (6, 133)  Early in their journey, Georgie determines Billy's reason for accompanying her, reevaluates her decision when they get to Dog Hollow, and finally, discovers the truth at the journey's end.  Georgie's voice radiates certainty, insecurity, and thoughtfulness.  I loved travelling with her.

With One Came Home, 2013 is off to a great start.

Review copy received from the publisher.

One Came Home
by Amy Timberlake
published by Knopf Books for Young Readers
January 2013

Recommended for ages 9 and up