Saturday, October 30, 2010

Happy Halloween

 (Me and my bestie circa 1999)

Happy Halloween Everyone!

I know it's tomorrow, but the kids in my neighborhood are making the rounds tonight.

Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays. Not only do you get to dress up in some amazing outfit that you'd never be able to wear otherwise, but Halloween means it's only a week until my birthday!

In honor of my anticipated post-Halloween candy coma and my birthday, I'm taking a little break. I'm going to spend the next two weeks hitting all the post-Halloween candy sales so I have something to munch while reading The Rebels of Ireland (so I can finally mail it to my dad as promised months ago), Russell Brand's memoir, and maybe even the last third of War and Peace. It's okay, I laughed a little at that last one too.

You should spend the next two weeks doing the following:
  • NOT forgetting about The Mockingbirds and Five Flavors of Dumb (I'll review it when I get back) which come out on the 2nd and 11th, respectively,
  • VOTING, if you're in the States and of age, of course,
  • and trying to beat me to the sales of leftover candy!
See you all in a couple weeks!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Tombstone Tea

Dahme, Joanne. Tombstone Tea. Philadelphia: Running Press Teens - Running Press Book Publishers, 2009. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

Jenny loves her daughter, Amy, and would do and has done anything and everything for her. This will never change. Even after they are separated by Amy's death. Even years after Jenny has died herself, hoping for a reunion beyond the grave. When Jessie walks into Laurel Hill Cemetery and bumps into the metal angel over Amy's tombstone, Jenny knows she can use Jessie's life force to bring Amy's spirit back to her. After all, a mother's love is eternal.

Tombstone Tea alternates (in huge chunks) between shortly after Amy's death and Jessie's modern day experiences in the cemetery. We don't quite learn what really happened between Jenny and her daughter at the same time that we watch Jenny try to use Jessie for her otherworldly purposes, but the two stories still run alongside each other with Paul as a connection and guide for each. His role as a spiritualist in the early 1900's is an interesting one that I wish had been looked at more closely. But even without any explanation of the spiritualist movement, it's clear from the start that Paul's connection to the dead is both important and powerful. Not until almost the end of the book do we see how much it altered his life.

For me, the characters, not the two storylines, were the strength of Tombstone Tea. Paul and the other ghosts Jessie meets in Laurel Hill Cemetery are well-done and manage to convey the weirdness of finding oneself a ghost as well as the history of their former, living selves without detracting from the story. It's very Graveyard Book, especially since all of them, save Jenny, are almost completely non-threatening. And Jenny? She is deliciously creepy, obsessive and dangerous, both in life and after it. She is not, however, enough to ratchet this book's scary points up to the "horror" level. Though there are scary moments, the whole thing is much more paranormal, creepy, spiritualist, if you will, than downright scary. It is still a great Halloween read, especially if you're fascinated by the Victorians' fascination with death and the beautiful cemeteries they created.

There was one thing this book was missing that I noticed right from the start: an author's note about the real Laurel Hill Cemetery. If I didn't live in so nearby in Philly and have a sister who really likes visiting cemeteries and a girlfriend who really likes taking pictures of weird things (Jessie's dad calls Laurel Hill a "magnificent outdoor sculpture garden" (16) and he is so right), I wouldn't know that this book is set in a real place. This is a real shame for a lot of different reasons, first of which is the fact that the main historical ghosts in the story were also real people that are actually buried in Laurel Hill (except Paul, of course, for whom there is no record in real life or the book). The spooky reason being that Laurel Hill hosts a lot of events throughout the year including one called Dining with the Dead, which is happening tonight. Eerily close to a Tombstone Tea, don't you think?

Book source: Philly Free Library

Monday, October 25, 2010

Personal Demons

Desrochers, Lisa. Personal Demons. New York: Tor, 2010. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

Booktalk (kind of):
I want to think of something clever and interesting to sum up the plot of the book and get you interested, and I almost never use the jacket copy or internet summaries, but what it says right on the cover is just too good to pass up:
If you had to choose between Heaven and Hell, which would it be?

...Are you sure about that?
Awesome, yes? But in order to give you a little more info about the set-up, I'll try again:

Frannie Cavanaugh is a pretty average girl: one of 5 sisters all (really) named Mary, kicked out of Catholic school, expert in Judo. Like I said, pretty average. Until Luc shows up, shortly followed by Gabe. Two new guys at school, one smolderingly hot and sexy, the other the real life embodiment of what Calvin Klein was trying to do with all those blond male models in tighty-whiteys. And both seemingly enamored of Frannie and determined to win her for his own. But this is no (un)friendly rivalry or game to get the girl. Luc and Gabe are battling each other to win Frannie to their side, and who she picks may determine the fate of the world.

Look at that cover and then look at my little blurb again. It seems like Personal Demons could be an overly dramatic teenage bodice-ripper involving "heavenly bodies" with "hellish consequences" (it's a euphemism if it's in quotes) among other things. It's not. True, there are some Very Big Things going on here, and the potential to be over the top about it is high, but Desrochers manages to make this story focus on Frannie and her inner turmoil about these two guys who suddenly want her, her unwillingness to let people in, and her discomfort around religion in general.

Told in alternating points of view, Frannie and Luc's, Personal Demons is not only really damn steamy, it's also a refreshing look at the start of a relationship. In YA lit, it seems that we're always treated to the girl side of the equation, and more often than not, that girl is insecure about where the relationship is going. We get that here, and Frannie certainly has a LOT to be worried and insecure about with Luc, but we also get the other side. The parts of the book from Luc's point of view were my favorite. Not only has he had centuries to perfect his wit, making him both funny and insightful,* but he's also just as insecure as Frannie. She's supposed to be his mark; he's been sent from the depths of Hell to tag her soul for eternity. He is knocked on his butt by his genuine attraction to and feelings for Frannie. I love seeing a guy in YA go all googly eyed (without turning stalker or otherwise creepy) over a girl...even if this guy is a demon.

There is so much else that Personal Demons has going for it. I don't want to make this unreadable long, so I'll try to just touch on a few other points of greatness here:
  • Frannie has awesome friends who threaten to beat up Luc if he messes with her. 
  • Frannie has hilarious sisters (all named Mary) who aren't so fleshed out that they crowd the story, but are all there and manage to be supportive anyway.
  • Frannie's Grandpa! He's great. Just so so great. He's supportive of Frannie in a way that the rest of her family is not. They all want what's best for her (which is wonderful); he trusts her to figure out what that is for herself.
  • There are multiple deep discussions about forgiving oneself as well as a serious look at whether or not there is anything that is unforgivable.
  • Frannie's discomfort with religion is explored in a sensitive way along with why bad things happen to good people.
  • By the end of the book, Frannie, Luc, and Gabe all learn a lot about love and sacrifice.
I really loved Personal Demons, and I wasn't sure I would just by looking at it. It fits in nicely with other paranormal romances (though it's way sexier than most), but it also looks at some more serious issues. The paranormal aspect brings all of Frannie's existing issues (religion, forgiveness, her inability to let her guard down) to the forefront, but the hot demon and sexy angel roaming the halls of her high school do not cause her story to exist.

Book source: Review copy provided by the publisher.

*Best line in a book EVER (with some context):
Because I love her.
That's got to be what this feeling is--the giddy rush I feel when I look at her, the way all my insides scream when I think about Belias taking her, the insatiable need I have to be with her. How is that possible? There's no crying in baseball and no love in Hell. It's just the rules.
p.193 (bold emphasis is mine; the italics are all Desrochers)

Friday, October 22, 2010

The House of Dead Maids

Dunkle, Clare B. The House of Dead Maids. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2010. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

When Tabby Ackroyd arrives at Seldom House, she finds her place there unlike any other job she's ever had. She's a maid, specifically the Young Maid, but she's not really expected to do anything until the Young Master, her charge, arrives. No one knows the Young Master's name, including the Young Master who refers to himself as Heathen Git. Tabby is determined to save the boy, who she calls Himself, and bring him to the light despite the darkness of Seldom House. And despite the previous Young Maid, now dead, cold and eyeless, who won't leave Tabby and her charge alone.

This cover grabbed me at ALA. I walked past the huge poster of the girl with no eyes probably a dozen times before I decided I just had to have a copy of this book. That girl on the cover is so enthralling. And a little disturbing. And she doesn't disappoint. This book is enthralling. And a more than a little disturbing. Tabby's life at Seldom House is odd, creepy, and plagued by ghosts, some seemingly kind and some openly menacing.

The House of Dead Maids has a wonderfully creepy and complicated set-up. It is hard to guess what is really going on at Seldom House with its old maid and young maid, neither of whom are actually maids, and its old master and young master, neither of whom act like the wealthy landowners they're supposed to be. Everything is a, from the way the house is run to the way the townspeople react to those in it. In the beginning, it's not so weird that it alarms Tabby, every town and house has its quirks, but it does make her feel vulnerable and a little off-kilter. It's in this state that she starts to encounter the ghosts, one in particular that she might have know in their lives before Seldom House. The mood ranges from a little dark to pretty darn scary. When we finally see what is really going on at Seldom House, there are a few holes left in the story, but they do not detract from the rapidly increasing creepy factor that just keeps getting higher the more things are explained.

Much has been made of The Heathcliff Connection in this book. Himself, or Heathen Git, is supposed to grow up to be Brontë's Heathcliff, and Tabby, a real historical person, grows up to be the Brontës' maid and teller of late night ghost stories. While this is kind of cool, I do think that The Heathcliff Connection is being emphasized a bit too much (on the blogs, by the publishers, in the jacket copy). It didn't seem to have too much to do with the stories, The House of Dead Maids or Wuthering Heights. Tabby's real life connection to the Brontës, on the other hand, was pretty interesting, especially when an explanation involving the hauntings at Seldom House is given for why the real life sisters cared for this maid so devotedly for her entire life. The epilogue offers more information about the historical Tabby, which I found very interesting and much more related to the story in this book than the (I felt) forced Heathcliff Connection. The epilogue also contains a plug for the author's website where there is more information about the historical Brontës, Wuthering Heights, and Tabby Ackroyd.

This is a very spooky, scary story that is a perfect Halloween read, and with the extra awesome cover it will be perfect for Halloween displays as well. For Brontë fans, The Heathcliff Connection will be an added bonus to a book that is a great keep-the-lights-on story for the rest of us as well.

Book source: Arc picked up at ALA.

PS - And there are illustrations! Little ones at the beginning of each chapter. Some of which make that cover art look as harmless as a tea party.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall - for Tween Tuesday

Tween Tuesday was started over at Green Bean Teen Queen as away to highlight awesome books for the 9-12 yr olds or Tweens. Any book highlighted on Tween Tuesday also counts for the In the Middle Reading Challenge! This week's book is:

Hahn, Mary Downing. The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall. Boston: Clarion Books, 2010. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

When Florence's uncle sends for her, taking her from Miss Medleycoate's Home for Orphan Girls and offering her a place in his home, she thinks her life must be finally looking up. When she gets to Crutchfield Hall, she finds her uncle to be wonderful and caring but away a lot on business. She's left with a crotchety aunt who doesn't bother to hide her dislike of Florence, her sickly cousin James who refuses to leave his bed, and the oppressive memory of James' older sister Sophia who died a year earlier. But then Sophia's memory stops just being oppressive; Sophia becomes...persuasive.

Mary Downing Hahn was the author of my childhood nightmares.

Her books, especially Wait Till Helen Comes, terrified be as a child. The only time in my entire life that my mother limited the content of my reading was to not allow me to read her Hahn's books after dark. As I've admitted before, I scare easily, but Hahn's books scared everyone. I have a distinct memory of my friends Karen and Paige and I reading one of her books out loud at a slumber party. Later that night we were dared to go outside by Paige's sister. That's it, just go outside. We couldn't do it. Paige's sister put all our underwear in the freezer as our "consequence" for turning down the dare. We felt lucky. We were in the sixth grade. I'm pretty sure that stopped my torrid affair with Hahn's book, but I still remember them.

It was with this background that I picked up The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall, expecting to be scared. And I wasn't. It's not that I'm so grown-up now or so desensitized by years of scary books and movies that I hadn't been in late elementary-middle school. I admitted just a couple months ago that I couldn't read The Dead Boys right before bed. It's that Sophia wasn't all that scary. She's mean, but not evil; jealous, but has no power/knowledge to get what she wants. She's just a sad, spoiled girl who doesn't want to be dead and who will hang around grabbing everyone's attention with her antics and tantrums until she gets what she wants: a second chance at life. Because it's just nor fair! Especially when James gets to live. Sophia terrorizes James and tries to get Florence to help (and sometimes succeeds).

But it still wasn't scary.

Because the whole story revolved around Sophia and Florence and James' fear of her, The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall kind of fell apart for me. Younger readers who are not quite ready for the super-scary stuff but are still looking for a Halloween book will be happy with this one.

Readers who aren't expecting Mary Downing Hahn to always remind them why Joey is right to be afraid of little girl ghosts* might be happy with it too.

Book source: Arc picked up at ALA

*I tried to find a clip, but no dice:

Chandler: Joey, there was a little girl who lived here, but she died like 30 years ago.
(Joey's eyes double in size)
Joey: (frightened) What?
Chandler: Ha! I'm just messing with you.
Joey: That's not funny! You know I'm afraid of little girl ghosts!
- from

You can also watch the whole episode online, if you want the visual. The scene I'm referencing is at about 17:30. :)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Hope in Patience

Fehlbaum, Beth. Hope in Patience. Lodi, NJ: WestSide Books, 2010. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

Nominated for YALSA Quick Pick's for Reluctant Readers, 2010

Finally out of her step-father's house where she suffered through years of sexual abuse at his hands, Ashley is adjusting to life in Patience, Texas. In Patience she has a father, a real father, who wants to protect her, a step-mother who doesn't see her as "the competition," a little brother who will play his video games so loudly that he entire house shakes, and a therapist who refuses to let her wallow in her past. Basically, she has a chance at a normal life. But with the coming trial against her step-father, her own flashbacks, and a seriously misguided rumor mill threatening to drag her down, Ashley may never be able to focus on the "normal" problems she should be worrying about at her age: her last place status on the cross-country team, a group project with one of the most uncooperative group members ever, and whether or not a certain boy can look past everything else going on in Ashley's life and just like her.

This is a harsh story, and my heart broke for Ashley over and over again while I was reading it. It is not a book that will be immediately accessible to a wide audience. It is a book that shows how one young woman is able to overcome years of sexual and emotional abuse with the help of some solid family and friends, and as such, it it has the power to provide exactly what the title suggests, hope, if it gets into the right hands.

Ashley's abuse at the hands of her step-father is definitely a focal point of Hope in Patience, even though it is all in the past at the opening of the book (though it does still manage to be graphic in places). Her mother's emotional abuse, however, manages to still reach Ashley in Patience and still tear Ashley to bits. It is that, more than facing her step-father at trial that puts up roadblocks on Ashley's road to normalcy. It is also what makes it so hard for Ashley to trust that her father and step-mother really love her, want her around, and have her best interest at heart.

Ashley's father, David, wasn't around when she was a kid. He had been an alcoholic, prompting her mother to leave him and take Ashley with her. Rather than wallow in the realization that he could have saved Ashley from years of abuse had he just looked her up and been a part of her life, he steps up and welcomes Ashley to his house and home with open arms. He becomes the best supportive dad a girl could ask for, and though Ashley's trust issues (and his prior absence) make her unable to call him "Dad," it is clear that he quickly becomes one of the foundation pieces in her growing support system in in her new life.

Bev, David's wife, is also instrumental to Ashley's increasingly happy life in Patience. She steps right into the role of the mother Ashley never had, without pause and without question. Bev becomes Ashley's confidant and friend (and English teacher), and when the time comes when Ashley needs someone to tell her to just get over it already, Bev's the one to do it.* For clarification, No one ever implies that Ashley should just get over years of abuse. Ever. She has an amazingly patient and supportive family and therapist who all understand that these things take (a lot of) time. But! Whenever anything bad happens, anything at all, Ashley has a tendency to close in on herself and shut out the world. This is what Bev tells her to get over, in a completely not-angry, non-judgemental way.

But the real star is, of course, Ashley. She's scared, kind, bold, shy, and overly aware of herself in the way that folks in therapy often are. And she's funny. And not broken. Fehlbaum, in Ashley, has managed to show that a person can go through hell and back, be totally and in some ways irrevocably scarred, and still not lose what make them them. Ashley displays fierce loyalties to her friends, K.C. and Z.Z. especially, even when she's struggling to hold herself together. And they do the same for her when she needs it the most. And there's Joshua. He's cute, he's also on the track team, and he like Ashley, which in a lot of ways terrifies her. Learning to trust him with all of her issues is the Big Thing in this book. It's the Big Problem and also the Big Indication of Growth. It's also really sweet.

Hope in Patience is ultimately about how Ashley grows out of the shell that years of abuse put her in. It is the powerful story of how she stops being Ashley-who-was-abused and becomes just Ashley.

Hope in Patience will be out in hardback on October 27th!

Book source: ARC provided by the publisher.

*Bev also assigns controversial (Chris Crutcher) books in her classes, allows kids to hang out in her classroom before and after school, accepts "edgy" freaks and religious zealots alike, and is basically all kinds of awesome. And she's backed up by the sassy, southern principal's secretary, making her exponentially more powerful in her school setting. Bev is basically who I want to be when I grow up, except I want to be in a library rather than a classroom. :)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

River Odyssey - for Tween Tuesday

Tween Tuesday was started over at Green Bean Teen Queen as away to highlight awesome books for the 9-12 yr olds or Tweens. Any book highlighted on Tween Tuesday also counts for the In the Middle Reading Challenge! This week's book is:

Roy, Philip. River Odyssey. Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2010. Print. The Submarine Outlaw Series 3.
[Book cover credit:]
If Sheba dreamt about you, you were in for it.
"There was a big storm," she began.
I sat up and listened closely. A big storm was no big deal; I had seen lots of those.
"And there was a sea monster."
Not so good. "What did it look like?"
"I couldn't see it; I just knew it was there. And your submarine was sinking."
Shoot! "Was the monster pulling it down?"
"Yes, I think so. I'm not sure. It's just that..."
"What? What is it?"
"I think maybe the saw monster was your father."
Trusting in Sheba's dreams and intuition, Alfred postpones his trip to the Pacific and decides to sail upriver to Montreal. That's where his grandfather thinks his father ran to when he left Alfred, and that's where Alfred is hoping he can still find him. Sheba is worried that without this trip, Alfred will be left with unfinished business weighing him down for the rest of his life. If that's true, why does Alfred feel more pulled down by dread the closer he gets to his destination?
The Submarine Outlaw is growing up, both the character and the series. Though there is still plenty of information about the working of the sub and, in this installment, the workings of the St. Lawrence River, River Odyssey reads a lot less like narrative non-fiction than the previous books in the series. I think that's because Alfred actually does a lot of growing in this book and deals with a lot of (gasp!) feelings. And he finds out that while he may want to explain everything away logically (see his rationale for the weird happenings over what my be Atlantis in the second book) some things, especially the actions of people and the motives behind them, will always remain inexplicable.

Alfred's mother died giving birth to him, and his father left shortly thereafter. All Alfred knows about either is what he's been told by his grandparents. Most recently, when asked the question, "What was he like?", this has consisted of a tight-lipped response from his grandfather: "He's not like you" (27). For the duration of his trip, Alfred is let trying to figure out what that means. He's not adventurous? Not at home on the water? Not good with animals or without company? As Alfred sails up-river and meets a variety of people along the way (as he is wont to do), he settles on another possibility. What if his father is not good?

Still an adventure story, still a great story about how things work, River Odyssey has something else too that was missing from the other Submarine Outlaw books: emotional (rather than mechanical) conflict and growth. Though Alfred still meets, gets to know, and leaves people on his trip, though he still gets in and out of scrapes along the way (gets a whole lot closer to getting caught than we've ever seen before - it's a lot harder to flit off into international waters when you're in a river), gone is the episodic quality of the first two books. I doubt fans of the series will be missing anything that they loved in the first books and will love seeing a glimpse into the rest of Alfred's life. And I think River Odyssey may have more to offer new readers as well. This doesn't feel like fiction for young readers of non-fiction anymore. The story and the information about ships, subs, and bodies of water are much more balanced, and this book is (finally) about a boy who happens to travel the world by sub rather than about a boy and how built, maintains, and travels by submarine.

River Odyssey came out last month and is now available for purchase!
Book 1: Submarine Outlaw
Book 2: Journey to Atlantis
Book source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Mockingbirds

Whitney, Daisy. The Mockingbirds. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2010. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

When Alex wakes up in a guy's dorm room with no clothes and no recollection of how she got there, she knows that something wrong has happened. She doesn't want to go to the cops, and going to administration of Themis Academy is useless. She just wants the whole thing to go away, to have never happened. When she starts remembering that night, and dealing with what those memories do to her, she stops feeling safe. In the halls, in class, in the caf, anywhere he might be. That's where The Mockingbirds come in. They're a group of students masquerading as an a cappella group who enforce the Themis Academy Honor Code and dispense justice among those in the student body who break it. And if Alex decides to press charges, hers will be the first case of date rape tried in their secret court.

Starting the morning after that night, The Mockingbirds is an intense book. The reader, like Alex, starts out not knowing what's going on and, with her, pieces that night together over the course of the entire book. It isn't until almost the end that Alex remembers the entire night, or as much as she's ever going to, and by then she's come to terms with a lot of it and had some time to heal. It's still horrible, clearly, but presenting the rape in that way, in short pieces over the course of the book, takes away the shock and some of the horror of it. It's not graphic, though it may still be triggering for some people.

Alex's big conflict for most of the book is accepting what happened to her as rape. 
I've thought about rape before. I pictured it happening to me. A dark alley, some rough guy I don't know who's five times my size grabs me and forces me to my knees, a knife to my throat. Sometimes I'd picture it happening in my house while everyone was asleep. He'd come in through my window and hover above me. I'd be startled awake, pinned down in my own bed, everything I know that's right in the world ripped out of my chest.

That is rape.

I know rape is something else too. It's just I always thought of it in a very specific way -- with a very specific kind of attacker -- not in a way I'd have to defend, not in a way where I'd have to preface everything with "I was drunk, really drunk."

She has loads and loads of guilt about being drunk enough to be taken to the room of a guy she didn't know. If she can't remember getting to his room or even large chunks of the party before hand, maybe she's also simply not remembering that she wanted to have and enjoyed having sex with him. While she knows this isn't true, the dirty and used feeling won't let her actually think that, she knows she has to prove that she wasn't "asking for it," something no sexual assault victim should ever have to do. It's bad enough hearing other people recount her drunken exploits of that night in front of the Mockingbirds while she's building her case; she could never explain her drinking and other bad decisions to the cops, her parents, or the administration of Themis Academy. It takes her a really long time to really believe that though she made bad decisions, being raped was never her fault, but that point is eventually made very clear for Alex (and the reader) by her friends, the Themis Academy Honor Code, and during her trial.

Still, this doesn't read like a problem novel. Of course Alex is consumed with what happened to her and its aftermath, and that takes up a lot of the book. But this is also about the Mockingbirds themselves, their founding, the checks and balances in their system, and ultimately their power over the student body. It's very cloak and dagger, but on the side of truth and justice! Through her interactions with the Mockingbirds, Alex gains confidence and strength. She also makes plenty of new friends and figures out just how much all of her old friends are willing to go to bat for her. She even gets a bit of romance. And, of course, this is all set at a boarding school for the extremely gifted. This book would be just as good and just as compelling (though not nearly as heart-wrenching) if Alex were pressing charges for bullying or some other offense rather than date rape. The story is really balanced in that way. Because The Mockingbirds is this year's big book about date rape, one might assume that it should be reserved for older young adults, but all the other elements in the book make it, I think, accessible to all high schoolers, not just the about-to-go-college ones. And, as the book points out when other girls start telling Alex their own stories, it's not as though date rape is something that only happens to high school upperclasswomen or older.

The book closes with an author's note where Whitney talks about her own experiences with both date rape and a student-run justice system. Resources for victims of sexual assault as well as organizations promoting the empowerment of young women are also provided.

The Mockingbirds will be out on November 2nd!
But it looks like it's already available for purchase on amazon.

Book source: ARC provided by the publisher.

*Quotes and page numbers were taken from an uncorrected proof and my not match the published copy.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Nightshade City - for Tween Tuesday

Tween Tuesday was started over at Green Bean Teen Queen as away to highlight awesome books for the 9-12 yr olds or Tweens. Any book highlighted on Tween Tuesday also counts for the In the Middle Reading Challenge! This week's book is:

Wagner, Hilary. Nightshade City. New York: Holiday House, 2010. Print.

All eyes were upon the Nightshade brothers. The crowd's faced turned from joyful to bewildered; the rowdy noise turned to deafening silence, then shifted to a low drone of whispers.

The boys heard one rat say, "I saw them in the Combs. I swore they were ghosts!" Others said "Julius lives" or "Nightshade has returned!" The brothers were terrified and exhilarated. Who was their father?
Vincent and Victor Nightshade have spent most of their lives trying to blend in, just trying to survive. But once upon a time they had a family and a father who was loved by everyone in their community. When they're unexpectedly saved from a dreary and dangerous life in the Combs, they must carry the mantle of their father and save the rats still left in the Combs. Save them and bring them to Nightshade City.

I LOVED The Rats of NIMH, both book and movie, when I was a kid. When Nightshade City came for me in the mail, I was half really excited about reading a new novel about a secret civilization of intelligent rats and half really really worried that it could never live up to my memory of Mrs. Frisby and her children. Well, I was right on both counts. The secret civilization of intelligent rats is there and, in the same spirit of O'Brien's classic, they are very human little rodents and the descriptions and characterizations of them are simply magic. For example:
Lamenting his large dinner, Lithgo leaned against the wall for support as sweat trickled down his thick russet brow and steam wafted from his now-filthy coat. The two young lieutenants stood without a sound, waiting for the major's orders. All that could be heard in the dusky corridor was Lithgo's weighty breathing.
Can't you see that scene? You know what kind of major Lithgo is, the overweight, past his prime, spent kind. He's also really evil, but that's not the point of this paragraph. Wagner manages to describe the rats, especially when we first meet them, in a way that reminds you that they're rats but also reminds you that they're "people."

But this is not a novel about a sweet widow and her helpless children or even a society of rats who are fleeing humans. This is a novel about a just civilization of rats that was overthrown in a now legendary Bloody Coup. The bad guys are other rats, and they include a very large albino rat, escaped from some kind of testing facility, who delights in torturing and scaring those over whom he rules. This monster, Billycan, leads an army of orphaned male rats, teaching them to be killing machines and to police their former friends and neighbors before they even reach adulthood.

There are parts of this book that are definitely not for the faint of heart. Teenagers worry that their younger siblings are being tortured on their behalf; powerful leaders try to seduce young and beautiful girls; people (rats) die. Through all of that, Nightshade City and its early inhabitants never lose their resolve that things will turn out alright. Because of them, their normalcy and their senses of humor, the story never gets too scary or harsh. It's just important. What Vincent, Victor and the rest of the rats of Nightshade City are doing is of utmost importance and people will suffer greatly if they don't accomplish what they've set out to do. In this way, and in the way that violence and evil and other scary stuff is used, I think it is along the lines of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. What the characters are doing feels epic and like it will change everything. Maybe it will.

This definitely one of my favorite books read this year, which is something I almost never say. I just LOVED this!

Nightshade City was released earlier this month and is available for purchase!

Book source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Saturday, October 2, 2010


Lindner, April. Jane: A Modern Romantic Retelling of Jane Eyre. New York: Poppy - Little, Brown and Company. 2010. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

After the death of her parents, Jane finds herself running out of options. With no money to pay for school and no home to go to when the dorms close, she applies for work at a nanny agency. Jane's never been overly social or interested in pop culture, facts that made her a bit of a loner at Sarah Lawrence, but they make her the perfect candidate for a nanny position in the home of world-famous rock star Nico Rathburn. After reading through internet archives of tabloid stories about Nico Rathburn's sordid life so far, she expects to have to babysit through a constant drunken party. Instead she finds life at Thornfield Park to be calm and her charge's life to be almost normal. And Nico Rathburn isn't the playboy she expect either.

In the review of a book like this, a modern romantic retelling of a classic, you might expect a bit of commentary about how the retelling relates or compares to the classic. There are plenty of reviews of Jane out there already that do that, so I'm not going to. Also, I've never read Jane Eyre, which would make the comparison a little difficult. More importantly, I've never had any desire to read the original, and yet Jane was one of the new books I most eagerly awaited this fall. Because, really, who hasn't had a daydream (or two) about a chance meeting with a rockstar/actor/hot guy in French class where you fall in love and live happily ever after in a mansion?

Well, Jane Moore apparently never had that daydream. She's very serious and very artistic at the same time. I bet her doodles never involved practicing her Mrs. Nico Rathburn signature (or any other future signature, for that matter) in middle school. That's why when she gets to Thornfield Park and finally meets Mr. Rathburn (who looks just like Russel Brand in my head), the guy all the guys want to be and all the girls want to date, she's completely blindsided by the feelings she develops for him. From the very beginning, Mr. Rathburn takes Jane seriously and values her opinion, not only because she's basically raising his daughter Maddy, but because he sees intelligence and value in her. The problem is that with their real big age difference (which I would have loved to see addressed or at least acknowledged at some point) and his role as Jane's employer, she's never sure if he's interested in her as Miss Jane, Maddy's nanny, or in Jane, all on her own.

What follows is a book's worth of "does he like like me?" introspection and touching moments that will generate enough butterflies in your belly to last a lifetime. It's practically a fairytale in its perfection...

And because the real plot of the story starts so far into the book, this might be considered a bit spoilery. Proceed at your own risk:
...until you realize that you're reaching the happy ending only about 2/3 of the way through. With happily ever after right within their grasp, the world comes crashing down around Jane, Maddy and Mr. Rathburn. If you're familiar with Jane Eyre, this mini-apocalypse probably won't be all that shocking, but I was completely thrown for a loop, as was Jane. And she runs from it. Jane, on her own and without a plan, gets to pull herself up by her bootstraps and figure out what she really wants in life for the first time since her parents' death. As much as I loved the lovey-dovey parts of the book that led up to this, Jane on her own was the best part. It finally gives her time to mourn the loss of her family, both her natal family and the family she had been building with Mr. Rathburn. She becomes more than the mousy youngest sister, the proper nanny, the "Plain Jane" that managed to snag Nico Rathburn's heart. I definitely liked her more as a character for her growth and found all that happens after much more believable. I get why all Jane's growth had to happen so far into the book, plot-wise, but I wish Jane had been a more realized person from the beginning. I don't think it's a problem with the characterization or the writing; I think it's just that Jane was kind of coasting on auto-pilot up to that point, or as auto-pilot as one can be when dropping out of college to be a nanny.
Done with the spoilers.

In short, this is the story of a great romance. It combines all those timeless, delicious feelings of a first love with the glamor of the rich and famous and the realities of how real life can intrude on both.

Jane comes out on October 11th! But it looks like it's already available for purchase on amazon.

Book source: ARC provided by the publisher