Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie

Stiefvater, Maggie. Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie. Woodbury, Minn.: Flux - Llewellyn Publications, 2009. Print. A Gathering of Faerie 2.
[Book cover credit:]

This review contains no spoilers for Lament, and the book really doesn't either. And yet, this isn't quite a stand-alone book. There are a few things, especially in the stressful climax of the action, that will be a bit confusing if you don't at least have a vague idea of the first book.

When people said "musician," they never seemed to mean "bagpiper." If I heard the phrase "folk musician" one more time, I was going to hit someone.
James and Dee, both fully recovered from their summer shenanigans (at least physically), have been recruited by a prestigious music school, miles away from the faeries they're hoping to leave behind. It should be a wonderfully enjoyable, life-changing experience, right? Except it's not. They're both still reeling from the love-proclamation-that-never-was, and neither of them plays the "right" kind of music for their prestigious school. And the faeries have followed them.

You'd think two people as experienced in the practical consequences of faerie lore as James and Dee would have known they'd be surrounded by faeries at a school named Thornking Ash.

I love James. In fact, I capital "L" Love him. He's funny and snarky and smart and oh-so-flawed. He's also hopelessly stuck in the friend-zone, and the story he tells from way over there is both hilarious and tragic. That's right. This book is all about James. Even the parts of the story that are told from other points of view are all about James. It's great. He deserves it.

Ballad contains some serious faerie shizz. There's a wack-job wielding an iron crowbar, mysterious singing accompanied by a guy with horns growing out of his head (possibly king of something ;) ), teachers who wear iron jewelry, and the return of Eleanor, Lament's faerie queen, but what this book is really about is how James finally figures out that girls like him. At the opening of this book, his heart is continuing to break over Dee. Still, he finally allows himself to revel in the attention of another woman (and though it gets steamy in a few places, it's totally an intellectual romance). He also finally gets to have some guy friends, even if his closest buds consist of Paul, his oboe playing roommate, and Sullivan, his English teacher/dorm parent. Even at Thornking Ash and without Dee (who contributes with text messages never sent between chapters), James figures out how to be happy.

And this is a Stiefvater book. As you can see, this woman knows how to put words on a page. Her characters are all fully-fleshed people, many of whom I would die to eat Chinese take-out with on a Saturday night. They're funny and smart and a little nerdy. This would be a great book for John Green fans who want to ease into fantasy, or vice-versa.

So far, there's no word of another book in this series, but I still want to throw this out there: Stiefvater, if you're listening, the world could use more James.

Book source: Philly Free Library
Book 1: Lament: The Faerie Queen's Deception

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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Spinning Out

Stahler, David. Spinning Out. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2011. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

Gilliam High's annual musical is kind of a big deal. The kind that's looked forward to by the whole town. That's why Frenchy thinks Stewart has got to be joking when he suggests they audition. The audition will be marginally fun, wholly embarrassing, and the biggest jewel in their pranking crown. Or so Frenchy thinks. It turns out, flubbing the audition for laughs is not part of Stewart's plan. That's how Frenchy and Stewart snag the leads in "Man of La Mancha," as Sancho and Don Quixote respectively. For Frenchy, it's all a little surreal. When Stewart starts immersing himself in the role just a little too much, things really start to get weird.

Frenchy's had a hell of a year, and now he just wants to coast through his senior year. But Stewart wants to get involved and, as his best friend, Frenchy backs him up. Their relationship, mirrored in the master-servant/leader-follower relationship of Sancho and the Don, is the driving force of this book. And it's a serious and challenging relationship. Still, Spinning Out is mostly hilarious. It's not laugh-out-loud funny; it's more subtle than that. If this book were literary fiction instead of YA, it would be called "intelligent humor." The banter between Frenchy and Stewart is always snarky, and when you throw Ralph, their pot dealer/Frenchy's mom's boyfriend, into the mix, it's gets a little out of control. In a good way. That's why, when Stewart starts to act a, Frenchy doesn't think too much of it.

Stewart falls further and further into the role of Don Quixote; it's great for the play, but hard on Frenchy. It's also hard on his budding relationship with stage manager Kaela (who is awesome-sauce). So he steps away, just a little bit. Finally able to claim a little bit of his own limelight in the role of Sancho, Frenchy separates himself just the tiniest bit from Stewart. They're still best friends (and just like Norah, Frenchy is a Great Friend), they're just no longer practically surgically attached.

During all of this changing and growing and relationship stuff, there is still a show to put on! Long rehearsals, music practices, hot chicks with power tools building sets, it's all there. Theater geeks and show choir enthusiasts (and fans of books like My Invented Life) will love this aspect. All readers will be treated to a meaty story in the meantime.

Spinning Out will be available for purchase May 25th!

Supers, Super Spoiler only for people who want to know the "issue," or what's really going on, or the ending: (highlight to read)
Stewart has undiagnosed schizophrenia. During his descent into the disease, he clings to Don Quixote, convinced that the Don is the real him. The fact that Stewart is obsessed with/plagued by the wind turbines on the edge of town helps push him over the edge. Now, I'm not an expert in mental illness, but I thought the schizophrenia was handled very well. Though the school bullies call Stewart crazy, Frenchy never does. The whole thing is handled with respect. It's also really scary, and Stahler doesn't shy away from that fear, Stewart's or Frenchy's. I also thought that the reactions of the adults in Stewart's life were, sadly, probably pretty realistic. Stahler doesn't shy away from the consequences of those reactions either. Still, at no point did this feel like an "issue book." It was not preachy and there was no info dump. All the necessary information was worked seamlessly into the story. This is a great book for readers interested in mental illness in general and schizophrenia in particular.

Book source: ARC provided by the publisher through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

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Monday, May 16, 2011

The Boy from Ilysies

North, Pearl. The Boy from Ilysies. New York: Tor Teen, 2010. Print. Libyrinth 2.
[Book cover credit:]

Both Libyrinth and The Boy from Ilysies could be read as stand-alone books, in my opinion. There is nothing mind-blowing in this second book that will ruin the first for you, but if you're planning on reading Libyrinth (and I suggest that you do), you should probably skip this review.

Culturally, the Libyrinth is a utopia. Libyrarians and Singers, Ilysians and Ayorites all get along and work together. But they're still starving, and there are still growing pains. Po, the only Ilysian male, is feeling the latter acutely. He misses the green, fertile land of his youth, but more than that he misses living in a society where he knows what is expected of him.

I guess when I read Libyrinth I missed something key about Ilysies. I knew it was a matriarchal society, but I failed to notice that men are greatly outnumbered and treated as second class citizens. Things like that happen, I guess, when you're worrying about the torture of one protag and the budding romance between the other two. It is this second class status that has Po all mixed up in The Boy from Ilysies. Not only is he having problems thinking of Princess, I mean, Libyrarian Selene as just one of the girls and no more than anyone else, but he's also having trouble seeing himself as no less than. He's used to serving women like Selene, not working alongside them, and he's used to being emotionally taken care of, in return, by a matriarchal figure. All of this equality has left him feeling very alone and unsupported.

Much of the book is spent on this dilemma. It's interesting and important and turns gender stereotypes on their heads, but it wasn't what I was looking for in a sequel to the action-packed, literature-rich, POC and LGBTQ-featuring Libyrinth. I wanted more action than intrigue, more of Clauda's brashness and less of Po's confusion, more of the books' wisdom and less erections as feelings, more of the look-how-I've-grown Selene and less of the back-to-the-beginning Selene, more Nod(s), more Haly, and for the love, more Clauda AND Selene. When Po finally left on a quest, along with former Censor Siblea, Selene*, and a few others, I was so happy. I just wish that moment had come before I was halfway through the book.

But that second half of the book was totally worth it for me. The above group sets out for the former Singer headquarters to look for a tool from the legends of every major cultures' folklore that will hopefully make the land around the libyrinth fertile enough to support the community living there. Of course, when they get there, things do not go as planned, but in the course of the search and the fighting, we find out more about the foundations of the Singers' society. Their (former) reasoning behind the fear and demonization of the written word isn't exactly spelled out, but it makes a lot more sense now. Their still present culture of abuse and neglect of women also butts up against Po's sensibilities in a way that makes him take action rather than wallow in confusion and self-pity. The trip is also filled with danger, suspense, a cute but damaged girl for Po, and a cliff-hanger of an ending. I'm re-sucked in to this trilogy (or series?) an eagerly awaiting the as yet untitled Book 3. 

Book source: Philly Free Library

*without Clauda! Have they really never gotten together? Were they together and have since broken up? Are they together but trying to keep things hush-hush? WHO KNOWS? We get to hear (a tiny bit) about Haly and her boyfriend from the first book. Why no follow-up on Clauda and Selene's relationship, North?

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Under the Green Hill - 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. This week's book is:

Sullivan, Laura. Under the Green Hill. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2010. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

     "It's like in The Lion, the Witch and the Whachamacallit," Silly said, opening the door.
     "Wardrobe," Meg said.
     "Yup, that's it. Look, it's full of furs, too, just like the one in the book. I wonder if there's a passageway to a secret world."
     "We have enough to do here with the fairies without finding another world full of trouble," Meg said testily.
When a dangerous fever breaks out in the States, the Morgan children: Rowan, Meg, Silly, and James, are sent to England to stay with relatives for the summer. And haughty Finn and allergy-stricken Dickie are going with them. As they head to the Rookery, their great-aunt and -uncle's house, the Morgan children expect to spend a long summer in the company of tiresome elderly people. Finn's more concerned about the lack of electricity and Dickie's worried about all the pollen in those famous English gardens. Needless to say, none of them are excited. But when they get to the Rookery, they find a house of busy people getting ready for a midnight festival and themselves packed off to bed, forbidden to leave the grounds. Nothing is more exiting than that which is forbidden, so the Morgans, Finn, and Dickie sneak out to join the festivities, and what they find will change the course of the summer and possibly their lives.

As you may have guessed from this blog's title and header, I'm a bit partial to kids in unfamiliar old houses who stumble upon magical worlds. Extra points if that old house is in the English countryside. Extra, extra points if the kids get caught up in an epic war requiring brave heroics. There was never any doubt in my mind that I would love Under the Green Hill.

I want to be so very grown-up and objective and say that what I found so attractive in this book was its own sense of place in and reverence to the tradition of books about kids in unfamiliar old houses, so on and so forth. Or that I loved the allusions to other fairy/faerie stories that I caught but will probably fly over the heads of young readers. Or that I was excited about a middle grade book featuring a position of power passed down through the maternal line, with almost inconsequential (but loved!) husbands marrying into the family to help produce the all important female heir and spare. Or even that I was enchanted by Sullivan's use of language. For example:
Dickie could tell it was extraordinary just from the smell. An odor of knowledge permeated the air, ghosts of arcane secrets wafted about by the breeze the children made when they opened the door. Here were books more rare than any first editions. ... The air seemed stale, as though no one had visited that room in decades. But, oddly, though there was dust on all visible surfaces, the library didn't make Dickie sneeze. Books have their own peculiar kind of dustiness, which didn't catch in his nose the same way cat's hair or thistle pollen might.
I could say all of that, and it would all be true (especially that last one). But what really made me fall in love with Under the Green Hill was the story, pure and simple. I'm a sucker for a good fantasy adventure, and this one is full of that goodness: a beautiful setting that is recognizable but still full of fantastical elements, betrayal, swamp monsters, life and death stakes, war-training, a wise benefactress who one can only hope will make everything okay, an enemy that isn't so evil that anyone really wants to kill him, a sensible sister who tries to be the voice of reason, and a brother hell-bent on grand acts of heroism. Plus an added bonus (that I'm also a sucker for): a selkie!

So Finn, Dickie, and even youngest brother James are a bit underdeveloped. That's okay; they each serve their purpose in the story, hindering or helping the rest of the Morgans along. There's also a little ambiguity in the beginning about when this story is set. It feels like it should be set in the past, between World Wars perhaps, what with the incurable fever ravaging America's children and names like Finn, Rowan and Dickie, but Finn despairs about the DVDs and video games he brought with him to England but can't use since the Rookery has no electricity. It's also possible that I projected a former time on a book whose time period should be last week. Regardless, time period ceased to matter once all the children reached the Rookery and the real story started.

In case you missed it the first two times I said it, I loved this book and I think you all should read it! More professionally, I think other fantasy adventure readers are sure to enjoy it, and it will be an immediate hit with readers looking for something to read once they've run out of Narnia books.

Under the Green Hill is available now, and its sequel Guardian of the Green Hill will be available this fall!

Book source: Review copy provided by the publisher.

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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Open Wounds

Lunievicz, Joseph. Open Wounds. Lodi, NJ: Westside Books, 2011. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

"The bells of hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling
For you but not for me"

I met my cousin on the street. Sister Bernadette closed the front door behind me, her parting words echoing in my ears. "Mr. Leftingsham is your guardian by law of the state and by law of the Lord, Cedric. You are ours no longer. May the Lord be with you."
Cid has always been the kid nobody wants. His mother died when he was born, leaving him with a father who could never forgive him for his fatal birth and a grandmother who could never forgive him for his Jewish mother. When he inevitably gets left at an orphanage, he thinks he'll be there forever. A man like Lefty, a cousin he never knew existed, is the last person he'd expect to claim him.

Cid's already lived a rough life by the time Lefty takes him from the orphanage. He's spent most of his childhood as his father and grandmother's punching bag, watched most of his neighbors be evicted from their homes, watched his grandmother kill herself to avoid the same, been taken in to a loving home and then left behind. And that's all before he really even hits teenage-hood (and before we hit the 100 page mark). But that's not to say that it's all bad. Cid has two great best friends, Siggy and Tomik, and he goes to the movies, "church," with his grandmother every Saturday. And out of that comes Cid's dream of becoming a fencer.

The bright and the horrible are wonderfully balanced in these opening pages. You never quite forget one while you're reading about the other. And they set things up perfectly for Lefty's grand entrance. The Great War left him horribly disfigured, crippled, and cranky, but life with him gives Cid opportunities he never would have had otherwise. Together they form a little family (aawww - but not that obvious. Lefty and Cid are both way too tough for all that), but more importantly, Lefty sets Cid up with daily fencing lessons with the crazy, drunk  Russian on the roof. Once Nikolai gets involved, Open Wounds quickly becomes a sports book. There's training and fighting and sore muscles and exhausted bodies. But there's also stage-fighting with a Shakespeare company, a cute girl, a reunion with Siggy and Tomik, and the reappearance of their childhood bullies. Again, the beautiful balance. There wasn't so much plot that the fencing stopped being important, but at the same time, I never felt lost in a book centered around the practice of a sport I've only seen in movies.

Now, I don't read a lot of fencing books (though I'm considerably more interested in them now), but I do read a lot of ballet books. I always try to comment on the accuracy of the dancing or the attitudes towards it. I can't do that here, but Richie can (sorry, his site doesn't do direct links). If he says Open Wounds is good, you can bet that it is and that the swordplay therein is up to par (and he does). This will be a hit with readers who are looking for sports books, but historical fiction and hard-knock-life fans will love it as well.

Open Wounds comes out May 25!

Book source: ARC provided by the publisher.

*Quotes and page numbers are from an uncorrected proof and may not match the published copy.

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