Tag Archives: book review

Review: How to Read Literature Like a Professor

professorI’ve always been a big supporter of literary criticism and using literary devises in my writing. I wrote this article back in 2007 on my first blog project about how to use literary criticism to add theme, symbolism, and deeper meaning to stories. I’ve always enjoyed literature classes and so while wandering through Value Village looking at second hand whatnot, I stumbled across How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster. I flipped through it, thinking, this looks pretty interesting, but I already probably know all of this from being in college before.

Then, curse it all, I put it back on the shelf!

Naturally when I came to my senses a week later checking the sales, it was gone. By then I’d thought it over enough to be super curious if there’s more things I could learn about literary criticism, and it looked like a good book. Woe! I was too late. Fortunately the library had a copy, but I am still a bit sulky, because it turns out this book is excellent from a writing perspective. Which means I’m going to have to shell out more than the second hand store would have charged me.

The book’s main purpose is to teach readers, mostly high school or college students, how to notice symbolism, theme, and other literary devises in classic literature. It’s conversational tone makes it an easy and pleasant read, and inadvertently, Foster sounds almost like he’s suggesting to us how to add literary depth to one’s writing. Read as a book not for readers but for authors, this is an amazing tool and I definitely want a copy I can keep and use to go over my novels in revision, checking for ways I can flesh them out symbolically.

Some of the great topics he covers in depth are

  • How to use earlier stories to invoke and depth to a story
  • The biggest sources for symbolism, Shakespeare, the Bible, fairy tales, and Greek Mythology and why authors use them, why you should use them too
  • The weather and setting and how to use it
  • Religious/spiritual themes, politics, violence, sex, illness and their symbolic connotations
  • Irony and how it works

Yes, this is very basic stuff, things I’ve learned before, but Foster’s straightforwardness has been highly useful. Explanations of, if you want this effect in a book, these are the symbols or parallels that give discerning readers this sort of message. Laying out why it’s critical to draw on previous work when building up a novel and how that enriches the story. Reading the Greek myth chapter, I realized I have Icarus hiding in one of my novels, and reading the chapter on why all stories are part of one great story, I realized why another of my novels desperately needs some Kung Fu in it.

Once I finish this, I plan to check out the sequel, How to Read Novels Like a Professor, to see if I learn anything new there. I might also make myself some checklists for going over every mention of season, weather, meals, and so on to look for symbolic or thematic usefulness.

The Dark Crystal: Creation Myths

Dark Crystal Creation Myth 2I don’t usually read graphic novels.  This is not for any prejudice against them in particular, it’s simply that I didn’t grow up with many comic books around the house. The only ones my parents had were a couple of “Far Side” collections.  I think my mother simply found a lot of the graphics annoying.  When visiting family friends, I really got into their “Rupert” graphic novels (or was it Reuben?), which she always complained were hideous, and how she couldn’t stand a bear with human hands.  They had a few “Tin Tin” graphic novels as well which she thought equally repulsive.

Thus, since I simply didn’t have access to them when I was young, and they never occur to me as an adult. I’m used to imagining things in my head when reading a book and zipping through the text.  While now and then I’ve thought things like, “It might be amusing to read the ‘Ender’s Game’ comic book,” I’ve never been serious enough about it to go purchase one.Raunip

So, when I decided to check out the Dark Crystal’s Author Quest, and discovered the only material besides the movie out there were graphic novels I was initially disappointed.  Fortunately, my public library had two volumes of the “Dark Crystal Creation Myths” in their collection and I checked them out.  I’ve ended up really enjoying them.

For one thing, the art is lovely, if a bit creepy, which is appropriate considering that’s the same vibe the classic movie has.  While they’re slower reading than a regular novel for, the art was splendid.  What surprised me most was that it allowed me to actually like reading creation myths, which tend to bore me.  Usually I want to get on with the real story instead. Or, if I’m going to read folktales I prefer actual ethnographic ones to made-up fantasy ones.  As a genre, creation myths tend to be abysmally boring.

GyrHowever, when lovely illustrated, I’ve discovered I don’t mind them. The actual “creation” part is also only the first section of the first book. I was able to connect with the mischievous Raunip who reminded me of my trolls, and the sad gelfling Gyr, a bard marred by a tragic song.  The world of the movie always seemed a bit confusing (who were these strange creatures that go split into two) and the books do a good job of showing the reasons for the split. I found the whole thing enjoyable and well-done.

I am seeing if any of the other nearby libraries have the rest of the graphic novels and will perhaps try this format more often.  I can certainly recommend them for anyone who likes either graphic novels, the Dark Crystal, or mythic storytelling.  They might be a bit dark for the younger crowd, but if the kid has seen the movie without being terrified, the books are entirely appropriate.

Ten Fabulous MG/YA Books I Read in Critique

One of the best things over the years about being a member of my favorite critique group (Critique Circle) is the many fabulous books I’ve encountered in helping other authors. Sure, when I read them in critique, the majority of books are deeply flawed and in need of help, but that’s why they’re in critique. They aren’t yet ready. But by the time they’ve finished there they’re strong works that stick with me for years.

So, here are ten middle grade or young adult books I critiqued in formation (in various levels) that have made their way to publication and why they’ve stuck with me. Sadly, there’s many more that haven’t reached publication, but I can always hope at least some of them will (perhaps a topic for another day). Also, I’ve enjoyed a number of fantastic adult novels in critique as well, but since I’m a children’s writer, I like to keep the blog focused on that genre. I must say, reading such a wide variety of stuff is one of the things I’ve really enjoyed about critiquing other authors.

Despite all being middle grade or young adult, these vary greatly in subject and taste, because as a reader I’ve got a wide interest. But what they all have in common is I’ve thought of them long after reading them. Also, most of them are new releases this year, some with sequels planned for next year!  So I’ll have to do this blog topic again sometime soon!

Lost in Lexicon by Pendred Noyce– Ivan and Daphne, bored with their great aunt’s house, wander into an alternate universe where a thesaurus is an animal rather like a llama and punctuation can cause pest-like problems.  Both words and numbers weave magic in this “Phantom Tollbooth”-like world.

I totally loved critiquing this one, and it excited me to have something like one of beloved childhood favorite novels.  I was thrilled when Penny self-published it and even more thrilled when a publisher picked it up.  This book is both educational and entertaining, plus fully illustrated with whimsical art.  Be prepared to be challenged with both word and number puzzles, but if you aren’t into that, there’s also a great story and two well-developed main characters to enjoy.  And, I’ve critiqued the forthcoming sequel as well and can hardly wait for it to get released.

Hannibal’s Elephant Girl by Ariion Kathleen Brindley– Liada is pulled from the river by the elephant Obolus, and adopted into a bustling military camp and all the traders who operate in it.  She searches both for who she used to be, and who she wants to become, while getting to know the young man who will soon begin his famous march on Rome.

This one is a classic historical fiction middle grade novel, and one I think ought to win awards, but I don’t know how much the author has managed to submit it to any contests, unfortunately.  The characters and setting is vivid and reminded me of such Newberry winning historical classics as “Yung Fu of the Upper Yangtze” or “Daughter of the Mountains.”  The one thing I wanted more of, was more scenes with Obulus, the elephant, although I’m guessing the sequel has plenty of that.  Unfortunately I haven’t gotten to read it yet.  I have read a couple of Brindley’s other, adult novels though, and they’re also excellent.

 The Odd Job Squad by Karl Fields — Ander runs a middle school revenge business with his small group of quirky friends.  They pride themselves on getting back at the school bullies without getting caught.  But when they stumble into some adult secrets with large ramifications, they find themselves in deeper trouble than they ever imagined.

This one had me laughing the whole way through, yet also really caring about the characters. Like “Dairy of a Wimpy Kid” or the “Bad Girls” series, I felt totally immersed in the world of junior high school while reading.  The setting in San Francisco is very vivid as well; I’ve only visited the city a couple times, but felt the novel really captured the sense of it.  Also, plenty of plot twists and turns and a thought provoking commentary on what’s appropriate and what’s not trying to stand up to bullies.

Bad Spelling by Marva Dasef — Katrina can’t spell, a terrible problem for anyone, but made worse by the fact she’s a witch.  All her spells go wrong, no matter how hard she works, while her younger brother is extra talented.  It’s enough to drive any girl crazy.  But when she sets out find the nature of the curse that hinders her magic, her brother turns out to also be her biggest supporter.

A lively mix of humor and sincerity, this adventure is one I critiqued from its first draft, and I’m thrilled that it finally got picked up by an e-publisher this year.  The characters are dynamic and the sibling relationship my favorite part of this story.  There’s also some great plot twists and hilarious moments I don’t want to spoil.  And while this is my favorite of Marva’s books, I’ve also helped critique and am a fan several other middle grade novels of hers, including “Eagle Quest,” “The Tales of Abu Newas,” and “First Duty.”

The Mirror of N’de by LK Malone — Hadlay, a gutsy child of an enslaved people, wins a chance to join the Emperor’s elite magical school.  She hopes by winning the prince’s attention she can better her people’s plight, yet swept away by competing desires for revenge and glory, finds herself wrapped up in court politics that go deeper than she could have ever imagined.

Think “Narnia” meets “Harry Potter” with a twist of horror, or at least in my mind when I consider how grim some of the spectacular twists in the story take it. (Then again, “Goosebumps” is my level of horror novels.) I would consider it a 12 and up novel, depending on how well the kids can take horror, but well worth the read.   Part of it is the vivid quality of events that really bring the fantasy world presented here to life.  Also, I don’t mind a bit of allegory in a story, especially one with such strong plot and characters.  It makes its theological points, but it’s all within the framework of the story events.

Hero’s Choice by A. Merc Rustad — Dark Lord Mrkota discovers the newborn fated to kill him in fifteen years, conveniently marked with a blue star on his forehead. But flouting tradition, he decides to adult him instead of letting him float off downstream in a basket, because “I’d rather have my heir learn how to rule my empire the proper way if he’s going to kill me and take over.” Everyone else, however, seems bent on making fate come true, whatever Mrkota and his son might want.

This is a wonderful young adult humor novella in the tradition of “Dealing with Dragons,” only this time it’s the villain who’s taking a stand against fairy tale traditions. It’s published with the young adult online magazine “Silver Blade,” and currently FREE. If you haven’t read it yet, go do it, while it’s still available! Although I hope the author will put it up on kindle when the magazine is done with it, because this is one of my all time favorites.

The Dragon Box by Katie W Stewart — James is drawn into another world by a small devise belonging to his quirky neighbor and has to work out his real world problems in a parallel fantasy world.

While I don’t love this one as much as the author’s forthcoming “The Mark of the Dragon Queen,” it’s a strong middle grade novel that will resonate with kids.  The characters are dynamic and entertaining and the well worn themes are presented in a lively manner that’s quite appealing. And who wouldn’t fall in love with this cute little dragon?

 

Unchosen Mage by M. Norton —  A wizard locked in a Merlin-esque state of suspended animation might be the only hope for Lanterra as evil forces seek to destroy the world. Two young wizards in training, one the top of his class, the other the class dropout, are forced by events to go looking for a way to end the enchantment.

This classic high fantasy novel was one that I shredded early on it its life. Instead of ignore me of worse, being crushed, Marti gave me almost everything I asked for! And believe me, what I asked for was a complete rewriting of events. How awesome is that for an author? And one of the scenes I asked her for ended up being a trust fantastic scene, but since it involves the climax, I’m going to keep quiet about exactly how awesome it is. It’s a young adult novel in the same vein as “Eragon,” but with great friendship between the two main characters at its center that keeps it much more vivid as far as characterization.

Ashfall by Mike Mullin — When a supervolcano at Yellowstone explodes, it sends a large section of the United States into chaos.  Dark ash covers everything, blotting out sunlight, and things fall apart quickly.  Alex, left home on the fateful afternoon by himself while his family went to visit relatives, journeys across the ash-covered landscape to attempt to reach them.  It is a battle for survival.

This gripping disaster novel kept me glued to it each time it went through the queue. It is on the more mature end of children’s books for violence, language, sex, and the sorts of situations presented. Like “Lord of the Flies” we get some of the darker aspects of human nature, but for the right young adult (and adult readers like me), will have a lot of appeal.

Morgaina, Her Magic Horse, Ghosts and Gods by Carolyn Chambers Clark — Morgaina has been languishing in an orphanage (that is driving everyone crazy with her pranks), until the ghost of her mother shows up to deck her out in full battle gear and send her off to Valhalla on her first quest.  Turns out her mysterious father was a Norse god and quests are a family tradition.

I’ll admit the cover is awful, the title could be better (I liked the original one more), and it probably needs more copy editing than this poor book got, but this is a great story for the target audience of 9-12 year old girls.  I laughed and smiled all the way through critiquing it, the characters are lively and fun, the setting whimsical, and honestly, the age group is pretty forgiving of bad cover art. So, while I’m hoping the author will hire an artist who can really make this shine, it’s still a fun read.  I’m always going to remember it fondly.

***

Also, in honor of the holiday season, I’m having a SALE on my own middle grade novel.  From now until Christmas, “A School for Villains” is only 0.99 on Smashwords!  So pick up a copy while it lasts!

Her Hair was Often Snarly

Recently I changed my author photo because I had a hair epiphany. For the first thirty years of my life, my hair was a constant battle. Now, post-epiphany, my hair causes me no trouble at all in what feels a bizarre unreality. Who would have thought?

So the saga starts with the fact that I was born with a full head of gorgeous (or so everyone told me) blond curls. Perfect strangers loved to say to me as a child, “Oh, I wish I had your hair! You’re so lucky!” Um, yeeeeah, if your hair involved being held down and having a brush ripped through it while you screamed, you would not consider yourself so lucky. Naturally, I resisted all brushing attempts.

My hair made good dreadlocks, or large mats right behind my ears, like a Persian cat someone let outdoors. My mother tired to manage it by snipping it off periodically, but that’s about as far as she got. As I got older, I made attempts, but after the 3 hour ordeal of untangling it, I usually was so tired of struggling with my hair, that I would not bother for a week and then have another ordeal. I kept planning to cut it, but that would involve going to a hair place, and I didn’t want to when it was tangled and since it was almost never untangled… well, it was a self-sustaining cycle.

So I embraced the persona of this lovely little card by Terrea L. Bennett of Friday Harbor, WA. I sort of found a balance with my hair at medium length and wetting a brush to get it through my hair every morning and it was a decent compromise, but depending on the weather, my hair would snarl, sometimes more sometimes less, as the day went on.

Then, one day my aunt, who’d always in my mind had wavy to straightish hair, showed up with her hair cut short and in curls. When I asked her about it, she talked about some book she got at the library and doing weird things that included no shampoo and not brushing it. Not brushing it, hah! I’d tried that… but not sans shampoo. So I went ahead and tried the book, figuring I didn’t have much to lose.

Surprisingly I learned a ton about my hair, which pretty much did what the book said it would when I followed the direction.  Leaving me quite impressed with “The Curly Girl Handbook” by Lorraine Massey.  It’s never been easier to be curly-haired.

5 star review for Chosen Sister

E-book It Reviews has given me a very uplifting 5 star review on “Chosen Sister.”  It feels wonderful to have someone really understand what I was going for with the novel and I’m really excited a kid got to enjoy it.

One thing that’s been a bit frustrating with e-books is how few kids have readers yet, but I’m hoping that will keep shifting and more and more kids will be reading e-books.

Review on Nayu’s Reading Corner

Nayuleska has give Chosen Sister a 9 out of 10 at Nayu’s Reading Corner.  I really like her way of suggesting other similar books at the bottom because I haven’t read either of those and they look great.  It makes me think I should try to list out all my favorite books with fun sibling relationships.

As the oldest of eight children, my ups and downs with my brothers and sisters growing up is something I remember quite well.  I like stories that show those sorts of family relationships and explore them, one reason I came up with the whole idea for “Chosen Sister”.  When one of my younger brothers or sisters got to do something special I was always jealous, but easily moved to be protective if they ran into trouble.  While I grew up with stories like Joseph and his brother’s in the bible, I could never imagine of being so jealous of my own brothers and sisters that I would want to harm them like that.  I feel like most older sisters and brothers would be more inclined, despite the disappointment of not getting the special treatment, to look out for their younger siblings.  I had fun exploring the emotions and limits of that though in my novel.

Good Book Alert Reviews Chosen Sister

Cindy Borgne at Good Book Alert has give Chosen Sister four stars.  This wonderful blog, started by members who also belong to the same excellent writing workshop site I do (Critique Circle), has also reviewed a number of novels I’ve critiqued and greatly enjoyed.   Their comments are insightful and the blog well worth following.

I do have to agree that the 9-13 aged crowd was my audience.  As lovely as the cover is, I can see their point that it might look more like it was aimed at teenagers, but it’s my publisher’s decision to go with it.  I’ll keep it in mind though since I’m looking to offer print copies of the novel hopefully in a few months.

 

Mini-reviews

I’ve been reading a lot.  I call it research.  I have to know what’s going on in my field, right?  This gives me an excuse to work through my huge stack of former library books I bought at the book sale, plus a bunch of current library books.  Sweet research, how I love thee.  However, I’m much to lazy to do a full review of all of them, so I’m doing a stack of mini-reviews.
“Wild Boy” by Thomas Fall
Genre: Historical fiction set in the U.S. during the 1870s
One sentence synopsis: Roberto, half-Mexican, half-Native American tries to figure out where he fits in between cultures on the southern Texas border while lusting after catching the killer mustang stallion Diablo.
This reader’s take:  Killer wild horse, angry American soldiers, angry Comanche warriors, and a boy with a lot of grit, what’s not to love?  Who cares if it was published back inn 1965?  The 1800s haven’t changed any and this one reads easy and well.
Bottom line: major win for the action adventure reader with a few things to actually think about tossed in
“What the Birds See” by Sonya Hartnett
Genre: YA literary, although no young adults are involved, this one should’a been sold as an adult book
One sentence synopsis: Nine-year-old Adrian is a neglected child with a depressed girl for one friend and a sell-out for another, who spirals deeper and deeper into wanting someone to need him until *gasp* all ends in tragedy.
This reader’s take: Someone wanted to be poetic and very very literary by writing the most stupidly depressing book imaginable.  The dead bird on the cover should have warned me.  The flap talking about kidnapped and dead children should have warned me.  I stupidly read it.  I still I want my wasted hours refunded.
Bottom line: Major fail, can we re-institute book burning for this one?
“The View from Saturday” by E.L. Konigsburg
Genre: MG literary
One sentence synopsis: The tale of four sixth graders, their teacher, and the complex human relationships behind their unprecedented rise to win the Academic Bowl in New York State against eight graders.
This reader’s take:  This is what a literary kid’s book should be like.  Humor, pathos, inner and outer struggles, all five POV characters (that’s right five, who says MG can only have one?) are full of depth and give us a new view of the situation.
Bottom line: Major win, which it did… the Newberry award.  Obviously those people have some sense.
“Shiva’s Fire” by Susane Fisher Staples
Genre:  MG/YA fantasy
One sentence synopsis: Parvati has always been different, surrounded by omens that make her rural Indian village people regard her with suspicion and awe, but her true gift and calling lies in dancing.
This reader’s take:  The fantasy elements are very subtle, so much so I couldn’t tell if we were dealing with just people’s beliefs or real magic at first.  The Indian setting and Hindu religion are so well woven in, it feels as if it could be just a cultural book until it unfolds farther.  Very lovely.
Bottom line: Not this author’s best (that won a Newberry) but certainly well worth reading.
“Storm Rising” by Marilyn Singer
Genre: YA paranormal romance
One sentence synopsis: Storm meets the alluring but troubling Jocelyn who seems to want to collect him as one of her “strays”, something he uselessly resists a while before caving.
This reader’s take: In my state they’d call this relationship statutory rape and emotionally abusive.  It’s Twilight in reverse, as stalker girl with magic powers wins her man… er… boy.
Bottom Line: Major fail, where’s the brain bleach?
“Spotting the Leopard” by Anna Myers
Genre: MG novel
One sentence synopsis: H.J. is wrapped up in his sister’s battle with her parent trying to go to college, his uncle’s marital and business problems, and most of all “Lucky” a leopard who escapes his miserable existence in zoo captivity and everyone is trying to hunt down.
This reader’s take: The leopard dies, need I say more?  Honestly, I’ve had it up to here with “Old Yeller” stories about noble but doomed animals and the poor saps who love them.  Not to mention it’s trying the literary thing really hard and failing.  If we must have this sort of book, stick to “Old Yeller”, nothing new here.
Bottom line: Yawn, but not worth book burning or target practice or anything.
“Flight of the White Wolf” by Mel Ellis
Genre: YA novel
One sentence synopsis:  When Russ’s pet wolf accidentally kills a prize dog and runs off, everyone is out to shoot it, and Russ has to try to help the wolf escape to national park where he can fend for himself.
This reader’s take: Sort of like “Hatchet” meets “Call of the Wild”, and well done too.  This is what an animal story should be like.  While the fact that Russ’s parents hardly blink at him leading a wolf past posses of armed and angry men and skipping half a year of school while doing it is a bit far fetched, it did nothing to ruin a fine action/wilderness survival novel with a very appealing wolf character.
Bottom line: another great action adventure book that even makes you think now and then
“The Forgotten Beasts of Eld” by Patricia A. McKillip
Genre: YA fantasy
One sentence synopsis: Emotionless wizard Sybel is brought into politics when a stranger dumps the future heir of the local realm on her doorstep, and Sybel ventures first into love and then into hate, discovering both what it means to feel and who she is in the process.
This reader’s take:  Someone put a sticker on the spine that said “fairy tale” which was exactly what this was, especially in narrative tone.  After I adjusted to it and accepted it as a classic fairy tale, I had a good time.  While the MC can be annoying in places the forgotten beasts of he title more than made up for it by being very cool.
Bottom line: Well worth a read if you like classic fairy tales or fantasy.
“The Story Teller’s Daughter” by Cameron Dokey
Genre: YA fantasy
One sentence synopsis: Shahrazad, socially outcaste daughter of the Grand Vizier fights to break the curse put on the sultan by his executed and traitorous wife without getting beheaded by him.
This reader’s take: I was skeptical… another Shahrazad retelling, and it starts really grandiosely and navel-gazing as well, but after the pathetic prologue it turned out decent.  While it mostly tosses out the actual Arabian Nights tale, it has a well developed world-building, magic, and internal logic.  Most importantly the stories interwoven by Shahrazad are always relevant to the plot and characters and keep the flavor of the original Arabian tales while being entirely new.
Bottom Line: Isn’t going to win any awards, but definitely readable enough for a YA fairytale retelling.
“The Crystal Garden” by Vicki Grove
Genre: MG novel
One sentence synopsis: Eliza is forced to move to a hick town when her mother follower her loser boyfriend there and struggles to chose between the sweet but geeky girl next door and the popular girls in junior high who seem to be inviting her to join them.
This reader’s take: Put every cliche possible together, and while well written, this one tended to make me yawn.  Gosh, a small town is a nice place to live?  Wow, geeks can be good and faithful friends?  Oh my, the popular girls are just using her?  I’m shocked.  Maybe it’ll be new to the 12 year-olds, but all the cliches killed me by the end of it despite well-developed characters.
Bottom Line: If your kid is into these books about outcast girl vs popular girls, go ahead and hand it to her, it’s decently well-written, but there’s nothing new here.

I’ve been reading a lot.  I call it research.  I have to know what’s going on in my field, right?  This gives me an excuse to work through my huge stack of former library books I bought at the book sale, plus a bunch of current library books.  Sweet research, how I love thee.  However, I’m much to lazy to do a full review of all of them, so I’m doing a stack of mini-reviews.

“Wild Boy” by Thomas Fall

Genre: Historical fiction set in the U.S. during the 1870s

One sentence synopsis: Roberto, half-Mexican, half-Native American tries to figure out where he fits in between cultures on the southern Texas border while lusting after catching the killer mustang stallion Diablo.

This reader’s take:  Killer wild horse, angry American soldiers, angry Comanche warriors, and a boy with a lot of grit, what’s not to love?  Who cares if it was published back inn 1965?  The 1800s haven’t changed any and this one reads easy and well.

Bottom line: major win for the action adventure reader with a few things to actually think about tossed in

“What the Birds See” by Sonya Hartnett

Genre: YA literary, although no young adults are involved, this one should’a been sold as an adult book

One sentence synopsis: Nine-year-old Adrian is a neglected child with a depressed girl for one friend and a sell-out for another, who spirals deeper and deeper into wanting someone to need him until *gasp* all ends in tragedy.

This reader’s take: Someone wanted to be poetic and very very literary by writing the most stupidly depressing book imaginable.  The dead bird on the cover should have warned me.  The flap talking about kidnapped and dead children should have warned me.  I stupidly read it.  I still I want my wasted hours refunded.

Bottom line: Major fail, can we re-institute book burning for this one?

“The View from Saturday” by E.L. Konigsburg

Genre: MG literary

One sentence synopsis: The tale of four sixth graders, their teacher, and the complex human relationships behind their unprecedented rise to win the Academic Bowl in New York State against eight graders.

This reader’s take:  This is what a literary kid’s book should be like.  Humor, pathos, inner and outer struggles, all five POV characters (that’s right five, who says MG can only have one?) are full of depth and give us a new view of the situation.

Bottom line: Major win, which it did… the Newberry award.  Obviously those people have some sense.

“Shiva’s Fire” by Susanne Fisher Staples

Genre:  MG/YA fantasy

One sentence synopsis: Parvati has always been different, surrounded by omens that make her rural Indian village people regard her with suspicion and awe, but her true gift and calling lies in dancing.

This reader’s take:  The fantasy elements are very subtle, so much so I couldn’t tell if we were dealing with just people’s beliefs or real magic at first.  The Indian setting and Hindu religion are so well woven in, it feels as if it could be just a cultural book until it unfolds farther.  Very lovely.

Bottom line: Not this author’s best (that won a Newberry) but certainly well worth reading.

“Storm Rising” by Marilyn Singer

Genre: YA paranormal romance

One sentence synopsis: Storm meets the alluring but troubling Jocelyn who seems to want to collect him as one of her “strays”, something he uselessly resists a while before caving.

This reader’s take: In my state they’d call this relationship statutory rape and emotionally abusive.  It’s Twilight in reverse, as stalker girl with magic powers wins her man… er… boy.

Bottom Line: Major fail, where’s the brain bleach?

“Spotting the Leopard” by Anna Myers

Genre: MG novel

One sentence synopsis: H.J. is wrapped up in his sister’s battle with her parent trying to go to college, his uncle’s marital and business problems, and most of all “Lucky” a leopard who escapes his miserable existence in zoo captivity and everyone is trying to hunt down.

This reader’s take: The leopard dies, need I say more?  Honestly, I’ve had it up to here with “Old Yeller” stories about noble but doomed animals and the poor saps who love them.  Not to mention it’s trying the literary thing really hard and failing.  If we must have this sort of book, stick to “Old Yeller”, nothing new here.

Bottom line: Yawn, but not worth book burning or target practice or anything.

“Flight of the White Wolf” by Mel Ellis

Genre: YA novel

One sentence synopsis:  When Russ’s pet wolf accidentally kills a prize dog and runs off, everyone is out to shoot it, and Russ has to try to help the wolf escape to national park where he can fend for himself.

This reader’s take: Sort of like “Hatchet” meets “Call of the Wild”, and well done too.  This is what an animal story should be like.  While the fact that Russ’s parents hardly blink at him leading a wolf past posses of armed and angry men and skipping half a year of school while doing it is a bit far fetched, it did nothing to ruin a fine action/wilderness survival novel with a very appealing wolf character.

Bottom line: another great action adventure book that even makes you think now and then

“The Forgotten Beasts of Eld” by Patricia A. McKillip

Genre: YA fantasy

One sentence synopsis: Emotionless wizard Sybel is brought into politics when a stranger dumps the future heir of the local realm on her doorstep, and Sybel ventures first into love and then into hate, discovering both what it means to feel and who she is in the process.

This reader’s take:  Someone put a sticker on the spine that said “fairy tale” which was exactly what this was, especially in narrative tone.  After I adjusted to it and accepted it as a classic fairy tale, I had a good time.  While the MC can be annoying in places the forgotten beasts of he title more than made up for it by being very cool.

Bottom line: Well worth a read if you like classic fairy tales or fantasy.

“The Storyteller’s Daughter” by Cameron Dokey

Genre: YA fantasy

One sentence synopsis: Shahrazad, socially outcaste daughter of the Grand Vizier fights to break the curse put on the sultan by his executed and traitorous wife without getting beheaded by him.

This reader’s take: I was skeptical… another Shahrazad retelling, and it starts really grandiosely and navel-gazing as well, but after the pathetic prologue it turned out decent.  While it mostly tosses out the actual Arabian Nights tale, it has a well developed world-building, magic, and internal logic.  Most importantly the stories interwoven by Shahrazad are always relevant to the plot and characters and keep the flavor of the original Arabian tales while being entirely new.

Bottom Line: Isn’t going to win any awards, but definitely readable enough for a YA fairytale retelling.

“The Crystal Garden” by Vicki Grove

Genre: MG novel

One sentence synopsis: Eliza is forced to move to a hick town when her mother follower her loser boyfriend there and struggles to chose between the sweet but geeky girl next door and the popular girls in junior high who seem to be inviting her to join them.

This reader’s take: Put every cliche possible together, and while well written, this one tended to make me yawn.  Gosh, a small town is a nice place to live?  Wow, geeks can be good and faithful friends?  Oh my, the popular girls are just using her?  I’m shocked.  Maybe it’ll be new to the 12 year-olds, but all the cliches killed me by the end of it despite well-developed characters.

Bottom Line: If your kid is into these books about outcast girl vs popular girls, go ahead and hand it to her, it’s decently well-written, but there’s nothing new here.

Review: Writing Magic

I had this review back at the “Toasted Scimitar” blog before it died,  and thougth looking it over I’d like to share it here too.
I’m excited to share about “Writing Magic” by Gail Carson Levine, a well-known children’s author. When I opend this book as a Christmas present, I admit I was a bit skeptical. A children’s book on writing? What was I going to learn from that? I’ve been writing seriously for the last five years and sold my first novel last year. After reading scores of books on writing, I already have my favorite two books on craft, “Writing on Both Sides of the Brain” and “The First Five Pages”. Add the classic Stunk and White “Elements of Style” for grammar and “Steering the Craft” by LeGuin for inspiration when floundering, and I figure I’m pretty well set. I check the same books out of the library constantly.
“I know you know everything in this book,” my mother said as I stared at it. “She’s just such a joy to read and I though you’d enjoy all her stories about rejection letters. I found them heartening.”
After giving the book a try, I have to say that Levine’s book is the best book for kids on writing that I’ve read and certainly worth any beginner in writing picking up. Her friendly narration and hopeful and encouraging tone are quite infective. Plus, she’s just plain fun. What other books on writing encourage you to rewrite Little Red Ridinghood with everyone staying eaten at the end (the chapter about making your characters suffer) or encourages you to describe in detail what brushing your teeth is like (the chapter on description)? The writing exercises are as quirky and enticing as everything else.
No, I didn’t learn anything I didn’t know before, but I sure had fun being reminded about it.
“The best way to write better is to write more,” Levine insists throughout the book and promptly gives you more than enough prompts to do immediately that. Every chapter prods the reader in this direction. Humor might be the vehicle, but Levine is also deadly serious with all her suggestions and right on target with what makes writing good. A short 161 pages with large type (but nicely indexed for reference), this book is brief but welcoming, and exactly what I wish could have existed back when I was ten or eleven and convinced writing was “too hard” for me. As an adult and a published author, I really do enjoy the warm and fuzzy feeling I get reading it, the feeling I could write anything, and just might, if only I’d sit down and try it.
And I’ll happily take her writer’s oath again before getting back to work on my projects.
“I promise solemnly:
1. to write as often and as much as I can,
2. to respect my writing self, and
3. to nurture the writing of others.”
Do that, and we can’t go astray.