August 30, 2012

Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses

LIES, KNIVES AND GIRLS IN RED DRESSES by Ron Koertge; illustrated by Andrea Dezso, (Candlewick Press, 2012)
GENRE: Poetry / Fairy Tales
AGE: 14 and up

Tapping into the burgeoning popularity of fairy tales and fairy tale adaptations, poet and novelist Ron Koertge presents this slender little volume of free-verse. But though aesthetically pleasing, (thanks to Andrea Dezso's cut paper illustrations and a gorgeous lay-out), and occasionally inventive, Koertge's trim, darkly funny collection is a bit of a mixed bag. While all of the stories are solid, only half contribute something new to the source materials, and of those, only a handful truly stand-out, making the rest dim by comparison.

Among the stand-outs are a fantastic re-imagining of "Hansel and Gretel" with a gruesome twist at end, a lovely re-telling of "Thumbelina" told from the mole's point of view, a strong, incisive look at Bluebeard's young wife and a version of "The Emperor's New Clothes" with some truly cutting social commentary woven through. Also, quite nice were the re-telling of "Rapunzel" from a five different points of view, and a quietly heartbreaking account of the Cinderella's step-sisters' Ever After. Each tale is accompanied by one of Dezso's strange, unsettling cut paper illustrations, all of which lend the casual, contemporary tone of the volume a somewhat gruesome, silhouetted depth. Koertge's free-verse has a wry, cutting quality that sometimes overwhelms the material, (as in "The Robber Bridegroom), but for the most part, it's a strong compliment to the black humor with which he re-tells these tales.

Overall, Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses does not uncover any new ground in the dark, fairy tale forest. It does, however, add a nice bit of nuance and smirky humor to the territory, making it a good volume for the fairy tale inclined and a nice introduction, if nothing else, to the appeal of free-verse.

August 28, 2012

Teeth: Vampire Tales

TEETH: Vampire Tales edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, (Harper, 2011)
GENRE: Short Stories / Vampires in Multiple Genres

As with all of their anthologies, Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling have put together a formidable collection, this time on the now ubiquitous subject of... Vampires. What more could there be to say, one might ask? Windlow and Datlow answer this question with a surprisingly scholarly, yet undeniably compelling "well, quite a lot".

The collection's introduction is written in Datlow and Windling's trademark voice - earnest, accessible, in touch - and yet, they concisely cover the multi-cultural history of vampire literature in a matter of pages, giving the reader (whom both the editors and authors do not coddle) the background needed to fully appreciate the layered aspects of the stories that follow. That said, some of the stories, though beautifully written, lack a certain bite (please forgive the pun). Elegant though it is, Tanith Lee's "Why Light? " trods well-trodden ground, while Ellen Kushner's "History" takes a potentially interesting premise down a disappointing, anticlimactic road. That said, there are gems of inventive beauty in here too - most notably Catherynne M. Valente's "In the Future When All's Well", a 1st person account of life after humans begin to spontaneously turn (the language, characterization and society are subtly addictive), while the collaborative efforts of Holly Black and Cassandra Clare make "The Perfect Dinner Party" by turns hilarious, shocking and grim as they take the child vampire trope to an entirely new place.

These two stories alone are worth the price of the collection, though none of the tales disappoint. With substance, intelligence and snap, these stories ask the reader to look beyond tortured anti-heroes and the mortal women who love them, and to once again consider the real strength of the vampire in literature as a metaphor for the moral tangle of ourselves and our society.

August 25, 2012

Clockwork Angel

CLOCKWORK ANGEL: The Infernal Devices Trilogy, Book 1 by Cassandra Clare, (Simon & Schuster, 2010)
GENRE: Paranormal Romance / Historical Fantasy
AGE: 14 and up

Tessa Gray's  arrival in England is portentously unsettling. Met not by her brother, Nate, but by his self-proclaimed landladies, two women calling themselves the "Dark Sisters," Tessa is swept away and held prisoner for nearly two months. In that time, the Sisters unlock an ability in Tessa that she hadn't known she had - the ability to literally become someone else. Plunged into the Shadow World, a realm of faeries and warlocks, vampires and werewolves, overseen by the Nephelim, (angel descended warriors called Shadowhunters), Tessa struggles to master her unsettling ability and find her missing brother. When a young Shadowhunter named Will Herendale rescues Tessa, she becomes the key to discovering the identity of The Magister, the mastermind behind a plot to topple the order imposed by the Nephilim, a role the bookish, practical Tessa must learn to embrace.

Clockwork Angel is a compellingly atmospheric book. Tessa's dogged search for her brother, Nate, drives various subplots while providing momentum and color to the overall arc. The tone is pleasantly gothic with plenty of sinister houses and fog shrouded London streets, the perfect backdrop for a clockwork army and a demonic mastermind. Though the characters are somewhat idealized - the handsome, self-destructive Will who harbors a dark secret beneath a sardonic grin; beautiful, silver-haired Jem whose compassion and perspective exceed his seventeen years; and Tessa, whose earnest authenticity is balanced with a seriousness that makes her a surprisingly practical heroine - all three protagonists are oddly likable characters with flashes of real emotional resonance, though I do wish that Tessa's ability had played a more active, (and less theoretical role) in the events of the book as they unfold. The romantic aspects of the novel are age-appropriately steamy (several searing kisses and many a longing glance), while never threatening to derail the rest of the plot. Even still, the tension between Tessa and Will adds a great deal to the overall tension of the narrative arc.

Clockwork Angel is the first in a trilogy set in the same world as Clare's Mortal Instruments series. The dishy Victorian setting adds a nice bit of background to the happenings in that series, while ensuring that this new trilogy stands on its own. Despite lagging a bit towards the end (too much denouement) and fight scenes that beggar belief at times (death by parasol commonly occurs), Clockwork Angel is a well-written, tremendously enjoyable read and a great introduction to what will certainly be a popular new series.

August 20, 2012

The Adventures of Sir Balin the Ill-Fated

THE ADVENTURES OF SIR BALIN THE ILL-FATED by Gerald Morris; Illustrated by Aaron Renier, (Houghton Mifflin, 2012)
GENRE: Adventure
AGE: 9 and up

Oh Sir Balin, you carry the heavy weight of destiny upon your noble shoulders. But can and should you trust the Old Woman of the Indeterminate Mountain's prophecy, especially when the Prophetess Guild's standards have been flagging of late? How much of destiny is predetermined? How much of your fate is really yours to control?

Gerald Morris, Arthurian scholar and author of The Squire's Tale series for younger readers, peppers his newest installment of the popular Knight's Tale series, The Adventures of Sir Balin the Ill-Fated, with these questions, but never to the detriment of good, irreverent fun. When an old woman makes a prophesy over Balin's cradle that he will become known as the noblest knight in the land, but that misfortune will follow in his wake, it colors his future, so much so that the prophecy becomes self-fulfilling. Then Annalise, The Questing Lady, and Balin's older brother, Sir Balan (their mother wanted a matched set), help Sir Balin see past the seemingly air-tight pattern of unfortunate events that comprise his knighthood to the possibility that his destiny is his to make.

Though the tale of Sir Balin has its roots traditional Arthurian tales, Morris's irreverent voice and colloquial dialogue bring the story galloping into the 21st century. With details that would be at home in a Monty Python sketch (there's a bit where various knights suggest ways of releasing a magical sword from it's scabbard - jiggling the hilt and bacon grease figure in), the general tone of silly fun is an excellent balance for Morris's age-appropriate ruminations on the nature of fate. Additionally leavened by Aaron Renier's clobberingly comedic illustrations, The Adventures of Sir Balin the Ill-Fated is a quick read and a serious, but not too serious, winner.

August 13, 2012

Bella at Midnight

BELLA AT MIDNIGHT by Diane Stanley (Harper Collins, 2006)
GENRE: Historical Romance - Fairy Tale
AGE: 10 and up

Firmly constructed on Cinderella's framework, Diane Stanley nevertheless manages to bring a fresh approach to the classic tale with her novel, Bella at Midnight. In this version, the heroine, Bella, though a knight's daughter, is fostered to a family of peasants, who lovingly raise her until her thirteenth year. When her father recalls her home, she is little prepared for her new life as a lady and the coldness of her father's home. However, Bella is kind and spirited. When she learns of a plot that threatens Prince Julian, her childhood friend, she embarks on a quest to save him aided only by her godmother, an enchanted ring and a pair of lovely glass slippers. Bella's success in the endeavor, however, has less to do with magical objects, and everything to do with the strength of her character.

Stanley's take on this familiar tale is distinctly historical in nature. Although the two warring countries are fictional, they bear great similarities to standard, medieval European societies, and though magic is not completely absent from the plot (the enchanted ring does reassure at critical moments), enchantments are, for the most part, underplayed. Stanley's narrative structure is one of alternating viewpoints, and though Bella receives more chapters than any other character, her point of view is most certainly not the only one (Prince Julian, her godmother, her foster mother and even her resentful, ill-treated stepmother and mute stepsister receive chapters of their own). For the most part, this convention works, lending the novel as scope that it otherwise would not have. Unfortunately, it also suffers from muted tensions and dulled focus because of it (nearly 80 pages are told from the stepmother's and stepsisters' points of view, lending them an excellent, interesting backstory but diluting the main thrust of the plot). That said, Stanley navigates her material deliberately, giving the reader a climax that elegantly ties up loose ends. The romance, though sweet, is underdeveloped and slightly tepid, though these very qualities make it appropriate for tweens not yet prepared for more intense relationships. Overall, it is an interesting alternative to more traditional Cinderellas, one that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend for it's discussion value alone.

August 9, 2012

When You Reach Me

WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead (Yearling, 2009)
GENRE: Science Fiction / Mystery - Literary
HONORS: Newbery Medal; Boston Globe - Horn Book Award for Fiction; many others, including multiple best-seller and best-of-the-year lists

REVIEW: When You Reach Me begins with Miranda, a sixth grader in 1978, and a postcard informing her mother that she is to be a contestant on The $20,000 Pyramid. Miranda addresses the reader directly as she recounts the events of the year, from the time she receives the first of a series of unsettling notes, to the end of the year, when a death occurs and she slowly puzzles out the mystery of who has been leaving her the notes and why. Stead leans somewhat heavily on Miranda's favorite book, Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, using this classic to seed the notion of non-linear time and travel between dimensions, (the material is strong enough on it's own that a few simple allusions would have sufficed). That said, the way Stead slowly reveals the purpose behind the notes and their sender is a thing of beauty, intricate and controlled. With a climax that is tremendously effecting and a denouement that stays with you long after the book is over, When You Reach Me is a beautifully crafted book, one that will challenge it's readers as well as reward.

OPINION: When You Reach Me is an unexpected puzzle-box. Miranda is a trustworthy narrator, guiding the reader faithfully through the story's non-linear, threads. Though the book requires a certain amount of maturity and patience on the part of the reader, it is quietly profound - the sort of book you remember reading decades later. With it's blend of L'Engle inspired science fiction and social realism, it is impressive, relevant and entirely deserving of the accolades it's received.

IDEAS: A great book for fans of A Wrinkle in Time, (the novel reads, in some ways, as a love letter to L'Engle's classic work). One might recommend reading both, back to back, and then comparing the two. Which elements of A Wrinkle in Time appear prominently in When You Reach Me? Would the novel be as strong without it's foundational allusions to L'Engle's classic? Why do you think Stead chose to weave it so strongly into this novel? Why is it important that it is Miranda's favorite book?

The Dark is Rising

THE DARK IS RISING by Susan Cooper (Scholastic, 1974)
GENRE: Fantasy
HONORS: Newbery Honor (1974)

REVIEW: On his eleventh birthday, Will Stanton, the seventh son of a seventh son, finds out that he is an Old One, an ancient race of beings who keep the Dark at bay in the name of the Light. No sooner does Will discover that his true purpose as the Seeker, the Old One destined to unite the Things of Power, than he is plunged into the battle between Light and Dark, Good and Evil. The story follows Will as he collects the Six Signs to form the Circle, pursued by the Black Rider, an agent of Darkness, and added by Merriman Lyon, The Lady and other Old Ones who have been fighting the Dark for centuries. Peppered with elements from Celtic myth and Arthurian legend, The Dark is Rising (the second in The Dark is Rising Sequence) is a layered and thoughtful combination of old myth, fantasy and contemporary suspense. It is a book that rewards focus and attention, even while giving it's readers an entertaining, satisfying ride.

OPINION: Beautifully written and briskly paced, The Dark is Rising, smacks of literary quality even as its premise is rooted firmly in the fantasy tradition. Will is a compelling hero - mature, smart, savvy and slightly flawed. He is a kid that most readers would want to be, or at least be friends with. His growth over the course of the novel, spurred primarily through his expanding view of the world, is one that many young readers will identify with, even if they themselves are unlikely to battle the Dark or call on the Wild Hunt for assistance. A tween fantasy classic for a reason, it is arguably the strongest title in The Dark is Rising Sequence, one that stands firmly on it's own.

IDEAS: A wonderful tie in to units on world mythology, particularly Celtic mythology and Arthurian legend. Also a good way to introduce theme, symbolism and allusion. A great recommendation to kids who need to read a Newbery book, but who are more interested in genre fiction than realism. This book has stood the test of time and still feels urgent and contemporary.

August 7, 2012

Among the Hidden

AMONG THE HIDDEN by Margaret Peterson Haddix (Simon & Schuster, 2008)
GENRE: Science Fiction - Dystopia

REVIEW: In a society in which the number of children per family is limited to two, Luke Garner is a third child, a shadowchild, a child whose very existence is illegal. When the forest surrounding his parents' farm is felled to make way for a housing development for the society's ruling class, Luke must stay hidden, never leaving the house and, eventually, never leaving his attic room. But Luke does leave, and in the process he meets Jen, another third child, the daughter of a rich and powerful Baron, with justice, equality and revolution on her mind. Over the course of their friendship, Luke begins to understand the limitations of his life and learn the courage to hope for more. Haddix's totalitarian dystopia borrows heavily from China's One Child Act, (according to the author, it helped inspire the concept of the book). Though underdeveloped at times (there are questions about the Government's true reach and the society's Population Police that, if answered, would have heighten tensions), Among the Hidden is a compellingly fast read that inspires questions and thought in the reader.

OPINION: Though not as meaty or deeply conceived as the Panem of Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy, Among the Hidden has much to offer the fans of dystopic fiction. Often overwhelmed and under-informed, Luke is a sympathetic protagonist, ultimately overcoming the hesitation that twelve-years of hiding has bred in him. His relationships - to his mother, to his own frustration, to his doomed friend, Jen - make his story easy to invest in. Overall, a thought-provoking read that will leave reader's curious enough to continue with the rest of the series.

IDEAS: A great suggestion for readers a little too young for The Hunger Games but interested in stories set in dystopias (the fact that it's part of a series means there's a lot to get hooked on). Also a nice, less expected choice for a science fiction display or science fiction book club. The fact that the protagonist is a boy will also help it appeal to male tweens.

August 6, 2012

A Great and Terrible Beauty

A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY by Libba Bray (Simon & Schuster, 2003)
GENRE: Historical Romance w/ paranormal elements
HONORS: NY Times Best-Seller

REVIEW: There were not many options for girls in Victorian society, a fact that becomes obvious to sixteen-year-old Gemma Doyle upon her arrival at the Spence Academy. Initially socially marginalized, Gemma gradually befriends three other girls, even as she begins to experience disturbing visions that place her in the center of a mystery that followed her to London from the streets of India, where her beautiful mother died. A Great and Terrible Beauty reads like part gothic romance and part Victorian pulp with a healthy dose of the paranormal added to spice things up. There's of occult danger and Eastern 'otherness' (both sexy and mildly threatening to a respectable, young Englishwoman) and enough lurid drama to keep any tween / teen gobbling it down. Despite Bray's use of the first person present progressive tense, which gets tiresome at times, A Great and Terrible Beauty is a great deal of fun and surprisingly hard to put down.

OPINION: Libba Bray knows young women. Gemma Doyle is a good heroine, as far as historical fiction goes - she's active, she has agency, she's flawed but passionate. There's a fair amount of conflict and fight in her, which makes her easy for a modern girl to relate to. Gemma's friends are also interesting - the drab, unattractive Ann (who is a cutter, due in large part to her implied depression and alienation), the gorgeous, ornamental Pippa and Felicity, who, of the four, is the most complex.

A Great and Terrible Beauty is fun, dark, a little edgy and sexy in a safely historical way. It's strength lies in the fact that all four of the girls, Gemma, Pippa, Ann, and especially Felicity, want autonomy - they want to valued for themselves and, in their own way, they fight for that privilege in a Victorian world that valued silence in its women and girls. For that alone, A Great and Terrible Beauty is worth reading.

IDEAS: The first in the Gemma Doyle trilogy, A Great and Terrible Beauty is a solid suggestion for girls looking for historical romance and / or drama. Though not necessarily for reluctant readers, the book appeals on a lot of levels, even as Bray explores serious issues like alienation, autonomy and the historical role of women and girls. A nice choice for a free reading title or as a book club selection - it has a lot of discussion points.

August 3, 2012

My Depression: A Picture Book

MY DEPRESSION: A Picture Book by Elizabeth Swados (Hyperion, 2005)
GENRE: Nonfiction - Autobiography

REVIEW: Depression is a difficult topic and there are very few books written for tweens on the subject. Though My Depression: A Picture Book is written by an adult with an adult audience in mind, there are many aspects of her story that will resonate with tweens struggling to understand the condition. Swados writes about depression frankly, as one who has struggled with the condition since she herself was an adolescent. Her illustrations are raw, evocative and gently humorous, underscoring her minimal text and the emotional difficulties of traveling through a depressive episode and successfully reaching the other side. Swados deals with everything from onset and coping mechanisms to social difficulties and treatment options without falling into the trap of recommending a cure - lots of things work, you just have to be patient and find what works for you. With an absolute lack of judgement, Swados delivers an encouraging message from a person with first hand experience.

OPINION: Certain topics in Swados's story may be inappropriate for younger adolescents (she briefly addresses suicide - though in such as way that emphasizes the many reasons she chose not to. Also mentioned are smoking and drinking as initial coping mechanisms). As such, it's a book that should be recommended and read with care. For older adolescents, particularly those who can read the book and discuss it with a trusted adult, My Depression: A Picture Book is an enlightening, encouraging and nourishing read, filled with sensitivity, frankness and the gentle humor of a person who has been there and made it through.

IDEAS: Unless dealing with a tween or teen that you know quite well,  this My Depression:  A Picture Book is best recommended to parents / caregivers by librarians (counselors and professionals often recommend it directly, but for nonprofessionals, caution is best). Though blatantly encouraging (the ability to draw strength from depression is repeatedly underscored, while Swados's positive attitude communicates strong authorial support), for older adolescents, it is still a book ideally read with the support of someone else.

Lilly and the Pirates

LILLY AND THE PIRATES by Phyllis Root; Illustrated by Rob Shepperson (Boyds Mills Press, 2010)
GENRE: Adventure

REVIEW: Lilly worries. She worries a lot. What if a yodeler causes an avalanche? What if her parents get swept out to sea? She worries to keep disaster at bay, writing down her concerns in her worry book and hoping for the best - until her scientist parents go on an expedition to the Shipwreck Islands to study the frangipani fruit fly, leaving Lilly behind. When their boat wrecks on the reefs, it is up to Lilly to rescue them by overcoming her fear of the sea and finding the hidden island, all while outsmarting a bunch of pirates. She even learns not to worry - at least, not quite so much. Root's lean, well-paced chapter book is exciting and gently silly (the scholar pirate swears by shouting E=MC2!), while Lilly herself is an honest of an anxious child. Her preventative worrying will be familiar to any young worrier, and though slightly over the top, Root treats her with understanding and respect, all while allowing Lilly to overcome her worries in situationally appropriate, intuitive ways. Encouraging without being preachy, Lilly and the Pirates is a hidden gem - a real buried treasure!

OPINION: Lilly and the Pirates is a quick and extremely charming read. Easy to overlook (it deals with classic themes in classic ways), it still manages to feel fresh and modern. Shepperson's illustrations are great (especially the one of Lilly underwater, debating whether or not to let her worry book go so she can float to the surface), lending Root's tale an air of jaunty, piratical fun. Though it may require some blatant pushing at first, it's popularity is likely to grow through sheer word of mouth.

IDEAS: An unexpected though excellent addition to a pirate, adventure or even humor display. Even more directly, however, it's a wonderful recommendation for kids prone to worry or anxiety who are looking for a genuinely fun and encouraging adventure. In addition, it's a great book for younger adolescents or even grade school kids to read with their parents - especially given the lovely relationship between Lilly and her parents paired with her ability to strike out on her own independently at the end of the book while still loving them.

August 2, 2012

Nicola and the Viscount

NICOLA AND THE VISCOUNT by Meg Cabot (Harper Teen, 2004)
GENRE: Romance - Historical

REVIEW: Beguiling 16-year-old orphan, Nicola Sparks, is everything a young marriageable young lady in Regency England should be - lovely, charming and just a bit silly. When the young Viscount Farnsworth, (whom Nicola thinks of habitually as "the God"), suddenly proposes marriage, she immediately accepts. The rest of the book is taken up with Nicola's slow realization that her intended, though handsome and superficially charming, may not be all he seems. Cabot treads well-worn ground here, so much so that Nicola and the Viscount, which is obviously intended to read like Jane Austen lite, reads a bit more like a junior Harlequin Regency romance. Not that there's anything wrong with this. Though formulaic in the extreme, the story still follows a winning, time-tested formula, with the heroine caught between two men in a romance peppered with social witticisms. Though Cabot's prose feels awkward, as if she's wearing a dress that doesn't quite fit, the tone is perfect for a light period romance. Even though it's obvious where the story is going from the start, the journey is fun for all it's romantically silly glory.

OPINION: Nicola and the Viscount is a nice alternative to the darker, more fraught passions of paranormal romance. Completely devoid of vampires, demons, werewolves, fallen angels or even run-of-the-mill seriousness, it's a classic sort of romance driven by just enough drama to keep the pages turning. All of the characters, though typical of Regency romances, are charming and fun. The overall effect is of a light little bon bon that's ever-so-easy to gobble up.

IDEAS: With romance that springs from interpersonal tensions rather than blatant physical desire, this is a great read for girls who are ready for more than holding hands at a dance, but not quite ready for Twilight. Also a good suggestion for fans of the film versions of Pride and Prejudice or Emma.

The Book of Time

THE BOOK OF TIME by Guillaume Prevost (Scholastic, 2006)
GENRE: Science Fiction - Time Travel

REVIEW: Sam Faulkner, 14, has had a difficult couple of years. After his mother died, his father, Allan, sold their house and opened an antique bookstore in a run-down house. Just when things start to become normal again, Allan disappears. But when Sam goes to look for him, he finds a stone in the basement that enables him to time travel - to a monastery under Viking attack, to a French battlefield in WWI and a temple in Ancient Egypt. The more Sam travels, the more he understands, until, with the help of his cousin, he deduces that his father is being held captive by Vlad Tepes in 15th century Translyvania. Unforunately, that's when the book ends. Though fast-paced and terrifically interesting, most of The Book of Time reads as if the author is simply laying groundwork for the next book, an impression confirmed by the abrupt cliff-hanger ending. This is unfortunate because the story is well-paced with a genuinely likable protagonist and tons of interesting, accessible historical material. For all that, it fails to work as a cohesive whole - in trying to establish a narrative arc for the series, the author failed to establish an arc for the book.

OPINION: For all it's structural flaws, The Book of Time is still a worthwhile read. The pacing is great - the author hardly allows Sam, or the reader, time to take a breath before launching into a new dangers. Even Sam's present day is full of threatening bullies and his aunt's suspicious new boyfriend. With this much adventure, action and suspense, (not to mention the highest of stakes - his father is being held captive by Vlad the Impaler), The Book of Time is likely to please.

IDEAS: This is fun, accessible science-fiction for kids who don't like science fiction. It's also a fantastic book for classroom use as Prevost (who teaches history) lines each adventure with serious doses of historical interest and detail. The Scholastic edition also includes a comprehensive list of discussion questions, making it a truly educational volume, even though it feels like nothing more than fun when you're reading it.

I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You

I'D TELL YOU I LOVE YOU, BUT THEN I'D HAVE TO KILL YOU by Ally Carter (Hyperion, 2007)
GENRE: Romance - Contemporary

REVIEW: Fifteen year old Cammie Morgan goes to the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women, a boarding school that trains future spies. Even there, she is truly special, with an ex-CIA mom (who is also headmistress) and a dad killed on assignment, Cammie is a natural spy. But she's also a girl, as the author is quick to point out. Curious about life beyond self-defense and covert ops, Cammie falls in love with Josh, a local boy, who has no idea who, or what, she is. Hijinks ensue as Cammie uses her skills to keep her worlds from colliding, which, of course, they inevitably do. The 1st person narration is perky and cute, almost to a fault, as Cammie confides in the reader through plentiful, though eventually tiresome asides. The world of the Gallagher Academy is completely over-the-top, though if you suspend the right amount of disbelief, the ridiculousness is almost fun. Unfortunately, the stakes never get high enough for all the drama to seem warranted. There are no real bad guys and no lives at stake. For a novel populated by supposedly hard-core spies, this is a problem. As a result, Cammie's real-girl struggles fall a bit flat in this elevated, fantasy world.

OPINION: Carter keeps a tight focus on the audience I Would Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You is aimed at. Though it ultimately fails to live up to it's potential, tweens and teens will very likely devour this blend of everyday romance and girl-power spy-fantasy. Cammie is sympathetic and generally likable and, though not the most interesting person in this motley cast of characters, she is the easiest to relate to.

IDEAS: A good suggestion for girls who want their romance with a little humor and a bit of action. The importance of female friendships is also a nice touch and will likely appeal to a wide variety of girls.

August 1, 2012

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

THE MYSTERIES OF HARRIS BURDICK by Chris Van Allsburg (Houghton Mifflin, 1984)
GENRE: Mystery

REVIEW: The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is a deceptively simple book based on a deceptively simple premise. The author, award-winning Chris Van Allsburg, in a brief but fantastically contextualizing introduction, purports to be simply reproducing existing material - specifically, a collection of 12 illustrations, titles and first lines from 12 stories by a mysterious author named, Harris Burdick. Supposedly, Burdick left this "sample" of his work with a man named Peter Wenders 30 years before with the idea that if Wenders liked his work, Burdick would return with the rest of the stories and their illustrations. Wenders loved Burdick's work, but the author / illustrator never returned. His illustrations and titles, however, had inspired dozens of stories by the school children that Wenders had shown the work to. Inspired in turn, Van Allsburg states in his introduction that he is now publishing the "collection" in the hopes that it will inspire an even wider audience. The illustrations, as with all of Van Allsburg's art, are haunting and shadowy, hinting at far more than the eye initially sees. The titles and first lines add to the art's mystique, underscoring humor in some images, or, far more often, instilling the  illustrations with an odd, unsettling quality. Though the text is sparse, the visual and creative content is not. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is full of enough mystery to inspire even the only marginally curious to return to the images again and again.

OPINION: To page casually through The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is to skim the surface of one's own creative potential. Though there is comparatively little text, the imaginative demands of the book's premise make it an excellent read for younger adolescents and a great creative tool / source of inspiration for tweens (and even teens) of all ages. Creepy, funny, unsettling and, indeed, mysterious, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick offers no solution to the problem of the missing manuscript pages or Burdick's disappearance, but it does offer the reader ample opportunity to write the resolution for themselves.

IDEAS: This is a fantastic book to spur discussions in a classroom or book club - how do you interpret the image? The title and first line? All three elements together? Why? It's also a great jumping off point for a creative writing exercise.