Posted in YA Fiction

“The Sleeper and the Spindle”

The Sleeper and the Spindle
Author: Neil Gaiman
Illustrator: Chris Riddell
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication Date: 2013
ISBN: 978-0062398246
Lexile Level: 830

Wow. Just…wow.

Faerie tale re-imaginings and retellings are a dime a dozen in YA fiction. They’ve exploded in popularity over the past several years, especially with the movie trends of Disney re-imagining their classic animated works into live action showings. And with Neil Gaiman’s expertise in mythology, it’s not surprising that he would have also be putting out work in the faerie realm.

The Sleeper and the Spindle is just…amazing. I think it has to be the BEST re-imagining I’ve ever read. I love it so much I’m not going to tell you anything about it. Seriously, go in blind. Every revelation is worth it. You can probably tell from the title that this is a take on Sleeping Beauty—but that’s not all. And I don’t want to tell you anything about the plot.

Don’t seek out detailed reviews. Don’t look for summaries. Just go in and make the discoveries for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.

Adding to this amazing book are Chris Riddell’s illustrations. They aren’t crucial to the story, so visually challenged readers won’t need them to enjoy the tale. But man, are they awesome. Everything is black and white, with a few splashes of gold. Skulls are a recurring theme, and it all has a wonderful gothic feel. An excellent touch all around.

This is one of those stories that leaves you wanting more. More of the universe, the world that Gaiman has set up. You want to know where the characters have been, where they are going. There’s nothing lacking from the story itself, but the tastes he gives you are like having a bite of a rich dessert—you just want another.

Put this in the hands of any teen who has a taste for fantasy or faerie tales. It could also make a good book club selection, or suggested reading for writing groups. It’s not long, but it will be enjoyed.

And if by chance you should see this, Mr. Gaiman: PLEASE WRITE MORE FAERIE TALES!!!

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Posted in Middle Grade Fiction

“The Twits”

The Twits
Author: Roald Dahl
Illustrator: Quentin Blake
Publisher: Alfred A. Knope (imprint of Random House Children’s Books)
Publication Date: 1980
ISBN: 0-375-92242-3
Lexile Level: 750

I decided to revisit another classic from my childhood—one of Roald Dahl’s less famous works, The Twits. I think my sister had a copy and I remember reading it several times as a child. A couple of details had stuck in my brain over the years, namely Mr. Twit with food in his beard and the bird pie. Since it’s not a Dahl work that gets talked about as much, I thought I’d take another look at it.

Mr and Mrs. Twit are truly disgusting people. They are ugly and mean and hateful, even (or perhaps especially) to each other. The first part of the story is about them pranking each other…which while mean-spirited, is pretty funny. We know that these two are in their 60s. So imagine your grandparents hiding worms in spaghetti and frogs in the bed. Or one tricking the other into thinking they’re shrinking. It’s just hilarious. I kept thinking of the grandparents from The Waltons (though at least they actually loved each other). That same curmudgeon attitude that hides some amount of affection. Granted, with the Twits, I wonder how much they still love each other and how much of it is just passive aggressive.

As the story moves along, we learn how the Twits capture birds for their weekly bird pie and keep a family of monkeys in a cage. Eventually the monkeys team up with a Roly-Poly bird and shenanigans ensue. The Twits get what they deserve, and the monkeys go free.

Like many of Dahl’s works, the message is one of karmic payback. Mean, ugly people are punished, and the innocent are rewarded. My favorite part is how Dahl talks about true beauty—that no matter what your physical features, if you think good thoughts, you will “always look lovely.” Whereas if you think ugly thoughts, they will twist your appearance and the ugliness will grow upon you (as in the case of Mrs. Twit). It’s a short section but one of the best lessons I’ve ever read in a children’s book. It doesn’t beat the child over the head with it, but it also tells them that ultimately, physical features don’t matter as much as what’s on the inside.

This is a short novel that would be great as a bedtime or classroom read-aloud. It could be gotten through in a few days, and the wordplay (another Dahl trademark) makes it a lot of fun to read out loud. It can also serve as a great conversation starter as to why we should try being nicer to people.

My edition also has a short interview with Roald Dahl in the back. He talks about his writing process, and I would encourage aspiring writers to look it up. It can be found here, which also has it in audio format. His advice is solid, and some that I’m trying to implement into my own writing process.

All in all, this is a highly recommended novel. It’s a quick read, even for kids, with a great message. Any kid who likes Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Matilda is sure to enjoy it.

Posted in Picture Books

“Ned the Knitting Pirate”

Ned the Knitting Pirate
Author: Diana Murray
Illustrator: Leslie Lammie
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Publication Date: 2016
ISBN: 978-1596438903
Lexile Level: AD (adult directed)

We follow the crew of the Rusty Heap in this tale, as they sing and plunder through the day. As the pirate crew sings about their deeds, young Ned (sporting a knitted tricorner hat) chimes in that they “knit.” This angers the captain, who maintains that pirates do not knit, and eventually bullies Ned into hanging up his needles and yarn. Until, of course, a sea monster needs defeating, and only Ned’s knits will do the trick.

As a knitter myself, I’m a sucker for children’s books that include the activity. Combine pirates and knitting? I was sold before I even cracked the cover. The rhyming couplets makes reading the story quick and fun, and would lend it well to a storytime. There are plenty of words with double meaning (usually relating to knitting), particularly in relating to the captain.

Part of me would have liked for Ned to have been a female pirate—you can never have enough female pirates. But the other part of me applauds the author’s disregard for gender norms, by having a boy joyfully knitting away. Plenty of men knit, but it is still generally considered a “feminine” activity.

The illustrations are a great sketched style, though in places it likes a bit more like concept art than a finished draft. The pictures are not necessary for the story, making it good for visually challenged readers. The only area where this doesn’t hold true is Ned’s dialogue balloons, when he chimes in the word “knit.” But this can easily be overcome by a reader.

This story would be great for a storytime on pirates, crafting, or for fun. It would also be great as a one-on-one story, especially in households with constant knitting.

 

Posted in Adult Graphic Novels

“The Sandman Vol. 5: A Game of You”

The Sandman: A Game of You
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: DC Comics
Publication Date: 1991-1992
ISBN: 1-56389-089-5
Titles: The Sandman #32-37

In a Q&A session Neil Gaiman was asked “What is your favorite volume of Sandman?” to which he replied “Probably “A Game of You,” because it’s most people’s least favourite volume, and I love it all the more for that.”

Well, I can see why people say that this is their least favorite volume. Compared to Dream Country and Season of Mists, A Game of You can only be described as BORING. This was a trudge of a volume to read.

The first problem comes from our protagonists (actually, there are several issues with the protagonist, but more on that later). Our story centers around Barbie, a minor character from The Doll’s House. In that volume, we get a brief snapshot of Barbie’s dreams of being a princess and having adventures in a special land. A Game of You expands on that world, and we learn that there are skerries in the Dream world–or rather, pockets of dream lands that shift and change and die.

The premise is not a bad one. We’ve had minor characters reappear before, such as Nada. The idea of some dreams actually taking place in a part of Dream where there are more concrete beings and consequences has potential. But there are a number of problems that run this volume into the ground.

The first is that, by the time we reach A Game of You, we have not seen Barbie in 16 issues. I read The Doll’s House and A Game of You within just a couple of weeks of each other, and I had barely any recollection of this character. I vaguely remembered that she was married to a guy named Ken, and that at the end of the story it was insinuation that they were no longer going to be together. But A Game of You made a lot of references to the previous issues–which is surprising given how the issues were originally published. I can’t imagine someone having to wait weeks to read new issues would have had any recollection of who this woman was at all.

This is the first problem, which wouldn’t be so bad, if Barbie was in any way a likeable or dynamic character. She literally does nothing throughout the entire story. She follows other characters, and is so passive that she made me want to fall asleep. It’s disappointing, because the brief snippet of dream we got in The Doll’s House showed Barbie as a warrior, a princess fighting with strange animals and beasts. It was a great dynamic–the bored housewife fulfilling her desires through her dreams.

But in A Game of You, Barbie has completely forgotten her dreams. Even when she returns to her dream world, she has no memory of being there before. It turns her from a strong, powerful presence, into the weak and helpless victim. She becomes unable to help in the quest, and is reliant on the strange friends who accompany her.

Ultimately, Barbie (or how she is handled) is the downfall of this volume. We’re given nothing about her to hang on to, nothing to relate to. She just complains and sleepwalks her way through life.

The other characters are a bit more engaging. Wanda is a pre-transition trans woman, and Barbie’s best friend. Wanda is a great character, and for the most part, the issue of her transexuality is handled tastefully and correctly. She is referred to as a woman, and those who insist on behaving as though she is a man are shown to clearly be in the wrong.

Except for one part, which really bothered me. When it is revealed that Barbie is in danger in the dream world, her friends perform a spell to send them afterwards. Wanda is tasked with staying behind to guard Barbie. This, in itself, would have been fine. It’s already been established that Wanda is physically the strongest of the group, so it makes sense to leave her behind in the real world to guard Barbie. But then it is said that she couldn’t have traveled to the dream world in the way that the other women did. This being because they called down the moon to do so, and that the moon still recognizes her as a man. That basically, it “comes down to chromosomes.”

And this, my friends, is bullshit.

Excuse me while I get on my soapbox for a moment.

The entire volume takes great pains to support Wanda in her identity. She is a woman. Those who deny this fact are painted as transphobic and wrong. So why then, does a symbol of womanhood deny her? The moon is connected to women in multiple myths and legends. And Gaiman knows this, because he references myths all the time. The supernatural elements of The Sandman series are generally shown to be more knowledgeable than mortals. By including this sentiment, the message ultimately becomes that no, Wanda is a man, and can do nothing to change this. It is a jarring notion to what is otherwise a consistent message.

Okay, soapbox over.

Well, maybe not quite. The story does a poor job of handling its lesbian characters as well. Specifically, at one point we learn that one of Barbie’s neighbors is potentially pregnant. This is an issue, as she’s in a relationship with another woman. But instead of setting up the woman as bisexual, who might have had a one night stand with a man, she’s presented as an incredibly naive lesbian who just sort of fell in to having sex with a man.

As Hazel describes it, someone she works with was really tired, so she let him come home with her. Then he got aroused, and she just casually had sex with him, despite having never had an interest in men before. She also thought that because they did it standing up, that she couldn’t get pregnant.

It comes across as too casual to be rape, or coerced sex, and just sounds like Hazel shrugged and was like ‘okay, let’s try some dick.’ Now, I’m not saying that people can’t experiment. But I have a hard time imagining that most lesbians in a committed relationship who have never had an interest in men would have sex with one just because he was there.

I just…wow. It’s really obvious in this volume that a man was behind the writing. And while the story is remarkably open and progressive to have been written in the early 90s…it still rubs me the wrong way.

My final comment is that the introduction section to this volume is drastically misplaced. In short, it’s not an introduction. It’s a reader analysis of parts of the story. The writer even tells the reader that it is best read if they have already read the volume itself. So why put it at the beginning? It spoils the deaths of two characters, and makes no sense to anyone who has not yet read the issue. I don’t understand why they didn’t just put it at the end of the volume, where it would have made more sense. I stopped reading it after two pages, when I realized it was spoiling plot information. Do yourself a favor, and skip it if you’re a first time reader.

Overall, this volume is just a mess. While there are good concepts and good elements scattered throughout, it was poorly executed. It may be possible to skip the volume entirely–I’m not certain, as I’ve yet to finish the series. If so, definitely skip it. You’re not missing anything.

Rating: 2 out of 5
Trigger warnings: Nudity, gruesome images, witchcraft

Posted in Adult Fiction

“Midnight Crossroad”

Midnight Crossroad
Author: Charlaine Harris
Publisher: Ace Hardcover
Publication Date: May 2014
ISBN: 978-0425263150
Lexile Level: n/a

Charlaine Harris’s newest series kicks off with Midnight Crossroad. The story takes place in the small town of Midnight, Texas. The story begins with the newest resident, Manfred Bernardo, moving to town. Manfred is a self-proclaimed psychic, working mostly through the internet in various personas. However, he does possess some genuine talent. Harris actually introduced Manfred (and his grandmother) in another series–the Harper Connelly series. He gradually meets the town’s residents, from Bobo, pawn shop owner who is also his landlord, to Fiji, the “New Age” witch who lives across the street. Dinner at the local diner brings more residents into his life, and he begins to learn that he might not be the only person in Midnight with something to hide.

The mysterious disappearance of Bobo’s girlfriend, Aubrey, keeps coming back to haunt various members of the Midnight community. When remains are discovered at a nearby river, a whole new mystery emerges, as they realize Aubrey didn’t simply leave town, but was murdered. Bobo’s other tenants, Olivia and Lemuel, cause more trouble trying to protect their friend, and the local police begin to get involved. Her involvement with a local hate group brings trouble for the entire community, and they find themselves pulling together to attempt to solve the mystery and protect each other.

The tension in the book builds as the community tries to protect itself, while being certain that they know who killed Aubrey but being unable to prove it. The biker hate-group have issues with Bobo, believing him to have a stash of artillery that his grandfather is rumored to have built up on the group’s behalf. Aubrey is revealed to have initiated contact with Bobo on behalf of the group, though her developing feelings for him were genuine. The town believes the hate-group’s leader is responsible for her death―until he captures Fiji, because he thinks Bobo killed Aubrey. When the true culprit is finally revealed, it is not who anyone expects.

I liked Midnight Crossroad. I have been a fan of Harris’s work for several years, having read both her Sookie Sackhouse novels and the Harper Connelly series. While the book is a little bland in terms of plot, it is a valuable novel in terms of world building. The characters are established in such a way that I look forward to seeing them in future books. There are supernatural elements hinted at throughout the book, but they are on the fringes of the story which feels very much based in reality. This is one element of Harris’s that I’ve always enjoyed–her fantasy stories do not feel like the stereotypical setup where the inclusion of supernatural creatures into a modern world is never explained (usually for favor of a romantic plot).

SPOILER ALERT―I’m going to give away the culprit of the story. STOP READING IF YOU DON’T WANT TO BE SPOILED!

My biggest criticism of the book is that I didn’t feel the “twist” was set up well. Throughout the story, we are given nothing to indicate there is anything wrong with Conner. He’s a nice, polite boy, whose biggest flaw seems to be that he is bored with living in the tiny town of Midnight. There are hints that something is wrong with the Lovells―they are even more private than normal, and Shawn seems overly protective of his children. But what we see of Conner indicates that he’s perfectly normal. There’s nothing to indicate there is a serial killer living in the town (with the exception of Lemuel and Olivia). Personally, I think it would have been more effective if we saw animals disappearing, or if there was some other sign that the trouble with the Lovells was coming from within their house. I would have had an easier time believing Shawn was the killer, or possibly even Creek. The motive was just a bit weak.

Still, I look forward to seeing what Harris might do with this setup. Her series have a reputation of getting better as they go along. Her world building skills are a strength, and it will be interesting to see where she takes these characters.

If you like Midnight Crossroad, I highly recommend Charlaine Harris’s other books, especially the Harper Connelly series, which takes place in the same universe. If you want more in terms of urban fantasy, Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files is another great series that blends the real world and the supernatural.

Posted in YA Fiction

“Hidden”

Hidden
Author: Helen Frost
Publisher: Frances Foster Books
Publication Date: 2011
ISBN: 978-0374382216
Lexile Level: 670
*South Carolina Junior Book Award Nominee 2013-2014
*2012 ALA Notable Book
*VOYA’s “Perfect 10” List
*Kirkus Review’s Best Children’s Books of 2011

To start—the awards listed are just a handful of the ones achieved by this book. I listed some of the most notable ones—and the South Carolina nominee, because that’s where I’m based, so it’s a list I follow pretty close. Anywho, Hidden is a story told through lyrical poetry, alternating between the viewpoints of the two main characters, Darra and Wren.
We start when the girls are eight years old. Wren is in her mother’s van when it is stolen by Darra’s father. As she’s hiding in the back, he doesn’t realize she’s there when he stashes the van in his garage. Darra finds that Wren is hiding, and tries to help her, while coming up with a plan that won’t get her father caught. Wren escapes on her own, and Darra’s father is arrested.

Cut to six years later, and the girls meet each other at summer camp. There are complex feelings between them—Darra blames Wren for her father’s incarceration, and Wren finds that she has unresolved anxiety as a result of her kidnapping. Added to this is the difference in their social standing. The camp is more for rich kids, and Darra is only there thanks to an inheritance from her grandmother. She is instantly shunned by most of the other kids for her lower economic standing. On a side note—okay, I get that the grandmother wanted Darra to experience a few weeks at the camp of her childhood, but given how much money this camp seems to cost…surely Darra’s mother could have put the money to better use? Like, fixing their car? Putting it up for other emergencies? Clothes for the coming school year? The only thing I can think of is that since it was in the grandmother’s will that Darra get four weeks at the camp, maybe there wasn’t a choice in the matter.

We switch between Darra and Wren, as they contemplate their feelings and slowly form a friendship. Darra’s sections are told in long form, with Wren’s in a more traditional poetry format. Eventually the girls come to terms with what happened to them, and learn an even more important lesson: that none of what happened was their fault.

Darra’s sections, especially her feelings about her father, struck a pretty powerful cord with me. See…my dad is in prison. I wasn’t a child when it happened, but some feelings are universal. Darra’s mixed emotions, in visiting him and how she can love him even when he wasn’t always a good man…it all rings true. In fact, parts of her story feel so authentic that I have to wonder if Frost has personal experience with this sort of thing. I was glad that at no point is Darra demonized for her affections. Frost does an excellent job at showing that this is a complicated issue, on both ends. Wren had a hard time seeing an abusive man as a dad that his daughter loved, while Darra loved him simply because he was her father.

My father was never physically abusive, so I can’t speak to that. But I can say that having a father in jail for doing a horrible thing, and still having a relationship with him, is complicated. It strains relationships with other family members, it shakes up your view of the past, and you realize that society gives absolutely zero shits about you as a victim. At any rate, I get a lot of where Darra is coming from.

This book is great in a lot of ways. It’s a great introduction for teens to lyrical poetry, especially for units where teens will be writing their own poetry. It is also a good example at how you can play with form—a note at the end of the book revels there is a second part of Darra’s story hidden in her sections. By reading the last word of certain lines, the reader gets additional insight into her story. It’s not essential information, but it is a nice tough.

It’s also a quick read, making it easy to consume for a school assignment. I would recommend this for any teen interested in the form, or for those with incarcerated parents. It’s also good for those dealing with traumatic events in their lives. It may not circulate well without a little marketing, but I would say it’s a good addition to any YA collection.

Posted in Middle Grade Fiction

“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Author: Ian Fleming
Illustrator: John Burningham
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Publication Date: 1964
ISBN: 978-0763666781
Lexile Level: 710

One of my favorite Dick Van Dyke movies of all time is the classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. But I didn’t realize it was based on a book until I was working in a library. And not only is this a book, it was written by the creator of James Bond himself: Ian Fleming. Yes, Ian Fleming, whose work in World War II was the inspiration of many of Bond’s adventures, wrote a children’s book about a magical car. Actually, given the stuff Q came up with…a children’s book about an adventurous inventor makes sense. Maybe the first Q was actually Caractacus Potts.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is the story of the Potts family: Commander Caractacus Potts, inventor and explorer; his wife Mimsie, and twins Jeremy and Jemima. After making money off of his latest invention (sweets that whistle) Commander Potts buys a wreck of a motorcar, and fixes it up. But the titular Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (so named for the noises she makes) is far more strange than the family anticipates. She proves to be quite intelligent (and a little bit magical) as she looks after her family. A trip to the beach turns into an epic adventure, complete with sea travel, gangsters, and explosions.

This book is amazing. It is clearly written to be read aloud—as a storyteller, it was actually hard to read this quietly to myself. Ian Fleming actually wrote it for his son, and it shows. This feels like a story to be read aloud at bedtime. Bonus points if you can pull off the accents (even badly). The book is never boring, even in sections where Fleming rambles a bit on the technical points of what’s happening. Throughout the story, Commander Potts encourages his family to think and come up with ideas of their own. At several points I was reminded of the Doctor from Doctor Who (and I have to wonder if this book didn’t inspire at least a few of the writers of the show). For example, he teaches his family to “Never say no to adventures. Always say yes. Otherwise you’ll lead a very dull life.”

Mimsie is the character who has the least amount of characterization, but even when she expresses concern, she is not made to look like a fuddy-duddy. Instead, she is painted as a typical mother—Fleming makes it clear that she’s only worried about her children’s safety, and that her feeling as perfectly natural. Jeremy and Jemima aren’t much better off, though we do see a few moments of cleverness and bravery from them. When kidnapped, they put their heads together and stay calm, coming up with a plan to save the day. Fleming balances them well—Jemima has clever ideas, and is not a helpless female as one might have expected from a story of this era. Jeremy is brave in the face of danger, but doesn’t become rash. They are very believable children.

This is an excellent recommendation for fans of Roald Dahl (especially with John Burningham’s illustrations). The illustrations are quite reminiscent of Dahl’s work. I would also recommend it to parents looking for a chapter book to read aloud or with their child. For fans of the movie, the first part of the book will be familiar enough that they should be comfortable once the gangster plot kicks in. Try to get the 50th anniversary edition if possible—it came out a few years ago, and it quite gorgeous—a fantastic addition to any collection.