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.

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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.

Posted in Picture Books

“Penguin Problems”

Penguin Problems
Author: Jory John
Illustrator: Lane Smith
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: 2016
ISBN: 978-0375974656

In this story, we learn that penguins just have so many problems. We follow an unnamed penguin as he goes through his day, complaining about everything from being cold, hunted, to looking stupid when he waddles. A surprise speech from a walrus encourages him to look on the brighter side of things…but whether or not he’ll take those words to heart remains to be seen.

I love this book, if only because there is one right way to read it–as exaggerated whiny as possible. This penguin is in a permanent state of ‘ugh’ and if you’re reading the story aloud, you’ll have the best results with making that as prominent as possible. I’m not very good at voices, but the sarcastic tone of speech in this book is right up my alley.

The illustrations are simple but adorable. I love the design Lane Smith used for the penguins. There’s not a lot by way of background or color, but it all works wonderfully. Smith’s speckled painted style is unique and effective. The story is a bit dependent on its pictures, but not completely. A strong storyteller could likely make this entertaining for visually challenged readers.

This book can be a big hit in storytimes–but be warned, it is just as easy for it to flop. This is truly a performance piece–if you don’t dial it up to 11, listeners are going to lose interest. Because there’s not much by way of actual story, you have to engain listeners with your reading. It also works well as a one-on-one read–especially in a household that is no stranger to snark.

This may be a book that adults find more humor in that kids–but it’s worth the read either way.

Posted in Adult Graphic Novels

“The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists”

The Sandman: Season of Mists
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: DC Comics
Publication Date: 1990-1991
ISBN: 1-56389-035-6
Titles: The Sandman #21-28

In this volume we get back to the more traditional storytelling method, where the volume itself contains a cohesive storyline. Of the tales we’ve had so far, I hold this volume on par with Preludes and Nocturnes. Both volumes give us storylines that explore the Endless and their abilities, as well as the realms beyond Dreaming and the mortal world.

First, we encounter Destiny, the eldest of the Endless. I love Destiny’s concept design, perhaps more than any other Endless. He is shown carrying his book, which is chained to his wrist. He literally can never be rid of it. Beyond that, he can also read ahead, or behind, to gain further insight into events. Even his own existence is not immune to this recording. A chance meeting prompts him to look in the Book, and call a meeting of his siblings.

Most of them we’ve met, at least briefly, before. This meeting is an excellent chance to see them together, and to gain a better dynamic of them as a family. And there are family dynamics here, which is part of what makes it so interesting.

Desire makes fun of Dream for his treatment of Nada, and Death points out to him that perhaps his actions were not noble. Dream determines that he should descend into Hell to free Nada, despite his insulting Lucifer in Preludes and Nocturnes. The insult makes reentering Hell a risk, as Dream freely admits that Lucifer is stronger than he.

I do wonder Desire’s motivation here. We’ve seen in the past that they have tried to destroy Dream. While it is not explored, I do think that perhaps Desire’s mention of Nada and needling of Dream is just to try and get Dream to do something that is not in his best interest, and could get him killed.

Dream makes his preparations to descend into Hell, which is a great example of the care and forethought he puts into his realm. Upon arriving in Hell, he runs into a surprise–one too good for me to spoil here. Suffice to say, I thought it was a great direction to twist the story in.

I don’t want to give too much away about the plot of the volume, but I will say that I greatly enjoyed it. Seeds are planted for Gaiman’s 2001 novel American Gods, as we see various pantheons and myths come to life. One thing I greatly admire about Gaiman is his dedication to research. He tries to be as authentic in his myth portrayal as he can to the original sources. It makes the stories more interesting, and can serve as arousing interest in old stories.

The ending was not one that I expected, and one that I have mixed-feelings about. While I like the solution to the problem, there are some timing issues that are raised once you realize what has happened.

This is a good story, and I loved the various elements that went into it. I’m interested to see how this might have further impact down the line.

Rating 5 out of 5
Trigger Warnings: Gruesome images, child death, violence, magic

Posted in Adult Fiction

“Damned”

Damned
Author: Chuck Palahniuk
Publisher: Anchor
Publication Date: 2011
ISBN: 978-0-224-09115-2

This week we’re looking at Damned, by Chuck Palahniuk. You might know him as the creator of Fight Club, among other things. I was introduced to Palahniuk with his novel/collection of short stories, Haunted, which I absolutely loved. The framework is a group of writers in a secluded “writer’s retreat” where they deliberately bring suffering upon themselves to improve their craft. All the while they exchange stories–while being knocked off, one by one. It’s an amazing book, and I highly recommend it.

Sadly, nothing of Palahniuk’s work has hit me with the same level of greatness since. And Damned is no exception. This book is problematic at best, and takes far too long to hit its stride.

Our protagonist is Maddie Spencer, a 13-year old child of Hollywood starlets who has recently died and awakened in Hell. Maddie is one of my biggest issues with the book. She’s more like a collection of catchphrases and character traits rather than an actual character. Early in the book she talks about her theory that girls lose their intelligence when they gain breasts–how they suddenly become superficial and all about boys when puberty hits. She then goes on to be completely enamored with a boy, and is revealed to be surprisingly sexual for a thirteen year old. She’s only virginal when Palahniuk wants her to be, and it’s usually mentioned in a context that is actually sexual. Some of this is pretty uncomfortable, and rather leads one to wonder if Palahniuk has some unsavory views towards prepubescent girls.

Most of this could have been solved with a simple fix–make Maddie a few years older. I would totally buy a sixteen year old having these feelings and desires. But thirteen just feels terribly young for some of the things that are revealed about Maddie, and it makes me wonder what kinds of teenage girls Palahniuk know. It honestly reeks of how creepy old guys think teenage girls are–Lolita-esque flowers of forbidden sexuality, wanting to tantalize and tempt these older gents–as opposed to how they actually are.

While I like Maddie’s snark and affinity for “The Breakfast Club”, she comes across as entirely too cynical and jaded for one so young. Still, the novel starts off on a good note, with Maddie’s core group of friends being assembled early, much in the vein of The Breakfast Club.

Sadly, Palahniuk fails to keep up this pace. Our teens travel through the landscape of Hell, made of areas of grotesque shock value. This is a staple of Palahniuk’s writing, and I advise you–don’t make the mistake I did in reading this book on your lunch break.

There is an out of place, intensely explicit sexual scene involving the pleasuring of a female giantess. I almost gave up on the book here, and it left a sour taste in my mouth throughout the story. For me, there’s a fine line in what sort of content is appropriate if you’re not going to market your story as explicit. Talk of sex and the less blatant actions are okay, but once you start throwing around terms like ‘clit’ and talking about juices, you’ve crossed that line.

After that horribly uncomfortable scene (whose only purpose was to provide the kids with transportation, and said giantess is never seen or heard of again) the kids embark on the paperwork division of Hell, to look up Maddie’s file. This is one of the more clever ideas of the story, and I wish we’d had more build-up to it. Babette, one of our side characters, unexpectedly goes from bimbo to useful as she reveals that she knows the ends and outs of bureaucratic Hell.

All of this is intercut with random facts or scenes from Maddie’s previous life. Afterwards, our side characters (the members of Maddie’s posse) all but disappear. With the exception of a rare appearance by Archer or Babette, we rarely see or hear anything else out of our Breakfast Club until the end of the book.

The story doesn’t start to pick up steam until after the halfway mark. As Maddie remembers the truth about her death, she takes Archer’s advise that, here in Hell, she can be whoever she wants to be.

The second half of the book has the best ideas in it, but it ends up feeling rushed compared to the beginning. Several good and interesting things happen, which I won’t spoil here. The second half of the book feels more like the book I wanted to read when I picked up this title. It’s just a shame it took Palahniuk so long to get there.

Damned is a relatively quick read, though the first half trudges quite a bit. Our side characters are all archetypes, and our protagonist–for all her “quirky” traits–comes off feeling a bit bland and off-putting.

Again, I think the major failing of the book is Maddie’s age. While it’s more interesting to think about a 13 year old girl taking over Hell, overall, it just doesn’t work. Maddie question’s her parents’ ideologies with far more conviction than I’d expect of someone that young. Yes, her parents are crazy, but Maddie clearly tells us that all of their friends are like this too. When you’ve been raised in crazy, surrounded by it, you don’t question it. It simply is. It’s usually not until one is much closer to adulthood that they begin to think differently on such things.

If Maddie had been sixteen instead of thirteen, I’d be able to accept a lot of aspects of this book better. But for me, in light of the sexual nature of the book, her age is something of a deal breaker.

Final thoughts: I’m not sure if I’m going to read the sequel or not. I might, since the second half of the book was better than the first. There are a lot of interesting ideas here, but I feel they get mired down in Palahniuk’s desire for shock value. I feel like this book would have benefited from a good edit and notes of the ideas that deserved more time and could have been a lot funnier.

Trigger Warnings: Explicit sexual acts; mentions of necrophilia; gross and violent imagery

Posted in YA Fiction

“Fear: 13 Stories of Suspense and Horror”

Fear
Editor: R.L. Stine
Publisher: Speak
Publication Date: Sept. 2010
ISBN: 978-0142417744
Lexile Level: 650

Fear is a young adult anthology of suspense and horror tales, edited by R.L. Stine. It contains thirteen stories by authors such as Meg Cabot, Heather Brewer, and other young adult authors. Stine is perhaps the best known scary story author for those under 18, even if a lot of his works (namely Goosebumps) tends to end up being a little more goofy than truly scary. But given the ages that he writes for, his Fear Street series and other works are usually a great introduction to darker material.

Not so here. This is one of the flattest anthologies I’ve ever read. Worse, can’t even be argued that it is meant to be more for kids, not teens. Most all of the characters are teenagers, not children. But the stories are…maybe not terrible, but certainly not scary or tense. There’s maybe one or two moments that are a little suspenseful, but that’s it. Given the quality of work that most of these authors are known for, it was really disappointing. The first several stories are predictable at best, boring at worst. There’s simply nothing new here.

Stine’s introduction, in hindsight, is downright misleading. The story promos he gives are inaccurate, written in such a way as to make the stories sound scarier than they are. There’s certainly nothing here to invoke screams of horror. Unless one screams at the sight of poor writing.

There is precisely one story in this collection worth reading: “Tagger” by James Rollins. It is not scary in the least, but it is a brilliantly written short story, managing to cram an entire mythology into just a few pages. I honestly would love to read a full-fledged novel or even series about these characters. Sool-ling and Bobby are charming, and I could easily see them leading their own stories.

Stine’s “Welcome to the Club” opens the anthology, and like his Goosebumps series, features a decent setup with a disappointing payoff. “She’s Different Tonight” by Heather Graham, about a boy stalking a date on Halloween, is so predictable I’m fairly certain it could have been plagiarized from any number of TV shows. “Suckers” by Suzanne Weyn is about a family moving to a new settlement on another planet. It features a Twilight Zone type ending—like Graham’s story, I actually think it’s been used before.

“Jeepers Peepers” by Ryan Brown and “Shadow Children” by Heather Brewer do offer a bit of scary imagery, and honestly, I wish these stories had been longer. They felt rushed, and I think the suspense would have been more effective if it had been drawn out a bit more. “The Perfects” by Jennifer Allison, “Dragonfly Eyes” by Alane Ferguson, and “Tuition” by Walter Sorrells are just…depressing. With all of the other stories ending on a relatively up note, these three stories fell out of place. “Tuition” in particularly just feels mean-spirited.

The three stories worth reading are “Piney Power” by F. Paul Wilson, “The Night Hunter” by Meg Cabot, and “Tagger” by James Rollins. All three introduced me to characters I’d like to read more of. These are the best developed of the stories. It’s worth picking up the anthology just for these stories—the rest can easily be skipped.

Final verdict: Ugh. Just…ugh. Not worth it in time or money, and given the talent involved, it’s just disappointing.

Posted in Middle Grade Fiction

“Where I Belong”

Where I Belong
Author: Mary Downing Hahn
Publisher: Clarion Books
Publication Date: September 2014
ISBN: 9780544230200
Lexile Level: 640

Mary Downing Hahn was a favorite in my childhood, and I’m glad to see that she’s still publishing. Where I Belong is a slight deviation from her usual fare—at least of the works that I’m familiar with. Many of her stories are ghost stories or have an otherwise gothic feel. My favorite when I was young was Wait til Helen Comes (which I should really revisit at some point).

Where I Belong is about rising seventh-grader Brendan, a foster child who is struggling with finding his place in the world. He’s an artist, a self-professed dreamer, who is failing sixth-grade. He has no friends, is at odds with his foster mother, the world is against him, yada yada yada. Okay, so the way Brendan is set up is relatively believable (I have issues with the portrayal of his foster mother, but we’ll get to that). I’m not sure if kids would still be so cruel towards a kid because of something like his long hair in this day and time, but I do remember the jeers against the band Hanson was that they “looked like girls” back in the 90s, so maybe it’s still a thing. Kids can be cruel for any number of reasons. We never really see the bullies in Brendan’s school though, except for a mention at the beginning at the book.

It seems like a lot of the problems against Brendan and his state in the world is due to the fact that he’s a foster child. I talked about this a bit in my review of One for the Murphys, so I won’t take too much time on it here. But this is one of those negative portrayals of foster kids and the system that I dislike. Granted, this isn’t a major point in the story, and is tastefully done. While I’m not sure why a baby abandoned at birth wouldn’t have had a better shot at adoption (since infants are the big demand), Hahn does lay out his past, and I don’t have a huge problem with it. I can buy that this situation could exist, and yes, it would be pretty damaging to a kid’s self esteem. But the idea that a kid is “bad” just because they’re a foster kid? Does anyone actually think that? Maybe I’m naive, or sheltered, or just think better of the world in general…but Brendan mentions at one point that he heard an adult say that foster kids had “bad blood.” That’s just stupid, and in my mind, lazy writing. Again, I could be wrong, and this could be a thing. But I’ve never seen it, and I like to think most people would be better than to blame a child for their circumstances.

Related to this is Brendan’s foster mother, Mrs. Clancy. The first half of the book show her as being distant and not particularly interested in Brendan. Granted, most of her perceptions that we see are actually Brendan’s interpretation—things he thinks she thinks—so she very well may not be as cold as she’s painted. And to Hahn’s credit, she addresses this later in the book—Mrs. Clancy talks about how she’s raised so many foster kids, and she just doesn’t have the energy that she used to. Truthfully, this is a minor issue, but it still bugs me (see “negative portrayal of foster parents” as mentioned before).

Okay, so the actual story. Brendan is a big reader, and is particularly obsessed with the legend of the Green Man—a mythical figure who is the protector of the forest. He goes into the woods, finding a tree where he decides to build a tree house. He is very respectful of the spirit of the forest, and often feels he’s being watched. He meets an old man, who seems to possibly be the Green Man itself. This, combined with the meeting of a girl who shares his interests, helps set Brendan on a more positive course.

There are a handful of mentions that set this story in modern times (such as cell phones and Facebook) but overall, the story is pretty timeless. One of the strengths is the descriptions—Hahn sets us up early on that this is not a particularly wealthy area of town. It makes a lot of what happens later on more believable. For all my ranting, I did genuinely like this story. I’m a sucker for anything fey or Puck related, and the Green Man falls in that category. The twist, while predicable, was still well done, and I’ll confess, I teared up at the end.

Final verdict: a good recommendation for kids who like realistic fiction. Maybe not an essential addition to most collections, but a solid choice. However, I doubt kids will be quick to pick this one up on their own—it might take some marketing.