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Big Bird’s Human Dalliance

imagesI read in some other Goodreads reviews that this book was too similar to Daughter of Smoke & Bone. Obviously the publisher knows that they have some commonalities since they reference it in the blurb…’if you liked that you’ll love this’ type of deal.

Luckily I’m the kind of pessimist that thinks there’s no original ideas left (I mean, Harry Potter existed before Harry Potter) so the similarities didn’t bother me. I still thought this was a good story with enough differences that I enjoyed reading it.

Spoilers ahead:

So Echo is a little kid living in a library (she loves books, I’ve yet to read a character recently who doesn’t love books. I mean, we all love books that’s why we’re reading them. Let’s have a character that’s illiterate please) when she meets a strange bird-lady named who’s a seer. The Ala kind of adopts her—(but not enough that she doesn’t still live in the library and have to steal from everyone to eat…) and introduces her into the magic world of underground bird people. Sounds ridiculous but Grey manages to make the Avicen sound sexy and cool which is not easy when you’re basically describing Big Bird.

Fast-forward about ten years and Echo steals a gift for the Ala’s bday. The Avicen have been at war with the Drakharin (dragon people, of course) for hundreds of years, and there is a legend that only a Firebird can end the war. Fortuitously, the music box Echo gifts the Ala contains a map and a poem that hints at finding the Firebird. Cue adventure time.

Echo hasn’t gotten very far in her quest for clues before she’s captured by a Drakharin (the Dragon Prince himself actually but she doesn’t know that). Through a serious of unfortunate events she ends up teaming up with him, his best friend/unrequited lover, Echo’s best bird friend, and a gay peacock. And it all manages to sound believable and engaging despite the craziness of that last sentence.

So, yes, it is REALLY similar to Daughter of Smoke & Bone, I mean, we’ve got a human that hangs out with magical people, a quest to end a hundred years+ war, an impossible love story, a girl who discovers she’s reincarnated, etc. etc.  I found the ‘twist’ a little predictable, I think the author could have pulled back a bit in her foreshadowing to make it more of a surprise, but I’ll definitely be picking up the rest of the series when it’s available.

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Captain Awesome Finds the Clues

Finds the clues coverI think y’all all know the drill by now.  Let’s do this. You’re up, Encyclopedia Finds the Clues (Dutton 1966).

The Case of the Mysterious Tramp

The case: So Police Chief Brown comes home late for dinner because someone has beaten and robbed Mr. Clancy, the plumber. According to John Morgan, Clancy’s assistant,  Clancy’s truck broke down near a farm and when Clancy lifts the truck to check the radiator, a mysterious tramp dashes out of the woods, hits Clancy with a pipe, and steals his wallet. Sounds plausible. Chief Brown theorizes that the tramp then dashed over to the nearby railroad tracks and jumped a train. He’s upset because he thinks this means that they’ll never catch the bad guy, thus ruining his perfect crime-solving record. Or so I inferred. Encyclopedia tells him not to worry because John Morgan did it and made up the story about the tramp to cover his tracks. How did Encyclopedia know that he was lying?

My verdict: Aside from the fact that it’s ridiculous to think some hobo was hiding out in the woods with a pipe on the off chance that someone’s car would break down, I’m not sure. It probably has something to do with the car breaking down which I don’t get because I know nothing about cars and I just call AAA when mine breaks down.

Was I right?: Not really.  Clancy raises the hood when he checks the radiator, but Morgan says that after he sees the tramp attack, he gets out of the car to help Clancy. How did he see the attack if the hood was blocking the front windshield? This of course ignores the possibility that Morgan could have leaned out of the passenger window and to the shit go down, but yeah, it does raise suspicion about his statement.

Stray observations: At least two stories from every book involves the so-called victim or eye witness committing the crime but pinning the blame on someone else and the Chief falls for it EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. You’d think he would learn by now not to take every statement at face value. Also, Encyclopedia lies to his mom about why he’s late for dinner (he was helping one of his teachers to restart her stalled car) because he doesn’t like to talk about the help he gives grown-ups. Dude, helping a teacher with car trouble is a normal kid thing to do. At least in the age before cell phones. Lying to your mother because you don’t want to seem like you’re bragging is a dumb thing to do.

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Mystery Solving Squirrels

Oh my God it’s finally autumn in the Alden universe.  It only took 13 books.  I can only imagine the length of time that will pass before we see spring again.  This is Snowbound Mystery in case you’re keeping track.9780807575161_p0_v1_s260x420

In the very first paragraph we learn that their school is closed because there’s been a fire and it’s been partially destroyed.  This sounds very mysterious to me, but what do I know, because this crime-solving quartet isn’t piqued in the least by this tidbit.

That’s Gertrude for you, throwing in some interesting news about arson to distract you, then never ever mentioning it again.

Meanwhile, Benny is extolling the features of this marvelous cabin in the woods that he was recently discussing with Grandfather’s good chum down at the Sportsmen’s club.

Seriously.

I’m starting to feel like Grandfather is feeling his age, and has wisely decided to skip over the older, slower ‘jock’ (is he a jock? I can’t think of anything Henry’s good at, that was the nicest term I could come by)—Henry— as his possible heir—going straight to his only semi-intelligent spawn.  All signs point to Benny being groomed for a future of finance and schmoozing on the links.  Why else is Benny hanging out at the Sportsmen’s Club, unless he’s making shady deals and being bribed by long lunches and cabin getaways?  Think of how easy it would be to bribe Benny with a good-sized hamburger.

If that wasn’t enough, it’s also pretty clear who’s now in charge of ‘masterminding’ these little adventures—as usual Benny extolls the virtues of his newest idea with the imagination and style of a mid-sized travel pamphlet.  ‘It’s too early to snow,’ and ‘only a 2.5 mile hike from the nearest grocery store’ and ‘there will be new plants and deer!’ and ‘I’m sure it won’t snow’ and ‘we could eat canned food’ and also ‘it won’t snow so that’s good.’

Spoiler alert:  it’s going to totally snow.  I mean, thanks for keeping the mystery alive, Gertrude, by naming the book Snowbound Mystery.  It’s like you want to inhibit children’s slowly developing deductive reasoning skills.

Obviously Gertrude is now working with some sort of Microsoft Office Word template, so in every new book she just has to tweak Benny’s monologue slightly, changing the details about the grocery store, and the amount of canned food they will want to purchase.  The paragraph about Watch attending/staying at home is optional.

However, I’m relieved to see they’ve finally moved on past ‘rocks and seashells”—earlier phenomena of nature previously fascinating to the set—and are now learning about multi-celled vertebrates.

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Zombies, Zombies, Everywhere, and Not a Machete in Sight

world-war-z-bookApparently, even though I am terrified of them, I’m in a mood for zombie stories. I’m still working on the sequels to Feed, and I recently finished World War Z. Soon I’m gonna be watching The Walking Dead and will never sleep again.

So, World War Z – one of the definitive zombie novels. I was attracted to read this book because it’s written as a documentary, a series of reports from folks remembering what they went through during the Uprising, when the dead rose and started walking/running around. I thought that it might be not as scary to read something written at a bit of a distance and it did seem to help.

Max Brooks was very smart in the stories he chose to tell, with politicians, soldiers, and regular folks all getting to tell their side of events. You get a pretty complete picture of what it was like to live through something so bizarre and terrible. The distance you get from someone telling your their story instead of living it with them should have made some of the more horrific aspects of the story easier to read, but it’s hard to read about cannibalism no matter how the story is being told (see The City of Thieves from our book club a couple months ago).

So while this book wasn’t terrifying, it also wasn’t very comfortable to read. One of the main points Brooks seemed to be trying to make was how humans will do anything to survive. Some of the acts they describe in this book can feel far-fetched, but a quick look at history will reveal the truth about the horrors humanity inflicts upon each other (again, see the historical facts David Benioff used in City of Thieves).

This all isn’t too say that I didn’t enjoy World War Z or think it was a really great read, because I did. It has a lot of fantastic action sequences and the different voices of the characters are really developed. It’s definitely worth a read, though be prepared for some pretty heavy topics – this isn’t all RUN, SHOOT ‘EM IN THE HEAD! You might actually end up thinking about global politics and sociology.

I didn’t see the Brad Pitt movie based on this book, but from what I saw in the trailer, I don’t think they followed the book except in the broadest story sense. While this makes me a bit sad (but not surprised), it would be difficult to adapt this as a faux documentary. Folks seem to like the gory stuff better with their zombies.

(Giant writhing piles of super-fast zombies? Yeah, I don’t think I’m gonna be seeing this one.)

Speaking of which, I’m continuing with my rising from the dead reading with the YA zombie novel “Warm Bodies”. I’m a bit stalled on it, zombies not being much in the holiday spirit, but expect a post on it coming up when I am back in the mood to read Romeo and Juliet as interpreted through the living dead. Happy Holidays!


Wonderful

So pretty!

Look, I’m feeling too lazy right now to come up with a more creative blog post title.

Wonderstruck (Scholastic Press 2011) is Brian Selznick’s much-anticipated follow-up to his rule-breaking, genre-bending, Martin Scorsese-adapting, Caldecott-winning middle grade novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Using the same mixture of prose and wordless illustration that made Hugo such a critical darling, Wonderstruck tells the story of two kids, born 50 years apart, who are just trying to find their place in the world.  In 1977, Ben (whose story is told almost entirely in words) is going through the house that he used to share with his recently deceased mother when he comes across evidence of the father he’s never met. Just as he’s picking up the phone to follow a lead on his dad, lighting strikes the phone lines and Ben is seriously injured, losing his hearing in the process. While in the hospital, Ben impulsively decides to sneak out and hop on a bus to New York to try and find his father.  He eventually seeks refuge at the American Museum of Natural History when his search comes up with nothing but dead-ends. Meanwhile in 1927, Rose (whose story is told almost entirely in pictures) is a deaf girl who feels trapped in her cold, loveless home.  She copes by sneaking out to the cinema to see movies starring her favorite silent-movie actress.  When she notices that the theater is installing equipment for those new-fangled talkies, she’s so upset that she runs away to New York City to find her favorite actress. It does not go well, so Rose finds sanctuary at the American Museum of Natural History.  Are you sensing a pattern here?  Ben and Rose’s lives continue to parallel before finally intersecting in a really interesting way.

Before I get into the meat of the story, I want to briefly comment on the design of the book. I’m not talking about the illustrations, which except for a few wonky figures,  are gorgeous. I’m talking about things like endpapers, borders, folios, and fonts. AKA things I never really paid attention to before I worked in publishing.  I think with a story like this that is so visual,the book design is crucial.  The design elements aren’t showy, but they add to the magical, old-fashioned children’s book vibe without distracting the reader from the story.

Though it’s still unusual, the mixture of text and illustrations here doesn’t have quite the same novelty that it did with The Invention of Hugo Cabret. And for some reason I thought that the two stories would be more segregated, like you would get all of Rose’s story and then all of Ben’s. Instead, Selznick weaves the stories together to truly emphasize how much Rose’s and Ben’s lives parallel each other despite living 50 years apart. I do wish that Rose’s story was developed more though.  I liked that because her story was illustrated that we are forced to use our imaginations more, but it also means that we don’t go as deep inside her head as we do with Ben. The other big problem with the format is that when the two story lines finally intersect, a big expositional wrap-up has to happen in order for the plot to make sense, but it slows the story momentum to a crawl.

Despite those minor gripes, the format of Wonderstruck is still a very effective method of storytelling, particularly in Selznick’s very skilled hands. The style of illustrations combined with the old-fashioned tone of the text gives off a fairy-taleish vibe, though the story is grounded in the real world. I think think that vibe helps the reader overlook some of the more implausible elements of the story (deaf kids run away to New York and nothing too terrible happens?  Umm, ok.) At least the adult readers.  The middle grade target audience is probably already more likely to forgive that kind of stuff.  And though the story is certainly emotional, it never crosses the line to mawkish or cheesy, which would be very easy to do considering the protagonists are two deaf kids who have THE WORST LUCK IN THE WORLD.  I totally cried while reading the book, but never felt like I was manipulated into doing so.

I know the size and page count of Wonderstruck might be intimidating to younger readers, but considering 460 of the 640 pages are illustrations, it takes no time at all to read. So not only do you get to experience a beautiful story, but you get the smug satisfaction of reading a long book so quickly. It’s a win-win! So check it out if you have the chance; it’s worth your time.


Wildwood=Wildgood

I like to keep with a theme, whether it be kids in space, dystopian youth gangs fighting the man, or scary birds.  So naturally, after reading The Aviary, I wanted to read another book about birds that may be plotting to kill you.

Wildwood starts at a brisk pace, with the kidnapping of Prue’s baby brother Mac.  This kidnapping, like most, happens in a split-second when Prue’s attention is diverted at the park.  However, unlike the usual America’s Most Wanted kidnapping stories, Prue’s baby bro is snatched up by a flock of crows.  A veritable, murder of crows if you will.

This large swarm of birds carry the child off into the distance, into the Impassible Wilderness, the large, imposing forest that no one in Portland (yes, Oregon) ever ventures into (or if they do, never returns from, natch).  Prue, obviously not a shrinking violet, strikes off on her own to rescue her brother.  She is joined at the last minute by her hapless, bespectacled (they always are bespectacled aren’t they?) neighbor, Curtis.

Not long after they enter the woods (and are immediately lost), Prue and Curtis almost stumble upon a crowd of arguing coyotes.  Coyotes wearing tattered uniforms and carrying rusty muskets.  Unfortunately, they are sniffed out quickly, and only Prue escapes.  Curtis, unfortunately, is marched back to the warren to meet the Dowager Governess.

While Curtis is getting drunk on homemade spirits, while getting acquainted with the Dowager, Prue is almost flattened by a mail truck.  The kind mailman escorts her to the South Wood, marvelling that an Outsider has made it into the woods, and gently letting her know that her friend Curtis and baby brother Mac have most likely been killed and dismembered by now. Continue reading


The Boxcar Children: We Can Even Make Science Boring

Lighthouse Mystery begins with the end of the Woodshed Mystery, because that’s how synched up Gertrude is.  Aunt Jane is relieved that no one calls her Mrs. Bean after her marriage, because even she knows that is a stupid sounding name.  We are not even one full page into the book before bread and milk come up.  Henry has decided to take the scenic route home, never missing a chance to enjoy the power steering and smooth ride of their STATION WAGON and Grandfather knows of a beautiful lighthouse that they will drive past.  I feel a mystery coming on.

I am not even a little bit surprised when the lighthouse is for sale, and even less surprised that the family feels like this is something they NEED TO BUY.  Like now.  However, imagine my shock when the group discovers that the lighthouse has ALREADY been sold.  The grocer, Mr. Hall, offers to rent it to them for the summer, and I’m amazed that Grandfather agrees to this, instead of insisting that he WILL buy it, ONE way or the OTHER that lighthouse shall be mine! That’s kind of how the scenario went in my head.  Grandfather does make the children wait in the car however while he ‘negotiates the rent,’ whatever that means, probably a pistol-whipping.

When the family returns to the lighthouse, ‘the girls went into the kitchen at once.’  This is a direct quote.  Dear God.  After inspecting the stove and dishes, and how cold the water is, and if there is sufficient storage for the enormous amount of milk and bread that Benny requires; they go to bed.  At 8 o’clock.

Mystery Alert!  At the stroke of midnight, Watch begins barking and Benny smells food (no one else smells food, but we know that Benny has a keen sixth sense for anything edible).  After a few minutes, Watch goes back to sleep, but Grandfather feels that they should still alert the police due to the highly suspicious activities—that I will reiterate —consist of a dog barking, and Benny, a food obsessed halfwit, maybe smelling some potatoes.  This combination of Benny and Watch and food just made me think of Scooby Doo…Henry, Jessie, and Violet/Fred, Daphne, Velma?  Are we discovering the adult iteration of the Boxcar Children?  Just think about it.

The next day, the group discovers that they don’t have any food and maybe should go to the grocery store.  Facepalm.  The same grocery store they were at the night before, while renting the lighthouse?  NO ONE thought to buy food while they were already there?  Not housekeeping maven Jessie?  Not epicurean Benny?   Wow.  This may be the first time that they’ve passed up an opportunity to purchase, discuss, and cook food.

But if they hadn’t been forced to traipse back to the grocery store we might not have met angry, black-eyed man.  If his dark eyes weren’t enough to let you know he’s a bad seed, let me tell you how he ALMOST bumps into Jessie on the sidewalk.  Yes, to clarify, he doesn’t actually bump into her, but he almost does, which sets the whole group off into hysterics.  I assume that they are used to their own town, where the citizens kowtow respectfully, and know to clear the streets at their approach, perhaps strewing palm fronds beneath their feet.  Just a hunch.

As if this incident wasn’t traumatizing enough, inside the grocery store, Henry tries to chat up a boy his own age, and is REBUFFED.   Mr. Hall, sensei of the town of Conley, tells the family that this boy wants to go to college and his cruel father, Mr. Angry Dark Eyes, won’t let him.   All the children are predictably aghast at this information.  Mr. Hall tells them nothing can be done about this, many have tried and failed, and all the children immediately think of Grandfather, and how he can force anyone to do anything, no matter how much they dislike it.  It’s worded slightly differently, but that’s the gist of it. Continue reading