Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman

What if your mom had died, and your dad remarried a woman with two older daughters? What if he had to pull you out of your school so that he could pay for the step-sisters' college tuition? What if the step-sisters were not so nice? You might really really relate to fairy tales, for one thing...

Meet Elizabeth Rew. She is a high school student in NYC. She attends a private school, but not the one she used to attend - Dad moved her to pay for the wicked step-sisters' tuition. Step-mom herself is a fairly absent, but not terribly benevolent figure, and Dad no longer pays much attention to Elizabeth. She's lonely, not just because of the new school and feeling awkward there, but also because there's not much family life to speak of.

One bright spot in her life is her social studies teacher, Mr. Mauskopf. He assigned a research project, and Elizabeth chose the Grimm stories as her subject, because they were a link to a happier time with her mother. He was impressed, and recommended her for a job at the New-York Circulating Material Repository, where he himself used to be a page.

The Repository is, in Elizabeth's words, "like a library," but rather than loaning out books, they loan out objects. They have everything from, yes, books, to furniture, clothing, sports equipment, instruments, fondue pots...and everything else under the sun. Elizabeth is told that some objects are historical, like Marie Antoinette's wig, and a lot of objects that set designers and the like would borrow, but some, like the fondue pots, are more for the occasional party host.

Also working as a page at the Repository is her high school's star basketball player, Marc (tall, dark and handsome!), sourpuss Aaron, and a beautiful and friendly girl named Anjali. Pretty soon, the other pages let slip about the "Grimm Collection" that is housed in the basement of the Repository. The collection houses the actual magical items from fairy tales. Snow White's step-mother's mirror, for example, is pretty rude, but has to tell the truth. Only some patrons can borrow the items, because they do still contain magic. The Collection can be dangerous, but how cool is that?

However, something is awry at the Repository. One previous page was fired, and another has disappeared completely. Items from the Grimm Collection are missing or aren't working properly. An enormous bird has been spotted following Anjali.

Dr. Rust, the Repository director, quickly realizes that Elizabeth is trustworthy, and she's given access, both as a page and a borrower, to the Grimm Collection. Aaron, however, is not quite as convinced of her worthiness, particularly since Elizabeth and Anjali both seem to be helping Marc do something not strictly by-the-book.

The pages must try to figure out what is happening to the Collection, protect themselves, and generally save the day. I loved that they have to do it while not quite trusting each other - it gave an element of realism and truth, rather than just being an "everyone's great to each other" fantasy world.

I can't overstate how much I enjoyed this book. I  picked it up off the desk of one of my favorite 6th grade teachers, to read while the class was in French. I didn't want to put it down to go retrieve them, and I came straight home and bought it so that I could continue to read it as soon as possible.

The characters are believable (particularly for being in a fantasy novel) and the writing is tight and has a great voice. The author knows how to keep up the suspense - again, the fact that the four kids don't become instant best friends helps both with the realism and the suspense - and she is very good at description. The ending is nice and satisfying without being totally cloying or expected.

Ms. Shulman has some subtle fun with the Grimm stories, too - at points along the way, Elizabeth both becomes shoeless and has to hurry home to do chores. Those little tie-ins that might not be noticed by the youngest of readers really amused me.

Anjali has a sister, Jaya, who is 10 - the rest of the group, obviously, is in high school - and Jaya is a great addition, both for comic relief, and for bringing the book to the younger audience. She doesn't just stand by annoying the older kids, which, I think, would make younger sisters everywhere feel vindicated. ;)

The vocab and content are NOT high school age. The back cover recommends the book for ages 10 and up, and I totally agree, giving it a PG rating. Though the main characters are older, the book is definitely written more for the tween crowd. There is a bit of romance (characters kiss more than once, about along the lines of Ron & Lavender in Book 6 of the Harry Potter series) but there isn't anything overly graphic, and there is no language. There is more "creepiness" than "violence" within the book, as far as scariness.

I think my boys will love this book, even though the main character and point-of-view are Elizabeth's. I highly recommend it for the 10-13 year-old crowd.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Powerless by Matthew Cody

Sometimes I dream I can fly.

I suppose, really, that I'm actually floating in my dreams.  I'm always on the "wrong" side of a balcony, and when I let go of the railing, I don't drop.  It's a relief, in my dreams, that losing my hold on the railing doesn't lead to imminent death.  I don't know if flying or floating is really a super power I'd be interested in.  (I suspect I'd get tired of running into all the bugs.)   I'm afraid, left to my own devices, I pick out a pedantic super power like forcing everyone to see the illogic of their arguments.  I could be the Syllogism Sister.  I'm just a nerd like that.

S is for syllogism.
In Powerless by Matthew Cody, twelve-year-old Daniel is forced to ruminate on the topic of super powers when his family moves across the country to live with his fatally-ill grandmother.  One of the neighbor kids is crazy fast, so fast you don't even see her move, and one of his classmates ends up saving Daniel from a drop like the ones I almost dream about.  This classmate doesn't passively float, but actually flies AND he's super strong.  Daniel's just a normal twelve-year old from a normal family trying to deal with the sadness of his grandmother's illness, but he becomes close friends with a small circle of kids who all some super power.  Daniel is a bit of an interloper in this group; he alone is powerless.

His limits don't make Daniel bitter, because he is quickly focused on trying to save his friends.  Being powerless doesn't preclude him from being a hero.  It seems that something happens to all the kids with super powers when they turn 13.  They completely lose their powers.  They lose their memories of what they did with their extraordinary capabilities during the 13 previous years.  They even stop being friends with their former super-powered confidants.  Growing up, in this new hometown of Daniel's, has very marked ramifications for the kids with unusual talents.

Daniel has a tall order to fill.  He needs to understand the genesis of these powers and discover if the kids lose their abilities through a natural aging progression or because of some sinister intervention.  Figuring all of this out leads to danger, the moral question of limitless powers in the hands of young people with a limited world view, the uncomfortable realization that not all super power are a welcome thing, and the acceptance of the fact that no set of super powers can fix a crummy home life.

As Daniel tries to figure out how to help his friends, he's guided by some old comic books kept in the kids' clubhouse.  Powerless intentionally keeps to a comic book-like plot.  (Author Matthew Cody is a big fan.)  So this book is great read for anyone drawn to super heros, comic books, larger-than-life characters, and memories of trying to tackle grown-up problems before the world thought you were ready.

I'm giving this one a PG rating because there IS violence, there is death, and there are heavy questions.   Just like real life.  (There is no romance beyond a school girl crush.)

I really liked this book, but a word of warning for the adults, Powerless opens with a really haunting telling of how Michael turns 13 and loses his power.  It really made me think of Wendy refusing to move out of the nursery in Peter Pan as well as all the things we give up in order to act like "grown ups."  For young readers, I think this is merely part of the story. For adults, I think the prologue resonates with something deeper.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Carrie and I (Amy by marriage and Chanin by association) have a grandfather that is fond of telling tales.  They're all 100% true.  They're all true so long as your definition of truth is having good intentions and using broad strokes with the details.  And as a farmer/musician whose own father lived into his 100s, our grandfather usually has some colorful stories before the broad strokes come in.  He loves to entertain and he doesn't really need you to believe it, so long as you listen.  He'll listen to you too, and even if you're only 10 years old, he'll listen earnestly.  That's not a bad way to grow up, even when you start to realize that some of his tales are taller than others.  

That's what happened to our protagonist Jacob.  His grandfather was a large part of his childhood; telling him tales of fighting monsters, showing him pictures of his childhood friends with peculiar powers, and retelling tales from his safe place, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.  As Jacob grows older and begins to question the validity of all that, Abe (the grandfather) allows Jacob to come to his own conclusions.  When we meet Jacob he's sixteen years old and having a really boring summer.  But when he gets a frantic call from his grandfather and then later discovers his grandfather's body in the woods, boring is no longer an apt description of his summer.

While Jacob tries to process what he saw that night, he has to come to terms with who he thought his grandfather was.  Jacob starts counseling for his recurring nightmares and increasingly anti-social behaviors, and ultimately that starts him on the journey of discovering the truth about his grandfather and the peculiar children he heard so much about in his childhood.  Jacob and his father travel to a remote British island as part of the healing process for Jacob.  While there, Jacob discovers that his grandfather was telling the truth when he finds a time loop and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children within that time loop.  In the loop, it is always September 3, 1940 and the children and their headmistress remain the same physically.  So the same children Jacob's grandfather described and displayed pictures of, are there in the same physical context.  Jacob is taught all this by the children who reside in the loop and the esteemed Miss Peregrine herself, after he discovers the modern day ruins of the home then follows some of the children into the loop.

Jacob is, after some initial suspicions, welcomed into the fold and is also made aware that not just the good stories his grandfather told were true.  Unfortunately the bad stories, the ones involving monsters that must be fought and killed, are true as well.  The Home is a safe place but only because of vigilance and its secret location.  And all that is about to end.  Ultimately Jacob must decide whether to return to his functionally dysfunctional family, or stay with this unique family of orphans that his grandfather's legacy led him to.  I won't give away all the details, but there is danger and not everything is wrapped up prettily at the end of the book. It's left wide open for a series of books to follow, in my opinion.  I'd rate it as PG-13 for some scary content.  There is a hint of romance, but not much at all, and the language isn't an issue either.  It's a good story and it's well-written.  Oh! And the pictures are pretty awesome as well.  I would recommend this book for anyone who likes a little mystery, a little adventure, and a little bit of a tall tale.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Name of This Book is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch

My daughter's glasses would be much cooler.

This might just be the easiest review I will ever write.  Not only did I read this book, it is my soon-to-be 10-year-old daughter's most favorite series in the world.  (Aside from Harry Potter, that is).  When I told her in the car today I was going to review this particular book, her face immediately lit up and she said, "That book is full of magic and it makes me laugh.  It really is perfect, you know?" High praise from my future librarian (or pastry chef, she can't decide).                

So what is it SPECIFICALLY about The Name of This Book is Secret that appeals to my daughter and the majority of her friends (and me)?  It is the perfect escape for a 9-13 year old reader and yet realistic enough for any parent to enjoy also.   The book is silly yet relateable.  Max-Earnest (the boy with two first names because his parents could not agree what to name him) and Cassandra (his new friend with somewhat pointy ears who wears a backpack wherever she goes) begrudgingly collaborate when they find a notebook written in code leading them to the discovery of a box called "The Symphony of Smells."  The narrator leads us through their adventures of decoding and investigating but at the same time adds a just a hint of mystery.  Things like blank pages in the text and a character named Gloria who is a real estate agent for the dead only add to the intrigue.  Cass and Max-Ernest, although unlikely friends, unite to save another boy from what is sure to be tragic peril, race to decode The Symphony of Smells and find the magician it belongs to and eventually return home to their unsuspecting families. 

Did it remind me of Lemony Snicket and The Series of Unfortunate Events?  Yes.  But what this book had that Lemony's series did not was the awkwardness of 11-year-olds of a different sex working together for a common goal.  The fact that the goal was actually to try and save someone that they thought was in danger was an added bonus.  I think it is SO important for kids to have appropriate friendships during their pre-teen years and was happy to have such a relationship highlighted in this book.  Yes, they had the initial "you're gross because you are a boy/girl" feelings, but as they worked together and the book progressed Max-Earnest and Cass became friends.  Not boyfriend and girlfriend...just friends.  It was refreshing. 

The other refreshing part was the silliness.  So many books for young readers right now are about middle school cattiness or teen/tween drama I was happy to read something that was mostly make-believe.  The full-on belly laughs coming from the backseat and the reading nook in her room were a nice change.  I haven't heard those since our days of Ramona Quimby and they made me smile. 

This is the first in a series, of course.  And like a good mother, I have passed on the "you must read all books in order" gene.  My daughter has torn through them like no other series (again, except for Harry Potter).   And if this is any indication of how good they are, she does not want to read the last one because she does not, "want them to be over."  I think we can all smile about that.