Friday, August 17, 2012

Secrets of Shakespeare's Grave by Deron Hicks

I'm only two days late - woohooty! I have a reason, though, as you will see...

12 year old Colophon (more on that to come) Letterford is the younger daughter of a family of publishers that goes back to the Elizabethan Era. Letterford and Sons always passes to the oldest son, with other family members maintaining a share (this does come into play, I'm sorry to say.)

The book opens in the cathedral on Mont St. Michel in 1616, with the founding father, Miles Letterford. A little prologue gives us the teaser of something to do with Shakespeare and a secret, and segues into a craftsman making a mysterious device in a dark room... Oooh!

Colophon's father, Mull, is the current owner and head of Letterford & Sons. Her grandfather passed away not so long ago, and we are told that several nasty accidents have happened to the company since his death. Warehouses on fire with new books inside, losses of long-time authors... The company is in trouble, and Colophon knows it. Her older brother Case, the future owner of Letterford & Sons, is predictably rude to her and doesn't seem to care one whit about the family business that he will someday inherit.

During Thanksgiving dinner at the family's newer home in Georgia, with most of the family in attendance, Colophon both overhears a threatening conversation between her father and his cousin, Treemont; meets another cousin, Julian, who believes in a mysterious family treasure, but who mostly is regarded as nuts by the family; and finally overhears a formal meeting whereby Treemont brings up a clause in which, if the current leader of the company is found to be ruining things, can be ousted and replaced by the direct descendant of the 2nd son of Miles - gee, Treemont himself. Mull is given until Christmas to try to sign one of three bestselling authors that are considering the company for their next book. If he doesn't, well...

Colophon has her suspicions that Treemont is behind some of the "accidents" - particularly when her father's first meeting goes ridiculously awry. And, she begins to think that the treasure legend that Julian believes in may just be the salvation for her father. Julian mentions that the first clue is maybe in the portrait of Miles that always goes with the house.

The family always does Christmas at their traditional home in London, so Colophon arranges to go early with her mother to see some artifacts that might be clues. She begs her brother to tag along to her father's second meeting in New York. Case, in a strange turn of listening to her, agrees. They are in a race to see if they can find the treasure or in some other way help their father maintain his position in the company.

I SO wanted to like this book. I love Shakespeare, I have no problem with international kid quests (I love the 39 Clues series, which are just as, or more, improbable), mysteries are my favorite genre... Unfortunately, the writing was so poorly done that the premise was overcome.

I hesitate to review a book here that I didn't like - I'd rather tell you about books you HAVE to read! - but I got this as an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) from, which sometimes gives me wonderful things, and it's the only kid book I've read recently, and I guess I do think it somewhat worthwhile to warn people off something that's not going to be worth their time.

Some of my problems with this book, in no particular order:

  • As an adult (so surely as a kid, too), I had never heard of the name Colophon. I wondered if it was some rather random Shakespearean character, so I Googled it. Nope, it's the word for the front page of a book, with the publisher/date/edition/ISBN info. That is a fine choice for a publishing family, but why on earth would the author not throw us a bone about it? And forget a nice little "She hated that everyone always mispronounced her name..." kind of literary device to tell us how to say it as we read.
  • It took over 100 pages (not counting the prologue) before anyone brought Shakespeare up again. The family doesn't have an obsession, there aren't characters named after Shakespearean folk, there's nothing to give us anything about a Shakespeare connection at all. I wanted more.
  • At least during the first half of the book, the dialog was ridiculously stilted. Even the 12 and 14 year old characters always talk in complete sentences, and without enough contractions. While I'm a grammar witch, I do understand people often don't talk in full sentences, and while there are some "don't"s and "I'm"s in there, it's not nearly enough for the characters to come off as natural. 
  • The first 10 chapters, around 100 pages, have a great deal of set up, but pretty much NO action. I was bored. That is why I'm late reviewing - while I've had this book for several weeks and it should have taken me about 2 hours to read (the type is large, and it is less than 300 pages), I just could not get interested. This is perhaps my main complaint - I don't know that my kids, for example, would notice the poor writing as much as I do, but they will probably get bored.
  • Even though I can usually suspend my disbelief for kids' stories, there were a few things that just couldn't be overcome. Colophon finds things in a few days that her adult cousin missed after studying the treasure clues for most of his life. The author lives in Georgia, so the Letterfords do, too - yes, rural Georgia, the hotbed of international publishing. Case, the brother, goes from rude disbelief to wonderful, caring accomplice in about 2 seconds.
  • Finally, and the "Letterford Mysteries" on the cover should be a clue, this is actually apparently the first of at least two books. While I normally appreciate and actually prefer series stories, I really like when the individual books can stand alone. Unfortunately, this one had a bit of an end but immediately took us to a cliffhanger and left me feeling rather jerked around. I'm not sure that the prologue actually had anything to do with this story (and I'm pretty bright, so why can't I tell?) and that feels cheap. 

There are some good points. The scenery is well drawn. There are some very funny moments in the (sorry, small spoiler) sabotage that takes place in the father's meetings with the authors. The last half of the book does pick up in pace, with a few exciting moments (not enough, though, still) and the dialog does improve to a slightly more natural flow. However, I can't recommend this book.

So, where does the line of dissatisfaction with a book cross from the writer to the editor? This isn't an independently published little book, this is Houghton Mifflin. Why did the editor not say, "Hey, read your dialog out loud and fix things after you do? And, hey, let's do a bit more action at the beginning..." Because, really, that's all it would take to make this better. Mere imagination does not a writer make - you have to have some idea of how to put words to paper (or screen.) I myself know that I'm a much better editor than writer - it's like the old art thing, "I don't know much about it, but I know what I like," except that I do know something about writing, and while I can't necessarily come up with clever ideas myself, I can thing of some ways to improve the writing. And I'm not a pro...

I hope that the next book would move faster as that whole 100/267 pages of set up wouldn't be necessary, but I can't promise that I will read it to find out. This book actually is not being released until Sept. 4th of this year, but I would not encourage anyone to rush out to buy it.

So, the idea here is good, but the execution just doesn't work. And I'm not sure who to blame for that.

Rating: G
No language, violence, romance, anything like that. The publicity blurb in the ARC says it's for ages 9-12. I think 12 would be too old. Though the heroine is 12, most 6th graders I know would want at least a little romance, friendship, fantasy, adventure...something. The type is large, and the chapters are pretty short - I think 8 would be fine, and interest would probably top out around 11. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Kingdom Keepers: Disney After Dark by Ridley Pearson

The last few summers, my brother and sister-in-law have generously shared their kids with my parents and with me. To maintain my perennial nomination for Aunt of the Year, I try to schedule "Camp Carrot" activities like swimming (well, dunking them, really), crafting, and watching movies. This year, we branched out, and I interviewed my oldest niece and nephew about their current favorite book.

Today, I'm posting my interview with Natalie, about a book series she REALLY likes--The Kingdom Keepers by Ridley Pearson.

Natalie modge podges
paper to a washer.
(Is modge podge a verb?)
Aunt Carrot:   What is your first name?

My brilliant niece: Natalie

AC:   How old are you?

Mbn: 10 years old

AC:   What do you do for a living?

Mbn: I go to school.  I’m in fifth grade this year.

AC:   What is the name of the book you want to talk about?

Mbn: Kingdom Keepers: Disney After Dark

AC: Who wrote that book?

Mbn: Ridley Pearson

AC: What are the major things that happen in the book? (Except, don’t give away any surprises!)

Mbn: A group of kids work as DHIs (Disney Host Interactives or Daylight Holographic Images) during the day at Magic Kingdom and then “cross over” after they fall asleep.  When they cross over, they try to stop the Overtakers, the bad people who want to rule the world, starting with Magic Kingdom. It’s going to be confusing in the beginning, but don’t worry.  It gets better.

These five teenagers (Finn, Philby, Maybeck, Willa, and Charlene) notice unusual human characteristics in some of the people that they meet that are clues about the Overtakers . . . if they look closely.  There are lots of surprises in this exciting story (and a little bit of suspense.)

AC:   What was your favorite part of the book?

Mbn: I like the very end where everyone is dressed up like a cast member, and they break a certain spell.  If I say any more about this spell, you’ll be confused and I might give away the ending.

AC:   Did you like the book? Why?
Mbn: I liked this book because it was a break from the realistic fiction that I normally read. Also, it’s about Disney which is one of my favorite places, and I get to learn things about Disney. (It’s sorta like a behind-the-scenes look.)

AC:   Who else do you think would share your opinion?
Mbn: Anyone would like this book, but especially people who really like Disney and know the attractions.  Also, people who like fantasy books.

Natalie says "read this book!"
(And all the others in the series!)

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

What would it be like to grow up in a graveyard?  Would you be content to live as Nobody forever, or would you leave your home to find a new one amongst the living?  And what exactly does one get a witch to repay her for her kindness?  Such are the questions Bod (Nobody) Owens must ask himself in The Graveyard Book.  I have to sheepishly admit that I was unaware of how awesome Neil Gaiman is until I picked this up (*ahem* because it was in the "Bargain" section....and, yes, I was at a brick-and-mortar book store buying a paper-and-glue book; I know, I know, how 21st century of me).  Now I'm a fan.  Mr. Gaiman is responsible for a whole bunch (terrible accurate and articulate, I am aware) of cool stuff like Coraline - both the book and the movie, The Sandman, Smoke and Mirrors, Odd and the Frost Giants, and Anansi Boys to name a few.  Not all of those books are meant for younger readers, though, so do a quick scan of the book before you buy it - in whatever form you so choose to read your books.  He also has a stellar web site where you can learn more about him and his widely varied projects.  You can find that here.

This book won the 2009 Newbery Award and with good reason.  It manages to mix creepiness with a bit of suspense, humor, and fantasy and somehow make it appropriate for young readers.  My brilliant niece is ten years old and I would recommend it to her, even though it's not really the kind of book that she normally likes and she has an imagination that is way TOO lively - I still think she'd be able to read it without a nightlight.  Nobody Owens is two when he toddles his way to the graveyard late one night. The nefarious and duplicitous Man Jack had just killed Bod's family, and it's because of Bod's ability to escape his crib that he walks out the open door and up the hill to the graveyard.  There he is taken in by the spirits of the graveyard's permanent residents and the other resident, Silas who is neither of Bod's world or that of the ghosts.  From then on Bod roams the graveyard, finding every visible headstone and some not-so-visible, until nightfall when he learns a different kind of education from Silas. Throughout the book Bod grows up and with his maturation comes new challenges: proper clothes, proper schooling, not falling into a Ghoulgate, learning how to blend in both with ghosts and living people, and protecting him from the man Jack.  It can sometimes be lonely for a boy from the graveyard but then again, meeting someone means talking about where he lives.  Quite the quandary.

I read in his Newbery acceptance speech (printed at the end of the book, and also worth a read) that he originally started the book as a series of short stories.  I can see how that might be, but it certainly doesn't detract from the story.  I also see the comparison made between this and Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book: both boys being raised outside of their "natural" elements and must figure out how to bridge two worlds or ultimately choose one over the other.  I must say I find both books more than a little sad when the boys grow older and start to lose their connections to the worlds in which they were raised.  Of course, I also find Now We are Six in which Christopher Robin becomes to old for Winnie the Pooh to be the saddest book EVER.  So you may not need as many tissues as I do when it comes to tales of growing up and going on.  I'm giving this book a PG rating.  I know that there are mature themes throughout, but they're handled in a manner appropriate for young readers.  Think Disney's Haunted Mansion attraction; somewhat scary, somewhat funny, altogether fun.  So if you're looking for a book that's a little different but well-written (I might even venture that this would be particularly appealing to boys), check out The Graveyard Book.
Jack Black, Will Ferrell, and Jason Segel as the hitchhiking ghosts at Disney's Haunted Mansion.
To see other Disney Dream Portraits by Annie Leibovitz, go here.