Monday, March 26, 2012

Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday: Breadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu

Here's one more Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday entry. I actually had this ready for last Monday, but I was flat on my back with the flu, so I didn't get it posted. Clearly, having this external deadline for posting is good for my post regularity. (Rather like high-fibre cereal.)(Never mind, not going there.) This will be my last consecutive (relatively) MMGM--I will do more in future, but I'll mix it up a bit in the meantime. Though obviously I like middle-grade fiction! (Really, it's just a boring, categorizing name for Children's Literature, right?)

I was excited to read Breadcrumbs because I liked Anne Ursu's Chronus Chronicles so much. Well, The Chronus Chronicles were good*. But Breadcrumbs is really, really good! It's poetry and folklore and true, true story, and it feels just like an ice shard being drawn out of your heart.

It"s a retelling of the Snow Queen, which I've always found a beautifully uncomfortable tale, and Breadcrumbs nails it. It's one of those stories about stories, but it's nowhere near as simple as that. It reminds me of The Life of Pi, in the way that fantasy could actually just be all in your head but is no less real because of it. Breadcrumbs is a fairy tale, several, in fact, but it is also a problem novel about friendship and family and fitting in. Hazel's relationship with Jack is exquisitely drawn. Her loneliness at school is a character in itself. And the overlap between the real world and the magical wood is painfully realistic. The story of the matchgirl brought me to tears.

I'm going to have to reread my Hans Christian Anderson. His stories have always bothered me: even the ones with happy endings are still so sad. Anne Ursu gets Hans Christian Anderson. Someone (not me!) is going to write a thesis on what she does with his characters and themes. I'll just say that Ursu gets why someone would go with the White Witch into the wood, and she gets the price to set him free.

Beautiful writing, beautiful story. And if there were Academy Awards for authors, Ursu would get the one for best use of allusions to favourite kids' books!

Breadcrumbs is the taste of fresh snow when you've been cross-country skiing through the woods and you're hot and thirsty and the snow is so white and fluffy and it tastes cleaner than anything and it's so cold it hurts your heart when you swallow.

Be sure to check out the origin of MMGM: Shannon Messenger's blog, where she links to all the other MMGMers with their excellent recommendations.

*And I just discovered a weird sort of symmetry: Kate Coombs liked the Chronus Chronicles so much that she commented on my review of them, which led me to discover her blog, which led to me reading her book The Runaway Princess, which I just reviewed last week. (The blogosphere is a strange, spiraling galaxy of a virtual place!)

Monday, March 12, 2012

Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday: The Runaway Princess, by Kate Coombs

The blogging fates are conspiring to get me writing more posts. Just when I decided I was going to try participating in MMGM, thinking maybe I'd manage once a month (I'm sorry, the alliteration just happens, I have nothing to do with it!), I read a whole slew of really good middle-grade books that need blog posts. So, two MMGMs in a row. Don't get used to it, folks, it won't last!

The Runaway Princess is much more than I thought it would be from the title and the cover. It's clever, cute and funny and has a hilariously complicated plot. I was hooked from the first page of the Prologue, when Princess Meg's mother tries to tell her a bedtime story but keeps getting interrupted:
"The princess stood at her window," the queen said . . . "longing for someone to come and save her, for the evil enchanter had bound her by his magic."
"Why didn't she break the spell?"
"She couldn't," Queen Istilda said gently. "Margaret, don't pick your nose."
Meg dropped her hand to the lap of her white satin nightgown. "Then what happened?"
"A handsome prince rode up to the castle gates."
"What did his horse look like?" 
(I love that last line!) Six year old Meg doesn't get why princesses can't rescue themselves. When she grows up and her father decides to have a contest for her hand in marriage, Meg decides she wants no part of it. In fact:
"Don't you see?" Meg asked, suddenly inspired. "We must save them."
"Save who?"
"The dragon. The witch. The bandits. We must save them from the evil princes." 

So we're set up for the ever-popular fairy-tale turned upside-down. But again, Runaway Princess is more than it appears. I loved irrepressible Meg and her loyal friends, Cam the gardener's boy and Dilly the maid. I loved reluctant Nort. In fact, I loved all the characters in this book, villains and parents and bumblers and schemers all. They are all real people who pick their noses and whine and keep secrets and make unwise decisions. That's what I liked so much about this book: it's a fairy-tale send-up, but it's got the gritty texture of reality. And it isn't the least bit predictable. Plus it's really, really funny, in both overt, slapstick-y ways and subtle, might-miss-it-if-you-blink ways (like the line about the horse). You get a lot of bang for your buck with this one. I want to get my hands on the sequel now, The Runaway Dragon.

The Runaway Princess reminds me of the breakfast sandwich I had at this little place in Seattle: it looked like your typical ham 'n egg 'n cheese sandwich, but when I bit into it I had never tasted anything so entirely delicious, each flavour deep and authentic and all the components mingling to create something greater than the sum of the parts. (I need to go back to Seattle and have another one!)

Oh, and don't forget to go to Shannon Messenger's blog (every Monday) to find lots of other marvelous middle-grade books!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday: The True Meaning of Smekday, by Adam Rex

I think a day dedicated to celebrating Middle-Grade fiction is a wonderful idea, and I've been meaning to contribute to Shannon Messenger's MMGM* for a while, but the logistical challenge of having a post ready for a specific day is apparently beyond me** (and Marvelous Middle-Grade Random Day of the Week just doesn't have the same ring to it). Then I read this truly marvelous book and I was motivated! So, for my inaugural Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday post I proudly present:

This book is screamingly brilliant from beginning to end. It was so funny it hurt my brain. It's a road trip in a flying car with an 11-year-old driver, an alien and a cat named Pig, and it is a wicked, wicked social satire. It has flaky layers of irony as delicious as a Napoleon. Oh, yes, we're definitely going with a Napoleon as the food metaphor. Not only is the writing oozing with multiple layers of humor, from slapstick action to aliens massacring English grammar to ridiculous names like Gratuity Tucci; but also the structure is perfect: layer upon layer of narrative and plot development that doubles back on itself in yummy satisfying ways.

Okay, I'm done with the pastry metaphor. Think Terry Pratchett meets Carl Hiassen. I should really just quote from it so you see what I mean:
Mom went on to explain that the aliens, a lot of them now, had brought her aboard their ship to fold some laundry. They related, not with words but with complicated hand gestures, that they were really impressed with her laundry folding skills. She was guided to a table piled with bright, rubbery suits with tiny sleeves and too many legs. So she got to work. As she folded, she happened to notice another human, a Hispanic man, she said, far off at the other end of the room. They had him opening pickle jars.
This is the low-level background absurdity that underlies the entire narrative. Then we get Gratuity's sarcastic comments on everything:
There are companies that claim to make a greeting card for every occasion. If any of them are reading this, I couldn't find a "Sorry all your friends deserted you after your alien abduction" card when I needed one.
Gratuity's mother is abducted again right before the alien Boov turn Florida into a Human Preserve and make everyone move there.  Gratuity sets off on her own to find her mother, and encounters one of the Boov at a convenience store.
For you time-capsule types, MoPo was something called a convenience store, as in, "The soda is conveniently located right next to the doughnuts and lottery tickets." People who want to understand better how the human race was conquered so easily need to study those stores. Almost everything inside was filled with sugar, cheese, or weight-loss tips.
Adam Rex skewers us repeatedly with these throwaway lines.

And then there's the plot, which involves the alien (who looks absurdly like the aliens from an old video game) souping up Gratuity's car with pieces of his own broken vehicle so that it flies (on cloned gasoline). Oh, and the alien calls himself J.Lo, and the car's name (after part of a slushy machine has been grafted onto it) is Slushious. Girl, alien and cat make their way to Florida, where they discover the Boov have decided the humans can't have Florida after all because oranges taste so good. Now they have to go to Arizona. Gratuity stops to visit Happy Mouse Kingdom first. Then they crash into Roswell (literally)(ha, ha) and find out what really happened there (it has something to do with a long-eared koobish and a water tower). The plot continues being ridiculous and convoluted but making perfect sense in a hilarious, human-skewering way.

Every once in a while Adam Rex breaks out into comic book format to give useful information, like the history of the Boov, or "8 Things You Have Always Wanted to Know About the Gorg But Were Afraid to Ask the Gorg Because the Gorg Might Punch You In The Face." (The Gorg are different aliens that come invading after the Boov. They're worser.)

I need to stop talking now so you can run out and go get this book, and I can sit down and reread it. (Keep your eyes open for the scene with the squishable gaputty: I tried to read it to my daughter and I couldn't finish I was laughing so hard.) Adam Rex is very much like Terry Pratchett in his ability to deal with serious themes like racism and imperialism and all the really stupid things humans do and have you crying with laughter while he does it.

Mmmm. Flakcy.
*  If you follow the link, you'll see Shannon Messenger's MMGM post and links to everyone else who participates: lots of great books to read about!

** It's still beyond me, though this time it's not my fault: I was going to post this first thing Monday morning so that MMGM people could link to it, but I didn't get home from a weekend trip until 3pm. Sigh.