Monday, July 16, 2012

MMGM: Natalie Babbitt and Sharon Creech

My reading diet has been sadly lacking in Middle-grade books lately, so I went on a browse in the children's section of the library and came home with a whole pile. So I'm making up for my absence from Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday with a three-for-one post! (Sorry I can't fit all the titles in Blogger's title space.)

Sharon Creech intimidates me a little because she's won the Newberry, and she's, you know, a Really Good Writer, so I tend to pass her on the library shelves saying, yes, yes, I'll definitely read more of her one of these days. I have to keep reminding myself that I love her books. 

Love That Dog makes me cry every time I read it; I think it's pretty much perfect in every way. So when I saw Hate That Cat, I almost didn't want to pick it up: how could she do again what she did in the first book? Would this book somehow diminish Love That Dog? No, it doesn't. It adds. We get more of Jack, more of Miss Stretchberry, more poetry, and it's just as real and touching and funny. If you're like me and hesitate to read a novel in poetry, don't. Sharon Creech is a wonderful poet, but she's also a wonderful storyteller, and these poems tell a story that compels you from page to page, even as you want to savour every poem for itself. Love That Dog and Hate That Cat make me want to be an elementary teacher just so I can use these two books to teach a unit on poetry. And if all my talk of poetry is turning you away from these books, please, please read them just to meet Jack. He's such a fun character, you just want to hug him. Trust me, you want Jack in your life.

The Unfinished Angel isn't written in poetry, but it might as well have been. Each little chapter is like a poem; every sentence is an image and a sound. The voice of the angel is astonishing, vivid and funny and brilliantly expressive. Just listen to a sample:
You won't believe this, but there are peoples who pay money to other peoples to wash their hairs and even to paint colours on their toes. Is really! And in the same world of peoples there are other peoples who have to crawl in the dirt scrounging for a measly piece of garbage to eat. I am not fabbagrating! Don't get me started.
At night I swish in the heads of the peoples with the clean hairs and feets, showing them the peoples crawling in the dirt, but in the morning when the clean peoples wake up they have already forgotten. I think maybe it is my fault that they forget so quick and so it is my fault that there are peoples who have to crawl in the dirt. I am not knowing enough. What are the other angels doing?

The unfinished angel tries to do the right thing but doesn't always know what that is. And then along comes colourful Zola who thinks she knows what the right thing is, and between them they turn the little Swiss village upside-down. It's a bit of a fable, there's definitely a moral, but it's so well-told and so true that you can't mind. It's about peoples and their flaws but it''s hopeful and sweet and funny. You see, don't get misled by Sharon Creech's Really Good Writer status: she's also a really funny writer. I like funny writers and I like poetry and I need to read more of Sharon Creech.

Natalie Babbitt is another Really Good Writer who writes spare, poetic truths about people. I read Tuck Everlasting more than twenty years ago and I still think it's one of the best books out there. I was so happy to see she has a new one out. The Moon over High Street is a bit fable-like, too, but Joe and Gran and Aunt Myra are real, round characters you care about right away. This is the story of Joe deciding what he wants to do with his life, and it will resonate with every kid who knows he has to make the same decision at some point. There's some gentle satire of Mr. Boulderwall, the millionaire who invented "swervits," and some contemplation of the American dream and what it might actually mean. It's a quietly humorous book that's deeper than it seems.

All three of these books are short and sweet. There's a tendency these days to write long books that might be good but they go on and on and they really don't need to. Good writers use as few words as possible and make every word count. (Have I mentioned that Natalie Babbitt and Sharon Creech are really good writers? But don't let that turn you off: it means they write short books!) These three little treasures are like a selection of chocolates from a fine chocolatier.

Shannon Messenger organizes MMGM and keeps the list of Marvelous Middle-Grade contributors, so be sure to visit her blog and check out all the other Marvelous books being featured this week!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Spy In the House, The Body at the Tower, The Traitor in the Tunnel: The Agency series by Y. S. Lee

Canadian Books #1, 2, and 3.

This series was another random pick from the library. The Traitor in the Tunnel was on display on top the shelves in the New Arrivals section, and I liked the cover, so I looked in the shelves for the first book. What a pleasant surprise to find the author is from Toronto!

The Agency is such a great concept. In Victorian London, where women are condescended to and dismissed as silly, emotional creatures who can't be taken seriously, what if there were a secret organization of women spies? They could take advantage of their functional invisibility to see and hear things a male spy would never have access to. (It's the perfect wish-fullfilment fantasy for anyone who has read Victorian novels and been frustrated with the constrained lives of the women.)

A Spy in the House begins with 12 year old Mary in prison about to be hung for burglary. She is rescued by the Agency, and, long story short, decides to join and be trained as a spy. So you've got your orphan story, your historical story, your spy training story (not a lot, but some), and then the sneaking around undercover story. These books have it all!

The adventure of the first book is Mary's final training exercise before she is admitted as a full member of the Agency: she must pose as a lady's companion in a house where suspicious things are going on. In The Body at the Tower there is an apparently accidental death that might not be so accidental during the construction of Big Ben and the Parliament Buildings, and Mary disguises herself as a boy to get access to the worksite. In Traitor in the Tunnel, Mary is a maid in Buckingham Palace and gets to meet Queen Victoria (wonderful characterization of that famous figure).

Our protagonist chooses the name Mary Quinn, because she can't let anyone find out her real identity. The reader eventually finds out who she is as Mary explores some mysteries in her family's past, and it's an exciting and unusual twist that adds depth to her character and emotional tension to the plot. (My advice? Don't read reviews on Goodreads, and don't read the blurbs on books 2 and 3, because they give away at least part of her secret, and what's the fun of that?)

I really liked Mary. She is resourceful and independent but has realistic fears and makes mistakes. I was also fascinated by the Agency and its two founders, and I wish Lee had explored their stories more. And then there's James. James is an engineer, and he's cocky and flippant and entirely aggravating. Mary keeps running into him in highly compromising circumstances, and their relationship is a delight of Beatrice and Benedict* proportions. Not only do we get all the orphan/historical/spy bits, but there's a smoking romance to boot!

Lee is a Victorian scholar, so her London in the 1850s is full of authentic, stinky detail. If you, like me, are fascinated by the Victorian Age, and if you like a good complex mystery (murder or otherwise), and if you'd really rather your romantic leads snap witticisms than swoon, you'll probably enjoy these books as much as I did.

*Much Ado About Nothing: the characters spend half the play wittily insulting each other, then discover they're madly in love. Great fun. The Emma Thompson/Kenneth Branaugh version is pretty good.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork

This book was on my TBR because it was mentioned in several blogs. I picked it up at the library, and then it sat on my night table for a month while I read Dorothy L. Sayers. I renewed it, because I knew I wanted to read it, but I only started reading it up a few days ago because Busman's Honeymoon wasn't at the library.

I can't believe I waited a whole month to read this amazing book.

Marcelo has a version of Asperger's syndrome. As he puts it, "From a medical perspective, the closest description of my condition is Asperger's syndrome. But I don't have many of the characteristics that other people with Asperger's syndrome have, so that term is not exactly accurate." This is the story of his summer working at his father's law firm. His father Arturo wants him out of the protected environment of his special school (do schools like that exist, by the way? Patersons sounds amazing!)  so he can engage with so-called normal people and experience the so-called real world. Arturo believes this challenge will help Marcelo grow. Grow he does, but it's the world that gets changed by Marcelo, not the other way around.

I think books narrated by people in the autism spectrum are popular because they allow the reader to experience an alien perspective; and they allow the writer to portray the world from a true outsider's point of view. As in science fiction, this provides the opportunity to comment on the world. We experience a typical lawyers' office, with all its petty rivalries and questionable ethics, with Marcelo's perception. Marcelo has a beautiful innocence--not simplistic or childish, but logical and genuinely questioning. Right and wrong through his eyes are inescapably clear, wriggle though you may try. His moral courage is heartrending and inspiring. I was literally on the edge of my seat while reading. What would you do if you were faced with his choice?

Stork explores morality, ethics, religion--all the big questions--but above all else, Marcelo in the Real World is a stunning meditation on love. I want all teenagers to read this--no: everyone should read this and measure their own relationships against Marcelo's growing understanding. He says at one point that he's not sure he's capable of love, but nothing could be further than the truth. We all should be so lucky as to be loved the way Marcelo loves.

Beautifully written, profoundly beautiful, one of those books that changes you. Marcelo in the Real World is a strawberry spinach salad made with spinach I grew myself and fresh local strawberries, served at a family barbeque amidst noisy conversation with an undercurrent of respect and caring.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

6th Annual Canadian Book Challenge

John Mutford over at the Book Mine Set has been running an awesome challenge that I had to join: read 13 Canadian books in one year, from July 1 (Canada Day, for all my overseas readers) to July 1.

I've been trying to review a Canadian book every month, but I've been pretty spotty about it, so this external motivation will be good for me. Plus, his website is an inexhaustible source of Canadian book suggestions, so I no longer have any excuse not to find a Canadian book I want to read.

My first entry is going to be a three-for-one deal: it's a Victorian adventure series called The Agency, by Y. S. Lee. (I suppose technically I didn't read it within the July 1 to July 1 time frame, but I think what counts is when the review goes up. In any case I intend to read more than 13 books, so this shouldn't skew my results unfairly!) Stay tuned!