Monday, January 27, 2014

Fortunately, The Milk, by Neil Gaiman

I said in my last Neil Gaiman review that Gaiman understands story better than anyone else on the planet. As further proof, I offer you Fortunately, The Milk.

If you want to learn how to write a plot, read this book. It will take you less than an hour, and you will enjoy it immensely. If you want to understand how humour works, also read this book. (It's the same, really, plot and humour. Jokes are just really short plots; the best plots are just extended jokes. As you will understand once you have read this book.)

It's really, really funny. And, it has aliens, pirates, dinosaurs, volcanoes, time-travel (well, obviously, otherwise how could you have pirates and dinosaurs in the same book? This book does follow all the rules.) piranhas, big red buttons, coconuts, Floaty-Ball-Person-Carriers, ponies, um, I may have missed a few things, but Gaiman definitely didn't. It has it all! And milk. And where there is milk, there is hope, said the stegosaurus.

The illustrations are delightful, and perfect (my edition is illustrated by Skottie Young). The characters are spot on--his family dynamics may be a bit stereotyped, but it's because they're true. All the stereotypes are slyly self-referential--jokes of themselves that kids will enjoy getting. Also some popular culture jokes that older kids and adults will enjoy getting. (The Usual Suspects, anyone?)

This would make a great read-aloud--that's what it is, a bedtime story made up on the spot by a parent. If you can manage without becoming hysterical (always my problem when I try to read funny things out loud).

This one is your favourite breakfast cereal, with milk. Obviously.

 For more marvelous middle-grade choices, head over to Shannon Messenger's blog every Monday.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Education of Hailey Kendrick, by Eileen Cook

It's past time for another Canadian pick! (Full disclosure: I have met Eileen Cook (I took a writing course from her), and she is kind, funny, and down-to-earth. But it's not like she would even recognize me if she saw me again, so this review isn't biased by me trying to be nice to her or anything.)

One of the reasons I don't often read realistic teenager-having-social-problems novels is that I hate embarrassment. Obviously everyone hates being embarrassed, but from all the tv and book plots that use it, I have to assume that people enjoy watching other people be embarrassed. I don't. I hate it.

There are lots of potentially embarrassing moments in The Education of Hailey Kendrick, and I kept cringing as I turned the pages, waiting for the humiliation to heap up, but Cook kept surprising me. She sets Hailey up for all kinds of falls (some of them literal), but then the characters respond in atypical ways--complex, realistic, interesting ways, so that I was drawn more and more into the story instead of wanting to run away.

It's also really funny. Cook has a stand-up comedienne's insight into human psychology. She has all the typical character types: jock, it girl, charming guy, outsider--but then she subverts them by giving them all real motivations and emotions and making us care about them all, even the ones we don't like. The setting is a super-privileged boarding school, so it has a bit of Gossip Girl voyeurism, but, again, the characters are so real that they don't follow any of the rules for the typical rich kids plot. And Hailey's "education" is a true journey. At the beginning she thinks she has it all figured out, thinks she knows the rules and if she follows them she'll get what she wants, but then she breaks some rules, and when everything crashes down on her she realizes how flimsy it all is, and how much more is out there, "outside the lines."

It's a fun, light read that gave me far more than I was expecting. I read this one because I'd met the author; I'll read the next one because this one was so good. Strawberry peach scones from the Black Bean Roasting Company in Gibson's Landing. (Best scones anywhere.)

This is my (hang on, I have to stop and count . . .)(oh. dear.) third Canadian book this year. Yikes. Once again I am sadly behind in the Canadian Book Challenge. Go see John Mutford's blog to find lots of other bloggers who have way more Canadian books for you to try!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Rose Under Fire, by Elizabeth Wein

Alrighty! Here's the first of my long overdue reviews. This is one of the best books I read in 2013.

When I heard there was a companion book to Code Name Verity, I was both excited and a little worried. How could Elizabeth Wein write another book that powerful, that moving, that brilliant? And did I want to read another book that powerful and moving? So many terrible, terrible things happened during WWII: did I really want to read about more of them?

The answer is yes. Most resoundingly.

Because we still need to know what happened during WWII. We still haven't learned what we need to learn about the terrible things humans do to other humans.

And because Wein's books are full of hope and courage and poetry and strength.

From Wein's Afterword:
What I'd really like to pound into the reader's head, if there's any lesson to be learned here, is that I didn't make up Ravensbruck. I didn't make up anything about Ravensbruck. Often, I have had to fill in the blanks--when the toilets stopped working, how thick the mattresses were, how you might improvise a sanitary pad. The little things. The terrible and the unbelievable, the gas chambers and the medical experiments and the twenty-five lashes, propping up the dead to make the roll call count come out right, the filth and the dog bites and the curl hunts and the administration and politics of bowls, I did not make up. It was real. It really happened to 150, 000 women. And that is just one camp.
But if you think you don't want to read a book about a concentration camp, because it will be depressing and you just don't want to know about such horrible things, trust me: you have to read Rose Under Fire. Hope. Courage. Poetry. (The best use of Edna St. Vincent Millay's poetry I've ever seen.) Strength.

Character. The characters in this novel shout off the page: we are people! We are PEOPLE! And the thing is, however tragic it was, there is something fiercely joyful about that brazen assertion in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Wein captures that joy, that ferocity.

I finished the book a little breathless, with tears in my eyes, wanting to do that fist pump of victory the sports players do as they come off the field. Yes! Humanity wins again. We do have it in us.

Beautiful book. She's such a brilliant writer. My food analogy is strudel (there's a recipe a few pages into the linked article): not the flaky fruit-filled kind; this is a wartime German dish--suitable for nourishing a whole family with only potatoes, flour and oil, and so delicious that my kids asked their grandmother to make it for Christmas Eve dinner this year.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Elephant and Piggie, by Mo Willems

I am seriously behind on my reviews, have a ton of stuff I read over the holidays to post about, but I'm going to procrastinate a little longer because I have to post about the new books I just bought at Kidsbooks' annual sale (every year in January, like a little extra dose of Christmas, just when you thought it was all over!)

I was familiar with Mo Willem from the Pigeon and the Knuffle Bunny picture books, classics all, but my sister introduced me to his Elephant and Piggie early reader books. They are so funny! Funny up there with Captain Underpants, which if you know me you'll know means they are sidesplittingly hilarious in all kinds of brilliant ways. Just look at the facial expressions on Gerald the elephant and his friend Piggie: such simple line drawings convey so much emotion. And I bet you can't look at these pages without your lips starting to twitch:

 Willems plays with absurdity, with character, with the fourth wall (the one between the audience and the stage), with convention, with imagination, with moral choices (Should I Share My Ice Cream? The answer is yes, but not for the reasons you might expect). And he respects children. Kids get irony, probably better than us stultified adults. These books are quintessentially silly, but they're the farthest thing from dumb.

Elephant and Piggie are refreshing to the soul. I restrained myself and only got three this time, but I think I may end up collecting the whole pack.

Neil Gaiman was my other purchase, but I'm going to save him for next week's Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday. (This post would have been an MMGM if I had gotten my URL to Shannon Messenger in time! Go see her blog today for other great middle-grade reads.)