Monday, November 23, 2015

MMGM: A bunch of fun books

Guaranteed to get you out of a November slump (the sun sets so early this time of year, it can be really depressing!) Here are a bunch of books from the Middle-Grade Cybils nominees that I found at my library and greatly enjoyed:

Diary of a Mad Brownie, by Bruce Coville—Angus was a hilarious narrator, and I loved his difficult relationship with his new—very messy—human, Alex. The curse was delightful and the plot resolution was very satisfying. Lots of chuckle-out-loud moments. Yummy like Cherry Blasters (those sour candies in the shape of cherries, like Fuzzy Peaches but better)

Harriet the Invincible, by Ursula Vernon—funny and brilliant on so many levels. I never liked the Sleeping Beauty story until I met Harriet, the Hamster Princess, who realizes the incredible upside of the evil fairy's curse: if she's going to get pricked by a hamster wheel when she's twelve, then obviously until then she can't die. So off she goes to jump off cliffs, rescue princesses from dragons (and dragons from princesses) and deal with those nasty Ogrecats. Really cute illustrations and really clever jokes. (An example: "Princesses do not go cliff-diving." "I bet lemming princesses do.") I just hope it reaches its audience, because the cover makes it look like a very easy reader, and I think it's for the same readership as Captain Underpants, or Diary of a Wimpy Kid. (Every bit as funny as Captain Underpants, which is my benchmark for awesome humour.) Salted caramel chocolate chip cookies—my brother makes them; they're to die for.

Pip Bartlett's Guide to Magical Creatures, by Jackson Pearce and Maggie Stiefvater—what if the Tribbles spontaneously caught fire when they got excited? That's the chaos-inciting premise of this fluffy adventure. Fuzzles are smaller than Tribbles: small enough to hide in your underwear drawer, which is a problem when the town is overrun with them, and whenever people find them in their underwear drawers the people tend to shriek a lot, which gets the fuzzles excited, and then . . . lots of slapstick humour in this one. I loved the other hilarious magical creatures, like the paranoid unicorn and the toxically smelly hobgrackle. I also liked that the adults both helped and hindered in realistic ways. Peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

These two aren't actually on this year's Cybils list, but their sequels are (and the sequels weren't in the library yet, so I read these ones in the meantime!)

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, by Jeanne Birdsall—I adore this family of clever, loyal, proactive sisters who get into the most ridiculous situations just by being themselves. Birdsall captures families perfectly, in all their chaotic, messy, hilarious, fierce and tender reality. I love books with characters so leap-off-the-page fully-drawn that you have to smile just thinking about them. This one (Gardam Street) is the second in the series, and the one that came out this year (Penderwicks in Spring) is the fourth. I'm so happy I still have two more to read (and it looks like there will be a fifth one, too).

Giants Beware! by Rafael Rosado and Jorge Aguirre—what's not to love about this band of friends who march off to slay a giant and only survive their adventures because of the surprising talents they each turn out to have. Clean, bright artwork and a full cast of interesting characters, including the adults (I loved Claudette's father.) This is book one, and the sequel, Dragons Beware!, came out this year.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Rest of Us Just Live Here and Bone Gap

I have to face the facts: I am never going to be able to read all of this year's Cybils nominees. And even if I could, I'd never have time to review them all! So you'll just have to follow the Cybils blog and all the other Cybils judges* to get highlights about all the awesome books I'll never get around to. I'll just review as many as I can, sometimes with shorter reviews so I can fit them all in. Here are a couple from the YA Spec Fic list that I was thrilled to find at my library.

I was so excited to read this new one by Patrick Ness, that I almost forgot what Patrick Ness books are like: they're devastating.

I got sucked into reading The Rest of Us Just Live Here by the fun premise and the engaging characters and . . . fortunately for my state of mind this one isn't quite as soul-wrenching and brain-exploding as some of his past books have been. *cough*Chaos Walking*cough*

But, The Rest of Us Just Live Here has its share of deep insights into relationships, human choices/free will/destiny, self-knowledge, trust. You know, all the big stuff. The reasons we read YA.

Plus awesome characters: Mikey and his sisters who take care of each other because their parents are so messed up; Mikey's best friend Jared (Jared is so awesome I love Jared but no spoilers so I can't tell you why!); Henna, the girl Mikey loves who thinks she loves someone else but isn't sure. And they're all just trying to navigate the last year of high school and figure out what to do with their lives, while in the background the indie kids battle the latest supernatural menace.

I love the chapter headings ("Chapter the Fifth, in which indie kid Kerouac opens the Gate of the Immortals, allowing the Royal Family and its Court a fissure through which to temporarily enter this world; then Kerouac discovers that the Messenger lied to him; he dies, alone"), and the way the indie kids' story starts out seeming completely irrelevant, but then gradually starts to impact Mikey and his friends, but the real drama and excitement is still friendship and love and saying what you feel and trusting your friends. It's spoofy and funny and heartwarming and just very, very real. (And a tiny bit devastating, but in a good way.)

Apple cake, moist and dense, the kind your grandma used to make, but with a bit of ginger and cardamom along with the cinnamon in the streusel topping. (Your grandma didn't use a streusel topping? Everything should have a streusel topping. Especially apple cake.)

Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby, is a weird, wonderful book. Seriously weird. It's not a book you can come into with any expectations, particularly genre expectations, because it isn't like anything else. People are calling it magic realism, but it's not quite that. There's mythology of different kinds woven through it, (what is it about cornfields??) but it's not exactly retelling a myth. Except that it's about myths, and how the stories we tell ourselves and each other matter; the stories that we believe matter and we can change them.

I loved the writing and the characters, but about halfway through I was starting to get worried. There were some disturbing stories being told, and I was afraid that maybe Laura Ruby has a big chip on her shoulder about the way men and women interact with one another and this book is her way of disturbing us into realizing how wrong things are. Yes, men can be nasty and ignorant and treat women as objects, and people do judge and label women in unfair, hurtful ways. I was afraid that was going to be the message of the book, and I wasn't sure I wanted to keep reading.

I should have trusted Ruby. She knows what she's doing. Bone Gap is a story about stories, and you can't change the stories other people tell but you can change your own story. And you can save yourself, and you can save other people, too.  I loved Finn and Rosa and Petey, each with their strengths and hurts and different kinds of courage.

There were some seriously creepy scenes, and some wonderfully magical ones, and the most magical scenes were maybe the most realistic ones, because what is more magical than people choosing to trust each other?

I don't know if I would have tried this one just based on its blurb: just read it, it's the only way to know if you'll like it!

Sweet potato pie. (Unless sweet potato pie is your familiar comfort food, in which case choose a pie that isn't familiar but if you tried it you'd probably like it.)

*I hope this link takes you to the right page of the blog, but if not, the judges are announced in blog entries in late September, so just keep navigating through to find them.

Monday, November 9, 2015

MMGM: settings that are like characters

Two books this time that have a little more in common than my last pair: My Life in Dioramas is realistic, Wish Girl is sort of magic realism, but both have settings that are so vivid and so important in their impact on the characters that they are like characters themselves. (Also, they're both nominated for Cybils. I'm trying to make my way through the lists!)

Wish Girl is about a boy who is bullied so badly his family has to move, and who meets a girl dying of cancer. Yet it's not at all bleak, depressing, or even very sad. Peter's humorously fatalistic narration helps:
I got tired of my family saying, "What's wrong with Peter?"
There was a lot wrong with me. But at the moment the most serious thing was the rattlesnake on my feet.
Peter runs away from home and discovers a beautiful, wild, magical valley, a place that only reveals its secrets to someone who knows how to be quiet. I loved the descriptions of this valley, and the way magic and art in the valley are synonymous. I enjoyed how the valley's magic accepts Peter and Annie (and rejects the loud, violent, mean neighbor boys).

I did find those boys—and every other character besides Peter and Annie, actually—to be rather stereotyped, cardboard characters. And I thought the ending was too pat and easy, especially considering the themes of choice and acceptance I thought she was developing.

But that valley! I never thought of Texas as a beautiful place, but apparently I was wrong.

My Life in Dioramas is as quirky as it sounds. It's a quietly funny book about a family that has to leave their beloved house because they can't afford it anymore, and the lengths daughter Kate goes to try to prevent their house from selling. 

I enjoyed Kate's relationships with her best friends Stella and Naveen and the subtle changes in those relationships as they approach adolescence. I thought the family dynamics were well done; Kate's parents are fully developed characters who have their own reactions to selling the house. 

The house itself was wonderful: one of those old houses that gets added on to through the years so it has strange corners and odd rooms and little quirks, set out in the country so there's an old barn and a creek and lots of room for special places. The dioramas in the title are Kate's way of processing her grief and coming to terms with change: she makes dioramas of each room of the house that encapsulate her favourite memories. I loved how the dioramas became metaphors that worked in different layers, both for the reader and for Kate. 

Letting go of something you love is part of growing up, and Kate's journey is sweet, funny and satisfying. (Though I was disappointed the stinkbugs never played a major role in the plot!)

Friday, November 6, 2015

Illuminae, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Well, that was a fun ride!

**Note that this review is more spoilery than my usual reviews.**

Illuminae is getting a lot of hype that it doesn't even need, because it has all the stuff. I mean, think about any stuff that might make a bestselling YA sci fi novel, and this book has all of it. In fact, think about anything from any successful sci fi movie of the last 20 years, and this book probably has it.

(Except light sabers. There aren't any of those.)(Or aliens. Guess that's a pretty big one.)

I wasn't going to be spoilery about it, but then I saw Jay Kristof's Goodreads review, and it pretty much summarizes the whole plot (which, frankly, is pretty easy to do), so I guess it doesn't matter. If you think zombies on spaceships sounds like an awesome premise, then this is the book for you.

(There aren't any clones, either. Maybe there should have been clones. (I bet there are clones in the second book.))(Maybe there will be aliens in the second book!)

I have no doubt the movie will be coming out within the next year.

Am I sounding a little cynical about this book? Don't get me wrong, it was a highly entertaining read. Lots of action right from the get go, and the different formats were kind of fun and only sometimes annoying. It was entirely predictable, to the point that I could skip some sections and skim through others, because I knew what they were going to say. I lost a lot of interest once the zombies got on board, because I think zombies are incredibly boring. But I was invested enough to keep reading.

The crazy AI character was pretty good. The romance was formulaic, but I enjoyed the snarky banter.

Worth reading in the same way blockbuster action films are worth seeing and cheezies are worth eating. Great cover.

Monday, November 2, 2015

MMGM: a scary book and a not scary book

What do these books have in common? They've both been nominated for a Cybils award, and they're both written by Canadian authors! (And I've read them both in the last week. So they have tons in common. Despite being completely opposite in nearly every way.)

The not scary book first:

Clover's Luck is the first book in a series called Magical Animal Adoption Agency, and can you think of a more brilliant idea for an early chapter book series? because I can't! This book is as cute and sweet as it looks, but it's also funny and clever.

Clover earnestly attempts to match up various magical people with the most appropriate magical pet, even though she herself has been terribly unlucky when it comes to pets. The animals are delightful, and the details of their care and feeding are a lot of fun (eg: Clover deduces that hot peppers are the best food for the fire salamanders). To complicate matters there's a witch with increasingly ridiculous disguises and a fiendish (but not at all scary) plan.

Clover's combination of diffidence about her own skills but genuine care for the animals makes her a truly engaging protagonist. Young readers will be charmed by the magic and will be rooting for Clover. I know I can't wait to read the next one and see what will hatch out of the egg that arrived at the end! The illustrations, by the way, are perfect: soft sketches that just capture the personality of each animal.

Full disclosure: I know Kallie, and I'm beyond thrilled for her that this series is coming out. I wouldn't have reviewed the book if I didn't like it, though, so it's honest praise!

And, two days too late for Halloween, a very creepy book that rivals Coraline for scariest story I've ever read:

First of all, you have to go find The Nest in a bookstore and pick it up. It has the coolest cover ever! So effective! You can't get the 3-D aspect of it from a picture, and I imagine that a library copy is all taped up so you can't see the under-cover, so do go to your closest (local independant) bookstore. And then, if you're like me, once you pick it up you'll notice the utterly gorgeous, perfectly moody illustrations by Jon Klassen, and you'll just want to own the book anyway. It's a work of art.

So, wasps. The cover makes that obvious so I'm not spoiling anything. There are wasps in this story. Wasps are inherently terrifying—bees are cute and benevolent; wasps are not; I'm sorry, I know that's speciesist, but I can't help it—especially if you're allergic to them, which our protagonist Steve is. That inherent dread runs through the whole story. But what Kenneth Oppel does with wasps is brilliant and mind-blowing and so much more terrifying because mmmbbblefarg! I can't say anything useful without completely spoiling it, so I won't. Let's just say that this is not a book about people being chased by wasps, oh, isn't that scary, the end.

Steve is a heartbreakingly courageous protagonist. He suffers a lot of anxiety just dealing with normal life, and there's a new stress in the family: "There was something wrong with the baby, but no one knew what." This book rises above other scary* books and approaches the catharsis of A Monster Calls because of the nuanced psychology of this family dealing with the unimaginable and yet so very real terror of a child with "a kind of sickness that never got better."

There's the fear of one's helplessness to fix it; then there's the child's fear that something they do or don't do might actually change things. Oppel deals with this brilliantly. What if Steve could fix the baby? Think about the terror of that possibility—that responsibility.

All the comparisons to Coraline are apt not just because of the beautiful writing and the quiet, gradual, creeping horror, but also because they both touch sensitively on a very real childhood fear: what if, out of fear or anger or desperation or love, I wished things were different, and what if that wish actually came true?

The ending is truly beautiful—there's family love, and acceptance, hope and transformation—and have I mentioned the illustrations? There's just so much in this book to like! Kenneth Oppel is at the top of his form; he's one of the best middle-grade writers out there right now.

For more marvellous middle-grade books, go see what the rest of the MMGM crew are raving about this week on Shannon Messenger's blog.

For more great Canadian authors, see what John Mutford's guests are all reading this month for the Canadian Book Challenge.

*I'm carefully not using the word "horror" because I don't think it's quite right. "Gothic," maybe.