Monday, September 27, 2010


Excellent read. Recalls Witch of Blackbird Pond, some of Ann Rinaldi's historical YA novels. Fourteen-year-old Mary Newbury travels from England to Salem with a woman who befriends Mary after her grandmother dies. She believes she's a witch, though she comes off as merely an intuitive, intelligent girl who has a knack for finding herbs and learns healing from Martha. Mary writes in a journal, which she then stitches inside a quilt; the frame narrative is that a woman named Allison Ellman of Boston, MA finds the journal and compiles the papers. (Not sure why the frame is necessary.) I'll look for the sequel.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Kathleen Duey, SKIN HUNGER

This National Book Award finalist is the first in the "Resurrection of Magic" series. Moving back and forth between two POVs and two time periods--linked by the character Franklin, who is young in one and old in the other--the novel describes a fierce and frightening "academy" where apprentices are starved until they figure out how to work true magic, which has been debauched and degraded by charlatans. Some of the language is quite beautiful: "It was silver-gray this morning, the flat color of a parlor mirror before the lamps are lit." But most of the fine metaphors are in the early chapters; the plot takes over the second half of the book and the writing becomes more ordinary. But it's a page-turner, and while not quite as dark or suspenseful as HUNGER GAMES, it's a good read.

Tracy Chevalier, BURNING BRIGHT

I found this book on the Bargain table, which surprised me because I remember loving GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING. But while TC is still the master of historical detail ... and she's got the 18th century down ... Astley's, Vauxhall, pubs, carpenter's tools, how to make buttons, the kinds of wood used in chairs ... this book felt somewhat plotless and lacking in suspense. The entire plot consists of a family moving from Dorsetshire to London and then back again; the time period is 1792-93 (surely an exciting time in England); and the next door neighbor is William Blake (hence the title ... from his poem "Tyger, Tyger"). But paradoxically, although not particularly well-plotted, the book felt formulaic: lots of historical detail + famous, eccentric artistic personality + everyday characters. For me, it wasn't enough. Add to that the contrivances ... young Jem believes that two sides of the road aren't opposites because they're both sides of the same road ... he espouses this belief to young Maggie, just as Mr. Blake is wandering by and is struck by how the young man's philosophy matches own! This might work if the three of them gathered together at the Blakes' house, but this scene happens on a bridge, in London, after Jem has left a circus where there are thousands of people milling around. Similarly, at Astley's Amphitheater, with hundreds of people jammed around him, Jem looks up from the pit by the stage to find "Maggie's face up in the gallery, poking out between two soldiers." Really? Amidst all those people, he can find her face?? Hate to be so critical ... but after GIRL, I was hoping for better ...

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Andrew Clements, THINGS NOT SEEN

Very good YA book, about a boy named Bobby who wakes up one morning invisible, but meets a blind girl to whom it doesn't matter. Larger themes include the feelings that young adults have when their parents and others overlook them, or ignore their wishes, echoed by the Threat of the State that single-mindedly interferes with parents who are trying to do the right thing in a crazy situation. Well-written with a solidly truthful boy's voice.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


THIS is my oldest guilty pleasure, and I've reread the three of these in the past few days.
These books were written in the 1950s. They are DATED. The heroines all fall in love with their counterparts, sometimes after some fuss, but in a matter of pages. Why do I love these books? Not sure ... I think when I was about 14, I read all of them, and the way you read books when you're 14 ... they stay with you. So it's familiar ground. "The Moon Spinners" was made into a Disney movie with Hayley Mills about twenty years before I saw her in DIAL M FOR MURDER in London, which is about twenty *more* years ago now. I think the movie was in black and white. (!)
So why do I read these when I'm in the mood for mental M & Ms? They're literary. They use the old device of a quotation from classic literature at the top of chapters. The descriptions and language verge on poetic. They're murder mysteries--what we'd now call "cozies"--with the suspense drawn out on a long, long cord, in Greece. Or France. Or Italy. I dragged my husband to Greece back in 1992 because I was dying to see Mary Stewart's Greece ... in the way that plenty of people go to Prince Edward Island to see Anne of Green Gables's PEI. And she shows an unflinching willingness to lay bare weaknesses (compassionately) in well-drawn characters. I won't recommend them ... they're so unfashionable, though they were all months on the best-seller list in their day.
But here, I'll give you some of the opening to NINE COACHES WAITING (the title is taken from Tourneur's Revenger's Tragedy). The heroine has just arrived in Paris:
"Some of the baggage was out on the tarmac. I could see my own shabby case wedged between a brand-new Revrobe and something huge and extravagant in cream-colored hide. Mine had been a good case once, good solid leather stamped deeply with Daddy's initials, now half hidden under the new label smeared by London's rain. Miss L. Martin, Paris. Symbolic, I thought, with an amusement that twisted a bit awry somewhere inside me. Miss L. Martin, Paris, trudging along between a stout man in impeccable city clothes and a beautiful American girl with a blond mink coat slung carelessly over a suit that announced discreetly that she had been to Paris before, and recently. I myself must have just that drab, seen-better-days shabbiness that Daddy's old case had, perched up there among the sleek cabin-class luggage. But I was here, home after ten years."

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Laurie Halse Anderson, CHAINS

Deeper and richer than LHA's SPEAK and FEVER. For those who enjoyed Jennifer Donnelly's NORTHERN LIGHT, this is an historical YA with a similar feel, and a female protagonist who must negotiate space in the world for herself. Set during the beginning days of the American Revolution, with a slave girl protagonist, the novel raises the question of freedom--freedom for the colonies from British rule and freedom for slaves. The binaries split and reform in this book: black/white, slave/free, Loyalist/Patriot, prisoner/free. 13-year-old Isabel and her younger, epileptic sister Ruth are supposed to be freed when their mistress dies; but her cruel nephew arrives, claims them, and takes them to Newport to be sold. The two girls end up in the household of the Locktons, Loyalists masquerading when need be as Patriots. Madam Lockhart is this book's version of Simon Legree, vicious and prone to hurling cutlery. But portraits of other characters--the boy Curzon, a slave who believes in the Patriot cause; Mr. Lockhart's mother--are complex and well-drawn. Isabel frees Curzon from prison in the final chapter and the book ends with the promise that their adventures will be taken up in her next book: Forge.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


This historical narrative debunks the version of history that puts Benjamin Franklin at the center of obtaining French support for the American Revolution. At times the story becomes tedious and detail-oriented, and Paul could paint with a quicker brush. But at other times it reads like something out of a crazy historical farce--a cross-dressing, double-crossing woman spy; a playwright who couldn't keep his head down, his trap shut, and his identity secret when he saw his play being produced badly; and Silas Deane, a Connecticut merchant who marries two widows, ends up with about a dozen children who aren't his own, and cannot get anyone to answer his frantic letters from France. Truly, as I read this book and saw ALL the things that went wrong in trying to obtain French support ... the corruption, the bribes, the affairs, the lost letters ... I'm amazed that it happened at all.

Beth Kephart, UNDERCOVER

A beautifully written YA about a girl who plays Cyrano to her friend Theo's Christian, in his courting of Lila, the nasty girl's Roxane. Teenage Elisa has no friends at school (somewhat peculiar, as she's personable), a beautiful sister and mother, and a father who travels most of the time. She takes refuge in nature, in language (we have the usual passionate English teacher Dr. Charmin), and ice skating on the pond.

First line: Once I saw a vixen and a dog fox dancing.

Other beautiful lines: In the woods that night the old snow had turned to slush and the muck of animal tracks, and there were sapphire shadows between the trees.

My one gripe with the book ... I must confess I get tired of reading about girls who want to be writers, or are "discovered" by their English teachers. But that aside, this book is a lovely narrative about a girl who first hides behind words and then discovers that they are only one medium--music and ice skating become the others--through which she accesses her own experience.


Numbers two and three in the trilogy that began with THE HUNGER GAMES. In CATCHING FIRE, Katniss has returned to Victory Village in District 12 to enjoy her triumph. But soon President Snow demands that she return to the arena, she and Peeta, on the 75th anniversary of the games, along with any other tributes who are still alive to face poisonous fogs and forcefields. Still torn between Gale and Peeta, Katniss becomes the symbol for a revolution, the mockingjay--a bird that can mimic any sound, including a human voice in pain. Peeta is captured by the Capitol, for torturing, and to bring Katniss into line. In MOCKINGJAY, Katniss must try to get him out safely. District 12 has been burned, although Gale managed to get Katniss's mother and sister Prim out in time, to District 13, where the revolution is growing. She is at times a pawn of the revolution, but in the end, she must help Peeta distinguish between Real and Not real (what the Capitol has tricked him into thinking). And she breaks the cycle of revolution, preventing one violent and authoritarian party from merely replacing another. It concludes with an ending that is surprisingly tender, and haunting, and carries a message that reminds me of that old Matthew Broderick movie, WAR GAMES. The only way to win is to stop the cycle. And she concludes ...

"on bad mornings, it feels impossible to take pleasure in anything because I'm afraid it could b taken away. That's when I make a list in my head of every act of goodness I've seen someone do. It's like a game. Repetitive. Even a little tedious after more than twenty years. But there are much worse games to play."

I'd say HUNGER GAMES is my favorite of the three; as often happens in trilogies, the middle book doesn't seem to carry as much weight as the other two. But for all that, it's a good story arc, and while the plot drives the books, the symbolism and layers raise it well above a mere suspense/thriller.

I stand by my earlier comparison with Stieg Larsson's trilogy.