Sunday, May 24, 2009

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

I recommend this book for:  grade 4-8

Coraline is a girl who loves to explore and is many times dissatisfied with her parents.  When they move to a flat in a very old house, there are a few rather odd neighbors (including two former actresses gone to seed who keep lots of dogs and a man working very hard on his mouse circus), but no other children.  To entertain herself, she explores the house and the yard - discovering a door that is sometimes bricked up and sometimes is not.  Going through it, she discovers an even stranger world where everyone has buttons for eyes, animals talk, and her "other mother" wants her to stay for good.  

This is a scary book - many children no doubt fantasize at times about having other parents or having their own parents disappear, and the story plays on what that might really be like.  It's not for very sensitive children.  With that being said, it's also very fun! Coraline is a brave, resourceful, kind of odd girl, and the cat is completely delightful.  Kids who like scary should definitely give this a try.        

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

I recommend this book for: middle and high school

I confess, my decision to read this one was more than a little influenced by the cover illustration - just look at that glorious dress!

In this retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, the twelve sisters are forced to dance every night for the King Under Stone, a ruler full of dark magic and evil plots. The curse is such that they physically cannot tell anyone what is happening to them or why their shoes wear out so frequently. Galen, a young soldier returning from war, finds employment in the palace garden and a friend in Rose, the eldest princess. Determined to succeed where princes have failed to save the sisters, Galen tries to find out the secret. He does have some things going for him, that the princes do not - for instance, his military training, the trust of the princesses, and the ability to knit with magical yarn.

I enjoyed this one. Galen is not a typical hero, what with his knitting hobby. The King Under Stone is a sinister character, but there are threatening political forces at work here too.  If you enjoy Donna Jo Napoli's books (or any fairytale retellings, for that matter), give this one a try!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Heroes of the Valley by Jonathan Stroud

I recommend this book for: middle and high school

Halli has grown up with the legends of the great hero Sveinn, his ancestor. Long ago, Sveinn led the other heroes to defeat the Trows, beasts who emerged from underground at night to devour humans. Thanks to him, the Trows stay out of the valley, which is still protected by the graves of the heroes and all their descendants, but there is no safety beyond the line of cairns. Anyone who leaves the valley will be devoured.  In the valley, there is peace - swords have been outlawed, and any disputes between the families are settled by the Council. Crimes are punished with the transfer of land between the families.

A born troublemaker, Halli wishes he had lived in the time of the warlike heroes. When his beloved uncle is murdered before his eyes, Halli wants more than land for his family to repair the breach - he wants revenge. He sets off on his own to become a hero and finds that it isn't nearly so easy as Sveinn made it look - and that even Sveinn wasn't all he was cracked up to be.

This was a great book.  It has a lot of funny moments, the tiniest hint of romance (but nothing that would turn off boys who still think girls have cooties), and a lot of character development.  The stories of Sveinn that preface chapters give insight into the culture and Halli's mentality. Halli himself is a great character - you can see his flaws, but that doesn't stop you from admiring his cleverness and eventually, his nobility. This would be a great choice for readers of historical fiction (it feels very medieval) or fantasy - but be warned that it does get a bit scary and somewhat gruesome toward the end.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Wuthering High by Cara Lockwood

I recommend this book for:  grade 7 and up

In a twist on the "bratty girls at boarding school" genre, Mia is sent to Bard Academy after wrecking her father's car and treating herself to a shopping spree on her stepother's credit card.  Not only is the school depressing and strict, but strange things are happening.  Mia is convinced that her room (which she shares with a devil worshipper who has taken a vow of silence) is  haunted by the ghost of a girl who disappeared years earlier.  Also, it seems that the strange boy named Heathcliff is following her - a boy who claims to be from a place called Wuthering Heights.

I have to admit, this is not my kind of book.  I picked it up because I thought the premise of "all of my teachers are really famous dead authors" was cool, but the execution left a lot to be desired.  The writing is not great, and Mia's character is so shallow that I wasn't really interested in her at all.  I think it's a problem of audience - people like me who actually enjoy the Brontes will get really annoyed by the teen characters, and readers who are interested in the poor little rich girl aspect probably won't know or care who Virginia Woolf was.  I could be wrong, but that's how it seems to me.  

This title could be good as a clean alternative to the Gossip Girl books or similar series - no sex (there is mention of an attempted date rape in Mia's past, but she got away) and only minor cursing.  Otherwise, though, I'd recommend teens who think fictional characters running around in the real world sounds cool read Jasper Fforde's excellent Thursday Next books (The Eyre Affair is the first) and leave this one alone.  

No reviews on Amazon, but you can read part of the first chapter.  

Cassandra's Sister: Growing Up Jane Austen by Veronica Bennet

I recommend this book for:  middle school and up

First of all, the subtitle is a bit misleading, since Jane is already around 17 when this novel opens.  The storyline focuses on Jane, her older sister Cassandra, and the family joys and heartaches that could have inspired Jane's writing.  

This book didn't do much for me.  While the details of Austen's family life were interesting, there seemed to be very little emotional connection, even when people were taking drastic measures.  Even the romance seemed pretty distant, perhaps a side effect of the time period - but then, social rules and all, Mr. Darcy never seemed to have that problem. 

Austen fans will probably find this worth looking at, but it won't have much appeal to teens who haven't enjoyed at least one of her novels.