Friday, October 31, 2014

Book Review: Lost Children of the Far Islands



Title: Lost Children of the Far Islands
Author: Emily Raabe
Genre: Middle Grade Fiction, Folklore, Mythicism, shapeshifting

About The Book: 
Twins Gus and Leo live normal lives, so it comes as a complete surprise when their mother becomes mysteriously ill and strange things began to happen around the house. First, they notice peculiar things happening to them (like being able to hold their breath underwater for long periods of time), then their younger sister, Ila (who has never talked) begins to speak for the first time. She uses strange words that sound like warning and are difficult to interpret and when their mother goes into a coma they learn she has given up her health and possibly her life to protect them. They are the last of the Folk (Selkies or seal people) and the only ones who can stop the Dobhar-Chu (the evil King of the Black Lakes) from escaping his island prison. 

My Review:
I picked this book up because of the fabulous cover and honestly, if I had read inside the jacket flap, I probably would have set it back down. Animorphs or shapeshifting––the mythical idea that humans can morph or shift in and out of animal forms, is not one of my favorite themes. However, by time the I realized that’s what the book was all about, I was too immersed in the story to stop reading.
Raabe takes the mythical stories of Selkies and drags them across the Atlantic from Ireland to the coast of Maine. Gus (yes, a girl named Gus), her twin brother Leo, and their little sister Ila are the last of the Folk, humans who are also seals. 
However, long before they learn what they are, strange things begin to happen (wolf tracks outside their home, their mother’s night poem, symbols in the dirt) and their home is no longer a safe place. Their father decides to take them to their grandfathers. However, their flight to safety is interrupted by the Bedell, a sometimes sea mink sometimes human creature, who is a messenger for the Morai (their Grandmother who is also Folk), and this is were they learn they are Selkies and end up running away with him.
Oddly, the children running away from their Father seemed more strange and out of character than anything else that happens in this book. What children, who grew up in a safe, loving home, would leave their father (who is trying to protect them) and run away with a minx-man who just appears in their hotel room?
From here on their adventure only grows in intensity and mystery and I very much enjoyed the mythical twists, legends of the Selkies, and other magical animals included in the story. 
Overall, the writing is pretty good. There are however, a few hiccups. The author likes to use a lot of facts about animals and the sea in her writing. This works great when this information is coming out of Leo’s mouth (as he is a brain and bookworm). However, sometimes the author breaks voice and narrative to drop these factoids into the story. As true or relevant as they may be, they break up the flow of the story. It is as if you are watching a film and suddenly the screen goes blank, then the narrator says, “Seals, although they may look gentle, are ferocious hunters.” Then the screen flickers, and we are back to the action.
Every shark used has its correct name: mako, tiger, great white, bull, hammerhead, etc. Same with every kind of fish and whale. This is fine during non-dramatic or low-action moments, but I’m sorry, in the heat of battle, whilst being attacked, is it necessary to know exactly what type of shark is attacking? I found that it pulled me out of the action more than helped me visualize it:
“A tiger shark, young enough that its stripes had not yet faded, slammed against Gus, sending her careening helplessly through the water.” 
Hmm, yes, that is what I would notice if the shark were attacking me. In the author’s defense, prior to this book she has only written non-fiction, and I do like the idea of mixing fact and fiction. Fantasy books certainly do not have to be devoid of learning, however in this case, it was not done well.

Overall: Three Stars. Great characters, imaginative plot, and excellent use of folklore. If it wasn’t for the factoid encumbered writing and occasional breaks in character, I would give it four stars. I tried to ignore my personal disinterest in shape shifting, and would like to point out that, the fact I kept reading is proof of how much pace and pull the plot truly has. 

Warnings: Fair bit of violence (though mostly between animals), there is a death, and certainly some scary moments (wolves, the Dobhar-chu, shark attacks). I did not however, find the book particularly dark, the magic is light and not the least bit creepy. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Top Drawer Tuesday: C.S. Lewis


C.S. Lewis is one of my favorite authors and as tomorrow is his birthday, he absolutely had to be showcased in this week’s Top Drawer Tuesday. Picking out a single quote to illustrate was difficult because there were so many good ones to choose from. So I have decided to simply put the rest of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes below. 

1. “Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back everything is different...”

2. “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”

3. “Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.”

4. “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.”

5. “You can’t know. You can only BELIEVE––or not.”

6. “Why, it is she that has got all Narnia under her thumb. It’s she that makes it always winter. Always winter, and never Christmas; think of that!” (The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe). 

7. “We must go on and take the adventure that comes to us” (The Last Battle).

8. “Most of us know what we should expect to find in a dragon’s lair, but, as I said before, Eustace had read all the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons” (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader).

Friday, October 24, 2014

Book Review: Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes


Title: Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes
Author: Jonathan Auxier
Genre: Middle Grade Fiction

About the Book (from Goodreads):
Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes is the tale of a ten-year-old blind orphan who has been schooled in a life of thievery. One fateful afternoon, he steals a box from a mysterious traveling haberdasher—a box that contains three pairs of magical eyes. When he tries the first pair, he is instantly transported to a hidden island where he is presented with a special quest: to travel to the dangerous Vanished Kingdom and rescue a people in need. Along with his loyal sidekick—a knight who has been turned into an unfortunate combination of horse and cat—and the magic eyes, he embarks on an unforgettable, swashbuckling adventure to discover his true destiny.

My Review:
I love children’s fantasy. New and old. I willingly suspending my disbelief, following senseless tales, and getting lost in absurd magic. I enjoy fairy tales both dark and creepy or light and hilarious. Fantasy worlds do not need to be explained, they simply are, and I love it that way. 
That said ... an author creates a world, that world has rules––unstated, hazy, and sometimes fairly peculiar (they’re more like guidelines really), but whether one is reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Percy Jackson, the world takes shape as certain realities are broken and new ones formed. THIS BOOK HAS NO RULES. Everything (and I mean everything) is ARBITRARY.
Never while reading Peter Pan, Matilda, or any other children’s book based in ridiculous magic, have I actually thought, “This is ridiculous.” NEVER! I love it. Sink into it and soak it up. I don’t stop and say, “Why would that happen?” or “This is absurd!” But I said all of these things to myself over and over and over while reading Peter Nimble. 
WHY?
Because the story line makes it impossible for me to suspend my disbelief … and I really wanted to. I’m not going to make a list of all the absurd things that happen (another reviewer already did that), but I will say a story doesn’t have to be plausible (as in real world plausible), but it does need to be plausible within itself––within the world created. The events surrounding and actions of Peter Nimble are inconceivable even within the world that has been created specifically for him. 
Overall: This is my first DNF Review (DID NOT FINISH), which is really too bad because I’ve been looking forward to reading this book for a long time. Not only are the reviews fantastic and the cover art beautiful, but the entire set up for the story is simply brilliant. I even love the title. 
Despite having a terrible time with this particular book, I still think I might be willing to try another book by Auxier.  Overall, I like his writing style, imagination, and humor.  

Rated V for violent: There are definitely some grotesque scenes (a baby getting its eyes pecked out for starters) and bodies litter this plot like candy wrappers at a parade. Right from the cover I was drawing connections to Peter Pan, but whereas the dark side of Barrie’s book is subtle and tenuous, leaving the creepy bits to settle like cobwebs in your head, Auxier’s dark side is brutally blatant, like a skillet to the head (and not nearly as profound).

Friday, October 17, 2014

Book Review: Fly Away


Title: Fly Away
Author: Patricia MacLachlan
Genre: Early Middle Grade Fiction

About The Book : 
Lucy and her family make their annual trip to visit Aunt Frankie in North Dakota just as the floodwaters rise, threatening her home.  Author of the Newbery Medal–winning Sarah Plain and Tall (1985), MacLachlan writes with simplicity and clarity. The book has large type, and wide-spaced lines of text make this volume an inviting choice for readers who are beginning to read longer chapter books.

My Review:
Lucy’s whole family can sing, even her little brother Teddy, of whom no one else in the family thinks can even talk. Lucy can’t sing, but she has a secret too: she is a poet. Artfully written, simple and elegant, MacLachlan tells a story about family, secrets (good secrets!), and bravery.
This is a quiet book and some readers may find it boring as there is little drama and not much danger, however, I think there are plenty of young readers who are ready for stories with a little more substance, even if it means a little less action.

Overall: Four Stars. Great first chapter book for young readers. A short, simply told story full of meaning, and an excellent way to introduce a child to poetry.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Book Review: Under the Egg


Title: Under the Egg
Author: Laura Marx Fitzgerald
Genre: Middle Grade Fiction

About The Book (Taken from Goodreads): 
When Theodora Tenpenny spills a bottle of rubbing alcohol on her late grandfather’s painting, she discovers what seems to be an old Renaissance masterpiece underneath. That’s great news for Theo, who’s struggling to hang onto her family’s two-hundred-year-old townhouse and support her unstable mother on her grandfather’s legacy of $463. There’s just one problem: Theo’s grandfather was a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and she worries the painting may be stolen.

With the help of some unusual new friends, Theo's search for answers takes her all around Manhattan, and introduces her to a side of the city—and her grandfather—that she never knew. To solve the mystery, she'll have to abandon her hard-won self-reliance and build a community, one serendipitous friendship at a time.

My Review:
Theo doesn’t have a cell phone, she doesn’t “google” and she doesn’t have a nickel to spare. She wears repurposed hand-me-downs, lives in an ancient townhouse falling to ruin, and keeps chickens in the back yard. One of the best things about this book is how clearly I could visualize everything: Theo, her Grandpa Jack, the house, the street (and no, I’m not from New York), her Mother, EVERYTHING!!! Even now it is all as clear in my head as if I had a movie. 
How the author did this I am not sure, because the book is not the least bit weighted down by descriptions. There is the occasional lengthy description, but these are mostly about art, and perfectly done: 

“But at the center of that beauty was a kernel of pain and sorrow, like an oyster whose pearl began in the thorny prick of a grain of sand. The composition as a whole carried an unshakable sense of––what was the right word––melancholy? No, straight-up sadness.”   

Almost all the characters are fantastic: quirky, realistic, and well developed. Bodhi however, the daughter of two famous actors, is my least favorite. She’s just not as interesting as everyone else. Being fun, rich, worry-free and famous, she is the opposite of Theo in every way.  Plot-wise she works well and is a useful character, but I never felt like her actions or personality were particularly believable. She is the least organic part of the narrative.

Overall: Five Stars! This is just a really fun read all around. A fantastic combination of mystery, coming of age, and art history.

If you enjoy art-history mysteries, you might also like:
From the Mixed-Up files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler or
Chasing Vermeer

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Letter from Mrs. Ink


Dear Readers, I, Edwin Riddle, received this letter from Mrs. Ink on Monday:

Dear Edwin,

I am writing to let you know I have begun research on a new an exciting (though possibly “non compos mentis”) project. I have been in correspondence with a girl by the name of Lulu Evenstine. This possible lunatic swears that not only can she see fairies, but that she has been to “Fairyland.”
         After reading her first letter I thought her to be certifiably insane and quite possibly a raving psychopath. However, upon further correspondence, was convinced she was simply a bit loopy, nutso, or possibly “touched” as they say, but not wholly psychotic, as I first assumed.
         Now however, I am almost entirely convinced she is neither batty nor “off her rocker” and almost certainly telling the truth. She has sent me her diary as proof of this adventure to fairyland, and I have sent it on to you for validation. As you know, I am not a particularly accurate gage when it comes to deciding who is, and who is not “stark raving mad” so if you decide she is, in fact, as nutty as a fruitcake or mad as a hatter (or a March hare for that matter) I will discontinue my research immediately.

         Sincerely,

         Evelyn Ink
        
         P.S Good News! Scout has found me. How he escaped from those batty grammarians and that asylum, the so-called “Society of Eloquent English,” and crossed most of North America to find me, I guess we will never know!

         P.S.S Great job on the blog, it looks fantastic. I have included three book reviews for you to post this month:

Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
Fly Away by Patricia MacLachlan
Lost Children of the Far Islands by Emily Raabe


Please Note: I, Edwin Riddle, have not yet had time to review said diary, but would like to point out that not only do I NOT BELIEVE IN FAIRIES (likely the poor child is suffering from some kind of mental disorder and clearly delusional) but also Mrs. Ink has stolen someone’s cat. Scout was returned to me last week and is currently curled up in the office windowsill.


This report was brought to you by Mr. Edwin Riddle
Of Public Relations, Personal Investigations, and Subterfuge

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Top Drawer Tuesday: Jane Austen



I did not realize quite how hilarious, shrewd, and sarcastic Jane Austen was (even after reading all six of her novels), until I took a look at some of her letters to friends and family. The quote above is a good one, but here are a few more witty remarks:

"You deserve a longer letter than this; but it is my unhappy fate seldom to treat people so well as they deserve."

"You express so little anxiety about my being murdered under Ash Park Copse by Mrs. Hulbert's servant, that I have a great mind not to tell you whether I was or not."

"At the bottom of Kingsdown Hill we met a gentleman in a buggy, who, on minute examination, turned out to be Dr. Hall -- and Dr. Hall in such very deep mourning that either his mother, his wife, or himself must be dead."

For whatever reason, after I read these last two, I can’t look at that poorly drawn, and the only known (authentic) portrait, of Jane Austen without seeing a smirk stuck up in the corner of her mouth. 

"Next week [I] shall begin my operations on my hat, on which you know my principal hopes of happiness depend."

and