Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Beautiful Creatures

Authors: Kami Garcia and Margi Stohl
Publisher: Little Brown
Pages: 563
Reading Level: YA

Excerpt from cover of book:
“Lena Duchannes is unlike anyone the small Southern town of Gatlin has ever seen, and she is struggling to conceal her power and a curse that has haunted her family for generations. But even with the overgrown gardens, murky swamps, and crumbling graveyards of the forgotten South, a secret cannot stay hidden forever.

Ethan Wate, who has been counting the months until he can escape from Gatlin, is haunted by dreams of a beautiful girl he has never met. When Lena moves into the town’s oldest and most infamous plantation, Ethan is inexplicably drawn to her and determined to uncover the connection between them.

In a town with no surprises, one secret could change everything.”

In my eyes, there are books and then there are BOOKS. Every time I crack open a book, I wonder if this will be the one. The book that whisks me away to a new place, consumes me, calls to me, and lures me away from other things. Is it a book that haunts my thoughts? Does it make me believe that I am there in its world vs. being in my world? And most importantly, when I finish the last page, does it make me want to go back and read it over and over again?

A few months ago, I heard about the upcoming release of Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margi Stohl. I had not previously heard of Garcia and Stohl and aside from a really well done book trailer by VLC productions all I knew was that it was a YA Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Love story. For whatever reason, I found myself really drawn to it and became a fan of the book before even reading it. This can be dangerous in a way. What happens when the book finally comes out? Will it live up to expectations or fall flat? I took a risk with it and I am so glad that I did.

Beautiful Creatures is definitely one of those books that meet the criteria for “stand out” book in a genre. After reading about 15 pages, I found myself being consumed by the story. If I hadn’t needed to be a responsible adult, I would have just kept reading and finished it in one sitting. However, by the time I got up to 300 pages, my ability to be a responsible adult was quickly taking second place to my need to finish the book.

Garcia and Stohl have created a story that is gorgeous, haunting, and addictive. There is a bit of a risk that an author(s) take when a debut novel is 563 pages. Either you better be able to capture the reader right from the beginning or risk losing them after 200 or 300 pages. Never once did I have the sense that the story was taking too long or why hadn’t it ended yet. The writing is rich and well-crafted. What is also amazing to me is that the writing is seamless. There is no sense that this is a novel written by two people. It is written as one authorial voice with both authors being deeply in-tune with one another.

As I read through Beautiful Creatures, I appreciated the balance between being given enough information to understand the story but also enough questions and mysteries left for me as the reader to ponder where the story would go next. I dislike when I feel that the author is holding back or not giving me the information that I need to fully grasp the tale. I never once felt that way as I read through the book. There were questions that arose and ones that I had at the end, but I felt that these might be answered in the sequel.

Another element that I was drawn to in the story was the sense of place and history that is evoked by the plot and characters. I could imagine myself in Gatlin, seeing Amma make biscuits or pie, feel the humidity, or hear the southern drawl of the characters. I was fascinated with how Garcia and Stohl used the past and tied it into the present. And there was a community feel. Most YA fiction seems to leave out adults. However, Ethan and Lena were surrounded by adults – some who cared, some who got in there way, some who were dangerous, and some who assisted them.

Finally as I read through Beautiful Creatures, I was also struck by how Garcia and Stohl balanced tension, conflict, and mystery throughout the story. I didn’t just feel like the characters were solely in love with one another and caught up in their own world. Instead the challenges faced by both Lena and Ethan kept them solidly grounded in real life issues even whilst dealing with supernatural ones.

For those of you who enjoy YA Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Love Stories, you will find Beautiful Creatures to be an enjoyable read.


P.S. I have recently contacted Kami Garcia and Margi Stohl about doing an interview for YA Literature Review. Both have graciously agreed to meet with me, so keep an eye out for an interview posting.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Middle Grade Mondays: The Name of This Book is Secret

Author: Pseudonymous Bosch
Publisher: Little Brown
Pages: 384
Reading Level: Ages 9 to 12 years

Summary of Book (Good Read’s Description):

Warning: this description has not been authorized by Pseudonymous Bosch. As much as he'd love to sing the praises of his book (he is very vain), he wouldn't want you to hear about his brave 11-year old heroes, Cass and Max-Ernest. Or about how a mysterious box of vials, the Symphony of Smells, sends them on the trail of a magician who has vanished under strange (and stinky) circumstances. And he certainly wouldn't want you to know about the hair-raising adventures that follow and the nefarious villains they face. You see, not only is the name of this book secret, the story inside is, too. For it concerns a secret. A Big Secret.

I think I fell in love with this book at the first page where in bold letters it said “Do Not Read Beyond This Page!” Now if that doesn’t catch your attention then maybe the first chapter will. It is filled with a page and a half of “xxxxx’s”. Yes you read it correctly. All “x’s”. I was pretty convinced at this point that the author was brilliant. In chapter 1 ½, the author continues explaining that this was a book about a secret that was so secret and dangerous that he was afraid to share anything about the book and normally in the first chapter you find out all of those things.

The story is primarily told from the point of view of Cassandra (“Cass”) though the author has an odd way of interjecting himself at regular intervals into the story. Cass teams up with Max-Ernest to find out the mystery of the Symphony of Smells. Uncovering the mystery leads both children to several adventures and a few dangerous situations. What they do discover is that there is something unexplainable about the disappearance of a magician (the owner of the Symphony of Smells)and who exactly are the mysterious woman and man looking for him?

Though at times it might seem annoying to have the author speak to the reader, it does provide a certain amount of humor. In one critical point of the story, the author declares that he does not think he can continue with the story because it just might be too dangerous. After a discussion of how he can be bribed to tell the next part (chocolate works wonders), the author does indeed continue on. Even the ending of the story, which I will refrain from revealing, is treated in a unique manner which drove me a bit crazy while being very entertaining.

It is hard to find books that will appeal to both boys and girls and books that will hold the interest of reluctant readers. However, Bosch has created a series which appeals to both genders. Its larger print, occasional pictures and sense of humor will draw in reluctant readers despite what might seem like a book with a lot of pages. Children who enjoy reading stories with equal parts humor, mystery and suspense will find The Name of This Book is Secret an engaging read and will be eager to start in on the second book of the series called If You Are Reading This It Is Too Late. As a result, my class copies are frequently checked out by my students.

Though I am certain that Pseudonymous Bosch would be mortified that I was recommending his books to children, remember this is a very "dangerous book", the Secret Series gets my thumbs up for entertaining middle grades fiction. If you ever do get to see Pseudonymous Bosch at a book signing, I would also encourage you to attend. He is just as entertaining in person as his books are to read.

When you were a child what was your favorite type of book to read? Let me know in the comments section.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

'Twas the Night Before Thanksgiving

Author & Illustrator: Dav Pilkey
Publisher: Scholastic Paperbacks (2004) – original 1990
Pages: 32
Ages: 4 to 8

When thinking about a picture book to review for Thanksgiving, Dav Pilkey’s ‘Twas the Night Before Thanksgiving immediately came to mind. It is a book that is part of my annual readings with my students and over the past several years I have enjoyed watching the first graders at my school perform the book as a play. So when I was looking for some basic information on the book, I was surprised to see that the Editorial Reviews on Amazon were kind of negative. As I result I picked up my well-worn copy and had another read.

Pilkey’s ‘Twas the Night Before Thanksgiving is a parody of Clement Moore’s poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. In Pilkey’s version, a school teacher takes a group of students to a turkey farm run by Farmer Mack Nugget. The turkeys all have names of famous comedians (i.e., Larry, Moe, Groucho, etc.). Though children may not identify with whom the turkeys were named after or that the picture of Farmer Mack Nugget and the teacher is reminiscent of Grant Wood’s American Gothic image, the adults reading the story to their children will recognize and enjoy the references. Children will enjoy the playful antics between the students and the turkeys. When the students in the story realize what will happen to the turkeys, there is an outbreak of panic and mysteriously fatter children leave the farm than the ones who arrived. In the end, the turkeys are guests at Thanksgiving dinner rather than the meal and everyone feasts on veggies and jelly with toast.

After another read through the story, I find myself in disagreement with some of the negative reviews. Any reader familiar with Clemont's original poem will recognize Pilkey's parody, and to me it seems that this is part of the charm of the book. Since children are typically familiar with the original poem, I find that it immediately engages them. The animated cartoon-like illustrations highlight the light spirit and merriment of the story, and the ending provides a happy solution to the turkeys’ grim plight. The story also lends itself to being performed as a form of readers’ theater and I have seen many audiences of primary age children giggle in delight at the antics of the children and turkeys as performed by their classmates.

Though there are always dozens of picture books to chose from for any season, and thought this may not be the "ultimate" Thanksgiving picture book, I do see it having it's place among any collection of Thanksgiving picture books. My hardcover version of this tale will continue to hold a fond spot in my Thanksgiving collection of picture books and one that I will enjoy reading again and again.

Do you have a favorite Thanksgiving picture book? I would love to hear what it is. Please leave a comment with the name of the book and why you love it?! Thanks! - Aly

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What We're Reading Wednesdays

The long-awaited Beautiful Creatures is finally here, written by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.

Aly and I are both reading this one, and Aly will be reviewing it on the blog soon. Right now, I'm on page 54 and so far I'm loving it. I really like the fact that it's written from a boy's point of view and that it takes place in the South (home sweet home!).

If you haven't already, you should pick this one up. You'll enjoy it!

~ Vilate

Sunday, November 15, 2009

SLOB by Ellen Potter

Publisher: Philomel
Pages: 199
Reading Level: Ages 9 to 12 years

There are some books that readers might miss out on simply because they are not featured prominently in a store nor do they have the mass appeal that other more widely popular books enjoy. Ellen Potter’s SLOB is one of those books. Recently, there were no copies of this book available at my local Barnes & Noble and even at the local indie bookstore the only copy was way above kids’ eye level and if I hadn’t been looking for something else I wouldn’t have even seen it. To me, this is a shame because SLOB is an amazing piece of middle grade fiction which I only happened upon because it was assigned reading as part of a book club.

I will say that this review is going to be difficult to write because I really don’t want to give away any spoilers. What I can tell you is that the story is about a 12 year old boy named Owen who is a genius and overweight. With that information you might think that this is just another one of those middle school stories about a boy who is bullied because of his size. And though that is a big part of the book, it really isn’t what the story is all about. This is the first time that I can actually say that not having even read the summary made the book more enjoyable. I was able to truly appreciate the author’s skill in unveiling the motivations behind Owen’s behaviors.

My suggestion at this point is for you to stop reading the review and go out and read the book. This way I don’t have to worry about spoiling the story for you. However, since you are not likely to just go out and purchase a book because I said for you to do it, then if you must continue reading on be forewarned that there may be some spoilers.

The story opens with Owen discovering that the three oreo cookies in his lunch have been stolen. To most of us, this may not seem like a big deal, but for Owen, those three cookies help get him through his school day. Owen is the smartest and fattest seventh grader in his school. When he isn’t trying to discover who is stealing his lunch, he is trying to cope with a cruel P.E. teacher, and avoid the school bully. At home, Owen is an inventor who is attempting to build a machine that can capture digital information from a specific date and time from two years ago. Much of what seems like one thing on the surface turns out to be quite another thing as the story unfolds including the title of the book.

Anyone who has every gone through middle school will be able to relate with some part of Owen’s story. You will find places that will make you laugh and other parts that will make you want to cry. Potter does a wonderful job telling Owen’s story and though the ending might seem a little too nicely wrapped up, it does provide for a satisfying and hopeful conclusioin. Overall, SLOB is a stand-out in the field of “coming of age” stories. I recommended it to my sixth graders and have made it a point to tell my local bookstores that this is one book that should be on their shelves.

- Aly

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare

Publisher: Bantam Doubleday (Dell) (Houghton Mifflin)
Reading Level: 12 and up
Enjoyment Level: Highest
Newbery Medal Winner, 1959

Like so many books I read as a child, this is one of my favorites. As much as I love the new stories that continue to be published, there's something about childhood favorites that make them all the more magical than even Harry Potter (and that's saying something since I adore Harry Potter).

The Witch of Blackbird Pond caught my fancy when I was about ten years old. As some of you already know, I've been a voracious reader ever since I learned how to read the words 'cat' and 'dog'. And I rarely waited to pick a book because I had to. I wish I remembered more about what I was thinking when I chose this story, but I might've just been drawn to the word 'witch' in the title. No matter, this has been a favorite almost all of my life.

Kit Tyler comes to America after her grandfather passes away. She finds herself moving from a lush Barbados upbringing to the harsh, work-oriented Puritan society of her aunt and uncle. She doesn't fit in and makes several mistakes on her road to growth as a person. However, as the story unfolds, she is also the only person to recognize certain truths around her, and she is able to help her family and friends because of her free and independent childhood.

The setting makes for an interesting read - I'm not usually interested in historical fiction, myself - and some readers may be surprised by the way things are described. The story was written before certain terms were considered not politically correct and there is no gloss over the way of life that is portrayed. It feels more real to me as I read because it's true to the time-period the author is representing and that makes the characters and plot deeper.

Kit is a character that is almost modern for the story, though. Despite the historical feel and accuracy, a lot of girls used to the technological age in which we find ourselves will be able to identify with her struggles and her personality. This is especially true for anyone who has felt like they didn't fit in. Thinking about it now, that's probably why I love the story so much. It's been a rare thing to feel like I fit in anywhere.

The other characters flow so well around Kit that you'd think the story was completely true. It's beautiful how the author was able to paint such real characters that create an amazing story.

Readers used to a lot of showing versus telling, action, and fast-paced writing, might find the read a little slow, but the story is definitely character-driven and well worth the time it takes to savor the novel.

This is a perfect read for November (or any time!) and I highly recommend giving it a try.

Until next time, go read something good!

~ Vilate