Booknotized

A place to think, reflect, and talk (mostly to myself) about books I love…and a few that I don't.

Series Review: The 39 Clues February 27, 2012

Publisher: Scholastic
Release Date: 2008 – Present
Series: The 39 Clues 1-10; The 39 Clues: Vespers Rising; The 39 Clues: Cahills vs. Vespers 1-3+
Age Group: 9-12
Genre: Action-Adventure
Pages: various (from 150 – 327)
Source: provided by publisher as reference for freelance work (see below)
Rating Breakdown: Idea 5★; Execution 3.5★

Amy and Dan Cahill are just two regular kids. Amy’s shy and quiet; Dan’s rowdy and hilarious. Except for their grandmother, Grace, they have no family—that they know of—and when she dies, it seems they really are on their own…
 
…until Grace’s will reveals that not only are they part of a larger family, but it’s, well, HUGE! (Not to mention the most powerful in human history.) But before Dan and Amy can get too cuddly, they also find out that there’s a family feud stretching all the way back to Gideon Cahill and his quarrelsome kids in the 1500s that splits the Cahills into four branches. What’s more, they discover that a secret formula lies at the root of the feud—and it’s up to them to find all of the clues before anyone else can.
 
Book 1, The Maze of Bones  by Rick Riordan, sets the siblings off on a globe-trotting trek to uncover Gideon Cahill’s greatest secret. Filled with action, adventure, geographic thrills, and spine-tingling chills, the series continues in the 9 following volumes, each written by a different author (incl. Gordon Korman, Patrick Carman, Jude Watson, Linda Sue Park and several more).
 
Dan and Amy’s story picks up again in series two, Cahills vs. Vespers, with an intermediate novel to bridge the gap, Vespers Rising. I recommend beginning with series one, book one, and working your way up. So far, only two books have been published in the Cahills vs. Vespers series, with book three, The Dead of Night, due out March 6.
 
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I was first introduced to the 39 Clues when I was asked to participate in the creation of some materials for a webcast featuring Ruth Culham—with whom I worked closely on the Scholastic Traits Writing program—and the 39 clues. (You can find the materials I helped generate here.) The webcast and worksheets were designed to get kids examining text and excited about writing by introducing them to the Traits and helping them discover in favorite/familiar books models and mentors for their own work.
 
While I didn’t have to read them all, after book one I found I had quite a fondness for Dan’s quirky character and Amy’s burgeoning sense of self-confidence. Their characters are really lively and well done—and despite the variety of authors, surprisingly consistent. I wound up reading 6 of the 10, and was pleased to revisit their world in the second series this past January when I was asked to participate in another related project.
 
The idea is really stellar and complex (despite some implicit/inadvertent eurocentrism) and the adventures are fun—the pace is nothing if not quick. Historical figures, bits of world cultures and geographic trivia are laced innocuously throughout. I was surprised myself, after the fact, to reflect on how much I had accidentally learned from the series about peope, places, and things I had thought I was quite knowledgable about. Coupled with the interactive website, there’s a lot for unsuspecting reluctant-reading minds to glean.
 
The writing is simple, fairly transparent, and there’s a somewhat “Nancy Drew” quality to Dan and Amy’s sleuthing and often predictable resolutions (which is one reason I didn’t press on to read the final four titles). But the series mixes it up – not always allowing Dan and Amy the spotlight OR the victory outright. Because the Cahill family is so large, there is a vast cast of multicultural characters to meet (though none of them is ever very deeply developed) and the 3rd-person perspective switches up regularly, providing lots of twists and turns.
 
Not deep or heavy by any means, often overly simple for the older reader in me, these are nonetheless fun, light, catching reads that could serve for the kid-at-heart as a good buffer between dark apocalypses and epic fantasies. Something like Spy Kids meets Carmen Sandiego turned print—though generally less cheesy and far more complex. The books had me clue-hunting right along with the Cahills, curious to find out how it would all wrap up in the end.
 
I definitely recommend these book for the 9-12-ers—who I’ve witnessed can get really NUTS for these things!—as well as for the adventurous 13+(+++)-er.
 

 

Book Review: Rotters by Daniel Kraus February 9, 2012

Publisher: Delacorte
Release Date: April 5, 2011
Series: stand-alone
Age Group: Solidly YA (warning: violence, gore, language, sexual content)
Pages: 464
Source: purchase
Genre: (macabre) Realistic Fiction (some say “horror” but there’s no real fear angle, so I don’t think that truly fits)
Rating Breakdown: Idea 4★; Execution 3.5★

 

★★★★

Joey lives a sheltered life. His mother fulfills all of his needs, and it seems Chicago fulfills all of hers—they never, ever leave the city. But when a tragic accident sends Joey to a remote town to live with his father, he finds he has a lot to learn about life…and death.

Before he knows it, he’s been drawn into a macabre underworld that thrives on decay: a secret society of graverobbers. And, as much as his own accumulating stench and his father’s mysterious reputation as a “garbage man” isolate him from the insular, closed-minded society of Bloughton High, they might eventually be the very things that draw him back in.

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The pros…
 
This book starts with much promise. I didn’t realize just how long it had been since I had sunk my mental teeth into truly high-quality writing, until I finished the first few pages of this book. I was immediately hooked.
 
The style is what I can only describe as “piecemeal” in a most clever way—each sentence requiring more than your average bit of thought to process. Sometimes information precedes itself—if you know what I mean—and then unravels in the following sentences. For instance, my favorite passage in the book is the description of a girl—only, you’re halfway down the page before you fully understand what or whom it’s talking about. When it finally clicks, however, it’s a truly satisfying sensation.
 
Elements like that, combined with some truly unusual and refreshingly insightful details really put you behind the narrator’s eyes—you’re right there with him and it’s visceral. When it comes to the gory bits—and OH are there some gruesome passages!—it can be shocking, as well it should be. I won’t lie: I found myself on the subway closing my eyes and massaging my temples, or just gaping in horror at the page (and being gaped at in return by my fellow passengers) after happening unawares upon particular moments. And they are well placed for just such effect. Because not all of the related scenes contain descriptions of what Joey sees in the coffins, you never know when one will jump up and gum you to death. And, don’t be surprised if they stick to you for a while, either. (I confess, I eyed my roasted sweet potatoes warily last night when one of the mushier pieces smeared across the pan: unwillingly found myself thinking about how it had once been “alive”…)
 
If you’re like me, it will also be those lingering images that prompt a reconsideration of life, death, and mortality, and not Joey’s haphazard and drawn-out goose chase of the subject. As with the sweet potatoes, I can’t help but be constantly reminded of how dualistic life is. No matter how much we remove it from our everyday sight, package it in cellophane, and smother it with sweet-smelling euphemisms, death and decay are inextricably intertwined with life. They are two inseparable sides of one coin. And, the unabashed promotion of this realization is the true strength of this story.
 
The cons…
 
However, the book’s faults are intertwined with its assets, to some degree. Joey’s character, though the stream of his thoughts are belabored, didn’t ever solidify for me. Dimension was given to the smallest details outside of him, but the inside remained opaque. And similarly throughout the book, the evocative style, while excellent when it had something to focus on, wasn’t pared down enough when it didn’t. When combined with a multitude of meandering (sometimes superfluous) twists of plot, it resulted in a really drawn-out story. I put the book down more than once wondering if it would ever end. Without a doubt, the manuscript could have used a good strong structural edit to scrub some of the excessive prose and unnecessary scenes. (For example, I think more than one run-in with “Baby” wasn’t really necessary. They could have been combined and made more effective. Or, a more willing and resolved embrace of the book’s Jeckyll and Hyde undertones would have made the plot as clever as its metaphors.) Alas, this wasn’t done, and without the masterfully gruesome detail, many of the story’s finer points would have been lost in the overabundance. (I know: pot calling kettle!)
 
Finally—and herein lies my biggest criticism—while this book doesn’t try (or succeed if it did) to be anything other than macabre realistic fiction (despite the fact that the world of the “Diggers” is other, it’s not paranormal), the ultimate villain is absurdly unrealistic. Everything else in the book I could buy, and to strong effect; but that guy’s purported feats—especially his nothing-short-of-miraculous reappearance at the end—were not only surprising and disappointing, but truly irritating.
 
The final word…
 
Overall, however, Rotters is an utterly different, refreshingly nuanced, and excitingly complex read. Though I found the final third of the book lost its way, and am not sure that I gained much from the last 150 pages that I hadn’t gotten from the 300 preceding it, the provocative look at mortality that was offered up so starkly and unapologetically until that point made it worthwhile to finish. Until Hyde took over, I couldn’t help thinking of it as the (less svelt) YA version of Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God.
 
But, if the mark of good literature is that it changes you somehow, alters your perspective in some way, then I’d give this one a solid vote. Whatever my gripes about the wandering plot, I will never look at rotters (the living or the dead…or the vegetable), in quite the same way again.

 

Series Review: Wolves of Mercy Falls (Shiver, Linger, Forever) by Maggie Steifvater November 10, 2011

Publisher: Scholastic Press
Release Date: August 1, 2009; July 13, 2010; July 12, 2011
Series: Wolves of Mercy Falls
Age Group: solid YA (implied/described sexual content; graphic violence)
Pages: 400; 368; 400
Rating: Idea 4★; Execution 4★; Style 4.5★
Genre: romantic fantasy

★★★★

Shiver / Linger

Grace is relatively happy living in her rural home with parents who are rarely ever there…it’s lonely, but she creates her own structure: good grades, no late nights…

Only when she begins to feel drawn away from the warmth and light into the quick chill of the Boundary Wood that fringes her house—toward the pack of wolves that roams there—does she realize that something is missing, and perhaps always has been.

Then the boy appears—and he is one of them, she is sure. His yellow eyes belong to the wolf, the stormy gray wolf who saved her all those years ago.

And then, he is Sam. And she cannot imagine life without him. So she doesn’t…

…but the cold, and his earthy, shaggy, winter body remembers. It will claim him.

It might be calling her, too.
 
Forever

Sam is stable…as much as he can be without Grace.
Where she is…what she is, he can’t be sure. He only knows he needs to find her, fast.
Now that a second death has been blamed on his pack, they only have so much time before the hunters begin closing in. It may already be too late.
 
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This series is sort of in a class by itself. It is a dark, brooding romantic fantasy of a similar brand as that of Twilight, but the style (and LACK of love triangle) is superior enough to make that comparison invalid. And, I think the quality of the writing has only improved with age. Out now, the third book has all of the same qualities as Shiver and Linger, only more crystallized and focused.
 
For one, the world is built with integrity. Fitting to the plot, it is tight and limited, but the text makes it visceral. Metaphor is a key descriptive player and it is used in fresh and surprising ways. Sam’s favorite poet Maria Rainer Rilke is quoted often, and I daresay the text benefits immensely from that—in style as much as in content.
 
The characters are multi-dimensional, but focused and consistent. They grown and learn—about themselves and others—over the course of the trilogy. (You would think that would be a given, but I’ve learned the hard way that this is an unusual characteristic in YA lit these days! So, when I see it, I like to point it out.) The side characters are intriguing (bad-boy Cole is there for those of us who like a scruffy egomaniac) and take on a life of their own as they become more central to the storyline in Forever. This is in part due to the multiple-point-of-view format of the book, which I found refreshing (each chapter is written in a different character’s voice). Overall, they (Sam, Grace, Cole, Isabel, etc) aren’t extremely deep, and sometimes their realizations are slightly obvious, but it’s not to the point of annoying. The crux of the book really is the plight of the werewolf, and, of course, the two soul mates caught in the crossfire between an errant biology and an ignorant humanity.
 
Yes, it’s a tender, emo love story. However, even though soft, skinny, sensitive Sam is not really my type, he is such a well-drawn character, you can’t help but like him. The poetry—Rilke’s, not necessarily Sam’s—often would step in to redeem him for me, giving him a deeper facet than most other series’ boy toys have. He so clearly needs Grace that you can’t help but root for them. Grace herself is all but perfect, but not in an unlikable way. She’s beautiful, but strong (kind of like Bella Swan should have been).
 
Really, for all of the wolf in them, they are both very human.
 
The plot is fairly strong: catching and medium-paced. I got slightly impatient at times, so it wouldn’t have worked for me to read all 3 books in a row. I read them as they came out, and I was actually happy with that. The world is compelling enough to make revisiting a pleasure. Some reviewers did not like the ending of the trilogy, but I did. True, it’s ambivalent, but not in a cheap, incongruent, copout, “no questions answered” way like the Incarceron series. There’s the hint of what could happen, but not the confirmation. Frankly, it totally fits with the style, and I was ok with that.
 
In fact, the most striking characteristic of the books for me lies in the style—in the “feeling” the writing gives: of cold.
 
True, the story is purposefully set on the borders of a wilderness in Mercy Falls, Minnesota, where winters are long and harsh: cold is what makes a werewolf shift into a wolf. But it’s one thing to simply state that fact—another to weave it into the fabric of the text. I don’t quite know how to explain what I mean, but for all the warmth of Sam and Grace’s relationship, I always came away from the text with a chill. It was as if there was somehow something delicate lying between me and them, a subtle frosty whisper that fills and parts the air.
 
That, I found totally masterful.

 

Guest Review: No Such Thing as Dragons by Philip Reeve October 20, 2011

I always love getting recommendations for good books, especially when they are as ebullient as this one.

Shortly after finishing this title (part of my growing Philip Reeve collection – he’s pretty awesome, btw), that I had not even cracked yet, my husband Sorin, all but bubbling over with excitement, began to regale me with tempting snippets of the story line. As he recounted and gesticulated, I began to suspect that he was doing so as much to relive the story himself as to talk me into reading it. Since that’s exactly the art of book reviewing (at least for me!), I invited him to contribute a post of his own here on Booknotized.

A native of Romania, Sorin came to the US (where he met me) via Montreal, Quebec. Currently a computer science masters candidate, he recently completed his first novel, I, Pirate, which was a young adult division quarterfinalist in the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards competition. Reading and writing are his passions, though I know I fit somewhere in there as well. I hope you enjoy this, his first (but hopefully not last!) review.

Publisher: Scholastic Press
Release Date: September 1, 2010
Age Group: 9–12+ (some mature intimations; graphic violence)
Pages: 186

★★★★★

Before Johannes Von Brock arrived at the inn and asked for a child to follow him as squire, Ansel wasn’t worth much. So little, in fact, that his father didn’t even consider him a candidate. But the man liked the fact that the boy couldn’t speak, for he had secrets that he’d like kept that way…

For starters, “there are no such things as dragons.” Just spend a couple of days on the mountain, come back, tell the people you killed it, get paid, and go on to the next place. In a time where superstitions rule the mind of man, where mythical creatures roam the earth, in a time when legends are born, people need their savior. They expect it. And our brave knight is there for them.

But as they arrive in a tiny mountain village, plagued by a man-eating, sheep-stealing “worm,” neither master nor squire can imagine the turn that their lives are about to take.

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I must confess, when I started reading this book, I had fairly low expectations. Jaded by same-subject movies, disappointed by the books, I anticipated a story where either dragons are more implied than actual (as the title suggests), or if present, then display human-like traits (sentience, emotion, etc). But, boy was I in for a surprise! A couple of pages in and I found myself caught in the beautiful, poetic, yet straightforward, language. I couldn’t care less for dragons. Or the action. Just give me more of those beautiful descriptions. It made me realize that it had been a long time since I read a well-crafted book. So long, in fact, that I’d gotten used to the mediocre ones.

And when the real action started, I couldn’t put it down. But I had to. It was 3 AM. I dreamt of dragons and brave little boys. No, not in that way, you perv. Because, you see, you think you know who the dragon fighter is, but… That’s all I’ll say.

The characters are wonderfully forged. Even the dragon. (Whoops!) The boy, Ansel, is one of few heroes in the plethora of modern young adult books who doesn’t have any superpowers. Wait, you say, he doesn’t have any superpowers? Not even a magical pinky, or a fairy godmotherslashuncleslashmaybedog? He doesn’t drink blood? Or perhaps a bit of power-enhancing, magic-awakening juice?

No, no magic. He’s mute, and that’s all, which certainly doesn’t help when being chased by a crazy-eyed dragon. Or when you’re hungry. But, in my opinion, he has more going for him than 275 of the other heroes put together. To make the right decision, when facing a killer beast is hard even for a man, but for a malnourished child? A hero is not made or born. One becomes. Will Ansel become a hero? I won’t tell you. Just read the book!

Truly, Philip Reeve accomplishes in 186 pgs what many others haven’t in a full series of 400 pgs each: to write an inspiring yet entertaining book, one that reaches deep inside and tries to change you.

I think No Such Thing as Dragons will make an exhilarating experience for any book-loving, adventure-craving kid. I know it did for me.

 

Book Review: Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick October 11, 2011

Release Date: September 13, 2011
Publisher: Scholastic
608 pgs

★★★★★

It’s 1977, and somewhere in the quiet woods of Gunflint Lake, Minnesota, lives Ben Wilson. His mother has just died, and though his aunt and uncle welcome him in, he just cannot seem to feel at home. Something is missing. When he finds a 12-year-old clue about his father, Ben decides that the search for that mysterious man is the answer to all of his empty longing.

Flash back to Hoboken, New Jersey, 1927, where the story of a young girl is depicted only in pictures – or is it? Rose lives her life shut away in her home, and she, too, is longing. Longing for something . . .

The collision of their worlds will leave you speechless.

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Summary is not something that suits this book, really, so apologies for my somewhat cryptic attempt above. That’s because the storytelling in Wonderstruck is utterly unique. I did not realize, when I sat down to read it, that I was embarking on a sensory journey that would leave me mystified and in awe. Needless to say, the book’s title was chosen well.

Subtle and unobtrusive, it nevertheless defies all of the rules about reading that I – unwittingly – have always taken for granted. Text is text, right? Pictures are pictures, right? Wrong.

Selznick has created a masterpiece wherein the line between letter and sketch gradually blurs into one unified experience.

Like its similar, but intrinsically different sibling, The Invention of Hugo Cabret (movie directed by Martin Scorsese out Nov 23!!), Wonderstruck is a revolutionary publication. (I can’t quite bring myself to call it a “text.”) It will alter the way you look at and define “books.”

So much more than a picture book, this story can’t simply be read: it has to be experienced. I highly recommend.

 

(P.S. Don’t be daunted by the page count – the balance of text and illustrations make it a fairly quick read.)

 

Book Review: The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett June 30, 2011

Original Release Date: 1983
Original Publisher: Colin Smyth
Series: Discworld

★★★★★

Far away, in a land shaped like a saucer, which sits balanced on the backs of four elephants, who in turn ride the shell of a giant, deep space-swimming turtle (gender unknown)…live Rincewind and Twoflower. Diehard cynic and failed wizard, Rincewind is bound to Twoflower (Discworld’s first ever tourist) by fate. (The magistrate’s threat if Twoflower should come to any harm might also have had something to do with it…)

Together the two set out to follow Twoflower’s insatiable appetite for adventure, danger, and whatever other legendary predicaments strike his fancy—and end up towed in the wake of his uncanny penchant for trouble. In fact, if not for the undying devotion of Twoflower’s sapient (and apparently carnivorous) pearwood luggage, neither character could make it through the dragons, the inferno, the 8-legged demon, shipwreck, or kidnapping mayhem that ensue. Finally, washed up at the end of the world, it’s up to their combined (and questionable) wits to save them from virtual annihilation…

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Packed with a brilliant combo of sparking wit and superb writing, it’s no wonder this first installment of the Discworld bibliography spawned the 38-odd books that followed…and their devoted fans. Hilarious, adventurous, inventive, but above all precise, even in its absurdity, Pratchett’s prose provides not only some welcome relief from the conventional fantasy world, but is first-rate reading all on its own.

I highly recommend this to those seasoned fantasy-lovers looking to investigate the roots, influences, and permutations of today’s otherworldly fiction—or just those seeking something truly original, witty, and lighthearted. While I do think a younger reader would get a kick out of the superficial storyline, the satiric undercurrent of its humor, as well as some mature content, really make it a more satisfying read for the older bibliophile. In fact, the more you know of the allusions contained (Rincewind’s wizardly problems are a cracked mirror to those of LeGuin’s Ged, for instance), the more fun it becomes.

 

**This is the only Discworld title “to be continued.” It is finished in The Light Fantastic. If you intend on speeding through this title—which, if you’re anything like me, you will—I recommend having the second book handy, to avoid frustration. The first ends…well, abruptly, as is absolutely fitting, considering the circumstances.**

 

 
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