Monthly Archives: January 2015

In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang

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in real lifeIn Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang
First Second, 2014.

Anda is recruited into Coarsegold, a massively multiplayer role-playing game, when the charismatic Liza McCombs comes to her school looking for girl gamers who want to play as girls in-game.

Anda is a terrific protagonist, happily ensconced in the D&D playing, otherwise all male, nerd squad at school, and into coding. She’s heavy built, but seems comfortable with it, as do her similarly well-cushioned parents. The all-female guild she joins is as enthusiastic about slaying the undead as any boys, and Anda’s self-confidence both in the game and in real life grows. Not sure if I should be concerned that Anda’s avatar is a skinnier, doe-eyed version of herself, but I’m not.irl3

And that would be a terrific graphic novel, but Mr Doctorow has bigger fish to fry, which is where In Real Life falters a little. When Anda is recruited for a mission to kill illegal gold farmers (who collect items for gold and then sell the gold to other players for cash – this is all news to me, so sorry if I’m overexplaining), she becomes aware of the seedier economics of gaming and gets involved in a real life campaign for health benefits for Chinese employees.

irl2While this is undoubtedly an important aspect of gaming to bring to the attention of middle-grade, and even YA, readers, it’s done in a somewhat trite fashion. Once again, it takes an American to galvanize the oppressed overseas workers into a rebellion to gain better working conditions, which they then achieve with remarkable ease. I appreciate the authors’ intentions, but not so much the execution.

Nonetheless, for the girl gaming aspects alone, this is a great one for graphic novel enthusiasts of both genders, and if they pick up some social awareness at the same time, it’s all to the good.

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All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

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all the bright placesAll the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
Knopf, 2015.

High school seniors Theodore Finch and Violet Markey meet at the top of a bell tower – they are both considering jumping – but helping each other down is the start of an intense relationship. Working together on a U. S. Geography project, they “wander” Indiana, finding meaning and beauty in obscure places. But Finch suffers from (unnamed till late in the book) bipolar disorder and, though he is in an “awake” phase, he knows that “asleep” is coming, and Violet is still grieving over the death of her sister. Finch helps Violet to mend, but can she help him?

Initially, it seems like a check the box YA romance: Eleanor and Park mismatched couple? Check. Fault in Our Stars sick teens? Check. Smarty pants, snarky voices, alternating chapter narrators and classic literary references? Why, yes, yes and yes – hello, Virginia Woolf.

But somewhere along the way I was drawn in by the appealing leads, who became real people that I cared about. Niven takes her time building Finch and Violet, and their relationship. Violet is not really interested to start with, and it takes some time for Finch’s peculiar charms to work their magic on her and the reader. And perhaps because of her personal experience, mentioned in the author’s note at the end, these characters gain an authenticity and take off from the page.

This one is going to fly out of my library – and rightly so. And I really appreciate the author including a list of resources for teens suffering from mental illness, grieving, bullying, abuse, or contemplating suicide.

The Cheshire Cheese Cat by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright

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cheshire cheese catThe Cheshire Cheese Cat by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright; illustrated by Barry Moser
Peachtree, 2011.

It does seem that the Cybils’ Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction shortlist always has an animal fantasy on it. I’m not usually a big fan of this subgenre, so I was hugely surprised that, not only did I love The Cheshire Cheese Cat, my fellow judges did too, and it ended up being our 2012 winner. Strictly, it’s an elementary grade read, so doesn’t belong on this blog, but it’s my blog so I’m going to include it.

Set in Victorian London and featuring guest appearances from Charles Dickens, this intelligently written, humorous and charmingly literary animal fantasy is as sharp and tasty as a piece of the eponymous Cheshire cheese.

Skilley, an alley cat, wants to make his home in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese inn and he contrives to get taken on a mouser. The only problem is, he has a secret – he doesn’t want to eat mice, he wants to eat cheese and this inn is where the finest cheese in London is made. So Skilley forms an alliance with the mice, led by Pip, an uncommonly well-educated mouse, and all seems to be going well – until another cat tries to muscle his way into the tavern and a hidden creature in the attic leads to a possible national crisis.

What really blew me away about this book, was the fabulous writing. The theme of being true to yourself is by no means unique, but Deedy effortlessly illuminates it, without talking above a young reader’s head. And the friendship between this cat and this mouse rings true: When Skilley’s fear cause him to turn against Pip, his genuine regret and the way it is not glibly resolved is masterful:

“Making a mess of things is an occupation at which even the most unskilled can excel at. But mending is an art that requires years of practice. In short, breaking a thing is easy (even a child can do it); fixing that selfsame thing may be harder (sometimes even adult persons cannot manage it)”.

Additionally, Moser’s pencils drawings, scattered throughout the text, give humor and life to the characters, both animal and human alike.

Younger readers may not notice the literary allusions – “He was the best of toms. He was the worst of toms.” – but they will warm to this story of an unusual friendship and the message of acceptance.

The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen

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This week’s theme is books that won the Early and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Cybil, when I was one of the Round 2 judges. First up, from 2013:

false princeThe False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Scholastic, 2012.

In the fantasy medieval country of Carthya, 15 year-old Sage and three other orphan boys are purchased by Conner and taken to his estate away from the city. Conner is one of the King’s regents and has come up with a desperate plan to prevent civil war breaking out in the country – one of these boys will masquerade as the long missing Prince Jaron. The boys must compete against each other in learning the ways of royalty, and Conner will make his choice in two weeks.

I love the complexity and ambiguity of the characters, Sage especially. He is a charismatic and flawed narrator who does not let the reader in on all he knows. I found Sage’s voice really appealing – snarky and unpredictable – and voice is always an important element for me. I also found Connor to be intriguing – he genuinely believe he is doing the right thing for Carthya, even if his methods are questionable.

The False Prince is reminiscent of Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief (2005) both in terms of its setting and in the unreliability of its narrator. However, despite The Thief’s many virtues, kid appeal is not one of them; so it’s great to have The False Prince to fill that niche.

The plot is packed with adventure and intrigue, and includes several surprises along the way before reaching a satisfyingly action-packed conclusion, leaving the reader ready for the rest of the, sadly rather disappointing, trilogy.

The Lost Kingdom by Matthew J. Kirby

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Welcome to part 2 of Matthew J. Kirby week! Check Monday’s post of Icefall if you missed it.

lost kingdomThe Lost Kingdom by Matthew J. Kirby
Scholastic, 2013

In this rousing old-fashioned yarn, reminiscent of Treasure Island, an expedition of the American Philosophical Society sets off in 1753 to find the lost Kingdom of Madoc.

Billy Bartram is elated to accompany his father, botanist John Bartram as part of the team, and the development of Billy and his relationship with his father is the thematic heart of this story. Billy is “like [John] in so many ways, but unlike him in others” and it is his recognition of these contrasts that ultimately allows him to find his own path.

There is nonstop action and intrigue on the voyage in the steampunk-esque flying ship, culminating in a thrilling battle in which each of the vividly realized expeditioners uses his scientific expertise to fight off the French marines.

Kirby skillfully mixes fact, fiction, myth and fantasy, while scrupulously delineating them in an author’s note, to create an adventure that also weaves in wider themes of difference and father-son relationships.

Icefall by Matthew J. Kirby

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While I’m Cybilling away, I’m going to post some older reviews of gems that are worth re-visiting. This week is Matthew J. Kirby week! I have read all three of his stand alone books and, though in completely different settings, they all share a wildly imaginative world building sensibility, paired with very human stories. I love that each MJK is completely fresh and different, and that each one stands alone, but each one is also exquisitely well-observed and written. Today I’ll review Icefall (2011), and on Thursday I’ll have The Lost Kingdom (2013). Sadly, I have no notes from my reading of The Clockwork Three (2010), so no review of that, though I do remember enjoying it and noting MJK as an author to look out for. He now seems to be into writing series, which makes me a bit grumpy, but I suppose I should reserve judgement, and read The Quantum League (2014)  and The Arctic Code (due out in April).

IcefallIcefall by Matthew J. Kirby
Scholastic, 2011

A Viking King has three children: Harald is his heir, Asa, the beautiful oldest daughter will make a great marriage, but Solveig, the plain middle daughter, does not seem to have a role. Following a dispute with a rival, the King decides to send his children, along with a handful of servants and guards to a safe settlement in the far North. They are soon joined by a group of the King’s Berserkers, ferocious and violent warriors, sent as extra protection. As the winter draws in and the sea freezes, no one can get in, but also no one can get out. And as it becomes clear that there is a traitor in the camp, the safe settlement becomes a prison.

Solveig finds her purpose as she develops her talent as a skald, or storyteller, using the power of tales of the Norse gods, like Thor and Odin, to subtly change the actions of others. Solveig’s gradual progress from feeling ignored and useless to inspirational storyteller is a wonderful achievement and the other characters are all fully developed and distinct.

Building a claustrophobic and sinister atmosphere, Kirby creates a real sense of tension and impending doom, as the situation becomes increasingly desperate and ultimately erupts into a thrilling climax.

Though readers may be drawn to the action elements of Icefall, they will also find a meditation on the strength of myths skillfully woven in.

The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming

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family romanovThe Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming
Schwartz & Wade, 2014.

In this much buzzed about nonfiction account of the final days of Russia’s autocracy, Candace Fleming brilliantly uses primary sources to give the reader many different facets of the story: a personal portrait of the lives and death of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra and their five children; firsthand accounts from the bottom of the social structure, both rural and industrial; and an overview of the events that led up to the Russian Revolution and its immediate aftermath.

The main focus is an inside account of the Imperial family – they were prodigious letter writers and diary keepers. Fleming makes clear how Nicholas-and-Alexandra-the-romanovs-12206239-478-600inadequate Nicholas was for the role of autocratic ruler of Russia: there is the illuminating Nero-esque image of Nicholas ignoring a desperate telegram sent to him describing the riots and slaughter in Petrograd, and spending the evening playing dominoes. But more than not being especially bright or talented, Nicholas believed he had the God-given right to rule his vast Empire and did so with a passivity and willful obliviousness that squandered the goodwill the population felt towards the Tsar, leading not just to his and his family’s executions but to the disaster of Communist Russia.

Rasputin-007Fleming weaves in the contrast between the opulence of the aristocracy and the utter misery of the peasants and the factory workers, and then leads the reader through the confluence of events, both major and minor, that led to demonstrations, riots and rebellion. For example, Alexandra’s, and to a lesser extent Nicholas’s infatuation with the ‘holy man’ Rasputin is given a lot of play, and the author clearly believes he was a corrupt charlatan, whose advice and manipulation led to a weakened government at a time when men of talent might have averted catastrophe.

The final section of the book movingly focuses on the last days of the Romanovs as they’re shuffled around from one location to the next, until finally, in the House of Special Purpose in Ekaterinburg, one Bolshevik, apparently without Lenin’s approval, planned and carried out their executions.romanov children

There are two sections of nicely reproduced photographs, and back matter includes notes for the many quotations woven into the text, extensive print and online sources and an author’s note on her research process.

leninThough I was pretty familiar with the history covered here, I’m assuming it would be new to most teen and middle grade readers. I think the decision to focus on the family drives the narrative along and narrows this vast slab of history into a riveting story. At the same time, Fleming is scrupulous in her accuracy and in modeling historical writing, while constructing a compelling argument that, sadly, the Romanovs had a major hand in their own downfall and that of their country.