Monthly Archives: January 2016

These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

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these shallow gravesThese Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly
Delacorte Press, 2015.

A while back, I thoroughly enjoyed Ms. Donnelly’s Revolution (2010), which engendered in me an, as yet unfulfilled, desire to visit the catacombs of Paris. I have not read any of her novels since then, so I was excited when this latest one popped up in my review pile.

Set in late 1800’s New York, this exciting historical romance-mystery is also a sharp examination of the position of upper class women during that era.

Blueblood Josephine Montfort wants to be a writer uncovering injustice and social conditions, like Nellie Bly. But she comes to realize that she is just an item to be traded by her family without much say from her – she has to marry the man, and make the social connection, that her family chooses for her, and, in return, she will condemned to a luxurious but indolent and meaningless life.

This is the path Jo’s life is destined to take, even if she chafes a little at her inability to make a difference, until her father accidentally shoots himself. Struggling to believe that is possible, a chance encounter with a handsome and roguishly charming reporter leads the two of them to investigate further. When she discovers that her father was really murdered, she plunges into the dark underbelly of the city to get to the truth at all costs.

The plot takes a bit of time to get going, but builds up a head of steam with the trail rapidly turning up new clues and theories along the way as it races to the gripping denouement. I felt that this was a story I’d read before, or at least parts of it, – a mysterious tattooed villain, an insane asylum, a gang of child thieves controlled by an unscrupulous adults – but Ms Donnelly brings to life both the seedy side of Manhattan and the affluent one with great verve. There are, unfortunately, a couple of wildly unlikely coincidences that aren’t vital to the plot but allow everything to be wrapped up very neatly.

The central couple of Jo and newspaperman Eddie Gallagher have great verve and they, inevitably, fall in love, even knowing their relationship is socially untenable for her. The support characters tend to be a little stereotyped – the urchin with the heart of gold, the stiff upper lip suitor, the nerdy best friend – but still populate the story with energy and warmth.

The plight of the upper class woman restricted in every way, both physical and emotional, gives the novel a social awareness that will still have some resonance for readers today, and this, along with the novel’s fast-paced easy reading, should give it great appeal to teens.

Reviewed from an ARC.

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Trouble is a Friend of Mine by Stephanie Tromly

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trouble is a friend of mineTrouble is a Friend of Mine by Stephanie Tromly
Kathy Dawson Books, 2015.
Listening Library, 2015.

I listened to this which is unusual for me. Mostly I read books and listen to podcasts, but I saw this title in a year end best of list (sorry, I can’t remember which one) and San Francisco PL had an audio copy available so I went for it. I listened to it over the course of a couple of weeks – mainly on my walk home from work, and on a plane. The downside of listening to an audiobook this way is that it’s hard to take notes or highlight significant passages, which is what I do with a written book, so my review is going to be a bit thinner than you might otherwise expect.

16 year-old Zoe Webster and her mother have moved out of Manhattan to upstate New York, after her parents’ marriage broke up. Zoe sees this as a temporary move until she goes back to the city to go an elite private school, so she is very snooty about being in the burbs, and finds it hard socially. But then she is befriended by Philip Digby, a weird kid who is investigating the disappearance of a high school girl the previous summer.

Narrated with sharp and withering wit by Zoe, the mystery itself is fairly straightforward, but the investigation and resolution are excitingly and compellingly plotted. Digby gets Zoe way out of her comfort zone, and as they get deeper into the mystery, they lurch into the town’s underbelly, encountering an unethical gynecologist, a helpful drug dealer, and a sinister cult next door, in their pursuit of the truth.

Zoe’s smarty pants good girl demeanor contrasts well with Digby’s Sherlockian devil may care attitude to legal niceties, and the crackling dialogue and relationship between the two of them are what really gives this book its omph. A support cast of teens – “hero handsome” Henry, rich girl Sloane and geeky Felix (maybe could have done without that Asian stereotyping) – and adult characters, particularly Zoe’s mum, are all well-fleshed out.

The audiobook is narrated by Kathleen McInerney, who does a great job of giving each character a distinctive and appropriate voice, while keeping up with the helter skelter pace of the plot.

The ending leaves some questions unresolved, so readers (and listeners) will be hopeful that means more of Zoe and Digby in the future.

Friday Barnes, Girl Detective by R. A. Spratt; illustrated by Phil Gosier

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friday barnesFriday Barnes, Girl Detective by R. A. Spratt; illustrated by Phil Gosier
Roaring Brook, 2016.

Part two of R. A. Spratt week!

In this hilarious first book in a new series, Nanny Piggins creator R. A. Spratt introduces Friday Barnes, a very, very smart and forthright 11 year-old girl detective.

Friday is used to being ignored by her family of academics, and has cultivated invisibility elsewhere by using a combination of silence and brown cardigans, though this does mean she is rather lonely.

Friday loses herself in books and, after reading many detective novels, she realizes that “being a detective seemed to give a person license to behave very eccentrically indeed”, so she decides to start solving mysteries. When she gets $50,000 as a reward for solving a diamond theft and she spends it on a year’s tuition at Highcrest Academy, the country’s best school.

Discovering that she cannot remain unnoticed at Highcrest, Friday finds a friend and crime-solving partner in her roommate Melanie, who has all the emotional intelligence and social skills that Friday lacks, though is otherwise dumb as a plank. Together, they crack cases from missing homework to the identity of the swamp in the yeti. And as “life at an exclusive boarding school would be a lot more fun than she had imagined if there was a nemesis for her to thwart”, she luckily manages to find one: the distractingly dishy Ian Wainscott, who reacts very badly to no longer being the brightest pupil in the school.

Though this is more mainstream than the anarchic Nanny Piggins series, it is equally as laugh-out-loud on every page. The odd couple pairing of Friday and Melanie is not particularly original, but the author takes it to such extremes as to make it feel fresh. Friday’s unwittingly deadpan humor, along with sharp authorial pokes at teachers who don’t really like children, rich kids who go to fancy private schools, and parents who find their offspring inconvenient, makes the comedy drier and more sophisticated than you would typically find in an elementary grade book, while remaining accessible. It would work really well as a read aloud.

The illustrations are appealing, though unlike those by Dan Santat for the Nanny Piggins books, don’t quite capture the offbeat tone of the text. However, they do show a much more diverse student body than you would gather from the text.

With four books already published in Australia, readers will be pleased that the cliffhanger ending will undoubtedly be followed by more comical whodunits for Friday, Melanie and co. to unravel in their inimitable way.

Reviewed from an ARC.

The Adventures of Nanny Piggins by R. A. Spratt

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nanny pigginsThe Adventures of Nanny Piggins by R. A. Spratt
Little, Brown, 2010.

It’s R. A. Spratt week here at bibliobrit! First up is The Adventures of Nanny Piggins, one of my all-time favorite funny book for kids. And adults. Later this week, I’ll be reviewing the first in a new series, Friday Barnes, Girl Detective.

When cheapskate Mr Green hires Nanny Piggins to look after his three children, he makes an unusual choice, because Nanny Piggins is a pig. But she’s cheap and she’s available. And though she’s never been a nanny before, she was a flying pig in a circus and it’s got to be easier than that.

Unlike such prigs as Mary Poppins and Mrs Piggle Wiggle, Nanny Piggins has no expectations of the children and her priorities are sugar, chocolate and fun. The Green children are entirely happy to go along with this, and are complicit in the many adventures Nanny Piggins arranges such as sailing to China, spending their school uniform money on tickets to an amusement park, and trapping a doorknob thief.nanny-piggins_dan-santat-3

Australian author Spratt has created a delicious and anarchic world where a pig can be a nanny who loves the children so much “she often forgot they were humans altogether and thought of them as pigs”. The slightly arch tone of voice pairs well with Dan Santat’s charming drawings which perfectly capture Nanny Piggins’ chic sense of style – even butchers sigh when she walks past.

Each chapter is a self-contained chortle-filled escapade and the book would make a great readaloud for 2nd or 3rd graders.

Nanny Piggins is not a moral character and some readers, mostly adult ones I suspect, may object to her ideas on nutrition and entertainment. I say “bleeh” to them and, as it happens, Madeleine Albright agrees with me.

There are now 4 more fun-filled Nanny Piggins books available in the U. S., and several more in Australia.

The Emperor of Any Place by Tim Wynne-Jones

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emperor of any placeThe Emperor of Any Place by Tim Wynne-Jones
Candlewick, 2015.

In this haunting and absorbing drama, Wynne-Jones movingly explores father-son relationships, the inexorability of war, and friendships across cultural and generational divides.

When 17-year old Evan’s father, Clifford, dies suddenly, Evan is forced to send for his grandfather, the military stickler Clifford E. ‘Griff’ Griffin II. Clifford had left home for Canada many years before to avoid the draft for the Vietnam War, and had little contact with his disapproving father after that.

When he died, Clifford had been reading a book, which turns out to be an unprinted journal written by a Japanese soldier, Isamu Oshiro, at the end of World War II. He had washed up on a deserted island in the Marianas which he calls Kokoro-Jima, meaning ‘heart (shaped) island’, and evoking Setsuki’s 1914 novel, Kokoro (and before you swoon at my broadreaching intellectual prowess, I should say that I only know of this book because I came across a reference to it in Hark! A Vagrant). This island is full of ghosts and demons, and one of the many lovely ideas in this book is when we learn what these all represent. Soon Oshiro is joined by an injured American airman, Derwent Kraft, and they gradually learn to trust and respect each other.

We know from the start that Griff is somehow involved in this story, because Kraft’s son tells Evan that his grandfather is blocking the publication of the manuscript. It is only towards the end that the two strands of the book become fully integrated, and blossom into an opportunity for the Griffin family to mend their fractured history. But there are parallels throughout the books: Mr Wynne-Jones does not shy away from explicitly linking Kokoro-Jima with Evan’s perception of his home as an island, albeit a “perfectly ordinary” one; similarly, both Evan and Griff use the language of the military to communicate more than just what they’re saying.

The author does a superlative job of showing Evan’s waves of grief and rage at his father’s death; and more subtly, the decades-old agony of Griff about the breach with his son that was never reconciled. As Evan remembers his gentle father, he rubs up against Griff’s abrasion before realizing it is a mask, and giving them both the opportunity to move forward.

Though this is marketed and priced as a YA novel, it has a very adult feel to it, and its thoughtful pace and lyrical language might limit its appeal to teens who are looking for a meditation on conflict, both global and personal, rather than an action-packed historical drama.

The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork

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memory of lightThe Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork
Arthur A. Levine, due out on January 26 2016.

I’m a big fan of Mr Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World (2009), and enjoyed The Last Summer of the Death Warriors (2010) as well, so he’s an author that I always keep an eye out for.

16 year old Vicky Cruz wakes up in hospital after attempting to kill herself. The doctor, Dr Desai, persuades her to stay first a few days, then a few weeks, and groups her with three other teens suffering from mental illness. Through group and individual conversations, Vicky gradually comes to realize what drove her to suicide, and begins to develop tools she can use once she’s back in the real world to help prevent a recurrence.

The four central characters, all Hispanic, are richly developed, and organically, if a little speedily, build a group dynamic that helps them all. Mona has been in care, separated from her younger sister and has attempted suicide several times. Gabriel hears a voice telling him what to do, and it appears he is following his grandmother and mother in developing schizophrenia. E. M. cannot control his angry violent outbursts. Each one, plus Dr Desai, has something to offer Vicky that will bring her towards understanding and healing.

Vicky herself, who narrates the book, gradually unfolds the circumstances and incidents that have pushed her to wanting to kill herself. As she realizes she’s suffering from depression (in a rather quick way), she starts to understand the causes of it. Coming from a wealthy background, she is initially treated with some suspicion by the other teens who all come from struggling poverty. But Vicky, in turn, is able to help them too.

This is gorgeously written with four sturdily developed central characters, layered conversations between them and a fine use of metaphor to help the reader, along with the characters, understand depression and its possible roots. I do feel like everything happens a bit too quickly for Vicky – though she is by no means ‘cured’ after 4 weeks, she has used the insights given her to develop weapons against her depression – whereas the other three characters’ progression with their illnesses is much slower-paced albeit heading in the right direction.

My other concern is that Vicky and the others’ treatment seems unrealistic for a public hospital. It would be wonderful to believe that such an intense program is available for such a small group, with a doctor able to devote her time to them and even to take them to her ranch for two weeks, but it just doesn’t feel possible. Mr. Stork, in an author’s note, talks about his teen depression and how talking, like Vicky, gave him tools to manage it, so I must believe that he used his personal experience to write this. He also gives resources.

I think this is a novel that many teens will enjoy and may even be able to use some of the tools Vicky has to deal with the helplessness that teens can feel.

Thanks to Edelweiss and Arthur A. Levine for the digital ARC.

Cybil Finalists!

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Cybils-Logo-2015-Web-LgThe Cybils finalists were announced on Saturday, and you can peruse them all here. These shortlisted books will now be read by the second-round judges, and the winners will be announced on Valentine’s Day. Just a reminder that the criteria used for selection are kid appeal and literary merit, so you know you’re on safe ground with recommending these books for kids (unlike a certain other set of awards, due to be announced next Monday, January 11, which only looks at literary merit and, consequently, often selects some snoozers, thus enabling adults to torture kids by insisting they read these books as they’ve won a prize).

The shortlist for the category that I’m judging, Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction, is as follows:

Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Caste Hangnail by Ursula Vernon

Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge

The Dungeoneers by John David Anderson

The Fog Diver by Joel Ross

Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall

Moon Rising by Tui T. Sutherland

I’ve only read and blogged about Mars Evacuees, which I liked very much, so I’ll have my head down for the next few weeks reading and discussing. It’s always a great opportunity for me to read titles I might not otherwise come across, so I’m excited to get started.