Monthly Archives: July 2011

David by Mary Hoffman

I am finally finished this book (I usually read a YA title in a day or two; this seemed to drag out over half a week).  I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I really found this one a tough slog.  Not that it wasn’t well written, and about an interesting subject (to me): it was.  But somehow all the intrigue wasn’t very gripping, and the character himself was just not that engaging.  We’re in Florence in 1501 and a young and handsome Gabriele has just arrived in the city to seek his fortune as a stonecutter.  A childhood friend of the famous Michelangelo, David not only becomes the model for the famous David sculpture, but he entangles himself in the fiersome politics of the city.  Along the way he meets Leonardo and seduces several ladies of the city.  Maybe would have been better as a graphic novel?

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Filed under Just Read, Young Adult books

Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick by Joe Schreiber

On the cover this book is described as a cross between Ferris Bueller and La Femme Nikita and that about covers the good and the bad of it.  Perry is forced to take his Lithuanian exchange student Gobija Zaksauskas to prom – but the night quickly morphs into an epic teenage action-thriller.  The apparently quiet mousy Gobija (Gobi) turns out to be a super-sexy/super-dangerous spy who forces resistant Perry to sidekick through downtown New York while she assassinate five targets.  On many levels, this book works – I mean, who doesn’t love stories about average folks caught up in high stakes crime/espionage during one memorable night in New York City (see Adventures in Babysitting, Date Night, etc.).  I admit, the writing was more competent and clever than I expected.  Each chapter begins with a typical question from an American university entrance form that contrasts well with the outrageous events of the novel.  For example: “Explain how your experiences as a teenager significantly differ from those of your friends.  Include comparisons. (University of Puget Sound)”.  So I was happy to go along with Perry’s account as the ball got rolling.  However, I found I had to put rather a lot of effort into sustaining my disbelief in order to go along with the increasing implausibilities of the plot.  Some might enjoy the ride while others will find it not quite worth the effort.

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July 23, 2011 · 4:08 am

The Elephant Mountains by Scott Ely

A YA dystopia reminicent of The Road (I imagine, not having read it).  Hurricanes have flooded New Orleans and much of the southern US gulf.  Fifteen year-old Stephen has been living with his survivalist father in a small town.  After his father is killed by looters, Stephen begins a water-born journey to find his mother in New Orleans.  At first I found the writing in this novel hard to latch on to, but I was eventually hooked into Stephen’s jouney.  This is one of the darker YA novels I read… only its length, relative simplicity and a slight promise of hope at the end kept it from belonging in the bleak category of post-apocalyptic adult fiction.  So I enjoyed it, but I do suspect there are better books doing similar things.

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July 23, 2011 · 3:00 am

Review: This Dark Endeavour by Kenneth Oppel

Kenneth Oppel writes excellent children’s books. I often struggle through fiction about animals, but he surprised me with a book about prehistoric bats that compelled me throughout.  He interested me in a book set in Victoria in the 1970s (I’m mistrustful of books set in the 1960s-1970s – are authors just reliving their own childhoods?); and now he’s got me hooked on an 18th century gothic thriller.

Ken Oppel is a remarkable author – he started early, and since then, his successes have multiplied. Oppel wrote his first children’s novel while still in high school and published it pretty soon thereafter.  Unlike other early-starters (I’m thinking particularly of S.E. Hinton who wrote The Outsiders and a couple other books no one has heard of) he’s published over twenty-five books and won numerous awards, including the Canadian Governor General’s Award for Airborn.  Every book I’ve read by him has been enjoyable.  Given, I’ve stuck to the popular bat (Darkwing, etc.) and zeppelin stories (Airborn, etc.), but still – I’m sure his yeti and ghost books have their own loyal following among the younger crowd (picture books and primary respectively).

I was excited when I heard that he had another book coming out this year (right on the tail of last year’s Half Brother).  The cover is grand, and the tone it sets for the story – about a young Frankenstein – seemed dark and unexpected for Oppel, whose usual mode is adventure.  (Actually, a side note on covers: I’m sorry to say that kid’s Canadian covers have traditionally been poor affairs.  By and large they are composed of cheesy pictures or terrible artwork and sloppy and unoriginal design work to round off the package.  So many great Canadian books sit listlessly on the shelves because they are simply too ugly to buy.  When my husband (who’s heard this rant before) saw the new Oppel cover, he said ironically, “well, we know it’s not Canadian.”  He was shocked to hear that, indeed, this beautiful novel was!)

This Dark Endeavour: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein is set in Geneva during the 1790s (a revolutionary France plays a minor background role) and follows a crucial episode in the life of young Victor Frankenstein, son of a wealthy Swiss magistrate.  Victor has an identical twin brother Konrad, and while they aren’t exactly Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger, it is one of those good/evil twin stories.  Konrad is more athletic, academically gifted, generous and loved.  Both brothers are tall, dark and handsome, but Victor broods and possesses an ambitious selfishness that inevitably leads to self-loathing.  When Konrad is struck down by a mysterious disease, Victor begins to follow the path of darkness by seeking answers in the nefarious art of alchemy.  The quest to heal his brother is an honorable one, but is increasingly laced with his own desire to prove himself the hero, and an alarming ability to ruthlessly pursue an end whatever the means.  Of course there is a love triangle – Elizabeth is a lovely young lady in love with Konrad, but also desired by Victor.  Her character contains both the dark and light found in the twins, and something about Victor attracts her, despite herself.  Oppel draws out the tension between the three quite well, and we are left wondering who will triumph (very Wuthering Heights, or Twilight and Hunger Games, if you prefer).

One could argue that there’s a lot of old material here, but I think part of the appeal is settling down to a very well executed, if familiar gothic thriller (perhaps this is because I don’t regularly read the genre?  Will others with more experience find it tedious?).  To me, Oppel makes the traditional dark/light battle it feel fresh yet again as he paints a complex psychological portrait of a future mad scientist.  One can feel the creepy and dangerous Frankenstein that will one day emerge from this misguided youth.

Unsurprisingly, the action in this book is particularly well done.  I have read many an otherwise excellent novel that has action sequences that don’t make sense, that have inexplicable gaps, or that are endlessly repetitive.  Oppel is an old hand at writing action – and whether it’s spelunking through dark caves, climbing towering trees in complete blackness, or fighting off preternaturally strong villains, the action scenes are finely paced and extremely visceral.

I enjoyed the unexpected ending, though I found the set-up for Victor’s future a little awkward and surprisingly unrealistic (given that I had already gone along with a potion that grants the user animalistic night-vision).  Oppel has certainly allowed himself room for a sequel though This Dark Endeavour does work on its own.

Overall, though it contains weaknesses: a deliberate mixing of magic and science that I found a little frusterating; awkwardnesses in the love story plot; and a certain predictability; this is a fun read, and a compelling story that might have floundered with any less able writer at the helm.  Once again, I have been surprised and charmed by Ken Oppel.

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Filed under Book Review, Books I've Enjoyed, Young Adult books

Children’s Lit

I love children’s books.  Some kids skip right from early chapter books, to long tomes, to young adult, to adult fiction.  I have a friend who never read books for kids after age twelve or so.  I have a husband who read The Hobbit in grade two and kept on reading adult fantasy looking for something else as enthralling.

While growing up I was firmly in the age-approved world of Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, E.L. Kognisburg, Paula Dansinger and even Francine Pascal.  Of course, I did pick up a Danielle Steel novel when I was ten or eleven because of a pressing curiosity to explore what adults and older sisters were reading.  I hadn’t expected to even understand the text – I was astonished that I knew all the words on the first few pages  – somehow I thought such books were written in another inaccessible form of English reserved for card-carrying adults.  While the words were easy, the meaning and the significance was not.  I had hoped for scandal and an exciting new world, but in actuality found it quite boring,  At the time I was surprised that my mother didn’t mind me reading it.  Now I realise that her unconcern was the best diffuser of my guilty urge to go grown-up.

By late high school and university I had graduated to adult books – branching from Orwell and Vonnegut to Kingsolver, Rushdie and even Tolstoy (not to mention those girly classics like Bronte and Austen). But midway through a history degree, I popped into the university library for teaching students. I browsed the shelves of battered kid’s novels, reminiscing about authors and books I loved. I found myself holding the first three Harry Potter books in my hand.  The fourth was making a big splash, and the movies were starting to come out. Reading a book, I reasoned, isn’t like watching tv.  It would be a wholesome diversion that would be quick to pick up and put down and leave me ready to attack my imposing pile of schoolwork.  I cruised home on the bus, satisfied with my decision, and already cracking into the first one.  By the end of the weekend I realized my mistake – three books were read, and the schoolwork was barely touched. It was all I could do to not rush out and buy the fourth.

I know there were other factors in play, but right now my path seems an uncomplicated step this way: Harry Potter –> bookstore work (eventually in the children’s section) –> teaching degree –> head of children’s department at bookstore.  (Previously the plan had looked more like this: history degree –> another history degree –> another history degree –> history professor)

Though there have been breaks (for a year-long teaching trip to England and a few month off to have a child), I’ve worked in the children’s section in a local independent bookstore for five years now. And I quite love it. I’ve worked a Harry Potter day (the last of the Harry Potter days); read and enjoyed Twilight well before it was huge (though I knew it was a dirty pleasure even then); and cheered on Hunger Games as it slowly gained momentum and then exploded.  I think in my time I’ve seen YA literature come into its own as a target for publishers who realized they could sell these books to teens, pre-teens and even adults.  I’ve watched wizards give way to vampires who have given way to dysropias (all with good love triangles).

Now I get to order the new books and decide what we have, and what to display. I get to chat to co-workers and customers about books all day – what’s great, and what sucks. What’s like such and such and what seems breathtakingly original. I can’t say I love it all, and some days I go home feeling discouraged by customers, by slowing sales, or by the state of publishing.  Most nights I stay up far later than I should fretting about books and how to organise and sell them.

So this is a blog about books.  It’s about buying, reading, selling, and generally enjoying children’s books. It’s also about being a new mom, and a wife, and anything else that I am.  And it’s about finally learning how to write down my random thoughts and attempt to be articulate about a subject I love.

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