Archive for the ‘Juvenile Fiction’ Category

Castle in the Air

by Diana Wynne Jones

HarperCollins, 1990

Source: public library

Read it because . . . I love Howl’s Moving Castle


Many moons ago,* I read this review over at things mean a lot and learned that Diana Wynne Jones wrote two companion books to Howl’s Moving Castle. Since I completely love and adore Howl’s Moving Castle, I decided I absolutely had to read Castle in the Air and I was going to do it for the Once Upon a Time Challenge and it was going to be Awesome.

Well, I read it. But folks – and this pains me to say this – it was not awesome.

I know. It doesn’t seem possible. Diana Wynne Jones not be awesome? After I finished reading Castle in the Air, I had the hardest time admitting out loud that I didn’t like it. It’s been a few months since I read it so most of the specifics have already left my brain, (and I don’t even want to skim the book to refresh my memory), but from what I remember the book felt not like the carefully work I’ve come to expect from Jones but like it was haphazardly thrown together. I never connected with any of the main characters. When Sophie, Howl and Calcifer arrived on the scene, it felt like a last-minute decision, like Jones suddenly remembered that this was a companion to Howl’s Moving Castle and she better find a way to tie the books together.

Did anyone else feel this way about Castle in the Air, or am I alone in my disappointment? I haven’t given up on Jones, but I don’t think I’m going to read the third book in the series, either.

Other reviews: BookLust, Chachic’s Book Nook, Dogear Diary, things mean a lot,

Did you write a review?  Let me know and I’ll add it to the list!

*I just realized that I started this review the exact same way I started the Howl’s Moving Castle review I wrote two years ago.  Weird.

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by the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance*
Candlewick Press, 2011**
Source: public library
You know that game where one person starts a story and the next person continues it, and then the person after that picks up where they left off, and on and on until everyone has contributed to the story?  The end result is nearly always a fantastical and ridiculous tale filled with a plethora of cliffhangers, neatly resolved conflicts and absurd characters.  They are not stories destined to win any great literary awards; rather, they are stories told for the sheer enjoyment of it.
That, my friend, is The Exquisite Corpse Adventure.
Over the course of a year, twenty authors and illustrators played this very game.  They took turns writing and/or illustrating episodes of The Exquisite Corpse Adventure, building on the episodes told by the previous authors and adding new twists and turns of their own.  The story begins with a train, a ticking clock, a bundle of dynamite, a mysterious birthday card, and twins named Nancy and Joe.  In the first episode, author Jon Scieszka cautions the reader:

. . . there is a good chance that you and Nancy and Joe will have to deal with werewolves and mad scientists, real ninjas and fake vampires, one roller-skating baby, a talking pig, creatures from another planet (possibly another dimension), killer poetry, clues from classic children’s books, two easy riddles, several bad knock-knock jokes, plenty of explosions, a monkey disguised as a pirate, two meatballs, a blue plastic Star Wars lunch box (missing its matching thermos), a ticking clock, and not just one bad guy but a whole army of villains, cads, scalawags, sneaks, rats, varmints, and swindlers.  Also several desperados, a gang of evildoers, and one just plain bad egg.  (4-5)

The reader does, in fact, encounter all of this . . . and so much more.  (The story is only 269 pages, by the way.)  Poor Nancy and Joe get ricocheted all over the place, enduring one bizarre plot twist after another.  My favorite moment in the story occurs in Episode  Twelve, “The Shadowy Abyss of Our Own Fates,” written by Lemony Snicket and illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering:
Having escaped yet another villain, Nancy and Joe are trying to decide what their next move should be.  Joe wonders, “Why are all these villains conspiring against us?” 
Nancy answers, “I’m beginning to think that there’s no reason for all this treachery . . . Think of how far we’ve traveled since that night on the train, and yet our journey is as confusing and mysterious as it ever was.  It’s as if our lives are being written not by a single, beneficent author, but by a whole team of authors pushing the story every which way, the way an Exquisite Corpse is built from whatever scraps are found.”  (89)
Oh, Nancy.  You have no idea.
The story is confusing.  And ludicrous and nonsensical.  But it is also a great deal of fun, and that in itself is a valuable thing.  The Exquisite Corpse was created by a troupe of authors and illustrators for the absolute joy of it, and that is as worthy a reason to create – and read – as any other.
Did you write a review?  Let me know and I’ll make a list!
*Or, more accurately, by M. T. Anderson, Natalie Babbitt, Calef Brown, Susan Cooper, Kate DiCamillo, Timothy Basil Ering, Jack Gantos, Nikki Grimes, Shannon Hale, Steven Kellogg, Gregory Maguire, Megan McDonald, Patricia McKissack, Fredrick McKissack, Linda Sue Park, Katherine Paterson, James Ransome, Jon Scieszka, Lemony Snicket, and Chris Van Dusen.

**Initially published over the course of a year (2009-2010) on the Library of Congress’s website,

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The Trumpeter of Krakow
by Eric P. Kelly
Simon & Schuster, 1928
Source: public library
1929 Newbery Award winner

I don’t usually review books I feel so-so about, but I need one more book for the What’s in a Name? challenge, so here I go . . . 

Three things jumped out at me as I read The Trumpeter of Krakow: 1) I enjoyed it significantly more than most of the Newbery winners from the ‘20s (which isn’t saying much, I’m afraid); 2) it reads like a love letter to Poland; and 3) you could tell if a character was good or bad by merely looking at them.

In regards to #1: In spite of this, it took me a long time to read this book.  Even though I’m still behind in my group’s Newbery reads, and could have put it off a little longer, I absolutely did not want to leave this for 2011.  I want the ‘20s behind me.

#2: The author very clearly loved Poland.  This was great and all, but the lavish descriptions bogged down the book a little.  I also found myself longing for a more objective narrator, one who could tell me, straight up, about life in fifteenth century Poland.  The book felt like an excuse to wax poetic about Poland.  This probably wouldn’t have bugged me as much if I had really loved the story.

#3: I know this is fairly common in fairy tales and Disney movies, but I got very tired of the main character taking one look at someone and just knowing that they were a Very Good Person or a Very Bad Person.  Really, dude?  You’re trusting this complete stranger with your family secrets just because he looks like a fine, upstanding man?  You know who else looks trustworthy and kind?  Polar bears.  And they wouldn’t think twice about eating you.

Hurray, I’m done with the 1920s!  On to the ‘30s.

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Among the Shadows: Tales from the Darker Side
by L. M. Montgomery
Bantam Books, 1990
Source: public library
*review contains spoilers*

When I first decided to join the RIP V challenge, I received a plethora of book suggestions from other bloggers.  The suggestion that caught my eye was Among the Shadows by L. M. Montgomery, largely because I never thought I would ever see “spooky” and “L. M. Montgomery” in the same sentence.  Spooky?  L. M. Montgomery?  Really?  I couldn’t resist.

Among the Shadows is a collection of nineteen stories originally published in magazines and newspapers between 1897 and 1935.  The stories range from whodunits (like “Detected by the Camera,” published in 1897) to ghost stories (like “The Closed Door,” published in 1934) to stories containing just the slightest air of mystery (“The Man on the Train,” published in 1914).  Of the nineteen stories, however, seven of them do not have any ghosts, supernatural activity (explained or otherwise) or any real mystery to them.  Those seven stories totally threw me for a loop, and all I can figure is that they must be darker than Montgomery’s better-known works.  (I haven’t read the Anne or Emily books since I was a kid, so I don’t know this for certain.)

The other twelve stories are not necessarily the creepiest stories ever written, but a few of them did send a shiver down my spine.  To me, the spookiest (and the best-written) story in the collection is “The House Party at Smoky Island” (published in 1935).  (It didn’t help that I read it in a rather dark room!)  The arrival of the ghost was handled so subtly that I actually gasped aloud when I realized it was a ghost.  (And then, I confess, I glanced around to make sure there wasn’t an additional presence in the room.)

As I read Montgomery’s tales, I noticed that the reader is often kept at a safe distance from the events in these mysterious and spooky stories.  The twelve stories are told either in the third person, by one character to another, or by a first person narrator who, for the most part, exists on the sidelines of the story.  (See my list below.)  For example, while the first person narrator is present when the ghost shows up in “The House Party at Smoky Island,” he really just happens to be at the right place (or maybe the wrong place!) at the right time; the main story doesn’t really involve him at all.  Of all the first-person narrators in this collection, however, he was the most involved in the story, and I think that involvement is one of the reasons this story spooked me the most.  The more distance you put between the teller and the listener of a ghost story, the less real, and therefore less spooky, it feels.  With several of these stories there was just too much distance between me and the supernatural activity for me to get significantly creeped out.

The funny thing is, this point actually comes up in one of the stories.  In “Davenport’s Story,” (published in 1902), the story opens up with the characters telling each other ghost stories, which are criticized by one of the characters:  “He said our stories were all second-hand stuff.  There wasn’t a man in the crowd who had ever seen or heard a ghost; all our so-called authentic stories had been told us by persons who had the story from other persons who saw the ghosts” (15-16).

This collection is full of “second-hand stuff,” which makes me wonder if Montgomery’s decision to give it to us “second-hand” was intentional or unintentional.  Was she trying to make her stories less credible or realistic?  (And what’s up with the ending of “Some Fools and a Saint”?)  Hmmm.

Overall, it was an interesting read, and one I recommend to Montgomery fans and anyone else curious to see her “darker” side!

Other reviews:

Chandra Universe

* * * * *

For the nerds in the crowd, here’s a breakdown of the twelve spooky stories by category (ghost, whodunit, etc) and how they were narrated.  I’m deliberately not including the titles of the stories because I don’t want to give away more than I already have!

Of the twelve stories containing some mysterious element, there are . . .

2 whodunits: one told in the third person, one told by an initially peripheral first person narrator

1 murder: told by a first person narrator to an unseen audience

5 ghost stories: one told in the third person, two told by a (mostly) peripheral first person narrator, two told by one character to another

2 ghosts-who-aren’t-really-ghosts stories: both told in the third person

1 slightly (mostly explained away) magical story: told in the third person

1 mysterious stranger
: told in the third person

Happy Halloween!

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by Pseudonymous Bosch
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2007
Source: public library

My initial reaction to The Name of This Book is Secret was one of annoyed displeasure.  The book reminded me of A Series of Unfortunate Events, which was, well, unfortunate.  Much like Lemony Snicket, Pseudonymous Bosch is a mysterious narrator reluctantly chronicling the tale of a couple of children caught up in a mysterious and dangerous adventure, an adventure he himself is personally involved in (although he would have the reader believe otherwise).  And like A Series of Unfortunate Events, the book is littered with commentary from the narrator.

This irritated me to no end.  I felt like The Name of This Book is Secret and Pseudonymous Bosch were trying too hard to be like A Series of Unfortunate Events and Lemony Snicket (and falling way, way short).  I was about a third of the way into the book before I stopped comparing the two, and about halfway through the book before I actually started appreciating it for itself. At first the narrator struck me as overly intrusive (the main reason I spent the first third of the book irritated), but eventually I found him kind of endearing.  I’m not really sure why.  He’s kind of awkward and frequently hilarious without meaning to be.  His side comments still provoke a lot of eye rolling, but in a good way (mostly).

The book’s plot isn’t the most original one on the planet, but the author has thrown in enough twists and quirks to make it interesting.  He’s assembled a fairly unique cast of characters, too.  The book has two main characters, and while the story gives Cass a little more time in the spotlight than Max-Ernest, it avoids the hero-sidekick formula.  All the minor characters are fleshed out, too, so as they move in and out of the book they actually feel like part of the story, not just props to move the plot along.

If you’re looking for a fun, entertaining summer read, definitely check out The Name of This Book is Secret.  I’ve actually gone on and read If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late and This Book is Not Good For You (which ended with a total cliffhanger – argh!).  I am now impatiently awaiting the next one.  It’s a good thing I have lots of unread books around to distract me from my impatience!

Other reviews:

A Patchwork of Books

Did I miss your review?  Let me know and I’ll add it to the list!

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So I may be slightly, kind of obsessed with the Dear Dumb Diary series by Jim Benton.  I may have been known, in the past, to completely lose the ability to breathe, speak and/or stand due to complete, hysterical laughter while reading or quoting one of these books.  Possibly.

Anyway, our Scholastic book order arrived in the mail yesterday, containing within its lovely white and red box the latest Dear Dumb Diary book, That’s What Friends Aren’t For.  So I broke the cardinal nap rule and instead of being all productive and stuff while my students slept, I read.  Which was a really bad idea.  Because I nearly choked trying to hold the gales of laughter in.  I’m going to hold back here and only share two quotes with you, but you have to PROMISE me that you’ll go read the rest yourself.  And by rest I mean the entire series.  Or at least my favorite two, #5 and #7.

In honor of today:

The rest of today went pretty much like all Tuesdays go: The thrill of the weekend is behind you, but the crushing resentment of Wednesday has not begun.

Tuesdays are how I imagine being an adult will feel every day. Except when I get to be as old as my parents. Then I think it will always feel like Monday morning. In February. And it’s snowing polar bears. And they have rabies. (15)

And the bestest of the bunch (okay, I’m already laughing, and I haven’t even started typing it yet):

As you know, Dear Dumb Diary, I love to draw, and one of my artworks has won an award at the Art Show every year since I first entered way back in second grade.

For some reason, back then I was obsessed with drawing naked Barbies. The teachers didn’t feel that those were appropriate for a kids’ art show, so they used the only artwork I did all year without a naked Barbie in it, which was this picture of a cow in front of a barn. It really wasn’t a very good drawing, but I thought it was cool because I made it out of cut-up construction paper and the doors of the barn could open.

At the Art Show, I discovered that they had neglected to open the doors on my little barn, so I opened them myself, which revealed the dozen little naked Barbies within. I won a prize right then and there, because they felt they needed to use the third-place ribbon to quickly seal the doors closed, probably for an eternity. (18)

HAHAHAHAHA!!!  I really, really should not have read this while my students slept.

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