Dear Glen Rounds,

March 18, 2010

The Blind Colt – Glen Rounds – 80 pages

When ten-year-old Whitey discovers a blind colt amid a herd of mustangs and takes a liking to him, Whitey’s uncle forbids him to bring the colt home and says the colt probably won’t survive long, anyway.  He’s proven wrong as the colt adapts and stubbornly survives, and Whitey just can’t resist going against his uncle’s wishes and sneaking the determined colt onto the ranch.

I picked up The Blind Colt in a used bookstore somewhere or other, because I have a special fondness for horse books no matter the topic or reading level.  This one is a bit unlike the girl-and-horse, English-riding-stable love stories that I inhaled as an adolescent, but still entertaining.  Though I wonder about the political correctness of a white kid named “Whitey,” it was written so long ago that I can’t really fault you for that–instead, I’ll focus on what a kick I got out of the Western ranch-speak, and the tenacious colt’s antics, and the fantastic little sketch illustrations at the bottom of every page.  Nothing endears me more to a book than great illustrations, especially a book in that mysterious reading level somewhere between learning to read and middle-grade stuff, because though I might enjoy the plot, it’s still a bit too simple to be engrossing.  Anyway, your tiny sketches of the colt and his adventures are so funny and loose and adorable, and the story is a fast enough read that I could re-read it a bunch of times just for the pleasure of turning the page to a new sketch.

Some perusal of the internet tells me that there are a whole series of books about Whitey, so now I have something new to keep my eyes peeled for at library sales and used bookstores!  Four stars for this one!

Love,

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Dear Susan Cooper,

January 21, 2010

The Dark is Rising – Susan Cooper – 232 pages

“When Will Stanton wakes up on the morning of his birthday, he discovers an unbelievable gift — he is immortal. Bemused and terrified, he finds he is the last of the Old Ones, magical men and women sworn to protect the world from the source of evil, the Dark.

At once Will is plunged into a quest to find six magical Signs to aid the powers of the Light. Six medallions — iron, bronze, wood, water, fire, and stone — created and hidden by the Old Ones centuries ago. But the Dark has sent out the Rider: evil cloaked in black, mounted upon a midnight stallion, and on the hunt for this youngest Old One, Will. He must find the six great Signs before the Dark can rise, for an epic battle between good and evil approaches.”  –from Books.SimonandSchuster.com

Greenwitch – Susan Cooper – 148 pages

“The Dark has stolen an object of great power — a golden grail that holds a vital secret. Will embarks on a new quest to reclaim the grail, and to drive back the Dark once again. But first he will need the help of three former grail seekers: Jane, Simon, and Barney Drew.

Learning to work together, they must take back the grail and retrieve the missing manuscript that unlocks its mystical secret. But the manuscript is located at the bottom of the sea, and their only hope of obtaining both grail and script is entangled in the mysterious ritual of the Greenwitch….”  –from Books.SimonandSchuster.com

The Grey King – Susan Cooper – 224 pages

“With the final battle between the Light and the Dark soon approaching, Will sets out on a quest to call for aid. Hidden within the Welsh hills is a magical harp that he must use to wake the Sleepers – six noble riders who have slept for centuries.

But an illness has robbed Will of nearly all his knowledge of the Old Ones, and he is left only with a broken riddle to guide him in his task. As Will travels blindly through the hills, his journey will bring him face-to-face with the most powerful Lord of the Dark – the Grey King. The King holds the harp and Sleepers within his lands, and there has yet to be a force strong enough to tear them from his grasp…”  –from Books.SimonandSchuster.com

Though it might be a little overwhelming to read, I thought it might be more logical to write about these three installations in The Dark is Rising Sequence all at once (since I read them mostly in a row).

After Over Sea, Under Stone, I was intrigued but still not entirely certain I was going to love this series as much as people said I should.  Still, I tried to keep an open mind, and was rewarded reading The Dark is Rising.  I found I liked Will much more than I liked the Drew children–he had more of a mind of his own, was a little less childlike and, being an Old One, was rather more precocious than the Drews.  I always enjoy that in protagonists, and Will was very endearing.  I liked his spunk, and this book kept me on the edge of my seat much more than the first.  I also found that I didn’t mind the sensation that I was reading well-used fantasy tropes; again, perhaps at the time this was written, they weren’t so well-used, but in any case Will’s strength as a character cast the whole plot in a more enjoyable light.  Five stars for this one, yay Will!!

Greenwitch was something of a mix for me.  The presence of Will in the story again was delightful, though I found myself wishing it were told from his perspective; still, from a writing standpoint I understand why it was told instead through the eyes of the Drew children.  I liked them better in this one–perhaps because they got smarter, got used to danger and the mysteries surrounding them, and perhaps because I found the plot of this book to be especially intriguing.  The Greenwitch itself was fascinating; the bit about its construction reminded me a bit of the sort of sacred, nature-oriented magic and mystery of The Mists of Avalon and its many companion books, and the parts that happened underwater brought to mind Diane Duane’s Deep Wizardry.  Overall,  think that since the Drews finally started to grow on me in this book, it gets five stars.

Of course, I should have known that a series this famous and well-loved would only keep getting better, and The Grey King proved it to me.  I mean, wow!  Talk about suspense.  And Will is fantastic in this book, I love him even more than before.  You’ve succeeded in creating danger that felt really real to me, too, which is sometimes hard to accomplish.  Sure, I can get invested in fantasy danger, but it takes a special kind of threat to make me actually get nervous and rush through pages because I have to know if the protagonist makes it out okay.  That’s what this book did to me.  I’m actually sort of putting off reading the final book, because this one was so enjoyable, and it’ll be nice to go back to this series after reading some other stuff to draw the experience out a little!  Five stars once again, and I look forward to reviewing the final book!

Love,

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Dear Lisa McMann,

January 16, 2010

Fade – Lisa McMann – 256 pages

Janie is a dream catcher, and can enter the dreams of others (mostly) at will.  She puts her rare talent to good use working undercover alongside her fellow investigator and secret boyfriend, Cabe.  When she’s called upon to be the bait in a trap to catch a sexual predator at the high school they both attend, Cabe’s overprotectiveness begins to strain their already tense relationship; meanwhile, Janie’s lessons in dream-catching from the notes of a dead woman begin to reveal the truth about her ability–and what it will cost her to continue using it.

Fade, like Wake, was not quite what I expected it to be.  I’m not sure what I expected, really, but you went subtly in some other direction, and I’m left feeling a little confused as to what I think.

I really enjoyed your prose, and the premise of the book is pretty intriguing, but it seemed like you were skirting the edge of cliché.  Janie’s undercover act going so predictably wrong…the terrible price of using her power…Cabe’s excessive protectiveness…these are all things that could be okay, and were okay by virtue of your writing style, which I really like, but you’re coming awfully close to the perilous land of Melodrama.  I liked the book overall, but it didn’t feel quite as unique as Wake did, and I’m hoping that Gone, when it comes out, will even things out a little.  I like to give the middle book in a trilogy a little slack, because it’s a weird place to be plot-wise, and sometimes it’s hard to make something have a beginning and end and an emotional arc when the whole thing is neither the beginning nor the end of a larger story.  It was more than worth the read, though, and it gets four stars, along with high hopes for the third book to tie things up in some wonderful and exciting way.

Love,

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Dear S.E. Hinton,

January 15, 2010

Some of Tim’s Stories – S.E. Hinton – 160 pages

“…a profound and wry compilation of fourteen short stories. Terry and Mike are cousins whose families are almost seamlessly intertwined. Raised as close as brothers and living happy childhoods, neither one thinks of what can go wrong. But the unexpected deaths of both their fathers catapult their lives in two very different directions. Terry finds trouble with the law, while Mike lives his life racked with guilt and sadness. In her first book in four years… S. E. Hinton gives readers a gritty view of how one incident, one tragedy, affects two boys very differently, and changes their lives forever.”  –from US.PenguinGroup.com

I’ve always loved The Outsiders, and in fact I treasure a distinct memory of reading the whole book in one sitting for school in 6th grade, even though we’d been strenuously instructed not to read ahead of the single chapter we were assigned.  I did that a lot, but I was pretty good at playing dumb about the content of the rest of the books.  Anyway, though The Outsiders is dear to me, I’ve never read any of your other work.  Out of the blue I decided to change that, and picked up Some of Tim’s Stories.  I’m extremely glad I did.

What a captivating little book!  I’m a sucker for connected-but-separate short stories, like the ones in this collection, and was drawn in at once by your plain, stark prose and by Mike and Terry’s personalities.  I mean, talk about craftsmanship. You really know how to spin a tale, weaving all the threads together and making it look easy, while still keeping it so blessedly simple.  Though the subject matter was sometimes poignant or saddening, these stories were really a treat.  You have a deft touch, and reading your work now was just as satisfying as when I read rebelliously ahead in The Outsiders some fifteen years ago.  Five stars.

Love,

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Dear Nahoko Uehashi, Cathy Hirano and Yuko Shimizu,

January 14, 2010

Moribito II:  Guardian of the Darkness – Nahoko Uehashi, trans. Cathy Hirano, illust. Yuko Shimizu – 272 pages

“For many years, through countless fights, Balsa has survived. The evil King Rogsam tried to kill her when she was only six. Eight assassins pursued her in the long flight that followed. But her mentor, Jiguro, protected her until his death, and then Balsa became a bodyguard herself, helping other people survive the challenges they face. When she returns to her native country of Kanbal, she hopes to see Jiguro’s family and her own for the first time in many years. But what should be a simple visit of truth and reconciliation becomes a fight for her life when she learns that King Rogsam framed Jiguro for the deaths of the eight assassins—as well as a crime that threatens the very existence of Kanbal. With the help of two Kanbalese children, Balsa must unwind the conspiracy surrounding Jiguro and the mystery of the Guardians of the Darkness, before it’s too late.”  –from ArthurALevineBooks.com

Ever since I picked up the first Moribito, Balsa has been a personal heroine who remains very close to my heart.  I think part of it is that though Moribito and now Moribito II are definitely YA, Balsa herself is very close to me in age.  She’s a young woman who isn’t old enough to settle down with the childhood friend who loves her, and who still has a lot of journeying to do before she figures out what she’s doing with herself, but she also isn’t young enough to be carefree.  In the first book, she started as a bodyguard to a runaway child prince, and wound up a little more maternal than I think she might have planned; in Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness, she must face her past and shoulder the responsibility of redeeming her family and her dead sensei and guardian.  She walks the line between typical YA heroine and grown-up really nicely, in a way I can really identify with.

Anyway, I love Balsa, and I think by writing through a nearing-30-year-old protagonist, you’re capturing a kind of story that wouldn’t necessarily happen otherwise.  I read YA partly because I love stories of teens saving the day and doing things on their own and being capable, but this has a different (and entirely pleasant) feel.  That said, I wonder how Balsa comes off to a teen audience–do they care that she’s almost thirty?  Would someone who isn’t 27 herself not find it different?  I wonder.

This is turning into a very long ramble, but it’s because I really like this book, I love Balsa, and I find the translation really interesting.  I’m sure I’ve said this before, but there’s a certain quality of storytelling in YA I’ve read translated from Japanese that I find different from American YA lit, and I don’t know if it’s just the way any Japanese prose is when translated to English, or if it’s specific to what I’ve read…but it’s always a really different experience, sort of distant but still totally engaging at the same time.  Also, let’s not forget, the art was just as breathtaking in this volume as it was in the first–the whole design of the book is beautiful, and I want to shove it in the faces of everyone who owns a Kindle and say “here, look at this, can you get this on a machine?”

So, without a doubt, five stars again for you three and for Balsa!

Love,

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Dear Jon Stone and Michael Smollin,

January 13, 2010

There’s Another Monster at the End of This Book – Jon Stone, illust. Michael Smollin – 32 pages

“In this vibrantly illustrated sequel to the much-loved The Monster at the End of This Book, Grover, now accompanied by Elmo, has heard that there’s something lurking on the last page of the book. Grover invents all sorts of hilarious ways to stop the reader from turning the pages. But Elmo is curious, and he slips by every wacky barrier in his quest to see what he might find.”  –from RandomHouse.com
As almost any kid will tell you, Grover is impossible to resist.  I’m a big fan of There’s a Monster at the End of This Book, which never fails to make me giggle, and of course you can never have too much of a good thing, which is why I was delighted to see There’s Another Monster at the End of This Book.  As in the original, you’ve got a very meta experience going on here, with Grover trying to convince the reader not to turn the page because the monster might be scary.  This time there’s the added layer of Elmo, adding some mischief and acting as a foil for all Grover’s efforts.

They’re both quite funny, and the text is true to the way they each speak on Sesame Street, though I did find myself thinking that perhaps Elmo’s interference took something away from the experience by the end of the book.  Elmo is cute, and his constant ability to find a way around Grover’s preventative measures is funny, but it removes some of the agency that a reader has in the original book, when it’s just Grover and the reader playing against each other.  With Elmo already sneaking past Grover’s walls of blocks or steel, there’s less satisfaction in actually turning the page and thwarting Grover oneself.  My favorite part of the first book is Grover’s harried state when I, by turning the page, knocked down his brick wall, and he told me I was “very strong.”  That interplay is missing here, I think, and by the end of the book, it’s Grover and Elmo talking to each other, rather than either of them talking to the reader.

Still, it’s fun and sweet, and the illustrations are just as fantastic as the original book, with great lettering and cool visual illusions every time Elmo pulls back the corner of a page, inviting the reader to turn.  Four stars for adorable effort!

Love,

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Dear L. K. Madigan,

January 12, 2010

Flash Burnout – L. K. Madigan – 336 pages

“Fifteen-year-old Blake has a girlfriend and a friend who’s a girl.  One of them loves him; the other one needs him.  When he snapped a picture of a street person for his photography homework, Blake never dreamed that the woman in the photo was his friend Marissa’s long-lost meth addicted mom.  Blake’s participation in the ensuing drama opens up a world of trouble, both for him and for Marissa.  He spends the next few months trying to reconcile the conflicting roles of Boyfriend and Friend.  His experiences range from the comic (surviving his dad’s birth control talk) to the tragic (a harrowing after-hours visit to the morgue).  In a tangle of life and death, love and loyalty, Blake will emerge with a more sharply defined snapshot of himself.”  –from HoughtonMifflinBooks.com

Flash Burnout sticks out in my mind as a book I can’t quite decide about.  I picked it up because something about it caught my eye, but then put off reading it for a while because the blurb on the back wasn’t capturing me as much as other things in my pile.  I think I felt the same push and pull while I was reading, too.  There were definitely great moments of humor, and a plotline that took a lot of really exciting turns, but sometimes the prose seemed to drag for me a little.  Still, my overall impression of it was a good one–you captured the dynamic of teens and friends and more-than-friends really well.  Sometimes I felt like the narrator was less a real teenage boy and more a cobbling-together of what a teenage boy is expected to be, but that’s forgivable, and I think what Flash Burnout really needed was just a little bit of sharpening to make a really thrilling plot into a more memorable reading experience.  Still, I read it through, and enjoyed it, so three stars for this one!

Love,

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