Egg & Spoon

Egg & Spoon.jpgTitle: Egg & Spoon
Author: Gregory Maguire
Narrator: Michael Page
ISBN: 9781491502167 (audiobook)
Discs/CDs: 11 CDs, 12 hours 51 minutes
Pages: 475 pages
Publisher/Date: Brilliance Audio, c2014. (audiobook) Candlewick Press, c2014 (hardcover)

She is an insane old woman, though Cat, but at least I’m safe in the warmth, and she knows ho to cook. The old woman was ladling pink broth into a bowl whose sides were etched with obscure runes. “Drink up, my dear. I find borscht a wonderful marinade when applied from the inside.” […]
Cat demurred and said, “Who are you really?”
“I’m Queen Victoria. I’m Nellie Bly. I’m Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean — what difference does it make? I’m hungry and I want to eat, so do my bidding.”
“I couldn’t dare take your supper. I have nothing to pay you with.”
“You’re not taking my supper, you’re supplying it.” (141-142)

Gregory Maguire creates a tale reminiscent to the Prince and the Pauper. Even though Ekaterina isn’t a princess, she has many more advantages than Elena, who is essentially starving to death as she tries her best to care for her sick mother after her father has died and her two brothers taken away from home. A lightning strike forces their unlikely meeting, and Elena finds herself in an enviable position when the Ekaterina’s train takes her away from the poverty and towards the Tsar’s palace. She hopes to use that opportunity to reclaim her brother from army conscription, but she doesn’t know that Ekaterina is hot on her trail with her own transportation. In their travels, they realize that Russia might be in more trouble than either girl, and are recruited by the fabled folkloric witch Baba Yaga to solve the problem of melting ice and disappearing magic.

Michael Page’s voice is properly moderated between the high pitched, stereotypical screech of Baba Yaga and the clipped tones of the prince (although he does sound vaguely English and not Russian). Even the two younger girls have slight differences that easily distinguish between the educated Ekaterina and the more rurally raised Elena. The sweeping landscape is described beautifully, and Elena’s situation is especially heart-wrenching when readers realize the troubles behind her meager existence.

Maguire’s tale is less impressive, for if readers are familiar with the story of the prince and the pauper, then they essentially have the plot of the first part of the book. The second half pairs the girls on an adventure to save Russia. It’s discovered that the floodwaters and dampened winter and magic are connected, involving the firebird and ice dragon. I was unfamiliar with the ice dragon legacy, and was intrigued by my introduction to this Russian myth. By the end of the novel, the twist, feel good resolution revealing the cause of the trouble is somewhat moralistic and preachy, encouraging the human race to whine and want less and focus more on reducing the wants of others. It’s an unexpected altruistic message, and while anti-materialists might appreciate the thought, I was disappointed that such a long journey yielded so little action in the conflict.

The magic in the story is supplied by the magic that the girls encounter through their association with Baba Yaga, who has multiple distinguished and unique traits including her unpredictability, attitudinal house which reminds me of Howl’s Moving Castle, sarcastic shape-shifting familiar, and pattern of speech which allude to time travels or future premonitions. She is by far my favorite character in the whole story. I can only imagine the fun Maguire must have had in writing her scenes considering the fun I had reading them. Her nontraditional exclamation “Honey Buckets!” became a term of endearment towards her guests, who while certainly unpredicted are not entirely unwanted, regardless of what she alludes. I find that same sort of unexpected endearment towards her in what ultimately is a overly long, predictable plot. Extreme fantasy and fairy tale/folklore fans might appreciate this exposure of not-often portrayed Russian mythology, but most will probably loose interest before the quest even begins.

Waiting

Each month for a previous job, I wrote a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ve expanded that idea to the blog in a feature I’m calling To the Point Tuesdays. If you want to play along, just post a link in the comments and I’ll add them to the post.

Waiting.jpgTitle: Waiting
Author/Illustrator: Kevin Henkes
ISBN: 9780062368447
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, c2015.
Awards: Caldecott Honor (2016), Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor (2016), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Picture Books (2015)

The pastel illustrations are poster worthy in Kevin Henkes newest picture book, and he should sell prints of the wordless portrayals of the change in seasons that are witnessed through the window. Portraying five knick-knack type toys sitting on a window ledge, — an owl, a pig with an umbrella, a bear with a kite, a dog with a sled, and a rabbit with a slinky-style accordion body – each has its own thing that they are waiting for (except the rabbit, who just likes to look out the window). Surprisingly expressive even though their faces only change slightly, the toys come and go, are visited by other items, and finally gain a permanent addition to their group that has its own surprises. Simplistic and stunning, this shows that waiting for something can be worth it, but silent observation can have its own rewards.

Rhythm Ride

Rhythm Ride.jpgTitle: Rhythm Ride: A Road Trip Through the Motown Sound
Author: Andrea Davis Pinkney
ISBN: 9781596439733
Pages: 166 pages
Publisher/Date: Roaring Book Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership, c2015.

Berry was sick of seeing his hard-earned creativity and the talents of black performers go unrewarded. He began to seriously consider building a record label that would allow him to produce the work of black artists, to publish his music, to have complete control over the money he and the singers earned, and also to have control over how black performers were portrayed to the public. (19)

In 1959, Berry Gordy secured an eight hundred dollar loan from his family to begin his dream, the music company Motown. Motown became known by its nickname Hitsville, as the production company put out hit after hit from big name, local talent like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and Diana Ross. For slightly over a decade, Berry Gordy and his company, who were treated more like family, were behind some of the biggest hits in pop and R&B. But when Gordy moved to California to expand the company, the music lost its rhythm, and artists started pursuing other opportunities and other companies where they could garner the attention and money they felt they deserved. By the 1980s, only a few loyal artists were still garnering hits, and Gordy sold the company before the decade ended, as the era of Motown had already ended earlier.

The narrator is “the Groove,” which takes on the personality of a smooth talking tour guide who has a vested interest in your enjoyment, entertainment, and well-being. It makes the remembrance of pivotal historical moments, like the Civil Rights movement and assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Kennedy, more manageable, reassuring readers that it’s in the past and we lived through it while not deemphasizing the importance of the events. Sometimes we forget the narrator is even present, and other times that effort is stressed in multiple paragraphs that try to reestablish the road trip ambiance. Some readers may like it, while others might have preferred a more straightforward narration with less embellishment.

Little details, like the decorum and manners training that each artist received, break up the monotony of the presentation, which at times can read like a who’s who laundry list of best hits of the 1960s. There are hints of personality for some of the acts, especially when they are soloists instead of groups, but the groups almost become interchangeable, especially when they don’t have those back stories to distinguish them from the other groups presented. The recordings that were more political in nature, such as MLK’s speeches and the concept album featuring songs about the Vietnam War, were unknown to me, and I wish Pinkney had focused more on the aftermath of those publications, or the dissent in the group prior to publication. I feel like that is important to set the tone, and readers just received a minimalist view of the dissension caused by anti-war cover album, especially considering Marvin Gaye was Berry Gordy’s brother-in-law.

Copious amounts of photos help delineate the different groups, but they are primarily staged publicity shots and very few show either the inside workings of the company or the community and culture that would have provided context. There is one page in particular that would have done well for thorough editing. When introducing the Primettes, soon to be known as the Supremes, Pinkney identifies the women pictured as “Betty McGlown, Diane Ross, Mary Willson, and Florence Ballard” in both a caption and in the text on page 94. On page 95, “Barbara Martin left to have a baby, so the newly formed quartet was down to three singers.” Further research on my part leads me to conclude that both women were only temporarily involved in the group, so maybe it’s not really an error, but I wish the discrepancy wasn’t there. We also are presented with a picture of the Temptations with new member David Ruffin before his replacement of original member Elbridge “Al” Bryant is discussed in the narrative. Minor mistakes, granted, but it leads to a feeling of sloppy editing. Another missed opportunity is consulting first hand-account source material. The detailed source notes pages are much appreciated, but it’s rare that a listed source is from that time period directly, with most of the sources being commentary or biographies published decades after events occurred.

Part of the difficulty Pinkney faces is making the subject matter important to children, as most of them are only familiar with Motown music as being the old songs that their parents (or maybe even at this point their grandparents!) listened to. While I’m a fan of the “oldies” because my father played them for me, I think most readers are going to be more familiar with Taylor Swift, One Direction, and Adelle, just to name a few. If they are already familiar with the subject, great, but I don’t think they’ll be running to pick this one off the shelves, even with the great appealing cover and the local connection to Motown as I work at a Michigan library. I understand the difficulties this would have added to the production, but I feel it would have benefited greatly from the inclusion of a CD with at least a sampling of the songs discussed in the book.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

Vicious

Vicious.jpgTitle: Vicious
Author: V. E. Schwab
ISBN: 9780765335340
Pages: 364 pages
Publisher/Date: A Tor Book, published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, c2013.

Victor perched on the tub, clutching a drink as he stared down at Eliot Cardale’s corpse.
Eli hadn’t screamed. Pain had been written across every one of the forty-three muscles Victor’s anatomy class taught him twined together in the human face, but the worse Eli had done was let a small groan escape between clenched teeth when his body first broke the surface of the icy water. […]
Victor took another sip of his drink. Eli was a very unhealthy shade of whitish-blue.
It hadn’t taken as long as he’d expected. (75)

Roommates Victor and Eli are also rivals, playing leap-frog with the top spot at competitive Lockland University. Eli’s fascination with the possibility of superheroes influences his science thesis research, which begins to overlap with Victor’s research on the causes and effects of adrenaline on the body. What if becoming a superhero resulted from the application of stresses on the body, specifically those found with life and death situations. That’s when their hypothetical becomes experimental, and ends in tragedy. Ten years later, one young man is hunting other super-powered individuals while being hunted by his former friend. They are both aided by women with extraordinary powers of their own, and both vow that this will only end when one of them is dead.

Flipping back and forth from when events began in college to ten years later, details are doled out sparingly, slowly, without any urgency. Even when death is happening, you sense a remoteness and detachment from the narrative. Factoring the repercussions of Eli and Victor’s experiments, this choice feels successfully intentional. Does personally experiencing death detach the instigators from another’s death? Is humanity lost when you become superhuman?

Readers never really discover much about any of the characters’ lives and histories, just cursory details and snippets of everyone’s past. Their complicated thought processes are alluded to in telling off-handed remarks. Someone remarks they feel cold after using their talent, and they prefer holding a cold drink over a warm drink because “I like knowing at least I’m warmer than the can.” (181) One pair (I’m trying really hard to intentionally keep things vague until you read the story and find out who is who) bonds over their mutual disgust for what they have become and their efforts to rid the world of others like them, who they see as monsters, and it’s horrifying at how far they take this crusade. Eli’s assistant’s motives could have definitely used some more development in order to make her motivations more understandable. More than one person I spoke with was left wondering about the one non-extraordinary person in the bunch. That character could have also benefited from some additional development, explaining why he was so unfazed by the events around him and his almost instant connection with a little girl, who ends up playing a bigger role than initially assumed.

As a result of debate between the boys, there’s a bit of talk about God, and whether they are playing God, and multiple questions are raised. There’s the question of souls and whether people maintain their souls after death or a near-death experience. There’s the question of what makes a hero and a villain. The amount of religious discourse included was surprising, as one extraordinary seems to fashion himself as a modern day crusader. It reminded me of Hitler, who was said to have had Jewish ancestry and yet hunted and killed so many Jews.

It’s a subtle (or maybe not so subtle) nod to this discussion that scenes are separated by a simple black outline of an eye mask. One character towards the end even dons a mask, when methods and habits change, and assumes the costume of a superhuman, although I’ll leave it to readers to discover if it’s the villain or the hero. I guess that depends on your own personal opinion of what qualifies as humanity, death, and survival. The ending is stereotypical of the superhero genre, where the foes may be destined to continue the fight, and it leaves enough niggling uncertainty that makes readers wonder if there aren’t some future unknowns that will influence events.

The Underground Abductor

Underground Abductor.jpgTitle: The Underground Abductor
Series: Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales #5
Author/Illustrator: Nathan Hale
ISBN: 9781419715365
Pages: 128 pages
Publisher/Date: Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams, c2015.

“Robert, Ben, Henry, We are leavin’. We’re goin’ NORTH. This Saturday night.”
“Why Saturday?”
“Nobody expects slaves to work on Sunday—we’ll have a whole day’s lead.”
“Who’s gonna lead the way?”
“I will. I’ll follow the North Star.”
“That’s your plan? You’re gonna follow a STAR?”
“That’s right, I’ll follow that star like Moses followed the Pillar of Fire.” (45)

Araminta Ross was born into slavery, and “by the time she was ten, Araminta had been hired out many times, and had the scars to prove it.” She lived with her six siblings and her mother, while her father worked at a neighboring lumber mill. Upon hearing of her impending sale, she makes her first attempt at escaping with her brother’s, but they get scared and return with her in tow. So the second time, she makes the trip by herself, securing herself a new life in Philadelphia and along with it a new name, Harriet Tubman. But she can’t forget those family members she left behind, and begins regular trips south to escort not only family but other slaves to freedom, first to Pennsylvania and then all the way to Canada. This is her story, told in graphic novel format, of the difficulties she faced and how she rightfully became a recognizable name in American history.

This was my first experience with Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales, although it is the fifth one in the series. It appears that Nathan Hale, the American Revolutionary spy, is set to being executed and is stalling his death by weaving stories from American history, Scheherazade style, to his executioners. Interruptions from his executioners ask the contextual questions and garners the answers that readers unfamiliar with this story might have, like who is Franklin Douglass, how did slavery work, and why was what Harriet did so dangerous. The only spot of color in the black, white, and gray illustrations is purple, which starts off pale and then intensifies as the dangers increase and the war creeps closer. Readers familiar with Harriet Tubman’s efforts will learn tiny details that may be new, like her birth name and the closed head injury she suffers as a child and the fact that family members (both immediate and extended) helped her evacuation efforts. Hale presents the tale with an immediacy and urgency that mimics the mood that must have permeated Tubman’s raids.

Details like how many times she went across to help her family, how many people she would take in different abductions, and how she kept everyone safe also help readers realize her commitment to the cause. There is a sense of spiritualism, garnered from Harriet’s visions, which are attributed to her head injury but are portrayed as being astonishingly helpful and accurate. Her life isn’t sugarcoated, revealing the whippings she received and the abandonment of her husband, and Hale is refreshingly upfront and honest when he doesn’t know the answers or the true facts. This is an accessible introduction to the abolitionist, and to the concept of the Underground Railroad and slavery.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

 

Drowned City

Drowned City.jpgTitle: Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans
Author/Illustrator: Don Brown
ISBN: 9780544157774
Pages: 96 pages
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, c2015.

“Monday, August 29
The hurricane’s strength slips from category 5 to category 3. But it is still a monster, measuring four hundred miles across, with 121-mph winds. At the last moment, Katrina “wobbles” and steers a bit east of New Orleans, sparing the city a direct hit.” (12)

Published to coincide with the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, this slim volume starts before the storm and continues its coverage of the storm through the immediate aftermath.With a critical eye towards the efforts of various governments and agencies to react, he draws from multiple sources to use the words of those immediately affected by the disaster. While the city is still attempting to rebuild, and will probably continue their efforts into the foreseeable future, it’s an eye-opening account aimed at children who weren’t even alive when it happened.

Don Brown’s illustrations (which I’m told on the copyright page are “pen and ink with digital paint”) are the most affecting part of this story. Brown wisely lets the pictures tell most of the story. The double paged spread (which is divided into two panels so as to avoid loosing any of it in the bleed) on pages 30-31 is just one example. Simply narrated with “People fight the flood. Some succeed. Others do not.” readers’ eyes are arrested by the single body sinking under the water as others struggle for gasping breaths and rooftop rescuers struggle to pull them to safety. An earlier set of four panels, vertically stacked, show flip-book style a wave crashing into the town of Buras, Louisiana, with only the water tower remaining. You see the pictures and the devastation before being reassured that, in this case, “The townspeople have all evacuate and no one dies.” Those are just two of many examples of the arresting artwork and well-placed text blocks. The cover is stamped that a “Portion of the proceeds from this book has been donated to New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity.” Hopefully the funds will be put to good use. Pair with the earlier reviewed Finding Someplace, as many of that main character’s fictionalized experiences are detailed in this emotionally moving graphic novel. Highly recommended.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

Audacity Jones to the Rescue

Audacity Jones to the Rescue.jpgTitle: Audacity Jones to the Rescue
Author: Kirby Larson
ISBN: 9780545840569
Pages: 224 pages
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2016.
Reviewed from ARC furnished by the publisher
Publication Date: January 26, 2016

“I am here to solicit a volunteer. For a mission.”
“Mission?” The word worked its way out of Miss Maisie’s gyrating mouth.
“Mission?” Seventeen girlish voices echoed their headmistress.
“I may not say more.” The Commodore held up his hand. “It is a matter of utmost secrecy. And”–he leaned in toward Miss Maisie’s ear–“discretion.” (15)

Audacity Jones has always wanted an adventure, and now she has one, leaving Ohio and the School for Wayward Girls where she has lived as the only true orphan most of her life to follow Commodore Crutchfield all the way to Washington D.C. for a secret mission. Asking questions about her role doesn’t get her any answers, and both the Commodore and his driver Cypher are acting very suspicious. When the mission finally begins, things don’t go as planned as Audacity realizes she might need to stop the Commodore instead of helping him, before his plot involving the President succeeds. With only a newsboy, his grandfather, and a friendly cat to call on for help, Audacity might have more adventure then she desired.

The author clarifies in an author’s note the liberties she took with details and timelines when crafting this story, which is always appreciated since we all can’t be knowledgeable about every aspect of history. With age appropriateness she broaches several other discussion worthy topics, including the impact of transitioning from horse and buggy to automobiles had on other industries and the legalities of if a kidnapping truly happens if there is no ransom demand. Audacity is rather precocious because of her literary love, getting intentionally sent to what is called the “Punishment Room” but is really the Library (called such because the proprietor of the school hates to read) in order to escape into the worlds. She is also surprisingly mature for her age, debating with herself early in the book what subject she should focus her reading on based on a variety of school subjects. Although she is naive due to her limited lifestyle, Audacity is not stupid and when given the clues quickly figures things out and reacts accordingly. A dedicated friend who doesn’t ever misstep, quite frankly she’s slightly unbelievable as the plucky orphan heroine.

The other characters were one-dimensional to me, especially the other girls in the school, some of which don’t even make an appearance. The ones who do are almost indistinguishable from each other, although they get identifying traits (the triplets, or the one who came from the circus family, or the bratty bully, etc.). The Commodore and his accomplices are given motivation by the end of the book, but even these two seem stock in their portrayal. I’m not sure if it’s because Larson was trying so hard to keep the plans a secret or simply because she was so focused on developing Audacity. A very quick read, but I don’t think this one will come to mind unless pressed for historical fiction specifically. We’ll see how long it lasts in my memory banks, as it may surprise me.

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