October 20, 2014

Audiobook: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

by Rachel Joyce
Read by: Jim Broadbent
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Content: There are a couple of characters with foul mouths and swear quite a bit (including multiple f-bombs), but that's it. It's also a book about aging, life, death, and marriage, so I'm not sure how interested younger people would be in it. It's in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I don't really know what inspired me to pick this one up; I suppose it's because I've heard a lot about it over the months it's been out, but I guess I needed a journey story, because this one hit home,

Harold Fry is 65 years old and has just retired from 45 years as a salesman at a local brewery. He doesn't have much to do, and he and his wife, Maureen, haven't had much of a marriage in 20 years. So, mostly he just sits around. So, when he gets a letter from Queenie Hennessy, a colleague he hasn't seen in 20 years, that she's dying of cancer, he sets out to mail a letter back to her. And then just keeps walking.

A girl in a garage inspires Harold: perhaps if he walks the 600 miles from his home in Kingsbrige to were Queenie is in Berwick-Upon-Tweed, perhaps she will live.

What Harold didn't count on was how much his walk would change his life.

I completely empathized with all the characters in the book. Sometimes, Harold struck home, with his need to do something to feel productive. Sometimes, it was Maureen, with her frustrations about the stagnation of their marriage -- though there's more to that story, which is slowly revealed over the course of the book. And it was a testament to the kindness of strangers. Harold started out spending money and staying at hotels, but over the course of the 87 days he walked, he increasingly became more dependent on other people. And they didn't disappoint; sure, there are unkind people, but Joyce seems to be affirming that most people in this world are decent.

It did get a bit meandering in the middle, but I was so enthralled with Broadbent's narration, I didn't mind. He was spot-on with all the characters, from the Scottish nuns in the hospice to Maureen's irritation, to the 70-something next door neighbor, Rex, who turns out to be a gem.

I loved it.

October 19, 2014

10 Awesome Middle Grade/YA Families

I had a bad week, and I ended up pulling the Casson family books (by Hilary McKay) off the shelf, just for some comfort reading. And I realized: THIS (with the exception of Bill, who's a jerk) is a great family. And it got me wondering: with all the dead moms, and bad dads, and missing parents in middle grade and YA literature... how many books are out there with some really great families? (Great enough that you remember they're wonderful.)

This is what I came up with.

Saffy's Angel, by Hilary McKay: I couldn't live in the Banana House, but I want, very much, to live next to the Banana house and be best friends with the Cassons.

The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, by Dana Alison Levy: I loved the every day feel of this, and I wanted Dad and Papa to be my parents. They were really amazing dads.

The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall: I feel like this is one of my go-to books for these lists, but it really is that good. And yeah, there is a dead parent (Mr. Penderwick gets remarried the end of the second one, though.), but I love the way the Penderwicks work as a unit.

Tuesdays at the Castle, by Jessica Day George: Another one where the family just rocks. Sure, Mom and Dad are missing for most of the book, but the kids care enough to look for them and fight for them, and the work really well as a unit. Even though I loved Celie on her own, I really enjoyed her in context of her family.
Penny Dreadful, by Laurel Snyder: I'm not sure this one is a good family as much as a good community book. I loved the place Penny ended up and the people she met. The town became her family and I loved that.

Three Times Lucky, by Sheila Turnage: same goes for Mo and the town of Tupelo Landing. She doesn't have a "family" but she finds one in the town and Ms. Lana and the Colonel. I want to move there and just be friends with everyone.

One for the Murphys, by Linda Mullaly Hunt: Another non-traditional family. There is one in the book, but the main character doesn't belong to it. And what I loved is that the family embraced her and made her one of their own. Wonderful.

Counting by 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan: The best part of this book is not the dead parents in the beginning, but the fact that Willow created another family for herself out of broken fragments. And it was a good thing.

The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater: Sure the focus of the book is the boys and the search for the ley line and Glendower. But let's not forget the psychic house and the way these women -- some related, some not -- are a complete, close-knit family. They are there for each other. And much like the Cassons, I wouldn't want to live there, but I would want to visit often.

Dangerous, by Shannon Hale: Again, family is not the center of this story, but let's take a minute to recognize that Maisie has awesome parents. They don't hover, they don't control, they let her be what she wants and needs to be. It's wonderfully refreshing.

So, what did I miss? (And this is not an especially diverse list. Help me out?)

October 18, 2014

Graphic Novel Roundup - Raina Telgemeir Edition

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Content: There's middle school drama, but other than that, it's pretty tame. It's in the teen graphic novel section of the bookstore, but only because it feels a bit mature for the middle grade section.

Callie is a theater nerd. She's not one to be on stage -- she can't sing, and her acting needs some work -- but she LOVES being backstage, helping create the sets. And so, for the middle school production (middle school!) of Moon over Mississippi, she's been assigned to be in charge of the sets. That's overwhelming enough, but Callie's personal life has taken a turn for the confusing. She thought she was getting somewhere with her long-time crush, but he went back to his girlfriend (who's not terribly nice). And then a set of twin brothers show up in her life to just confuse things more.

I really liked Telgemeir's depiction of middle school (spot on!) and the theater program (again, spot on!). I loved Callie's spunk and drive and her longing to feel accepted and belong. And even though it was Callie's story, I thought that all her friends -- from the twins to her best friend, Liz -- were fully developed. (Though there were some stereotypes, the mean girl girlfriend being one.) My only real complaint was the inclusion that all guys who do theater (at least on-stage) are gay. It's a stereotype, and although there are gay boys who do theater, not all theater boys (even on-stage) are gay. I know I'm nitpicking, but here in Kansas, that's the kind of stereotype that really takes hold and so parents discourage boys from participating in the arts because of it. I would have appreciated one character, at least, who wasn't part of that.

Even so, it was a lot of fun to read.

Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: much the same as Drama; it's got some themes that are a bit old for the younger elementary crowd, but there's not much "objectionable". It's in the Teen Graphic Novel section, mostly because it seems to do better there.

Every once in a while, there's an author (or in this case an author/artist) who gets the middle grade years so absolutely perfectly. The awkwardness, the challenges with friends, the wanting to be liked and not feeling liked.

Telgemeier is one of those people. It's loosely based on her early teen years, and tells the story of how she lost her two front teeth in an accident and the dental work it took to make her smile what it is today. But it's also the story of acceptance (inner and outer) and the things we'll do and put up with so we don't feel alone.

One thing I liked (well, I liked lots of things) was that the middle and high school Telgemeier drew was a diverse one. From her friends to the boys she liked, there were all shades of skin. And it wasn't  this one's the "black friend" or the "Asian friend". They were all just friends -- well, sort of; some of her friends, as A pointed out when she read it, were not very nice -- and it wasn't like Telgemeier was forcing a diverse world on things. It felt natural.

And, on top of that, she set it in 1989, which was a lot of fun to revisit.

Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: This one is "tamer" (not that the other two are wild) than the previous two books, and has a more universal appeal, being about sibling rivalry. It's in the middle grade graphic novel section of the store.

This is another memoir(ish) graphic novel, that takes place during Smile (though you don't need to read that one to enjoy this one). It's centered on Raina's relationship with her younger sister, Amara. It has their backstory, their relationship as siblings as well as a road trip (yay road trip!) to visit cousins in Colorado for a family reunion.

It's not an easy relationship, the one between Raina and Amara. There's jealousy, age difference, interest differences, and (of course) just plain sibling rivalry. It's the usual stuff: hitting, yelling, punching, name-calling. But an event on the road trip (I knew they were useful!), helps the sisters see that maybe it's okay if they're different. They can still get along.

I think, out of the three, this one was the least angsty, the least middle-school drama-y, and my personal favorite. Not only because I still remember fighting with my siblings, but because I've got all these girls around here who fight and squabble and don't get along. Maybe, someday, they'll figure it out. So, this one hit home in a way the other two didn't.

A word on her art: it's a bit cartoon-y (that's the techincal term), but I thought it fit her story-telling style. It's not terribly detailed, but it served it's purpose, and the bright colors drew the eye in.

I handed all three of these off to the girls and they enjoyed them as much as I did. I'm glad we finally got around to reading her work!

October 17, 2014

Blue Lily, Lily Blue

by Maggie Stiefvater
First sentence: "Persephone stood on the bare mountaintop, her ruffled ivory dress whipping around her legs, her masses of white-blond curls streaming behind her."
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Release date: October 21, 2014
Others in the series: The Raven Boys, The Dream Thieves
Content: There's swearing, lots of it, including f-bombs, but nothing felt gratuitous. There's also violence and some adult drinking. Plus, it's a complicated story arc that may prove confusing for younger readers. It will be in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

I'm always at a bit of a loss when dealing with this series. I just want to throw it at everyone (especially people who come in the store. WHY WON'T THEY BUY THIS BOOK?) and say "READ THIS! THIS IS WHAT STORYTELLING AND WRITING IS." It really doesn't matter that I love the characters ("What [Orla] didn't realize about Blue and her boys was that they were all in love with one another." Count me in on that.), and I am intrigued and fascinated by the people they meet. In this book, most especially, it was Jesse Dittley, the man who took care of the cave in the hills, who talked in ALL CAPS and called Blue an ANT. He was wonderful.

The basic plot that Stiefvater weaves is that Blue, Gansey, Adam, and Ronan are getting closer to waking their unknown king, Glendower. Blue's mom, Maura is missing, gone off on a quest of her own. And Mr. Gray's employer, Greenmantle ("Greenmantle had always liked the idea of being a mysterious hit man, but that career goal invariably paled in comparison with his enjoyment of going out in the town and having people admire his reputation and driving his Audi with its custom plate (GRNMNTL) and going on cheese holidays in countries that put little hats over their vowels like so: ê."), has shown up in town, furious at Mr. Gray for defying him, determined to make him pay.

But, things don't necessarily go right. (There is one more book, after all.) And Blue and the boys are possibly in deeper than they can handle.

What I love most (as evidenced by the frequency of quotes already), however, is the writing. It's so drop-dead gorgeous. Stiefvater is a poet here, capturing so much -- mood, character, events -- with so little (even her use of swearing has Meaning.), it's breathtaking.

If you haven't picked these up yet, the series is almost done. Now is a good time to start. You won't regret it.

October 16, 2014

The Princess in Black

by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale, Illustrated by LeUyen Pham
First sentence: "Princess Magnolia was having hot chocolate and scones with Duchess Wigtower."
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: October 21, 2014
Content: Yeah, there's nothing but good fun here. And it's simple enough for the younger set. It'll be in the Beginning Chapter Book (grades 1-2) section of the bookstore.

Princess Magnolia has a secret. She's a superhero, rescuing innocent and unprotected goats from the Big Bad Monsters. The thing is: princesses aren't supposed to be superheroes. They're supposed to be princesses. Right?

Well, aside from the stuffy Duchess Wigtower, no one tells Princess Magnolia she can't. So, even though the Duchess is trying to snoop into Princess Magnolia's business, she finds a way to sneak out of the castle to go whip those pesky monsters into shape.

As an aside, yes, Princess Magnolia is white. (Shannon Hale has said that's partially for marketing reasons -- if I heard her correctly -- and partially because she's modeled on Hale's daughter, who is blonde and blue-eyed.) But the goat boy is not, and Hale promises further diversity (of race, at least) in the next book. (In fact, she showed us at KidlitCon a mock-up of the drawings, and they're quite gorgeous.)

Liberally and cheerfully illustrated, this short chapter book was a delight to read, Hilarious and silly and just perfect for those who can't get enough of Kate DiCamillo's Mercy Watson series. (Same sort of humor and silliness as those as well.)

If Princess Magnolia has any other adventures, I'd love to read them.