June 25, 2012

The Aviary

The Aviary by Kathleen O'Dell (Knopf 2011)
Historical / Mystery

Eleven year old Clara lives in the once magnificent Glendoveer mansion, (the family home of a great magician) with her mother, the housekeeper, the magician’s aging widow and an aviary full of exotic birds. The birds respond to Clara as they respond to no one else – squawking, shrieking and eventually talking – as they enlist her help in solving the mystery of the five Glendoveer children, who were murdered fifty years before. It is a mystery that Clara is, unknowingly, at the very heart of.

The Aviary is a well paced, if slightly predictable, juvenile take on the Victorian gothic novel. The Glendoveer mansion is a gorgeous crumbling mausoleum, complete with locked rooms and drafty halls, in which Clara is essentially confined due to a “weak heart”. Her connection to Mrs. Glendoveer and the feathered inhabitants of the aviary is both genuine and touching, grounding her in her cloistered world, even as she longs to break free of it. The mystery at the heart of the novel – who killed the five oldest Glendoveer children and kidnapped the youngest – is interesting enough to drive the plot, though it does, at times, verge on the slightly ridiculous as it nears the inevitable climax. Overall, a quick-reading love note to period fiction of the Victorian age with just enough creepiness and mystery to keep young readers on their toes. Pair with other ghost stories in a library book club, or include in a classroom reading list with “Turn of the Screw” or “The Monkey’s Paw”. It’s a fun novel and a good way to introduce tension and mood. 

June 13, 2012

Death Cloud

Death Cloud by Andrew Lane (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2010)
Historical / Action / Mystery

The first in Lane’s new series, Sherlock Holmes: The Legend Begins, Death Cloud follows a fourteen-year-old Sherlock as he embarks on his first investigation – one that begins with two grotesquely swollen corpses and ends with a plot to topple the British Empire. Lane’s command of the material is impressive as he weaves in multiple threads and details that hint at the man the boy will become. The fast-paced, energetic plot is both fun and informative (semaphores and the Crimean War are deftly explained) as Lane pushes the young Holmes through teenage alienation, a first-crush and multiple attempts on his life, at break-neck speed.
Death Cloud is a solid book and will no doubt appeal to boys between the ages of 10-14. Lane’s Sherlock is a compellingly flawed protagonist (just as Doyle’s original is). My only complaint is that some of the action felt superfluous – a bit more deduction and bit less scrapping would have given the remaining action more punch. The climactic swordfight also verged on the preposterous with Sherlock battling an evil Baron whose movements are controlled by a series of ropes and pulleys. However, these complaints are small, and the elements in question will no doubt fail to offend Lane’s intended readership. A good introduction to a classic character, as well as to the concept of deduction and the Victorian era, Death Cloud would be a strong edition to a classroom list of elective titles or a unit on Victorian history.

Ella Enchanted

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (Harper Collins, 1997)
Fantasy / Fairy Tales / Romance

When Ella of Frell is born, the fairy Lucinda bestows a gift upon her – the gift of obedience – which turns out to be a terrible curse. As a result, Ella must find ways to assert herself despite the constant threat of obedience (if someone told her to cut off her head, she would have to). Ella’s naturally independent nature grows stronger with every challenge, despite, or perhaps because of, the curse. A clever, genuinely funny adaptation on the Cinderella tale, Ella Enchanted is the story of a cursed girl who becomes a woman capable of saving herself.
This is a wonderful book for reluctant YA and tween readers – especially girls. The story is just recognizable enough to feel familiar to anyone who has heard of Cinderella, but it deviates substantially from the classic girl-as-victim plot, giving the reader a spunky, empowering heroine she can relate to. The humor, romantic elements, and first-person narrative make it a truly accessible, charming read.

June 4, 2012

A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (Random House, re-issue 2005)

Winner of the Newberry in 1963, A Wrinkle in Time is the rare sort of book that manages multiple threads on multiple levels seamlessly while following a perfectly linear arc. The book opens on a “dark and stormy night” with misfit Meg Murry having hot chocolate with her mother and brother, Charles Wallace, an uncanny four-year-old savant. When a stranger comes in from the storm, the stage is set for what becomes an extraordinary journey through time and space to save Meg and Charles Wallace’s missing astrophysicist father. On one level, A Wrinkle in Time is a beautifully executed, if unsettling, adventure featuring a disturbing set of antagonists, including a repulsive, disembodied brain with the power of mind control. On another level, it is the story of Meg’s coming of age as she realizes that her beloved father is not omnipotent, and that she herself is more capable than she realizes. It is a sophisticated masterpiece with science, mathematics, philosophy and religion sprinkled throughout. L’Engle expects much from her readers and more than rewards the effort. The first in L'Engle's celebrated Time Quintet, A Wrinkle in Time is celebrating it's 50th Anniversary this year. It deserves quite a party, I think. 

A Visit to William Blake's Inn

A Visit to William Blake's Inn:
Poems for Innocent and Experienced 
By Nancy Willard
Illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen
Harcourt Brace, 1981

A Visit to William Blake’s Inn has the rare honor of being the recipient of both the Newbery Medal and a Caldecott Honor, and for good reason. The fifteen poems and epilogue tell the tale of a child’s stay at William Blake’s inn, where dragons bake the bread and angels make the beds. While there, he meets Blake’s famous Tiger, as well as the King of Cats, the Marmalade Man and Blake himself, among many others. Willard’s poems owe themselves to Blake in structure and style, but the whimsical imagery and gentle, absurd humor are original and entirely beguiling. These are not simple, nursery rhymes but real poems with pleasingly complex meters. Yet, what could be a frustrating challenge to young readers is rendered playful fun as Blake takes his guests on a tour of the Milky Way and the Wise Cow eats a cloud on buttered bread. There is just enough non-sense sprinkled throughout (hints of Edward Lear and T.S. Eliot) to keep any child entertained. Even more importantly, it is a wonderful and playful introduction to a more sophisticated poetic form for older readers. Alice and Martin Provensen's odd and delicate gauche illustrations are the perfect counterpoint to Willard's poems, encouraging the reader to fully engage and believe in William Blake's magical inn and very much want to visit themselves.