Review of A Conspiracy of Kings audiobook, by Megan Whalen Turner

A Conspiracy of Kings

by Megan Whalen Turner
narrated by Jeff Woodman

Recorded Books, 2010. 7 CDs. 8.5 hours.
Starred Review
School Library Journal’s 2011 Battle of the Kids’ Books Undead Poll Winner
2010 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor Book

Yes, I’ve already reviewed A Conspiracy of Kings, and named it my #1 2010 Sonderbooks Stand-out for Teen Fantasy Fiction.

But our library just got the audiobook version, so of course I had to “read” it again, on audio. In honor of School Library Journal’s 2011 Battle of the Kids’ Books, this is the perfect time to present a review of the audio version of A Conspiracy of Kings, another finalist.

The interesting thing in the Battle of the Kids’ Books, was that, despite being the best new book I read in 2010, A Conspiracy of Kings didn’t win a single round. Still, the judges admitted that this is a well-crafted book:

In the first round, judge Dana Reinhardt freely admitted that this isn’t her usual type of reading. She said:

“As I mentioned, A Conspiracy of Kings isn’t generally the kind of book I reach for, but Turner abruptly whisked me out of my comfort zone, (not an easy feat, as I’m quite comfortable in my comfort zone), and for this I’m truly grateful, because I did so enjoy spending time with Sophos. I found him companionable and clever. Decent and thoughtful. If times were different, and I lived in a fantastical monarchy, I’d surely want him as my king.

“A Conspiracy of Kings asks the big questions. The questions I want to grapple with as a reader. Questions about honor and duty and responsibility and friendship and loyalty.”

In the Big Kahuna Round, Richard Peck gave each book plenty of space. He said about A Conspiracy of Kings:

“Of the three A Conspiracy of Kings addresses the most adult concerns and makes the greatest demand upon the reader. It is about the altering alliances and dark diplomacy of power politics: palace pacts forged and broken. Betrayal. Betrothal.

“This chronicle of spilt blood, flying arrows and barons, and a stabbed horse makes resonant reading in the same season as “across the Middle Sea” the forces of Cyrenaica and Tripliana clash across actual geography. But this will ring no bells with the intended readers who don’t know where Libya is, and won’t be hearing about it at school.

“Megan Whalen Turner’s book is about the making of kings. Embedded in its many layers is a boy, Sophos/Sounis, coming of age parentless, abducted, enslaved, and that all-time favorite, misunderstood. Throughout, the ages of the characters are muffled. But there is the clash and passion of adolescent friendship, between Sophos and that major figure from earlier volumes: “He would have given Eugenides his heart on a toothpick if asked.””

Neither judge had read the earlier books, and neither judge felt that this one really stands alone.

But that brings me to a little pet peeve. So what if it doesn’t stand alone?

Many don’t realize that there is NOTHING in the criteria for the Newbery Award that says the book has to stand alone. Yes, it should only receive the award based on strengths in that particular book, but there’s nothing that says it can’t be part of a series or that all loose ends have to be tied up or that it can’t reference earlier books.

And of course, in this tournament, there was no criteria at all except the preference of the judges.

So, I’m concluding that it was simply unfortunate that the judges this book faced were ones who hadn’t happened to have read the earlier books.

No, the book doesn’t have to stand alone to win an award, but you can’t really expect a judge to read three additional books in order to give the one book they are judging the consideration it deserves. So by getting judges who hadn’t already read the earlier books, I didn’t really expect them to appreciate the true genius behind this book.

And, please, readers of my reviews, DO NOT read this book without reading the other three books first! All four books are exquisitely plotted. Why, oh why, would you want to risk ruining the surprises in the earlier books by reading them out of order? Start with The Thief and meet Eugenides and Sophos. Then move on to The Queen of Attolia, my favorite of all of them, with incredible plot twists and beautiful romance. Then read The King of Attolia, and finally you’ll be eager to read A Conspiracy of Kings.

Though A Conspiracy of Kings did not win a judged round, it was the clear, far-and-away winner of the Undead Poll. I found that interesting. So far, the Undead Poll seems to be about web presence. And Megan Whalen Turner’s books have a thriving fan site on livejournal. Now, I wasn’t absolutely sure that John Green’s book Will Grayson, Will Grayson, wouldn’t pull off the victory, since he has a huge online presence. However, John Green’s fan base is about his and his brother’s clever and amazing web videos. Whereas Megan Whalen Turner’s fan site is about her books. And since the books were what the poll was about, I wasn’t at all surprised that A Conspiracy of Kings won.

I’ve noticed that there are plenty of people for whom the books in this series are not “their type” of book. They don’t really like it, and aren’t interested in reading the series. But those for whom this is their type of book, well, we LOVE them all. The Sounis fan site shows that I am definitely not the only rabid fan.

And what type of book is it? Well, it’s generally classified as fantasy, but the only real touch of “magic” is a varying amount of involvement from the gods that the author has invented. It’s pseudo-historical, with a setting mirroring Greece just after the invention of gunpowder. I’ve filed the books under “Historical,” even knowing that’s not technically correct, just because they feel a bit more historical to me than fantasy books. Since the biggest issues are more about leading kingdoms than about using magic.

All I have to say is, try out The Thief. Read all the way to the surprising ending. If you like it at all, you are in for a treat, because you have three more books to read!

I should say that these books are my very favorite type of series book. I like each book in a series to have its own plot arc, and to have a definite ending of this episode. But I also like the books to build to a powerful whole. I just finished The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss. It’s a lyrically written, magnificent work of fantasy. But it’s the first book of a trilogy, and I don’t think the author ties up one single solitary plot thread. Yes, it’s a good book, a truly great book. And yes, I will DEFINITELY be buying and reading the next two books. But I wish it weren’t just Part One of a continuing story. The same is true of Pegasus, by Robin McKinley. It’s only Part One. (This is probably a big part of why I haven’t heard it’s won any awards.)

And yes, there’s a place for long sagas like that. But I do have a fond and appreciative spot for series like The Queen’s Thief and The Bartimaeus Trilogy, where each book is a complete story that contributes to an even greater whole. You still should read them in order, and you’ll still want to hear more, but at least each book leaves you satisfied and happy, and with some plot threads resolved nicely.

And now I should say something about the audio version. Jeff Woodman has again done an outstanding job of reading this book. I like that he used the same voices for returning characters, so I could recognize the Magus, for example, by his voice.

One thing I love about listening to the book is that it slows me down. There’s no way I can spread out reading the book over more than a few nights, but listening, I am forced to take more time — and thus I can savor the book, and be delighted with what I am “reading” for quite a long time. Now, I did bring in the last CD to listen at home, when I couldn’t stand to wait any longer. But still, I spent much more time listening to the book than I spent either one of the two times I read it to myself.

And, like all of Megan Whalen Turner’s books, there’s so much to see and appreciate on later readings. You can more appreciate and delight in her plot-crafting. This time through, I especially noticed Sophos’ growth. He starts out the self-doubting kid we saw in The Thief, and we see him grow, realistically, through facing incredible challenges. We see and feel his real temptation to just settle down and enjoy life as a slave, without having to face the difficulties of trying to become a king. And then we see the consequences of his choice.

I love the way she plants clues to later surprises in full view of the reader. I think I can even mention one of them, without giving it away. She says that he doesn’t do a full bow, so the barons won’t notice a lump in his robe. Just beautiful to catch what that means on the rereading! And there are many of those little mentions, in each one of the books. Delightful to notice when reading it again! And it’s not just a gimmick or a trick — it actually reflects what Sophos was thinking about, how he was focusing on every detail…. I will say no more except to reiterate that I never get tired of rereading Megan Whalen Turner’s books.

So, I was sad that A Conspiracy of Kings didn’t win the 2011 Battle of the Kids’ Books, but I was proud that it won the popularity contest, the Undead Poll. And very glad that maybe these books will gain some more readers. But I hope they will listen to the judges saying that it doesn’t stand alone, and start with the very first book.

When I was following the links to the Sounis Livejournal site, I learned that Megan Whalen Turner is speaking, along with Jonathan Stroud, Rick Yancey, and Cindy Dobrez, at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival on the USC Campus. Although I can’t go myself, my youngest sister, Melanie Hatch, is a student at USC (in fact, she’ll be graduating soon and winning the Biegler Award for the graduating Electrical Engineering student with the highest GPA — Go, Melanie!), so I made sure she knew about it. Melanie was quick to point out that the event is actually happening on her birthday! So she’s looking forward to the best birthday ever! I’m so pleased for her! And I’m considering her my representative, so I can enjoy the event vicariously through her!

What’s more, it turns out that A Conspiracy of Kings is a finalist for the Los Angeles Book Prize for Young Adult Literature. It’s up against two other books that were in School Library Journal’s Battle of the Kids’ Books, including the winner of SLJBoB, The Ring of Solomon, by Jonathan Stroud, and the also excellent How Sugar Changed the World, by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos. Two other finalists are Wicked Girls, by Stephanie Hemphill, and The Curse of the Wendigo, by Rick Yancey.

Will Ring of Solomon pull off the victory again? Will the judges appreciate Megan Whalen Turner’s true genius? We shall see, but however it turns out, these are some excellent finalists, and I’m really looking forward to my sister getting to hear these people speak — and telling me all about it!

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Review of Keeper, by Kathi Appelt


by Kathi Appelt

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York, 2010. 399 pages.
Starred Review
2011 School Library Journal Battle of the Kids’ Book Finalist

In honor of the finishing of School Library Journal’s Battle of the Kids’ Books, I’m plannning to review the remaining books that competed, but which I hadn’t yet reviewed. It seems fitting to next tackle Keeper, which made it all the way to the Big Kahuna Round, defeating three excellent books along the way.

I read Keeper at the start of the year, after hearing great things about it on the Heavy Medal blog, where people discuss possible Newbery winners. I would have liked to have seen it win an Honor, because this is a truly beautiful book.

This time, I’ll start by giving some highlights from the Battle of the Books judges:

In the first round, Susan Patron eloquently told us why Keeper is so powerful:

“Keeper is heir to the oral tradition; the narrator’s voice is powerful and always present, creating an exquisite tension between what we know is fiction and our urge to hand over our hearts to it anyway. And this narrative switches easily from the points of view of a girl, a couple of dogs, a cat, a seagull, an elderly gay French grandfatherish neighbor, a young stuttering war-veteran surf-shop owner, and more; it shifts from past to present tense, from lyrical to earthy. As ten-year-old Keeper gets deeper and deeper into a dangerous situation, all the characters’ back stories and the setting itself enrich the drama and give it texture. Keeper’s wish, her desperate need, is to find her mother and, under a blue moon, she does—though it’s not the mother she expected. All three of us, my inner librarian, my inner writer, and my inner tween savored every word, and the many surprises that were gradually revealed.”

In the second round, Naomi Shihab Nye also waxed eloquent about Keeper:

“Keeper is resident of a motley, miniature community down on the Texas Gulf coast. She loves her dog BD and her pet seagull Captain who adores watermelon. Her alleged “mermaid mother” Meggie Marie abandoned her 7 years prior to a mid-western escapee called Signe who is only 25 herself. I kept doing the math…Their neighbors, the stuttering Dogie who rents surfboards and the elderly Mr. Beauchamp, still longing for his young love Jack from France, as he waits for his night-blooming cyrus flowers to pop open, create a sleepy, somewhat surreal swoon of neighborhood texture for a little girl to wander dreamily through. Keeper waxes surfboards for Dogie, saves her money, watches the waves and tides closely, lives in a rich drift of fantastic thinking. She wants to see her mother again. And she’s ready to make it happen on the rare night of the “blue moon.” This is a gumbo-rich brew of magical farfetched wishing – spells – plans and lists – melodrama launched in a small rowboat…chapter 55, about all the oceans of the world being connected, is a gem-like poem shining at the heart.”

Have you noticed all these judges are lyrical in describing Kathi Appelt’s lyrical language? In Round Three, Grace Lin was no different:

“When I read the book, suddenly the magic became apparent. I loved the slow unveiling of each story, the way the back and forth narratives seemed to echo the motion of the ocean waves that rocked Keeper’s boat. I found the fantasy elements of Yemaya and Jacque der Mer enchanting and I could feel the heartbreak of each character. Even the animals—the dog BD and the crow Captain had fully-realized personalities.

“The blurring of myth and reality was seamless and the writing was poetic, yet always accessible. But most of all, the theme of the story—that love of all kinds, even the untraditional, are worth keeping— and how it was conveyed was just beautiful.”

Even Richard Peck, the judge of the Final Round, who didn’t choose Keeper, was impressive in its praise:

“To cope with this maternal absence and abandonment, Keeper has recast her mother as a mermaid who has swum away. By this childhood logic, Keeper herself has merblood and the borrowed lineage of “Signa and Lorelie, the siren, the ningyo, and the rusalka and the Meerfrau,” all the mystic mother figures of the deep.

“Kathi Appelt’s story captures that time at the outer edge of childhood when the fantasies that have always kept you safe no longer work. Keeper’s fantasy folds all in a single action-packed twenty-four-hour period (though it feels longer), the night of the blue moon. Keeper’s belief in her aquatic DNA leads her into a series of descending missteps. She frees clamoring crabs meant for the gumbo, and before she knows it she’s literally out of her depth, in pursuit of a mermaid mother.

“This book is a keeper for its gentle tone in chronicling that jarring moment when you can no longer afford to be as young as you’ve been. Every book for the young is the story of a step, and in these pages a girl takes a big one. Where it will lead her, we’re less sure. But that’s what sequels are for.”

My own reaction to Keeper was that it was very slow-moving. In the middle, I almost stopped. Another thing that Grace Lin said pertains:

“Keeper is a book that needs you to be present to appreciate it. It’s not a story that can be half listened to or quickly skimmed, because then you miss the wonder. Appelt reveals the story like ocean waves lapping away bits of sand on a beach until a treasure is uncovered. And it’s the serene watching of the waves, not the sparkling pearl, that creates the book’s charm.”

I did stick with it, and by the time I finished, I was completely enchanted and caught into that world with lots of love and a touch of magic.

Truly a beautiful book. I’m glad it’s gotten the attention of being a Finalist in the Battle of the Books.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of The Ring of Solomon, by Jonathan Stroud

The Ring of Solomon

A Bartimaeus Novel

by Jonathan Stroud

Disney Hyperion Books, New York, 2010. 398 pages.
Starred Review
Winner of the 2011 School Library Journal Battle of the Kids’ Books

In honor of the completion of the 2011 School Library Journal Battle of the Kids’ Books, I thought it would be fun to post my reviews of the books in the competition which I hadn’t yet reviewed, and to feature excerpts from the judges’ brilliant commentary. It’s only fitting to begin with this year’s winner, The Ring of Solomon.

The Ring of Solomon is a stand-alone novel, but it uses the incredible, snarky, powerful, irreverent, infuriating, and footnote-writing djinni, Bartimaeus, from the Bartimaeus Trilogy. The book is truly independent, so you could read it before or after the trilogy. Really, it’s quite brilliant of the author to do this. When you have an unforgettable character who’s a djinni who’s thousands of years old and boasts about his time with Solomon, why not give us a picture of what happened at that time? The only thing the two sets of books have in common is the character of Bartimaeus (and I think another demon or two), and the alternate reality where magicians do works of power by binding demons to their will.

Solomon has a ring with a spirit attached to it that is so powerful, no one can stand against him. Of course, it is with the power of the ring that he gained his amazing wealth and carried out his magnificent building projects.

Bartimaeus starts out in the employ of one of Solomon’s under-magicians, but then comes under the power of Asmira, a dedicated girl assassin sent by the Queen of Sheba to assassinate Solomon and steal his ring — a suicide mission, as far as Bartimaeus is concerned.

When I read this book, I was as delighted as I expected to be. Brilliant writing, hilarious footnotes, and knuckle-clenching dangerous adventure. I liked it that the happy ending was not for the young girl to become another of Solomon’s wives. (I don’t think that’s a spoiler.) Now, there wasn’t as much emotional depth as in The Bartimaeus Trilogy. But that was a much longer work, a trilogy, and a work of towering genius that builds over the course of the three books. This book definitely kept me reading late into the night, had me laughing, and also very tense. It didn’t make me cry, as I’m quite sure The Bartimaeus Trilogy did, but it’s still a brilliantly plotted, wonderfully entertaining book.

But you don’t have to take my word for it! In School Library Journal’s Battle of the Kids’ Books, all four judges who were offered a choice between The Ring of Solomon and another excellent children’s book chose The Ring of Solomon. Below are excerpts from their explanations of their choice:

The first round judge, Adam Rex, called The Ring of Solomon “a rollicking fantasy about a waggish djinni who becomes unwittingly embroiled in plots to steal a ring of unfathomable power.” He says, with footnotes, “Stroud has crafted what you might claim on one hand to be an old-fashioned save-the-world adventure, complete with the requisite all-powerful MacGuffin and a real mustache twirler of a villain or two. He’s also made something that’s fresh and modern–modern in its sense of humor, modern in its irreverence. Okay, maybe irreverence isn’t all that modern, but it always feels like it is. Doesn’t every generation think they invented it?” He also says, ” Every chapter left me wanting more–if Stroud and I were in a Scheherazade/King Shahry?r situation I totally would not have killed him at any point.”

In the second round, judge Patricia Reilly Giff was confronted with a choice between a graphic novel retelling of The Odyssey vs. The Ring of Solomon. She describes the book as ” inventive, action packed and hysterically funny.” One of the factors that led her to choose The Ring of Solomon as the winner was that she “had to stay up at night to keep reading, just to see what Stroud had in store, those twists and turns that kept me guessing until the end.”

In the third round, Karen Cushman freely admitted, “I am not a big reader or a big fan of fantasy novels. When I saw early on that A Tale Dark and Grimm and The Ring were both in my bracket, I anticipated I would have an easy time eliminating them. This just goes to show you how much I know. And now I publicly shed my credentials as a thoughtful, caring, mature person and reveal my snarky, ironic underbelly.

“Woo hoo! The Ring of Solomon! I was gobsmacked. What a book!”

Karen Cushman goes on to eloquently point out the powerful themes that show up in this book, underneath the snarky humor and gripping adventure:

” I found it exuberantly plotted, with evocative descriptions, terrific language, and intriguing
characters, both human and otherwise.

“I loved the distinctive voice of the rude, irreverent, sarcastic, resourceful, and surprisingly lovable Bartimaeus. Sure, djinni eat people but still I felt great pity and compassion for his deep longing for home and hatred of his enslavement.

“The book is wonderfully funny but had wise things to say about slavery and freedom, mindless obedience, and dying for empty concepts. Asmira, the teenaged Sheban sent on a suicide mission, is a true believer to a fault. Wise Solomon tells her, “I’m not your master…try not to need one.” And Bartimaeus says, “I know I’m enslaved…That gives me just a shadowy slice of freedom.” As Jonathan Stroud tells it, the issues of 950 BCE are the same we face today–the dangers of terrorism, fanaticism, and zealotry, and the price of power.”

Finally, in the Big Kahuna Round, Richard Peck was faced with three outstanding fantasy titles, Keeper, A Conspiracy of Kings, and The Ring of Solomon. His explanation of the charms of The Ring of Solomon is truly eloquent:

“Even the viewpoint flits. At moments when Bartimaeus is stuck in a bottle or some other tight corner, the spotlight falls on Asmira, a mortal maiden capable of mayhem (and acrobatics), sent by the sour Queen of Sheba to murder the King and steal his empowering Ring.

“‘Steal the Ring? Kill Solomon?’” says Bartimaeus. “‘…I might as well eat myself feetfirst, or put my head under the bottom of a squatting elephant. At least those options would be entertaining to watch.’”

“But of course this odd couple won’t become thieving assassins. They will in fact find the sudden self-knowledge we expect in books for the young. But their epiphanies are gussied up beyond reason by wordplay and action/adventure, and more special effects than Avatar and Rango put together, all in full color.”

He sums up his decision:

“You could have fooled me. I didn’t expect I’d pick as winner four-hundred pages of magic fantasy with Biblical allusions and a footnote on the Songs of Solomon. But I do.

“Because its very length and the wit of its diction are stinging retorts to both the grade-level textbook and Facebook.

“And because the fun is in how the tale is told, the yarn spun. Jonathan Stroud doesn’t control language; he unleashes it. The real magic here is in the turning phrase, and how much our texting young need that, and the liberation of laughter.”

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Bink & Gollie, by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee

Bink & Gollie

by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee

illustrated by Tony Fucile

Candlewick Press, 2010. 82 pages.
2011 Geisel Award Winner
Starred Review

In the tradition of Frog and Toad, George and Martha, and Elephant and Piggie, here’s another easy-to-read book about two friends who are very different, but who have a great time together.

This one’s a beginning chapter book, with 82 pages, rather than a traditional easy reader format. But much of the story is told in the exuberant pictures and there are not a lot of words on each page. Readers will feel they have accomplished something when they finish this book with three chapters.

Bink is short and a little wild, with yellow hair going in every direction. Gollie is tall and calm, and likes things just so. You can see all that from the picture of them rollerskating on the front cover.

The first chapter brings a conflict in their personality types:

“‘Bink,’ said Gollie, ‘the brightness of those socks pains me. I beg you not to purchase them.’

‘I can’t wait to put them on,’ said Bink.”

After some conflict over the socks, the two friends come up with a compromise bonanza.

The book goes on in the classic tradition of friendship tales — with simple situations that test the friendship, but allow the friendship to come out strong and shining. The illustrations in this book tell much of the story and convey much of the emotion behind the words. And it’s fun to read one of these tales where we see cordless phones and a laptop computer in the illustrations. The book is classic — but modern.

This week I had a couple different people ask about chapter books that are not too difficult, but for a child who wants something beyond the traditional easy reader. Bink and Gollie will fill the bill. There are lots of big words: “outrageous socks,” “marvelous companion,” “remarkable fish,” and “extraordinary accomplishment.” But there is not a lot of text on each page, and many of the big words are repeated throughout the book. Children who read it themselves will realize that they have achieved an extraordinary accomplishment.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

ALA Youth Media Awards

Here’s a link to all the ALA Youth Media Award titles.

If you look at my earlier posts, you can see that I did not do a good job of predicting the winners. I hadn’t even read the Newbery winner (yet), so of course I wasn’t rooting for it. I am looking forward to reading it, though.

I do trust the committee to do a good job, but I also realize that a different committee might well make different choices. And I’m glad that there are other awards out there. My personal favorite, A Conspiracy of Kings, by Megan Whalen Turner, was a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor book, and of course a Sonderbooks Stand-out! And the same is true for The Dreamer, by Pam Munoz Ryan, which picked up the Pura Belpre Award as well.

I had expected One Crazy Summer to win the Newbery Medal, but it “only” got an Honor. However, since it won the Coretta Scott King Author Award and the Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction Award, Rita Williams-Garcia definitely got much-deserved recognition.

And don’t forget to pay attention to the Cybils, the Blogger Kidlit Awards. I learned on Sunday that the goal of the Cybils Panelists (first round judges) is not just to pick the best books, but to have a good LIST of recommended books — with variety and something for many different tastes. I think they have succeeded in that goal. The winners in each category will be announced on Valentine’s Day.

And sorry for my slowing down on posting. I know I said I’d try to post to weekly. Well, the first post of the year needs to have a new page for the Stand-outs, with lots of links changed, the Sonderbooks Stand-outs seal put on the pages of those books, as well as making pages for the new reviews I posted last week. What with working full-time, and doing things like watching the Newbery announcements, it’s going slowly. This week, I’m working 6 days in a row, but I hope that on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I will finally get the posting done, and then go to a routine of every week.

In other news, did I ever announce on this blog that I am a Librarian again? Back in November, they transferred me back to the Library after 6 months in another county agency (due to library budget cuts), and I am LOVING being back! On top of that, I just finished revising the middle grade novel I’ve been steadily working on for a very long time, so I’m ready to start sending out queries to agents. Life is good, and so far I’m loving 2011!

Thanks to my experience with library budget cuts, the part of the Awards where I cheered loudest was the public service announcements at the beginning, where authors spoke up for libraries. Library budget cuts are BAD for the public! Thank you, authors, for supporting libraries! You can view the videos at

Review of Almost Astronauts, by Tanya Lee Stone

Almost Astronauts

13 Women Who Dared to Dream

by Tanya Lee Stone

Candlewick Press, 2009. 134 pages.
2010 Siebert Medal Winner
2010 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Honor Book
2009 Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book
NCTE Orbis Pictis Award
Bank Street Flora Stieglitz Straus Award

Almost Astronauts tells the story of the “Mercury 13,” thirteen women who hoped to become astronauts back in 1961. Despite performing with outstanding test results, the women were not allowed to become astronauts because they were not jet test pilots — and they were not jet test pilots because women were not allowed to be jet test pilots.

Author Tanya Lee Stone lays out the story of these women in an organized but dramatic way, with plenty of photographs illustrating the steps of the process. She also includes newspaper and magazine articles, editorial cartoons, and even a letter to Lyndon B. Johnson about the program with “Let’s stop this now!” scrawled across the bottom.

The story is intriguing, and certainly not one I’d ever heard before. These women underwent rigorous testing and had outstanding results. They hoped to become astronauts, but lost out to the “social order” of the time.

However, I do love it that Tanya Stone ends the book with stories of women who did become astronauts. The Mercury 13 laid the foundation, and today girls can freely dream of some day traveling to outer space as the commander of a mission. Here’s how the author introduces that chapter:

“Some may read the story of these thirteen women and think that their adventure did not have a happy ending. But that depends on where you draw the finish line. The women were stopped in 1962. But they confronted NASA, exposed the trap of the jet-pilot rule, and destroyed the idea that women could not handle stress as well as men. And then Sally Ride did fly, and Eileen Collins did command the shuttle. Today, women are flying into space. But women who want their wings still continue to battle prejudice. So women continue to find inspiration in the story of these thirteen pioneers. Here are some examples of challenges women still face and of the new beginnings that are taking place.”

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

by Alan Bradley

Delacorte Press, 2009. 373 pages.
2007 Debut Dagger Award
2009 Agatha Award for Best First Novel
Starred Review

This wonderfully clever and intriguing mystery published for adults stars an 11-year-old sleuth, Flavia DeLuce. It makes me wonder why the book was not published for children or teens. Though I am sure of this: Parents would not want their children emulating Flavia! Although this qualifies as a “cozy” mystery, which made it eligible for the Agatha Award it won, it is not watered-down or tame, and there’s nothing to keep adults from liking it.

Flavia is one of those brilliant children with a special passion for one subject. Her interest is in chemistry, with a particular focus on poisons. Flavia and her two older sisters have a turbulent relationship — the book begins with Flavia escaping from being tied up in a closet, and we learn that it was her sisters who put her there. Her reprisal is quite brilliant, but not very nice.

The mystery begins when a dead bird appears on their doorstep at Buckshaw with a postage stamp impaled on its beak. Then later, she hears her father arguing with someone, talking about a death, and what sounds like blackmail from the other person. She’s pulled away from listening at the keyhole, but that night she gets up in the early hours of the morning, notices a piece of Mrs. Mullet’s awful custard pie missing, and goes out into the garden.

There she finds a stranger lying in the cucumber patch. He says something mysterious and promptly dies. Flavia reflects:

“I wish I could say my heart was stricken, but it wasn’t. I wish I could say my instinct was to run away, but that would not be true. Instead, I watched in awe, savoring every detail: the fluttering fingers, the almost imperceptible bronze metallic cloudiness that appeared on the skin, as if, before my very eyes, it were being breathed upon by death.

“And then the utter stillness.

“I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.”

That all happens in the first two chapters. When, before long, Flavia’s father is taken into custody for the murder, Flavia decides to confess herself. For some reason, the authorities don’t take her seriously. So she feels compelled to find out more about the man who died in their garden, his history with her father, and the death of a teacher so many years ago.

Armed with her bike, which she’s named Gladys, Flavia is a resourceful and persistent sleuth. Definitely not an obedient and retiring young lady. Definitely not someone I’d want as my younger sister.

The “About the Author” section at the end of the book says that this is the first of a planned series about Flavia DeLuce. Hooray! If he can keep later books half as inventive and keep Flavia’s spark of mischief a fraction as fiery, that series will be one I’ll snap up just as soon as each volume is published. I can’t wait for more!

Hooray! As soon as I wrote that, I checked Amazon, and the next book is already out! — The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag. I think I’ll be making a purchase….

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Battle of the Books Is About to Begin!

It’s that time of year! School Library Journal is hosting the second annual Battle of the Kids’ Books!

Here’s how it works. The moderators have chosen sixteen highly acclaimed children’s books published in 2009. They match them up in tournament-style brackets (in alphabetical order). At each “match,” a distinguished children’s author will judge between the two books.

Last year, I followed this, but hadn’t read many of the books. It was the Battle of the Kids’ Books that got me to finally read The Hunger Games. But enjoying the Battle of the Books got me interested in other School Library Journal blogs, so I followed the Heavy Medal blog, a Mock Newbery blog, and have read a good proportion of these top 2009 titles.

I’ll list the first round and give my favorites. Here’s where I’d like comments. Which books would you choose in these match-ups?

Oh, I forgot a fun twist they’re adding to this year’s tournament: The Undead Poll. Before the battle begins, they are taking a poll of your favorite contender. In the final round, the book with the most votes that has been previously knocked out of the running will be brought back from the dead. So the final round, judged by our new Ambassador for Children’s Literature, Katharine Paterson, will be between three books instead of just two. The vote closes on Sunday, March 14, so choose your favorite and vote now!

Okay, here are the first round matches, with my own comments:

Match One:
Charles and Emma, by Deborah Heiligman
Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, by Philip Hoose
Judge: Jim Murphy, a distinguished author of nonfiction

This one, I am neutral about the winner. I have read Claudette Colvin and not Charles and Emma, but I did check out Charles and Emma and look it over, but simply didn’t get around to reading it. I liked the look of it, though — biography told as the story of a relationship. As for Claudette Colvin, you can read my review of that book, and it ended up, like many of these on my 2010 Sonderbooks Stand-outs. I will be interested to see which book Jim Murphy chooses. For the sake of making a prediction, I’ll guess Claudette Colvin.

Match Two:
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly
Fire, by Kristin Cashore
Judge: Nancy Farmer

There’s no question in my mind which book I want to win this round. I read about half of Calpurnia Tate before I got tired of it and decided to read some of the other books clamoring for my attention. There are those who adore that book, but it’s not really my style. On the other hand, I was crazy about Fire, and named it my Teen Fantasy #2 on the 2010 Sonderbooks Stand-outs, which actually puts it higher in my favor than the #1 pick in most other categories.

Since Nancy Farmer writes fantasy, I’m hoping she will also favor Fire. But just in case she or a future judge doesn’t, that book was my pick for the Undead Poll, my favorite of all the contenders.

Match Three:
The Frog Scientist, by Pamela S. Turner
The Last Olympian, by Rick Riordan
Judge: Candace Fleming

This one’s a tough call, because the books are so different. I just tonight read and reviewed The Frog Scientist, because I’d had it sitting in my house ready to read for some time. The Battle of the Books motivated me to finally do it! I haven’t read The Last Olympian, but I read and enjoyed the first Percy Jackson book, so I think I have the idea.

The Frog Scientist is nicely presented nonfiction, with beautiful photographs and clear explanations of the science involved. The Last Olympian is wildly popular fiction. If I were judging between The Frog Scientist and the first Percy Jackson book, The Lightning Thief, I would probably pick The Frog Scientist, though that might be because it’s fresh in my mind. The Frog Scientist is an outstanding example of what it’s trying to do — present information. The Lightning Thief, while very good, didn’t stand out in my mind among other fantasy fiction titles.

But who knows what Candace Fleming will pick? For my prediction, I’m going to say The Frog Scientist, swayed by the fact that Candace Fleming writes excellent nonfiction herself, and this is similar with excellent accompanying photographs and excellent details.

Match Four:
Lips Touch: Three Times, by Laini Taylor
The Lost Conspiracy, by Frances Hardinge
Judge: Helen Frost

I’ve read both of these two, and though both were good, I definitely liked Lips Touch much better, so I’m rooting for it in this round.

Match Five (Second Half of the Brackets):
Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Storck
Marching for Freedom, by Elizabeth Partridge
Judge: Gary Schmidt

It’s probably not fair for me to have an opinion on this one, since I haven’t read Marching for Freedom (though I did look through it), but I loved Marcelo too much to want any book to beat it — except for Fire in the very final round! And even then, I won’t feel too bad if it is Marcelo that beats Fire.

Have I mentioned that half the fun of the Battle of the Books is hearing what the judges have to say about the contenders? Gary Schmidt has written the wonderful Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and The Wednesday Wars, and I’m very interested in what he has to say about Marcelo in the Real World.

Match Six:
Peace, Locomotion, by Jacqueline Woodson
A Season of Gifts, by Richard Peck
Judge: Cynthia Kadohata

I haven’t read either of these books, though I have heard about them. I have read some other Jacqueline Woodson books and enjoyed them, so I’m going to go with a prediction of Peace, Locomotion, winning this round.

Match Seven:
The Storm in the Barn, by Matt Phelan
Sweethearts of Rhythm, by Marilyn Nelson
Judge: Anita Silvey

I’m afraid this is another case where I liked The Storm in the Barn too much to want a book I haven’t read to beat it. The Storm in the Barn presents history, but with a touch of fantasy and a lot of emotion — all in graphic novel format. No matter how good nonfiction Sweethearts of Rhythm may be, Storm in the Barn will be hard to beat.

Match Eight:
Tales from Outer Suburbia, by Shaun Tan
When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead
Judge: Julius Lester

This one’s a tough choice. I’ve read both books and thought both were outstanding. Both deserve to go to the final round, and both have a bit of the bizarre in the plot. In the end, though, I would have to pick When You Reach Me, because it did win my heart more than Tales from Outer Suburbia, which definitely won my mind.

The commentary from the judge on this match will be extremely interesting. I’ll go ahead and predict that Julius Lester will pick When You Reach Me, but I may not be as surprised as some if he picks Tales from Outer Suburbia instead.

So — there you have it! On March 15, the Battle of the Kids’ Books will begin. Now I’d like to hear from you. Which of these books is your favorite? (Hurry and vote for it in the Undead Poll before the 14th!)

Do you disagree with me on some of these match-ups? Have you read some of the books I haven’t read and have more insight? Have I slighted one of your favorites?

If you haven’t read any or many (like me last year), I can assure you you’ll add some books to your to-be-read list if you follow the battle.

Let me know what you think! And enjoy the arena seats!

Review of Mare’s War, by Tanita S. Davis

Mare’s War

by Tanita S. Davis

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2009. 341 pages.
A 2010 Coretta Scott King Honor Book

I’ve always enjoyed books about teens driving with an elderly relative or acquaintance and being changed by the experience. Some notable examples are Rules of the Road, by Joan Bauer, Hit the Road, by Caroline B. Cooney, and Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech.

Mare’s War is along those lines. Octavia and her older sister Tali have been ordered to spend their summer vacation driving across the country with their grandmother, Mare, to go to a reunion in Alabama. Along the way, Mare tells them about her days as a member of the Women’s Army Corps during World War II.

I didn’t think Mare’s War was as powerful as the other books I’ve mentioned in the driving-with-the-elderly genre. In the first place, Mare’s story was told in separate chapters, as she experienced it at the time, not in the actual words she would have used to tell her granddaughters. And although the girls were interested in her story, they weren’t significantly changed by it. The book felt on the long side, because they were taking a leisurely road trip juxtaposed with Mare just getting through the war, so the plot had no sense of urgency.

However, Mare’s story was fascinating, so I still enjoyed the book very much. I had no idea that a company of black women served in the US Army overseas during World War II. I thought Tanita Davis did a great job expressing what that must have been like for those women.

The girls do gain a new appreciation for their grandmother, and the reader does, too. We definitely root for her as she experiences things completely new, learns how capable she truly is, and forms friendships she can count on forever.

This book shines a light on a piece of history I never thought about before, and tells a good story at the same time.

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And the Rest…

At the start of 2010, I had 43 books I’d read in 2009 that I wanted to review. I’ve been madly writing reviews, without posting them to my main site, waiting until I’ve caught up. I have eight books left from 2009. They were all very good, and worth mentioning, but in the interests of time, I’m only going to mention them with a short blurb in this post, and not give them a full page on my main site.

Once I finish them, I have another stack of seven books that I finished reading already in 2010. After I have caught up on writing those reviews, I hope to post all of the new reviews to So here goes!

Children’s Fiction

These first three books I read as part of my class on the Newbery Medal. They are all historical novels, set in medieval times, and all well-written though just a tad old-fashioned. As Newbery Medal winners, you will be able to find more information about them than these reviews.

The Trumpeter of Krakow
by Eric P. Kelly

Scholastic, 1990. First published in 1928. 242 pages.
1929 Newbery Medal Winner.

Here’s a tale of intrigue and danger set in old Krakow. There are some strange sections about alchemy, and you can tell if someone is bad or good based on how they look, but despite its old-fashioned feel, this book still is very interesting. It’s almost more for teens, because the language is at a high reading level, and the main character is almost grown up, but he is still treated like a child, so the book has the feel of a children’s book.

Fifteen-year-old Joseph Charnetski and his family are fleeing to Krakow. As they almost reach the city gates, someone shows interest in an especially large pumpkin, which his father is not willing to sell.

They use an assumed name and find a hiding place in the city, near an old scholar and his daughter. Joseph’s father takes a job as the city trumpeter. The trumpeter is also the watchman, tasked to raise the alarm if there is a fire in the city. They never play the last three notes of the trumpet call in honor of an old trumpeter who gave his life keeping the call going during an invasion.

Joseph learns the call as well as his father, and as danger approaches, he finds a clever way to raise the alarm.

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Adam of the Road
by Elizabeth Janet Gray

Scholastic. First published in 1942. 320 pages.
1943 Newbery Medal Winner.

Adam of the Road is the story of a minstrel’s son in medieval England. The book starts out at school, with Adam waiting for his father to pick him up after some time apart, to go to London and back on the road. Adam has gained a beloved dog, Nick, who can do tricks and help with their act.

Along the way, a sinister rival minstrel steals Nick. As Adam’s chasing after him, he loses track of his father. He ends up wandering across England on his own, trying to find his father and his dog, and having various adventures along the way.

This is a good story that has stood the test of time. Adam is awfully young to be on his own, but people are kind to him, and he cleverly makes his way, never in real danger. A light-hearted and enjoyable adventure tale for kids interested in medieval times.

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The Door in the Wall
by Marguerite de Angeli

Yearling Newbery (Bantam Doubleday Dell), 1990. First published in 1949. 121 pages.
1950 Newbery Medal Winner.

The Door in the Wall is another story of a boy on his own in medieval times. Robin’s father went off to the wars, expecting his son to go train to be a knight. His mother went to be the Queen’s lady-in-waiting, expecting John-the-Fletcher to come soon to take him to Sir Peter de Lindsay, to train as a knight.

But Robin gets sick, and when John-the-Fletcher comes, he is not able to go along. For a month he is bedridden, unable to move his legs. He is lame and will never be a knight now.

Some monks take Robin under their wing. They help him learn to swim, to strengthen his arms, and eventually to walk with a crutch. They take him on a journey to meet his father, and they have adventures along the way. By the end of the book, only Robin is able to get a message out and save an entire castle.

This book is shorter than the others. It’s a fairly simple story, but interesting with the medieval setting and inspiring as Robin overcomes his handicap, and learns that his life still has significance.

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Growing Wings
by Laurel Winter

Firebird (Penguin Putnam), 2000. 195 pages.

All her life, Linnet’s mother has touched Linnet’s shoulder blades before she tucks Linnet into bed. One day, when she’s eleven, Linnet learns why. She’s itching horribly, and she has strange bumps on her shoulders.

Linnet’s mother assures her she doesn’t have cancer. She is growing wings. Linnet’s mother also grew wings when she was Linnet’s age, but her mother cut them off. Linnet’s mother is determined not to do that to Linnet, but she doesn’t know what to do to hide them.

Linnet finds a community of others with wings, living in a house in the wilderness. Some adults who are “cutwings” are in charge. So far, none of the teens with wings have been able to fly. They are trying to learn, but also to stay hidden.

This is an intriguing story, with plenty of conflict in the community of winged children. Linnet explores her heritage and wonders what she can make of her life. Will she have to spend her whole life in hiding?

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Miss Zukas and the Island Murders
by Jo Dereske

Avon Books (HarperCollins), 1995. 258 pages.

This is the second mystery about Miss Zukas, librarian extraordinaire. In this book, Miss Zukas and her exotic friend Ruth arrange a twenty-year reunion on an island in Puget Sound for their high school class from Michigan.

While they’re preparing, she gets threatening letters that refer to the long-ago death of one of their classmates. Once they’re on the island, naturally a storm strikes, isolating them, and a murder occurs. Can they solve the murder and keep from getting killed themselves?

This is a fun mystery. Miss Zukas’s librarian nature didn’t come up as much in this book as in the first one, and I felt that she leapt to conclusions without a lot of reasons. But she’s an entertaining character to read about. Gotta love a librarian detective!

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A Way of Life

by Louise L. Hay and Friends
compiled and edited by Jill Kramer

Hay House, 1996. 312 pages.

This book is full of essays about gratitude, written by many notable people. How can you possibly go wrong? I went for quite awhile, reading one essay per day. It’s a nice way to put your day on track.

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The Bait of Satan
Living Free from the Deadly Trap of Offense

by John Bevere

Charisma House, 2004. First published in 1994. 255 pages.

In this book, John Bevere teaches that Satan’s biggest trap is taking offense. What’s more, you feel justified and in the right!

“Pride causes you to view yourself as a victim. Your attitude becomes, ‘I was mistreated and misjudged; therefore, I am justified in my behavior.’ Because you believe you are innocent and falsely accused, you hold back forgiveness. Though your true heart condition is hidden from you, it is not hidden from God. Just because you were mistreated, you do not have permission to hold on to an offense. Two wrongs do not make a right!”

This book looks at many different ways the devil deceives us into taking offense, and encourages you in many different ways to overcome and find forgiveness. A valuable, helpful book.

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Write Is a Verb
Sit Down. Start Writing. No Excuses.

by Bill O’Hanlon

Writer’s Digest Books, 2007. 212 pages. DVD included.

This is a book about getting it together and actually writing. I read it after I had already made and was keeping a resolution to write at least fifteen minutes per day, every day, so this book only reinforced what I had already determined to do.

If you want to write, and are having trouble motivating yourself, this book has some great ways to think through your motivation and ideas for marketing yourself. Think of this as a great pep talk, complete with a DVD so you can see and hear an additional pep talk.

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