Scarlett Fever: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Scarlett Fever by Maureen JohnsonSummer’s end is upon the Hopewell Hotel and the Martin family. After a summer spent working around the Hamlet production taking place in the Hopewell’s dining room, Scarlett Martin is ready to make a new start in all aspects of her life.

In fact, all of the Martin children seem to be working toward something this fall. Lola, the eldest, seems adrift and desperate to find something to cling to. Spencer is still trying to launch his acting career–even if it could mean playing one of the most hated characters of all time. And Marlene, the youngest Martin, is being nice; a little too nice to avoid raising suspicion among the other Martins in fact.

Meanwhile Scarlett is determined to stay on track at her rigorous high school–even if her new lab partner is determined to drive her insane. More importantly Scarlett is ready to get over Eric, her dreamy almost-boyfriend from the summer. Scarlett is even prepared to deal with her new job assisting Mrs. Amberson, formerly the Hopewell’s crazy resident, now Spencer’s crazy agent.

When Mrs. Amberson acquires her second client, a rising Broadway star Scarlett’s age, everything starts to get complicated. Scarlett finds herself dragged into the lives of both the new client Chelsea and her maddeningly annoying older brother Max (see mention of new lab partner above). Resolutions aside, nothing goes quite the way Scarlett planned, but maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be in Scarlett Fever (2010) by Maureen Johnson.

Find it on Bookshop.

Scarlett Fever is the sequel to Maureen Johnson’s earlier book Suite Scarlett. It is also the second book in what Johnson says on her website will be a trilogy (the books really stand alone if you happen to for some reason decide to only read this one but really if you are intrigued, reading from the beginning will make it that much more fun). If you thought you liked the first book, boy howdy are you in for a surprise with this one because you are going to LOVE it.

As Johnson’s amazing website puts it, the summer was nothing. In Scarlett Fever school is in session and things are about to get real for Scarlett and the Martin family. Law & Order and a dog with what appears to be Social Anxiety Disorder may or may not also play large roles in the story.

Sometimes with a trilogy, or any extended series, the middle books suffer because everyone knows the books before and after will be around to pick up the slack. This situation creates what I refer to as a bridge book– a book that cannot stand without the support of the series (I’m looking at you Playing with Fire).

That situation does not exist here. While I’ll never suggest skipping books in a series, you could here. Johnson provides just enough information about earlier events without getting repetitive or, gasp, boring. The story here is also fully developed and grounded, for the most part, in this book. There are, of course, unresolved threads since there is going to be a third book.

Maureen Johnson is a really funny writer, a fact that is especially clear on her blog and when she tweets. Being a talented writer, Johnson sometimes handles some heavy issues which don’t always allow her keen humor to come through. It comes through in Scarlett Fever without making this a slapstick story . . . except maybe for that one time with the cake.

I fell in love with Suite Scarlett when I saw the hardcover jacket (the paperback with the key was a bit of a surprise although having had time to acclimate I quite like the key cover for this book) but, to be brutally honest, I was really disappointed that Eric was so lame compared to Scarlett’s brother Spencer (who remains incredibly awesome). Happily, Eric is not in Scarlett Fever as much and his vacancy is filled by Max who is a much more enjoyable, generally fantastic, foil for Scarlett. I can’t wait to for Scarlett 3 to come out, whenever that is, because I’m hoping it will have a lot more Max!

Possible Pairings: Strings Attached by Judy Blundell, City Love by Susane Colasanti, Take a Bow by Elizabeth Eulberg, The Year My Sister Got Lucky by Aimee Friedman, King of the Screwups by K. L. Going, Bad Kitty by Michele Jaffe, Alice, I Think by Susan Juby, New York City: A Short History by George J. Lankevich, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, The Statistical Probability of True Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith, Drama by Raina Telgemeier

Semi-related: Points to anyone who can direct me to the real life counterpart of Sonny Lavinski (if there is one which I don’t even know)

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy: A Review

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt (Yearling cover)Turner Buckminster has lived in Phippsburg, Maine for almost six whole hours. He has dipped his hands in its waves, smelled the sharp scent of its pine trees. He has looked out at the sea. Turner has even seen the clapboard parsonage beside the church his father will minister now that they are no longer in Boston and the small house beyond whose function he could not yet fathom (and soon enough would not believe).

Six whole hours in Maine.

He didn’t know how much longer he could stand it.

After a dismal arrival, a disastrous baseball game and one too many reminders that he is, in fact, a minister’s son, Turner is just about ready to light out for the territories. Surely, life out west would be better. It would certainly be simpler with no need to remember his manners and always wear those darned starched white shirts that simply do not work in the summer heat.

At least Turner has the sea breeze to keep him company. Being a sneaky, playful breeze it soon leads Turner to Malaga Island and his first friend in Maine.

Lizzie Bright Griffin is Turner’s opposite in almost every way. She has lived on Malaga all her life, just like her parents and her granddaddy. A community founded by former slaves, Malaga is a poor island and largely seen as a blemish on the landscape by Phippsburg’s elite. But to Lizzie it is the most wonderful place in the world. It is home.

Turner and Lizzie have every reason to hate each other. Instead they become fast friends. Soon enough Turner can’t imagine his life without knowing Lizzie or Malaga. Meanwhile, change is coming. Phippsburg is plotting to force the islander’s off Malaga to pave the way for a lucrative tourist industry that will lead Phippsburg into the future.

The change seems inevitable. Still Turner feels he and Lizzie have to try and fight this horrible injustice. Only time will tell if it will be enough to save Malaga in Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy (2004) by Gary D. Schmidt.

Find it on Bookshop.

This story is based on the real life destruction of Malaga island in 1912 and (spoiler alert, insofar as a real event can be considered a spoiler) the island is not saved. Schmidt has created a stunning novel about a real story that is shocking but also needs to be told and remembered.

The writing here is charming and surprisingly appealing given the narrow focus of the narrative. Biblical references Turner acquired from his minister’s-son-upbringing are interwoven seamlessly in a way that works even if the source behind the references is not always clear to readers with a different knowledge set.

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy is also the only book I know of that is both a Newbery and Printz award honor book (both honors received in 2005). This never happens. It’s kind of as amazing as Sandra Bullock’s recent awards sweep winning the Golden Globe for best actress in a comedy and a drama and winning the Oscar for best actress besides. It’s just really rare and a real sign of overall awesomeness for a book written for young people.

Despite a very clearly defined plot (as is the way when a story is based on real events), this book is not easy to make sense of just based on a blurb or the cover, more on those in a minute. That’s because Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy is a very subtle, smart book. It really needs to be read before you can fully appreciate its magic. Phippsburg and its inhabitants are fully realized as characters. Even the sea breeze has its own special place as a character of sorts moving the story along.

Some historical novels relate detailed accounts of real events. Schmidt does that to an extent here, but even better is the full immersion of this story. You don’t read this one, you live it. A detailed author’s note at the end of the book also details the real story that inspired this fictional one.

Now a bit more about those covers. As far as I can tell, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy has three covers. The middle one here, the one with the primitive style artwork, was the original 2004 cover. In 2006 Yearling repackaged the book as a paperback with the top cover, the one split in half between Lizzie/Turner in the boat, and the whale. Finally in 2008 the book was reprinted again (I believe by Powell) as a mass market paperback which can be seen in the last image here, the smallest one that is predominantly yellow hued in the background.

I might be wrong here, but my suspicion is that the book was repackaged to try and make it more appealing to young readers since its 2005 honors already made it clear that the book had literary appeal. Personally, my favorite is the Yearling cover (the top one here) because it’s exactly how I pictured Turner and Lizzie in my own imagination. I can see the skill in the original cover’s artwork and how it fits with the story. On the other hand, it seems very off-putting to a young person looking for a book (again this could be me, but my colleague “Lynn” agreed with me)–I know it was off-putting for me before I got into the story. Whatever cover you prefer, this book is definitely well worth reading.

Possible Pairings: Lucky Strikes by Louis Bayard, The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough, Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin, Someone to Run With by David Grossman, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose, Holes by Louis Sachar, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, The Aeneid by Virgil, Generation Dead by Daniel Waters, Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: A (book and movie) Review

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff KinneyEleven-year-old Greg Heffley knows he’s going places. unfortunately, to get there he has to pass through middle school–that cruel, no man’s land where everyone is mashed together irrespective of maturity. What diabolical mind created this strange limbo where kids who haven’t had their growth spurt mingle daily with giants who shave twice a day?

Not to worry, Greg has figured out most of the ins and outs of surviving middle school already. The key lies in walking that fine line between keeping a low profile and earning the school’s admiration as one of the Yearbook Favorites. Now if only Greg could get his best friend Rowley on board with his grand plan to put the cool into middle school in Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2007) by Jeff Kinney.

Find it on Bookshop.

To call Greg self-centered would be an understatement. He is one of the most self-absorbed characters I have ever read. And yet, as is the way, Greg does have a certain charm. His daily trials and tribulations are also quite funny.

As a character Greg is one of those anomalies–not quite bad enough to be a villain but not always nice enough to warrant his spot as protagonist. Although they would probably attract two very different audiences, Diary of a Wimpy Kid reminded me a lot of Louise Rennison’s Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging. Georgia Nicholson, like Greg, is one of the most self-centered characters I have ever encountered. But, and perhaps this is a credit to the respective authors, it kind of works. I’m waiting for the day I find a cross-over fan fiction where Greg’s family moves to England when he is a bit older and he and Georgia meet and start to date. It’s a match made in heaven. Can anyone else hear the tinkling sound of wedding bells?

The book is a fast read and, honestly, popular enough with kids and parents that I don’t really need to say anything else about it. A blend of cartoons and narrative, this is one of those books that sells itself.

As if this book series wasn’t popular enough, there is also a movie version. Diary of a Wimpy Kid came out on March 19 and I was, amazingly, one of the people who saw it on opening day (this never happens). I wasn’t over the moon about the book, but it was kind of fun.

I’m over the moon about the movie.

The idea of a novel in cartoons being recreated as a live action movie is worrisome at best, but in this case, it works really really unbelievably well. Director Thor Freudenthal blends the actors and live action of the film almost seamlessly with integrated snippets of Kinney’s original art brought to life in animated form.

The actors themselves were also fabulous. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the cast consists of children. Talented actor children who I fully expect to be going places when they get older. Zachary Gordon and Robert Capron really brought Greg and Rowley to life.

The movie also added a different spin to a lot of events in the book–it removed some of the hard edges (and hard knocks) from Greg’s story in a way that ultimately made the story tighter. The actors also made a lot of characters that fell flat on the page more dimensional and approachable for me. Steve Zahn was a kinder, gentler father than the one we see in the book. Similarly Devon Bostick was kind of brilliant as Greg’s villainous older brother Rodrick. His exploits and tricks are so much funnier (and more diabolical) in the movie than they were in the book.

Call me crazy, but this might be the movie that turns out to be better than the book.

Possible Pairings: Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, Neil Armstrong Is My Uncle & Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me by Nan Marino, The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrich, Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

The Great Gilly Hopkins: A (cautious) Chick Lit Wednesday Review (that is mostly analysis)

The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine PatersonEleven-year-old Galadriel Hopkins (“Gilly” to the plebs she is forced to mix with in foster care) is not known for being cute or cuddly. Instead, she is the girl with the harsh words, mean attitude and, most recently, the really big bubble of gum that blew up in her face. Gilly is not the girl any foster parent in their right mind would want to adopt.

Which is just fine with Gilly because she already has a mother. A real mother. A movie star beautiful mother named Courtney Rutherford Hopkins who misses her and wishes they could be together.

For Gilly, that’s enough. Knowing that somewhere Courtney is wishing for her daughter as badly as Gilly is wishing for her mother can get Gilly through anything.

At least, it could before she arrived at Mrs. Trotter’s front door. Everything about this foster home is wrong. Trotter is fat and ugly. William Ernest, the other foster child, isn’t too quick on the uptake. And (gasp) a wrinkled, old black man lives next door. Trotter and her band of misfits might be more bizarre than Gilly could ever imagine. But could they also be just what she needs? It’s enough to make Gilly hatch an escape plan (or three) in The Great Gilly Hopkins (1978) by Katherine Paterson.

Find it on Bookshop.

First things first: The Great Gilly Hopkins was the 1979 Newbery Honor book (The Westing Game won the gold that year). It made it to #55 in Betsy Bird‘s Top 100 Children’s Novels poll. I haven’t been following the poll too closely because the posts overwhelm me, but the segment about Gilly is necessarily relevant to this review. Katherine Paterson herself was also just recently appointed National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.

In other words, everything about this book is a big deal.

Personally, I had very mixed feelings about The Great Gilly Hopkins (although I’m finding that to be true about a lot of children’s classics lately). On the one hand I wanted very badly to be on Gilly’s side and pull for her as an abandoned child that really needs someone to love her in her own right, not as a temporary commodity. On the other hand, Gilly works so hard at pushing people away that, at a certain point, it becomes hard to care too much or cheer too loudly for this girl who is all hard edges and anger.

This next part is going to have spoilers because just about everyone in the entire world has already read this book: Paterson does a great job creating Gilly as a character she is fully developed even though she is loathe to tell readers everything about her less-than-ideal past in the foster system. The book also handles a bold topic: looking at a little girl who is in the foster system not because she is an orphan but because her parent did not want her. The abandonment is extreme and, in the story, becomes palpable even as Gilly clings to the idealized vision she’s created for her mother from a photograph and a note.

That said, I also had a lot of issues with the book. Gilly is essentially racist at the beginning of the story. She does grow and evolve and move past that, but it’s one of those elements that seemed to be added to a book for a wow/edgy factor than for the actual story (in other words, I don’t know that Gilly had to be racist to make the book work). It also seems like race wouldn’t have been such a hot topic by that time–I might be mistaken though since I wasn’t actually alive in 1978.

The adults in the novel also bothered me. A lot. If the grandmother cared so much about Gilly why was she ever in foster care? Miss Ellis was also quite frustrating when she essentially tells an eleven-year-old girl that she screwed up because she wasn’t able to just suck it up until things got better. Really, Miss Ellis, really?

Finally, I found the message of The Great Gilly Hopkins to be really frustrating. Essentially, Gilly has a chance at having a real family with Trotter and William Ernest and Mr. Randolph but she blows that chance by writing to her mother about being unhappy that ruins everything and forces Gilly to lose yet another family. That seemed to translate to saying that children only get punished when they talk about being unhappy because things will only get worse which seemed problematic. (Do you have a different interpretation? Please share it in the comments!)

In summary, The Great Gilly Hopkins remains a bold, moving novel that is ripe for many rich discussions. It is widely honored and beloved by many. It’s also controversial and for some, self included, the allure is not always clear.

*Betsy Bird noted that this cover was one of her least favorite because it was so cutesy but I kind of like it for that same reason. Gilly tries to be tough and mean and push people away, but at her core she’s still a little girl with pigtails who wants someone to love her.

Possible Pairings: Lucky Strikes by Louis Bayard, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, You Don’t Know Me by David Klass, Holes by Louis Sachar, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

On creating a literature of diversity

For any readers who don’t know, I’m in my last semester of graduate school to be a librarian. One of the classes I am taking is Children’s Literature. One of our recent topics for discussion was multi-cultural literature or, as was mentioned in my class, a literature of diversity.

Anyway, for this class I had to read two articles about what would be called identity based awards. These would be book awards where the author’s ethnicity is a factor in eligibility. (To back up, in case I lost you at “book award,” there are a lot of book awards used to celebrate the most distinguished _______ book each year. The big ones in literature for young people are the Newbery for children’s literature, the Caldecott for picture books, and the Printz for young adult literature. The “Big Three” of the book awards, they’re kind of like the Oscars of kid lit, but there are lots of others for early readers, non-fiction and probably ten things I don’t even know about yet.)

Two of the most widely know identity based awards are the Coretta Scott King award (for African American authors/illustrators) and the Pura Belpre award (this one is for either latino or hispanic authors/illustrators, the criteria isn’t clear and honestly I’m not clear enough on the differentiations between these two terms to say which either–if you have some insight, please leave it in the comments!).

Now, if you want to play along with my commentary, you need to read “Slippery Slopes and Proliferating Prizes” by Marc Aronson which can be viewed here: (Aronson wonders why the identity of the author is a bigger factor than the quality of their work and calls for a stop to the fragmentation of awards based on identity. But he says it more eloquently.)

Then, read Andrea Davis Pinkney’s response to Aronson in “Awards That Stand on Solid Ground” here: (Pinkney responds that while ideally Aronson is right, this is not an ideal world and identity based awards provide valuable exposure for authors of color in a field that is still mostly white. But she states her case in a more masterful way.)

I’ve stewed on this for a while and I have to say I’m inclined to agree with Aronson. I see Pinkney’s point, and I understand it–especially after following the various posts about whitewashing covers (one of the latest being a kind of sad, but very interesting, post from Alaya Johnson over at Justine “authority on whitewashing after the Liar cover debacle” Larbalestier’s blog). But it still doesn’t seem right.

If we are going to go by Pinkney’s standard, which is a fair and valid standard to use, where are the awards for women authors? Where are the awards to bring women out of the chick lit ghetto and get them more mainstream coverage? What about for feminist children’s books? Pinkney says herself that in every award scenario someone loses, but does that mean there isn’t a scenario where everyone can win?

Historically, the non-identity awards have favored white authors. And that’s a shame. Perhaps a solution is more Newbery/Caldecott categories instead of more awards?

You might be asking yourself, what’s the difference? Well, in my view, it’s huge. Instead of fragmenting the awards and separating everything into little boxes that don’t always make a difference in terms of what makes good literature, sub-categories could bring together awards based on literary merit and literature of diversity.

As a white woman writer (aspiring at the moment), I also worry about identity-based awards because while they do wonderful things to raise awareness of authors of color and writing about characters from a variety of cultures, they also seem to say “back off.” This might be an unfair bias but when I hear “Pura Belpre” or “Coretta Scott King” winner, it feels like a pronouncement that a white author can’t write convincingly or with respect about a different culture.

Aside from being unfair, that is completely untrue. All the same, it’s a discouragement. With so much emphasis on writing about diverse cultures from members of that culture it seems like I (and perhaps other writers though I can only speak for myself) are being encouraged to stay in our own cultural boxes and not write about a diverse group of characters.

Following that train of though, I keep wondering where Ezra Jack Keats fits into this equation. A child of Polish immigrants, Keats has written some of the most beautiful and most diverse picture books ever. He wrote not about white children but children of all colors to reflect his neighborhood. Yet, a Coretta Scott King award would never have recognized his contribution to reflect the African American experience. Maybe this is me, but that doesn’t feel right either.

That might have just been talking in circles so I’ll try to leave you with something more concrete:

Last summer in my YA Lit class I read The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd who came to speak to my class. Burd is African American but he made a conscious choice to write his novel about a white boy in Iowa because, as he told our class, writing about a black kid in Iowa would require a lot of stuff that would be extraneous to the novel. Another problem. Why does it need to be explained? My friend “Ray Gunn” posted a really brilliant post about this which you should all read here even though I might embarrass her by sending you all over. I agree with her wholeheartedly.

While reading about these identity-based awards I kept thinking about Nick Burd and Ray Gunn’s post. I think, really, that creating a literature of diversity isn’t just about separating out different cultures on their own pedestal; part of it is about mashing them all together.

Some links and a reminder

First, the links:

  1. The cover for Cassandra Clare’s new book The Clockwork Angel has finally been released. The book is due out in September 2010. It’s the first of a trilogy called The Infernal Devices which will be a prequel to Clare’s mega-awesome Mortal Instruments trilogy (the first of that trilogy being City of Bones). This series will also tie in with the fourth Mortal Instruments book City of Fallen Angels which is due out in in March 2011. You can view the cover at Shelf Life, it’s kind of fantastic–I love it so much with is Victorian awesomeness! (Exclusive Bonus Content: The character on the cover is Will, you can read about him on Clare’s site.)
  2. The cover and title of for the sequel to Beautiful Creatures also came to my attention this week. The sequel will be called Beautiful Darkness and the cover is pretty spiffy. This book will be out in October 2010. (Exclusive Bonus Content: You can view both covers at Mundie Moms–did you know Mundie is for Mundane? I just figured that out this afternoon . . . )
  3. Betsy Bird of Fuse 8 is in the final stretch of her 100 Greatest Children’s Novels polls. The posts have been coming too fast for me to follow all of them, but Six Boxes of Books has a lovely list of all of the books and links to their respective posts.
  4. I just barely understand how it works, but School Library Journal‘s Battle of the Kids’ Books is going on. So if you like books and . . . battle . . . maybe you want to follow along at home. Megan Whalen Turner is an upcoming judge which is pretty neat.
  5. Diary of a Wimpy Kid came out this week. I saw it and it was great but there will be more about that in a review. For now, take a look at this article from USA Today about translating a book with stick figure characters into a live action movie.
  6. Finally, Maureen Johnson is heading up the Ravenclaw House of the HP Alliance this year. And she wants you to help. Accio books is gearing up to donate tons of books to schools in need. If you donate books in the name of Ravenclaw (and why wouldn’t you since Ravenclaw rocks!?!) Ms. Johnson might give you a little something for your troubles. You can read all of the information at her blog. I will leave you with this teaser, you could get a character named after you. That is all.

Now the reminder: On the first of March I made a promise. Get this blog to 50,000 views and I will host a book giveaway bonanza. That was twenty days ago. In those twenty days this blog has had a little over 1,700 hits which is amazing. As of posting the number to note is 29,736. That is much closer than 28,000! So, just keep that in mind. You can donate all your books for Maureen Johnson and then win some from me once we get to 50k.

Our Lady of Immaculate Deception: A (brief) Review

Our Lady of Immaculate Deception by Nancy MartinRoxy Abruzzo lives and works in Pittsburgh where she runs an architectural salvage business. Her shady uncle Carmine (mostly) leaves her alone while he tends to the family’s less than legal dealings. Which is fine because Roxy has enough on her plate with her business and raising her seventeen-year-old daughter. Problems arise when Roxy absconds with a statue that isn’t actually hers and winds up in the middle of a murder investigation to boot in Our Lady of Immaculate Deception (2010) by Nancy Martin.

I was so excited when I first heard about this novel. My mom and I had started reading Martin’s Blackbird Sister mysteries together and we both really enjoyed them. The combination of down-on-their-luck blue bloods with madcap humor, a fun mystery, and some romance now and then was a real winner. It was, therefore, a sad day when I realized Murder Melts in Your Mouth might very well be the last of the Blackbird mysteries.

Hearing about Our Lady of Immaculate Deception helped ease the blow because the main character of this new series would be none other than Roxy Abruzzo, half-sister of Michael Abruzzo–love interest to Nora Blackbird and a crucial character in the Blackbird Sister series. Surely this was a good sign! Martin wanted to move on, but I felt certain Michael, and maybe even a Blackbird or two would show up in the story. Since Roxy lives in Pittsburgh and the Blackbirds call Philadelphia home it wasn’t entirely out of the question.

Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be.

My mom was immediately turned off by the title and, in the end, her first impression was right. All of the polish Martin used so well in her previous mystery series is gone. Roxy is a brash, not entirely likable character. As my mother put it, she winds up sleeping with every man in sight, her seventeen-year-old daughter is pregnant, and she’s basically a thief. In other words, Roxy has little in the way of redeeming qualities. And, I don’t know about you, but what’s the point of a book without a character you can actually like?

Worse still to me is the fact that Martin makes no references to her previous characters. If a book is going to tie in with the setting of a previous series, it should go all the way. It shouldn’t tease faithful fans with what sounds like a connection only to entice them to read the book and finally leave them hanging. Poor form all around. Hopefully Martin has more Blackbird Mysteries up her sleeve.

Esperanza Rising: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz RyanEsperanza had a wonderful life in Mexico in 1930. She lived with her mother and father, Ramona and Sixto Ortega at a beautiful ranch where her grandmother taught Esperanza to crochet. El Rancho de las Rosas is a little piece of paradise. Beloved servants tend to Esperanza’s every need while field hands tend to the family’s vineyard. Everything in Esperanza’s life is perfect right down to the preparations for her fourteenth birthday.

That is, until the day Esperanza’s father does not come home from tending to the ranch. Suddenly Esperanza’s life is turned upside. Her father is gone. El Rancho de las Rosas is slipping away. Esperanza and her mother are fleeing to California with nothing to find work as field workers. Worse, they have to leave Abuelita behind.

Suddenly thrust into poverty, Esperanza feels lost. She and her mother are suddenly equal to the servants who helped them escape Mexico. Prejudice and inequality leap at Esperanza from everywhere. Nothing will ever be the same and the more Esperanza sees of America, the land of opportunity, the more she feels like she’s sinking. Will Esperanza be able to rise about her circumstances and embrace her new life before it’s too late in Esperanza Rising (2000) by Pam Muñoz Ryan?

Find it on Bookshop.

Esperanza Rising is a Pura Belpre Winner (Pura Belpre being an award that highlights distinguished work in literature and illustration by hispanic or latino authors–I’m not sure which is stated specifically in the award criteria). It’s really popular and generally well-received. And it even has a play adaptation (apparently not playing anywhere right now, but you can see hints of it in an online search).

All the same, I was initially extremely resistant to this book. I did not want to like it. The story starts depressing and, frankly, Esperanza starts off irritating. Having finished the book, I greatly regret that resistance.

One of the coolest things about this book is that it’s based on the true story of the author’s grandmother’s immigration to the United States. Like most of the books I’ve listed as possible pairings, it is a quintessential immigrant story. Esperanza has a lot of growing up to when she is forced to move to California. She faces a lot of hardships and learns a lot about herself and her inner strength.

At its core Esperanza is, unsurprisingly, a story about hope and perseverance (esperanza means “hope” in Spanish). It is also a great introduction to the immigrant experience. While Esperanza remains at the center of the story, Ryan also touches upon the Depression, the Dust Bowl, social reform, and discrimination in this rich story.

This story also shines a light on the not-always-well-known world of migrant farm workers in a respectful and informative way. That is not to say that the story itself is not interesting. Far from it. Esperanza Rising is a wonderful blend of everything good about contemporary and historical fiction; Ryan skillfully presents the time period while making Esperanza and her world approachable to modern readers of all ages.

Possible Pairings: Ashes of Roses by Mary Jane Auch, Drown by Junot Diaz, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, From Ellis Island to JFK by Nancy Foner, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, Imagining America: Stories from the Promised Land by Amy Ling, …y no se lo tragó la tierra / …And the Earth Did Not Devour Him by Tomas Rivera and Evangelina Vigil-Pinon (translator), Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska

Incarceron: A Review

Incarceron is a prison like no other.Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

It is a closed system; nothing enters the prison. And nothing ever leaves. Incarceron was built to be self-sufficient. Nothing goes to waste. Food is recycled, materials made over and over. Prisoners, when they pass, are not buried or burned–their atoms are used to create new inmates.

In a prison so vast, most prisoners cannot imagine a world Outside their misery.

Finn is different.

Seventeen or eighteen years old, Finn has no memory of his past. No one believes his claims that he came from Outside. Fragmented recollections haunt him with tantalizing details of stars and other delights never seen inside the prison. Some think they are visions sent to guide Finn to Escape. Finn hopes they are memories of the life he once had–a life he can return to Outside.

But Incarceron is not the only way to imprison a person. Claudia lives a life of privilege Outside trapped under the watchful gaze of her father, the Warden of Incarceron. Her arranged marriage is fast approaching, threatening to drag her into a life of intrigue and games she does not want.

Claudia thinks if she can find the prison’s secret location she might be able to unlock the secrets of her own past and find the key to her freedom. Perhaps her search will be the key to Finn’s Escape as well in Incarceron by Catherine Fisher (2010)*.

Find it on Bookshop.

To call this book action-packed would be a gross understatement. I’m not going to lie, Incarceron started so fast that I actually had to read the first chapter twice to make sense of it. After the crazy dramatic beginning, Fisher lets readers take a bit of a breath and the story starts to move along in a more easy-to-process manner.

Fisher tells the story from two very distinct viewpoints. Each character has their own voice, their own unique take on the world. On top of that Fisher manages to use pacing to further differentiate between the worlds inside and outside the walls of Incarceron. Life in the prison is, unsurprisingly, no picnic. The writing captures that perfectly from the frenetic chaos among the inmates vying for position to the filth and despair that permeates all parts of the prison**. Outside, Fisher evokes a lighter, fresher world if not a gentler one. The brutality of Finn’s life in Incarceron contrasts well with the subtle intrigue and treachery found in the rarefied world Claudia inhabits at Court.

To complete the picture each chapter opens with a fragment of writing from Court, of the history inside Incarceron, or from other relevant sources to tease out details of the prison (and the characters’) past in this story that’s part futuristic-steampunk-fantasy, part prison break, part palace intrigue, all awesome.

Incarceron is an exciting, brutal read that will keep you at the edge of your seat from the (slightly confusing) beginning to the nail-biter ending. Everything about this book was well-done and satisfying except for one thing: It’s the first of two books. While the story ties up a lot of loose ends, the full story won’t be revealed until Sapphique‘s December 2010 publication.

*Incarceron was originally published in 2007 in the UK where it received tons of accolades before being published here three years later.

**The prison itself reminded me a lot of the Neverland created in Hook–the 1991 “sequel” to Peter Pan with Robin Williams–particularly the hideout of the Lost Boys where they spend all their time being slobs and running about like lunatics.

Possible Pairings: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Wither by Lauren DeStefano, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E. K. Johnston, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, Cinder by Marissa Meyer, 1984 by George Orwell, Across a Star-Swept Sea by Diana Peterfreund, Everland by Wendy Spinale, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande Velde, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, Lotus and  Thorn by Sara Wilson Etienne, Hook (movie with Robin Williams)

Me and my Palm Pre

Some of you might remember hearing about Fleur, my Palm Centro also sometimes referred to as my “too smart phone”. On some level, I think Fleur disliked me. On some level, it might have been mutual. I went through two Palm Centro phones in less than six months because they kept breaking. Any by breaking I mean on the verge of exploding–constant resets, improper email syncing, dropped calls, poor sound quality. But I got that all twice, once with each phone. Did I mention that by this time the Centro was discontinued? Talk about doing nothing to increase my confidence.

In the midst of all that, I dropped my phone by accident. I was not particularly upset. My mother was watching the whole incident and observed that I might not have the best relationship with my phone.

She was right.

Fleur was great for what she was, an old school smart phone–pre iPhone if you will. But using the Centro as a smart phone felt a lot like trying to use a butter knife as a screwdriver–it might eventually do the job but it was slow and clunky. By the end, when I was already rather annoyed, all of these little things kept popping up: Why couldn’t Fleur display the time when I was in other applications? Why couldn’t I favorite a tweet or even reply to one? Why could I only go to mobile versions of webpages? Why was the screen so small? Why was the Palm Pre only available from Sprint? Why, when the Palm Pre Plus came out, was it so far from my upgrade date?

But all of that has changed because I got a new phone last month.

Say hello to Maple, my new baby Palm Pre Plus. The name is to honor her Canadian roots (she was shipped to me from Ontario after–and I have to give Verizon props here–I negotiated with a Verizon rep to change my contract renewal date and get a Palm Pre as an upgrade/replacement instead of just having them send me yet another doomed-to-die Palm Centro).

I love everything about Maple. I actually haven’t even changed the default wallpaper because I think it’s so pretty. I like the slide out keyboard. And, much to my surprise, I like the touchscreen because it lets me zoom in on small text (so I can visit any web page I want) and navigate without a stylus. I can even rotate the phone sideways and view things in “wide” screen. The twitter client is a lot better. All of my emails sync like a dream. The time is displayed EVERYWHERE. It’s kind of like having an iPhone but with a real keyboard and an accessible battery.

Like most new devices, there was a learning curve. The synergy syncing is very different from the desktop sync functions of my older Palm devices and took some getting used to. I also find it strange to basically have a tiny computer that happens to be a phone. Battery life, of course, is a relative term with all of the juice it requires to do cool things. The shutdown procedure takes three discrete steps and then it’s really off, no accessing the non-phone functions–does that mean I’m supposed to just leave it on all the time? I’m not sure. (Do YOU know the answer?)

But all in all, I couldn’t be happier.