Black Wings Beating: A Review

cover art for Black Wings Beating by Alex LondonNothing in Uztar is more sacred than birds of prey. No one is more respected than the falconers who capture and train them.

Brysen wants nothing so much as he wants to be a great falconer. He dreams of proving to his abusive father, and himself, that he can contribute to the family legacy as falconers.

Kylee, Brysen’s twin sister, wants nothing to do with the family trade or the ancient gifts that should make her one of the most gifted falconers ever. She dreams of leaving their home in the Six Villages forever even as war threatens to make that impossible.

When the boy Brysen loves makes a terrible mistake, Brysen is determined to save him–and maybe find the glory that keeps eluding him–by trapping a Ghost Eagle. Understanding the dangers better than her brother, Kylee follows him hoping to help and perhaps make up for her own past. Whoever controls the Ghost Eagle can control the fate of Uztari. But first Brysen and Kylee will have to decide if they control their own fates in Black Wings Beating (2018) by Alex London.

Black Wings Beating is the first book in London’s Skybound trilogy. The book alternates close third person chapters between Brysen and Kylee.

London presents a fully-realized world complete with its own mythology and a little understood magic system tied to the art of falconry. Brysen and Kylee are complex, often flawed characters. They act rashly, they make mistakes, but they always look out for each other (even when they’d prefer not to!).

Black Wings Beating is high fantasy at its best. Recommended for readers with an interest in killer birds, killer writing, and killer twists.

Possible Pairings: Even the Darkest Stars by Heather Fawcett, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier, Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor, Updraft by Fran Wilde

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2018*

Little Bot and Sparrow: A Picture Book Review

Little Bot and Sparrow by Jake ParkerWhen Little Bot is thrown out with the trash, he discovers a strange new world ready to explore.

Sparrow soon takes Little Bot under her wing and teaches him important lessons including why robots should not fly.

When the snow begins to fall, both Little Bot and Sparrow know that it’s time for Sparrow to move on with the other birds. But even when Sparrow is gone Little Bot knows he has found his first friend. Thanks to Sparrow, Little Bot also has his first dream in Little Bot and Sparrow (2016) by Jake Parker.

Everything about this book is thoughtfully assembled from the case covers (featuring schematic sketches of Bot and Sparrow) to the endpapers and the story itself. Parker’s artwork is subtle and finely detailed while also being quite evocative of the mood. Whimsical, full-color illustrations and finely detailed backgrounds help to ground Little Bot and Sparrow, both sweetly drawn, in their surroundings.

The text hits the perfect balance length-wise for younger readers. This picture book would be great to include in a themed story time for unlikely friends or robots (or both!).

Little Bot and Sparrow is a charming story about discovering the big world and making friends complete with an open-ended and hopeful finish that hints at things to come for Little Bot.

Possible Pairings: Little Eliot, Big City by Mike Curato; Clink by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by Matthew Myers; Boy + Bot by Ame Dyckman, illustrated by Dan Yaccarino

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration from the publisher at BEA 2016*

Cockatoo, Too: A Picture Book Review

Cockatoo, Too by Bethany Deenie MurguiaAll manner of marvelous things happen when two cockatoos become friends in Cockatoo, Too (2016) by Bethanie Deeney Murguia.

Cockatoo, Too starts with one lone cockatoo against a backdrop of colorful jungle plants. When one cockatoo becomes two and then four, all manner of fun ensues complete with tutus. But when tutued toucans begin to can-can, will the cockatoos be able to keep up?

It turns out the answer is yes as Cockatoo, Too ends with a raucous bird-filled dance party (with owls too!) that proves to be too much for one dazed baby bird.

Cockatoo, Too is a delightful bit of wordplay throughout. The rhythmic repetition of the text makes this an ideal read-aloud. The picture book uses a handful of words to deliver a tongue-twistingly funny story with a cast of characters readers won’t soon forget.

Murguia’s illustrations use varied shades of green for leaves and colorful tropical flowers to sketch out a jungle setting for this deceptively simple tale. Cartoonish charm only makes these talented birds more appealing.

With funny details on every page (tutued toucans, anyone?) and a text that rolls trippingly off the tongue, Cockatoo, Too is an absolute joy to read-a-loud or to read one-on-one. A must read.

Possible Pairings: Big Bear Little Chair by Lizi Boyd, Orange Bear Apple Pear by Emily Gravett,  Bears on Chairs by Shirley Parenteau and David L. Walker

*An advance copy of this picture book was acquired from the publisher for review consideration*

Where Things Come Back: A (Rapid Fire) Review

Where Things Come Back by John Corey WhaleyWhere Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley (2011)

Lily, Arkansas is a hopeless place full of sad people who tried to leave but failed. Cullen Witter, like a lot of people, wants desperately to get out of this stifling small town. The summer before his senior year in high school Cullen sees his first corpse. Then he sees the body of his cousin who overdosed on drugs. Later, after the corpses and the end of school, the entire town becomes obsessed with a woodpecker–long thought extinct–who may or may not be hiding in the woods around Lily. Stranger still, Cullen’s brilliant brother, Gabriel, disappears.

Chapters from Cullen’s first person narration are interspersed with third-person narratives from two unlikely missionaries. Other reviews will talk about these stories entwining in strange and surprising ways. They might also call this novel a mystery. I disagree with both statements.

Whaley’s debut novel was the winner of both the 2012 Printz Award and the 2012 Morris Award. While the prose is extremely literary, I contend there is very little mystery in this story. The narratives are not particularly shocking in the ways in which they overlap or the general story. Given the plot structure, the big reveal was ultimately predictable.

Where Things Come Back is about nothing so much as it is about waiting. The town is waiting for a woodpecker to return and change its fate. Cullen is waiting for his chance to get away and also for a simpler but much harder thing: the return of his missing brother. There are interesting ideas to be unpacked in this world of waiting–ideas that Whaley does examine in interesting ways.

Unfortunately that is never quite enough to make the story into a page-turner or anything more than a thoughtful, brief, meditation on the randomness of life.

Writerly prose can be found throughout the story which works in some instances to help Cullen develop a very unique voice. At the same time, it always feels like this novel is trying very hard to be thoughtful and contemplative in a way that feels forced.

Cullen’s mind wanders throughout the narrative as he goes off on tangents. While these flights of fancy are amusing (as Cullen imagines his town overrun by zombies and the like) they distract from the plot immensely. The structure reminded me so much of the “If you give a mouse a cookie” books that it became the only thing I could imagine as I read these imaginings. Worse, these elements added nothing to the story except to create a titillating ending that leaves a tiny bit of room for discussion.

By the end of the story, Where Things Come Back became a strange and arbitrary novel with a mildly interesting (and very open) ending.

The Glass Swallow: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Glass Swallow by Julia GoldingRain’s father is one of the most sought-after glass makers in the kingdom of Tigral. Torrent’s mastery of stained glass is unrivaled with even the king and queen ordering windows from the Torrent forge for their palace.

The only problem is Torrent is not the visionary behind his stained glass designs. Rain, his daughter, is the designer–a secret that could get them both thrown out of the male-only glassmaker guild.

When an opportunity arises for Rain to visit a distant land and ply her wares, it seems like a fine opportunity. She will be able to promote her father’s forget and her craft all while keeping her secret and seeing the wonders of the kingdom of Magharna.

Unfortunately, within a day of her arrival everything goes very wrong.

Alone in a strange place, Rain must find her own way as she navigates the foreign language and strange customs of Magharna and tries to find her way home. As Rain learns more of her temporary home, she realizes something is very wrong in the state. With a flagging economy and a society on the brink of riot, Rain will have to get very creative to find her place and a way home in The Glass Swallow (2010) by Julia Golding.

The Glass Swallow is a companion Golding’s earlier novel Dragonfly. (The current king and queen of Tigral are the protagonists of Dragonfly while it’s fun to see the characters overlap you do not need to read one book to enjoy the other.)

The Glass Swallow is a cute if sometimes improbable story focused on Rain and a young Magharan falconer named Peri–a man deemed “untouchable” by the higher echelons of Magharan society. The story is written in third person with focus shifting between Rain and Peri (often highlighting deeply frustrating missed connections between the two characters).

Although Rain has a very rough start in Magharna things begin to go surprisingly well for her by the latter third of the novel as pieces of state politics and revolution fall into place as if part of Rain’s personal stained glass design. While groundwork is laid for the romantic aspect of the story, the romance too felt a bit contrived as it moved with surprising speed from flirtation to actual love.

The Glass Swallow is an entertaining fantasy. Given the characters’ ages I went into this book expecting something along the lines of YA fantasy. Instead the characters and plot read much younger marking this more as a middle grade level read. That said, The Glass Swallow is still very fun with the nice touches of both stained glass and bird handling as areas of interest in the story. While the story, particularly the latter half, felt cursory as if the characters were rushing to a resolution the story was often heartwarming. It’s very nice to read a well-thought-out fantasy with an unabashedly happy ending.

Possible Pairings: Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, The Selection by Kiera Cass, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley*, Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, Castle in the Air by Diana Wynne Jones, Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

*Strictly speaking this isn’t a real read-alike for this book. BUT it does have art and glass working and birds so why not?

On Warblers and Reference: A Linktastic post

This is a follow up to my post regarding Reference Without Words from October 2008.

For those who missed that post, Mom found a picture of a bird and I tried to identify it through some quick online research. This is that bird:

Yellow Bird

A few months later, in my reference class, I had to conduct a service review that consisted of my asking the same question of three different types of reference desks. I chose to ask them to help me identify the mysterious yellow bird. Given the need to share a photo, I reviewed face-to-face reference, online chat, email reference and Yahoo! Answers just because I felt like it. When I noticed that sometimes searches for “warblers” led users to this blog, I decided to share some of the sources I found. (Incidentally, the professor subsequently said that my choice of questions was “brilliant.”)

First, through my own queries, I located Birding.com. A sub-page on that site has information on bird identification (key features used in bird identification) as well as links to several identification quizzes to test your knowledge. These sources led me to conclude that the bird was a Warbler, possibly a Magnolia Warbler.

The Internet Public Library (something I didn’t even know about before my reference class) was another really helpful resource. IPL has an e-mail reference service. I sent them my question and a few days later got a thorough response back. Having been in class with students who volunteered for IPL I can attest that answering questions is intense and often a labor of love.

They led me to some other neat sources:

UNC Chapel Hill also has an unbelievable helpful e-mail reference service. They took a bit longer, but about a week later I got a response from the service which had forwarded my e-mail to one of UNC Chapel Hill’s Biology and Chemistry Librarians. Talk about customized service!

Last, but not least, never underestimate the help of the masses. Yahoo! Answers provides a giant user forum for, well, everything. You have to have a Yahoo! account, but then you can post a question, pick a category, and wait for a response. In my case I heard back from a woman who works as an ornithologist in real life.

To bring this back to warblers, no one source had a definitive answer. However, after pooling all of the various resources together, I am now able to say with relative confidence thaBlackburnian Warblert my bird was a Blackburnian Warbler.

What do you think?

Little (Grrl) Lost: A (reactionary) Chick Lit Wednesday review

Little (Grrl) Lost by Charles de LintLittle (Grrl) Lost (2007) is Charles De Lint‘s latest novel set in the fictitious city of Newford, the setting for much of De Lint’s work that helped to establish the urban fantasy genre. The Blue Girl from 2006 is another novel set in Newford (Cliff note plot to that book: Punky teen Imogen wants to start fresh, and mistake-free, when her family moves to Newford. She makes friends with Maxine, straight-laced girl with an overprotective mother. As time passes the girls observe strange happenings at their school and wind up matching wits with some very mean fairies among other things.)

The story in Little (Grrl) Lost is refreshingly straightforward for a fantasy: Fourteen-year-old T.J. is furious when her family has to leave their farm and move to Newford. To makes matter worse, T.J. has to leave behind her horse, Red, and her best friend. T.J. has a hard time adjusting to city life and making new friends–until she meets Elizabeth: a punky teenager who lives with her family in the walls of T.J.’s house. Elizabeth is a Little by name. And literally, standing only six inches tall.

As time passes, the girls form an unlikely friendship and begin an even more surprising adventure as they navigate their way through Little-lore and the urban streets of Newford as T.J. tries to help Elizabeth find her way in the Big world (and maybe find her own place in Newford at the same time).

This novel is extremely complicated stylistically. The story is told in multiple points-of-view with varying narration styles. The amazing thing about this technique is that De Lint still manages to create a seamless narration. He transitions between sections easily without being redundant or leaving the reader at a loss.

In order to better establish the difference between the narrations, De Lint writes T.J.’s section using the traditional third-person, past tense narration (“Jane walked to the store.”) incorporating periods from Geoff or Jaime’s perspective to flesh out certain events. Elizabeth’s sections, on the other hand, are written in the first-person, present tense (“I walk to the store.”), a style that is becoming very common in contemporary novels. (This style is also what makes Elizabeth’s sections of the narration sound more like De Lint’s other YA Newford novel, The Blue Girl.)

Most of the novel is set in the course of two very eventful days for the girls. Nonetheless, the narrative feels expansive. De Lint takes his time, fleshing out the details of T.J. and Elizabeth’s adventures. The story is also fairly light, maintaining a generally upbeat feel.

The important thing to remember about the story is that T.J. is fourteen while Elizabeth is sixteen or seventeen. For this reason, T.J.’s sections of the story read younger than the rest. And rightly so. In addition to creating very individual “voices” for the protagonist’s, De Lint also makes their age difference (and personality differences) clear with the divergent focuses of their narrative segments. That’s really hard to do without making the characters seem exaggerated or flat.

Unfortunately, for prolific authors like De Lint comparisons become inevitable. The most obvious one being between Little (Grrl) Lost and The Blue Girl because the novels are both YA and close together in terms of publications. To be clear, this is not a fair comparison. The Blue Girl is longer which means it has more space to deal with plot issues, and the characters are older which means they are not going to sound like T.J. In fact, beyond being set in Newford, the books have nothing in common.

Little (Grrl) Lost does, however, have the same character types as The Blue Girl: punk “bad” girl (Elizabeth/Imogen) and normal “goody-two-shoes” girl (T.J./Maxine). The difference is that the “good girl” gets a chance to voice her own opinions instead of leaving all of the narration to her best friend. This narrative split does, of course, create a different kind of novel but it is used here to good effect.

Despite its relatively short length, Little (Grrl) Lost is rich with detail, but the narrative is never over the top with description or explanation. Even with its numerous narrative voices, the story is never redundant. Basically, Little (Grrl) Lost gets everything right in terms of writing conventions. De Lint once again brings Newford and his characters (Big or Little) to life in this vivid and magical novel.

Possible Pairings: Kiki Strike by Kirsten Miller, Vibes by Amy Kathleen Ryan, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde, Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee