The Thief: A (Reread) Review

Gen can steal anything. As he is quick to tell  anyone who will listen. Or he could before he was arrested after successfully stealing Sounis’ royal seal (and unsuccessfully boasting about it).

Gen doesn’t know long he’s been in prison. Time is hard to measure based on circuits around his small cell. Certainly long enough to lose much of his strength and for sores from his shackles to begin to fester.

The achingly monotonous routine is broken when the king’s scholar, the magus, recruits Gen for a hunt of sorts. The magus knows the location of an ancient and valuable treasure that could change the balance of power between Sounis and Eddis in Sounis’ favor. The magus thinks Gen is the perfect tool to steal the object away. But like any good thief, Gen has secrets and plans of his own in The Thief (1996) by Megan Whalen Turner.

It’s hard to talk about this series without talking about myself. Eugenides and these books have been part of my life for more than a decade now; they’re in my blood and they are part of why I see the world the way I do and who I am in ways that are not always easy to explain.

In 2000 my mother did freelance data entry for HarperCollins where she could bring home free books (for me) including a lot of the books that I now think of as formative to who I have become. One of those books was The Queen of Attolia. I read it on its own and years later when I started working in my local library, I discovered The Thief and realized that I had read the second book in a series.

The Thief received a Newbery Honor in 1997 and, along with the rest of Turner’s Queen’s Thief novels, has garnered a faithful following and classic status among fantasy readers. Turner creates a world inspired by visits to Greece as well as the culture and pantheon of gods found in Ancient Greece. Using these bones Turner then develops the world further with a unique language and naming conventions, geography, and technology over a wide span of history (including clocks, pens, and maps) leading to parallels to the technologically advanced ancient Byzantines.

The Thief introduces readers to Eugenides, a thief, in this first-person narration where Gen is ostensibly relating exactly what happened after his arrest in Sounis. It is only as the story progresses that it becomes obvious that Gen is keeping secrets not just from the magus but from readers as well.

As Gen, the magus, and his retinue begin their journey Turner’s skills as a writer shine. Evocative descriptions bring the land of Sounis (and later pieces of Attolia and Eddis) to life. Gen’s razor sharp observations and cutting language paint his companions in stark detail while also chronicling his journey with a perfect mix of humor and annoyance.

Eugenides is an ingenious and clever  thief, of course, but also unbelievably sympathetic and unique. His fierce intelligence, skills of deception, and keen grasp of the powers of language and presentation are all key aspects of his personality. They are also, because he guards his secrets so closely, things readers only begin to understand about Eugenides as The Thief nears its conclusion and it becomes obvious that Gen is always at least five steps ahead of everyone and always holding all of the cards.

The Thief presents a memorable cast of brilliant characters who will later populate the rest of Turner’s novels including royalty, spies, soldiers, and even gods. This story also lays groundwork for one of the most carefully plotted and intricate series I have ever read. Even seventeen years after I first read The Thief, even after re-reading it twice more, this novel manages to surprise and impress me with new details to discover and old memories to cherish.

If you enjoy The Thief, you can read more about Eugenides (and Eddis, Sounis, and Attolia) in The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings and Thick as Thieves.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn, Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers,Soundless by Richelle Mead, Sabriel by Garth Nix, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

The Perilous Gard: A (classic) Review

The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie PopeEngland, 1558. Kate Sutton is serving as lady-in-waiting to Princess Elizabeth when a disastrous letter from Kate’s sister changes everything. Exiled by Queen Mary Tudor, Kate is sent to a distant castle called the Perilous Gard.

The Perilous Gard and the surrounding Elvenwood are steeped in mystery. Villagers fear the inhabitants of the castle and the castle staff refuse to explain why to Kate. The master of the castle, Sir Geoffrey Heron, offers even less in the way of answers as he is keen to be as far from the Gard as often as possible.

Sir Geoffrey’s brooding brother, Christopher, soon becomes Kate’s unlikely source for information. As Kate learns more about the castle and surrounding grounds, she begins to realize the Perilous Gard is hiding a secret–one that could change Christopher’s life. But secrets are dangerous things and trying to get to the truth surrounding her new home could lead to things far worse for Kate than mere exile in The Perilous Gard (1974) by Elizabeth Marie Pope.

The Perilous Gard was a Newbery Honor title in 1975. It is a retelling of Tam Lin.

The Perilous Gard is a perfect blend of historical fiction and fantasy. Kate’s story is very grounded in the reality of life in 1558 England, a period that Pope brings to life with carefully detailed prose and obviously thorough research. The story of Tam Lin is turned on its head here as fairies and Druid customs converge in a story of secrets, peril and human sacrifice.

Kate is an excellent heroine. She is pragmatic, stubborn and loyal to a fault. She refuses to let circumstances (or even dangerous fairies) stop her from doing what is necessary. She is also one of the most level-headed characters you are likely to meet.

Tam Lin, of course, centers heavily on a love story as a maiden tries to save her lover from the fairies who have laid claim to him. While there is still romance here, it is refreshingly honest and realistic. Kate and Christopher are rash and often quite thoughtless. At first they do not understand let alone like each other. Yes during unexpected time together, it becomes obvious that there might be (maybe should be) more to their relationship as this unlikely pair becomes fast friends.

It’s easy to think that a book from 1974–an arguable classic–would feel stale or stilted. Instead The Perilous Gard writing draws readers in and creates an all-consuming story that is an absolute delight. Highly recommended for readers who enjoy historical fiction, fantasy and fairy tale retellings, this book also has strong crossover potential for readers of all ages.

Possible Pairings: Chime by Franny Billingsley, The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, A Curse as Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce, Tam Lin by Pamela Dean, Entwined by Heather Dixon, Caraval by Stephanie Garber, Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, The Glass Casket by Templeman McCormick, Beauty by Robin McKinley,The Mirk and Midnight Hour by Jane Nickerson, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde, Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevemer, Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White, The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

Princess Academy: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Princess Academy by Shannon HaleFourteen-year-old Miri wants a lot of things. She wants to be useful to her family. She wants to be taller and stronger. She wants desperately to work in the quarry and understand quarry speak the way everyone else on Mount Eskel does.

What Miri doesn’t want is to be a princess. At least, she doesn’t think she does.

There isn’t much room on Mount Eskel for princesses anyway. The mountain landscape is as beautiful as the linder stone the villagers mine for their livelihood but life there is hard. Lowland traders come to buy the mined linder, but it’s barely enough to secure food for the winter.

Be that as it may, the lowlander priests of the creator god read the omens and divined that Mount Eskel is the home of the Danland Prince’s future bride.

An academy is quickly established for the eligible girls to learn to be proper princesses. At the academy the girls will learn the finer points of commerce, politics, negotiation and the art of conversation. Poise, dancing, and etiquette will also be on the table among other things.

None of which interests Miri one bit. She doesn’t want to be a princess. She wants to stay on Mount Eskel with her family. Except . . . Wouldn’t she prove how valuable she really is if she becomes princess?

It doesn’t take long for the other girls to have similar thoughts and competition soon becomes fierce. Miri is determined to prove herself but it might not take a tiara and a fine gown to do that, it might take a little thing called pluck in Princess Academy (2005) by Shannon Hale–a Newbery Honor book in 2006.

Despite what the title might suggest, Princess Academy is anything but girly. Miri and her friends are some of the toughest, most resilient characters around. The academy itself is also more than comportment and pretty dresses. There are arguments, bandits, and a very scary and very dark closet. No one said it would be easy becoming a princess.

Princess Academy is an honest, often funny book about learning that it takes more than physical strength to make a person strong. Miri is a real girl struggling to make sense of what it means to be a young woman instead of a girl while trying to make sense of what it might mean to be a princess. It is delightful to watch Miri’s world open up as she realizes there can be more to her life than Mount Eskel and see what this smart, brave character does with that knowledge.

Hale’s writing is snappy and engaging. Miri’s internal struggle with her desire to be a princess and her ties to Mount Eskel feel so real that most readers will not be able to guess  Miri’s true desires until the very end (let alone which girl will become the princess!).

Possible Pairings: Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Journey Across the Hidden Islands by Sarah Beth Durst, Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix, The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy, Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay, Enchanted by Alethea Kontis, Soundless by Richelle Mead, Kiki Strike by Kirsten Miller, Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan, The Accidental Highwayman by Ben Tripp, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde, Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

Holes: A Review

Holes by Louis SacharStanley Yelnats IV is not a bad kid. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time which happened to lead to him getting arrested. In fact, all of the Stanley Yelnats right back to the first had a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and just being all around unlucky. Each Stanley Yelnats knows exactly where that unfortunate knack comes from. It comes directly from Stanley’s no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing great-great-grandfather.

But most people don’t believe too much in curses that stem from stolen pigs. They also don’t believe Stanley when he proclaims his innocence. Arrested and found guilty, Stanley is given a choice: go to jail or go to Camp Green Lake. Stanley had never been to camp before.

But Camp Green Lake isn’t like a regular camp. This isn’t a girl scout camp. Camp Green Lake is a camp for bad boys. There used to be a lake and a town by the camp, but they disappeared long ago. Now there are only yellow-spotted lizards and heat. And holes.

The theory is that if you take a bad boy and make him dig a hole every day in the hot sun, it will turn him into a good boy. So Stanley and the other campers dig.

But the more Stanley digs, the more he starts to wonder. What are the holes for? What could be buried by the non-existent lake? What starts as a search for answers might lead to a journey that will break the Yelnats curse once and for all in Holes (1998) by Louis Sachar.

Holes was the 1998 Newbery medal winner for its “distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” It is also, it must be said, strikingly similar in style and theme to Maniac Magee, the 1991 Newbery winner.

Sachar takes what could potentially be a bleak, mirthless story and instead delivers a darkly funny, intensely exciting one. It may seem that a story about boys digging holes would have little in the way of action. Far from it, Holes is filled with entwined storylines, witty dialogue, intrigue, and even some near-death experiences and commentary on discrimination.

If you enjoy Holes (as I’m sure you will), be sure to check out the movie adaptation (Spinelli had a hand in the screenplay and Shia Labeouf played Stanley) and the sequel Small Steps (featuring Armpit and Xray).

Possible Pairings: Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, The View From Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg, Count Karlstein by Phillip Pullman, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, Small Steps by Louis Sachar, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, Holes (movie version)
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Sound good? Find it on Amazon: Holes

Maniac Magee: A Review

They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box and his heart a sofa spring.

They say he kept an eight-inch cockroach on a leash and that rats stood guard over him while he slept.

They say if you knew he was coming and you sprinkled salt on the ground and he ran over it, within two or three blocks he would be as slow as everybody else.

They say.

Maniac Magee by Jerry SpinelliBut before anyone said any of those things, Jeffrey Magee was just a normal boy. At least he was until he was orphaned and ran away to Two Mills a year after. No one knows why it took him a year to get to Two Mills. No one knows where the truth ends and the myth begins.

This is what we do know: Finsterwald is gone now but kids will never sit on those front steps. Two Mills still has a Little League and a band shell. Cobble’s Corner is still at the corner of Hector and Birch and the man behind the counter still has the clump of string. And grade school girls still sing about Jeffrey Magee, though they might not know him by that name.

If you want to know about Maniac, just run your hand under your movie seat and be very, very careful not to let the facts get mixed up with the truth in Maniac Magee (1990) by Jerry Spinelli.

Maniac Magee was the 1991 Newbery winner and recently selected as number 17 in Betsy Bird’s 100 Greatest Children’s books poll over at her blog A Fuse #8 Production. It is also a surprisingly rich story given its 184 pages (paperback edition).

Part legend, part tall tale, Spinelli spins a yarn here about an ordinary boy who, through his own ingenuity and maybe a bit of luck, does extraordinary things–things that have the power to change the lives of those around him. But at its core, Maniac Magee is a story about a boy looking for a place to call home and a family of his own.

Spinelli skillfully captures the wonder of youth in his writing here. Maniac Magee is a wonderful, fun story that is more than ready for a book discussion.

Possible Pairings: Lucky Strikes by Louis Bayard, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, You Don’t Know Me by David Klass, Holes by Louis Sachar, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

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.

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

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.

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