The Storyspinner: A Review

The Storyspinner by Becky WallaceThe Keepers have been searching for the long-missing princess for years. They have used their magic and more traditional skills but the princess, long rumored dead, has proven elusive leaving room for rival dukes to compete and connive as they struggle to claim her throne for themselves.

Johanna–a Performer left without a troupe after her father’s grisly demise–thinks such matters are far above her station in life. Until murdered girls begin turning up across the kingdom bearing a striking resemblance to Johanna.

Desperate to support her family and a victim of circumstance Johanna is soon forced to work with Lord Rafael DeSilva. Unfortunately for her, Rafi is boorish and insufferable. Not to mention he shares an equally low opinion of Johanna.

When her path aligns with the hunt for the princess, Johanna finds herself at the center of a dangerous web of secrets that could cost Johanna her life in The Storyspinner (2015) by Becky Wallace.

The Storyspinner is Wallace’s debut novel and part of a duology that concludes in The Skylighter.

This novel is written in close third person and alternates between seven points of view including Johanna and Rafi. This multitude of main characters allows Wallace to balance two narrative threads that eventually converge and maintain some surprise although transitions between chapters and characters are often abrupt. Making so many characters into “main” characters leaves little room to develop any of them. Instead of a multi-faceted ensemble cast, The Storyspinner feels like it is populated by one note characters including from the sage wielder of magic, the resentful sister trying to prove herself, and more.

Wallace situates her fantasy in a fictional world that borrows heavily from Portuguese culture with language, food, and more. While this adds flair to the story, it seems out of place with an explanation for where these elements come from.

The Storyspinner starts strong with an intriguing premise that fails to get very far before it is mired in an overly large cast of characters. Recommended for readers looking for a plot driven story that is light on the world building and heavy on the action.

Possible Pairings: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch, The Shadow Queen by C. J. Redwine, The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury

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The Marvels: A Review

The Marvels by Brian SelznickThe story starts in 1776 with Billy Marvel, the only survivor of a shipwreck. Alone in the world and looking to start over Billy finds himself drawn to a London theater beginning a dynasty of actors and theater performers that will span five generations.

In 1990 Joseph Jervis runs away from his boarding school to the home of an estranged uncle he has never met. Uncle Albert’s house is like nothing Joseph has ever seen. As he struggles to find his place in the world, Joseph will also have to unravel the mystery of the strange Marvel family and how their story is intricately linked to Joseph’s family and his own future in The Marvels (2015) by Brian Selznick.

The Marvels is Selznick’s third novel in his innovative blend of traditional prose narrative and wordless illustrations. This time the illustrations and prose offer two distinct stories that blend together in surprising ways by the end of the novel.

The Marvels begins with wordless illustrations following the larger-than-life Marvel family and their exploits on the London stage from 1776 with Billy Marvel down to 1900 when young Leo Marvel wonders if it is time to choose another path.

The prose narrative picks up in 1990 as Joseph arrives in London desperate to find somewhere he can call home–even if it is with a prickly uncle he has never met in a strange house filled with artifacts whose important Joseph will come to understand over the course of the book.

The less you know about The Marvels before you read it, the better. This book is one that should be experienced cold as readers work with Joseph to make sense of Uncle Albert’s mysterious house and all of the secrets it holds.

The Marvels is an obvious progression of Selznick’s work as he masterfully brings together two seemingly unrelated narratives to create a cohesive story that is as complex as it is enthralling. Definitely a must-read of 2015.

If you want to know more about Selznick’s inspiration and process, check out this article: http://www.vulture.com/2015/08/brian-selznicks-latest-the-marvels.html

You can also check out the trailer which Selznick created to get a sense of the sweeping beauty of this novel.

Possible Pairings: A Tale of Two Castles by Gail Carson Levine, Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai, Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt, Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool, One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, Weedflower by Jacqueline Woodson

Drama: A (graphic!) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Drama by Raina TelgemeierCallie loves everything about theater productions even if a certain lack of skills will keep her backstage. That’s okay because Callie is a great set designer and she is totally pumped about her middle school’s production of Moon Over Mississippi.

But creating a Broadway-worthy set with a middle school’s budget (and rules) isn’t easy.

Turns out staging a production brings a lot of drama both onstage and offstage for Callie and her friends. Will the play survive cranky actors, prop malfunctions, and a whole production’s worth of romantic mishaps? Will Callie get to make the cannon that is crucial to her vision? Will Callie’s best friend Liz survive all of her trips to the spooky basement costume storage?

It might get messy but no one can say this year’s production will be anything less than exciting in Drama (2013) by Raina Telgemeier.

Drama is a totally endearing, full color graphic novel full of effervescent fun. The story itself is almost as exuberant as our intrepid heroine, Callie. Plucky, fun, refreshingly confident and outspoken Callie is a girl readers will love as someone to cheer for (and maybe someone they recognize from their own experiences).

Telgemeier offers up another delightfully cheerful story with substance and fantastic artwork. No detail is forgotten in the illustrations–even body language and whispers are perfectly clear. Drama completely immerses readers into Callie’s life and the intricacies of being part of the stage crew. A great read for anyone with a love of musicals and the theater.

Possible Pairings: Will by Maria Boyd, Skinny by Donna Crooner, Take a Bow by Elizabeth Eulberg, Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks, The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow, Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson, A Tale of Two Castles by Gail Carson Levine, The Miles Between by Mary E. Pearson

*This book was acquired for review from the publisher at BEA 2012*

Exclusive Bonus Content: I’m seeing some reviews talking about the content in this book being too “mature” for the intended audience (or maybe younger as some mentioned fourth and fifth graders). I completely disagree BUT if you are wondering SPOILERS can explain: Several characters come out during the course of the story which contributes to the overall drama. One kiss is shown and nothing else. I don’t have experience with such topics but the number of kids (because, really, I do think seventh and eighth graders are still kids not teens) who were comfortable and aware enough of their sexuality to identify as gay felt . . . surprisingly high. THAT SAID I think Telgemeier handled everything she presented perfectly given the intended audience and I’m sure a lot of middle school kids are going to eat this up. As with most content-related issues it absolutely depends on the reader. At the end of the day, it’s totally fine to walk away from a book because it’s not what you wanted it to be–no matter what the reason.

A Tale of Two Castles: A Review

A Tale of Two Castles by Gail Carson LevineElodie comes to the town of Two Castles with one goal: to become a mansioner. Her greatest hope, her only actual plan upon arriving in town, is to apprentice herself to a mansioner that she might become an accomplished performer in her own right.

When Elodie’s hope is dashed she is forced to look for another plan or starve in Two Castles with none of her family at home even knowing about her plight.

Help comes in the unusual form of a dragon named Meenore.

Mysteries (and cats) abound in Two Castles, which makes the town an ideal place for a dragon like Meenore to peddle ITs powers of deducing, inducing, finding missing things and missing people. Two Castles is also a fine town for a girl like Elodie to proclaim said dragon’s numerous talents and even to assist such a dragon in the solving of mysteries.

One of the castles in Two Castles belongs to the king, of course. But the other houses an ogre who might be in great danger. Or he might be preparing to devour townsfolk. One way or the other Elodie will have to help her Masteress Meenore make sense of the secrets in Two Castles. Together dragon and girl will have to induce, deduce and use common sense (and perhaps some mansioning) to separate the kind from the cruel and ultimately determine who can be trusted in A Tale of Two Castles (2011) by Gail Carson Levine.

A Tale of Two Castles is Carson Levine’s first mystery–inspired partly by the story of “The Puss in Boots.”*

With our intrepid narrator Elodie being twelve years old, the story is essentially a children’s read but Elodie is strong enough as a character and the plot is exciting enough that it can easily appeal to older readers as well.

Carson Levine creates a well-realized world in Two Castles complete with its own customs and vocabulary. (Dragons always being called IT because only a dragon knows its own gender was a particularly nice touch.) In addition to creating an exciting whodunnit of sorts, A Tale of Two Castles is a simply a funny book. Elodie is completely out of her element and watching her make her way in the strange surroundings of Two Castles makes for several good laughs and a fair bit of drama besides.

As readers of her Newbery Honor title Ella Enchanted will expect, Carson Levine includes a lot of traditional fairy tale elements here and turns them completely upside down–mysteries are everywhere and nothing it as it seems. Elodie is a delightful narrator who, though she might stumble along the way, eventually finds the truth and a place for herself in this rollicking and winsome read.

*She explained this at her event last month at Books of Wonder. She is quite a funny and charming speaker so if you ever get a chance I STRONGLY recommend going to see her in person. You won’t regret it!

Possible Pairings: Murder at Midnight by Avi, Gideon the Cutpurse (AKA The Time Travelers) by Linda Buckley-Archer, Rise of the Darklings by Paul Crilley, The Girl Who Could Not Dream by Sarah Beth Durst, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, The Marvels by Brian Selznick, Drama by Raina Telgemeier, Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

Exclusive Bonus Content: How great is that cover? Illustrator Greg Call did a great job capturing the look of both Elodie and Meenore. Love it.

William S. and the Great Escape: A Review

William S. and the Great Escape by Zilpha Keatley SnyderWilliam S. Baggett doesn’t plan on being a Baggett for much longer. He’s been scrimping and saving and soon he’s going to run away.

Turns out soon comes a lot faster than William expected. And with a lot more problems.

Being a Baggett, especially a little Baggett, isn’t easy at the best of times. But when Jancy’s pet guinea pig is flushed down the toilet by two older Baggetts she knows it’s time to leave. William knows too. Even if he would have liked more time to plan and save and, well, get older than twelve.

All of a sudden William, Jancy and the two smallest Baggetts are making their escape to find their aunt Fiona’s house and maybe someone who will actually care about them and welcome them. At least, they hope.

But it turns out running away is harder than William thought, especially with two little kids in tow. Getting some help from a lonely rich girl might be a big help. Or it might spell disaster for all of their non-Baggett plans in William S. and the Great Escape (2009) by Zilpha Keatley Snyder.

William S. and the Great Escape is an interesting combination of runaway story set in 1938 and excerpts from Shakespeare* (William is a big fan of . . . that other William) as William tries to entertain his younger siblings. Snyder is no stranger to building suspense. The story is fraught with tension as the youngest Baggetts (and the reader) wonder if they will make it to Aunt Fiona’s and, more importantly, if she will let them stay.

Are the Baggett’s problems at home over the top? Is the plot improbable? Perhaps. But that’s kind of the point. Snyder puts together a little bit of the historical, a little bit of the dramatic, and a lot of humor and charm in this book to create a story that is pure fun and pure escapism for any reader.

*All of the quotes and Shakespeare related matters are set in an Old English style font so that they stand out. And may or may not be easier to skip if the reader is more interested in young William S. than in William Shakespeare.

Possible Pairings: The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood, The Secret Garden by France Hodgson Burnett, You Don’t Know Me by David Klass, The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson, Holes by Louis Sachar, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, Heidi by Johanna Spyri

Exclusive Bonus Content: Sometimes silhouettes creep me out (long story) but despite that I am madly in love with this book’s cover. The illustration by David Frankland and the jacket design by Debra Sfetsios come together to create a real stunner

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.

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)

Suite Scarlett: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Maureen JohnsonSuite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson‘s novel Suite Scarlett (2008) focuses on Scarlett Martin and her family who live in the Hopewell Hotel in the heart of New York City*. That might sound like a dream come true but just ask Scarlett about her fifteenth birthday and it’s easy to see the sometimes harsh realities that owning and running a hotel can really entail.

The Hopewell hotel has been around since 1929 and has belonged to the Hopewell family for just as long. While the hotel can’t compete with some of its ritzier neighbors in terms of luxuries on offer, the Hopewell does have some unique benefits including custom furnishings by a prestigious (fictional) Jazz Age designer, connections to the history of the city and its ever-glamorous theater life. In order to lower maintenance costs for the hotel, the Martins have come up with a unique tradition. On their fifteenth birthday every child receives a hotel suite thereby also inheriting the housekeeping duties and guest services connected to said suite.

Scarlett is pretty sure such duties will not do much to alleviate the dullness of her summer vacation since the Hopewell is always chronically under-booked. Unlike Scarlett, her siblings have a lot to manage this summer: Eighteen-year-old Lola is busy juggling family obligations, a job she loves, and a high maintenance boyfriend with an equally high balance in his bank account; eleven-year-old Marlene, the youngest Martin, does not share Scarlett’s summer doldrums since her survivor’s club keep her social calendar plenty full (have you been on a morning TV show yet?); meanwhile nineteen-year-old Spencer, a talented actor with a fondness for physical comedy is faced with an ultimatum that could end his acting career before it’s even started.

Everything changes when the larger-than-life Mrs. Amberson checks into the Empire Suite (Scarlett’s suite) and takes her on an assistant in everything from running errands to getting reacquainted with the City and writing the biography of her life. Already swept up in Mrs. Amberson’s whirlwind, Scarlett also finds herself swept off her feet when she meets Eric the gorgeous fellow actor in a production of Hamlet that might just save Spencer’s career–if the show ever opens.

Suite Scarlett holds a lot of appeal for a variety of readers. Being a book by Maureen Johnson it is, of course, very funny. It also has many tidbits about New York that will interest anyone who has a special place for that big apple in their hearts. Most of all, this book has a lot of appeal for theater lovers. Before becoming a published novelist Johnson worked as a dramaturg in the theater world (a dramaturg basically being the person who makes sure every single aspect of a show runs smoothly while directors and other theater types focus less on the big picture). Johnson brings all of that knowledge to this book to really bring the theatrical world that Spencer and, by extension, Scarlett come to inhabit as the plot progresses.

While this story has a bit of romance and humor and excitement, it is really a novel about family, specifically siblings. Each of the Martin children are vibrantly described on the page. Spencer in particular is a character that readers will love to love. In fact, the only problem with Suite Scarlett is that with such an awesome brother as Spencer, Scarlett’s love interest Eric pales by comparison. All the same, this book has something for everyone and is sure to leave readers with a smile on their face.

*If you want to see New York City the way Scarlett lives it, you can check out Johnson’s interactive map of Scarlett’s New York.

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, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson, The Statistical Probability of True Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith, Drama by Raina Telgemeier