book lists bookish posts

Chapter books about art heists and mysteries

Recently I noticed something intriguing–the number of chapter books that feature mysteries about arts. Heists, thefts, and other strange situations apparently attract kids who are the only ones who can solve them! Of course, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is perhaps the classic, but there are lots more! Here is a selection if, like me, you find this kind of storyline catnip.

The Art of the Swap by Kristine Asselin and Jen Malone
Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett
Masterpiece by Elise Broach
Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking by Erin Dionne
The Gallery by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
London Art Chase by Natalie Grant
The Mystery of the Mona Lisa, France by Elizabeth Singer Hunt
Hannah West, Sleuth in Training by Linda Johns
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
The Mystery of the Martello Tower by Jennifer Lanthier
Manhunt by Kate Messner
The Mystery of the Third Lucretia by Susan Runholt
The Sweetest Heist in History by Octavia Spencer
Mystery on Museum Mile by Marcia Wells

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Recent Reading: C.J. Cherryh and Gail Carson Levine

I just couldn’t keep up the J Fic only thing any longer, and ended up plowing through the second Bren Cameron trilogy in three nights, staying up way too late. I’m not intentionally spoiling things here, but I’m also not avoiding spoilers, so tread carefully.

Thoughts on specific books
precursorPrecursor by C.J. Cherryh: After the first trilogy, it’s nice to see Bren with some self-confidence. He still doesn’t know everything, he’s still blindsided by his allies as often as his enemies, but he’s more settled in his own authority, his own skin. Which for me, makes him a more compelling character. We get our first real taste of the ship culture, and how different it is from both Mospheira and the mainland. Cherryh does this difference in cultures thing very well.

defenderDefender by C.J. Cherryh: Ah, this is in my opinion the weakest of the Bren Cameron books that I’ve read. The tension seems ratcheted down; I never really doubted the outcome. I do like seeing Jase stepping up, since in some ways his arc in this trilogy echoes Bren’s in the previous books.

explorerExplorer by C.J. Cherryh: This book contains an interesting broadening of Cherryh’s usual themes–the complex interaction between alien & human societies and government. At the end, I can’t help but wonder if the Pilot’s Guild become understood as the atevi, kyo, and ship humans have, by interaction with particular individuals. Or, because of their isolationism, will they be the true aliens in the middle of this far-reaching alliance?

Thoughts about the trilogy overall
I noticed Bren starting to think in atevi terms first, perhaps mirroring a similar response in readers. That is, I noticed myself registering numbers, on a very low level, but I was definitely noticing the structure of the sentences. You can feel the tension in Tabini’s actions at beginning of Precursor and his choice to speak between the second and third bells. This is some fine writing.

I do sigh a little about the portrayal of ordinary women. I like Jago and Illisidi a great deal, and especially perhaps the different ways in which they wield power. There are also several competent experts, from Gin Kroger to Sabin. These tend to be older, which makes logical sense in terms of their experience and is nice to see in a universe that’s otherwise very young. But–but, Bren’s mother and Barb are both viewed with skepticism, distance; an unkindness that no one else gets. For what? Because they inconvenience him? I don’t have an answer for this, but given what’s happened so far I’m not sure I’ll get an answer that’s satisfying to me. I’m not accusing, or pointing any fingers, but it’s enough of a pattern that I noticed it.

Of course, the point of view in these books is SO limited it might as well be first person, so we are getting them filtered solely through Bren. But we are led throughout–in basically everything else–to trust Bren. We feel his reactions, his emotions. It’s certainly understandable that he has a weak point, but why does it have to involve sneering at women who put their whole selves into raising children?

I wondered at one point if Bren’s full name is Brendan, for St. Brendan the Voyager. It would seem very fitting in these books.

Now for something completely different
princess talesThe Princess Tales by Gail Carson Levine: Levine does fun things with fairy tales, but these shorter stories are no Ella Enchanted. They use the structure of traditional stories and subvert them a bit, but never quite enough–at least for me. I especially found the resolution of the first story, a retelling of “Toads and Diamonds” to be frustrating. Seriously? I’m supposed to accept this as okay? “Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep” was probably my favorite of the three, although my adult brain was muttering darkly about How Child Development Works and The Necessity of Sleep to Proper Functioning.

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Hunt for the Hydra by Jason Fry

hunt for the hydraHunt for the Hydra is one I came across on John Scalzi’s blog, as part of the Big Idea series, which is why I continue to at least skim those posts. Every so often, one of the books featured really catches my eye. The first book in the Jupiter Pirates series, Hunt for the Hydra was one of those and turned out to be a really fun book, with several different layers to the story.

The Tashoone family are space privateers, living on their ship, the Shadow Comet. As part of their family traditions, the children in each generation must compete with each other to win the position of Captain. Tycho, our narrator, and his two siblings view each encounter with another ship as a chance to prove their worth. The set-up isn’t one that will be familiar to most children, but the emotional core of it–comparing yourself with your siblings and feeling lacking–is.

There’s also a lot about the history of the space privateers, and a tension between the older generation, which acted as out and out pirates, and the younger, who operate under the authority of the Jovian Union. And there’s quite a bit of political drama, as the Union and the corporations which run Earth both attempt to maneuver with the Comet and her crew as their pawns.

Hunt for the Hydra is a rollicking adventure story, with space battles and courtroom staredowns. Yesterday on Twitter I was talking about how I want more middle grade & juvenile books to have a political sense, by which I mean an awareness of the larger issues in the world around the main characters. And Hunt for the Hyda does this as well, without detracting in any way from the fun parts.

I’ll also note that, while the main character is a boy, his mother is the current Captain and there’s never a sense of his sister, Yana, being less likely to become Captain because of her gender. On the other hand, I didn’t spot a lot of racial diversity, which seems like a missed opportunity (especially since the Hashoones are never described in detail–surely the cover could have been something other than default white boy?). On the whole, though, this is the kind of smart, thoughtful, fun SFF that I really enjoy!

Book source: public library
Book information: 2013, HarperCollins; juvenile/younger mg

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How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle

HIBAG - dustcover FINAL MAR192013.inddThis book first entered my consciousness when Charlotte reviewed it back in September. It went on my TBR, and sat there until a recent discussion on the CCBC listserv I subscribe to. I wanted to be able to follow the discussion, so I sat down and read the book, finally.

Before I began reading, I didn’t know very much about the story or the history that underlies it. While this is obviously not something I’m proud of (at least as far as the history is concerned), not knowing what was going to happen next did keep the suspense going through the book. I suspect many mainstream readers would share that experience, and I wondered how much Tingle counted on that being the case.

But make no mistake–How I Became a Ghost is based on history, real and raw. Tingle deals with this without being unsubtle, and there’s a kind of directness about Isaac’s voice that lets the reader react to what’s happening without pointing to the moral. So yes, this is a powerful story with a wonderful narrator, one who’s smart and thoughtful and loyal to his family and his culture.

I also liked the subtle way the narrative pushes back against stereotypes. Isaac and his family live in a cabin, along with their relatives and neighbors. He has a dog, Jumper (one of my favorite characters in the story), and a family, a life that is cast as stable, even if it’s not rich or high-powered. All of that changes when his community is uprooted and forced onto the Trail, and it’s clear that for the Choctaw this is a deeply painful and devastating event that is done to them. I appreciated that even though Isaac doesn’t fully understand treaties, he is aware of them and their influence on his life.

And, even though there are some very sad and horrifying moments, there are also some very funny ones. The story ends with a sense of hope–that even though all of these things have been done to the Choctaw, everything and everyone they have lost, they still have a sense of pride in their culture and people.

I am not sure whether to say this is a fantasy book or not. Personally–and I’m not sure anyone else will get this–I don’t tend to think of books which simply take seriously the spiritual or religious beliefs of a culture as fantasy. (So, books where the Greek gods simply exist–ie, Mary Renault.) So I would tend to say that How I Became a Ghost isn’t fantasy. However, not everyone will share that definition, so I will say that by most people’s lights, this is a historical fantasy.

Isaac is ten, and I think ten and up is probably a good age to give this one to kids. Those who are already starting to grapple with the difficulties of the world and have begun to realize how cruel people can be to each other. That said, as with every book, it’s a delicate balance and depends on the child. (I read The Hiding Place when I was about ten and it made a deep impression, in a good way. This could easily be that book for another child.)

Book source: public library
Book information: 2013, Roadrunner Press; juvenile/middle grade

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The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes

year of billy millerI am nothing like Billy Miller. I am not a boy. I have never lived in Wisconsin, and I didn’t attend public school in second grade. If I had, I would have been more like the book-smart, stuck-up Emma than Billy.

On the other hand, I am quite a bit like Billy Miller. My father was artistic and I called him Papa but was slightly embarrassed by this. Billy worries over things, and so do I. Billy cares about the people around him but sometimes hurts their feelings, even when he doesn’t mean to. This sounds uncomfortably familiar.

Billy takes a wonderful delight in the smallest of things–the trembling of a bat in a diorama, for instance. He’s not a superhero, or a larger-than-life character. He’s complex and contradictory, trying to grow up and find his way in a sometimes confusing world. He doesn’t always get everything right, but he tries really hard.

Just before I read The Year of Billy Miller, I attempted to read Kate DiCamillo’s latest, Flora & Ulysses. And I had to set it down after a few chapters. I’m sure it has its champions–a reader for every book, yes–and that they are responding to something I couldn’t see. I wanted to like it, the story of a spunky girl and her superhero squirrel. But there’s a kind of superficiality to it. It’s so shiny that I can’t get below the surface to the heart. Plus, the humor worries me–we have jokes about brain tumors, blind kids, and romance writers, and that’s just in the part I read.

But Billy Miller starts off with Billy worried about his upcoming school year, because he fell and bumped his head. He worries about his father’s lack of breakthrough, even when he doesn’t exactly understand what that is. He tries to stay up all night while his parents are away. There’s a realness to all of this, an everyday texture that makes Billy far more than an every-man hero.

At the same time, Billy is yet another white boy. He worries about whether his teacher thinks he’s a nice person, and his world is a very sheltered one. And yet, how often are boys told (implicitly or explicitly) that emotions are girly, not manly? Billy, who feels things intensely, who loves intensely,¬†certainly provides a counter to this. I began thinking about this as I wrote this post and I don’t have an answer. I have a sense that somehow these things can be held in balance, and yet I don’t quite see how to do it.

But I do know that I loved reading this book, that I want to read more of Henkes’ chapter books, and that I want more books which aren’t afraid to take seriously the small concerns of childhood, to value them without laughing at or dismissing them.

Book source: public library

Book information: 2013, HarperCollins; J Fiction

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Mini-reviews: late June

Escape from the Pipe Men by Mary G Thompson: A juvenile sci-fi book. I received my copy from the author to review. The premise was interesting, and I suspect a certain age and type of reader might enjoy it. For myself, I found the world rather unconvincing, and wished that motivations had been fleshed out a little more. Still, it was a quick, plot driven read.

Angel with the Sword by CJ Cherryh: I read this one for the Book Smugglers’ Old School Wednesday feature. I already knew I loved Cherryh, based on the first three books in the Foreigner universe (which I will get back to someday). Angel was a lovely read, which felt very science fantasy to me. I especially appreciated the fact that the heroine was from a different class than fantasy protagonists often are, and that she was depicted as having a more realistic and grounded view of life than the higher class characters. Basically, I thought she was awesome. I know Ana and Thea thought that the main male character was a bit thin; honestly, during reading this didn’t bother me, though I can see their point. I’ve heard there are shared world short stories set in the same place, and I would definitely be interested in reading them at some point.

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen: Earlier this year, I read The Girl Who Chased the Moon, and really liked it. I’d been meaning to read some of Sarah Addison Allen’s other books, and then I went on a little mini-binge. Garden Spells was lovely, from the characters to the description of the edible plants, down to the sheer sentence-level writing.

The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen: This was the second in my mini-binge. Maybe it was reading it on public transit in Chicago, but it didn’t have quite the same magic that either Girl or Garden Spells had. In particular, I figured out a plot point really early and couldn’t see why the main character didn’t. After finishing, I think she was meant to be wilfully blind, but I also wish that thread had been handled a little differently. It’s still a lovely book, but not my favorite.