Monday, December 30, 2013

REVIEW: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Rating: 4.5/5 Stars
Genre: Historical Fiction
Audience: Adult
Format: Audiobook

Summary: Katey Kontent and her roommate meet Tinker Gray by chance on New Year's Eve 1937 at a jazz bar in Greenwich Village. Both girls are fascinated by the sophisticated yet boyish banker and the trio struck up an immediate if tenuous friendship. That meeting and the resulting friendship leads to far-reaching consequences for each of their lives. The novel focuses on Katey's life and choices of the following year, as she finds herself forming new relationships and mingling in the upper echelons of New York society.

First Line: "On the night of October 4th, 1966, Val and I, both in late middle age, attended the opening of Many Are Called at the Museum of Modern Art—the first exhibit of the portraits taken by Walker Evans in the 1930s on the New York subway with a hidden camera."

Tracy's Thoughts: First, let me say that I adored this book. Amor Towles's rich language and vivid description bring to life a fully realized world and nuanced characters I did not want to leave behind. I don't think the setting could have been any better depicted. The dialog, the real-life settings—everything comes together perfectly to recreate the golden ear of Manhattan, reminiscent of classic movies starring the likes of Carole Lombard, Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, or Katherine Hepburn. Towles creates a lush yet uneasy world of artifice and hidden agendas that intrigues and delights. For its emphasis on betrayals, disappointments, class tensions and iniquities, Rules of Civility has even been compared to works of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

But Katey is not your average socialite-wannabe. She is also a bit of an enigma herself, having recreated herself more than once, but she does not put on airs or deny her humble origins. She is a devoted reader (an interest which plays quietly but significantly into her story) and is determined to earn her own way. As a narrator, Katey is sharp-tongued, witty, and just a little vulnerable. As her choices throughout the year reveal their consequences, the reader can't help but feel her disappointment, uncertainty, and determination. As circumstances shift and new opportunities arise, Katey proves herself a worthy—though far from perfect—heroine.

Instead of huge events, this is a novel full of a series of small revelations and shifts in circumstance that simultaneously feel both startling and inevitable. Earlier clues and dropped threads reappear in a way that feels natural and realistic rather than manipulative. But ultimately, this is a book that will appeal to readers more interested in character development that plot-driven narratives.With its careful, subtle plotting, intriguing characters, and atmospheric setting, it was the perfect book for me. It is a superbly told story of random chance, everyday life-altering decisions, and reinvention. All in all, a perfect read as the New Year approaches.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

REVIEW: Crankee Doodle by Tom Angleberger, Illustrated by Cece Bell

Rating: 4/5 Stars
Genre: Picture Book/Humor
Audience: Pre-K–Grade 2

Summary: Crankee Doodle is bored. But when his pony helpfully suggests several possible solutions for the tedium, Crankee is unreceptive and becomes increasingly contrary with each of the pony's ideas.

First Line: "I'm bored."

Tracy's Thoughts: The song "Yankee Doodle" has never made much sense to me, but I absolutely loved singing it as a kid. (Truthfully, it's still kind of fun to sing.) But in this hilarious picture book, the nonsense lyrics take on new life and even get a bit of much needed clarification.

The illustrations are simple, in bold primary (and patriotic) colors. As Crankee becomes increasingly...well, cranky, squiggly, wavy lines are introduced in the background. Other subtle artistic touches add humor—particularly in the last pages, when Crankee and his pony finally make it to town. The highlight here, though, is Angleberger's (the Origami Yoda books) dialog between the cranky Yank and his pony. Crankee's escalating rants grow more and more long-winded and personal until  both characters unravel in complete (and highly hilarious!) meltdowns.This book makes for a great read aloud and will prove particularly relevant for a child in the midst of his own irritable day.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

REVIEW: Wait! Wait! by Hatsue Nakawaki and Komako Sakai (Illustrator)

Rating: 5/5 Stars
Genre: Picture Book
Audience: Pre-Kindergarten

Summary: A toddler explores the outside world, chasing after a variety of creatures only to have them escape. Eventually the child is scooped up by dad for the trip home from the park.

First Lines: "Wait! Wait!"

Tracy's Thoughts: Gentle, minimalistic text and delicate acrylic and oil pencil illustrations beautifully capture a child's sense of wonder and growing independence in this quiet picture book originally published in Japan. Simple lines and smudges are used to convey both emotion and movement. The child's facial expressions and movements are perfectly rendered in realistic, subtle detail.Curious children will almost feel the cat slipping from their grasps and will fully relate to the child's startled awe when the pigeons take flight and flap away.

The book's palette is mostly neutrals, with small splashes of color to emphasize flushed cheeks and background details. But the focus throughout is on the toddler, who is at the center of a series of two-page spreads. Dressed in a black and white ensemble of overalls, shirt, and chunky shoes, the child could be either a boy or a girl, adding to the universality of her actions. This is a tender and lovely work which perfectly illustrates a child's curiosity and early interaction with the natural world.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

REVIEW: The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

Rating: 4/5 Stars
Genre: Fantasy/Fairy Tale
Audience: Middle-Grade/Tween

Children have been disappearing from the village of Gavaldon for generations. Adults claim children simply get lost in the forest and disappear, but the children know the truth. Every four years, two children—one nice child and one nasty child—are spirited away by the mysterious School Master to be trained as heroes and villains, eventually graduating into fairy tales of their own. Sophie has always believed she will be selected for the School of Good and groomed to become a princess. And surely her witchy, loner friend Agatha is destined for the School of Evil. Only once Sophie's dream comes true and she and Agatha are taken by the School Master, the girls find that their presumed destinies are flipped and the school is far more dangerous than they anticipated.

First Line: "Sophie had waited all her life to be kidnapped."

Tracy's Thoughts:
I adored this book, with its twisted fairy tales and imaginative world building. At first glance, The School for Good and Evil might feel a bit like a Harry Potter rip-off, with its predestined school divisions, secret corridors, magical creatures, and deadly challenges. The Rowling influence here is undeniable. And yet—for the most part—The School for Good and Evil feels fresh and new. Much of this is due to its examination of the middle ground between good and evil and the unlikely, occasionally uneasy friendship between its two heroines.

Sophie—with her princess hair, flouncy pink dresses, and daily good deeds—is the picture of a Disney princess, while Agatha—a dire, black-clad loner who prefers the companionship of her cat and a quiet cemetery—thinks villains are far more interesting. Which is why the girls are so surprised when pretty Sophie is dropped at the School for Evil and Agatha is assigned to the School for Good. Readers may think they know the "moral of the story"—truth lies beyond appearances, blah, blah, blah. But fortunately for us, the story and its characters are more complicated than that.

The School for Good and Evil is a bit lengthier than necessary, with a somewhat repetitive series of trials and tests, but I was entertained throughout and frequently amused by the snappy dialog and moral dilemmas. Despite its flaws, the The School for Good and Evil is a clever, adventure-filled read that turns the expected clichĂ©s of fairy tales upside down. Luckily, this is only the first title of a planned trilogy. A sequel (A World Without Princes) is due out in April 2014 and a film adaptation is currently in development. But for those eager for more, check out the dedicated website and take the exam to determine which school is right for you. (My results: 66.7% Good, 33.3% Evil. Sounds about right ; ) )

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

REVIEW: Giant Dance Party by Betsy Bird, Illustrated by Brandon Dorman

Rating: 4/5 Stars
Genre: Picture Book/Humor/Fantasy
Audience: Preschool–Grade 2

Summary: Six-year-old Lexy loves dancing. But every time she tries to perform in front of a crowd, she freezes completely. So she decides to quit and become a teacher. Unfortunately, no one wants to learn from a kid—until a group of fuzzy blue giants turn up at her door looking for dance lessons.

First Line: "One day Lexy decided that when it came to dancing, she was done."

Tracy's Thoughts: 
This highly enjoyable story comes from a well-known children's librarian and blogger, and it's clear she knows her stuff. Bird's action-packed language and Dorman's energetic artwork fairly leap off the page, creating a fantastic read aloud. Vivid, full-color digital art and a likeable, exuberant protagonist will capture the attention of readers, and the humorous text and story will hold it. I was charmed when Lexy refers to herself as an "ice pop" after freezing onstage (anyone want to guess how the giants are described when they too suffer from stage fright?), and laughed out loud when the giants practiced a wide variety of dances, from the chicken dance to krumping. The story nicely weaves together a tale of realistic fears with fantasy elements, and the result is a fun, engaging read that makes Lexy's eventual triumph less pointedly didactic than many other picture books dealing with childhood fears. Even better, the final page leaves room for a follow up title—or so I hope.

Monday, December 9, 2013

REVIEW: The Blind Contessa's New Machine by Carey Wallace

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
Genre: Historical Fiction/Love Story
Audience: Adult

Summary:  In 19th century Italy, a young Contessa recognizes that she is losing her eyesight. She tries to tell her fiancĂ© and parents, but no one believes her. That is, no one with the exception of her friend Turri, a married, eccentric inventor who lives on the estate adjoining her father's. Slowly, images become increasing blurred and distorted until, shortly after her wedding, Carolina finds herself in complete darkness. Yet in her dreams, she see everything in magnificent color, imagining a glorious world of possibility. In her sleep, she finds freedom in glorious adventures but during the day she cannot even walk alone to her beloved lake or pen a letter to a friend. Longing to stay in contact his friend, Turri in turn designs a machine that will help her with the everyday task of communicating with distant friends and family—a writing machine. Somehow, the gift ignites a spark that leads to a passionate, clandestine affair that changes both their lives.

First Line: "On the day Countess Carolina Fantoni was married, only one other living person knew that she was going blind, and he was not her groom."

Tracy's Thoughts: Lush, vivid detail and lyrical prose make this slim novel a truly absorbing read. The description of Carolina's loss of sight and her slow acclimation to her condition are particularly vivid and affecting. Cary Wallace's writing is almost magical at times, evocative and dreamy as she describes the Italian countryside, Carolina's impressions, and others' reactions to her blindness. Though simple, the story too is intriguing. Based on the man who invented the first working typewriter prototype for the blind woman he is rumored to have loved, it weaves a romantic fable around historical events. Throughout the course of the novel, the reader is taken on a journey right along with Carolina, from flashbacks of her courtship with her husband Pietro to her encroaching blindness and impulsive, inevitable affair with Turri.

The focus here is more on tone and character than specific events, though. The characters are well developed yet mysterious, from Carolina herself to secondary characters like Liza, Carolina's odd serving girl who adds small lies and fictions to the stories she reads to Carolina. The ending here is a bit abrupt though not unsatisfying. Instead, it preserves a sense of ethereal mystery that reflects the tone of the rest of the novel. Ultimately, The Blind Contessa's New Machine is an intelligent, whimsical tale that balances tragedy with inspiration and understated humor.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

REVIEW: Rump by Liesl Shurtliff

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
Genre: Fantasy/Fairy Tale
Audience: Middle-grade (upper elementary & and younger middle school)

Summary: In a land where your destiny is determined by your name, Rump is out of luck. No one—not Rump and not even his beloved grandmother —knows his true name because his mother died before she could tell anyone. All she was able to get out was the first part: "Rump." Now he spends his days dodging bullies and toiling away in the mines, digging for enough specks of gold to scrape by and appease the greedy miller and the king. Then Rump uses his mother's old spindle and makes a magical discovery: He can spin straw into gold! Unfortunately, magic can have terrible consequences, and Rump is quickly in over his head. Now Rump must cope with pixies, trolls, and fairy tale villains on his journey to discover his true name and gain control over the magic that binds him.

First Line: "My mother named me after a cow's rear end."

Tracy's Thoughts:
Rumplestiltskin has been one of my favorite fairy tales ever since I saw the 1987 film adaptation starring Amy Irving and Billy Barty. Despite his creepiness and unmitigated selfishness, I was curious about Rumplestiltskin's motives and background. I wanted to know more. Though I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Once Upon a Time, the character of Rumple—as portrayed by the supremely talented Robert Carlyle—has succeeded in making the story of Rumplestilkskin even more intriguing to me. Somehow, this adaptation by Liesl Shrutliff creates an alternate version that includes all the key elements of the original but turns the story inside out, making Rumplestiltskin the hero.

Suffice it to say that I enjoyed this novel immensely. Rump's story is set in an unnamed kingdom, a well-developed world where fairy tales intersect just the teeniest bit. Clear, energetic writing and a cheeky narrative voice help create a story to capture the interest of even the most reluctant readers. The writing is full of silly humor (fart jokes even!) and adventure, yet there is substance here as well. Rump's quest for self-confidence and hope in an unfair world is truly touching. It also addresses—and presents possible answers to—a lot of the questions I've had from previous versions, such as why Rump's true name is so important. Although the action wanes from time to time into predictability, this is an appealing fantasy filled with laughter, cleverness, and magic.
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