Sunday, September 11, 2011


A Northern Light

by Jennifer Donnelly

This is one of those books I had heard about for years, from many people whose opinions I respect immensely, but never seemed to get to, until just now. It's a period piece, which is not always my style, and it's a weighty read, which for a slower reader like myself can be off-putting when my reading pile is so very tall, but I"m glad I finally took the time to delve into it.

The book opens with Mattie Gokey working at a summer holiday spot in upstate New York, where a body has just been pulled from the lake. The victim had given Mattie some letters to destroy before she went out on the fatal boat ride, and now Mattie has some choices to make as she uncovers some truths in those letters. This story unfolds in chapters that alternate with the chapters about how Mattie came to work there, despite the wishes of her stern father and an engagement that should have seen her home.

Mattie, we learn, is a bright girl who should, in the opinion of her teacher and best friend, be bound for a scholarship she has won at Barnard College with the assistance of her inspiring (but, it turns out, scandalous) teacher. She wants it so badly she can taste it, yet the money to get there seems impossible and worse, her father won't give her permission to go and leave him and her younger sisters behind. She is already torn between wishes and responsibility when Royal gets in the mix, asking her to marry him, and she is pulled in yet another direction by his handsome, solid self. Add to this the trials of her dearest friend, who sees the dreams he longs for fiercely go up in smoke, and in the end, she learns a few hard truths about men and women, about love and duty and destiny.

Mattie is one of those great girl characters, the ones full of spunk and longing and fight, the ones who we root for the whole way, whose frustrations are our frustrations, and she is the core of what makes this book great. There's a lot here, though. A lot about girls and position, a lot about what we want and why, a lot about living in another time, when you were defined by what you looked like and were told not to fight it.

All this, the experience, the realness of it, and the depth of the characters make for a read that pulls you in and stays with you well after you've closed the cover. Highly recommended, and a Printz Honor Book, to boot.

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Junk / Smack

by Melvin Burgess
***(This book has been published under both titles.)

Melvin Burgess is the kind of writer who manages to take on anything and make it compelling reading - really, the reason that I wanted to read this book. He can the write the impossible so that it's believable, the creepy so that it's chilling yet not unthinkable, and in this case, the big issue in a way that neither sensationalizes nor minimizes.

This book is about junk - as in heroin - and a pair of kids who fall into using it. Well, one of them falls in, following the other, who rather jumps headlong into it as an adventure. Which is kind of how their relationship is, really - she leading blithely, he following, even though he is the one with the true problems at home. It's her thirst for something new that leads them to run away, to move out with some users, and to start themselves.

Once they start using, Burgess presents a pretty balanced picture about what the appeal is, the hold the cravings have over them, the unappealing things they do to keep that next score in sight, and the lies they tell themselves to make it seem okay. In the end, they do strive to clean up and return to a different life, and we see glimpses of where their stories will lead, some endings happier than others.

Over it all, though, is Burgess' writing, less showy here than in some of his books, but solid, unflinching, and a real enough voice to speak directly to teens and the questions they might have about this drug and the life that too often goes with it.

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Saturday, September 10, 2011


Noah Barleywater Runs Away

by John Boyne
978 0 385 67597 0

Something is wrong at Noah's home, and he decides to run away. He's not being mistreated, it's made clear, but the nature is a mystery that some readers will guess at before it is revealed at the end.

In any case, he is now on the road and encounters some strange people and situations along the way, landing finally at a strange toyshop built under a most unusual tree. There, he meets an old man who seems to understand a great deal about him. By the end of a very odd and thought-provoking day of magical happenings and meandering discussion, Noah has learned enough to change his perspective and decide to return home, and the reader has learned enough to piece together the pieces of this fairy-tale-inspired story.

The ending is satisfying, if not as surprising as it might have hoped to be, and the read has a decidedly fairy-tale quality, as mentioned above. How well it all worked, though, I'm not certain. I think it is perhaps too old for most children, or too determinedly offbeat, but that is John Boyne's style, and to be honest, I didn't love his famous title The Boy in Striped Pajamas, either. I have to call this one a book that some will enjoy and some not, because I really believe it's a case where taste will dictate more than anything whether you walk away liking it or not.

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by Avi
Harper Trophy
978 0 380 72769 8

This is one of those classics I've always thought I should read, and a favourite of many. It finally jumped off a shelf at me, and I took it home (no really, it did, when I pulled down something else for a patron!).

It's not the first of the series, as I had figured it would be, but a followup to Ragweed. Thankfully, it is not necessary to have read the first book to enjoy this one, and I really didn't feel that I was missing much background starting here.

Poppy is a small mouse who lives in a field under the sadistic control of an owl who restricts their movements and eats them for any infraction. Not that he wouldn't eat them anyhow, but he enjoys their terror and gives them the illusion of safety and choice to play with them. Terrible stuff, but handled deftly, this.

After the owl eats Poppy's boyfriend and denied her family permission to move to a larger home with more food, Poppy takes matters into her own hands, and sets out to find out more about this new home. The owl, Mr. Ocax, is both panicked and enraged by her defiance, and tries to stop her, but she allies herself with a grouchy porcupine who helps her avoid him as she finds out what has Mr. Ocax so scared and returns to her family home. By the time she gets there, she has made fast friend of Ereth the porcupine, and Mr. Ocax has died, never to harrass the mice again, who can now move as they please. The scene is set for the next book of the five-book series.

These are fantastic animal tales in the vein of Redwall or the Rats of Nimh, with the small overthrowing the mighty, and the valiant taking the day. It's got some scary bits, of course, but on the whole is written to be pretty accessible even to grade two or three kids, if they are not the easily frightened type, like my girl is.

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