Saturday, January 29, 2011

Shiver, by Maggie Stiefvater

First published in 2009 by Scholastic

The past few years it seems to be a trend for me to choose one wildly popular paranormal romance and take it with me to read on summer holidays. Perfect for lazy days at the beach, a bit of escapism, and a chance for me to, at my leisure, see what all the fuss is about. This year it was Shiver, by Maggie Stiefvater, and it’s probably been the best of the lot. Shiver managed to be enjoyably predictable but page-turning, to keep my frustrated sighs and frequent eyerolls to a minium, and to put the story before lame set-ups that just give the main character an excuse to stare lovingly at her destined and know it was meant to be because the way he flicks his hair is just so damn sexy.
Grace has alway felt a connection to the wolves in the woods behind her house. In particular, she has an afinity with one yellow-eyed male who seems to be as much besotted with her as she is with it. Naturally, (I mean, this is paranormal romance) he turns into a boy for a short time each year, but only for so long – soon he will be a wolf for good. Sam must now fight to stay human so he can be with Grace, but, as they say, true love never did run smooth. There are a few things that stand in the way (jealous she-wolves, rabid wolves, wolf-hunts, uh, the weather) before the two can claim their happily-ever-after.
Look, there’s nothing really that new here, but Shiver is nicely written and the story is involving; Sam’s whole man-versus-beast-within struggle provides a nice diversion from the central love story that it serves. The writing mostly avoids cliche, Grace is a bit more likeable than the usual para-romance heroine, and there is some good stuff about family and pack relationships. I also liked the love story because the two characters serve a greater purpose for each other than just being attractive and predestined – in other words, you can see why they like each other, and they help each other with new ways of experiencing and observing the world. This helps them to be better people as a whole – something important that I feel is missing from paranormal romance, as the whole experience usually seems to bring out only the worst and most annoying habits of the so-called ‘soul-mates’.
Something I really enjoyed was how the character of Isabel was done. It is a good example of not only making the ‘bitchy’ or ‘enemy’ character two-dimensional, but also giving her character space to become genuinely funny and endearing and making her one of the more enjoyable parts of the book. The scene where she is searching for Sam in all the sheds on her property is quite hilarious. It is these kind of touches that lifted the book above the norm for me.
This one is a worthwhile read. It is also perhaps the only trilogy/series type of paranormal romance that makes me actually want to read the next books. So well done Stiefvater.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Up and Easy A - Movie Reviews

I love kids movies almost as much as I love kids books, and a real winner I saw for the first time a couple of days ago was Pixar's Up. I avoided this when it first came out because the previews didn't appeal to me. Wall-E had me inconspicuously wiping away my tears in the theatre, and Up just didn't seem to be on the same level. Well I finally did see it and am now a convert to its general brilliance - this is a great film with a fantastic concept and full of those heart-breaking but never naff moments that Pixar does so well.
It is the subtle, little touches that get me every time - like Mr Fredricksen coming to stand in for Russell's father at the end, but not relinquishing his case of the grumps for even the most emotional of moments. And how he hands over his treasured soda-cap badge to Russell and how we are shown that the house, so devastatingly lost in previous scenes, ends up right where it was intended to be all along. The visual spectacles are fantastic, of course, but where they really boggle your mind is with the precious, subtle beauty and the emotion invested in each one. This is a film that is beautiful and wise and so lovingly crafted - a real winner.

Another teen film I just saw on DVD was Easy A, touted as the new Mean Girls, Clueless etc. This film is also a real winner - full of quirky, endearing characters so well acted, and genuine moments that had me rolling around on my bed with a severe case of the giggles. Emma Stone as the lead character doesn't put a foot wrong. This is smart, hilarious film-making and I had an absolute ball watching it.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Undrowned Child, by Michelle Lovric

First published in hardback by Orion Children's Books, (Hachette) 2009.

The Undrowned Child is a book that makes me excited about books – about the art of story-telling, about imagination, about the cleverness and beauty of the English language, about great characters and about the ability of a story to transport you someplace else. It was the best kids book I read last year, and I only happened onto it because I was searching for kids/YA books that had mermaids in them, and this one came up. It is a shame it doesn’t seem to be well-known (as far as I can tell, in Australia). Maybe the release of the second in the series, The Mourning Emporium, will change that – I hope so, because The Undrowned Child has all the qualities that made Harry Potter so popular and successful – wit, humour, adventure, genuine chills, complex, appealing characters and story-telling that is completely immersive.
We have our lead, Teo, a girl who, although she is supposedly Napoletana, feels a strong attraction to Venice. There is Renzo, a charming Venetian boy who seems determined to upstage her at every turn. There is Maria, Teo’s snooty arch-nemesis. Then we throw in the grand, mysterious canals and architecture of Venice; beautiful mermaids (yes!) with hearts of gold but mouths on them like rough-as-guts sailors; a Kraken-like creature who is poisoning the water that surrounds the city; a variety of ghosts, some wishing to redeem themselves, some hopelessly given up, some looking to wreak a little more havoc; an array of fantastic and mythical creatures (including winged lions and vampire eels); scientists racing against time to save their beloved Venice; and a mystery which Teo, with Renzo’s help, must figure out – how to stop the malignant spirit of Bajamonte Tiepolo from coming to power again and bringing about a repeat of one of the most tragic days in Venetian history.
The Undrowned Child is a fantastic mix of real Venetian history, fascinating mythology/fairy-tale and a subtle coming-of-age story concerning Teo, our heroine. The sub-plot involving her feelings for the infuriating Renzo is touching and beautifully done, her attitude towards their whole relationship spot-on for the no-longer-child but not-quite-teen. Teo is flawed and she and Renzo make mistakes in their mission to save Venice, but this makes their endearing characters realistic and us empathetic to their many dilemmas.
I was enthralled by just about every character in The Undrowned Child, whether they play a big part or small. Lovric has a way with characterisation and their encounters with each other are a joy to read. I loved Lovric’s take on mermaids, and her hierarchy of ghosts. Her ‘evil’ characters are genuinely scary and she creates some awesome atmosphere with many of her set-pieces.
Where The Undrowned Child really sucked me in was that it is genuinely witty and sharp, thanks in part to Teo’s way of seeing the world. Her dialogue is some of the best I’ve read in a children’s book, and her characters come out with such funny and interesting ways of expressing themselves. I did notice that she seems to have a disregard for using the word said – all her characters exclaim, or talk despondently, or sob, or exclaim snootily, and so on. This goes against just about everything I’ve been taught about writing, but you know what? For this book, I think it works. It’s all part of the book’s quirky charm.
Love, love, loved The Undrowned Child. Maybe not suitable for younger readers – but this in intelligent, amusing, captivating story-telling, and I only hope Lovric gets the recognition she deserves.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead

First published (in Australia) by Text Publishing, 2010

A gem of a book – subtle, sensitive and lovely – I can see why it won the Newberry Prize in 2009. The biggest success is the central character; she is an absolute delight to read about. Miranda is precocious but never annoying, clever, curious and possessing an old soul that makes her moments of innocence so devastating, in a wonderful kind of way.
Miranda is a not-quite teen who finds herself in the middle of a puzzle. She is trying to get her head around mysterious notes and stolen belongings and somebody who seems to know everything that is about to happen before it’s even happened. And all this at a time when her best friend Sal has, without a reason, shut her out, and her Mum is about to go for a shot at money and fame on a TV game show.
When You Reach Me is in the mode of magical realism, with the emphasis, I think, on reality – the intricacies of friendship, the complexities of growing up and the moments that make us realise our childhood is coming to an end. This is a time both sad and beautiful: bewildering but precious because how we deal with it gives us clues to the adult we will become. This crossover between being a child and becoming an adult is really, I believe, what this book is dealing with, and it does it beautifully. What Miranda thinks and feels and the way she sees things and expresses herself is so spot on, so childlike but perceptive at the same time. I loved it.
The plot is also clever, and woven throughout the book quite splendidly. I was constantly wondering where the story was going and how it was all going to fit together and play out. The real joy is, of course, going with Miranda as she pieces it all together as well. I was not quite sold on the premise, or idea as a whole – maybe I found it a bit too neat, or... I don’t know. Something niggled at me, the tiniest bit. But it was not enough to destroy my overall enjoyment and appreciation of the book.
Read When You Reach Me for the gorgeous central character, insightful, aware story-telling and poignant capturing of what it means to be a child trying to make sense of the world.
"I sat on the couch and closed my eyes. I pictured the world. I pictured the world millions of years ago, with crazy clouds of gas everywhere, and volcanoes, and the continents bumping into each other and then drifting apart ... Now fast-forward. The earth is still making loops around the sun.There are humans all over the place, driving in cars and flying in aeroplanes. And then one day one human tells another human that he doesn't want to walk to school with her anymore.
'Does it really matter?' I asked myself.
It did."

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Wolfborn, by Sue Bursztynski

Published by Woolshed Press, 2010

Etienne is the son of a lord in the kingdom of Armorique. He goes to train with Geraint of Lucanne, as his page, in the hope of becoming a knight. But Geraint has a secret - he is bisclavret, a born werewolf. Etienne - experiencing certain supernatural tendencies and visions of his own - must deal with both his Lord’s and his own secrets. What follows is a romp through medieval landscapes, encounters with ancient Celtic mythology, a touch of romance, and just a good old-fashioned story of betrayal and discovery.
Werewolves are all the rave now in YA literature - those fangs and clipped wings have fallen to the power of the claw (thanks, Jacob Black). I love werewolves, and the mythology that surrounds them - all full moons and animal instincts and the man giving way to the beast (on a side note, one of the movies I can watch over and over again and love it just a little more every time is Dog Soldiers - check it out, it's a great werewolf movie and great human characters). So it's great to see an Australian author having a decent go at the genre and even shaking it up - drawing on her own myths and folktales to create a werewolf lore that isn't just a rehash of what we've read and seen before.

When I first started reading I thought the writing was perhaps a tiny bit clumsy - I can't help analysing everything from my own perspective on writing (for eg: that isn't how I'd write that etc). I also got a bit lost over who was who and what they did. But I quickly got sucked into the intrigue and the mystery and just the great sense of discovery and adventure Wolfborn has. There is some great scene-setting of the forest and castle life, and Etienne's encounters with all the fay beasts have a good sense of awe and otherworldliness. The myth and the reality (Etienne's quest to help Lord Geraint) blend well, and the pacing is good. Bursztynski has created a likeable and charismatic character in Geraint, and so it is easy to invest in the race to save him.

There is some nice romance with the secondary characters - Geraint, Eglantine, Sylvie etc. These romantic elements feel essential to the story and move it along. I was not such a fan of Etienne's romantic plot with Jeanne - I just didn't feel it was necessary. It felt to me just a little surplus to the main plot - like something that might be tacked on to keep Wolfborn relevant to the usual paranormal romance fans. It takes focus away from the excitement of the main plot involving Geraint, and when that is resolved the book then has to trundle along just to make sure everyone gets a happy ending. I also felt Jeanne was one of the weaker characters, so I didn't care for her much.

That is my main (and perhaps only) gripe with Wolfborn. Otherwise I found it quite an exciting little world to spend a few days in. Rich detail and a creative interpretation of well-known lore. Good effort.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

2011 Newberry Medal Winner

The 2011 Newberry Medal was announced yesterday. The winner was Moon over Manifest, by Claire Vanderpool:

"Abilene Tucker feels abandoned. Her father has put her on a train, sending her off to live with an old friend for the summer while he works a railroad job. Armed only with a few possessions and her list of universals, Abilene jumps off the train in Manifest, Kansas, aiming to learn about the boy her father once was."
-From Random House

Confession: I don't know much about it. But I am reading last year's winner (When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead) at the moment, and finding it quite lovely and engaging.

The Newberry Medal is awarded every year by a committee of librarians to recognize "the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children."

Previous winners include Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, Scott O Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins, Robert C. O'Brien's Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh and Katherine Paterson's Jacob Have I Loved and Bridge to Terabithia (all of which I highly reccommend).

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


Am over in New Zealand at the moment on holiday. Will be back with new posts from 10th January. Happy Holidays!