In my ongoing quest to read forgotten books from my shelves, I turned to Zazoo, by Richard Mosher. It was published in 2001, so I must have gotten it not too long after. I know my mother gave it to me for Christmas. Though she has excellent taste, I delayed cracking open the beautiful little book. I think at that point in my reading habits I was reading multiple books by an author all at once, and this didn’t quite fit the pattern.

zazooThe story takes place in France and is narrated by a 13-year-old girl who was brought from Vietnam as a toddler by her adoptive French grandfather (making this set in the early 1980’s, I believe). They live together in a small village, and operate the locks on the canal. Zazoo dotes on Grand-Pierre, and the little life they have built together, especially the love of poetry that they share. She also feels right at home on the river, always swimming or sailing or skating.

Slowly, however, things begin to change for Zazoo. A smiling boy comes to town, asks about the pharmacist, and leaves again, promising to send a postcard. Grand-Pierre is slowly developing Alzheimer’s, and Zazoo feels he is slipping away from her. She also starts to notice that he never goes into the village or interacts with anyone in it, even sending her to pick up his medicine from the pharmacist.When she presses him for information, however, she realizes she is not sure she wants to know the truth, dating back to when he was a young man and the village was occupied by Nazi’s.

Even at first glance, the book hits all the right notes for me: France, WWII, love stories, and secrets from the past. It is more than that, however. The writing is slow and sweet and beautiful, like the poetry that Zazoo writes. I fell in love with the characters, perhaps Felix most of all, and could clearly picture everything through the lovely imagery. It is a story of healing, and of relationships that can overcome the circumstances.

If you can find a copy, please read it. It does not feel at all like a “typical” young adult book, and Zazoo is old beyond her years. This is definitely one of my favorite books for 2012.

Published in: on December 3, 2012 at 11:43 am  Leave a Comment  
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Winter Rose

I’m finally re-realizing what I should have been following all along: the sooner I write a review after reading a book, the easier and quicker it is. So I read Patricia McKillip’s Winter Rose on Saturday and am already writing about it.

I’m trying to be good about reading books from my own shelves, especially since they are bursting at the seams. There is literally not a single square inch of space left on the three bookshelves in my room. I would love to be able to send some books on to their next home, but the problem is that a lot of the ones I don’t feel strongly about keeping are ones I haven’t read yet.

Winter Rose is one such example; it’s an ex-library book I picked up for a quarter years ago because I had read and loved another book by the author (The Forgotten Beasts of Eld). Even though I don’t really read fantasy any more, there are still aspects of the genre that appeal to me.

No one in the village has ever been quite sure what to make of wild girl Rois Melior, who roams the woods barefoot gathering herbs no one else can find. Even her loving father and elder sister Laurel gently humor her. Laurel is staid and domestic, engaged to marry her childhood sweetheart, Perrin. One summer a stranger arrives, Corbet Lynn, planning to rebuild the abandoned family property. The village is abuzz with gossip; years ago Corbet’s father killed his own father and disappeared, but not before the old man cursed him with sorrow and trouble.

Rois sees things, knows things, that no one else can, and isn’t quite sure whether it is her imagination or something deep within her. She feels that not everything with Corbet is as it seems, especially since she saw him born of a beam of light near a hidden well in the woods. Corbet and Laurel seem to grow closer, while Rois is driven to pursue the secrets surrounding him. With the arrival of the worst winter in recent history Corbet disappears, and with him Laurel’s will to live. Their own mother died many years ago, wasting away waiting for spring, and the past seems to be repeating itself. Only Rois’s fey side can save her family as well as Corbet from a fate that has its grasp on them.

Patricia McKillip’s writing is absolutely beautiful. I recall very little about the other book I read, but her prose here is light and lyrical and perfectly suited to the subject. I meant to read only the first chapter to test the book out, and ended up reading the entire thing. I could picture the locations as I read, and feel the changing of the weather. Though some parts seemed a big ambiguous, especially the ending, that seems appropriate for the dreamlike state of the story.

My biggest complaint with the book, trivial though it may seem, is the name Rois. I spent the whole time switching how I pronounced it in my head (the same problem I had with Coraline). Five years of French had me leaning towards “rwa” (to like the plural of “kings”), but based on the context and other names I doubt that’s what the author intended. My next instinct was to make it two syllables, like Lois. Ultimately the title and imagery throughout the story suggested it was a homonym for Rose. I get irrationally annoyed sometimes by unique or cutesy spellings; the profusion of made up words is one of the things that used to bother me when I read fantasy regularly.

I had read online a while ago that Winter Rose is based on the Scottish folktale of Tam Lin. Though not a direct retelling, it does contain elements likely inspired by the legend. Knowing this going in did not spoil the reading in any way for me.

Published in: on May 14, 2012 at 7:34 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Pirate Captain’s Daughter

The Pirate Captain’s Daughter, by Eve Bunting, was another library whim. I usually don’t even browse the YA section anymore, but this one was part of the new books display by the check-out counter.

15-year old Catherine has known for a while that when her father leaves for his business trips at sea, he is really captaining a pirate ship. After her mother dies, she begs her father to let her accompany him, eager for the romance of a life at sea rather than stuffy days with a forbidding aunt. Females, however, are notoriously bad luck on board and a direct violation of the code. If Catherine is discovered, she risks both her life and her father’s. She must cut her hair, change her name to Charlie, and play her flute in the pirate band. Being on board the ship is a big adjustment not made any easier by two crew members. One is the hulking giant Herc, whom Catherine recognizes as the man who broke into her house looking for something the night before they left. The other is William, the handsome cabin boy who has decided to watch over the captain’s son.

This is my first YA book in a while and there are times when I really do feel too old for the genre, especially as I teach high school. I think this book was one of those times. I used to read a lot of Eve Bunting’s books, and I don’t want to say she’s just getting older because The Pirate Captain’s Daughter really is well researched and has good characterization. I think the problem is more with me.

In some ways I’m a lot like Catherine–the premise of pirates promises lots of romance, but the reality is crude and cruel. Eve Bunting creates a vivid and realistically unglamorous portrayal of life on a pirate ship, down to the harsh language and magotty bread. I really am way too much of a girl to handle that kind of lifestyle (which explains why I never liked The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, either). However, I think she was very smart to have Catherine be part of the ship’s band rather than try to pass as a cabin boy. It made it much more believable for her to go undetected. I hadn’t even known that most pirate ships did have constant music for when they were working, though I suppose it makes sense to lighten the tasks.

The romance between Catherine and William was what made me decide to check out the book (I’m a sucker for Williams since Pirates of the Caribbean). For most of the book, however, it does take a back seat to the rest of the plot, understandably so since William doesn’t know Catherine is a girl. Eve Bunting makes us wonder early on if he is a just pirate, like Catherine’s father, or simply another ruffian out for blood and gold.

For pirate fans The Pirate Captain’s Daughter would be a great read, and timely with the fourth Jack Sparrow movie. If, like me, you prefer swashbuckling to grit, it might be better to search elsewhere.

Published in: on June 30, 2011 at 11:27 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Diamond Secret

I’ve always liked fairy tales for their timeless quality, their role in a collective mythology perpetuating the morals of “happily ever after.” They give us themes and archetypes to be woven into other creative endeavors, everything from wicked stepparents to Cinderella transformations.

Years ago I read a few volumes in the SimonPulse Once Upon A Time series and was impressed with the offerings. These volumes take familiar tales and retell them with a new twist, often by providing some sort of historical context. For example, Spirited plays off Beauty and the Beast with a girl captured by Native Americans, and Scarlet Moon has a strange wolf pack beleaguering a village during the Crusades.

image from Simon and Schuster

I saw The Diamond Secret on a cart at the library and had to check it out, at least for old times sake. This volume is a “retelling” of Anastasia, in which a lonely amnesiac tavern maid named Nadya is pegged by schemers Ivan and Sergei as a look-alike for the Grand Duchess. After life in a mental asylum all she wants is a chance to be loved and accepted by others, but aristocracy may not be the key to everything she desires.

To me, the story of Anastasia is similar to that of the Titanic, tragic yet fascinating. I can’t help but feel sorry for the Russian royal family, and can understand the hope that such devastation might not have been complete. I’ve seen both the Fox animated version (a favorite) and the one with Ingrid Bergman.

To be honest, it feels kind of cheap to have a strict “retelling” of a historical event. Suzanne Weyn stays in 1918 Russia, so that anyone with a passing knowledge of the animated movie has a pretty good idea of the book’s whole plot. She has added a few interesting elements of her own, though, and is a little more historically accurate. The biggest strength for me was that Ivan and Sergei are fully fleshed-out characters with motive and backstory.

Ms. Weyn also slightly expands on the idea of wealth vs. worker that played such a large role in the Revolution. I would have liked to see more, but I guess that’s probably not the focus in a young adult book. Other interesting ideas mentioned and dropped too soon were the politial impact that restoring a princess could have, and what it would be like to finally remember a family but know that they are dead.

The romance felt somewhat unbelievable and rushed, especially from Nadya’s side..  Once Ivan claimed to have known her before, she was immediately chummy and playful, with true love not far behind. Again, I should know what to expect from YA, but a little part of me still cringed. The villain conflict was somewhat underwhelming as well and disappointing in its resolution (though what can compare favorably with Fox’s undead Rasputin?)

The Diamond Secret was an enjoyable way to spend a few hours, and a reminder of why I love Anastasia. On the other hand, it doesn’t bode well for the future of the series if they’re reduced to relying on animated films. One of the other recent titles is apparently a Mulan retelling; I suppose Pocahontas is next?

Published in: on August 25, 2010 at 12:53 am  Comments (1)  
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An Abundance of Katherines

Since a lot of my review of John Green’s Looking for Alaska compared it to his second novel, I thought I would share my reaction to An Abundance of Katherines as well. This is a short paper from a couple years ago. Both the reading and the assignment were for a class on academic literacy–thus the opinion on whether I would use the book in a classroom.

John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines tells the story of Colin Singleton, a former child prodigy who has just been dumped for the nineteenth time by a girl named Katherine. To get over the heartbreak his friend Hassan takes him on a road trip; the two end up in Gutshot, a small Tennessee factory town, where they are taken in by Lindsey and her mother Hollis. Colin, in a double effort to do something that important and win back his latest ex, decides to develop a Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability which he hopes will explain his failed relationships. During their stay, Colin and Hassan broaden their horizons by taking chances on new experiences (such as hog hunting), and learn more about life, others, and themselves.

image from

Despite Colin’s current fixation on math his true interest is words, and a key subplot of the story focuses on the importance of stories. Hollis recognizes that Gutshot may die out within a few generations, and sends the teenagers out to collect memories and anecdotes from all the long-time residents as a record of its life and vibrancy. In the process Colin learns about what makes a good story, and the role that memory plays in defining events.

The book has several different layers that intertwine as the characters learn and grow; one of these is what it really means to matter. Even though Colin is extremely bright, he continually doubts his own worth and struggles with insecurity in all his relationships, largely because he is a social outcast. He and Lindsey eventually realize, however, that is it more important to be yourself and pursue who and what matters to you than to try and matter to someone else. People will be valued more when they define themselves rather than try and fit in to the definitions set by others. This message of individuality (hinted at in Colin’s last name) is juxtaposed, however, with one of solidarity, exemplified by Hollis supporting the town out of her own pocket.

Oddly enough, in taking on Colin’s persona the author is guilty of the same storytelling and conversational faults that his character is criticized for. Colin constantly references uninteresting trivia or creates anagrams, and Green frequently does this as well in footnotes to the text that can distract from the story at hand. Some of the footnotes, however, are interesting and serve a purpose, such translating the Arabic words Hassan uses. These author interjections could be a starting point for a discussion on looking up unknown information.

image from

Though personally I thoroughly enjoyed the book, I’m not sure of the extent to which I would use it in the classroom. It’s better to be on the cautious side when considering whether material is appropriate, and the mild cursing and nudity probably place this book on the PG-13 level, though it is pretty tame compared to a lot of other things that are out there. I think it would be best used in an Algebra II or higher class where the students would have the background to further investigate the formulas and would be closer in age to the characters.

The actual math in the book is more conceptual than computational, and though the author professes an affinity for the subject he states that the math behind the theorem is long and boring, and relegates it to an optional appendix. This does, however, make the concept itself more accessible, as Lindsey claims to hate math but is interested in the ideas behind the theorem.

I would most likely only use an excerpt or two from the book dealing specifically with the theorem and the idea that math can describe events or tell a story, with questions for the students to reflect on. However, I would recommend the entire thing to them, and wouldn’t mind using it in conjunction with an English class, where they would be able to devote more time to discussing some of the other themes of the book and could spend more than a day on it. Though the book is a quick and enjoyable read, the ideas Green poses stay with the reader even after the story ends.

Published in: on July 16, 2010 at 4:47 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Looking for Alaska

“‘Why do you smoke so […] fast?’ I asked.

She looked at me and smiled widely, and such a wide smile on her narrow face might have looked goofy were it not for the unimpeachably elegant green in her eyes. She smiled with all the delight of a kid on Christmas morning and said, ‘Y’all smoke to enjoy it. I smoke to die.'”

John Green is one of those YA authors who seems to do no wrong. He may not be the most popular author, but his books have a certain substance that goes over well with critics without getting heavy-handed.

A few years ago I had to evaluate An Abundance of Katherines for a math education class and was surprised at the amount of food for thought and potential themes. Looking For Alaska has the same characteristics–at first glance, almost too much so. This first novel seems to set up the scenario of quirky hero with an idiosyncratic pastime, sympathetic and motivational best friend, mysteriously compelling female, and quest for some sort of greater truth. After a while, however, the characters set themselves up as distinct and I became absorbed in the story.

Miles Halter, whose sole claim to fame is memorizing famous last words, seeks a “Great Perhaps” when he leaves home to board at Culver Creek High School. He is thrilled to finally find friends in his roommate Chip and Chip’s scrappy crowd, but the crux of the group is clearly Alaska Young. Everything about Alaska mesmerizes: her fascination with literature and philosophical questions, her reckless nature, her impetuous tendencies, her ability to make someone feel special. Despite the fact that she has a serious boyfriend, Miles falls for her hard. One of Alaska and Chip’s greatest enjoyments is devising elaborate pranks against the school, in which Miles is soon caught up. When one risk becomes too many, the characters realize vulnerabilities in themselves and each other.

The book is probably best for older teenagers, as in addition to language there is smoking, underage drinking, and occasional sexual elements. In fact, it makes me pretty suspicious of boarding schools in general. Despite upholding stringent rules the discipline is generally lax, with repercussions only if actually caught. The students have the freedom of a college campus with four fewer years of maturity. For example, Miles picks up smoking simply as a habit because Chip smokes and shares cigarettes. I guess this means I’m officially part of the adult generation if I wish these kids didn’t have as much independence quite yet.

John Green tends to make his themes obvious but interesting, and I do like how everything fits together. In this book one of the main questions, posed first by Alaska to Miles and taken from The General in His Labyrinth,  is “how will I ever get out of this labyrinth?” They wrestle with what the labyrinth refers to–life, death, suffering–and how to possibly escape it.

Looking for Alaska won the Printz Award the year it was published, and even if this success did become a template somewhat for his later novels it’s still a well-written  and thought-provoking book.

Published in: on July 3, 2010 at 5:51 pm  Comments (4)  
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Meg and the Disappearing Diamonds

“Ma’am Carmody said soothingly, ‘Let’s not get excited. Someone has the jewels. She will put them back.’

Neighbor looked at neighbor. Not one person stepped forward. Meg gulped.

‘I feel like a thief,’ Kerry whispered.

‘Me too,’ Meg said. Meg loved a mystery. But now that she found herself in the middle of one, she could only stare at Mrs. Partlow’s worried face.”

For some reason I’ve been in the mood for vintage series books lately, and when I wanted a quick read last night I settled for Meg and the Disappearing Diamonds, first in the series by Holly Beth Walker.

Meg Duncan lives in a small Virginia town, and since her father is often in Washington D.C. for government business she regards the housekeeper and her husband as surrogate parents. She looks forward to spending the summer practicing ballet and spending time with her best friend Kerry Carmody, until an unsuccessful break-in at Mrs. Partlow’s puts everyone on edge. A garden party the next day, where Mrs. Partlow plans to show off the tempting diamonds, is ruined by rude Mrs. Glynn and her spoiled poodles. It becomes more disastrous, however, when the diamonds disappear. Meg and Kerry suspect Kerry’s small sticky-fingered cousin Cissie, who was found at the scene of the crime. They resolve to find and return the diamonds before the police get involved, but Meg’s resolve is torn when her beloved cat Thunder disappears as well. Is it Cissie again, or a more sinister hand?

Perhaps the shorter length played a factor, but the book felt much more juvenile than other series. Even the writing style is relatively simple. I would place Meg’s age at about eleven, as the girls treat Kerry’s nine-year-old brother Mike as a relative equal. I was shocked to see that the back page of the book advertised the Donna Parker series, which is decidedly malt-shop.

The southern setting is a nice touch, as most series seem to take place in the Northeast or Midwest, and the author does a nice job creating a cozy small-town feel. It’s different to have the boisterous family belonging to the best friend instead of the heroine. The pacing is slow up until the climax, however, and for me the solution of the mystery was painfully obvious early on. My other complaint is minor. Mrs. Glynn’s French poodles are named Enfant, Petite, and Jouet, but the author refers to them primarily by the English translations. Apparently she felt her audience was not capable of remembering foreign names.

I have the second book and will probably read it as some point to compare (at the very least it will be a quick), but I much prefer other Whitman mystery series like Trixie Belden or Robin Kane.


According to the Trixie Belden website, the one of the Whitman ghostwriters responsible for the Meg Mysteries, Gladys Baker Bond, also wrote volumes for The Tuckers. If she did this one it might explain why the intended audience seems so young. I also found that Polly Curren ghostwrote Meg and the Mystery in Williamsburg; her library collection actually has the outlines and drafts for the book.

Published in: on June 25, 2010 at 8:24 pm  Comments (1)  
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“All day Sunday Jane drifted around the house in a happy glow, humming Love Me on Monday and hovering near the telephone, because she was sure Stan would call. Monday she stopped humming and hated the telephone, because she was sure he would never, never call. Tuesday he called.

When most of us (me included) hear the name Beverly Cleary, we think of her wonderful children’s series like Ramona, Henry Huggins, or the Mouse and the Motorcycle. She also, however, wrote several YA novels. My copy of Fifteen is marketed as a “Young Love” imprint of Dell, and I have a Madeleine L’Engle book like this as well, but can’t seem to find any information about it.

Fifteen-year-old Jane Purdy believes that having a boyfriend will make her the kind of girl whom everyone likes and admires, who is interesting and self-assured. When Stan Crandall moves to town and makes friends with her, her dreams seem to be coming true. Even with her new-found confidence, however, she wonders whether Stan could want her as a girlfriend. More importantly, does she want to be liked by everyone else because she is Jane Purdy, or simply because she is Stan’s girl?

While reading this I was struck by a dual reaction. Jane is clearly a teen in the malt shop era (the book was written in 1956), when getting ready for a date means pin curls ad lipstick, and going steady means wearing a guy’s ID bracelet. On the other hand, her emotions and insecurities are not that different from those faced by girls today. She worries about her appearance and how she is perceived by the popular girls in school. She argues occasionally with her parents, and has to deal with tough babysitting charges. And like teens everywhere, she has to learn to accept herself for who she is.

I want to keep my eye out for more of these novels, and if anyone has any information on them please do share!

Published in: on June 21, 2010 at 6:15 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring

She didn’t want to stay in Oley’s house for another minute. She wanted to bundle Mrs. Zimmerman into the car and make her drive them back to New Zebedee, even if they had to drive all night. But Rose Rita didn’t say anything. She made no move. Whatever the spell was that lay over Mrs. Zimmerman, it lay over Rose Rita too. She felt utterly powerless.

The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring is the John Bellairs’ third gothic novel featuring the New Zebedee characters, written in 1976. It takes place about half a year after the prior events, but unlike the first two this story focuses on Rose Rita.

While Lewis is away at scout camp, Mrs. Zimmerman receives a deathbed letter from her cousin, claiming he had found a magic ring. She invites Rose Rita along for the trip up to the northern part of Michigan, which turns out to be quite an adventure. Someone has ransacked the farmhouse before their arrival. In addition, strange things are now happening to Mrs. Zimmerman, whose powers are still weak after her last bout with evil. It’s up to Rose Rita to get to the bottom of these events and rescue Mrs. Zimmerman before it’s too late.

Though the books  in the series are chronological, each is a complete volume so that they could potentially be read out of order (as I did with some when younger). The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring is actually my favorite so far. No offense to Lewis, but as a girl I find Rose Rita a more appealing protagonist, who is always willing to seek out adventure. The plot also had a closer resemblance to a mystery. I love that in a 1950 setting she still gets accused of reading too much Nancy Drew!

As in previous books, Bellairs focuses on a personal issue in addition to the main plot. Here tomboy Rose Rita struggles with the fact that she will be entering junior high as a seventh grader in the fall. She wonders if dances and skirts will have to replace her love of baseball, and worries that others expect her friendship with Lewis to change. There aren’t any easy answers, but she does need to learn that the important thing is to be comfortable with who she is.

The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring, which is my third book for the R.I.P. IV Challenge, is the last Bellairs himself wrote about these characters. If I have time before the end of the month I’d like to squeeze in one more.

Published in: on October 27, 2009 at 11:21 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Figure in the Shadows

The figure walked forward out of the circle of lamplight. Now it was standing before Lewis. Lewis smelled something. He smelled cold ashes. Cold, wet ashes.

The Figure In the Shadows is the second Lewis Barnavelt book by John Bellairs, written in 1975. While the first was a reread (albeit with little remembered), this one was new to me.

Lewis’ life is back to normal after defeating the Izzards. He even has a new friend,tomboy  Rose Rita Pottinger, with whom he builds Roman ship models. But Lewis still gets picked on sometimes, and wishes he wasn’t such a coward and could stand up to bullies. When Uncle Jonathan gives him his great-grandfather’s lucky coin, Lewis is disappointed that it’s not actually a magic amulet to help him. Unbeknownst to him, however, a power sleeps inside it stronger than he imagined, and only his friends will be able to save him from it.

Sometimes I wonder how these stories fare with kids today. Bellairs creates a nice juxtaposition of a boy’s ordinary life, like bullies and homework, with the gothic fear of an unknown power. But the story is a slow build to the climax, waiting for something to happen and capturing along the way the feel of a 1949 rural Michigan town; it may not have enough action for modern standards.

I didn’t find this book as creepy as the first, but in some ways I liked it better. The plot is a little more cohesive, and Rose Rita is a nice addition. The internal drawings are by a different well-known illustrator, Mercer Mayer, who also captures the quirky charm and horror of the plot.

This is also my second book for the R.I.P. IV Challenge. I’ve got The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring lined up as the third for next week.

Published in: on October 21, 2009 at 10:52 am  Comments (2)  
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