Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Rebecca Stead's First Light

I liked Rebecca Stead's second novel, the Newbery Award winning When You Reach Me, but First Light, her debut novel, gripped me even more. While Stead's love of Madeleine L'Engle is blatant in When You Reach Me, any L'Engle lover will recognize her influence in First Light. Think Troubling a Star meets aspects of the Wrinkle in Time series, complete with a mitochondria-studying mother and father whose scientific research takes him to strange places.

Written in the third person, First Light jumps between three characters, spending the most time with Peter and Thea. Peter is fourteen and lives in NYC with his parents. His mother, who is writing a book about mitochondria, has occasional headaches, which cause her to spend a few days at a time unmoving. When Peter himself starts experiencing these headaches, he keeps them secret, along with the strange visions that accompany them. Peter's father, a professor and glaciologist interested in global warming, takes Peter and his mother to Greenland, where he's situated for six weeks gathering data. After a few weeks, it becomes clear to Peter that his parents are searching for something more than snow statistics.

Interspersed with Peter's life are chapters of Thea's. Thea's world, Gracehope, is strange and other, a place where bowls are made of ice, and people skate from place to place; not to mention that Gracehope exists entirely underground. Thea is raised by her aunt, her mother having died in a vast underground lake, attempting to find a place where Gracehope could expand.

Thea and Peter's stories slowly grow together, and readers will enjoy piecing together their mysteries in an attempt to learn the truths that bind the two characters together.

Honestly, I enjoyed this even more than When You Reach Me. To anyone who has recently enjoyed one of Rebecca Stead's books, you will fall madly in love with L'Engle if you haven't already.

Oh- and thank you to Rebecca Stead. Now that L'Engle is gone, it's nice to see you on the scene.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Preview of A Conspiracy of Kings

For those of you who can't wait for Megan Whalen Turner's A Conspiracy of Kings to be released next week, here are the first chapters....

Obviously the day it comes out, I won't get any work done, until I've finished that is....

Monday, March 15, 2010

2010 Newbery Award & the beloved A Wrinkle in Time

I love A Wrinkle in Time. Actually, I love all of Madeleine L'Engle's work. And so, any book that can put A Wrinkle in Time back on the NYTimes Bestseller list is obviously a book worth reading- and, in this case, worth a Newbery.

That's right, this year's Newbery Award: When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead. The best description of this book is From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler meets A Wrinkle in Time. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler in that the setting is very similar, NYC 1979. A Wrinkle in Time is constantly referred to by the protsgonist, Miranda, who keeps a copy of it with her at all times. The story is not as otherworldly as Wrinkle, but contains moments hinting at other-worldliness, with the possibility of tesseracts running through the novel (if you don't know what a tesseract is, it's a wrinkle in time. Read the book of the same title to learn more). But a hint of this magical science is all you need. The complex issues of friends, classmates, the hobo at the corner, and realities of being a latch-key kid all feature in the narrative.

Young readers will be smitten with Miranda's NYC latch-key existence. And while Miranda's life isn't perfect, it isn't bad. That's something I admire about Rebecca Stead's narrative, the normal issues of friends and school are enough, there's no horrible family life or abuse to deal with on top of everything.

A fifth-grade boy of my acquaintance, notoriously difficult to find books for, devoured this and loved it to the point of recommending it to others. Also recommended by middle school teachers of discerning taste and now the Newbery committee, this is not to be missed. However, if you haven't yet read A Wrinkle in Time, read it first, as it will only serve to enrich your experience of When You Reach Me.

Fairies and fairy tales (briefly)

Author Patricia McKillip came up in a book discussion with a friend of mine. We both enjoy McKillip's work and were discussing it's unique flavor.

The best way I can describe this is the classic fairy tale quality of McKillip's work. This is not due to her acknowledgment of fairytales, but in the very nature of her characters. Immortals and fairies are not human. In McKillip's non-mortal characters, there is a definate disconnet with emotion, a tendency to see only lusts and desires. Even her human character lack certain aspects of humanity; they are lost in the haze of the story, removed from even the setting's 'normal' or 'real' world, just the way heroes, heroines, princes, and queens are in stories.

After discussing characters I (being an innately visual person) moved on to visuals. The descriptions in McKillip's novels are detailed, intricate, finely woven like a tapestry or illuminated manuscript. They weave a detailed story, yet one that leaves you with the haze of a dream. A number of McKillip's books feature covers illustrated by Kinuko Craft. Craft's obsessively detailed paintings are perfect (in my mind) for McKillip's work, mirroring her connection to classic fairy tales and medieval artworks.

McKillip's characterizations of fairy make me think of Susanna Clarke, author of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and The Ladies of Grace Adieu. Clarke's fairies are devious, lustful creatures. You cannot apply human reason to them for they are not human. Her fairies want to feed their lusts, with out consideration for anyone- mortals nor fair folk. With this, Clarke creates a classically mythic, darkly pretty, and undeniably other world of fairy.

For those of you unwilling or thus far unable to delve into Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, try Clarke's collection of short stories: The Ladies of Grace Adieu. The hardcover is beautifully packaged, bound with grey bookcloth. Or try the audio recording. Short stories are great in audio form, as you don't need such long periods to listen (fit one in a long commute). Also, the British vocal talents of Davina Porter and Simon Prebble are wonderful to listen to (as is Prebble's audio recording of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell).

This post was brought to you by the combined powers of the audio version of The Ladies of Grace Adieu and a library book sale copy of The Changeling Sea.

Any other comments on faerie? Or books you think do a nice job at portraying the darker aspects of faerie? I haven't read much Charles de Lint, but I think he may...

His Dark Materials

I was recently asked by an adult if Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials was worth reading and, if so, would I place a post on my blog?

I can't believe I didn't. I guess I simply assumed it was there. Perhaps it's on the original list and never made it online? Yes, it is. My apologies.

Before I get on with this, His Dark Materials is worth reading, but you should have the next books on hand as you read as many of you will be most upset by the cliffhanger endings of the first two books.

Now for some specifics. His Dark Materials is composed of three volumes: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. You have to read them in order.

The Amber Spyglass, the third book, won the Whitbread Award (now The Costa) in 2001, for best children's book. It also won the overall category, becoming the first book in a children's category to do so. Due to this, its' readership, and Pullman's claim that it is "Paradise Lost for teenagers," it was one of the books to bring on the new spate of crossover fiction. (For those of you unfamiliar with the term, crossover fiction is used to refer to children's books read by adults, or adult books read by children. As this is an extremely pertinent topic in contemporary lit, and was the topic of my minor's thesis, I will post the thesis here (later) for those of you with the time and inclination).

The books are dark adventures and, true to many great young adult books, feature a coming of age story. Like science-fiction, His Dark Materials explores concepts of religion versus science. In this world, a fantasized version of England, one's soul is external, taking on the form of an animal. As a child this animal soul, called a daemon, changes form, though it drifts toward a favorite form as children mature. After going through puberty, the daemon picks a form. Daemons can interact with one another, but you would never touch another person's daemon. The daemon's physicality makes struggles over souls (whether being used to stop sin or fuel science) more dynamic and graphic. Add armored bears, gypsies, balloonists, a world-rending knife, and a compass with unusual capacities, and you are off on an adventure of staggering breadth. Indeed, take a deep breath (okay, I know that's cheesy- deal with it) before diving in- you may not surface until the end.

Incidentally, when I heard the third book was to be released, I cajoled the shcool librarian into giving it to me the day after it was released- before it even had a date card or had been wrapped in plastic. I returned it the next morning, having not slept that night (who needs boring middle school when you have brand-new top-notch literature?).