Book Review – The Kneebone Boy

Author:  Ellen Potter

Publisher: Feiwel & Friends (September 14, 2010)

Reading Level: Grades 4th to 8th

Source: ARC for review

Rating:  5 Stars – Highly recommend

Description from GoodReads:

The book’s set in a small English town and follows the Hardscrabble kids who are relocated to live with their aunt in London, where they discover they might be living next door to “a horribly misshapen boy who has figured in local legend.” It’s the story of the three Hardscrabble siblings and their search for the legendary Kneebone Boy.

There are books that are fun to read.  There are other books that are amazingly well written.  Sometimes, though, it is a struggle to find “fun to read” and “amazingly well written” between the same covers of a book.  However, as I read through Ellen Potter’s newest book The Kneebone Boy, I found myself repeating in this awestruck manner “This book is brilliant”.  Both fun and well written and bound behind a spectacular cover. (Click here to read a post from Potter about the cover of the book illustrated by Jason Chan.)

The Kneebone Boy is a tale of 3 children, siblings, living in an odd home with a somewhat eccentric father in England.  There is a mystery surrounding the disappearance of their mother which permeates their lives and influences their actions.  When they find themselves on their own in London, rather than return home, they set out to find their great-aunt.  Their journey turns out to be an adventure of a lifetime.  One that will challenge and test them on many levels, but will ultimately provide them with new understanding.

I am determined not to spoil this story so if some of the details seem vague it is for exactly this reason.  Potter is a master storyteller and has crafted this novel in a manner that reveals just what needs to be at each step of the journey.  As I read each page, I never felt that I wanted more or less than what was given to me.  Even as I arrived at the end of the book, I was pleased with the manner in which she pulled together all of the aspects of the story and provided the reader with a deeply satisfying ending.

It should be noted that The Kneebone Boy is written in a style that fans of Lemony Snickets’ Series of Unfortunate Events or Pseudonymous Bosch’s Secret Series will be familiar with. Yet, the story begins in a very different voice and style from other novels by Potter. If you are not familiar with Snickets’ or Bosch’s stories, and more accustomed with Potter’s traditional writing style, then I would suggest that you give the story a couple of chapters to acclimate yourself to the narrator’s manner. Once in the rhythm of the story you will find yourself, enjoying the interjections and information provided by the book’s narrator. I will make the argument that I truly felt as if Potter has taken her writing to a whole new level with this story. There is a richness and complexity with the story that will appeal to older Middle Grade readers and even adults who are reading along with their children.

Kudos to Ellen Potter for an amazing new book and for continuing to write outstanding literature for middle grade readers.

For more information about Ellen Potter and her books, you can check out her website here: www.ellenpotter.com

Book Review – The Red Umbrella

Author: Christina Diaz Gonzalez

Publisher: Knopf Book for Young Readers (May 11, 2010)

Reading Level: Upper Middle Grade/YA

Source: Personal Copy

Rating: 5 Star (A definite must read)

Description from GoodReads:

The Red Umbrella is the moving tale of a 14-year-old girl’s journey from Cuba to America as part of Operation Pedro Pan—an organized exodus of more than 14,000 unaccompanied children, whose parents sent them away to escape Fidel Castro’s revolution.

In 1961, two years after the Communist revolution, Lucía Álvarez still leads a carefree life, dreaming of parties and her first crush. But when the soldiers come to her sleepy Cuban town, everything begins to change. Freedoms are stripped away. Neighbors disappear. Her friends feel like strangers. And her family is being watched.

As the revolution’s impact becomes more oppressive, Lucía’s parents make the heart-wrenching decision to send her and her little brother to the United States—on their own.

Suddenly plunked down in Nebraska with well-meaning strangers, Lucía struggles to adapt to a new country, a new language, a new way of life. But what of her old life? Will she ever see her home or her parents again? And if she does, will she still be the same girl?

The Red Umbrella is a moving story of country, culture, family, and the true meaning of home.

In late November 2009, I signed up for  The Story Siren’s 2010 Debut Author Challenge.  The challenge – to read at least 12 novels by debut authors in 2010.  With this review, I will be logging in on #12.  WooHoo!  I still plan on continuing with the Challenge for at least another 12 books.  Now on to the review….

History does not have to be dry and boring and Christina Diaz Gonzalez proves that to us in her debut novel The Red Umbrella.  In this powerful and personal story of a young teenage girl named Lucia, readers learn about the events that took place in Cuba and the United Stated in the early 1960’s. Gonzalez used the stories of her parents and mother-in-law as the original seed for telling the world about Operation Pedro Pan, when families in Cuba sent their children to the U.S. to avoid Castro’s revolution.

According to Gonzalez, there were nearly 14,000 children who arrived in Miami during the years of 1960 to 1962.  Some were met by family and friends while others were placed in a camp until a foster home could be located for them.  Her research uncovered that of these 14,000 children nearly 90% were reunited with their families over a period of time.

With this as her background, Gonzalez paints a vivid portray of what life would have been like for a teenager in Cuba in 1961.  What might she have worn, or what music she listened to, or even what movie she might have seen.  This attention to detail and desire for accuracy rather than slow down the story allows the reader to image what life would have been like.  Lucia, along with her younger brother Frankie live a comfortable life with their parents.  Initially, their parents seek to protect them from the realities of Castro’s revolution.  However, there comes a point when their parents are no longer able to keep out the atrocities that are occurring.  In a final attempt to protect them, Lucia and Frankie are sent to the United States in hopes that they will eventually be reunited as a family.

The book is divided into two parts – the first half of the story provides you with the background and what is happening in Cuba.  The second half explores the reality of what it is like for Lucia and Frankie to live in a foster home while they wait and hope for reunification.

As I read The Red Umbrella, I was emotionally moved by the story of the Alvarez family.  Their story is one of loss, love, grief, and hope.  I seem to be saying this a lot lately, but keep a box of tissues near you as you read this book, and you do need to read this story.

For me, the story of the Alvarez family was made even more real when I had an opportunity to see Gonzalez at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena.  The audience was filled with predominately Cuban Americans.  Many of these individuals had either been Pedro Pans or had left Cuba in some manner during the 1960’s.  The Red Umbrella was not just a story, but it was their story.  Some had hardly shared this story with their families.  Others were using this book to share a piece of their personal history with their children or grandchildren.

This is a powerful story, and an amazing debut novel by Christina Diaz Gonzalez.  I look forward to her next book whenever it is released and I hope that this book will receive the attention, accolades and awards that it is due.  If you don’t have this on your “to-be-read” pile, then get it on there.

You can find out more about Christina Diaz Gonzalez on her website here: http://www.christinagonzalez.com/home.html

You can find her on Twitter @christinadg or on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/christinadiazgonzalez?ref=ts

You can purchase of signed copy of The Red Umbrella (while copies last) at Borders Glendale.

Book Review – Tortilla Sun

Author: Jennifer Cervantes

Publisher:  Chronicle Books (May 5, 2010)

Reading Level: Grades 4th to 8th

Source: Personal Copy

Rating: 5 Stars

Description from GoodReads:

A tender, magical story about 12 year old Izzy Roybal who is sent to spend the summer in her nana’s New Mexico village where she is soon caught up in the foreign world of her own culture, from patron saints and soulful food to the curious and magical blessings Nana gives her tortillas. In Nana’s village she meets Mateo, the adventurous, treasure seeking thirteen year old boy who lives on the other side of the bolted door in Izzy’s bedroom and six year old Maggie who is raising her cat, Frida, as a dog and sees marshmallow ghosts float out windows. When the wind begins to whisper to Izzy, she is soon led on an adventure to learn about her father’s mysterious death, who she really is, and to connect the hidden pieces of her past.

Several months ago, I signed up to participate in The Story Siren’s 2010 Debut Author Challenge.  I will add admit that Tortilla Sun by Jennifer Cervantes was a late addition to my list of Debut Authors.  However, I am so thrilled that I found this absolutely lovely book.

If you hang around me for any length of time, you will know that trying to find books that my students will relate to is a big concern of mine.  The majority of my students are from Hispanic backgrounds.  Many are Mexican American.  There are some but not enough stories that feature Latino characters.  I was barely a chapter into Tortilla Sun when I knew that this was a book that I not only wanted to share with my students but that I would use as a read aloud with my fifth graders.

By now you may be wondering, what is so special about Tortilla Sun? Cervantes has created a story filled with well-developed characters, a vibrant setting, and a message of loss, love, family, and hope (pull out your tissues when reading this – I sobbed for nearly the last 1/4 of the book).  Twelve year old Izzy never met her father who died before she was born.  Her mother and she have never settled into one house or an apartment for any extended time.  After moving into yet another new place, Izzy uncovers a box of things that belonged to her father including a baseball with the worn words “Because____ ____ magic”.   Shortly after this discovery, Izzy’s mother is called away on a research trip and sends Izzy off to spend the summer in New Mexico with her grandmother.  At first Izzy is unhappy with this decision but shortly after arriving she discovers that the summer may be a time where she can learn about who her father was and what are the missing words rubbed off from the baseball.  From her Nana, she discovers the magic of homemade tortillas, and learns that the past needs time to be revealed.  From 13 year old Matteo and 6 year old Maggie, she learns about friendship, adventure, and caring about others.  From the adults that surround her in this small village, she learns to embrace the magic around her and discovers who she is.  Cervantes also weaves together Spanish words and phrases along with wonderful references to food and activities that further embrace the Latino culture.

This coming of age story is beautifully and masterfully told.  Cervantes has hit her own home-run with this debut offering and I am eager to read any future books from her.

You can find out more about Jennifer Cervantes and her book at: http://www.jennifercervantes.com/

You can find Jennifer on Twitter @jencerv or on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/#!/jennifercervanteswriter?ref=ts

You can purchase a signed copy (while they last) of Tortilla Sun at Borders Glendale:  http://www.borders.com/online/store/StoreDetailView_149

Book Review: Linger

Author:  Maggie Stiefvater

Publisher: Scholastic Press (July 13, 2010)

Reading Level: Young Adult

Source: Advanced Reader’s Copy

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Description from GoodReads:

In Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver, Grace and Sam found each other.  Now, in Linger, they must fight to be together. For Grace, this means defying her parents and keeping a very dangerous secret about her own well-being. For Sam, this means grappling with his werewolf past . . . and figuring out a way to survive into the future. Add into the mix a new wolf named Cole, whose own past has the potential to destroy the whole pack.  And Isabelle, who already lost her brother to the wolves . . . and is nonetheless drawn to Cole.

At turns harrowing and euphoric, Linger is a spellbinding love story that explores both sides of love — the light and the dark, the warm and the cold — in a way you will never forget.

I received a copy of Linger back in March and basically inhaled it in one sitting.  However, it was too early to write a review at that point.  Anyway, I am glad I saved my review though for now because I can do a back to back post.  First, a review of Linger and then follow it up with an Author Event post about Maggie’s visit to Borders/Glendale.  Maybe even a contest for that ARC I have.

Back to my review of Linger.  Last year, I accidentally happened upon Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater.  I was looking for a book to read and saw a display on release day and picked it up.  I read it straight through and fell in love with Grace and Sam.  Stiefvater’s writing was lyrical, heart-warming, and moving.  There was something magical about it and I wasn’t referring to the werewolves.  It was probably my favorite read of the summer of 2009, and I highly anticipated the release of Linger.

In March, I had a chance to finally find out what happened to Sam and Grace.  Linger picks up where Shiver left off.  (Please note there will definitely be spoilers for Shiver and I will attempt to keep this as spoiler free for Linger.) Sam has supposedly been cured and isn’t shifting from boy to wolf based on temperature.  This should be an exciting time for Grace and Sam.  However, this is a book 2.  I say this because book 2 is always where the author takes her beloved characters and makes them struggle, suffer, go through really crappy things.  And Stiefvater does not disappoint.  These are the things that I *hate* about book 2, in any series. There were times while reading that I wanted to throw the book and other times when I wanted to scream at Stiefvater.  Yes, I get emotional when reading about my favorite characters.  And if the characters didn’t struggle, the author wouldn’t have done her job.  Without saying much more about some of those struggles, let me just say keep the tissue box close by.

Now that you know what I *hated* about Linger.  Here is what I loved about Linger?  I loved the addition of a new wolf, Cole.  Cole is charming, sexy, and definitely a bad boy.  You will love him.  He plays well off of Isabel’s character and offers a bit of relief from the emotional rollercoaster that Sam and Grace are navigating.

What I am still up in the air about? Grace’s parents have a much more prominent role in this book than they did in Shiver.  I have mixed feelings about the transition from book 1’s lack of involvement to book 2’s extreme involvement.  I’m still not sure about this, but you will have to see what you think about it.

Finally, the ending of the story, though the cliff-hanger, was somewhat predictable.  I am not certain if the ending was the most natural progression for the story or if it was just the easiest.  Despite though having a strong idea about how the book would end (not all of the details but the conflict), I still cried.

Linger may not win over any Shiver fence-sitters, but it will definitely be a book that passionate fans will be eager to read and devour.

If you post any comments, please keep them spoiler free.

Congratulations to Maggie Stiefvater for debuting at #1 on the New York Times Best-Seller List.  Now I wonder if I can hack into her computer and download Forever?

-Aly

Book Review: Restoring Harmony

Author: Joelle Anthony

Publisher: Putnam Juvenile (May 8, 2010)

Reading Level: YA (6th grade up)

Source: ARC for review

Rating: 5 Stars

Description from GoodReads:

The year is 2041, and sixteen-year-old Molly McClure has lived a relatively quiet life on an isolated farming island in Canada, but when her family fears the worst may have happened to her grandparents in the US, Molly must brave the dangerous, chaotic world left after global economic collapse—one of massive oil shortages, rampant crime, and abandoned cities.

Molly is relieved to find her grandparents alive in their Portland suburb, but they’re financially ruined and practically starving. What should’ve been a quick trip turns into a full-fledged rescue mission. And when Molly witnesses something the local crime bosses wishes she hadn’t, Molly’s only way home may be to beat them at their own game. Luckily, there’s a handsome stranger who’s willing to help.

Restoring Harmony is a riveting, fast-paced dystopian tale complete with adventure and romance that readers will devour.

When I received the Advanced Reader’s Copy (ARC) of Restoring Harmony, I was bogged down with books to read for book club or prior books for review.  In addition, work/life was just really busy.  Some books I have a gut sense that I am going to enjoy and I don’t want to rush through them. I had that feeling about Restoring Harmony and I found myself carrying it around but not reading it because the time wasn’t right.  Finally, I had just the right time and I devoured the book in one sitting.

Let me just start with what I liked about the book…

I have discovered that I love books with short chapters.  This may be a silly thing but it makes the book feel like a super fast read even if it takes me exactly the same time to read as any other book with the same number of pages. Additionally, it means that the book will go on my list to recommend to reluctant readers.

Another reason that this will go on my list for reluctant readers is that Anthony grabs you from the beginning and keeps you hooked in until the end.  I really don’t feel that as the reader I should wade through 75 or 100 pages before the book “gets good”.  My reluctant readers won’t even hang in there for that many pages before giving up on the book.

My third reason for loving this book – I loved the characters.  Molly is a wonderful protagonist.  She is bright, tenacious, resourceful, and just plain likable.  She is sent out on a journey to contact her grandparents and convince them to return to Canada with her.  Molly embraces her mission and despite obstacles and set-backs plunges forward without giving up and without annoying the reader.  Molly isn’t the only character I loved.  There is Spill.  You really need to read the book – you will fall in love with Spill too.  He is swoon-worthy in a very good way.  I am adding him to my list of fictional crushes.

My fourth reason for loving this book – I truly appreciate books that have a sense of community in them and adults who are not all jerks.  I realize YA is written from the perspective of teens, but not all teens hate all adults.

Just a few more things…I can share Restoring Harmony with readers from sixth grade on up.  I appreciated the timeless feel to the book, and the dialogue did not annoy me.  Have you ever read a book where the voice of the characters just irritated you?  I have and it really is a turn off – not so with this book.

Finally, the writing of the book was wonderful.  Anthony does an incredible job in describing her world, the struggles of the society, the challenges facing the characters, the emotions behind the words.  There is intensity and darkness balanced with hope.

Joelle Anthony’s debut novel, Restoring Harmony, is a wonderful offering and one that I hope really gets the attention that it deserves.  I look forward to future books by this author.

Check out Joelle’s blog for more information about Restoring Harmony and to listen to some related music or check out the wonderfully done book trailer.