Thursday, April 30, 2009


Eleven by Patricia Reilly Giff, published by Wendy Lamb Books, Random House, 2008.
I had very mixed feelings about this book. I kept asking myself why it was that I didn’t become emotionally attached to Sam, the protagonist and his new friend Caroline. Sam was likable enough and even appears to have dyslexia, something that would normally garner a reader’s sympathy. Sam discovers a newspaper clipping that said he was a missing child. He spends the book trying to figure out who he is and where he belongs.

I was also disappointed by Giff’s handling of the dyslexia. Although she does a superb job of describing it, “the words a bunch of loops and whorls that seemed to jump as Sam looked at them,” Giff misses an opportunity to really explore this topic.

I was also a little put off by they way she concludes this arc of the story. Sam decides he has to learn to read. He goes to the reading teacher who has been helping him. They talk about how much time he had spent building a castle for another class and that sometimes reading is also that hard. She says, “We’ll keep at it, work on it; we’ll really try.” I realize that she is acknowledging that he is making a commitment now too, but somehow it seemed dismissive of his learning disability. An implication that by putting some effort into it would make it go away.

This book is also a finalist for the Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Postcard

The Postcard by Tony Abbott, published by Little, Brown Young Readers, 2008.
I was captivated by the way this book switched back and forth from being a mystery to being a contemporary coming of age novel. Jason is coping with his father’s drinking, his parents failing marriage and the death of a grandmother he never knew.
While helping his father pack up Grandma’s Florida home, Jason stumbles upon a 1940s magazine with the first chapter of a hard-boiled detective story. Chapters of this Chandleresque story are interspersed with the modern story and seem to mirror real events. This proved to be an interesting technique. I wondered at times if the “adult” story was something the author had written previously and recycled.
At times, Jason and his new friend Dea appear to be in real danger, this provides a lot of tension in the story. But in the end we learn those who were following them never really intended to hurt them.
This book is a finalist for the Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Cemetery Street

First The Graveyard Book, now Cemetery Street. Sounds like I'm going goth. I do have a fascination with cemeteries, but trust me. It is purely coincidental that I'm doing these two reviews back to back.

I wrote a critical essay about Cemetery Street as part of my graduate studies at Vermont College. I've included the bulk of it here.

Magic Ants to the Rescue
Writing a mystery’s conclusion may be the most difficult part. So much room exists for error, offering so many ways to disappoint the reader. A writer on deadline may scramble to wrap up the plot quickly to get the book sent to the publisher. A desperate writer will search for something, anything to solve her dilemma. Unfortunately, this can often result in rash decisions. If the author calls upon the reader to stretch too far in suspending their disbelief, the reader will feel like time was wasted on this protagonist. The reader thought this was a hero’s journey to solve the mystery and set the world right. But without careful attention, this journey may lead to nowhere. Hammering the last nail into her protagonist’s heroic coffin, Brenda Seabrooke summons up a deus ex machina to wrap up Cemetery Street.

In a fantastic twist, Seabrooke robs Courtney of the apprehension of her kidnappers. The publicity-seeking, demon-impersonating criminals who killed her brother’s puppy and locked her in a crypt are done in by organized insects. Courtney tracks down the kidnappers and chases them to their van, just as it pulls away.

The van’s doors opened at the same time. Dr. White rolled out one side, Leindorf the other. They rolled in the parking lot and screamed as they tore at their clothes (Seabrooke 184).

We learn shortly that “very angry ants” are the cause of all this rolling and screaming. As explanation, Seabrooke offers Bucky’s Halloween bag tossed in the back of the van.

Giant ants may work for Indiana Jones in South America, but Seabrooke made absolutely no mention of ants at any point in the previous 184 pages. If ants had spoiled the picnic, if Courtney had been bitten by an ant or if she had taken time to watch ants travel, then this might have had a whisper of credibility. But, as presented, it is completely fantastical.

Others may argue that this ending works. Perhaps Seabrooke was trying to counteract the darkness of the animal murder and the suspected Satanism in the book with a lighthearted approach to catching the criminals. At least a few notable people must have taken this position, Cemetery Street is a current finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Mystery presented by the Mystery Writers of America.

The first half of Cemetery Street is a tightly woven web of mystery and suspense. The reader is enchanted by Courtney, we sympathize with the challenges she faces and root for her success from the beginning. We worry about the impending danger that seems to be headed her way. But we’re confident that her wit and ingenuity will ultimately lead to justice prevailing.

We will never know if Courtney was brave enough and resourceful enough to foil the criminals because Seabrooke snatches the opportunity away from her. When writers resort to outlandish means to resolve the situation, it undermines the entire book. Although the language, character development and pacing of Cemetery Street was excellent, this disappointing ending will be the thing readers remember most about it.

Here's a book trailer for it.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman's Newberry winning novel, The Graveyard Book, opens with a man named Jack murdering an English family. But the youngest child, a toddler, escapes to a nearby graveyard. There he is taken in by the inhabitants of the graveyard who raise him as their own. This story is superb. The mystery is tight and the graveyard ambiance is maintained throughout the book.

I do wonder if Mr. Gaiman was inspired by the saying, “You don't know Jack.” He's right, we don't. (and aren't we glad?)

I listened to the audio version of this book, which is read by the author. If you pick this up, you are in for a treat. Not only do you get Gaiman's aristocratic British accent, you also get exactly the inflection he intended in writing the book. Directly from his lips to your ears – it doesn't get any better than that.

And with any luck, I'm all high-tech today and here is a book trailer for The Graveyard Book.

Plus, here is an interview with author Neil Gaiman on The Colbert Report.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Neil Gaiman
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorNASA Name Contest

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

Is he cool or what? This was part of the egg rolling Easter celebration at the White House.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Witches of Dredmoore Hollow

By Riford McKenzie, published by Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 2008.

If you are a fan of the Addams Family, you will love this novel. It is a kooky story about witches and curses and awful aunts who kidnap young Elijah, hero protagonist. But I won’t tell you why. That’s part of the mystery.

McKenzie maintains first person narration throughout this novel through the point of view of Elijah. The story is creepy, but in a fun, lighthearted way and although there is the threat of serious violence, none of it is taken too seriously because the tone and humor are spot on and put the reader at ease.

This book has been nominated for an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America. I say it is a serious contender.

I’ll be reviewing all of the nominees in the juvenile category before the awards are announced on April 30.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Room One

Obviously, it has been far too long since I've posted or shared any of the great books I've been reading.

And, let me tell you, as a student in the MFA program at Vermont College, I've been doing A LOT of reading. Since I already have this huge store of books to share, I should be updating on a much more regular basis.

So, let's get started.

Clements, Andrew. Room One. New York: Simon & Schuster: Audioworks, 2006.
I listened to the audio version of this book and really loved it. The cover seems a little young for the story, I was expecting about a fourth grade book, but I found the mystery a very compelling middle grade read.

Clements used third person to tell this story and about 90 percent of the book is from Ted’s point of view, but he does shift to other points of view occasionally. Unfortunately, he didn’t take full advantage of the shifting view points by using them only to convey important information that the reader wouldn’t have otherwise. In fact, much of the resolution of the story is conveyed through the epilogue using various methods including news reports and articles. It seems entirely possible that he could’ve stayed with Ted’s POV, making the reader identify more with the character.

Clements also wove the family impact of the Iraq war into the story, making the book very topical. I was particularly interested in that aspect, since it is a subplot in the manuscript I am currently revising.

I highly recommend this book. While the protagonist is a boy, the story features a very strong girl, providing appeal for both genders. You can bet I'll be adding more of Mr. Clements books to my reading list.

This book won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 2007.