New Picture Books - September

Love in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block Book Review

Love in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block

Penelope (Pen) has lost everything—her home, her parents, and her ten-year-old brother. After the great earthshaker, Pen leaves home in search of her family. What she finds instead are giants and witches, love and enemies. 

I am a huge fan of the hero's journey. From the early stories of The Iliad and Odyssey, to the more modern stories of Star Wars to Harry Potter. Joseph Campbell said, “Every myth is psychologically symbolic. Its narratives and images are to be read, therefore, not literally, but as metaphors.” It is unclear to me as to whether Block was either so wrapped up in The Odyssey metaphor that she became bogged down in it, or that she simply didn't understand the metaphor and let it run away with her.

The story also couldn't decide what it was. Was it a post-apocalyptic thriller? Fantasy? Myth? Metaphor? One thing it was not, this was not a story about Global Warming, in fact the title is completely misleading considering that the devastating earthquake had nothing to do with global warming. The basic idea is this, Pen, after huddling in her ravaged home for two months, leaves when a group of bandits shows up. She "steals" (is given the keys to) a van and travels aimlessly throughout Los Angeles searching for her family. Here she discovers that her life is literally following the tale of The Odyssey complete with giants, witches, sirens, and everything else in-between. 

This is, of course, where the confusion lies. Although this takes place in LA, there are witches and supernatural powers, weird orange butterflies, and nothing that seems like anything from our world. Apparently Pen has never even heard of the word earthquake, since she insists on calling it the earthshaker. Despite living in a modern world, she and her mother apparently don't know what a camera is either. As if following the exact same story line of The Odyssey wasn't a strange enough coincidence, Pen also has this weird way of running into other teenagers. No adults in this ravaged LA, apparently they have all been killed or just left. Just teenagers. And not just any teenagers. Pen has the extraordinary luck of running into three other teens who, like her, all happen to be LBGTQ. I have nothing against such characters, but it just added to the identity crisis this book seemed to be having.

As another reviewer put it so nicely, "Not only does Love in the Time of Global Warming feature not one but four protagonists who rely on Homer's original tale to guide them through the post-apocalypse--in essence, an allegory of The Odyssey that also features The Odyssey as a main driver of the plot, which is simply ridiculous--but the similar characters and plot-points are not so much alluded to as copied outright, with updates that are supposed to modernize the story doing little more than reducing one chapter after another into helpless parody. The Lotus-Eaters who populated an island of drug-fueled laziness in Homer's tale are now lotus-eaters who populate a hotel of drug-fueled laziness in Block's. Circe, the seductress who transformed Odysseus' men into slobbering pigs, is now a failed TV star who has one "minion," a teenage boy she brainwashes with pastries and keeps in a collar. And the cyclops who terrorized Odysseus and his men are still cyclopes, only now they're genetic mutants who supposedly cause earthquakes."

Block knows how to make beautiful prose, but beautiful lines can't save a story that, at its core, is having a serious identity crisis. I don't mind rehashes of classics, but the author must make the story their own. One mention of The Odyssey would have been fine, but using the book as a road map, quite literally, and then ignoring it even after realizing that they are living the story, just annoyed me. There was so much that could have been done with this, as it stands, it isn't a good allegory, dystopian sci-fi, or fantasy.

Janie Face to Face by Caroline Cooney Book Review

Janie Face to Face by Caroline Cooney

Originally published in 1990, The Face On the Milk Carton was a thriller that asked, what would you do if you saw your face on a missing persons poster? What if your parents were kidnappers? At 15, Janie Johnson sees her face on a milk carton during lunch and from then on her life is thrown upside down. She is really Jennie Spring, kidnapped from a mall when she was three by a woman named Hannah Javenson. Her parents, Hannah's parents, thought Janie was their granddaughter and raised her as their own. After reuniting with her biological family, Janie really struggles with this idea of who she is and who she can love. The series continued on for three more books, detailing Janie's struggles to be a part of both the Spring's and Johnson's lives and finding enough love to go around.

Now, in the fifth and final book, Janie Johnson is 20 years old. A true-crime writer has been tracking down her family members and Janie isn't sure who she is anymore. Janie? Jane? Jennie? And what about that kidnapper, Hannah, what has she been up to all these years?

Caroline Cooney, despite not intending for this to ever be a series has finally finished the story of Janie Johnson. For all the female fans, this is a book chock full of romance and weddings and forgiveness and everything girly. It begins a little slow, but is soon running along at a good speed.

Although I absolutely love having this final chapter in Janie's life, there were some problems. The first being simply that the first book was written 23 years ago, however in the story only five years have passed. Instead of making her book dated and setting it in 1995, Cooney chooses to ignore when the first book was written and pretend that the first story took place in 2008. Now, Janie has a cell phone, computer, and Skype. It was a little strange.

The book is also told through multiple viewpoints. Throughout the story we get the viewpoints of almost every single character in the story. Janie, her brothers, her sister, mother, father, Miranda, Hannah. Come to think of it, the only viewpoint we didn't get was Frank, her adoptive father who had a stroke. The constant jumping from person to person could be jolting sometimes, especially if you went from a sympathetic character (Sarah-Charlotte, Reeve) to the more douchebag (Stephen, Jodie) ones. Although, I think the intention was for us to see how some of these characters are growing up, some of the characters like Jodie and Stephen did little to redeem themselves.

Perhaps the most interesting character in the whole story was really Hannah, the kidnapper. We get to see into her twisted and mentally ill mind and makes for some interesting, although eventually annoying, perspective.

In the end, looking back over the life of the story, I always found this series to be entertaining and a fun what if. However, I also know that there is no one today who would take a 15-year-old girl from parents who were loving and were not in fact the kidnappers and force her to move back to her biological family who she does not remember without some counseling, a lot of meetings, and much transition time. Honestly, if this had happened, Janie would not have been struggling so much in this final book.

Will Sparow's Road by Karen Cushman Book Review

Will Sparrow's Road by Karen Cushman

Will Sparrow is a liar and a thief, doing whatever it takes to get by. After his father sold him to the innkeeper for drink, Will stuck around, but when the innkeeper promises to sell him to a chimney sweep, Will escapes. Penniless, Will steals what he can and searches for his place in the world. Stumbling upon a country fair, Will takes up with an illusionist and then a sideshow entertainer. Young Will must learn that life can be deceiving and people doubly so.

I have always been a fan of Karen Cushman's novel, enjoying the historiography and true-to-their-time characters. Set in 1599, Will Sparrow's Road promised so much in the way of an Elizabethan world. Sadly, I did not feel like it delivered on that promise.

Will was a wholly unlikable child. He is a thief and a liar who swears that he will only look out for himself. He is also abominably naive and more than a little stupid. It isn't until almost the very end of the story that Will manages to get a clue and even then I don't have faith that he will grow up into an individual with good critical thinking skills.This is the core problem with the story, for, like all of Cushman's tales, this book is supposed to be character driven.

With such an unlikable character I kept wondering if Cushman was going to go with a different more plot-driven approach this time, but it soon became clear that Cushman just wanted to write about an Elizabethan Faire. You know, like the Renaissance Festivals we like to attend, although this one was supposed to be more historically accurate. The author wanted a story about a faire, so she created a character and inserted him into this setting with no clear direction and very little definable personality. Truth is, for all his "stealing" and "lies", Will is one terrible thief and liar so he isn't even what he says he is. The secondary characters were more interesting due to their disabilities, however, since the story is told from Will's naive and limited perspective, they came off as flat and annoying. I felt some sympathy for all the characters in the end, but was so frustrated by the lack of any decent plot that I didn't really care.

All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill Book Review

All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill

Fourteen. That is the amount of times that Em and Finn have gone back in time. Fourteen times they have tried to fix the future and stop the doctor who is ruining time. And every time Em finds herself in the same place, tortured, in a prison cell, staring at a drain. Juxtaposed throughout the book is the story of Marina and her best friend James, from four years earlier. As the two stories slowly intertwine, one thing becomes clear, there will be no more chances. If the doctor isn't stopped this time, the world will never be the same again. 

The problem with any time travel book is that, if not well-thought out, plot holes and logical fallacies can run rampant. All Our Yesterdays does not suffer from this dilemma. Fast-paced, smart, and nail-biting, I could not put this book down. For me, what made this better than the last Young Adult time travel for a simple reason, I do not like circular books. What I mean is, a book in which the story ends with the characters not achieving anything and having to go back in time again to try and fix it. Meaning that the author is suggesting that there is no end, that time travel is some vicious circle in which no problem is ever solved. Why would I read that book? I am not interested in a story with no resolution. Isn't it so much more interesting to read a story in which you know that you are being brought into this story at this point in time because this is when the good stuff goes down.

And the end? I can't really tell you anything about the book without ruining it, but there was definitely one serious jaw-dropping moment.

50 Facts About Charles Dickens

1. His first published fiction was A Dinner at Poplar Walk, published in Monthly Magazine. He wrote it aged 21, while working as a reporter at The Morning Chronicle.
2. Dickens was deeply interested in the supernatural, and has even been linked to the famous paranormal investigation group “The Ghost Club” of London.
3. His family was poor, but he was lucky enough to attend school. That is, until his father was jailed for having ‘bad debts’.
4. In 1836, he married Catherine Hogarth. She was the daughter of one of his editors, George Hogarth.
5. After having ten children together, Charles Dickens and Catherine Hogarth separated in 1858. Dickens then had a relationship with Ellen Ternan, and actress.
6. He named many of his children after his favorite authors. Among his 10 children were Alfred Tennyson Dickens, Henry Fielding Dickens, and Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens. He then gave them all nicknames.
7. At age 15, Dickens was forced to quit school and take a job as a legal clerk in order to support his family.
8. Dickens suffered, at least in childhood, from epilepsy. He described three of his characters as having epileptic seizures, or ‘The Falling Sickness’ : Edward Leeford, Oliver Twist's half-brother; a headmaster in Our Mutual Friend; and Guster, a maid in Bleak House. Modern doctors find Dickens’s descriptions of the disease remarkably accurate for a period when little was known about it.
9. In his home he had a secret room hidden with a door that was built to look like a bookcase.
10. Dickens believed that a human could die from spontaneous human combustion (SHC). In his novel Bleak House, one of his characters, Krook, dies from SHC.
11. He was obsessive compulsive, reportedly re-arranging his hotel furniture and having to sleep with his head pointing north.
12. Dickens is perhaps the only author to have a theme park devoted to his legacy. "Dickens World" in Chatham, England , contains Europe’s longest indoor dark ride, the “Great Expectations” log flume, and the Haunted House of Ebenezer Scrooge.
13. His youngest son was Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens, named after the author who infamously started one of his books, "It was a dark and stormy night." The writer Bulwer Lytton and Dickens were friends.
14. Instead of saying, “What the devil?” as a profanity, people exclaimed, “What the dickens?” The first usage of that word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor.
15. Righteous anger stemming from his own situation and the conditions under which working-class people lived became major themes of his works, and it was this unhappy period in his youth to which he alluded in his favorite, and most autobiographical novel, David Copperfield.
16. Dickens worked at the law office of Ellis and Blackmore, attorneys as a junior clerk from May, 1827 to November, 1828. Then, having learned Gurney's system of shorthand in his spare time, he left to become a freelance reporter.
17. He was drawn to the theater and landed an acting audition at Covent Garden, for which he prepared meticulously but which he missed because of a cold, ending his aspirations for a career on the stage
18. Dickens' philantrophy was well-known. Public readings secured sufficient funds for an endowment to put the Great Ormond Street Hospital on a sound financial footing — one of February 9, 1858 alone raised £3,000.
19. Dickens loved the style of the 18th century picaresque novels which he found in abundance on his father's shelves. According to Ackroyd, other than these, perhaps the most important literary influence on him was derived from the fables of The Arabian Nights.
20. Many of his characters were drawn from real life: Mrs Nickleby was based on his mother, although she didn't recognize herself in the portrait.
21. Most of his major novels were first written in monthly or weekly installments in journals such as Master Humphrey's Clock and Household Words, later reprinted in book form. These installments made the stories cheap, accessible and the series of regular cliff-hangers made each new episode widely anticipated.
22. In 1846 Dickens co-founded Urania Cottage, a home for the redemption of “fallen” women where accepted candidates could learn skills, often domestic, and re-integrate into society.
23. Among fellow writers, Dickens has been both lionized and mocked. Leo Tolstoy, G.K. Chesterton, and George Orwell all praised his realism, comic voice, prose fluency, and genius for satiric caricature, as well as his passionate advocacy on behalf of children and the poor. On the other hand, Oscar Wilde generally disparaged his depiction of character, while admiring his gift for caricature
24. He had a number of different nicknames for himself, including “The Sparkler of Albion”, “Revolver” and “The Inimitable.” He also gave his children nicknames including "Chickenstalker" and "Skittles."
25. Due to his brutal yet accurate portrayal of Yorkshire Schools in Nicholas Nickelby, public outcry over such schools was so great that within a decade they had all been shut down.
26. A copy of the First Edition of A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, is currently priced at $31,634.
27. He gave hundreds of paid readings to audiences which meant he could indulge his love of the stage and performing.
28. During his visit, he spent a month in New York City, giving lectures and raising the question of international copyright laws and the pirating of his work in America, he persuaded twenty five writers, headed by Washington Irving to sign a petition for him to take to Congress, but the press were generally hostile to this saying that he should be grateful for his popularity and that it was mercenary to complain about his work being pirated.
29. His wife`s 17 year old sister, Mary who lived with them, died in Dickens`s arms after a short illness. She would later be immortalized as Little Nell.
30. His first serial, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (aka Pickwick Papers), was so popular during its release that unofficial commercial spinoffs soon proliferated, including Pickwick pastries and Fat Boy sweets.
31. On the 9th June 1865 he narrowly escaped death when the train he was traveling in with Ellen and her mother crashed in Staplehurst. He spent time after the crash helping tend to the dying and injured and although physically unharmed he mentally never recovered.
32. Between 1837 and 1839, he lived next to the Foundling Hospital estate, on 48 Doughty Street, now the 'Charles Dickens Museum'. Dickens supported the Hospital both financially and through his writing. He rented a pew in its Chapel and referred to the Hospital in his stories, novels and plays.
33. Hans Christian Andersen became a good friend of Dickens and in 1857 visited his family, for five weeks. However, he overstayed his welcome and when the visit ended, Dickens wrote on the guest room mirror “Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks which seemed to the family AGES!”
34. The publishing of A Christmas Carol (1843) came around the same time as the widespread use of Christmas trees (1841) and the first Christmas card (1843).
35. While best known for A Christmas Carol, Dickens actually wrote five books about Christmas: The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life, and The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain, as well as A Christmas Carol. They were all published between 1843-1848.
36. An old toothpick Dickens once cleaned his teeth with fetched over £5,500 at auction in 2009.
37. Dickens’ story The Signal Man is partly derived from personal experience. In 1865, Dickens was involved in the famed Staplehurst rail crash in which seven train carriages toppled off a bridge that was under repair. Dickens narrowly avoided catastrophe as his own car was the first to be spared once the train finally stopped, however the incident scarred him mentally.
38. About a hundred films based on the works of Dickens were produced in the silent era alone in Britain, US and Europe.
39. Dickens had a near-photographic memory of people and events in his childhood, which he used in his writing.
40. He once performed a conjuring show on the Isle of Wight for friends, with the stage name "The Unparalleled Necromancer Rhia Rhama Rhoos, educated cabalistically in the Orange Groves of Salamanca and the Ocean Caves of Alum Bay."
41. A team of British researchers (who apparently had some time on their hands) examined Dickens's description of the gruel served in Oliver Twist's workhouse and found that the meals provided only 400 calories a day – enough to cause severe malnutrition and stunting of growth in a nine-year-old boy. Fortunately, the real-life workhouse residents upon whom Dickens based the story of Oliver Twist lived better than their fictional counterparts. The same British team looked at historical records from the mid-nineteenth century and determined that most workhouse residents received a diet of gruel that, while not particularly tasty, contained a nutritious balance of carbohydrates and proteins and weighed in at an adequate 1,600 to 1,700 calories.
42. He was a huge advocate for hypnotism and attempted to use it to cure his wife and children of their ailments.
43. Even as an adult, Dickens broke down in tears every time he passed the former site of the boot blacking factory where he was forced to work as a child.
44. His bestselling book was A Tale of Two Cities.
45. Charles Dickens was highly upset by and opinionated about the practice of chewing and spitting tobacco, which he believed to be a largely American practice. He likewise vocally disapproved of the Americans’ practice of slavery.
46. In Boston, thousands of people gathered at the dock to await the ship that carried chapter 71 of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. When the ship arrived, they asked the captain about a beloved character from the novel: “Is Nell dead?” When the affirmative response came back, a collective groan rose up from the massive crowd.
47. On June 8, 1870, Dickens suffered another stroke at his home after a full day's work on Edwin Drood. He never regained consciousness, and the next day, on 9 June, five years to the day after the Staplehurst rail crash, he died at Gad's Hill Place.
48. Contrary to his wish to be buried at Rochester Cathedral "in an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner," he was laid to rest in the Poet's Corner at Westminster Abbey. A printed epitaph circulated at the time of the funeral reads: "To the Memory of Charles Dickens (England's most popular author) who died at his residence, Higham, near Rochester, Kent, 9 June 1870, aged 58 years. He was a sympathiser with the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England's greatest writers is lost to the world."
49. His last words were: "On the ground", in response to his sister-in-law Georgina's request that he lie down.
50. He owned a pet raven who he called "Grip". After it died, he had it stuffed and it is now on display in Philadelphia.

Hard and High-Tech Sci-Fi for Young Adults

I am not at all against the whole dystopian sci-fi genre that has basically taken over the teen section. I loved The Maze Runner, Legend, and Divergent. Yet, sometimes my sci-fi soul is not satisfied. It needs more. It wants aliens, spaceships, hyperspeed, cryosleep, other planets, and generally something that goes beyond the simple limits of our gravitational pull. Sadly, when it comes to the middle grade and young adult genres, these stories are few and far between. How are young people to discover the wonder that is science-fiction if all they are even given is Hunger Games-like dystopian? Then  again, if they were anything like me, they will devour the few sci-fi books in the juvenile and teen sections and then move right into the adult sci-fi. Of course, I could go backward and include some older titles in this list, but let's stick with books that are in print and actually carried in bookstores these days.

Please tell me I am overlooking some? After all, I can't read everything now can I.

New Picture Books - August