Monday, December 30, 2013

Book Review: Drama


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Raina Telgemeier's second graphic novel, Drama, is sure to bring a wry chuckle from anyone who remembers their own middle school years.

The main character, Callie, is in the seventh grade and deeply involved in the stage crew for her school musical.  She's determined to build the best set ever on a shoestring budget... and also determined that this set will include a working cannon!

Callie lives and breathes theater.  The only thing that can distract her from the drama on-stage is drama off-stage!  She begins the book with a huge crush on a friend's older brother, who first kisses and then snubs her.  She rebounds when she meets a handsome set of twins who then go out for the play.  She understands why Justin isn't interested in her, but surely Jesse will ask her to the eighth grade dance....

The story of this book will have you both laughing and wincing as you enjoy Callie's middle school drama and probably remember a bit of your own.  The illustrations are colorful, fun, and easy to follow.  While I haven't read many graphic novels, I simply love Telgemeier's (see my blurb on Smile here) because they take simple situations and make them into such fun, relatable stories.  Drama is definitely a treat that shouldn't be missed.

Book Review: If I Stay


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If I Stay by Gayle Forman is one of those books that it's hard to decide to pick up.... and even harder to put down.

The basic premise of the book is kind of hard to stomach.  Seventeen-year-old Mia and her family are in a terrible car crash.  They die, and she lives--but barely.  She's in a coma, but somehow her spirit is separated from her body.  She cannot feel her own physical pain, but she is able to travel around the hospital in ethereal form and see what her family and friends are experiencing as they wait for her to wake up.  As she watches her loved ones, she relives some of her memories with them--the rocky start of her friendship with Kim, her first date with Adam, the birth of her brother Teddy.  And she comes to realize that she has a decision to make--whether to stay, or whether to go.

While the storyline sounds depressing, and I will admit that I shed quite a few tears while reading it, Gayle Forman's writing is so beautiful that the entire book becomes something lovely.  Mia is an accomplished cellist, and the reader can practically hear the strains of her music on every page.  As we travel deeper into Mia's story, we realize that the question she struggles to answer--to stay or to go--was one that she was asking herself even before the accident.  Should she go to Julliard and pursue her music?  Or should she stay at home and in her relationship with Adam?  My heart just ached for Mia throughout this book, not just for the loss of her family, but because of all the decisions that she faced.

Even though the story was sad from beginning to end, it was also utterly beautiful.  This was the first book I had read by Gayle Forman, and I am now anxious to read more.  Every word seems to be placed just right, and the overall effect is so musical, so lovely and haunting that it stayed with me long after the story was done.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Book Review: The Wishing Spell


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I must confess: I am a huge fan of all things Glee.  And one of my very favorite things about Glee is the character of Kurt Hummel, who is played by the wonderful and talented Chris Colfer.  So when I learned that Colfer was not only a actor, singer, and dancer, but also an author, I simply couldn't wait to get my hands on his first children's book, The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell.

In this imaginative tale, twelve-year-old twins Alex and Conner Bailey have had a rough year.  Their beloved father has passed away, and their now-single mother is having a hard time making ends meet.  Both twins are struggling at school--Conner academically and Alex socially.  For their twelfth birthday, their grandmother visits and gives them the most well-loved symbol of their childhoods: a large book called The Land of Stories, full of all the fairy tales that their grandmother and parents read them nightly when they were young.  These stories were not the "Disney" versions of the fairy tales, but rather the original Brothers Grimm versions, with the "real" endings that few of their peers knew about.

Shortly after the twins receive the book, it begins to hum mysteriously, becoming louder and more insistent as the days go on.... until when examining it, the twins fall through its pages and are transported into the Land of Stories, which turns out to be a very real place.

They are fortunate enough to begin their travels by meeting a frog-man with a kind heart, who offers them shelter and fills them in on the basics of the world into which they have fallen.  He also tells them about the Wishing Spell, which will require them to go on a difficult quest to collect a list of famous fairy-tale items (including one of Cinderella's glass slippers, a lock of Rapunzel's hair, the spindle on which Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger, etc.).  Once assembled, these items will activate a powerful spell that will grant them the desire of their hearts--which, in the twins' case, is to go home.  Conveniently, the Wishing Spell has been used once before, and Froggy is possession of the journal of the man who used it.  He gives the twins the journal to guide them on their quest, and he also supplies them with other useful items, such as a map of the local kingdoms, gold coins, blankets, and food.  And thus the twins set off on their quest.

Along the way, they run into many dangers, such as being pursued by the Big Bad Wolf Pack, being captured by trolls and goblins, and having to make multiple quick escapes after stealing collecting the famous items for the Wishing Spell.  They also get to meet many of the fairy tale heroes and heroines they've heard about for their entire lives and tour some amazing sites.  Throughout these adventures, they prove themselves to be kind, honest, noble, and pure of heart.

Unfortunately for the twins, they have a competitor in collecting the items for the Wishing Spell.  The Evil Queen (Snow White's stepmother) has recently escaped from prison and is also collecting items, aided by her Huntsman and his daughter, her Huntress.  The Wishing Spell can only be used twice ever (and remember, it's already been used once), so not only is it bad enough that the Evil Queen is trying to eliminate the twins.... but if she succeeds in activating the Spell first, the twins will be stuck in the Land of Stories forever.

When I started reading this book, I was immediately drawn in by the Prologue, in which Snow White pleads with the Evil Queen for some kind of explanation for her cruelty.  But then, in Chapter 1, the story switches to Conner and Alex, and my attention soon waned.  But when my eight-year-old daughter asked me what I was reading and I started describing the story to her, she was captivated, and I found myself getting excited at the description. 

While rearranging some shelves at work at the library one day, I also listened to two chapters of the audio version of The Land of Stories.  I'm so glad that I did this--it definitely increased my appreciation of the book.  Chris Colfer, the author, narrates his own work, and it is definitely an experience not to miss.  Colfer originally achieved fame as a television actor, and he is at his best when providing the voices of this wide cast of characters.  I loved hearing the difference in personalities that he brought out between Alex and Conner, not to mention the inflections that he gave to Bobblewart the Troll, Trix the Fairy, and others.

Chris Colfer's Land of Stories displays a vivid imagination.  The traditional fairy tale characters take on lives beyond what we've always known; for example, Goldilocks has become a tough, sword-wielding outlaw, while Little Red Riding Hood has become a scantily-clad, self-absorbed, self-styled queen.  Cinderella did not have an easy time adjusting to monarchy, but she now looks forward to the birth of her first child.  I loved the descriptions of the layout of world; the inclusion of details like Mother Duck Pond and Jack's rapidly-growing beanstalk are evidence of both Colfer's imagination and attention to detail.  I also liked the relationships that created between the characters.  How was it that Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White all married Prince Charming?  Why did Goldilocks go into the three bears' house in the first place?  How did the Little Mermaid's story really end?  And, of course, what made the Evil Queen so evil?

In short, huge kudos to Chris Colfer for his fantastic imagination, development of detail, and child-appropriate plotline that was also clever enough to interest an adult.  There was nothing questionable or risqué in this book; it was an nice read and I would not hesitate at all to recommend it to a young reader.  But--and I really hate to say this because of my deep love for Chris Colfer, but I cannot tell a lie--I was really not impressed at all with the writing.  The style itself was very simplistic.  There was a lot of "he said, she said, and then."  An actual child reading the book might not be slowed down by this, but as an adult reader, I found that the clunky style really impaired my enjoyment of the book as a whole.  Colfer clearly has fantastic ideas, but I think The Wishing Spell would have benefited from some writing workshop courses or some heavy editing.  Of course, how Colfer found time to write a novel with the breakneck pace he keeps for Glee is a mystery to me, so I'm frankly impressed that he pulled it off at all.... but that being said, I also don't think I'll be rushing out to pick up the sequel.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Book Review: Let It Snow


I first stumbled across the existence of Let It Snow during my Christmas shopping last year.  I was in Barnes and Noble, purchasing a few novels as gifts to spread the John Green love, when much to my surprise, I saw this book that I'd never heard of tucked in between copies of The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska.  Obviously, my first thought was, "How could I possibly have missed this??"  When I picked it up and realized that it was co-authored by Maureen Johnson and Lauren Myracle (neither of whom I had ever read but both of whom I really wanted to), it immediately moved to the top of my "to read" list.

My holiday budget was tight, so I didn't buy a copy that night, but I figured I'd go back for a copy right after the holidays.  However, I had failed to notice the publication date.  I had just assumed that Let It Snow must be a new book... after all, clearly anything by those three greats must be flying off the shelves!  So you can imagine my great confusion when the Christmas craziness passed and I was utterly unable to find a copy of this book.  I eventually looked it up online and realized that it had been published in 2008--but still, c'mon people, this is JOHN GREEN we're talking about here.

At any rate, it was taken me almost an entire year, but I have finally managed to track down a copy of this book through the wonders of interlibrary loan.  It was absolutely worth the wait, and I highly recommend that you all drop what you're doing right now and run out this second to track down a copy for yourselves.  The magic of John Green meets the magic of Christmas.... how can you possibly go wrong??

Let It Snow is actually three intertwining short stories, one written by each author.  All three are set in Gracetown, beginning during a record-breaking blizzard the day before Christmas.  While each story has its own distinct plot and cast of characters, some characters and plot points do overlap, pulling the book together as a whole.

******

The first story is "The Jubilee Express" by Maureen Johnson.  Its main character, Jubilee Dougal (who is NOT a stripper, thank you very much), is all set to spend Christmas Eve celebrating her one-year anniversary with her everybody-knows-he's-perfect boyfriend Noah at his annual Family Smorgasbord.... but then her parents get arrested in a riot while trying to secure one of the limited supply of collectible Elf Hotels that have been released for the Flobie Christmas Village, and next thing she knows, Jubilee is alone on a train, en route to spend Christmas with her grandparents in faraway Florida.  Unfortunately, a storm of record-breaking proportions hits, and Jubilee's train crashes into a snowbank just outside of Gracetown, a mere 2 hours from her hometown.

In order to conserve power, the train cuts down on power and heat.  Jubilee finds herself huddled into a train car with a good guy named Jeb, who is desperate to get to Gracetown to see his girlfriend.... she cheated on him, but he really wants to work it out with her.  Unfortunately, Jubilee and Jeb are also sharing the train car with 14 cheerleaders (most of whom are named either Amber or Madison), who are on their way to a cheer competition and are determined to practice their stunts at any cost.

In order to get away from the cheerleaders, Jubilee leaves the safety of the train and ventures through the snow to a Waffle House that she can see from the train.  There she meets the cook and acting manager, Don-Keun, and a strange man named Travis who dresses head-to-toe in tinfoil.  Then a guy named Stuart blows through the door, and in spite of the fact that his hands, feet, and head are wrapped in plastic Target bags to protect against the cold, he seems to be pretty normal.  He crashed his car in the snow and is walking home (thus the plastic bags as an emergency warmth measure).  At this point, the door bursts open again and all 14 cheerleaders invade, wanting to know if they can practice their pyramids in the Waffle House.  Stuart sees Jubilee's agony at the idea of being trapped for who-knows-how-long with an entire squad of overenthusiastic cheerleaders and offers to let her join him for the walk to his house, explaining that his mom has "a real thing about Christmas" and would never forgive him if he didn't help someone in need at the holidays.  Though Jubilee's brain screams "stranger danger!," the cheerleaders scream louder, and she and Stuart head out into the cold.

As you might imagine from a book that declares itself to be "three holiday romances," Stuart does NOT turn out to be a "stranger danger," but instead an absolutely sweet guy, and in spite of some laugh-out-loud foibles, he and Jubilee work their way toward a happy ending.

"The Jubilee Express" was the first thing I've read by Maureen Johnson, and I absolutely LOVED it.  I've had several of her other things on my "to read" list for quite a while now, but they will definitely be getting bumped to the top after this.  In fact (please don't hate me, John Green--I still love you dearly, but I have to tell the truth), I have to admit that "The Jubilee Express" was actually my favorite story in this book.  While I loved Let It Snow as a whole, Jubilee's voice was definitely my favorite, and her story had me both laughing and sympathizing at all the right parts.

******

The second story is "A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle" by (my favorite!) John Green.  It begins on the same night as the train crash in "The Jubilee Express."  As the story opens, a guy named Tobin (the narrator) is hanging out in his basement, enjoying a James Bond movie marathon with his friends JP (a guy) and the Duke (a girl).  His mother calls to let him know that she and his father won't (sob!) be able to make it home for Christmas because their flight has been cancelled due to the terrible storm.  She is deeply distressed; Tobin isn't too worked up.

Shortly thereafter, Tobin receives another call, this one from his friend Keun, who is a cook at the Waffle House.  Yes, this is where the stories collide.  It seems that Keun's waffle house has been invaded by 14 cheerleaders from a crashed train.  And in spite of the fact that the worst blizzard in history is occurring and the streets are virtually impassible, Keun is inviting JP and Tobin to join him at the Waffle House for what he assures them will be "the greatest night of their lives."  (Because apparently the mere presence of cheerleaders is destined to make it great.  Or so at least these guys think.)

The catch?  The other two employees at the Waffle House have also each invited two friends.... and only the first carload to arrive will be allowed in the doors (because otherwise it will be "too crowded").  Oh, and also Tobin needs to bring the game Twister.  Because Keun really, really wants to play Twister with the cheerleaders.

Completely throwing caution to the wind, Tobin and JP run around the house, changing clothes and locating the board game.  They hit a slight snag when the Duke (whose real name is Angie) flatly refuses to go, pointing out that going out into a horrible blizzard at midnight to play a game designed for six-year-olds with cheerleaders that you've never met before is a really dumb idea.  But Tobin manages to convince her to come along by tempting her with the delicious allure of Waffle House hash browns.

After a dramatic, snowy, near-death experience just trying to get out of their subdivision, Tobin, JP, and the Duke are off on a night of adventures as they race some nameless college guys and the violently aggressive Reston twins toward the Waffle House.  Along the way, they too encounter Jeb (who is still trying to make his way through the blizzard to reunite with his girlfriend) and Travis (who is still dressed in tinfoil).  After many epic (and cold) adventures, they do eventually reach the promised hash browns, and Tobin simultaneously reaches a conclusion that he did not see coming (though the reader probably did).

*******

The final story, "The Patron Saint of Pigs" by Lauren Myracle, begins at the same time as the other stories, but its main action takes place two days later, on the day after Christmas.  Its main character, Addie, is stuck in a deep depression because she and her boyfriend Jeb (remember him??) have broken up, all due to her own stupid mistake of kissing another boy after she and Jeb had a fight.  She wants nothing more in the world than to get back together with Jeb, and she sent him a desperate email saying so.  She begged him to meet her at Starbucks at 3:00 on Christmas Eve--which just happens to be exactly where and when they first got together a year before.  But not only did he not show up, he didn't even call to explain!  Which explains why she then, in a fit of depression, went across the parking lot to Fantastic Sams, cut off all her blond hair, and dyed the short, pitiful remains a shocking pink.

Two days later, Addie still hasn't heard from Jeb and is deep in self-pity.  To make matters worse, her two best friends, Dorrie and Tegan, have accused her of being self-absorbed.  When both her Starbucks manager AND Travis the tinfoil guy then point out that "not everything is about you," she begins to get the uncomfortable message that maybe the universe is trying to send her a much-needed message.

Just as Addie resolves to turn over a  new leaf and do things for others, she realizes that she's already messed up.... by forgetting to pick up Tegan's brand-new, special-order teacup pig from the pet shop.  She rushes over there, but someone else has already bought it--in spite of the store's instructions to hold it for Tegan.  So Addie resolves to find the pig and get it back for Tegan.... and in the process, uncovers the meddlings of an unlikely Christmas angel.

(And don't worry, Jeb does show up for a happy ending.)

******

So in spite of the fact that this book was rather hard to track down, I strongly encourage you to go out and find a copy.  It's absolutely perfect for a feel-good read at this time of year.  I loved the cast of characters, and I particularly enjoyed getting to see different authors' perspectives on them.  The descriptions of the gigantic blizzard were so well-done (and so frequent) that when I did manage to emerge from reading, I was somewhat shocked to realize that I was not, in fact, snowed in.  And as a bonus, I now have John Green (and Lauren Myracle) to thank for the addition of the insult word "asshat" to my vocabulary.  :)