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The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson

“Varian Johnson lists his inspirations for this book as Ocean’s 11, The Westing Game, Sneakers, The Thomas Crowne Affair, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” I would, guessing, add the movies Star Wars and The Sting, not to mention a few pick-up basketball games along the way, but I could be mistaken about those particular influences.

Jackson Greene has reformed, changed his ways, and sworn off all scheming, finagling, conning, and pranking. When the girl you like (Gaby) sees you brush lips with another cutie and totally misinterprets the situation, and when the principal catches you breaking into his office, you had better call it quits as far as con games are concerned. Even if it’s for a good cause. Then again, maybe if Keith Sinclair, Jackson’s arch enemy and nemesis of all good clubs and organizations at Maplewood Middle School, plans to run for Student Council against that same girl, Gaby, the one Jackson kinda sorta likes—then, maybe, a small benevolent interference, just to keep Keith from stealing the election, is in order. What could it hurt?

Mr. Johnson’s middle grade (upper middle grade since it has lots of tame boy/girl stuff) heist novel got a boost on Twitter earlier this spring and summer with people using the hash tags #weneeddiversebooks and #greatgreenechallenge, the latter tag referring to a friendly competition between independent bookstores to handsell Mr. Johnson’s book. The book does feature “diverse” characters, Asian American, African American, and Hispanic, and it is a a good solid summer read. As far as kid caper books are concerned, I preferred I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora, but Acampora’s Mockingbird doesn’t have quite the same “diversity factor”. (Catholic characters and bookish characters don’t count as “diversity” the same way people of color do. Who makes up these rules, anyway?) Still, reading The Great Greene Heist was an enjoyable way to spend a summer evening, and I recommend it to fans of Paul Acampora’s book or of Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls and Heist Society books.

The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer, besides authoring several Golden Age of detective fiction mysteries, also wrote romance novels and according to Wikipedia “essentially established the genre of Regency romance.” During her career,she published over thirty Regency novels, for a period of her life publishing one mystery/thriller and one romance per year.

The Grand Sophy, one of those Regency novels, was published in 1950. It’s the story of a rather indolent and somewhat impecunious family, Lord and Lady Ombersley and their several children, including the eldest, Charles, who has become something of a family tyrant in his quest to save the family from bankruptcy. When Lady Ombersley’s niece, Sophy, comes to stay for a while while her diplomat father goes on an ambassadorial trip to Brazil, the entire household is turned topsy-turvy by Sophy’s free and easy ways and her lack of female propriety, not to mention her monkey, Jacko.

Sophy is a grand character. She’s independent, intelligent, and spirited without being obnoxious. Sophy’s cousin Charles is less well-developed as a character. At first, he seems like a petty family dictator, ruling over his parents and his younger brothers and sisters in a rather arbitrary way while planning to marry an heiress to re-coup the family fortunes. As the story continues, Charles becomes more sympathetic as a character, but I was never sure why he was so high-handed and unbending at the beginning.

Jane Austen fans and Regency romance readers should definitely check out The Grand Sophy. Ms. Heyer’s novels, including this one, are not as subtle and deep as Jane Austen’s, but as far as straight light romance novels go Georgette’s Heyer’s books rise near to the top of the list.

The Warden and the Wolf King by Andrew Peterson

Andrew Peterson is one talented guy. I’ve been a big fan of his songs for quite a while now, but I haven’t read any of his Wingfeather Saga books because, well, I just didn’t want to commit myself to a big, huge, sprawling, saga series of books. And the idea that the man could sing and play and write songs and lyrics and write fantasy books for children was a little too much to be believed. So, sometimes God gives a wealth of talent to one person.

I should have taken the plunge and made the commitment with the first book in the series, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness. Then I could have read the second and third books, North! Or Be Eaten and The Monster in the Hollows, and all of the characters that I came to love in The Warden and the Wolf King–Janner and Kalmar and Leeli and Arthram and Podo and Sara and Maraly— would have been old friends already. I’m sure I would have enjoyed the fourth and final book in the saga even more if I were equipped with the background and history behind it, but I really enjoyed The Warden and the Wolf King anyway.

Even the one book is a saga, and it is a commitment, 519 pages worth of commitment. Obviously, I recommend starting at the beginning of the sage with Book 1, which makes it even more of a commitment. However, dare I say that it’s worth it? Definitely influenced by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, this series is nevertheless no Tolkien imitation and no Lewis copycat. There are lots of battles and adventures and hair’s breadth escapes for those who like that sort of things. But the themes and characters are what drew me in. I loved reading the description of Janner’s battle with the jealousy and mixed motives and sin that tears his heart apart as he tries desperately to be the strong, courageous and protective older brother that he is called to be. I liked reading about the “cloven”, creatures part human and part animal or insect who struggle to deal with their dual natures and their disturbed memories of the past. Oood the troll provided some comic relief and a few moments of heroism and rescue. And the ending to the entire book, and the entire series, was pure genius. Enough said.

The Silence of God is one of my favorite Andrew Peterson songs, and I would say that it pairs well with the themes of The Warden and the Wolf King. Several times in the book the “good guys” just have to grit their teeth and keep going, without answers, without a clear word from the Maker, just persevering and hoping and working toward the best goal they know.

I find that the Christian life is a lot like that song and a lot like Janner’s and Kalmar’s journey in this book. “What about the times when even followers get lost? We all get lost sometimes.” “The aching may remain but the breaking does not.”

The Chapel Wars by Lindsey Leavitt

Setting: The Las Vegas strip, Rose of Sharon Wedding Chapel
Characters:
Grandpa Jim Nolan, owner and proprietor of Rose of Sharon Wedding Chapel, deceased.
Holly Evelyn Nolan, sixteen year old math whiz, counter of everything, inheritor of Rose of Sharon Wedding Chapel.
Sam, Holly’s best friend.
Camille, Sam’s homeschooled secret girlfriend.
Victor Cranston, Grandpa Jim’s rival and enemy, proprietor of Cupid’s Dream Wedding Chapel.
Dax Cranston, Victor’s grandson and Holly’s possible new love interest.
Plot: Romeo and Juliet, without the marriage or the suicides, transposed to Las Vegas, with the addition of a family business to save from bankruptcy.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a children’s or YA novel set in Las Vegas. In fact, maybe I’ve never read any novel set in Las Vegas. (Have you?) The Chapel Wars has a promising premise: Holly has inherited her grandfather’s Las Vegas wedding chapel, along with all of its quirky employees and money problems. For Holly Rose of Sharon is home, the only home she’s ever known. She has to do whatever it takes to keep the chapel in business, even if it means going against Grandpa Jim’s business model, dressing her friends up as Elvis or even Cupid, and trying to keep her love life and her business life separated.

Unfortunately, there were several aspects of the novel that kept this old fogey from enjoying it wholeheartedly. The comedic possibilities of the plot are obvious, and they were exploited to the full. However, the sarcasm got a little heavy at times. And the heavy, heavy disdain for any character who took romance and long term relationship (marriage) seriously (Sam, in particular, who proposes to Camille and is shot down with great scorn) was uncomfortable. This derision for marriage or a serious consideration of long term commitment for teens, even those who are old enough to get married, is a given element in a lot of YA literature these days. Teens can “suck face”, a crude and vile term used in the novel as a euphemism for the display of physical affection, or they can even have sexual relations, but heaven forbid that they should consider the even long term possibility of commitment and marriage at the age of seventeen or eighteen or nineteen. It’s the new taboo.

The novel also sported a prejudice against any serious life decision that might be made by a sixteen or seventeen year old. Holly is told, “You can’t let someone else’s dead dream keep you from finding your own.” True, as far as it goes. However, Holly believes that her own dream is to keep the chapel open, but she’s not allowed to have that dream because she’s only sixteen or seventeen. Long-term commitment, to a a person or to a goal, is reserved for old people who have nothing better to do with their time and energy. The advice for Holly: “Go hang out with your friends or make out with that boy across the street.”

The underestimation of young adults and the crude pandering to their supposed taste in terms of language and pastimes is rampant in our culture, and I felt that disrespect for teens was particularly egregious in The Chapel Wars. Romeo and Juliet were old enough at thirteen and maybe fourteen or fifteen to get married, make really poor decisions, and take responsibility for their own actions. Why aren’t sixteen, seventeen and eighteen year olds in our culture old enough to pursue a dream or a marriage commitment or even use the English language with some sophistication?

Anyway, The Chapel Wars is funny and cute, if you ignore the implications of treating young adults like overgrown children who should spend their time sucking face and sowing wild oats.

QOTD: If you were offered a free trip to Las Vegas (free plane ticket, free accommodations), would you go? Why or why not? If you did go, what would you do while you were in Las Vegas?

I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora

“The very first spark for I Kill the Mockingbird began with a conversation about summer reading lists that started on blogs including Pam Coughlan’s Mother Reader, Colleen Mondor’s Chasing Ray, Leila Roy’s Bookshelves of Doom, and Elizabeth Bird’s A Fuse #8 Production among others. Barely a day goes by that I don’t learn something new and also laugh out loud because of these fantastic writers and their peers in the incredible community of kid lit bloggers.” ~Acknowledgments by Paul Acampora.

Set during the summer between eighth grade and high school, this middle grade on the cusp of YA novel was absolutely a great read, but you have to know going in that it’s very meta-book-lovers with lots of inside jokes about first lines of novels and interpretations of To Kill a Mockingbird and nominations for the Great American Novel. Mr. Acampora must love kid lit and adult literature and books in general, and his characters do, too.

Those characters are a trio of friends, Lucy, Elena, and Michael, who have attended school together at St. Brigid’s Catholic School since kindergarten. Lucy’s mom has just miraculously recovered from a bout with a “rare, aggressive, and generally fatal” cancer (“sometimes it just happens”). Her dad is the principal at St. Brigid’s. Michael is a neighbor, a friend, and Lucy’s newly discovered crush. Elena is “certain that high school is going to swallow us up, spit, us out, and crush us like bugs.” Elena lives above a bookstore with her Uncle Mort since her parents died in car crash when she was a baby. I Kill the Mockingbird tells the story of how these three created a conspiracy to make Harper Lee’s famous novel into the hottest property on the shelves of all of the libraries, bookstores, and other book distributors in the state of Connecticut, maybe the whole U.S.

“Even in kindergarten, Michael, Elena, and I obsessed about books. Not only that, the three of us believed that characters like Winnie the Pooh and Ramona Quimby and Despereaux Tilling actually existed. We fully expected to meet all our favorite characters in person one day. Books carried us away.”

As I said, it’s a very bookish book, a fact which made the story twice as endearing to me because I, too, am carried away by books. In fact, I had a couple of good friends in junior high who planned a date and a time to go through the wardrobe to Narnia. They were serious, and although I was skeptical, I did call them that night to make sure they were still in Middle Earth, rather, on our Earth.

The book is, by the way, also very Catholic, in a cultural sort of way. The teens who are the main characters pray to saints and to Jesus, discuss books and religion, and generally behave themselves like good Catholic kids. They aren’t perfect, and they aren’t overly pious, but they are definitely Catholic. THey also discuss theology and the after-life with parents who are also very Catholic, but who hold their Christian beliefs rather loosely. The general attitude in the book is that religious devotion can’t hurt and Christianity may even be true.

The three friends in I Kill the Mockingbird get themselves into some trouble when their conspiracy/project grows beyond their ability to control it due to the power of the worldwide web. But everything ends well, and the summer ends well, the trio head into high school with the courage that a huge summer adventure can give to three friends who are willing to try Something Big. There are worse ways to spend a summer than obsessing over books and bonding through shared adventures.

I read an ARC of this novel, obtained from NetGalley for the purposes of review. The release date for I Kill the Mockingbird is May 20, 2014.

Q(uestion)O(f)T(he)D(ay): Have you read To Kill a Mockingbird? Have you seen the movie version with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch? (Atticus Finch is my Hero. I want a T-shirt that says that.)

Lockwood & Co. The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

“I can claim to be tolerably detached on the subject of ghost stories. I do not depend upon them in any way; not even in the sordid professional way, in which I have at some periods depended on murder stories. I do not much mind whether they are true or not. I am not, like a Spiritualist, a man whose religion may said to consist entirely of ghosts. But I am not like a Materialist, a man whose whole philosophy is exploded and blasted and blown to pieces by the most feeble and timid intrusion of the most thin and third-rate ghost. I am quite ready to believe that a number of ghosts were merely turnip ghosts, elaborately prepared to deceive the village idiot. But I am not at all certain that they succeeded even in that; and I suspect that their greatest successes were elsewhere. For it is my experience that the village idiot is very much less credulous than the town lunatic. On the other hand, when the merely skeptical school asks us to believe that every sort of ghost has been a turnip ghost, I think such skeptics rather exaggerate the variety and vivacity and theatrical talent of turnips.” ~G.K. Chesterton: Illustrated London News, May 30, 1936.

So if GK (and Shakespeare) were willing to suspend disbelief and leave a little room for ghost stories, so can I. And Lockwood & Co. The Screaming Staircase is an entertaining sort of ghost story. I’m not saying Mr. Stroud’s middle grade ghost novel is a true ghost story, but it is, within its own rather odd universe, believable and amusing and maybe even thought-provoking.

Lucy Carlyle leaves her provincial village after a ghostly disaster to go to London to find a job with one of the prestigious Psychic Investigation agencies there. She ends up accepting a position with Lockwood & Co., an agency staffed and run entirely by children. The three investigators at Lockwood & Co. are Lockwood, the owner of the agency, George Cubbins, his sloppy and nerdy assistant, and the intrepid Lucy herself. The subject of their investigations is The Problem, an infestation throughout Britain of ghosts, haunts, spirits, ghouls, specters, and other psychic phenomena. Only young people have the ability to sense and possibly eradicate these hauntings, but everyone is endangered by their ghostly presence. In fact, being touched by a ghost is usually fatal.

A bit of mild cursing (h—, d—, and the like) mars the otherwise excellent writing and subtle humor woven throughout the story. Lucy is a versatile and insightful narrator, and Lockwood himself, while somewhat enigmatic, is an engaging character. Since this novel is Book One of a series, the author preserves some mysteries about both Lockwood and about The Problem itself, presumably to enliven other books in the series. In the meantime in this book, we are introduced to a London in which children use iron chains, silver seals, and salt-bombs to fight off malevolent spirits bent on righting old wrongs and harming the still-living.

The book ends with the following hint (from a captured ghost) about where the story might be headed in terms of plot and theme:

“I can tell you things, you see. Important things. Like this: Death’s coming. . . . It’s nothing personal. Death’s coming to you all. Why? Because everything’s upside down. Death’s in Life and Life’s in Death, and what was fixed is fluid. And it doesn’t matter what you try, Lucy, you’ll never be able to turn the tide—”

I am definitely curious enough to read the second book in this series, Lockwood and Co. The Whispering Skull, due for release in September, 2014. Lockwood and Co. The Screaming Staircase was the winner of the Cybils Award for Middle Grade Speculative Fiction for 2013.

Favorite Poets: Dante Gabriel Rossetti

“A Sonnet is a moment’s monument,—
Memorial from the Soul’s eternity
To one dead deathless hour.”

~Dante Grabriel Rossetti


Hidden Harmony

THE thoughts in me are very calm and high
That think upon your love: yet by your leave
You shall not greatly marvel that this eve
Or nightfall—yet scarce nightfall—the strong sky
Leaves me thus sad. Now if you ask me why,
I cannot teach you, dear; but I believe
It is that man will always interweave
Life with fresh want, with wish or fear to die.
It may be therefore,—though the matter touch
Nowise our love,—that I so often look
Sad in your presence, often feeling so.
And of the reason I can tell thus much:—
Man’s soul is like the music in a book
Which were not music but for high and low.

“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

Mary Lee Hahn is hosting the Poetry Friday Roundup at A Year of Reading.

Don’t Even Think About It by Sarah Mlynowski

The premise is cute: what if you got a flu shot, and the side effects were headache, purple coloring in your eyes, and ESP? So, now you and your classmates, who all got the same batch of vaccine, can read each other’s thoughts—and everyone else’s thoughts, all the time.

I thought it this light-hearted look into the minds of upper middle class teens was entertaining and funny. The only thing that prevents me from recommending it whole-heartedly is the language and some gratuitous sexual content. A few f-bombs, which aren’t really bombs anymore apparently, and some graphic kissing descriptions were as yucky and repellent to me as the scene in which one of ESPies “overhears” her parents’ thoughts as they’re having sex was to her.

Nothing deep here, just a silly story about a group of teenagers who are given a special ability and about what it does to them and how it changes their perceptions of each other and of the non-ESPies with whom they go to school. One of the kids, Pi, is the competitive, intelligent, bossy type. She tries to organize and control the group, but if everyone knows what you’re thinking, they’re sort of hard to control. Another one, Olivia, is a shy, hypochondriac–until she realizes that no one is really thinking about her at all most of the time. At that realization, Olivia is released from her own prison of uncertainty and self-doubt to be the person she really is inside.

Then there are the couples: Mackenzie and Cooper and Tess and Teddy. Their love lives are about to get really, really complicated. Would you want your boyfriend or girlfriend to know everything you are thinking all the time?

I liked this one, but if the previously referenced content bothers you or if you’re looking for something a little more intellectually challenging, it’s not for you.

Through the Ever Night by Veronica Rossi

For the second book in a trilogy, Through the Ever Night is not bad. It has a beginning that brings readers up to speed fairly quickly (although it would be better to have read the first book in the series, first and recently), and it has an ending, sort of.

As the novel opens Perry and Aria are reunited, but there are obstacles to their romance and threats to their survival. Aria is being blackmailed by Hess, the ruler of Reverie, which is the virtual reality home of her childhood. In the Real world, Perry is now Blood Lord of the Tides, but along with great power comes great responsibility (where have I heard that one before?). The Tides don’t like Dwellers from Reverie, like Aria. And Aria must find the Still Blue, a storied land of calm and safety, in order to free Perry’s nephew, Talon, from the clutches of the evil Hess. Perry also needs to find the possibly mythical Still Blue as a last refuge for his people from the Aether storms and the marauding bands of displaced people who will eventually destroy them.

By the end, they still haven’t found exactly what they’re looking for, some people have died, others have betrayed or been betrayed, and all is still not well under the never sky. But Perry and Aria are together, which is what most readers will have been rooting for all along. This fantasy adventure romance is mostly romance, with a touch of female empowerment and a brooding, wild man hero. Teens will love it, and I found it definitely readable and good enough to keep me on the hook for the third book in the series.

Semicolon review of Under the Never Sky, the first book in this series.

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

This YA novel by well-known author Laurie Halse Anderson (Speak, Twisted, Wintergirls, Chains, and Forge) is what I call “an ABC after school special” work of fiction. For those of you who aren’t old enough to remember the after school special movies that were featured on the ABC network back in the day, they were usually dramas (sometimes comedy or documentary) aimed at middle school and young adult audiences about issues that the producers thought were relevant to teens: drug abuse, teen pregnancy, popularity, cancer, sexual harassment, blended families, racism, alcoholism, anorexia, etc. Each drama usually focused on one or more of these teen issues and gave guidance to viewers about how to handle the problem in the form of a story or parable or panel discussion.

Well, The Impossible Knife of Memory is a problem novel about the issue of having a parent who is a veteran suffering from PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. As the novel opens, Hayley Kincaid and her father, Andy, have been traveling the country for the past five years, running away from Andy’s recurring nightmares and violent outbursts in response to his time as a soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan. Andy is a mess, but he’s decided that Hayley needs a more stable life and a chance to graduate from a brick-and-mortar school. So, the two of them move back to Andy’s hometown.

For the rest of the book, Andy, the dad, messes up: marijuana, fights, alcoholism, suicide attempts, incoherent and dictatorial behavior, criminal associates, and general irresponsibility. Hayley tries to take care of her father and live a “normal” teen life at school at the same time. She acquires a boyfriend, Finn, who is cute and sweet, mostly, but has his own dysfunctional family. In fact, all of Hayley’s friends and acquaintances seem to come from seriously messed-up families. Does Ms. Anderson mean to indicate that all teens deal with some form of parental misbehavior and irresponsibility, or is it just that Hayley picks the ones with dysfunctional families to be friends with?

The title indicates that the book will be about the double-edged sword that is memory: how our memories can both strengthen us and capture us in a web of hopelessness, depending on how we see and process those memories. I’m not sure that the theme indicated in the title came through clearly; I was too distracted by “cute little puppy-dog-like” Finn and by Hayley’s need to get away from her borderline abusive dad. I couldn’t think about the larger themes and issues that the book was trying to illuminate. Maybe if ABC made it into an after-school special, the script writers would hone the focus. As it was, I felt sorry for Hayley, liked Finn, couldn’t stand Gracie (best friend) and her boyfriend, and wanted Andy to go a hospital and get some help.

And that’s about all I gleaned from this particular after-school special novel. I prefer Ms. Anderson’s historical fiction. The book, and maybe the TV special, would be rated PG for some language and “adult” situations and discussions, such as drug abuse, suicide, and adultery.