Sunday, January 29, 2012

Liesl and Po by Lauren Oliver

Liesl and Po by Lauren Oliver

Rating: G; 5 stars

Summary: Liesl's world is dark and gray, literally. The sun hasn't shown in years; Liesl's father has recently died; Liesl hasn't seen the world outside of her attic bedroom in months. Then, Po turns up. Po is a ghost, neither male nor female. Po is unfamiliar with the world of the living. It has been on the Other Side so long that things like manners and lying are forgotten. When Will, the apprentice to the local alchemist makes a late-night mistake, both Liesl and Po's world will be turned upside-down, for the better.

Opinions: This was not a book that I thought would make me cry, yet it did just that. Liesl and Po reads like all of my favorite middle grade novels, including The Tale of Despereaux, Tuesdays at the Castle, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, and The Castle Corona. There is a certain magic to book like these. A younger audience is clearly defined, but nowhere did I feel talked down to. The concept and characters contain a liveliness that I don't often seen in books written for older audiences. It's hard to put words to it, but there's an atmosphere where every word has an energy to it.

For anyone who has read Lauren Oliver before, this isn't like what she normally writes. At least, it isn't like Delirium; I haven't actually read Before I Fall. However, she has attested in the back of Liesl and Po that it is different from everything else she's written, both in the content and the process. I won't say anymore, because I believe her message at the end should be read in full and not paraphrased. In any case, Liesl and Po has a vastly different feel from Delirium, and whether you loved or hated Delirium, I believe Liesl and Po should be given a chance.

But what made it so good? So, so many things. The concept was a big part of how much I enjoyed this book. Oliver's fleshing out of the Other Side was very believable. The magic worked in flawlessly to the rest of the plot. Along with concept, I felt that the role each of the characters played was well-defined. I did feel that there were almost too many characters present in the climax, but they all did play an important role, and all of their story-lines did need to be wrapped up, so I can definitely see why Oliver made that choice.

Also character-wise, I felt that Oliver did a really good job pulling off the idea of introducing random characters, only to make them important later. This is something that I first saw used in The Tale of Despereaux. I loved it in Liesl and Po as much as I loved it in Despereaux, and Oliver uses it to her advantage.

Plot-wise, Liesl and Po twisted and turned in ways that I didn't expect. Simple elements that I didn't expect to be important ended up bearing a ton of significance. Oliver really wove together a detailed, tight plot.

In general, I absolutely loved this book. There was a magic to it that I don't often find in books. I think it is absolutely appropriate for middle-schoolers, and younger children will probably enjoy it too, although they may need someone to read it to them. This is a wonderful book. It's a quick read, and it definitely worth the time it takes to read it.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George

Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George

Rating: PG; 5 stars

Summary: Castle Glower is not an ordinary castle. Every Tuesday, it grows and changes, sometimes adding adding rooms, sometimes a whole wing! Celie, the smallest of the royal children, is the only person who has ever tried to map Castle Glower. Unknown to Celie and almost everyone else in the castle, her detailed knowledge of the castle's layout will soon become important to the survival of Castle Glower!

Opinions: This book was nothing like the blurb said it would be. To start, it was a lot darker. When you *SPOILER ALERT* kill off the beloved King and Queen (Dad and Mom, to our young protagonists) in chapter 4 *END SPOILER*, things are going to be a little darker than your average middle-grade novel. I got the impression, based on the blurb, that this book was going to be more about how no one understands Celie's interest in how the castle grows and changes. This impression was...rather off. BUT. Do not let that deter you from reading Tuesdays at the Castle. This is an excellent book.

The writing style in Tuesdays at the Castle reminded me a bit of The Tale of Despereaux; it contained that same magic that makes Despereaux so loved. I dunno what it is, but I'm suddenly finding a whole slew of fantastic middle-grade books that are all written with this same magic. I don't know if it's the audience, or the genre, or what, but I like it!

I found the characters in Tuesdays at the Castle to be well developed. I was consistently surprised by how they reacted to different things, but not in a bad way. The book is pretty short, so there wasn't really a lot of room for character back-story. Still, George managed to write logical character responses that still managed to surprise, which is no small feat.

I loved the twists and turns of the plot. At times, I felt that I was actually in Castle Glower, because the plot took me in so many interesting directions that I never would have suspected. I suppose this is in part because of how I misunderstood what the book was about, but I do think that the majority of it was simply a very skillfully handled plot.

I gave this book a PG rating because it is a little bit dark. There's a bit of violence and general darkness that really small kids might not be able to handle very well. However, I firmly believe that any child who is old enough to read chapter books would fare fine with Tuesdays at the Castle. I would recommend not reading it to a three-year-old. I gave it 5 stars because I really and truly enjoyed this book. I read it essentially in one sitting, and I enjoyed every page of it. This is a wonderful book, and I think it would make an especially good family read. If you like fantasy for children, Tuesdays at the Castle is a lovely, fun little book.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Hey, hey, I'm back! Yay! I read like a fiend over break, so I'm going to write reviews and try to get back on the weekly posting schedule! I've missed blogging. :) So without further ado, the review:

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Rating: PG-13; 5 stars

Summary: Imagine a circus that only opens at night, with monochrome tents that belie the colorful performances within. Inside the tents—feats you never thought possible: a garden made of ice, a labyrinth of clouds, magicians, fortune tellers. Welcome to that circus; welcome to Le Cirque Des RĂªves. Within this circus, meet two dueling magicians, each vying for the upper hand in magnificent feats. Meet the only people born within the circus: Poppet and Widget. Meet the enigmatic masterminds behind the whole affair. And stay awhile, enjoy yourself. You don't know when the circus will be in town again.

While you're here, though, pay no attention to details that don't really seem to fit. After all, the competition fueling this circus is really none of your concern...oops, guess the cat's out of the bag, now. :P

Opinions: Good God, I loved this book. By the time I was twenty pages in, I was recommending it to friends. It is so different from almost everything else I've read. There is a certain magic contained in the prose itself that makes what it describes seem all the more real. This is Morgenstern's first book, and after The Night Circus, I can't wait to see what else she comes up with.

I think one of the things I really liked was the shifting perspective in the book. The book shifts between the stories of various circus people and second person accounts of the reader in the circus. I think those little bits are my favorite. They really drew me into the world that the book created. Similarly, Morgenstern deftly manages a large cast of characters without confusing the reader (or at least, she didn't confuse me). Even though the story jumps around a bit with characters, I didn't find myself lost (especially once I started paying attention to the dates at the top of the chapters. They're kind of important). I found myself caring about nearly all the characters (though I will admit that Poppet and Widget were my favorites)

I love Morgenstern's genre-bending: The Night Circus is a fantasy novel that reads like literary fiction. Or you could say that it's a literary novel with a little magic (for lack of a better term) thrown in. The writing style is definitely more literary in nature, but the book does throw fantasy around quite a bit, and I don't think it would be far off to think of it in part as historical fiction. After all, time and period is quite important to the plot.

If I thought I loved this book while I was still reading it, the ending completely blew my mind. I so wasn't expecting what happened. I think that anyone, even if they aren't particularly enjoying the book, will really appreciate the final twist.

So...ratings, ratings, ratings! Clearly I loved this book, so the 5-star rating is not unexpected at all. However, I do have a feeling that this is one of those books you either love or hate, so fair warning there. As for the PG-13, there is a bit of violence in this book. There's also some sensuality. I also think that a reader under 13 (and many readers under 16 or 17) would have a very hard time getting through the writing itself; Morgenstern clearly appreciates the craft of writing, and the descriptions can make things a little slow going at times.

In short, I wholeheartedly recommend this book. I will say that some people won't like it. And if you don't like incredibly detailed and poetic prose, this probably isn't the book for you. However, I especially recommend this for readers of commercial fantasy, because I found this to be a very interesting bridge between literary and genre fiction. This book was highly enjoyable, and is easily one of my top books of the year.