Tag Archives: Nutmeg Book Award

Book Review: Out of My Mind Flies But Falls at the End

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Some spoilers.

The first book on our reading list for ENG 561: Giving Voice to the Voiceless is Sharon M. Draper’s Out of My Mind, one of the nominees for the 2014 Nutmeg Book Award and high on my mental shortlist for the award.  Out of My Mind is the story of a middle-school girl with cerebral palsy, extremely intelligent but unable to speak without the aid of a machine (which she obtains only midway through the story) and unable to complete basic tasks like dressing or feeding herself.  Out of My Mind chronicles Melody’s struggle to fit in and to express herself to a world that largely sees only her disability.  Extremely intelligent with a photographic memory and synesthesia besides, Melody enters a quiz bowl competition, surpassing her classmates in trials, providing her with the opportunity to show the world her intelligence or at least her ability to comprehend, compete, and retain information.  But because her disability makes her classmates uncomfortable, her chance is stolen, and her inability to communicate effectively, swiftly, and without aid leads to further tragedy, which ultimately is resolved happily enough, but was quite a gut punch from Draper to her readers.

Out of My Mind is written in a simple past first person.  The book reveals itself at the end to be the work of Melody, written as an autobiography for class.

Out of My Mind falls for me into one of the pitfalls of sports fiction (though I had to laugh a little when I looked over what sports fiction I’ve read): dull and plot-miring over-explanation of a sport that is a catalyst but the understanding of which is not really crucial to the plot.  Meg Wolitzer in The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman hangs by her fingertips from this cliff’s edge, but Draper teeters by that same precipice when she lists questions and answers for the quiz bowl in her fiction.  Luckily, a quiz bowl question is briefer than a list of 101 two-letter words, and I was more forgiving of Draper, who also seemed to recognize this problem and, as quickly as she could, moved Melody past inserting the questions into the text.

Otherwise, Out of My Mind is a well-written text, employing many tricks of the trade and leaning towards poetic prose without frequently tumbling into a brier of flowery language.

As a story about voice and voicelessness, Out of My Mind is fascinating, with voice and voicelessness oscillating between being voluntary and involuntary, frustrating and a defense mechanism, even for Melody, for whom for all her life prior voicelessness has been the only option.

Melody is prone to bouts of teenage-ness and this helps to make her real.  In Melody’s struggle to fit in and be understood by her peers, Melody’s cerebral palsy and voicelessness become another hurdle, but the struggle itself is a standard middle-grade trial, one to which I think we can all, at almost any age, relate, and this too helps to make Melody a relatable and real character.

[SPOILERS] Ultimately, Out of My Mind did not have the ending that I wanted for it.  I would have appreciated if it had ended when Melody and her quiz bowl team won the state competition, but Draper saw fit to increase the angst for Melody.  Left behind by her quiz bowl team, Melody feels betrayed, and her disability again becomes stark for her just when she had seemed to surmount it, but she refuses to be defeated by her teammates’ perceived cruelty (I genuinely feel that the team while they can be faulted for excluding her from their shared breakfast cannot have hoped to leave Melody behind).  She demands to go to school despite poor weather and the fraying health and energy of her parents.  In the rain and her distraction, Melody’s mother does not see Melody’s younger sister, and Penny is struck by the car.  Though Penny emerges from the accident with a few broken bones but no lasting damage, I felt that Draper’s point about Melody’s difficulties to communicate had already been conveyed, and while this was (almost) the most dramatic of ways in which her inability could be conveyed, it may not have been necessary to the plot, and really only seemed to fill the space (unnecessarily) between Melody’s disappointment and her moment to confront her class while giving Melody a second time to worry that Penny might be “damaged” mentally as Melody is.  Angst. [END SPOILER]

***1/2

Draper, Sharon M.  Out of My Mind.  New York: Atheneum-Simon & Schuster, 2010.

This review is not endorsed by Sharon M. Draper, Atheneum Books for Young Readers or Simon & Schuster, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Quick and Light Romp in Gooseberry Park Hides a Shadowy Theme

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I first read Cynthia Rylant’s Gooseberry Park as part of my local library’s Nutmeg Book Award group in 2000.  Looking over the list of nominees, I am either amazed that this book left such a lasting impression upon me—or certain that I missed several weeks of the program (both are possible, but the latter actually more likely as I know that Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted is on my to-read and not my read list).

I had of late been itching to reread Gooseberry Park and snatched the first copy that I found on the shelves of my local used bookstore.

Gooseberry Park is a quick story of friendship, the coming together of unlikely friends in acts of heroism against nature and disaster, using manmade comforts to combat the cold and the ice and to find one another again after natural disaster has separated them—and wow, that just got a whole lot deeper and darker than I ever gave the book credit for being.  Generally, a man over nature plot is not one to which I ascribe.

The story is fun and easy (apparently hiding some deeper, darker themes).  Humor peppers the story, often through the animal characters’ fascination with human inventions, primarily through Murray, a bold and scatterbrained bat.

Arthur Howard’s memorable, expressive, and realistically rendered illustrations are much to be praised I think for the book’s memorability.

Fans of Rylant’s Mr. Putter and Tabby series for younger readers will find some familiarity in Gooseberry Park, though Mr. Putter is the protagonist of that series and here Professor Albert is more of a background figure while the animals take a more prominent role.  This, like that, is children’s literature with adult protagonists, a rarer thing among children’s literature, and something I would not expect to work well, except that I have heard young children say how much they enjoy the Mr. Putter and Tabby series and Pixar’s movies, almost all of which I have felt were fantastic and many of which have been major blockbusters, have honored almost exclusively adult protagonists.  Somehow, though, it is easy to forget that Stumpy, Kona, and Murray are adults, though Stumpy’s motherhood is central to the plot; only wise Gwendolyn the hermit crab reads unmistakably like an adult, and she is the senior of the other three main animal characters.

In rereading, I was honestly a bit disappointed with Gooseberry Park, but I had also held it high in my mind and had been eager to reread it.  As I said, it was fun and it was quick, and apparently there were themes that I hadn’t expected to find and didn’t recognize till I sat down to analyze the light read, but I’m also unsure why I remembered it with such fondness unless it was for its illustrations and readability—both of which I have to praise.

***

Rylant, Cynthia.  Gooseberry Park.  New York: Apple-Scholastic, 1998.  First published in 1995.

This review is not endorsed by Cynthia Rylant, Apple Paperbacks, Scholastic, Inc, or the Nutmeg Book Award committee of 2000 or any other year.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: A Feminine Feminist for Dealing with Dragons

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Click to visit the amazon site, to purchase, for first pages, author info, and reviews.

Some spoilers ahead.

Why did I not remember the beautiful subversion of gender stereotypes in Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons when I was seeking a paper topic two summers ago?

Having reread this book after I couldn’t tell you how many years, I’m so glad that our local librarian placed this series into my hands when I was a young girl, and I hope that librarians, booksellers, teachers and parents are still putting it into the hands of young girls today.

Cimorene is easily bored by her proper princess lessons and sets up lessons for herself in fencing, magic, Latin, and cooking, each class ending when her parents find out about the infraction.  Knowing not what else to do with their daughter, the king and queen determine to marry her to a prince who boasts of battlefield prowess but displays little of this or any other admirable quality.

Cimorene takes the advice of a frog and finds herself in a cave full of dragons for whom she volunteers to act as a princess.  While her cherries jubilee and title greatly help her secure the position, the dragon Kazul is also glad of her ability to translate Latin.  Cimorene’s princess duties are mostly cleaning and organizing, stereotypically feminine activities, but with Kazul’s encouragement and knowledge and her own cleverness and initiative, Cimorene ultimately becomes a hero, saving a prince and at least one princess while wielding buckets of soapy water.

Her guides in this new life are also wise women.  There’s not a wise man in sight (yet), and sadly all of the villains are male.

Cimorene doesn’t spurn the entirety of her femininity even as she seeks masculine lessons and freedom, still engaging in such “feminine” work as cleaning, organizing, and cooking, choosing as her ultimate weapon a bucket of soapy water rather than the magic sword she briefly wields.  She never reneges the title of Princess.  She is not marked by her impressive physical prowess.  She does not have to be masculinized to become the hero, and I think it’s important that such role models be presented to our children.

Now, it might be that I am forcing some meaning where Wrede never intended it.  Because Cimorene does remain so feminine in her heroic role, it is possible that Cimorene’s true complaint about being a proper princess is less about the gender role forced upon her and more about the entitlement that others think ought to prevent her partaking in lessons that prepare her for a role as a household servant or advisor.  While cooking, cleaning, and organizing are all stereotyped feminine roles, they are also those assigned to a lower class than Princess.

But the dragons’ traditions makes me think that Wrede meant to comment on gender more than social roles.  The dragons always have a King and Queen (sadly, Kazul complains that the “feminine” role of Queen is dreadfully boring, an unnecessary slight perhaps or meant to align with Cimorene’s court experience), but these roles are not gender specific.  Kazul, a female dragon, wins the title of King for the remainder of the series.

Dragons are also able to choose their gender and this choice alters their physical makeup.  There’s much that could be explored there, but it is mentioned only once briefly in the novel.

*****

Wrede, Patricia C.  The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Book One: Dealing with Dragons.  San Diego: Jane Yolen-Harcourt Brace, 1990.

This review is not endorsed by Patricia C. Wrede, Jane Yolen, Jane Yolen Books, or Harcourt Brace & Company.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

If you’re thinking of purchasing an e-reader copy of this book, why not support me and buy through Bookgrail?

Book Review: Hatching Magic Lacks Finesse

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The dragons of Hatching Magic by Ann Downer (now Downer-Hazell) I found to be no more than catalysts.  I did not particularly feel that Wycca or her hatchling added much to the tension or interest of the story, despite their apparent importance and Wycca being one of the main narrators.  I believe it could as easily have been any other creature or object that the wizards went chasing without the change detracting from the story.

This is a story about wizards running amok in modern Boston.

I wasn’t wonderfully impressed by Hatching Magic.  While conceptually enjoyable and while Downer’s magic was intricate and well described, I found the writing overall to be rough.  The tale is told in multiple third persons, but while scene changes are always marked with a break in the text, changes in point-of-view are not, and brief dips into such minds as Frankie the cat’s made it seem as if Downer would have preferred an omniscient third.

Yet despite many close narrators, too often the characters were able to come to correct conclusions without me as a reader being able to see how they came to that realization, which I found irritating.

The use of one too many tropes further detracted from the story (though parts of these back-stories Downer was able to nicely make ultimately important).

The story was overall a little slow, but not to the point of fault.  Whenever two of the three main, humanoid narrative sets met, the action and my interest piqued.  When Kobold finally showed his cruelty, the story picked up tremendously—though [SPOILER] Gideon’s near-fall to Kobold’s trump spell seemed out of character and broke my suspension of disbelief.  I needed him to moon more prior to this spell for it to seem in his character. [END SPOILER]

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of Downer’s story was the descriptions of 21st century technologies by characters from the 13th century.  Using terms that would have been familiar to 13th century magical beings, Downer was able to convey to this 21st century reader what the 13th century characters were seeing, and did so without it seeming awkward or cliché.

The final chapter sets this book up as the first in a series.  [SPOILER] Kobold speaks of a master, but this master never appeared nor was he further described in Hatching Magic. [END SPOILER]  I would have liked to have seen more of the grander evil come into play in the first book if only because I don’t think that the first—even with its final teasers—was enjoyable enough to make me read the second in the series except by chance, particularly as the jacket description of The Dragon of Never-Was makes me think that my favorite characters will be left behind in favor of heroine Theodora “Dodo” Oglethorpe, who just wasn’t as interesting to me as—well, almost anyone else in the tale.  I think I might continue to read the misadventures of Gideon and Kobold and cheer to see Iain Merlin O’Shea return via letters from the future, giving me updates on Febrys (who I would like to see returned from her new form into something again capable of speech, because she really was the character with the most growth through the book), but of Dodo?  Not so much.

**

Downer, Ann.  Hatching Magic.  New York: Scholastic, 2004.

This review is not endorsed by Ann Downer-Hazell, Scholastic, Inc, or Antheneum Books or Simon & Schuster, the original publishers.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Don’t Fear This Boggart

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I have been a fan of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising Sequence for a long time.  The Boggart is the first of her other books that I’ve had the opportunity to read.  The Boggart, like The Dark Is Rising Sequence, blends ancient legends—frequently lesser-known legends—with a modern world.

The world of The Boggart is a smaller world of smaller problems and lesser fates than that of The Dark of Rising, however.  The modern world of The Boggart is also more modern than that of The Dark Is Rising, in fact having been written 15 years after The Silver on the Tree.  Technology and specifically computers evolved rapidly between the late 70s and the early 90s, and this evolution is reflected in the worlds and plots created by Cooper.

The emphasis on technology in The Boggart does date the book, as I have read other reviews complain, but I do not think that this is a fault of the book, however much I giggled at the Gang of Five’s excitement over the new font Garamond that they had pirated, and told them, perhaps aloud, “Just wait till you see Papyrus;” a dated book is not an irrelevant book.  As we grow more and more dependent on rapidly changing technology our books are going to be more and more rapidly dated, but we can still cheer Odysseus’ triumph over the suitors as much as we can Salander’s revenge on Bjurman (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson, 2005).

The Boggart was a little slow to start.  I really wasn’t grabbed by the book till the Boggart started wrecking havoc in Toronto; then the Old began to mix with new technology and modern explanations and philosophy, and I was hooked.  A psychology student and fantasy-lover, I was especially interested by Dr. Stigmore’s misinterpretation of the Boggart as a “poltergeist manifestation,” a troubled child who develops telekinesis, an explosion of pent-up energy.  I’ve never heard this theory before but was glad to hear someone mention poltergeists as Cooper’s depiction of a boggart really read more to me like a poltergeist from all I know—but all I’ve known of boggarts previously is from Harry Potter, and that may not be the most reliable source (a quick bit of research makes me think that neither Cooper’s nor Rowling’s depictions are entirely true to legend, though Cooper’s, as I would expect, seems closer).

I was a little upset by the inclusion—however minor—of a romantic subplot.  It seemed unnecessary, there simply because a boy and girl can’t meet and be friends in fiction without feeling or wishing for something more.  However my own work might conform to this same idea, I wish it was a stereotype that we could overcome, and I think Cooper had a great opportunity to do so here.  However, romance and romantic feelings are a fact of life and young people are curious.  I will let the romantic subplot slide.  While Emily and Tommy might be interested in one another, at least no one accuses them of sexual practice, which is a whole other depth to this same stereotype.

As ever, Cooper’s command of language is wonderful with stunning imagery and well-chosen details that add to the story’s depth.

****

Cooper, Susan.  The Boggart.  New York: Scholastic, 1993.

This review is not endorsed by Susan Cooper, Scholastic, or Margaret K McElderry Books, or Macmillan Publishing Company (the latter two of these own the original copyrights).  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Percy Jackson, Christianity, and Neo-Paganism

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A surprisingly few articles have been published on Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.  No articles that I found have delved into any Christian interpretation of the books—and unsurprisingly.  Riordan’s approach to theology is very hands-off.  Percy Jackson’s culture is more easily relatable to that of the Ancient Greeks than any modern-day religious culture.

But the mingling of gods and God is one that I struggle with myself whenever I’ve spent too long in a Riordan book and find myself seated in a pew on Sunday, and I am surprised that Percy has not raised more radical Christian eyebrows, walking in the footsteps of Harry Potter as I would argue it does—though to be fair, I don’t think Percy is anywhere near Harry’s heels in the popularity race (Harry must be using a racing broom…).

Rereading the first book of the series, The Lightning Thief, recently, one line assuaged my fears (at least temporarily) and ought to help ease others’ as well.

“ ‘Wait,’ I told Chiron.  ‘You’re telling me there’s such a thing as God.’

“ ‘Well, now,’ Chiron said, ‘God—capital G, God.  That’s a different matter altogether.  We shan’t deal with the metaphysical’ ”  (67).

Case closed by the wise centaur.  This book does not deal with the question of capital G, God’s existence; its concept is simply that the Greek gods continue to exist so long as Western Civilization does.

The only other very brief mention of Christianity in The Lightning Thief is when Percy, Grover, and Annabeth notice a corrupt televangelist being frisked by security ghouls before being led off to “eternal torment” (292).

“ ‘But if he’s a preacher,’ I said, ‘and he believes in a different hell….’

“Grover shrugged.  ‘Who says he’s seeing this place the way we see it?’ ” (293)

Project MUSE boasts an article that mentions Percy among a discussion of neo-pagan books for teens (lamenting that one researcher disregarded Classically based neo-paganism in his study).  Among the Percy books, however, there is no emphasis on the necessity of balance and no plea of oneness, ideas basic to most forms of religious neo-paganism as I understand it.  Percy’s is a culture that disintegrates or cuts apart its enemies and would prefer that no monster or Titan walked Earth freely.  There is no talk of the need for monsters to balance heroes that I can remember, though there easily could be; a hero can’t become a hero without a monster to fight.

I will not call the Percy Jackson books Christian; they are not.  But there are some ideas in the series that mimic Christian beliefs.

The Percy Jackson books certainly preach forgiveness; second chances; the possibility of redemption, even to the point of throwing me off balance once; and the power of love.  Certainly too the call to honor thy mother and father is there.

But these are books where gods are not all-powerful, in keeping with Greek mythology.  The gods are more often saved by mortal heroes than the heroes saved by the gods.  That is a concept completely foreign to Christianity.  Christ might use Christians to spread his Word on Earth, but it is ultimately by God’s will and grace that a Christian’s work will take root in a person’s heart or effect change.

*****

Riordan, Rick.  Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book One: The Lightning Thief.  New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2005.

This review is not endorsed by Rick Riordan, Hyperion, or Disney.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman Wins No Tournament

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Click for links to order, excerpts, and the official summary.

First, I should say that my relationship with Scrabble is like Nate’s with the game—or really April’s in reverse, and so I was probably never fated to like this book however well it was written.

I wish that I could say that I agreed with Sharon Creech (author of Walk Two Moons), who praises the “polished prose” of The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman.

Perhaps this novel is outside of bestselling author Meg Wolitzer’s usual style. Or perhaps I really should find my middle grade plot quickly. Hopefully The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman underwent fierce editing before being published.

The novel follows a number of young Scrabble players (Duncan Dorfman being only one) as they prepare for and compete in the annual national Youth Scrabble Tournament.

The characters are a collection of—well, every character that a sports story, from The Mighty Ducks to Yu-gi-oh needs, as one friend to whom I was complaining commented. There’s poor, new in town Duncan, who wants the prize money and popularity; and his partner, Carl, the bully. There’s Nate, pushed into the sport by his father, who seeks to use his son to reclaim his missed chance at glory; and his friend, soon to be love interest, a rather flat character whose name I can’t even remember. Then there’s April, who goes to the tournament to prove to her sports-obsessed family that Scrabble is a sport and that she, April, does belong in the family. April also hopes to find some boy that she met three years ago whose name she doesn’t even know, an obsession so strange that I have difficulty taking April seriously as a character representing any possibly real person. Her friend and partner, Lucy, is just another sidekick.

I think that Wolitzer intends to interest her readers in tournament Scrabble, but the only character that I truly sympathize with is Nate, who is the only one to give up the sport entirely. Again, that may be my relationship with the game interfering.

So, what can I critique without bias? Style.

Particularly early in the book, Wolitzer forgets her purpose—storytelling—in favor of explaining the rules of Scrabble and makes several stylistic mistakes in so doing, most notably including four full pages of two-letter words in list form (an appendix would make for far more natural prose). She also over-explains minor details of the game that matter little to the story and holds the readers’ hands through the characters’ thoughts to make sure they don’t lose a single step that could be assumed.

Wolitzer has made me question the use of the omniscient voice. At first, I thought I just disliked omniscient, but Tolkien uses omniscient. Wolitzer’s problem is that she uses the omniscient to enter everyone’s minds whenever the fancy strikes her with often no transition between character’s points of view. It’s confusing at times. Multiple limited points of view would have served her far better, I think.

All of the characters are marred by awkward, unnatural dialogue. It is not constant, but frequent enough to make me frown.

If you’re looking for a middle grade boys’ book lauding the mind over brawn, about trying to fit in, about strained family relations come to reconciliation, I suggest you go read How To Train Your Dragon instead.

*

Wolitzer, Meg. The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman. New York: Dutton-Penguin, 2011.

This review is written from an advanced reading copy of The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman, which I got from a family friend, Mrs. Guest, who is thanked in the acknowledgements for her support and wisdom. It has not been corrected by the author, publisher, or printer, meaning that there might still be hope. Anyone who has read a copy of the final print, please do tell me what was edited. (I intend to find this book on a self and flip through, but I won’t buy it.)

This review is not endorsed by Mrs. Guest, Meg Wolitzer, Dutton, or Penguin. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.