Author: Kate DiCamillo
My rating: 4.5 of 5
When Louisiana Elefante’s Granny wakes her up in the middle of the night to pack her bags and scramble into the car, it’s not the most alarming thing. This has happened before, after all, and they always go back. But as they continue driving, Louisiana begins to realize . . . they’re not turning back towards home. They just keep driving, further and further away from her friends, her cat Archie, and the one-eyed dog she shares with her best friends Raymie and Beverly.
I have yet to read anything by Kate DiCamillo that I didn’t love, and Louisiana’s Way Home is no exception. This is a powerful and captivating story, simple and absurd in turn, full of whimsy and hope and hard knocks as well. For Louisiana, her life is just her life, but for the reader, I think the way she’s been raised to grift and charm her way through things is pretty heartbreaking. And in turn, the way she loves stories and music and her friends, the way she keeps trying, is just beautiful. She’s the sort of character that you want all the good things for, even though they don’t seem to be happening much, and the way she focuses on the good things she does get is pretty poignant to read. I promise, this does have a happy ending–one so fulfilling that I ended up crying through much of the last chapter or so. But it’s kind of rough at parts, just in the sort of way that is still ok as a kids’ adventure story. I think this would be a fun story for a middle-grade reader and a heartbreaking, heartwarming story for an adult reader; great in either context!
Author/Illustrator: Ben Hatke
My rating: 5 of 5
Goblin is enjoying a nice quiet morning in the dungeon, hanging out and having fun with his friend Skeleton, when a group of adventurers randomly burst in, cause a ruckus, and take everything–including Skeleton. Goblin is determined to get his friend back, even though his neighbor warns him that nobody likes a goblin and he’ll only find trouble out in the wide world. And while he does find trouble aplenty on his quest, he also finds his friend . . . and a whole bunch of new friends as well.
I am convinced that Ben Hatke’s books are basically perfection, like, all of them. They’re cute and quirky and innocent and heartwarming in a way that just grips you and pulls you in. In Nobody Likes a Goblin, we’re presented with a flip-side of a common enough story. As both a D&D player and a reader of fantasy novels, I’m quite familiar with the whole adventurers raiding a dungeon thing . . . just not typically from the perspective of the dungeon’s typical residents. Generally, we’re led to think of goblins, skeletons, and such as villains (to, in fact, not like them); yet in this story, these characters are innocent protagonists while the adventurers are the troublemakers. Expectations are challenged, and (while not explicitly stated as such) a certain racism is revealed and also challenged in this story. And Goblin and his friends are presented in such a heartwarming, charming way that you can’t help but root for them. The art in this story is lovely as well, giving additional charm, atmosphere, and character to the work as a whole. Nobody Likes a Goblin truly is an adorable, beautiful picture book that I would highly recommend.
Authors: Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Warning: Mature Audience for language, violence, sexual content, and general adult situations
Little could Dr. Melisande Stokes have foreseen the consequences when she was initially approached by the dashing Major Tristan Lyons to do some obscure translation work–work that she had to sign nondisclosure agreements before she could even be told about. Certainly, she couldn’t have predicted that it would get her stuck back in 1850’s England! But then, the entire operation is full of surprises, as any government operation dedicated to reviving magic to time travel by way of quantum mechanics is bound to be. Actually, the whole thing sounds absurd, and yet, the U.S. government seems convinced that it’s actually possible . . . and they’re pouring in the funds to support their conviction. And so, armed with a research budget and their own skills and intelligence, Mel and Tristan form the beginnings of the Department of Diachronic Operations.
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. captivated me before I even opened the cover. I mean just look at the cover design; doesn’t it just promise all kinds of fun?! And the story inside does not disappoint. To start out, the whole idea of quantum theory and magic being in any way linked is just mind-bogglingly strange . . . yet at the same time brilliant. If you think about their reasoning, it actually makes sense; there’s an element of plausibility that’s brought into the whole thing. And the way the story plays with alternate timelines and the interplay of quantum mechanics and magic is just fascinating–it’s all extremely well thought out, complex, and convincing. Yet while you have this almost hard science flavor being brought in with all that, there’s also this great sense of humor and people throughout. There are a lot of strong personalities at play in this novel, and they are allowed to roam free and do what they will, which creates all sorts of interesting drama and plot in a very natural, believable manner without being overdone. I also loved the way the entire story is told in documents–the majority of it being memoirs Mel is writing while trapped in 1851, combined with interdepartmental memos, diary entries, wiki pages, etc. It’s modern, expressive, and (again) just a very credible way of presenting the story that’s also full of humor and personality. The one thing that I didn’t love about this story is that it’s essentially a military operation, one that gets really big by the latter parts of the story, and as such, our main characters (that I love) get a bit lost in the shuffle for a while. But they pop back to the surface when things fall apart at the end, so it works out. Definitely recommended.
Author/Illustrator: Ben Hatke
My rating: 5 of 5
Julia’s house has just come to town–on the back of a giant turtle!–and settled by the sea. It’s lovely, only the house is too quiet. So what does Julia do? She puts out a sign, an open invitation for the lost, the unwanted, and the unusual to come live with her. And do they ever. Now there’s too much noise and chaos! Good thing Julia knows just what to do.
I have found Ben Hatke’s graphic novels to be utterly charming ever since I first discovered Zita the Spacegirl, and Julia’s House for Lost Creatures is just that as well–utterly charming. Julia herself drew me in right from the start. I mean, she has a house built on a turtle. She enjoys tea and toast in a delightful room filled with all sorts of interesting objects. And when it’s too quiet, her first instinct is to reach out to the lonely and the unwanted. What’s not to love? Plus, she has a sense of order that appeals to me. The way she models good problem-solving skills makes this a great read for kids as well. The general reading level of the story is quite picture-book appropriate, although I have to confess, I had to pull out the dictionary and look up one of the creatures–so it’s not all super-easy, little kid vocabulary either. The art is delightful, similar in style to that of Hatke’s graphic novels. The color palette is lovely–vibrant but still soft and mild–and the use of space and the amount of visual variety is also pleasant, going from full-page pictures to vast amounts of white space with a single picture and a couple of lines of text. There are even a few places where comic-style panels are used. All told, Julia’s House for Lost Creatures is a treat to read that I would recommend for kids and adults alike.
Author: Barry Lyga
Jasper Dent, vol. 1
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Seventeen-year-old Jasper Dent (better known as Jazz) did not have the most normal childhood. Actually, he was raised by his dad, a notorious serial killer–raised to think like and eventually become a killer himself. But now Jazz’s dad is behind bars and Jazz wants a different life for himself. So when the body count begins to rise in his small home town, Jazz decides to (unofficially and without the sheriff’s permission) assist with the investigation. Because he knows how the killer thinks. And to prove to the town that he’s not like his dad . . . only, is it the town or himself that he needs to convince?
So, I’ve never read much Barry Lyga, but I Hunt Killers was an interesting enough read. It’s kind of a mashup of a contemporary YA novel and an adult crime thriller. And I guess that’s where I get my weird personal reactions to this story. Because on the one hand, I really enjoyed it, but on the other hand, it’s kind of strange and unsettling in a way I’m not sure I like. There’s this total dichotomy, even though in the book the elements are actually combined pretty well. On the crime thriller side, you get this guy who can get into the killer’s head, you get some pretty intense crime scenes, some very painfully intense flashbacks to the guys’ childhood, and a puzzling mystery that gradually unfolds. And on the YA side, you’ve got this kid who is struggling to even see himself as human, who struggles to see the people around him as human rather than just as things to be used. There is a ton of psychological and emotional baggage and internal conflict going on. And then you’ve got Jazz’s awesome girlfriend Connie and his BFF Howie–both of whom get dragged into the mess that Jazz involves himself in. The writing and the pacing of the story are good. The author clearly put a lot of research into this book. And I would read more of Barry Lyga’s books. I probably would read more of this series, even. But I still feel just a bit off about I Hunt Killers . . . but maybe that’s the intended results, because how can a book about a kid who was raised to be a serial killer ever really be okay?
Author: V. E. Schwab
Shades of Magic, vol. 1
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Kell lives in a London where magic is the norm, where children play games involving testing their magical abilities from the time they’re young. But unlike any other citizen of his world, Kell has been to other Londons where things are very different. You see, he is an Antari, one of the last, an individual who has the ability control the magic that allows one to cross between the worlds. As a loyal subject–and adopted prince of what he terms “Red London”–Kell works for the king and queen, delivering messages to the royalty of the other Londons, “Grey London” and “White London”. He’s been known to carry other items across the boundaries between worlds as well, which is technically illegal but also profitable and exciting. Kell’s smuggling habits become a bit too exciting, however, when a package turns out to be a trap. And the help of an unmagical, Grey London girl may be his only hope for surviving the ensuing mess.
Okay, so you’ve all been telling me for . . . what seems like ages that A Darker Shade of Magic is amazing. So I’ve finally gotten around to reading it, and I agree. I probably should have read it before, but there you have it. V. E. Schwab crafts quite the exciting and enjoyable story. The writing style is very approachable, with a good balance of description and action. I really appreciated the third-person style that the author used; you see so much first-person writing now that a well-done third-person story is quite refreshing. One of my only complaints about the writing is the use of different languages for people from the different worlds–and I totally get why this was used, it was just annoying to me to try to read unpronounceable words that I ended up just skipping in the end. Minor issue on the whole, though. The characters were fantastic, and I really grew to care for Kell, Lila, and Rhy by the end of the story. I also really loved that the story developed in the way it did–worlds-impacting choices and meaningful camaraderie as opposed to unnecessary and forced romance (which I see way too much of). I would definitely recommend A Darker Shade of Magic for those readers out there who haven’t read it yet, and I’m certainly looking forward to reading the subsequent volumes of this series–as well as anything else I can find by the author.
Author/Illustrator: Hope Larson
My rating: 3.5 of 5
In 2009, Tara Fraser runs through the town of French Hill in Nova Scotia, passing the burned out remains of her old family home–the place she’d lived most of her life. Little could she imagine the deep ties she unwittingly retains with her ancestress Josey Fraser, a girl who grew up on the very same homestead back in the 1850’s. But when Tara finds an unusual quicksilver-containing family heirloom in her mother’s old jewelry box, the ties that connect these two girls begin to reveal themselves, uncovering a history of unexpected fortune and tragedy both.
My experience reading Mercury was really kind of mixed. I really love what the author tried to do here, melding the stories of these two girls. And I think overall the way the story revealed both of their stories side-by-side was very effective. But I found the extreme similarities between them rather forced at times; their own appearances were too similar, as were the relations between them and their best friends (who were also remarkably similar). I guess this is something that works better for the middle-grade audience this seems to be intended for, but it was counterproductive for me as a reader. On the other hand, I did like the characters and their stories. And I loved the setting, both in historic and present-day Nova Scotia–it’s pretty rare to find graphic novels set in Canada, so that’s always fun. The art was nice too, definitely a western (non-manga) style, but in a modern graphic-novel sense, not in an annoying comic-book sense. The other thing I found notable about this story was the touch of magical realism thrown in towards the end of the book. From reviews I’ve seen, this is pretty typical of Hope Larson’s writing, but I definitely wasn’t expecting it, so it really threw me. On the whole though, Mercury was a nice graphic novel, most recommended for a middle-grade or high-school audience, but with enough depth to be appreciable by adult readers as well.