Sunday, February 17, 2013

Kid's Choice: Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs by Mo Willems

My second graders loved this winking Goldilocks tale with a twist. There are no bears here, just three innocent dinosaurs who go for a walk (they are definitely not hiding in the woods nearby), leaving their door open and their chocolate pudding out, with absolutely no thought that a hapless little girl might wander in and provide them with a chocolate filled snack when they return.

Willems has a lot of fun here with the original story: hot, cold or just right, Goldilocks eats all of the pudding (it is chocolate pudding, after all.) And the chairs? The first and second ones are too tall. The third one...still too tall.

Will Goldilocks get out before the dinosaurs return from Or will she be a chocolate pudding-filled bonbon for the hungry dinosaurs when they return?

As a bonus, the endpapers are covered with (presumably) rejected ideas for Goldilocks stories. Goldilocks and the Three Plumbers? Goldilocks and the Three Wall Street Types? If anyone could make it work, it would be Willems.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Blood Oranges by Kathleen Tierney

Urban fantasy and paranormal romance (whether for adults or teens) have taken on a lot of baggage post-Twilight: attractive monsters, love triangles, power hierarchies, destined mates, curiously irresistible protagonists and wildly improbable happily-ever-afters. A generation ago, a romance with the monster would have been teased, but now, dear reader, she has married him.

Blood Oranges has taken that baggage and run. The other way. When Siobhan Quinn accidentally falls into the role of monster hunter, she finds herself part of an old grudge match between two powerful players. Her mentor, Mean Mr. B, disappears suddenly and leaves Quinn to walk the thin line between hunter and monster, dual roles she is unlikely to survive.

In the world of Siobhan Quinn, monsters are grotesque (though not always unattractive) and becoming a vampire/werewolf doesn't make you a special snowflake; it makes you a killer. All of the players are amoral, at best, and no one is out to save anyone else.

I enjoyed Quinn's voice in this book, her unreliability and constant need to question everything. The plot, such as it was, was less interesting than the world-building and Tierney's constant interrogation of genre tropes.

Funnily, the notion of getting back to the basics of horror tropes (our vampires are scary, not sparkly!) is a well-established trope in itself. The retreat to a darker plot and tone is a well-worn device; when it comes to monsters, attractive and otherwise, the pendulum swings back and forth. I would love to see more explorations of these tropes, in both their fantasy and horror aspects.

Sunday, February 10, 2013


"If a man walks in dressed like a hick, and acting as if he owned the place, he's a spaceman."

Lorenzo Smythe
Double Star
by Robert A. Heinlein

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Kid's choice: That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown

by Cressida Cowell

Emily Brown and her stuffed rabbit Stanley are in the midst of a series of adventures when she receives some unexpected visitors: first the Queen's footman, then the army, then the navy. And they all have one (courteously worded) demand: that Emily Brown hand over that Bunnywunny, which the Queen has decided is the finest toy she has ever seen. Emily Brown politely declines. Then not so politely declines. Despite offers of a gold bear, talking dolls, rocking chairs, and more, Emily Brown refuses to hand over her stuffed friend (his name is not Bunnywunny!), even if the Queen is the poshest person in the kingdom.

But the Queen must have that rabbit...and so Emily Brown must take matters into her own hands.

This ode to the power of toys and imagination is a pleasure to read to children, but the illustrations are probably the real star here. Emily's and Stanley's color-saturated adventures captivate young readers, and the second to last spread actually drew gasps of wonder from one group of first graders when I read it to them.

Children will reach for their own toys when Emily takes pity on the silly Queen and tells her how to have a stuffed friend as nice as Stanley.

Thoughts: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Some stories are smooth and satisfying, easy to follow, thematically consistent, and tie the plot threads into a neat little bow at the end.

American Gods is not that story.

When Shadow, waiting to be released from prison, learns that his wife is dead, he finds himself free but at loose ends. He takes a job from a old man who seems to be strangely fixated on him. While driving Mr. Wednesday around, running errands for him, and helping him run con jobs, Shadow meets an assortment of very odd people. He comes to believe they are ancient gods struggling to survive in the America's cultural desert. Short memories have begotten flashy, dangerous new gods: media, technology, credit. With Shadow's help, Mr. Wednesday is gathering an army to fight them, so the elder gods can reclaim their rightful place.

But all is not as it seems. Shadow has been left in a small northern Wisconsin town to wait for Wednesday: a friendly, helpful town with a place for everyone and a wrongness at its very center. A secret third organization, trying to foil Wednesday's plans, kidnaps Shadow, threatening to torture him. Meanwhile, Shadow's dead wife, Laura, has come back...

American Gods is a tangled knot of mythology, mystery, horror and warped Americana. Woven through Shadow's story are short, fascinating, interludes on how some of the elder gods came to America and what the newer gods are up to as they ascend to power. 

Gaiman's writing is lively and his deep understanding of myth make for an thoughtful read. Oddly and significantly, many of the meetings with the elder gods are quite banal, while scenes like that of Shadow foolishly trying to walk to town during a dangerous cold snap, take on a mythic quality. The plot winds around its subject matter in coils, rather than a straight line.

But the many, many story threads stubbornly refuse to jell into a whole, and Shadow's passivity doesn't give the story much of a rudder. (Humorously, even Mr. Wednesday comments on it at one point.)

There is much to like here, and readers who like fiction that grapples with philosophy will find much to challenge them. But readers who like their stories to be plot driven with tidy endings may be frustrated.