Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Wikkeling Review

Book talk: Every house on Henrietta's street is identical: each one newly made of vinyl and glue with flat roofs sitting behind plastic lawns in their own soundproof and airtight cocoon.  Every house, except Henrietta's.  Henrietta's house is made of wood, with a sloping roof and an old-fashioned attic.  Henrietta's mother thinks that it must be some contaminant in their old house that is causing Henrietta's blinding headaches.  But Henrietta knows it isn't the house at all.  It's the Wikkeling.  Most people can't see the Wikkeling and Henrietta knows if she tries to explain it she'll only sound crazy.  Luckily she's found some allies, but will the neighbor boy, a kindergartener, and a Wild Housecat be enough to defeat the mysterious creature or will they all end up Finished?

Rocks my socks: I read this book at the end of long day when I was in a terrible mood, but from the very start Arntson made me forget all my troubles and took me away to a frightening and thought-provoking dystopia that nevertheless left me feeling far better than when I picked up the novel.  First off it started with a poem about a cat which instantly wins it points in my book.  Secondly it established the atmosphere and setting with wonderfully creative details like exhaust that is made to smell like lilacs to make the constant traffic jam more bearable and honk ads to take advantage of it.  Thirdly it introduces us to the main character Henrietta who is described as looking like a brick, "And yet Henrietta was not a stupid, confused, petulant block.  Or at least, she didn't feel like one.  Inside, she was just herself--a person to whom she'd scarcely yet been introduced."  The narrator then goes on to warn the reader: "She will not become beautiful when someone gives her a new hairstyle.  She will not find a miracle cure for her pimples when an angel sees she's a good girl inside.  She will not find out that she's actually a princess, and she won't become happy forever when a prince marries her.  Those books are out there, and your school librarian can help you find one.  This isn't it."  I know not everyone likes that kind of fourth wall destruction but when I read that passage I was completely sold.

A lot of time is spent on describing the school and as someone who works in an elementary school I found the descriptions eerily prescient and appreciated their warning about where we may end up if we are not careful--and isn't that what the best dystopian novels do?  I am lucky because I work in a really creative and wonderful independent school but I've had enough discussions with colleagues at more typical schools to feel a chill down my spine when I read about how the classes were more or less constantly preparing for the next standardized test with instant updates sent to parents on their student's progress via their cell phones.  Students who score poorly are marked as 'at risk' so that their score will not bring down the class average and if that happens twice they are 'finished.'  At lunch students sit in individual carrels and watch videos on history, the only non-graded period because history "wasn't related to anything"  (I knew that would make my history grad student sister cringe)  This period provided the delightfully dystopian quote "We must be courageous enough to look forward without fear, and sensible enough to fear looking backward!" When travelling to and from school students wear four seat belts on the bus: one lap, two shoulder, and a one across the head.  Even when they are sleeping a BedCam sends their image directly to the parents' bedroom for monitoring.

The novel is at times a dystopian commentary on society, at times a horror novel, at times a bildungsroman, and there's also plenty of humor infused throughout.  My personal favorite was the crosswalk where Henrietta "pushed the button and waited for the picture of the dead pedestrian to turn into the picture of the scared pedestrian."  I appreciated the logic of Henrietta when she's convincing a friend to do something dangerous: "We'll be careful...This kind of thing is the reason people invented carefulness in the first place."  Well said!  While we're on the subject of Henrietta's friends I love Rose and Gary.  I loved that in a society where kids who are Finished end up as garbagemen like that's the worst fate possible Gary actually is fascinated by garbage. I was all ready to be disappointed in the novel for disparaging the profession but I should have had more faith in Arntson.  Rose is a wonderfully precocious kindergartener who lives in a secret library so of course I love her.  I'd be remiss to end this review without mentioning Terrazzini's wonderful illustrations throughout, especially in the excerpt from the Bestiary which contains delightfully creative creatures that I'd love to learn more about (hint hint, wink wink, nudge nudge Arntson!)  The whole book is beautifully designed in fact from the binding to the layout to the endpapers.  It's definitely one you'll want a physical copy of to decorate your shelf once you're done with it.  You can go ahead and judge this book by its cover all you want!

Rocks in my socks: Nothing, I absolutely loved this novel and I'm very thankful to it for plucking me out of the deep, dark mood I was in when I started it.

Every book its reader: The novel is partly a horror story and while it's wonderfully creepy it's not actually that violent or gory.  I can definitely see some children getting nightmares from the Wikkeling (myself at a young age included but even Darby O'Gill ant the Little People gave me nightmares, so that's not saying much.)  Overall I'd say this novel is perfect to give to children who like horror stories to creep them out without being too violent.  It would be a good choice for kids who enjoyed Coraline or The Graveyard Book as it's no scarier than either of those and of a similar tone. Fans of the Lemony Snicket series will also enjoy this novel and appreciate Arntson's dark humor.  The dystopian setting gives older students and even adults plenty to ponder as well and it has a recommendation from James Dashner on the back which should be enough to sell it to my middle school students as half of them are obsessed with Maze Runner.  

The Wikkeling by Steven Arntson

Buy it or check it out today!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Name of the Star Review

Book talk: Rory grew up in Bénouville, Louisiana "an unstable place, built on a swamp."  Bénouville is full of interesting characters like cousin Diane, who runs the Healing Angel Ministry out of her living room or Billy Mack who started his own religion in his garage.  But it's not until Rory leaves Bénouville for senior year abroad in London that she starts to suspect herself of going crazy.  Soon she has more to worry about than picking up on British slang and keeping up with her new school's strict academic standards.  A new Jack the Ripper is on the loose and if she isn't careful, Rory may be the next victim.

Rocks my socks: Rory's distinctive Southern charm introducing the reader to London as she herself gets to know it is the major draw of the novel.  I liked the small details, for example when Rory first hears that someone "pulled a Jack the Ripper" after she lands in London she figures it's just some slang she hasn't learned yet and says "oh, sure" without much concern.  Rory's not some fawning Belle though, which I appreciate.  She is as strong and resilient as the town she comes from-rebuilding itself after every flood. The premise is interesting as well.  I liked the way Johnson incorporated the ever-present surveillance in London into the novel and how she was able to create a mystery in spite of it.  I also found how the public reacted to the killings interesting.  The new Ripper re-creates the murders of the original on the same dates so everyone knows when the next will happen.  The public eats it up and the news plays it up and takes advantage of it in a way that is unfortunately realistic, despite the fact that people are being brutally slaughtered. Tourism soars as amateur detectives arrive on the scene and someone even makes a 'singing kidney video' based on the murders that goes viral.  The night of the Double-Event when two people were murdered "was bigger than New Year's" and Rory and her school-mates' main concern is that they would not get to participate because they were being locked in for their own safety.  Ah, youth! I appreciated other realistic touches as well, like the fact that Rory knows about how and why witnesses are often unreliable and she thinks about this during her own interrogation by the police and yet knows that she can't prevent it.  Most of all I appreciated that Johnson always provides moments of levity to break up the seriousness, like the zombie spice girls costumes that Rory and her friends wear to a fancy dress party.

Rocks in my socks: If it was the realistic touches that delighted me it was the supernatural touches that disappointed me.  The premise is a bit weak, making the final reveal of murderer and motives anticlimactic.  There is a supernatural element to the story that creates several plot holes as supernatural elements are wont to do.  For example (highlight for spoiler) the killer ends up being a ghost and despite the fact that it is previously established in the novel that a ghost can't be given a cell phone because it would look weird to have a phone floating about in the air, when the killer drags someone across London at knife point on a night that is specifically described as having a large police presence, no one notices.  Even when she's held at knifepoint in a small room the bystander who can't see ghosts doesn't notice the knife. In addition, for a book described as full of romance on the inside flap the romantic sub-plot seems tacked on and non-essential.  Maybe I'm just biased though because Rory never goes for the guy I liked--the one who seems to have read the entire library and memorized the location of each book *swoon* (highlight for spoiler) sure he turns out to be a ghost, but we all have our quirks, don't we?  On a side note it bothers me that at one point Rory more or less pays for someone to write an entire essay for her and she never seems to feel guilty about it and there are no consequences.  Granted she is going through some difficult times but perhaps she could have tried explaining that to her teachers instead.  With all the Ripper madness going on I'm sure they'd be understanding.  Still, I was so enchanted by Rory that I was mostly willing to suspend my disbelief and forgive her for this infraction.

Every book its reader: The original Jack the Ripper murders were quite gruesome and so any story revolving around them is going to have its fair share of gore.  Outside of the murders though there isn't much violence and the romantic sub-plot never gets enough attention to go too far.  I'd recommend it for 6th graders and older looking for a supernatural thriller with a splash of dark humor.

The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson

Buy it or check it out today!