Monday, November 29, 2010

Book Review: The Wager

The Wager
by Donna Jo Napoli

The Wager is based on the Sicilian folktale of Don Giovanni de la Fortuna. Don Giovanni is a wealthy & powerful Sicilian in the 12th century, until a tidal wave wipes out his entire fortune and leaves him homeless. After 9 months of homelessness and poverty, the devil offers him a purse that will give him unlimited money, if he agrees to go without bathing for 3 years, 3 months, and 3 days. If he bathes or changes his clothes in that time, then his soul is forfeit to the devil.

Going without bathing for three years sounds bad, but even the vain Don Giovanni thinks that it can't be worse than hunger and cold. But the reality is horrific. As time goes on, Don Giovanni is subject to every possible pain, humiliation, and degradation, from waking up in a pool of vomit after being mugged, to insects and sores. Through it all he can't bathe, can't change his clothes, or do anything to relieve his condition. And on top of it all, he has to be constantly on guard, as the devil tries to trick him into losing the bet.

But as the exterior transformation progresses, so does a corresponding and opposite interior transformation. The more isolated that Don Giovanni becomes from other people, the more he comes to care about his fellow man. The themes of inner versus outer beauty, and redemption, are, perhaps, to be expected, but are no less moving for that.

The descriptions of Don Giovanni's condition are almost too horrible to bear, and the story is taut with suspense about whether he will make it to the end of the bet. Yet there is also beauty all around. The island of Sicily is brought vividly to life, from the beauty of nature to the various cultures--Norman, Greek, Muslim, Sicilian--that inhabited the island in the twelfth century. There's an incredible variety of food, and descriptions of artwork of all types. The richness of the environment contrasts shockingly with the revolting descriptions of Don Giovanni.

The Wager is an exquisitely written and highly readable folktale retelling.

The Wager is a 2010 Cybils nominee in the Fantasy/Science Fiction: Teen category.

Book reviewed from library copy. FTC required disclosure: The links above are Amazon Associate links, and I earn a very small percentage of any sales made through the links.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Book Review: Draw the Dark

Draw the Dark
by Ilsa J. Bick

Strange things are happening in Winter, Wisconsin, and all of them seem to be connected to Christian Cage. Christian is no stranger to trouble; people in his life have died or disappeared before in mysterious ways. But this time Christian is accused of vandalizing a barn, and the image that was graffiti-painted onto the barn is in Christian's style, although he has no memory of doing it.

The same night that the barn is vandalized, Christian begins having nightmares. The nightmares become more vivid as Christian begins working a community service sentence in the local nursing home. Then a body is found in an old house, and Christian begins to suspect that all the strange happenings are connected together, and tied in with Winter's past. Together with Sarah, who is the closest thing to a friend that he has, he begins researching Winter's history looking for clues.

Draw the Dark is an unputdownable story wrapped in vivid imagery and a strong sense of history. Although Draw the Dark is technically a fantasy, it should appeal to mystery and history fans as well. The mystery is a strong element of the story, as Christian and Sarah try to put together the clues to figure out what's going on and what happened in the past. There's also an interesting tie-in to World War II era history.

One complaint I have is the cover: it makes the book look like a horror book, which I think sets up false expectations that will turn off some teens who would enjoy the book, and cause others to be disappointed when the start reading it and find out that it isn't horror.

Another problem with the book is that the various elements aren't always well-integrated. In particular, there's a framing story about a door that Christian paints which may lead to an alternate world where he thinks his parents are, a world he calls the "sideways world." Although the sideways world does play a role in the climax, in general I thought that the sideways world wasn't well explained, and seemed grafted on, and I think it would have been a stronger story without it. The ending of the book may be setting things up for a sequel which has more to do with the sideways world, or it may be just leaving things open for the reader's imagination.

Overall, though, Draw the Dark is a unique and fascinating story that you won't want to put down.

The Wager is a 2010 Cybils nominee in the Fantasy/Science Fiction: Teen category.

Book reviewed from library copy. FTC required disclosure: The links above are Amazon Associate links, and I earn a very small percentage of any sales made through the links.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Book Review: Wolfley-O's

by Sallie Lowenstein

On the last day of the first week of first grade, Davey doesn't want to go back to school. The other kids pick on him, call him names, and push him down on the playground. Then he discovers an unusual box of cereal in the pantry. On the box is a space that reads, "Wolfley-O's! The cereal that ____________________________." After Davey fills in the blank with "Builds Your Confidence," he finds that he does, indeed, have more confidence the next day at school.

Throughout the week, more blanks for different attributes appear on the cereal box, and as Davey fills them in, he finds that things improve at school. The week culminates when a recipe for Wolfley-O cookies appears on the box, and Davey makes the cookies to share with the other kids at school.

Wolfley-O's is a fun and empowering story for kids about the power of imagination to shape our world. Sallie Lowenstein understands well, and does a great job of portraying, the fluid line between imagination and reality for young children. Is the box of Wolfley-O's real or in Davey's imagination? It really won't matter to the kids reading the story.

Lowenstein is good at getting into the mind of a child, and Davey is an appealing character that kids will identify with. The art is lovely, with great attention to detail; for example, Davey's socks are bunched up and coming off in one illustration. The kids at school start out as a child's stick figures at first, then gradually gain detail and transform into fully drawn and shaded characters as Davey gets to know them.

The recipe for Wolfley-O's cookies is included in the story. It sounds delicious enough that I'd like to try it, yet simple enough for a young child to make (with adult supervision).

Wolfley-O's is a Cybils nominee in the Fiction Picture Books category.

FTC required disclosure: Review copy (F&G) provided by the publisher to enable me to write this review.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Book Review: Departure Time

Departure Time
Truus Maati

There is a girl, who finds herself on an empty plain just as the rain starts. She doesn’t remember how she got there, or even who she is. Seeking shelter from the rain, she finds a hotel run by a fox and a rat. There’s something mysterious about the hotel: there are no other guests, although there is the strange music that seems to be coming from an upper floor. At first, the animals seem suspicious and unwelcoming, but the girl begins to win them over, and slowly life begins to return to the hotel.

There is another girl, in another place, trying to deal with grief and guilt. She has suffered a terrible loss, and done something she regrets. She figures that the best way to deal with the pain is to forget. But although the girl tries to forget, her story gradually emerges through a series of flashbacks.

Are these two girls the same? We don’t know; neither one even has a name at first. But as the stories progress, a pattern emerges and the the two stories begin to draw together.

Departure Time is a compelling and moving middle-grade novel. The mystery draws in the reader right from the start. Who is the first girl, and what’s going on in the hotel? What is the second girl trying to forget? At first there is virtually no information for the reader to go by, but as the story progresses a picture begins to emerge, and the astute reader will begin to get a sense of what’s going on.

The mystery draws you in, but it’s the characters and the emotion that hold you. The grief and loss and regret are palpable, even when you don’t yet understand what they represent. But above all, this is a story about love and healing.

Strong readers who can piece together a story with little background information will do best with this book. It would also be a good book to read aloud with a class, with opportunities for discussion.

Departure Time is a 2010 Cybils nominee for Middle-Grade Fiction. (I nominated it).

FTC required disclosure: Review copy provided by the publisher to enable me to write this review. The links above are Amazon Associate links, and I earn a very small percentage of any sales made through the links. Neither of these things influenced my review.