Monday, December 2, 2013

Contemporary Fiction, Fantasy and YA Book Reviews

Stiefvater, Maggie. The Scorpio Races. Read by Steve West and Fiona Hardingham. (compact disc). New York: Scholastic, 2011. (10 compact discs). 

Exploring the legend of the mythical water horses found in Celtic lore, author Maggie Stiefvater has written a unique and magical low fantasy tale of an island whose inhabitants both fear and admire these capall uisce, and the struggle to tame the untamable in order to survive the annual Scorpio Race.  Highlighting the lives of two protagonists, Kate Connelly and Sean Kendrick, and using an amazing amount of imagery, the author pulls the reader into life on the Island of Thisby and the courage it takes to survive there. 

Critical Analysis:
Featuring music written and performed by the author, and the crisp voices of British narrators Steve West and Fiona Hardingham, the audiobook version of The Scorpio Races provides a sensory feast for the listener and brings Stiefvater’s fantasy tale of the mythical Celtic water horses to life in a manner not to be found by reading the novel alone.

The unabridged CD format reviewed here contains 10 discs totally approximately 10 hours and 30 minutes of listening time.  The audiobook is narrated by two British readers, Steve West and Fiona Hardingham, who do an excellent job of providing audible voices for the characters Sean and Kate (aka Puck).  The narrators also provide different accents and tones for supplemental characters, allowing the listener to effortlessly follow the dialogue in the story. As an American, I especially enjoyed Mr. West’s American accent for the character, George Holly. 

The pronunciation of the narrators, as one would expect from the British, is clear and crisp, and the production quality of the audiobook is excellent, with no static or bothersome background noise.  The music, written and performed by the author, is played at the beginning of each disc and at the very end, and showcases traditional Celtic instruments such as drums, flutes, whistles and bagpipes. Enjoy a clip of this soundtrack here: (used with permission).  

 In the back matter, only provided on the audio version of the book, Maggie Stiefvater discusses how she came to compose and perform the music and the various musical instruments she has mastered over the course of her life.  Also included on the last CD is a longer and more in depth author’s note on the background of the water horse legend and how the author came to write this story.

The author uses an incredible amount of sensory imagery, describing the colors, sights, sounds and smells of the Island of Thisby in such detail that one feels transported to that imaginary place and into the lives of the characters.  Sean says in the prologue, “even under the brightest sun, the frigid autumn sea is all colors of the night: dark blue and black and brown.” The capaill uisce are described as “every color of the pebbles on the beach: black, red, golden, white, ivory, gray, blue….they are beautiful and deadly, loving us and hating us.”   

Descriptions of the cliffs, the beach, the sea and the island are so vivid that one can almost feel the spray of the water, see the grains of sand on the beach and smell the salt from the ocean.  As Puck is riding her mare, Dove, on the beach, she says: “the waves become one long blur… and the cliffs transform into a wall of formless gray.  Now I can’t hear the ocean’s shushing, only the pounding of Dove’s hooves and the huffing of her breath.”  One experiences the joy, fear and adrenaline rush of horse racing without moving more than one’s eyes across the page or tilting one’s head in listening.

The plot focuses on the annual Scorpio Race, which Sean, a groom at the famous Malvern Stables, has won four times, and Puck, an orphan with a brother to support, must win to financially survive on the island she loves.  The book is set in a modern, yet undetermined time, and the descriptions of the characters and location are realistic, except for the one magical motif of the mythical water horses that arise from the sea every autumn, the “fall calling to the magic inside them.”  They are beautiful, yet deadly, carnivorous creatures that the island inhabitants attempt to capture and tame for The Scorpio Race.  The author expresses universal themes in the novel, such as the will to survive, overcoming obstacles, good vanquishing evil, love and sacrifice and staying true to one’s self.  

The author has undertaken a difficult task in alternating the point of view between Kate and Sean in each chapter, but manages to give each character a distinct personality that stays consistent throughout the book.  And we see the growth of each character, especially Kate, as she overcomes many fears in the book and matures into a confident young woman who can survive in the harsh environment in which she finds herself.

The audio version of The Scorpio Races is a treat for the senses and provides a satisfying listening experience not to be missed for young adults (and even adults) who love the lush combination of nature, horses and fantasy.

“With English accents, narrators Steve West and Fiona Hardingham alternate the voices of Puck and Sean, adding an authentic rhythm to the text. Pacing and delivery is strong and pulls listeners into a world of strong imagery and fierce emotion.” – School Library Journal (Aug., 2012).

“From the author's original music to the sweeping drama of Sean Kendrick and Puck Connolly's quest to win the deadly annual water horse races, the dual performances of West and Hardingham drive the narrative to its satisfying conclusion. This 2012 Odyssey Honor award winner showcases how a listening experience can raise a strong narrative to an even higher level as the tension builds.” – School Library Journal (May, 2012).

“Filling it with loving descriptions of wet, wind-tossed Thisby as well as exciting equine action, Stiefvater has created a thrilling backdrop for the love story that blooms between Sean and Puck. And in the water horses, based on mostly Celtic legends, she's created scary yet compelling forces of nature.” – Booklist (Sept., 2011).

Odyssey Honor Winner, 2012.
School Library Journal Best Books of the Year, 2011 Winner
Publisher’s Weekly Best Children’s Books, 2011 Winner
American Library Association Notable Books for Children, 2011 Winner

Personal Response:
I was fortunate to read the novel and have time to listen to the audiobook on a driving trip, and both experiences engaged the senses and maintained interest in the story being told.  I was fascinated by the water horse legend, intrigued by the way the characters lived and loved on the island, and fully engaged in the mounting tension as the Scorpio Race approached.  I am thrilled that the book was optioned to be made into a movie, as the setting, the characters and the action would make an excellent film.

This book, in print or audio version, can be used by a librarian in reader’s advisory for those teens who love survival stories, horses, myths, and strong female characters.  In a classroom setting, the novel could be used in a unit on myths from the British Isles, or magical creatures in literature, with such novels as The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, by Patricia McKillip or The Prydain Chronicles by Alexander Lloyd.

Books in Print. n.d. The Scorpio Races.|34883363|34112688&mc=USA#( accessed November 19, 2013).
Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database. n.d. The Scorpio Races. (accessed November 19, 2013).
Spangenberg, Lisa n.d. Celtic Studies Resources. (accessed November 19, 2013).
Stiefvater, Maggie. n.d. The Scorpio Races Soundtrack. (accessed November 19, 2013).


Woodson, Jacqueline. 2007. Feathers. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons

In the winter of 1971, a new student enters Frannie’s 6th grade class and causes far-reaching repercussions to her life and those of the other students in the class.  Issues of race, prejudice, bullying, family relationships, friends and dealing with disabilities are explored in this slim, but powerful, novel by award winning author Jacqueline Woodson.

Critical Analysis:
The novel, Feathers, lies in the midst of two genres – realistic fiction and historical fiction - as it takes place in the 1970’s, but the issues explored feel very contemporary.  The setting of the story is in a suburb of New York, where a highway divides the wealthier white families from the poorer black families in the community.  The protagonist, Frannie Barnes, who is African American, lives in an apartment with her parents, and her deaf older brother, Sean, with whom she has a close relationship.  They have a loving home, though it is marred by grief over her mother’s past miscarriages and Sean’s difficulty in dealing with “normal” people in the neighborhood who see his disability as a more of a defect than it actually is.  Fanny always says that Sean just speaks a different language (sign language); other than that, he is just as normal as everyone else.  Coming to understand the multi-faceted definition of “normal” is a theme in the book.

The author uses colloquial language in the book to indicate that the characters are African American, such as “jive talking,” “brother-man,” and “right-on,” that also reflect the time period, as well, with references to afros, hair pics and cornrows.  There is a good balance of dialogue and narration, which gives the reader time to reflect on the themes being revealed throughout the book. 

The plot of the book is more reflective than action driven.  Frannie’s teacher reads the class the poem by Emily Dickenson about hope:  “Hope is the thing with feathers/that perches in the soul/and sings the tune without the words/ and never stops at all.” Frannie spends  a lot of time thinking about hope and belief, and this becomes another major theme in the book.

 A white boy starts to attend the all-black school, and is nick-named “Jesus-Boy” because of his appearance - long light-colored hair and white skin.  He is quiet and contemplative, and sticks to himself, though he becomes the target of bullying behavior from the class bully, a mixed race boy named Trevor.  No on realizes that Jesus-Boy has been adopted by black parents and that he was not welcome on the white side of the highway either.  Frannie’s best friend, Samantha, who is very religious, comes to see the possibility that Jesus-Boy is actually the real Jesus returned to earth, though Frannie doesn’t really believe it.  Samantha says, though, “if there was a world for Jesus to need to walk back into, wouldn’t this one be it?”  

 Frannie struggles with staying out of, or getting involved in, the negative behavior toward Jesus-Boy; her relationship with an increasingly holy Samantha; people judging her deaf brother unfairly; and the news that a new sibling might be on the way, the loss of which could throw her mother back into the dark place she went to after the last baby was miscarried. Frannie says at one point, “some days I just want to know that we’re all gonna be all right.”

The resolution of the book flows naturally from the progression of the story, with the characters coming to better understand themselves and also to understand why the bully is behaving the way he does.  Jesus-boy says of Trevor’s behavior, “it frees him; all that stuff that makes him mad and mean and ugly leaves him when he does stuff to other people.” But there is hope, as well, when he says, “…maybe next time it’ll be a little bit less and a little bit less until it’s finally all gone.”  

The children in the class gradually come to accept the new boy by focusing, with the teacher’s help, on what they all have in common.  She also tells them that each day holds its own memory.  She tells the children that they “should always look for the moments.... [that] some of them might be perfect, filed with light and hope and laughter…moments that stay with us forever and ever. Amen.”  Frannie comes full circle at the end, in thinking about Emily Dickenson’s poem, and realizing that “each moment…is a thing with feathers.”

John Newbery Medal, Honor Book 2008

“Once again Jacqueline Woodson brings the reader convincingly into the worldview of a young person who often has to deal with very grown-up issues like death and prejudice and violence and finding your place. Fortunately, as in other Woodson stories, the protagonist has the support of loving family members as she negotiates the shoals of growing up and dealing with an often harsh world.” – Children’s Literature

“Set in 1971, Woodson's novel skillfully weaves in the music and events surrounding the rising opposition to the Vietnam War, giving this gentle, timeless story depth. She raises important questions about God, racial segregation and issues surrounding the hearing-impaired with a light and thoughtful touch.” – Publisher’s Weekly

Personal Response:
There are so many poignant lines in this slim novel that I had to start writing some of them down.  It also took me back to myself at that age, and the search for acceptance, faith and hope in the midst of the difficult adolescent years.  Frannie’s voice is a strong one, and realistic – she makes mistakes, but makes good choices, too, just like the rest of us.

This book would probably not be appropriate for a unit in a public school setting due to the significant Christian religious content, though the choice could be offered, among others, to those interested in the discussions of grief, race, prejudice, bullying and living with disabilities found in the book.  The author has created a book trailer for this book found at which could be provided to interested readers. 
Books in Print. n.d. Feathers.|16959321|13540954&mc=USA# (accessed November 23, 2013).
Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database. n.d. Feathers. (accessed November 23, 2013).

Hinds, Gareth. 1999. Beowulf. Cambridge: Candlewick Press.

Gareth Hinds undertakes a challenging endeavor in creating a graphic novel based on the story of Beowulf, using an abridged, yet still archaic, text, and many bloody battle scenes which render the protagonist into perhaps the first superhero. This tome may succeed in introducing a new generation to one of the world’s most famous heroic epic poems, first recorded around 1000 AD.

Critical Analysis:
“I am Beowulf.  Many deeds of note have I done in my life.”

In 1999, Gareth Hinds, an artist and illustrator, self-published three graphic novels containing the stories of Beowulf’s bloody battles with Grendel, Grendel’s mother and the dragon, who ultimately ended the hero’s life.  Candlewick Press published all three in one graphic novel in 2007, right in time for the 2008 Neil Gaiman movie adaptation.

The story of Beowulf begins as Denmark's King Hrothgar builds a great banquet hall that is attacked by Grendel, a monster who lived in jealous exile from men.  For 12 winters no man could enter that hall without being devoured, until Beowulf arrives from the land of the Geats, whose reputation as a fierce warrior precedes him, "to fight single-handed against this Grendel," without sword, nor shield nor coat of mail, using only his bare hands. Beowulf goes on to successfully defeat Grendel, only to have Grendel's mother seek him out for revenge.  Once again Beowulf defeats his enemy, and it is only in the last tale of his battle against a fierce dragon that Beowulf succumbs to a heroic death, though he succeeds in killing the dragon before dying.

In this graphic novel of the story of Beowulf, Hinds uses an abridged version of the original text adapted from the 1904 translation by A. J. Church, which keeps the original cadence and poetry of the archaic language, but remains highly readable.  The author/illustrator uses three distinct illustration styles for each of the stories: photo shopped pen-and-ink drawings for the first; paint on wood for the second; and black wash over black ink for the third.  The color schemes for each are subtly different as well:  black and tan for the first; red, brown and green for the second and black and white/lavender for the third.  These differences, however, do not interfere with the transition between stories, but only add interest and style to the reading experience.  The setting of the time period is clearly indicated by the style of dress of the characters, from head gear to armor to weapons.

Gareth Hind’s is an experienced martial artist, and this becomes very evident in the fight scenes between Beowulf and his various enemies.  The drawings are full of movement and action, with muscles clearly delineated and bulging, grimacing facial expressions…. and of course, flowing blood.  These illustrations are not for the faint of heart, and this book is definitely geared toward older teens and adults.  The illustrator uses full-page drawings along with various sized panels to tell the mostly wordless story as the Celtic-style text is inserted sparingly.  

The author provides interesting details in the author’s notes at the beginning of the book, describing the history of the story of Beowulf and some background on the translation. In the afterword, Hinds provides additional historical information about the peoples referred to in the text, such as the Geats and Swedes.  

 Leo Tolstoy said, “Art is not a handicraft; it is the transmission of feeling the artist has experienced.”  Gareth Hinds seems to have used his experiences in life and as an artist to transform the story of Beowulf into a visually haunting graphic depiction that remains true to the centuries old epic tale.

YALSA Best Books for Young Adults, 2008; American Library Association
YALSA Great Graphic Novels for Teens, 2008; American Library Association

“Menacing, moody, and faithful to the eighth-century epic, Hinds's rendering draws on a translation evoking Old English verse”. – School Library Journal

“The book makes a gorgeous whole, though; the long, wordless battles reproduced on glossy, high-quality paper are particularly noteworthy.” – Booklist

“Hinds's angular perspectives and unusual color palettes (dark, ruddy colors, deep burgundy blood, and not a ray of sunshine in sight) lend the book an almost overwhelming sense of menace.” – Publisher’s Weekly

Personal Response:
Though I was tempted to review a Lunchlady or Babymouse graphic novel for this unit, I am glad I took the time and patience to read and review Gareth Hinds’ imaginative and unique take on the epic poem, Beowulf.  This book puts the “graphic” in graphic novel with its depiction of the bloody battles between Grendel and Beowulf, and is not recommended for the younger set.  But it serves a great purpose in possibly introducing a new generation to an old, old story that has a firm place in English literary history.

For students who tremble at the idea of reading the original epic poem, Beowulf, in a high school (or even a college freshman) English class, this graphic novel would be a great introduction that could help the reader better understand the story before diving in.  In a unit on the epic poem, having students practice writing normal or colloquial sentences in archaic English would also be a fun activity to lighten the load of studying this difficult piece of literature.  Reward the class upon completion of the unit by showing the 2008 Beowulf movie.

Books in Print. n.d. Beowulf by Gareth Hinds.|17031143|13650306&mc=USA (accessed November 25, 2013).
Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database. n.d.  Beowulf,  by Gareth Hinds. (accessed November 25, 2013).
Hinds, Gareth. N.d. (accessed December 2, 2013). n.d. Art Quotes. (accessed December 2, 2013).