Flora Segunda by Ysabeau S. Wilce: A-

floraFrom the back cover:
Flora Fyrdraaca knows taking shortcuts in Crackpot Hall can be risky. After all, when a House has eleven thousand decaying rooms that shift about at random, there’s no telling where a person might end up. But it’s not just household confusion that vexes Flora, what with Mamma always away being Commanding General of the Army, Poppy drowning his sorrows in drink, and Crackpot Hall too broken down to magically provide the clean towels and hot waffles that are a Fyrdraaca’s birthright.

Yet Flora is nothing if not a Girl of Spirit. So when she takes a forbidden shortcut and stumbles upon her family’s biggest secret—Valefor, the banished Butler—she and her best friend plunge happily into the grand adventure of restoring Valefor to his rightful (or so he says) position. If only Flora knew that meddling with a magical being can go terribly awry—and that soon she will have to find a way to restore herself before it is too late.

This is the story of Flora Fyrdraaca, referred to by some as Flora Segunda because she is the second Flora to have been born to her parents. She is on the verge of turning fourteen, an age at which Fyrdraaca family members go off to the Barracks to embark upon their careers as soldiers. Flora does not want to be a soldier, though; her ambition is to become a ranger like her heroine, Nini Mo, and use magic, stealth, and cunning while having exciting adventures. Flora’s mother, a high-ranking general, disapproves of magic, so Flora cannot express this preference, and the Ranger Corps has been disbanded anyway, so she contents herself with devouring every bit of information she can find on Nini Mo.

The Fyrdraaca family occupies an enormous house known as Crackpot Hall. At one time, there was a magical butler, but in his absence (banished by Flora’s mother), things have fallen into disrepair: rooms shift about at random, the elevator is unreliable, and most of the house is uninhabitable. One morning, while late for school and darting back inside to retrieve an overdue library book on Nini Mo, Flora decides to use the forbidden magical elevator and ends up in a new part of the house where she encounters the abrogated butler, Valefor. Tempted by the prospect of shifting the burden of her many chores upon him, she agrees to feed him a little of her Will (the power behind magic) to help get his strength back. This starts her on the path of various adventures, culminating in the useful lesson, “No one can take you from yourself unless you allow them to.”

There are many things to like about Flora Segunda. I particularly appreciate the lessons that Flora has learned from her adulation of Nini Mo—sprinkled liberally throughout the book as Flora calls them to mind during difficult situations—since they emphasize things like “being strong, fast, and clever is more important than looks.” Traditional gender roles are also dispensed with. It’s an absolute given that women can become soldiers—two powerful generals referenced within the story are female—and there’s a male character (awesomely described as “a glass-gazing font of frivolity”) who’s into fashion, eyeliner, and crinoline, which doesn’t seem to be a problem with anyone, either. The setting is unique, as it’s seemingly an alternate universe sort of 19th century California (dubbed Califa) that’s made peace with an invading Aztec-like culture, and the magical system is original and intriguingly complex.

Above all these things, however, is my deep and abiding love for Flora’s father, Hotspur. He had been a bright-eyed and magnificent soldier in his day, but when we meet him, he’s a broken, half-mad drunk with hollow eyes who spends most of his time holed up in a remote spot of Crackpot Hall, grieving over tragic losses sustained during the war. (I’ve just noticed that description sounds very like Sirius Black.) He sobers up a little bit along the way, offering unexpected help a couple of times, and there are some terrific moments with and revelations concerning him near the end of the book that had me teary and desperate to know more about his history and his future.

On the negative side, the plotting, while on the whole pretty tidy, feels a bit haphazard at times. Flora misjudges people time and again, leading to lots of running about hither and thither to try to solve problems created by her previous actions. I also don’t really feel I have a good grasp on Califa’s culture, though I grant that more detail probably would’ve been unnecessary and a detriment to the story’s momentum. Lastly, although I admire Flora’s amusingly snarky turns of phrase and the fact that I had to look up more unfamiliar words for this, a children’s book, than I have in quite a while, Wilce has this annoying habit of using the same word multiple times within the span of a few pages. With common words, this is no problem, but when the word is “scarpered” or “sangyn,” it’s much more obvious.

Like its sometimes foolish, sometimes courageous namesake, Flora Segunda isn’t perfect. However, its merits, originality, and knack for leaving me wanting more spur me to cry, “Bravo!”

Additional reviews of Flora Segunda can be found at Triple Take.

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum: B-

From the book jacket:
Every child knows about Santa Claus, the jolly man who brings gifts to all on Christmas Eve. There are many stories that tell of his life, but the delightful version related in The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is by far the most charming and original. Only L. Frank Baum, the man who created the wonderful land of Oz, could have told Santa’s tale in such rich, imaginative detail.

Deep in the Forest of Burzee, a wood-nymph discovers an abandoned baby and raises him as her child. Young Claus is taught by the wise mythological creatures of the Forest, who love him as one of their own. Though he lives among magical beings, he comes to cherish his fellow humans, especially the children. When Santa Claus whittles his first toy, he knows he has found the way to bring happiness and love to children all over the world.

In The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, L. Frank Baum sets out to provide a complete story of Claus’s origins, from his idyllic childhood spent raised by immortal creatures in a secluded forest until the time when his life of good deeds earns him the precious Mantle of Immortality.

The story, as told, differs from the accepted legends about Santa Claus. For example, Claus (as he is called in the novel) does not live in the North Pole along with Mrs. Claus and a merry band of elves who toil cheerfully to craft toys for all the good little boys and girls of the world. Instead, he lives alone in a place called the Laughing Valley, with four immortal creatures who became his helpers only after the population boomed so much that he could no longer handle the task alone. This Claus also makes no distinctions between naughty and nice children, conceding that even naughty children can be good, and vice versa.

Throughout the story, explanations for various traditional Christmas beliefs and customs are provided, like stockings and Christmas trees and how Claus first came to employ a team of reindeer on his yearly errand (though none bears any familiar name). Baum also works in a rationalization for the involvement of parents, saying they’re Claus’s deputies, and that Claus even sends heaps of toys to stores so that the parents can acquire them for their kids. I wonder if parents point their kids to this book to explain why Santa left a tell-tale price tag on their present.

The edition that I read was published in 2003 and is illustrated by Michael Hague. While many are nice to look upon, I found them rather confusing at times. For instance, the size of the “newborn” Claus changes radically amongst illustrations; in one he looks at least two and very tubby indeed. Also, the immortal creatures from the story appear liberally, but I’m never sure which is supposed to be which, since the images don’t always illustrate a particular, recognizable scene.

There are also a couple of inconsistencies in the story that bother me. In the beginning of the book, there is a line that reads “All the immortals are full-grown; there are no children among them.” This was used to explain why they felt such fascination when Claus was brought into the forest and allowed to be raised in their midst. Yet later, when Claus is outfitting his sledge, he reaches an agreement with the Gnome King (clearly shown as immortal by his presence at the council which grants Claus his immortality) to trade him toys FOR HIS CHILDREN in exchange for sleigh bells.

The second inconsistency involves Claus’s decision to leave the forest and live among mankind. Until his youth, he had known nothing of the existence of other members of his race, and after finally witnessing their suffering, he resolved to quit the forest. The book says that “he went forth bravely to meet his doom—the doom of the race of man—the necessity to worry and work.” Except that he doesn’t. Once he gets to the Laughing Valley, immortals pop up and build his house, promise to keep his cupboards stocked, and essentially take care of his every need.

Despite some grumblings I might have about certain particulars, I found the story to be decently entertaining, especially some turns of phrase. There’s one scene where a lioness called Shiegra is waiting in Claus’s house when he returns from an outing, while his pet cat cowers in the corner. Baum simply writes, “She did not care to associate with Shiegra.” I love that line, as it perfectly evokes a cat’s offended dignity.

I don’t know that I’d care to read this again, or any other Santa origin tales for that matter, but I think The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus would probably be fun to read aloud to a kid, particularly one who was open to embracing differences from the established legend.

Additional reviews of The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus can be found at Triple Take.

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo: A

Book description:
Welcome to the story of Despereaux Tilling, a mouse who is in love with music, stories, and a princess named Pea. It is also the story of a rat called Roscuro, who lives in the darkness and covets a world filled with light. And it is the story of Miggery Sow, a slow-witted serving girl who harbors a simple, impossible wish. These three characters are about to embark on a journey that will lead them down into a horrible dungeon, up into a glittering castle, and, ultimately, into each other’s lives. And what happens then? As Kate DiCamillo would say: Reader, it is your destiny to find out.

What a lovely book. This is the best children’s book I’ve read since Holes, with which it shares a similar structure—several characters are introduced independently but their stories end up coalescing in a satisfying way.

What I really love about it is that it deals with darker subjects than are traditionally mentioned in literature for children. One character’s broken heart leads him to plot revenge, one is the victim of abuse, one is ostracized for being different, and one is wracked with grief, leading to this quote:

No matter how powerful you are, no matter how many kingdoms you rule, you cannot stop those you love from dying.

Pretty heavy stuff! I think it’s wonderful that DiCamillo does not underestimate her audience’s ability to understand this, or other concepts put forward, like how forgiving someone tends to heal one’s own heart, or what it means to be empathetic to another’s concerns.

The illustrations are also excellent; I particularly like how Miggery Sow is drawn for some reason, even though she’s not attractive. I think it’s because it somehow manages to make her look sympathetic even with all of her flaws.

The Tale of Despereaux is fully deserving of its Newbery Medal. I’ll be reading more by this author.

Anne of the Island by L. M. Montgomery: A-

From the back cover:
New adventures lie ahead as Anne Shirley packs her bags, waves good-bye to childhood, and heads for Redmond College. With old friend Prissy Grant waiting in the bustling city of Kingsport and frivolous new pal Philippa Gordon at her side, Anne tucks her memories of rural Avonlea away and discovers life on her own terms, filled with surprises… including a marriage proposal from the worst fellow imaginable, the sale of her very first story, and a tragedy that teaches her a painful lesson.

But tears turn to laughter when Anne and her friends move into an old cottage and an ornery black cat steals her heart. Little does Anne know that handsome Gilbert Blythe wants to win her heart, too. Suddenly Anne must decide if she’s ready for love…

There were so many things to like about Anne of the Island that they almost allow me to forget the things I wasn’t wild about.

As usual, I loved anything that pertained to Anne and Gilbert. Some of Montgomery’s best writing yet was in the scenes between them, I thought, as well as the scene where Anne refuses Gilbert’s only serious rival for her affections. I also liked how, through various encounters with suitors and the true hearts of even gallant-looking men, Anne was stripped of many of her unrealistic romantic illusions. Lastly, I appreciated the wistful lamentations on the necessity of change.

The things I didn’t like may seem trivial by comparison, but they were irksome enough before the Anne and Gilbert bits overshadowed them in my memory. I would’ve liked more detail on Anne’s school life. There was occasional information about the subjects she was taking or exams she was studying for, but no scenes at all of her in class. It seemed there was actually more detail on Davy’s exploits than on her education.

And speaking of Davy, how I dreaded his appearances! I knew that he’d get up to something, be overcome with guilt, and then learn a valuable lesson. Every time. I was also beyond tired of his constantly saying, “I want to know.”

Finally, I disliked the bit where Anne and her roommates attempted to euthanize a cat simply for hanging around their house. Thankfully, the chapter was constructed in such a way that his survival was already known before the act was described. And then, a few chapters later, some dude is hanging a dog! What’s up with all the pet killing?! Also, a male cat is described as calico, which would make him an extremely rare genetic anomaly. It isn’t impossible, but I rather think Montgomery just didn’t know that tricolor cats are almost exclusively female.

Incorrect Item from Pantry Tally:
1. currant wine instead of raspberry cordial
2. linament instead of vanilla
3. red dye instead of freckle lotion
4. white pepper instead of ginger

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg: B

From the back cover:
Twelve-year-old Claudia Kincaid is restless. She wants to do something different, leaving her comfortable suburban life in Connecticut behind for awhile. And she wants to be gone just long enough to teach her parents to appreciate her. But as Claudia plans to run away, not just any place will do. She wants to live in style—in a place with a bit of luxury and some good company. Claudia settles on New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. She invites her younger brother Jamie to come along too, not for companionship, but mostly because he is a miser and has saved up some money.

Unfortunately, the live-in at the museum isn’t all Claudia had hoped. She doesn’t feel any different than before. And soon she finds herself in the middle of an interesting museum mystery. Claudia sees a statue so beautiful that she cannot head back to Connecticut until she discovers its maker. The first clue is the statue’s former owner, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, an unusual old woman who helps Claudia finally find her way home.

Children’s fiction is pretty hit or miss with me, it seems. Sometimes I love it to pieces, and other times I think I’m too old to really get it. I’m sure it would be fun for a 10-year-old to read about running away or having a secret, and they’d probably identify with all the sibling squabbles and stuff, but a stodgy grown-up like me can’t really get excited about any of it.

It was cute, and the idea that Claudia’s compulsion to run away (with every intention of returning) was all about the search for herself was kind of a subtle one. It’s not like she learned some “valuable lesson” about tolerance or something. It was rather old-fashioned, as one might expect from something penned in the ’60s, and on a few occasions, I’d swear the siblings’ dialogue wouldn’t have been out of place in some sitcom from that era.

I did really enjoy the illustrations done by the author. Claudia and Jamie were modelled after her own children and the drawings add further charm to the story—I particularly like the one where they’re looking rather bored while researching in a library.

I just wish I’d read it when I were younger.

Anne of Avonlea by L. M. Montgomery: B+

From the back cover:
At sixteen Anne is grown up… almost. Her gray eyes shine like evening stars, but her red hair is still as peppery as her temper. In the years since she arrived at Green Gables as a freckle-faced orphan, she has earned the love of the people of Avonlea and a reputation for getting into scrapes. But when Anne begins her job as the new schoolteacher, the real test of her character begins.

Along with teaching the three Rs, she is learning how complicated life can be when she meddles in someone else’s romance, finds two new orphans at Green Gables, and wonders about the strange behavior of the very handsome Gilbert Blythe. As Anne enters womanhood, her adventures touch the heart and the funny bone.

There were some things that irritated me about Anne of Avonlea, even though it’s similar to its predecessor in pacing and story. Chiefly, I missed the adult perspective I enjoyed so much in the earlier work. There weren’t many segments at all from Marilla’s point of view this time around and without that fond yet practical outlook, Anne and her dreamy ramblings sometimes got on my nerves. I also found irritating two little boys, one mischievous and one fanciful, that it seemed I was supposed to find precious.

I did, however, like any scene where Anne and Gilbert were together or any where a potential relationship between them was discussed. The entire final quarter of the book—featuring a storm, a death, a wedding, and several departures—was also very good. Marilla made me all sniffly again, too, by arranging for it to be possible for Anne to go to college after all, an aspiration she had set aside in order to stay with Marilla, whose eyesight was failing. The college setting should put Anne and Gilbert together more often, and I’m looking forward to that.

As a final note, I’m going to start a tally of how many times Anne gets into a scrape as the result of grabbing the incorrect item from a pantry. So far, from the first two books, I have:
1. currant wine instead of raspberry cordial
2. linament instead of vanilla
3. red dye instead of freckle lotion.

Feel free to alert me in comments if I’ve missed any.

Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery: A+

From the back cover:
The Cuthberts of Green Gables had decided to adopt an orphan—a nice sturdy boy to help Matthew with the farm chores. The orphanage sent a girl instead—a mischievous, talkative redhead who’d be no use at all. She would just have to go back.

But the longer Anne was there, the more no one could imagine Green Gables without her.

It’s really a wonderful thing when one can revisit a childhood favorite, unread for twenty years, and find that one loves it just as much as ever. It’s better still to find new things about it to love that went unnoticed by one’s younger self.

The things I’d remembered about this book were mostly Anne’s scrapes. I remembered too the characters who were important to Anne—Diana her bosom friend, Gilbert her rival, Matthew who loved her, and Marilla who was stern—but not a great deal about the adult characters beyond that. This time, I really noticed them, and was surprised to find how much I liked them in their own right, particularly Marilla.

I only recalled that Marilla came to love Anne eventually, but this time I could see how quickly it actually happened. I had no memory of noticing the frequent headaches she’d get, or how she reacted in desperate terror when an unconscious Anne was brought to Green Gables after a fall. Near the end of the book, when Marilla finally came out and told Anne she’d loved her all this time, I cried like a great big sap. I also began to see Anne more from the Cuthberts’ perspective, vulnerable and neglected at first and then later a source of tremendous pride.

I could pick out a few trifling matters to criticize, but my joy at rediscovering this book is so great that I don’t feel inclined to do so. I never did finish the series as a kid—I think I lost interest as Anne moved into adulthood—but am determined to rectify the matter.

There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom by Louis Sachar: B+

From the back cover:
“Nothing ever hurts me,” he told her. “I’ve broken every table in the house,” he declared. “The chairs, too. Call my mother if you don’t believe me.”

“I believe you,” said Carla. “Why shouldn’t I?”

“You should.”

She did, too. For the rest of the meeting, no matter what he told her, she believed him. When he told her that his parents only fed him dog food, she asked him how it tasted.

And so went the first meeting between Bradley Chalkers, the terror of Red Hill School, and Carla, the school’s new counselor. Bradley’s reputation was well-earned. He started fights with girls, told scores of lies, and sat on the birthday cake at the last party he’d been invited to. But Carla is not like anyone he’s ever met before. Slowly, she helps him see the way to make friends with the other kids and with himself.

I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book with a more irritating protagonist. Thankfully, it doesn’t take too long for sessions with the school counselor to have a positive impact on Bradley’s behavior, and he becomes far more tolerable, even endearing.

This book was recommended by Connie as having similarities to Small Steps, and I see what she meant. Both main characters have their well-meaning actions misinterpreted by others, though in different circumstances. Where Theodore is a nice guy who inadvertently engenders fear because he’s also a big black guy, Bradley is trying to change his image after having been positively insufferable for what seems to’ve been several years, at least.

What I like about Sachar’s writing is that he doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence by over-explaining things. Here’s one example: In the beginning, Bradley boasts about how easy it is to beat up a girl, claiming you only have to hit them once, then they’ll run home crying. So, what happens when Bradley picks a fight with a girl? She hits him once, and he runs home crying. Sachar never explicitly points this out, but trusts his audience to understand.

Overall, though the book had some frustrating moments, it was cute and funny, and I’d definitely recommend it for any clever kids one happens to know.

Small Steps by Louis Sachar: B

From the back cover:
Two years after being released from Camp Green Lake, Armpit is home in Austin, Texas, trying to turn his life around. But it’s hard when you have a record and everyone expects the worst from you. The only person who believes in Armpit is Ginny, his ten-year-old disabled neighbor. Together they’re learning to take small steps.

Armpit seems to be on the right path until X-Ray, a buddy from Camp Green Lake, comes up with a get-rich-quick scheme. X-Ray’s moneymaking plan leads Armpit to a chance encounter with teen pop sensation Kaira DeLeon, and suddenly Armpit’s life spins out of control. Only one thing is certain; he’ll never be the same.

In his first major novel since Holes, critically acclaimed novelist Louis Sachar combines his signature wit with a unique blend of adventure and profoundly real characters to explore issues of race, the nature of celebrity, the invisible connections that shape a person’s life, and what it takes to stay on course. Doing the right thing is never a wrong choice—but always a small step in the right direction.

Small Steps wasn’t bad, but it’s no Holes, that’s for sure. The latter boasted multi-layered plot threads from different time periods converging together in a clever manner, and a subtle criticism of racism. Small Steps had a straightforward narrative and could be rather heavy-handed in its message.

Theodore (I feel bad calling him Armpit since he hates it so much) was a sympathetic lead character, and I liked him a lot, though he frustrated me by letting X-Ray (who seriously needed to be smacked) and other people walk all over him. Though, I guess when one is a big black dude whose motives are constantly being misinterpreted, maybe one does tend to go into doormat mode to avoid trouble.

The basic story was enjoyable (though parts of the ending were too convenient) but not really anything amazing. I was pleased with Theodore’s idea about a possible career, however. It really suited him. I worried Sachar would have him aspire to be a rapper or something after his brush with the entertainment world. On a random note, in my head, Kaira DeLeon is played by Dana Davis.

I did like Small Steps, but it’s just not as special as its predecessor. If Sachar were to write more books about the others who’d been at Camp Green Lake, I’d probably read them.

Holes by Louis Sachar: A

From the back cover:
Stanley Yelnats isn’t so surprised when a miscarriage of justice sends him to a juvenile detention center. After all, his family has been plagued with bad luck ever since a one-legged gypsy put a curse on his great-great grandfather. He is told that the hard labor he must perform—digging 5 foot holes in the dried up soil where Green Lake once sat—is meant to build character. But it soon becomes clear to Stanley that the warden is really using the boys to search for something very valuable. The story of the hidden treasure, along with the warden, Stanley’s friend Zero, and the curse on the Yelnats family are all part of a compelling puzzle that has taken generations to unravel.

Harry Potter aside, this was the best children’s fiction I’d read in a long time. I really didn’t know what to expect going into it, but reckoned some sort of adventure would ensue. And ensue it does, but there’s also a multi-layered, cleverly-plotted story that manages to be both touching and surprising. Plus, Sachar manages to condemn racism without being preachy about it.

The fact that the story wasn’t predictable was a big plus. I was actually genuinely surprised on several occasions, and also had a few “ohhhhh” moments when things were explained after the fact (like why some carnivorous lizards didn’t seem to find Stanley and Zero too appetizing). And though one kind of does expect Stanley to break the family curse, the way that he manages to do it makes such perfect narrative sense that it doesn’t seem lame.

There’s a sequel to Holes that focuses on another of the boys from the camp. I find that I am relieved that it leaves Stanley and Zero’s story alone, since it ended in such a satisfactory place that to return there could only muck things up.