Review: Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver

Title: Liesl & Po

Author: Lauren Oliver

Publishing Information: October 4, 2011 by HarperCollins

Genre: Middle Grade, Paranormal, Magic

Series information: Standalone

Format: Hardcover, 313 pages

Source: Borrowed from my local library

Recommended For: Readers looking for a sweet novel about friendship

Liesl lives in a tiny attic bedroom, locked away by her cruel stepmother. Her only friends are the shadows and the mice—until one night a ghost appears from the darkness. It is Po, who comes from the Other Side. Both Liesl and Po are lonely, but together they are less alone.

That same night, an alchemist’s apprentice, Will, bungles an important delivery. He accidentally switches a box containing the most powerful magic in the world with one containing something decidedly less remarkable.

Will’s mistake has tremendous consequences for Liesl and Po, and it draws the three of them together on an extraordinary journey.

Liesl has been locked in the attic by her evil stepmother for 13 months, this was bearable until Liesl’s father died without her getting to say goodbye to him. Now the life that Liesl tolerated has been turned upside down. She doesn’t take pleasure in drawing anymore and is simply “existing” instead of “living.” One night a ghost named Po and its pet named Bundle visit Liesl. These two are not what you would think when you hear the word “ghost,” Po is neither a girl nor a boy and Bundle is neither a cat nor a dog, they simple are. Liesl forms a friendship with these two and they assist her in escaping from her stepmother’s clutches, stealing her father’s ashes and taking off to a town far away so that she can bring her father “home.” As Liesl is living this adventure there is a young boy named Will, the apprentice to an alchemist who has just created the “most powerful magic in the world.” Will has a mission to deliver this magic to someone very important but he misplaces it and there is much confusion that follows. His adventure becomes entwined with Liesl’s adventure and many other characters are thrown into the mix.

Liesl & Po was an absolutely lovely story. Lauren Oliver really has a way with words and I found myself reading parts of the story out loud to people around me because some of the lines from the novel were very thought invoking and all together beautifully written. This story centers around death, neglect and forms of abuse yet the way in which it was written really focused on the hope, love and joy of the characters presented. Some of my favorite parts are the interactions between Liesl and Po. For example, after Po comes back to Liesl with information on her father Liesl is very agitated at Po’s lack of enthusiasm, which he brushes off as him being tired…

“I’m very sorry to hear you are tired,” she said stiffly, her inside voice screaming: Tell me what you know about my dad! Tell me or I’ll kill you again! I’ll make you a double ghost!

“What does that mean? What does it mean to say you’re sorry?”

Liesl groped for words to describe it. “It means – it means what it means. It means that I feel bad. It means that I wish I could make you untired.”

Po flipped upside down and righted itself, still obviously confused. “But why should you wish anything for me?”

“It’s an expression,” Liesl said. Then she thought hard for a minute. “People need other people to feel things for them,” she said. “It gets lonely to feel things all by yourself.”

Oliver hit it right on the nose at that moment for me; misery loves company and so forth. There were many moments like this in the story, the book was well written and it provided a nice backdrop to the middle grade novel with characters so young. It is also important to note that the author wrote this novel after losing someone very close to her and she explains how the story helped her to heal. I have lost someone close to me as well and I have to say that this story shed a new whimsical light on something that cuts deep.

Though there were illustrations that made the physical book very appealing, the audio book is read by Jim Dale and from what I have heard he gives a magnificent performance. This book comes highly recommended it’s a sweet story and overall made me ineffably happy.

Review: Down the Mysterly River by Bill Willingham

Title: Down the Mysterly River 

Author: Bill Willingham

Publishing Information: September 13th 2011 by Starscape

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy, Adventure

Series information: Standalone

Format: Hardcover, 333 pages

Source: Borrowed from my local library

Recommended For: Fans of Bill Willingham, tales of adventure and anyone appreciative of a good coming of age tale.

Max “the Wolf” is a top notch Boy Scout, an expert at orienteering and a master of being prepared. So it is a little odd that he suddenly finds himself, with no recollection of his immediate past, lost in an unfamiliar wood. Even odder still, he encounters a badger named Banderbrock, a black bear named Walden, and McTavish the Monster (who might also be an old barn cat)—all of whom talk—and who are as clueless as Max.

Before long, Max and his friends are on the run from a relentless group of hunters and their deadly hounds. Armed with powerful blue swords and known as the Blue Cutters, these hunters capture and change the very essence of their prey. For what purpose, Max can’t guess. But unless he can solve the mystery of the strange forested world he’s landed in, Max may find himself and his friends changed beyond recognition, lost in a lost world…

I am a huge Bill Willingham fan and I LOVE his Fables series so I was quick to snatch this up as soon as I realized it existed. This book is not set in the Fables land but it has a fun fairy-tale essence that many readers will appreciate.

Max “the Wolf” finds himself walking alone in the middle of a forest with no memory of what has befallen him. He is wearing his scout uniform so he assumes that he has been separated from his group and is merely lost in the woods in a familiar place. Soon after he comes across a few talking animals, Banderbrock, who is a warrior and a badger, McTavish the Monster, a barn cat with a serious attitude problem, and Walden a sweet sheriff who just also happens to be a bear. These animals have also lost their way and have no memory of how they came to be in the wood. The group is attacked by a group of men with blue swords and soon find that these men are an evil enemy. They are called Cutters and their job is to find new arrivals to the land and cut them into completely different beings, they remake them into creatures that have no memory of their prior life with completely new personalities quite different from the ones they started with. This group needs to stay close together if they have any chance of getting past the Cutters and getting to a place of safety.

This story was wonderful; right up to the last 25-30 pages I really loved it. Then the story changes completely and becomes something I really didn’t enjoy. I felt let down, and a little sad at how they tied things up. However, I did enjoy the way in which they set it up for a sequel to follow because I really want the characters to get back some things they lost and move forward to their next adventure – I can’t explain here or I would give away too many spoilers!

I have to say that I LOVED McTavish, he was a rogue and spoke right to my heart. I also found the difference in narrative very refreshing, I am so used to strong female characters and paranormal romances that the young male point of view was a nice breather. The novel was both an adventure and a fairy tale but most of all, this was a wonderful coming of age story that focused on unlikely friendships, courage and overcoming your fears to defeat the enemy.

I recommend this book to fans of Bill Willingham, tales of adventure and anyone appreciative of a good coming of age tale. This book was first published in 2001 and it has been re-released with illustrations from Fables artist Mark Buckingham!!

Review: Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

BreadcrumbsTitle: Breadcrumbs

Author: Anne Ursu

Publishing Information:  September 27th 2011 by Walden Pond Press

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy, Adventure

Series information: Standalone

Format: Hardcover, 312 pages

Source: Borrowed from my local library

Recommended For: Readers of all ages, as it will reach out to each reader in different and inspiring ways.

Once upon a time, Hazel and Jack were best friends. They had been best friends since they were six, spending hot Minneapolis summers and cold Minneapolis winters together, dreaming of Hogwarts and Oz, superheroes and baseball. Now that they were eleven, it was weird for a boy and a girl to be best friends. But they couldn’t help it – Hazel and Jack fit, in that way you only read about in books. And they didn’t fit anywhere else.

And then, one day, it was over. Jack just stopped talking to Hazel. And while her mom tried to tell her that this sometimes happens to boys and girls at this age, Hazel had read enough stories to know that it’s never that simple. And it turns out, she was right. Jack’s heart had been frozen, and he was taken into the woods by a woman dressed in white to live in a palace made of ice. Now, it’s up to Hazel to venture into the woods after him. Hazel finds, however, that these woods are nothing like what she’s read about, and the Jack that Hazel went in to save isn’t the same Jack that will emerge. Or even the same Hazel.

Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” Breadcrumbs is a story of the struggle to hold on, and the things we leave behind.

Hazel and Jack did nearly everything together, they went together like two peas in a pod and Hazel thought that nothing could ever separate them. Then, Jack changes. After getting something in his eye he begins acting like a different person, he tells Hazel he doesn’t want to play her baby games and completely abandons her and the plans they had together. Hazel can’t understand why Jack is acting this way but everyone around her tells her that it is “normal” and just something that happens when you “grow up”. Soon after Jack’s change, he goes missing. When Hazel asks Jack’s mother where he has gone she explains that he left to help his elderly aunt Bernice. Hazel has never heard of an Aunt Bernice and as his best friend she believes this is information she ought to have known. Another of Jack’s friends finds Hazel and tells her that he saw Jack go into the woods with a tall, thin woman, dressed all in white. Hazel feels that something is terribly wrong with her best friend so she goes into the woods after Jack with a just a compass and her heart to guide her.

As Hazel ventures through the forest she comes upon different characters from numerous fables such as the little matchgirl and the Snow Queen. She also meets a woman who can turn into a swan and a couple who collects little girls to keep in their garden. Hazel moves forward through struggles that seem endless and never gives up hope that she will find Jack and bring him home. Finally, after many mishaps, Hazel finds Jack and makes a deal with the Snow Queen to get him back.

One of the best parts about this story was the fact that fantasy and reality were so intertwined. When Jack stops talking to Hazel it really is possible that it is due to the fact that he has just outgrown their friendship. I couldn’t help but think of the ending of The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy wakes up to find that her entire adventure was really a dream. That is how beautiful this book was; the lines were so blurred that it could be taken as real or imaginary. Additionally, the venture through the forest really helped Hazel discover who she really was, with or without Jack beside her. She felt alone in her world, as an adopted child living with her single mother and had a hard time fitting in with anyone but Jack. Throughout the story she questions herself constantly and finally, she becomes comfortable in her own skin and happy with who she is.

This story was brilliant and all things I had hoped it would be. The allusions to different myths and children’s fantasy provided a colorful backdrop for a notable coming of age tale. I recommend Breadcrumbs to readers of all ages, as it will reach out to each reader in different and inspiring ways. This story gives A Tale Dark and Grimm a run for its money as my favorite middle grade novel.

Review: A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz

Title: A Tale Dark and Grimm

Author: Adam Gidwitz

Publishing Information: October 28, 2010 by Dutton

Genre: Young Adult, Humor, Fantasy

Series information: Book 1 in a planned series

Format: Hardcover, 252 pages

Source: Received an ARC from the publisher via Netgalley

Recommended For: Readers wanting humorous retellings of old fables that will lighten the heart.

“Once upon a time, fairy tales were awesome.  I know, I know. You don’t believe me. I don’t blame you. A little while ago, I wouldn’t have believed it myself. Little girls in red caps skipping around the forest? Awesome? I don’t think so. But then I started to read them. The real, Grimm ones. Very few little girls in red caps in those.

The real Grimm stories are not like that. Take Hansel and Gretel, for example. Two greedy little children try to eat a witch’s house, so she decides to cook and eat them instead – which is fair, it seems to me. But before she can follow through on her (perfectly reasonable) plan, they lock her in an oven and bake her to death.

Which is pretty cool, you have to admit. But maybe it’s not awesome.

Except – and here’s the thing – that’s not the real story of Hansel and Gretel.”

This however, is the “real” story of Hansel and Gretel. It is a story about two children who run away after their father cuts off their heads to save his faithful servant, Johannes. These children have adventure after adventure, all the while searching for a parent figure who won’t try to harm (or kill) them. Their adventures start of course with the wicked witch who tries to eat them for supper after fattening them up on her house made of gingerbread. After escaping, the children find solace with a couple who recently traded their seven sons so that they could have the daughter (enter: Gretel) that they always wanted. After saving the seven sons and escaping these wicked parents (who had the best intentions) Hansel and Gretel begin living in a magical wood that unfortunately turns Hansel into a werewolf and leads Gretel to move to a nearby town, fall in love with an evil warlock and eventually sentence him to death by oil and snakes. While Gretel is suffering, being nearly killed by an evil warlock, Hansel is living the life in a kingdom nearby. Unfortunately, his new “father” has a gambling problem and gambles Hansel’s life away over a game of cards with Satan. That’s right, SATAN. Therefore, Hansel must use his wiles to outsmart the devil and escape Hell which turns out to be a hilarious endeavor that ends up with Hansel dressing as the “mother devil” and singing like a dead cat. Eventually, Hansel and Gretel find their way back to their home kingdom and are given the task of ridding the land of an evil dragon. This proves to be a little more than a personal problem and Hansel and Gretel are forced to come to terms with their lack of parenting yet again.

I loved this book. The narration style was hilarious with some aside statements made to both parents and children as well as to the characters in the story…

For a moment she stopped and considered following the rain’s advice. But then shook her head. “You’re being foolish,” Gretel told herself. “Rain can’t talk.”

No, of course it can’t. The moon can eat children, and fingers can open doors, and people’s heads can be put back on. But rain? Talk? Don’t be ridiculous. Good thinking, Gretel dear. Good thinking.

The narrator tells the reader how it is, even if it is not always happy and positive. In fact, the narrator often explains how bloody and terrible the situations coming are going to be and “prepares” them for what is to come. This book also reintroduces some classic fairy tales and some that are not as well known to a new generation, putting a brand new spin on the “Grimm” works.

It is no secret that I love a good fairy tale re-write, and although my first impression was that this story would be too juvenile for young adult (or adult) readers, after reading it I found it to be a refreshing change and relatable to readers of all ages.