Audiobook. I liked the narrator.

Stead wrote an excellent, complex children’s novel, When You Reach Me, which won the Newbery Award. Her follow-up, Liar & Spy, is similarly structured, with a lot of seemingly disconnected subplots which fit together into a thematically consistent whole with all mysteries solved.

Georges is a 12-year-old boy who’s having a very bad year. He’s being bullied at school, and his architect father was laid off, forcing the family to sell their beloved house and move to an apartment. His mother, a nurse, has to take so many double shifts at the hospital that Georges literally doesn’t see her for days, and is forced to communicate with her via leaving messages spelled out in Scrabble tiles.

However, he meets a boy his age, Safer, at his new apartment. Safer, who is home-schooled, has a charmingly eccentric family (his siblings are named Pigeon and Candy), and Georges finds a refuge both in Safer’s home and in getting trained as a spy. But Safer and Georges’ spy games become more and more intense, and Georges worries that Safer’s obsession with spying on a man living in the apartment may be getting out of control. (I will tell you now that this story does not involve child abuse, which I did wonder about at one point. Also, the man is not a Holocaust survivor, which also occurred to me as the most maudlin possible outcome.)

This summary, by the way, leaves out multiple subplots involving a Seurat painting, the chemistry experiment of True Love and Doom, a wild parrot nest, and an overly peppy PE teacher. There is an impressive amount of material packed into a short space, without seeming rushed or incoherent. I enjoyed this a lot – it’s funny, well-written, and clever – up to a certain point.

I didn’t think this one worked quite as well as When You Reach Me - the bulk of the story was wonderful, but I had some issues with the ending revelations and outcome. They were cleverly set up, but opened up large cans of worms in terms of characterization and plausibility.

Huge spoilers for entire book below cut. Read more... )
Midnight Never Come, by Marie Brennan.

In parallel stories which eventually mesh, a tale of parallel courts closely joined unfolds. In London, an ambitious courtier tries to uncover a mysterious influence affecting Queen Elizabeth, and in the Faerie Onyx court, a disgraced faerie courtier tries to win back her position by impersonating a human woman in the court above. This seemed very well-researched, and the politics are laid out so clearly that even I could follow them. It's interesting but a bit meandery at first, but becomes quite gripping about halfway through. There are sequels but the conclusion is satisfying and feels conclusive.

My big nitpick was that the main relationship in the story, between the human and faerie courtiers, begins as one of deception and then grows into something real. But the deceptive relationship, which lasts a year and is very intense, occurs almost entirely off-page, and so the change from fake to real loses much of the power it could have had. We also miss Lune manipulating the man she will eventually love, and watching him fall in love with her human front. Nor do we get to see much of what her human persona is like, and get to judge for ourselves how congruent it is with her real self. I would have liked a longer book that spent some time on that missing year, rather than simply skipping it.

Overall though, I enjoyed it a lot, even though faeries are a very hard sell to me nowadays.

First Light, by Rebecca Stead. Extremely readable and quirky middle-grade sf with parallel stories (again) following a boy who goes with his scientist parents to Antarctica, and a girl living in an underground world beneath the ice. Clever and compelling, but suffers a bit in comparison with Stead's own When You Reach Me, which uses some similar plot devices better, and also has better characterization. Still well worth reading.

The Cats of Seroster (Piccolo Books), by Robert Westall.

Again with the parallel stories! An old British fantasy, in which sentient cats in a medieval human kingdom embark upon a complex plot to restore the deposed king (who will treat them well) to his throne, and get rid of a usurper (who hates cats.) The story threads follow the cats from own point of view, and also the hapless traveler magically forced into the role of the legendary savior of the kingdom. Very readable, with excellent battle sequences and an unusual perspective in general, but marred by casual but persistent and creepy misogyny: rape, rape threats, the only major human female is unnamed and does nothing but have sex with the hero, etc.

The Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff.

Beautifully written historical adventure set in Roman Britain, which reminded me a bit in prose quality, atmosphere, emotional and political complexity, and characterization of A Wizard of Earthsea, though there's no magic. Roman soldier Marcus is severely wounded in a battle with the native Britons and forced into a very early retirement. When he sees a terrified young man his own age forced to fight as a gladiator, Marcus buys him as a slave. The young man turns out to be a captive British warrior, Esca. The two young men end up traveling in search of the lost legion of Marcus's father. Lots of warriorly bonding ensues, along with adventure and a complex look at the colonialism of the time.

I am a complete sucker for Noble Warrior Guys bonding and adventuring and "He was such a great fighter, I was honored to kill him," and this book is all about that. (Slash fans, don goggles now.) I loved the language, the vivid setting, and basically everything about this book. I wish there were more women, though the ones we do meet are interesting and non-stereotypical. The very beginning was a little slow and heavy on historical detail, but I was soon grabbed and thereafter didn't put the book down till I had finished it.
Sixth-grader Miranda is so obsessed with A Wrinkle in Time that she refuses to read any other book, her best friend no longer speaks to her after he got randomly punched by another boy while walking to school, her mother is preparing for a game show, and she’s getting extremely strange anonymous notes which may have been written by a time traveler. But the biggest mystery of all, and the one whose unraveling I most enjoyed, is not the source and reason for the notes, but the human mystery of who we are, who we really are, and why we all do what we do.

This 2010 Newbery Medal winner is not an awesomely depressing novel, but a playful, funny, and extremely intricate middle-grade novel reminiscent in structure and theme of Louis Sachar’s Holes.

Both novels employ a highly complex puzzle-box structure, in which every seemingly random detail turns out to be an integral part of a unified whole, both touch on serious themes (racism, classism, the difficulty of knowing oneself and others) without being preachy, and both are best read knowing as little as possible in advance.

While I did figure out the basic premise and the identity of the “you” to whom the book is addressed, just about everything else came as a surprise to me. So I won’t spoil it for you.

Has anyone read Stead's other novel, First Light? The back cover says it's about global warming, which immediately made me not want to read it. But maybe it's only about global warming the way that When You Reach Me is about stereotyping, ie, the theme is there but it's not a book-long screed on "global warming is bad."

When You Reach Me

Holes
Sixth-grader Miranda is so obsessed with A Wrinkle in Time that she refuses to read any other book, her best friend no longer speaks to her after he got randomly punched by another boy while walking to school, her mother is preparing for a game show, and she’s getting extremely strange anonymous notes which may have been written by a time traveler. But the biggest mystery of all, and the one whose unraveling I most enjoyed, is not the source and reason for the notes, but the human mystery of who we are, who we really are, and why we all do what we do.

This 2010 Newbery Medal winner is not an awesomely depressing novel, but a playful, funny, and extremely intricate middle-grade novel reminiscent in structure and theme of Louis Sachar’s Holes.

Both novels employ a highly complex puzzle-box structure, in which every seemingly random detail turns out to be an integral part of a unified whole, both touch on serious themes (racism, classism, the difficulty of knowing oneself and others) without being preachy, and both are best read knowing as little as possible in advance.

While I did figure out the basic premise and the identity of the “you” to whom the book is addressed, just about everything else came as a surprise to me. So I won’t spoil it for you.

Has anyone read Stead's other novel, First Light? The back cover says it's about global warming, which immediately made me not want to read it. But maybe it's only about global warming the way that When You Reach Me is about stereotyping, ie, the theme is there but it's not a book-long screed on "global warming is bad."

When You Reach Me

Holes
Sixth-grader Miranda is so obsessed with A Wrinkle in Time that she refuses to read any other book, her best friend no longer speaks to her after he got randomly punched by another boy while walking to school, her mother is preparing for a game show, and she’s getting extremely strange anonymous notes which may have been written by a time traveler. But the biggest mystery of all, and the one whose unraveling I most enjoyed, is not the source and reason for the notes, but the human mystery of who we are, who we really are, and why we all do what we do.

This 2010 Newbery Medal winner is not an awesomely depressing novel, but a playful, funny, and extremely intricate middle-grade novel reminiscent in structure and theme of Louis Sachar’s Holes.

Both novels employ a highly complex puzzle-box structure, in which every seemingly random detail turns out to be an integral part of a unified whole, both touch on serious themes (racism, classism, the difficulty of knowing oneself and others) without being preachy, and both are best read knowing as little as possible in advance.

While I did figure out the basic premise and the identity of the “you” to whom the book is addressed, just about everything else came as a surprise to me. So I won’t spoil it for you.

Has anyone read Stead's other novel, First Light? The back cover says it's about global warming, which immediately made me not want to read it. But maybe it's only about global warming the way that When You Reach Me is about stereotyping, ie, the theme is there but it's not a book-long screed on "global warming is bad."

When You Reach Me

Holes
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