Review: The School for Good and Evil

The School for Good and Evil
The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Finally, a new twist on the idea of fairy tales and princesses! Chainani blends humor and cliche with a fresh setting and plot. In Agatha and Sophie’s world, children are kidnapped by the School Master and taken to a school that trains them to either be good or evil. Blond, fair Sophie is thrilled to be one of the kidnapped kids from her town. Her dark, brooding friend Agatha is taken as well, but both girls are surprised when Sophie is sent to the School for Evil instead of the School for Good. What ensues is a bumbling adventure through both Good and Evil’s campuses that at once embraces and mocks the cliches of traditional fairy tales. Now the two friends have been pitted against one another in the ages-old good vs. evil battle and the only thing that’s certain is it will be one wild competition. Fairies as campus guards, a two-headed dog/wolf as bickering professors, and the mysterious School Master make for a delightfully adventurous and funny romp on a new path through familiar territory.

I thoroughly enjoyed it and just began the second book, The School for Good and Evil: A World Without Princes. Polly Lee’s narration of the first book is brilliant; I keep hearing her voice in my head as I read the second.

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Flashback Friday: Fool by Christopher Moore

PUBLISHER: William Morrow Paperbacks; Harper Collins Publishers Audio (originally published Feb. 2009)

LENGTH: 352 pages; 8 hours, 41 minutes

SOURCE: purchased audio

SUMMARY:  (via chrismoore.com) A man of infinite jest, Pocket has been Lear’s cherished fool for years, from the time the king’s grown daughters—selfish, scheming Goneril, sadistic (but erotic-fantasy-grade-hot) Regan, and sweet, loyal Cordelia—were mere girls. So naturally Pocket is at his brainless, elderly liege’s side when Lear—at the insidious urging of Edmund, the bastard (in every way imaginable) son of the Earl of Gloucester—demands that his kids swear their undying love and devotion before a collection of assembled guests. Of course Goneril and Regan are only too happy to brownnose Dad. But Cordelia believes that her father’s request is kind of . . . well . . . stupid, and her blunt honesty ends up costing her her rightful share of the kingdom and earns her a banishment to boot.

Well, now the bangers and mash have really hit the fan. The whole damn country’s about to go to hell in a handbasket because of a stubborn old fart’s wounded pride. And the only person who can possibly make things right . . . is Pocket, a small and slight clown with a biting sense of humor. He’s already managed to sidestep catastrophe (and the vengeful blades of many an offended nobleman) on numerous occasions, using his razor-sharp mind, rapier wit . . . and the equally well-honed daggers he keeps conveniently hidden behind his back. Now he’s going to have to do some very fancy maneuvering—cast some spells, incite a few assassinations, start a war or two (the usual stuff)—to get Cordelia back into Daddy Lear’s good graces, to derail the fiendish power plays of Cordelia’s twisted sisters, to rescue his gigantic, gigantically dim, and always randy friend and apprentice fool, Drool, from repeated beatings . . . and to shag every lusciously shaggable wench who’s amenable to shagging along the way.

Pocket may be a fool . . . but he’s definitely not an idiot.

BRIDGE: This book is an amazing adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear. The major trepidation I have in recommending it as a Bridge Book is the raunchy nature of the humor. There’s really no other word for it – the sexual situations and language are definitely R-rated. However, I still feel it would be a great Bridge book for college students studying Shakespeare. While the focus of the blog is usually MG and YA literature, this book will provide great discussion topics for Shakespearean scholars and fans alike. Explorations of character, plot development, thematic elements…they’re all there even though the book is a crazy mash-up of one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies and the low-rent version of Elizabethan England.

Moore provides extensions of characters and blends cynicism, sarcasm, erotica, and tragedy seamlessly. His Lear is jut the right balance of crazy and desperate. The daughters are as conniving as one would expect them to be with just a touch more venom because they are given more feminine confidence. While Pocket seems to be a creation entirely of Moore’s mind, he melds nicely with Shakespeare’s traditional characters. It is easy to believe that the Black Fool existed and dispensed levity and wisdom in balanced measure to keep all of Shakespeare’s characters in line. Moore tends to stay true to the cadence and language, for the most part. Of course, there’s superfluous cussing, and I’m not sure if  the f-word existed in the 13th century but, as all cuss words should, they add humor and emphasis in all the right places. Fans of The Bard will not go wrong with this racy version of one of literature’s most beloved tales. Just be warned: the faint of heart need not apply.

Afterword: Euan Morton’s narration of this tale on audiobook is superb. The different accents and tonalities used to represent different characters is impeccable. The pacing and emotive narration is beyond compare and I have no doubt that, had I read the text first, I would have been far less enamored of Moore’s tale. It is not to miss for fans of audiobooks.

The Agony of UNSPOKEN by the Dastardly Sarah Rees Brennan

20130713-112116.jpgPUBLISHER: Random House Children’s Books

LENGTH: 370

SOURCE: loan from K

SUMMARY: Kami Glass loves someone she’s never met . . . a boy she’s talked to in her head ever since she was born. She wasn’t silent about her imaginary friend during her childhood, and is thus a bit of an outsider in her sleepy English town of Sorry-in-the-Vale. Still, Kami hasn’t suffered too much from not fitting in. She has a best friend, runs the school newspaper, and is only occasionally caught talking to herself. Her life is in order, just the way she likes it, despite the voice in her head.

But all that changes when the Lynburns return.

The Lynburn family has owned the spectacular and sinister manor that overlooks Sorry-in-the-Vale for centuries. The mysterious twin sisters who abandoned their ancestral home a generation ago are back, along with their teenage sons, Jared and Ash, one of whom is eerily familiar to Kami. Kami is not one to shy away from the unknown—in fact, she’s determined to find answers for all the questions Sorry-in-the-Vale is suddenly posing. Who is responsible for the bloody deeds in the depths of the woods? What is her own mother hiding? And now that her imaginary friend has become a real boy, does she still love him? Does she hate him? Can she trust him?

REVIEW: This book has multiple elements that are always appealing to me: set in England; spunky best friend; mysterious, dark strangers new to town; dry humor. And then Sarah Rees Brennan RESERVES HER SEAT on my #fantasyfriends couch by throwing in the fantasy element that I wasn’t expecting. (Stay tuned for a post about #fantasyfriends coming soon.)

When I began reading Unspoken, I was prepared for good because K had grudgingly lent me the book and made me do the Secret Handshake, promise my firstborn child to slavery, etc, etc if anything happened to her copy of the book. In the beginning of the story, I was feeling a bit of Angus, Thongs meets Saving Francesca with a a dash of The Year of Secret Assignments thrown in. The story has the English-prep-school flair that I am so drawn to while keeping the story approachable for readers of all backgrounds.

I’m not sure why I wasn’t prepared for the fantasy elements given the telepathy premise but I did not see it going there. I have read other stories in which characters heard voices or could communicate telepathically with others and because the story is set in contemporary times and locations, I was taken by surprise when the telepathy was not the only supernatural element included. Brennan weaves in the fantastical elements masterfully. Looking back from the end of the book, it seems obvious but it didn’t seem that way while reading it.

Brennan also develops multiple characters in a fluid manner that seems organic. Kami is already a strong heroine whose self-doubt is believable and is a constant obstacle to resolving the conflict. Jared is the typical Byronic hero: broody, broken, and bull-headed. Holly and Angela are excellent constants in the changing landscape of the characters’ interactions. The Lynburns are a perfect balance of haughty and creepy completing a perfectly crafted Gothic romance set it modern-day England. And while the town’s name of Sorry-in-the-Vale is just a little too tragic for my taste, it is the only sour note in the otherwise perfectly crafted first in this series.

And as a final note, a brief discussion of why Sarah Rees Brennan is joining the ranks of YABB’s Badass Authors. A) She responds to tweets. This is a requirement. B) She writes a hella good story. This, too, is a requirement. In this case, she wrote an impressive first installment to a series, ending in the middle of action, leaving me cursing her (albeit in a friendly way) for making me wait for the next book. C) She put a new twist on an old template, (hopefully)breathing some interest into a dusty genre. Welcome, SRB. Welcome.

Kids’ BookBridges: Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief

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TITLE: Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief

AUTHOR: Rick Riordan

PUBLISHER: Disney Hyperion

LENGTH: 396 pages

SUMMARY: (via amazon.com) Percy Jackson is a good kid, but he can’t seem to focus on his schoolwork or control his temper. When his mom tells him the truth about where he came from, she takes him to the one place he’ll be safe—Camp Half-Blood, a summer camp for demigods (on Long Island). There, Percy learns that the father he never knew is actually Poseidon, God of the Sea. Soon Percy finds himself caught up in a mystery that could lead to disastrous consequences. Together with his friends—a satyr and other the demigod daughter of Athena—Percy sets out on a quest to reach the gates of the Underworld (located in a recording studio in Hollywood) and prevent a catastrophic war between the gods.

REVIEW:Today I am going to tell you about Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. I think this would be a good book for kids because it could teach them about the Greek gods and who they were. I learned that Poseidon, Hades, and Zeus were brothers and that Hades is trapped in The Underworld. I liked the book because the chapter titles were funny. I also liked the book because it was funny like when one of the gods buys Annabeth, Grover, and Percy lunch at a diner. The title of that chapter was “A God Buys Us Cheeseburgers”. I thought it was a really funny book because Grover kept on eating cans and he would sometimes hand them to Percy and say, “I saved this for you!” Percy doesn’t really eat cans and Grover keeps forgetting. I think other kids should read this book because I think they would really like it. If kids like this book then they will like the other books in the series. I am working on the second book The Sea of Monsters.

8 YA Novels/Authors High Schoolers Should Read Before Graduation

I have several posts that I SHOULD write but none of them are really speaking to me right now. So yesterday I asked the Twitterverse what I should write about and I got a couple of suggestions. Two of the suggestions from friends @mrami2 and @Stardusted214 overlapped, so that made up my mind. @mrami2 wanted suggestions for 12th grade choice-reading selections and immediately THE BOOK THIEF by Marcus Zusak came to mind right as @Stardusted214 mentioned wanting to know my thoughts on the very same book. As I started to think about Zusak’s book, I began to think about other titles that high schoolers should read and this post was born. These suggestions are for older readers: juniors and seniors with the occasional mature sophomore thrown in due to complexity of text and maturity of content. So, I’ll begin with THE BOOK THIEF.

1. Zusak’s book is an award winner but that’s not the only reason students should read it. Told by Death, the story is somehow poignant in its seeming detachment. Zusak also has incredible talent with unorthodox description. As Death follows Liesl to her foster parents’ home and through the Nazi occupation of her small little town, his unique take on humans, their interactions, and their successes and failings, readers find a little of themselves in, not only the living, but also in Death.

The survivors. They’re the ones I can’t stand to look at, although on many occasions I still fail. I deliberately seek out the colors to keep my mind off them, but now and then, I witness the ones who are left behind, crumbling among the jigsaw puzzle of realization, despair, and surprise. They have beaten hearts. They have punctured lungs… It’s the story of one of those perpetual survivors–an expert at being left behind. It’s just a small story really, about, among other things:
*A girl
*Some words
*An accordionist
*Some fanatical Germans
*A Jewish fistfighter
*And quite a lot of thievery

I saw the book thief three times.

This impeccably quirky writing continues throughout the book. Liesl’s story is one of sorrow and suffering and loss. But it is also a story in which a girl’s resilient spirit brings hope to a small town, a lonely woman, a grieving couple, and, ultimately, to Death himself.

2. Anything John Green has written needs to be on a list of choice reads for high schoolers. Green’s humor camouflages some potentially controversial issues that teens should be thinking about. His books range in topic from drinking and driving in Looking for Alaska to homosexuality in Will Grayson, Will Grayson (with David Levithan) to cancer in The Fault in Our Stars. Particularly for teens about to be truly independent for the first time, Green’s books present scenarios that allow readers to experience teens in extremely stressful situations that test their character and integrity. Readers get to watch these teens make decisions (right or wrong) and the effects of those decisions. Green’s snarkily intelligent narrators and emotional and humorous plots will have readers thinking and discussing long after the last page.

3. Readers get much the same benefits from Laurie Halse Anderson’s books. The major difference between Green and Anderson is the approachability of their books. Anderson’s books seem to have a simpler feel to them while the issues are still intense and fraught with emotion. While I wouldn’t recommend but one or two of Green’s titles to freshmen, I would feel more comfortable doing so with Anderson’s books. If there was one book of Anderson’s I had to choose, it would be Wintergirls. Her handling of the dark world of eating disorders and depression is respectful while emphasizing the need for attention.

4. 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher deals with the equally dark topic of teen suicide. The brilliance in this book comes from the dual narratives. Asher is able to show readers the sense of isolation and lack of alternatives that so often accompany suicide victims while also bringing light to the guilt, shame, and confusion felt by those left behind.

5. Chbosky’s awkward narrator in The Perks of Being a Wallflower strikes a cord with every echelon of teen society. All the groups are there: jocks, nerds, goths, skaters; encompassing the engaged and the disenfranchised. The appeal of Charlie’s letters is in their simplicity. Charlie presents his experiences matter of factly and allows his new friends to help him navigate the rough waters of his first year of high school. The book is a somewhat traditional coming-of-age tale that can provide readers with a glimpse into the tough situations high schoolers face every day.

6. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein is one of the best books I’ve read this year. The book is about friendship; no more, no less. Queenie and Maddie are thrown together in impossible historical times and must navigate through morally ambiguous situations. The girls quickly become dependent on each other in the best possible way and must eventually rely on one another to endure and survive. The raw and vulnerable nature of their friendship is emphasized by Queenie’s capture. The lack of a love interest, much less a love triangle, is a refreshing departure from a lot of current YA and the strength of these two female characters is phenomenal. This one is a can’t miss for all types of readers.

7. Mark Haddon’s quiet novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime is another title that blows readers away with its unassuming narrator. Christopher Boone is a witty and intelligent and curious 15 year-old with Asperger’s Syndrome. This mystery-novel-of-sorts follows Christopher’s investigation into a neighborhood dog’s death while also exploring the mystery that is Christopher. Readers get a unique glimpse into the mind of someone with autistic tendencies and the resulting compassion and understanding of someone in Christopher’s life circumstances is priceless. Not to mention that the story itself is an entertaining mystery.

8. Chris Crutcher has been a force in YA literature for years and he just keeps getting better. Any book (if not all of them) by Crutcher could be on a choice list for high schoolers. Crutcher also has a range of titles that would work even for middle schoolers. Coming from a counseling background, Crutcher tackles hard topics like child and drug abuse. But Crutcher also tackles more ambiguous issues like abuse of authority and censorship. His deliberate peeling back of the layers of denial and complacency adults use to marginalize teens’ problems is eye-opening and empowering. Again, if I had to choose, I would insist that all teens read Deadline and Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. Making every day count is never so well-illustrated as in these two titles.

All of these titles have made an impact on the teens to whom I have recommended them. They made an impact on ME as an adult. I wish I had had such variety and brilliance from which to choose and LEARN when I was in high school. The best hope for our teens in growing and making good decisions is STORY. The stories of decisions, people, places, events, and relationships – GOOD OR BAD – from which to discover who they are, what they think, and how they will live.

Cynical Sorcerers and Cruising Castles

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TITLE: Howl’s Moving Castle

AUTHOR: Diana Wynne Jones

LENGTH:  336 pages

PUBLISHER: Green Willow Books

SUMMARY: (via amazon.com) In the land of Ingary, such things as spells, invisible cloaks, and seven-league boots were everyday things. The Witch of the Waste was another matter.

After fifty years of quiet, it was rumored that the Witch was about to terrorize the country again. So when a moving black castle, blowing dark smoke from its four thin turrets, appeared on the horizon, everyone thought it was the Witch. The castle, however, belonged to Wizard Howl, who, it was said, liked to suck the souls of young girls.

The Hatter sisters–Sophie, Lettie, and Martha–and all the other girls were warned not to venture into the streets alone. But that was only the beginning.

In this giant jigsaw puzzle of a fantasy, people and things are never quite what they seem. Destinies are intertwined, identities exchanged, lovers confused. The Witch has placed a spell on Howl. Does the clue to breaking it lie in a famous poem? And what will happen to Sophie Hatter when she enters Howl’s castle?

BRIDGE: It seems I’m coming across a lot of books lately that lend themselves to studying fairy tales. This book would be a good bridge to traditional Grimm stories or other fairy tales. There are elements of Lewis Carrol and even Tolkein. Jones mocks these traditional fairy tale elements and it would be a good starting point for a discussion of satire and parody. Along with these elements, students could also study the use of humor and sarcasm in character development and the creation of character relationships.

READERS: Fans of fantasy and magic will enjoy this book. Readers who have a tast for sarcasm and parody will also enjoy this title. It has several levels of meaning and will appeal to middle level readers as well as high schoolers and adults.

OTHER TITLES: Readers who enjoy this book might also like Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver, Enchanted by Alethea Kontis, or Cinder by Marissa Meyer