"review" · chapter/series · Children's · juvenile lit · recommend · series · Tales

{book} taking the case

Ivy_and_Bean_Take_the_Case_FC_HiResIvy + Bean: Take the Case (Book 10)

by Annie Barrows + Sophie Blackall (illus)

Chronicle Books, 2013. Hardcover, 126 pages.

Modeling herself after a classic film noir detective from her mother’s favorite film, Private Investigator Bean “laughs at danger! […] And she and her assistant, Ivy, are ready, willing, and able to solve any mystery you can throw at them.” If there were any mysteries deemed mysterious enough in Pancake Court, that is…

Annie Barrows and Sophie Blackall deliver yet another delightfully creative and intelligent Ivy + Bean adventure. I was surprised to find, however, that plenty of the usual fans on goodreads did not care for this 10th installment. Most of the explanations focused on their “boredom during the first portion of the book” and its “untidy ending.” And I can see that, especially if one misses what is going on in the story.

A mystery was a question you couldn’t find the answer to. In Al Seven’s world, the mysteries were things like Who took Hester’s jewels? or Where was Sammy La Barba on the night of May twelfth? Bean didn’t have any jewels and she sure as heck didn’t know anyone named Sammy La Barba, but there were plenty of questions that she didn’t have answers to. […] What’s inside the cement thing in the front yard? What’s behind the Tengs’ fence and why do they lock it up? and What’s the matter with the mailman? when she asked these questions, her parents usually said something like It’s none of your business. That meant that there was an answer, but they didn’t want her to know it. (13-4)

Investigator Bean and her assistant Ivy are having problems solving mysteries that are impressive enough to satisfy the crowd (e.g. the other kids of Pancake Court), and apparently the reader (e.g. goodreads reviews). Or, rather, it is the answers that their investigations reveal that lack audience interest, because Ivy and Bean are not the only one’s who’ve always wondered about the cement thing, Teng’s backyard or the mailman. When they solve the mystery, the answer turns out to be a lackluster one. The girls are increasingly mocked and the pressure intensifies to find a mystery “strange” enough to satisfy their difficult crowd (which, granted, includes themselves).

Suddenly a rope appears and know one knows who hung it from Dino’s chimney. Every night knots add length as it begins to wind about Pancake Court. This is where the “big mystery” kicks in–but obviously not the story. In Film Noir, this is where the story would start, too. But this is Pancake Court and Bean is not a hardened, tormented detective. And this is Annie Barrows and Sophie Blackall breaking from the formulaic. In many ways, their willingness to dare something unexpected and different reclaims the word and idea of mystery; and in doing so, they do what they do exceptionally well: argue on the side of creativity and its prerequisite imagination and different points-of-view.

ivy and bean $(KGrHqNHJF!FFwcJd6+(BRkZVQp7cg~~60_57

Some mysteries are going to remain mysteries, like the one presented in the first chapter: Why would a mother who restricts Bean’s screen-watching-time to ten movies with a strict personal-parental rating allow her daughter to watch a film that breaks all but one of those rules? Barrows could have launched Bean’s new obsession from another source (as many other picture and early chapter books have done).

Clues to who-dunnit appear throughout the early mysteries before we’ve arrived to the Big Case. There is a lot to suggest the who and why by the time the crowd is threatening a revolt. Did the investigative reader consider all the angles? In Mysteries, does the reader really leave it up to the Investigator to do all the work?

<<spoilers alert!!! spoilers!!!!>>

Noting his presence/timing in text/illustration: Jake the Teenager. Why? to help a nutty neighbor out, or to amuse himself, or both? But why leave “The Mystery of the Yellow Rope” unsolved? because the magic of having a mystery is really what Ivy and Bean have discovered to be the most enticing part of a mystery. Think about how quickly the attitude shifted when questions were answered. Boring ol’Pancake Court became even more so.

“Al Seven is always wanting to solve mysteries,” Bean said. “That’s what I don’t get about him,” said Ivy. “Why does he always want to solve them? You solve problems, but a mystery isn’t a problem, so why does it have to be solved?” “Sometimes it’s a problem,” said Bean. “This one isn’t. Nobody’s getting hurt or anything. It’s a nice mystery.” [Ivy said.] (105-6)

Yet again they “solve” the mystery and it isn’t satisfying; the answer’s lack of logic doesn’t help. I am fascinated by the inclusion of the children’s impulse to inform their parents of the rope and inquire of the answer of them. It couples well with this (oft frustrated) need for immediacy and for any work they put in to be rewarded in a way that feels rewarding. The neighborhood kids aren’t getting the “niceness” of the Yellow Rope Mystery, nor are some of its readers, apparently; which is okay. I just find it a smart, creative shift of perspective.

<<spoilers!!!! over……>>

ivy and bean illu-IB_WalkAwayNot all mysteries can be solved, some you do not want to solve, and many have really lackluster answers. That the audience longs for creativity, not only in the mystery but its answers is a central conflict that Take the Case handles beautifully, because it remains a mystery as to why the demand for creativity often ends up in a loathing of the creative revelation or response; or is it? Is this all too much for a grade school chapter book? Hardly…which is why I really love knowing Ivy+Bean exists. In Literature, we expect the form to contribute to the coherence of the work. You needn’t a degree to discover it; if it does, I suppose it fails. I do not believe Take the Case fails. I am continually impressed with how thoughtful the crafting of this series has proven itself to be while yet possessing utter charm and entertainment.

For all the talk of mysteries, Barrows/Blackall keep the friendship center stage as the two explore a childhood and all its strange mysteries together. Like the mutually supportive fictional duo, Blackall’s illustrations are without fail a flawless partner in the rendering of personality the text would infuse into the characters and story. There is no second-guessing or mystery as to whether these to two will stick together come what may.

recommendations…girl or boy, gradeschool, who like humor, contemporary fiction, and friendship stories. A series for those who desire to nurture their young (or to-be) creative writer and reader of Literature. Not for readers who expect (and desire) a transparent tale and its simplistic ribbon-tied ending for their young reader.

{images belong to Sophie Blackall}

"review" · fiction · Lit · mystery · recommend · series · series · young adult lit

{book} the dead in their vaulted arches

>>a spoiler-free review<<

flavia de luceThe Dead in Their Vaulted Arches

(Flavia de Luce Novel #6)

by Alan Bradley

ARC thanks to Delacorte Press and NetGalley

release date: January 2014

“Young chemist and aspiring detective Flavia de Luce once again brings her knowledge of poisons and her indefatigable spirit to solve the most dastardly crimes the English countryside has to offer and, in the process, comes closer than ever to solving her life’s greatest mystery-her mother’s disappearance…” –publisher’s commentary

Harriet de Luce has been the mystery haunting this Flavia de Luce series and I’ve been holding my breath not since that tantalizing conclusion to Speaking From Among the Bones, but from the beginning with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Harriet’s absence has stained everything: the grieving husband and distant father (the Colonel); the competition between motherless daughters (Ophelia, Daphne and Flavia) with the youngest left with only her mothers looks and mind, but no real memory of the woman who birthed her; and then there is an estate (Buckshaw) left with no known Last Will and Testament. Was Harriet a too adventurous young mother, careless of her husband, children, and inheritance when she went off to climb a mountain? Or is there something more to it?

We learn about what really happened—to a lot of people in The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches. How did the Father and Dogger meet and what is the nature of their relationship? As if I didn’t already love Dogger to pieces. The course of the series has evidenced a deep love between Flavia’s parents: prepare for a terribly moving scene that makes his grief all the more stirring. Will the sisters come to peaceful terms? okay—let’s not be greedy.

There is some bow-tying in a book that would solve Harriet’s disappearance. But if you are looking for neat and tidy…  That consistency in the characters and their relationships we have come to love, has and continues to translates into messy feelings and complicated turns. For one, we still have Flavia struggling to find her place in a family where she receives the most affectionate parenting and siblingship from the servants and Dieter. In that audacious manner Flavia has become known for, she is going to attempt a rather grand scheme in The Dead in hopes to win her place once and for all. That is, if she can do something about that pesky and familiarly precocious cousin of hers that has come with Harriet’s return.

Natalya did not care for Undine and I cannot disagree. I find amusement, however, in just how similar in description she is to Flavia. Child-like, genius, sneaky, underestimated… But Undine is not the only distraction for Flavia, all sorts of people are littering the landscape and the mystery, old and new. The novel is no less ambitious than past books, but Bradley injects a turn that wends its way backwards through the series in an effort to fill in niggling details. It works, but will you be happy with where Bradley goes with the de Luce family?

Flavia has softened, become less heartless over the course of the series, and we see this growing-up girl in this finale. I sort of miss the morbid vengeful thing of the earliest books, but her emotional education is an appealing aspect to the story arc.

I read the Advanced Readers, Uncorrected Proof, but I do not imagine the ending will change all that much–which is too bad. I can get excited by the possibilities that raced through my mind with that one, how it translates into the spinning of tales, of futures, I’ve no guarantee of ever seeing. I do like what it all means for Flavia. I like that ending. But it is actually that very final lines that I wish I could get your opinion on, because it isn’t just that it rings a wrong note, it suddenly shifts the center of the Flavia de Luce Novel and that is not a good choice.

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches involves a handful of endings, knotting those bows, exiting stage right and left. Leading up to them, we have the chemistry, visit the personalities of Bishop’s Lacy with Gladys to transport us there, Dogger’s well-timed presence, tense family meals, and the high drama of a family grieving what it’s lost and the lies that have perpetrated the crime. At the center of it all, the brilliant and determined Flavia de Luce who will finally come to realize her place–but only after she solves the mystery behind her mother’s disappearance. It shouldn’t surprise you but it is going to be quite a bit heartbreaking and just a bit gruesome.


recommendations: by this point, you have to read all the previous books as this one responds to the over-arching characterizations and plot. This is a great historical fiction/mystery series for middle-school and up.

my reviews of books: #1 The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie; #2 The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag; #3 A Red Herring Without Mustard, #4 I am Half-Sick of Shadows , & #5 Speaking From Among Bones (pending)

"review" · cinema · foreign · mystery · recommend

{television} wallander, series 2

Sean and I finally got around to watching the second season of BBC’s Wallander starring Kenneth Branagh as Kurt Wallander. The series consist of three 45-minute episodes following the home and work life of a Swedish detective, based upon Henning Mankell novels, though not shot in order of publication. We’d seen the 1st and 3rd seasons, having missed the 2nd on PBS Masterpiece and forced to wait for it to stream on Netflix. The show is ridiculously good, so beautifully photographed, and Branagh is truly remarkable. But Wallander does require a bit of a mood, because they are grim and, well, I’m still haunted by a series 3 opening sequence involving swans, a lake, and fire. This time round there is this haunting image of a horse in a closing sequence.


The Elderly do not fare well in this season of Wallander (2010). And Kurt deals with generational issues both at home and work—as well as relational ones: questions of legacy, of good parenting, and adult children. The crimes and what they reveal are too grim to be golden; nostalgia is hard to come by and just because we do not want to believe the darkness of days past do not linger, Wallander is witness to their very present-day devastation.

“I am not interested in correctness, but the truth.” ~Kurt (“Faceless Killers”)

wallander povelwallander

Kurt’s father is suffering from age and dementia and already father and son are troubled by a difficult relationship. Kurt’s father Povel (David Warner) expected more of his son, finds his career path disturbing, and wonders what he has become. We see, however, that the artist father has not been without influence. Kurt is a keen observer and a very aware and sensitive person.

wallander FacelessKillersBBCE1: “Faceless Killers” : Directed by Hettie MacDonald : written by Richard Cottan.

“Wallander investigates the brutal slaying of an elderly couple at an isolated farmhouse, while a police leak of the wife’s dying words leads to an outbreak of racist reprisals in Ystad. The fallout from the case leads Wallander to doubt everything, including his abilities as a police officer.” (wiki)

What do you want to matter versus what really does matter… and what do we do with our expectations once they are confirmed or denied—or yet unknown? Here is an episode which opens with a beautiful white horse that is steeped in the racial tensions of its present-day Sweden.

Iranian migrant worker when Wallander asks for a detail: “Swedish Color”

Kurt replies with a weariness that belies more than a lack of sleep: “blonde then.”

wallander faceless-killers

Kurt’s daughter Linda (Jeany Spark) is seriously dating a medical doctor who is also Syrian and Kurt is worried. She thinks he is foolish to have a concern, but we soon learn upon what his worry based. Fear and hatred of the migrant agriculture workers of color, finds brutal expression following a murder of above-mentioned elderly couple. Kurt has to reconcile the grim realism of his work and the healthful optimism of his daughter. And she is an adult after all.

The generational tensions between parents and children (to include correlating work-relationships) are at the fore: who takes care of whom when the child has grown, and is it possible to retroactively fill the spaces made by absence. A question of good judgment comes into play, some seem to have it, but Wallander comes to doubt his (even if not everyone else does). And how does favoritism figure in… It is difficult to hand over control of a situation over to someone else who is determined to have it.

wallander the man who smiled posterE2: “The Man Who Smiled.” Directed by Andy Wilson : written by Simon Donald & Richard Cottan.

“Wallander is contacted by an old friend who is certain his father has been murdered. Wallander refuses to get involved as he is suspended from the police, but subsequent events convince him that there is more to the case.” (wiki)

In continuation of how there are really horrible people and events in the world… The helpless, the voiceless, they sometimes find a defender, someone with the ability to speak for them: policemen, philanthropists, religion, activists, relatives… The institutions that represent the afore-listed also deal in issues of guilt. What does one do with their guilt, and does your anguish make you a good man or a bad man? We see different instances of how guilt can lead to both positive and negative consequence; and how intervention really does require the determination of a person of means.

wallander man who smiled rupert gravesWe observe how privilege works: wealth, rank, resources… But who decides who gets to live or die (a question lingering from episode 1)? Who is subject to law, do intentions really matter—and who decides that?  {{and yes, that is Rupert Graves in the above episode photograph}}

wallander TheFifthWomanBBCE3: “The Fifth Woman.” Directed by Aisling Walsh : written by Richard Cottan.

“An elderly bird-watcher falls to his death in a meticulously planned and brutal murder. In an apparently unconnected case, a local man disappears and Wallander gets too close to one of the suspects. Wallander believes he is on the trail of a serial killer bent on revenge.” (wiki)

There is a certain poetry to the way the serial killer murders the first two victims; the way the murder tends to them the way they tend to their own subjects, the victims becoming a object to observe, commodify, and serve up. It really is disturbing.

wallander the 5th woman

Is there ever a time when the death of someone can be seen as a mercy?— especially if death is somewhat always violent in nature. An attractive attribute of Wallander is that he grieves. He grieves the loss of life and he grieves the “necessity” to take life. When we have stories of a worn detective of any years, their cynicism or gruffness comes from a disillusionment and distaste for humanity. Wallander cannot be described in such a way. He channels cynicism into compassion, into empathy. His work, his personal life, it keeps him awake, and drinking. But he fails to become hardened by his work—its lovely. Kenneth Branagh is able to evoke a complex character who can enthrall the viewer.

The next line is going to include a spoiler, sorry, but I am curious who else noticed:[[the last murder victim’s name is Blomvquist, and considering the subject-matter, a nod to Stieg Larrson’s Men who Hate Women.]]


wallander season 2 episode 2

I say a lot more about the characterization of Kurt Wallander and the filming of Wallander in my Series 3 review, do look at that, and do seriously consider catching this television series—especially if you love a good detective story or murder-mystery. The days are long and sunny, it is a good time to become acquainted with a grim world shot in breathtaking locations.

my review of Wallander: series 3 (2012)

"review" · concenter · fiction · juvenile lit · mystery · poet-related · recommend · wondermous

{book} hold fast

a lengthy, shockingly spoiler-free, post for Blue Balliett’s latest. This isn’t an apology, merely an acknowledgment. There are so many lovely and terribly relevant explorations … 

hold fast cover

Hold Fast by Blue Balliett

Scholastic Press, 2013.

hardcover, 274 pages.

Where is Early’s father? He’s not the kind of father who would disappear. But he’s gone . . . and he’s left a whole lot of trouble behind.

As danger closes in, Early, her mom, and her brother have to flee their apartment. With nowhere else to go, they are forced to move into a city shelter. Once there, Early starts asking questions and looking for answers. Because her father hasn’t disappeared without a trace. There are patterns and rhythms to what’s happened, and Early might be the only one who can use them to track him down and make her way out of a very tough place.

With her signature, singular love of language and sense of mystery, Blue Balliett weaves a story that takes readers from the cold, snowy Chicago streets to the darkest corner of the public library, on an unforgettable hunt for deep truths and a reunited family.~publisher’s comments.

Important: late Middle English: from medieval Latin important- ‘being of consequence’, from the verb importare ‘bring in’.  Adjective: of great significance or value, likely to have a profound effect on success, survival, or well-being; having high rank or status; significantly original and influential.

I am sketching out a list of “important juvenile fiction books and authors.” You should know that I think books and writers are important period, but this list is for those who place intimate conversations of a social and creative consciousness into the hands of young people. Blue Balliett is located with indelible ink on this list. With Hold Fast, Balliett has used her considerable gift  to not only pen a compelling mystery, but to raise awareness for the plight of our homeless children. She also returns with her signature take on the brilliance of young minds. If you’ve read Balliett, you understand how singular she is, and she just keeps getting better and better.

Meet the Pearls:

“Taken with a cell phone camera, this family portrait: Dashel Pearl, his wife, Summer, and their kids, Early and Jubilation, a daughter and a son. They live in Woodlawn, once feared as the home of Chicago’s most powerful gang, but now a quieter place. The family sits in two tidy rows on the chipped steps of a brick building, knees to backs, parents behind kids, hands sealing the foursome. Boy by girl behind girl by boy: symmetrical and smiling. The father is pale, the mother dark, the kids cocoa and cinnamon. Eyes in this family are green, amber, and smoky topaz.” (5)

They live in the largest apartment they can afford: a one bedroom primarily furnished with found objects. Dashel gets around by bicycle year round to get to public transit.* She stays home with 4 year old Jubie. Early, 11, attends school. They are saving for a house, like the one they pass on family walks “that invites dreams” (7).

Dashel’s love of reading and words with meaning is infectious. The family keeps notebooks of quotes and words. He tells his children, “words are everywhere and for everyone […] words are free and plentiful” (6); and they are empowering. Dash also shares his love of Langston Hughes. “What’s the rhythm, Langston?” is often heard. Dash, adopted as a baby and then lost those parents young, grew up in a number of foster homes. “He didn’t have a parent or grandparent to give him advice, but Langston seemed to do just as well. […] Dash had told Early that this famous poet was a rainbow mix, too, like Sum and probably Dash himself: Langston had African American, white, Jewish, and Native American roots. And, like Dash, Langston had grown up without much love or a steady home” (87). Hughes spoke often of dreams and their importance, and this spoke to the Pearls.

When Dash goes missing the readers are equally unsure what might’ve happened to him. It doesn’t look good even before his disappearance is complicated by the arrival of criminals breaking-into the Pearl’s home in a pretty scary sequence that leaves Sum, Early and Jubie without wallet or home. We are quickly introduced to the everyday realities of families who haven’t had it as good as the Pearl’s. The neighbor lady (whom they only know by sight) and others are surprised by Sum’s ignorance of how to navigate social rescue/welfare organizations and numbers. Worse is when profiling really kicks in by our greater institutions—and noticeably not by the homeless shelter workers.

“Something terrible has happened to keep my husband away, we’re terrified, have had to leave our home, have been robbed, lost our savings, and our family has done nothing wrong. Now, aren’t the police supposed to protect people like us?” (72)

“I realized something awful in that room today. That when you’re this poor and without money or an address, hardly anyone thinks you’re worth listening to or helping. Just the words living in a shelter make you you someone the police aren’t too worried about, less than your average citizen when it comes to rights. And now that Dash is missing, the fact that he’d been a man with a job, a family, and a home doesn’t seem to count. Seeing how excited the detectives were about [spoiler], I knew they cared more about [spoiler] than the man. Or us.” (132)

Early’s response to the latter being the understatement of the year: “Dang,” Early said, swallowing hard. “That’s scary.” It is of interest that the mother’s realization is expressed well after Early’s experience at school where children can be really cruel and adults can be inept. Children see and know more than they are often credited. And their resilience is not an excuse to continue to ignore their vulnerabilities.

The novel clings to the compassionate as it collides with the hardness of people and life. Balliett moves the reader in thoughtful ways, using the mystery and Early’s youth and smarts to guide the reader through a book that refuses to look away from its subjects. I love how authors employ humor to counter-weigh the complex and often ugly moments of a book, but I savor and admire the juvenile fiction author who can rely on other, rarer, charms. Balliett threads hope to counter-weigh, she employs a light, and this is a different smile, and it comes before the story’s end.

The structure of the novel is of import to the pacing of its heart-felt, brain-felt 274 pages. The Pearls, we learn, keep a notebook of onomatopoeia. The chapters (but for the first and last) are named after “C” words that are onomatopoeia. Each have smaller sections that begin with each word and hold thematically. The breaks move and relieve the reader along a linear timeline of the 3rd-person limited variety. We follow Early who uses words and rhythms in ways the book demonstrates. Each of those “C” words come with definitions where in the chapters reiterate their meaning. Early shares words, the author introduces each character with the intention of their names. Dashel “Dash” (p 15) increases with significance in characterization—and in light of the title: Hold Fast. And of course, that opening definition and intention that opens the novel grounds everything:

“Home, from the Middle English hom and Old English ham. Noun: a place to live by choice, sometimes with family or friends; a haven; a place of origin, comfort, and often of valued memories.

“By the end of the 2012 school year, an estimated thirty thousand children in the city of Chicago were without a home. This number does not include those living in the surrounding suburbs, and is thought to be low.”

According to the “Acknowledgment” at the end of the book (after p 274), Balliett did a lot of research, talked to a lot of people. The novel would portray a sense of what homelessness would look like for Early and her mother and brother, and touch on the experiences of other’s situations with equal gravity. Some of the compositions are stark, others strongly inferred, and all of it touching.

“Facts on the homeless vary, depending on what you read and how statistics are collected and presented. Shelter rules also vary. Not to be questioned, however, are the harsh realities of homelessness. Sadly, they have nothing to do with fiction.”

I mentioned hope, and one such beacon is Early. Early keeps her head up, and both her self-awareness and the awareness of her surroundings is necessary to this hope-fullness. Aged 11, Early is a creative force to be reckoned with—though I have no reason to believe she is unique in her ability rise up against the hardships that would hold her down. She relies on the hope of seeing her father and rightly believes in her ability in solving the mystery of his disappearance. She has doubts, which coincide with the reader’s, artfully instigated by the clever author. But she has notions that keep her going, that enquiring eye of hers searching out rhythms, patterns, riddles and connections to be solved, or at the very least contemplated. We have the mystery unfolding to keep us turning pages, but time is harder on Early and she needs more than the mystery to balance out despair. Enter the energizing effect of a creative energy that empowers and enlists hope and fits snugly into the import of holding fast to our ability to dream.

Enlightened by her situation, head-up and engaged, Early starts to notice, to really look at people (thinking of Waive) and her surroundings—and to question: “How come there are so many homes standing empty in Chicago and so many people like us who don’t have a home? How come those empty homes aren’t being fixed up and filled with people who need a place to live” (171)?

It is a question Balliett bids the reader to linger over in her “Note:” “As of October 2011, the city of Chicago reported roughly fifteen thousand abandoned buildings, most the result of foreclosure. They sit silent, haunting the neighborhoods that surround them. With an estimated thirty thousand homeless kids in this city, the questions are obvious. Luckily, so are the dreams.” “The dreams” are a nod to Early’s idea for project (202-3) and its yield (253-7). Balliet novels believe in a children’s capacity to be powerful agents of change. That children are brilliant.

Brilliant: late 17th century: from French brillant ‘shining’. Adjective: (of light or colour) very bright; exceptionally clever or talented; outstanding; impressive; very good, excellent, or marvelous. Noun:a diamond of brilliant cut.

And it isn’t only in Hold Fast that someone(s) would thieve [from] the brilliant.

There are some points in the novel that are especially difficult. One is what and how much Summer (the mother) leaves to and confides in Early. In a lot of ways it is necessary in informing Early and the reader for the sake of the plot. But it also points to Balliett’s bold consistency of character and allowing for that kind of discomfort. Jubie is 4 and a product of the environs of those 4 years; this adds incredible tension. As for Early and Summer: children in tough circumstances grow up quickly at the loss of childhood, and (no matter how good a parent) the grief and depression of an adult after the loss of a loved-one takes a toll. Summer is left very much alone, the family alienated of relatives and community. Add the burden of societally placed barriers and inconsistencies and there is a lot of unfairness to pass around. There are plenty of places in which we could intervene. Hold Fast relays grim realities even as it models a compassion toward those too oft robbed of the dignity of its reception. Compassion is a first step.

Dreams (by Langston Hughes)

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Dash places this poem in the family notebook (54), and the next poem in sequence is Hughes’ “What happens to a dream deferred?”, which reflects a real life tension in the novel. Hold Fast’s antidote for despair is to continue to hope and dreams fuel our hope,** while minding Hughes question and the final line of its poem.

Balliet’s incorporation of such impacting artists and their translation into such intimate spaces, such as a young person’s mind, provides an incalculable worth to her novels. Balliet writes good mysteries, mysteries with unexpected textures, with complexities that make for a rich and rewarding read. I love how empowered and inspired her young protagonists are towards using all of their selves creatively and determinedly.

I find Balliet entertaining, but I acknowledge that a lot of the thrill comes from admiring her craftiness. But does “entertaining” necessarily translate as “mindless?” There are plenty of fluffy reads to excite many a reader and they hold a place, but I do hope those many find a more challenging read, an important book now and again that gifts an awareness that makes us a better human.

recommendation: ages 8-13, boys & girls, would be nice to read w/ a grown-up and plan some sort of service project, to say nothing of penning dreams and starting notebooks. for the creative-minded (aka anyone); for bibliophiles; the impact of word, book, libraries, teachers, and poets is awesome in Hold Fast.

of note: it would be tempting to refer Balliett books to those kids who have tested into gifted programs, whether it be reading, writing, math and/or spatial…or any who benefit from atypical curriculum. but one of the many things that impresses me with Balliett’s books, is how you can pick out adults who believe in the potential of the child protagonist and invest in them, sharing their time, intellect, creative play… In honor of Balliett, I wouldn’t dare underestimate any child’s needs or abilities. I would encourage and child (and adult) to give one of her novels a go. Hold Fast is as good as any a starting place.

*noticed the other (very wintry) day the sheer number of Denver’s service sector/day laborers that use bikes to get around; w/ educated guesses that they have to use them to reach public transit as well, bus lines and bike lanes relatively wasted on multi-car-owning neighborhoods.

**A Dianna Wynn Jones quote comes to mind (thanks to Sarah), “nobody ever solved a problem while believing it was hopeless.”

I pulled my definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary (US version)

my review of The Danger Box.

"review" · cinema · foreign · mystery · recommend

{film} a hitchcock & a comédie romantique

Film studies like my Literature courses taught me a very important truth: just because I need to view/read a classic or iconic piece does not mean I will enjoy it—or even get it (without certain contexts, and even then). The most liberating assertion was that I didn’t even have to like it, I just had to find a place of respect and articulate my displeasure critically (in the academic sense of the word). However, one needn’t groan at the mention of “classic” or even “award-winner,” either; at least, that is what I am trying to teach Natalya. But Hitchcock is hardly a chore and I believe anyone could sit down and enjoy North by Northwest (1959) without the need for instructional aid; at least, that was what Sean and I were trying to prove to Natalya the other evening. And it worked.

Like Poe or Lovecraft, Hitchcock quickly comes to mind during the non-challenge R.eader’s I.mbibing P.eril (RIP) and I usually opt for his mysteries over the outright horror films (because am very much a scaredy-cat and old enough to be okay with that). I think we tried Rear Window (1954) last year, but it didn’t click for N and figured we would try an adrenaline rush of another sort in North by Northwest. But we will be revisiting Rear Window, but I think N likes Cary Grant over James Stewart. I think she liked His Girl Friday (1940) and [gasp!] she didn’t care for It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)—but we’ll try that one again, too. I didn’t like Casablanca (1942) at all the first two times; it took Critical Approach to Film to enjoy it. Anyway, I digress.

For those unfamiliar, North by Northwest is about: “A hapless New York advertising executive is mistaken for a government agent by a group of foreign spies, and is pursued across the country while he looks for a way to survive” (IMDb). Enjoy the humor at Roger O. Thorton’s confusion over his very deadly situation, and smile even harder when his assassins fail to kill him in outlandish yet reasonable (?) ways—must make it look like an accident, of course… For RIP purposes, wonder at just how they will actually get rid of him, and try (w/ Thorton) to figure out who they are, and just who can be trusted?

North by Northwest was fun to watch with N because she was sucked down the rabbit hole with Thorton (Cary Grant) whom is so perfectly comedic and so deadly earnest at the same time. While she, too, was figuring out just what the heck was going on! I was able to admire Hitchcock’s direction, and not just those iconic shots paid homage to time and time again. I was especially appreciative, this time, of the way he begins amping up audience anxiety from the very opening of the film. The large quick paced crowds, cuts and directional shifts. He was setting up the hustle and bustle, and the anonymity, of the high urban workday sure, but why not make it work on people’s nerves at the same time.

North by Northwest is a great film and perfect for the autumnal (RIP-participating) season. I enjoy it even knowing how things play out, but it was especially tasty experiencing the film again with someone who had yet to see it. I think we are ready for Orson Welles’ The Third Man (1949), don’t you?

{2nd image: North by Northwest by James Hance}


Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings recommended a lovely romantic-comedy the other day and so we set it streaming on Netflix. The Jean-Pierre Améris directed film is: Les émotifs anonymes(Romantics Anonymous, 2010) And Carl’s review is here; which you should read, because 1) it is very good & 2) because it is that good and I have very little different to say I am not doing a full post review of my own.

I must emphasize these portions of Carl’s review:

—Benoît Poelvoorde (Jean-Rene) and Isabelle Carre (Angelique) display incredible performances. “From start to finish these two shy, bumbling characters light up the screen in each and every frame.” You can see Benoit/Jean-Rene sweat even before you discover its extent (and smile over his way of dealing with it). Isabelle/Angelique moves seamlessly into near-tears and impending faint. There are moments of greater normalcy if not outright confidence for each and they serve to measure these actors marvelous range. It truly is difficult to not believe the two inhabit their characters so completely as convincing as they are.

–“Romantics Anonymous is a romantic comedy to be sure, but its comedy is more subtle than slapstick and fits perfectly into the film’s overall mood. As an audience we are invited to laugh with these characters and not at them and in the process you empathize with them as they struggle valiantly to overcome their shyness and anxiety.” There is a really great balance here of physical comedy and the quiet awkward exchange. The timing of silence/dialog, movement/stills, and even of a sweet little soundtrack makes this film a great romantic comedy. You can empathize and laugh and get lost to neither. The direction really minds the audience (and characters’) need for catharsis, because the situation is ever on the verge of all out tragedy and we (and the characters) feel it keenly.

–“This is a film with a small but effective cast.” The supporting cast really is enjoyable. The therapist and the girl who can’t say “no” are favorites, but they all play wonderfully heightening whatever situation the main characters have embroiled them in.

In addition:

–it is a testament to how many times I have watched Sound of Music to not only recognize “I Have Confidence”
in French (J’ai confiance) when Angelique uses it as her “theme song,” singing it to herself to boost her confidence, but to recognize her use of the same choreography. I think Sean was surprised and disturbed.

–Benoit’s family motto is “Let’s hope nothing happens to us” (Finding Nemo came to mind) and Benoit struggles with the knowledge that nothing does not only mean the frightful things, but the beautiful as well. And that the beautiful can be frightful, except while we may know it to be worthwhile, he has yet to fully arrive there. Notably, this is not a motto Angelique lives by as she doesn’t have Benoit’s situation of privilege financially (though that is a looming question) and she has ambitions of finding love and pursuing her creative/career interests. She embodies the idea that being brave does mean one is without fear—the kind of truth in a heroine we have been missing from book/screen.

–the ending was really really sweet and you come to fully appreciate how nothing in the film feels saccharine or contrived.

Les émotifs anonymes would be a nice addition to a weekend involving Amelie (for color palette, French subtitles, and idiosyncrasies),  Mostly Martha (for neuroses, food, and romance), and especially Chocolat (for chocolate, romance, and dramatic humor).

"review" · fiction · juvenile lit · mystery · recommend · series

{book} the secret of the fortune wookiee

Tom Angleberger is a household favorite. [After borrowing it from the Library, Natalya insisted on owning Fake Mustache —review pending, but know she has read it and referenced it often.] I think Origami Yoda is brilliant and was pleased at how well Darth Paper followed suit. Needless to say, The Secret of the Fortune Wookiee was a must.

The Secret of the Fortune Wookiee: An Origami Yoda Book by Tom Angleberger

Amulet Books, 2012.

hardcover, 190 pages + paper folding instructions (which are available here, too).

Library borrowed.

With Dwight attending Tippett Academy this semester, the kids of McQuarrie Middle School are on their own—no Origami Yoda to give advice and help them navigate the treacherous waters of middle school. Then Sara gets a gift she says is from Dwight—a paper fortune-teller in the form of Chewbacca. It’s a Fortune Wookiee, and it seems to give advice that’s just as good as Yoda’s—even if, in the hands of the girls, it seems too preoccupied with romance. In the meantime, Dwight is fitting in a little too well at Tippett. Has the unimaginable happened? Has Dwight become normal? It’s up to his old friends at McQuarrie to remind their kooky friend that it’s in his weirdness that his greatness lies.
With his proven knack for humorously exploring the intrigues, fads, and dramas of middle school, Tom Angleberger has crafted a worthy follow-up to his breakout bestsellers The Strange Case of Origami Yoda andDarth Paper Strikes Back.—Publisher’s comments.

I know that boys have and will gravitate toward this series, and it is good that they do, but I really encourage the girls to take them up as well—they will especially enjoy Fortune Wookiee. And maybe I am just biased, but I think geeked-out girls are awesome. And awesomeness is a concern in Fortune Wookiee.

Who likes boring? I’m with Tommy, I would choose weird over boring any day. Fortunately for Tommy, he soon finds school weird enough to warrant a case file and is able to leave boring behind. Tommy finds himself faced with two major questions: What force is driving the Fortune Wookie and what is going on with Dwight at his new school?

Students and staff at Dwight’s new school believe they are being Understanding and caring, and Dwight thinks normal is a benefit, but I think any reader will share Caroline, Tommy, and even Harvey’s sense of panic in this situation. Dwight is rapidly losing that which makes him awesome; awesome, not “special.” “Special” is a demoralizing term here and makes anyone not-normal into an object to be pitied rather than a person only looking for acceptance (quirks included). It becomes increasingly creepy how “Understanding” and its principles seem to have a homogenizing effect on the students. The interesting thing about the criticism the book offers is how it functions as more of a cautionary tale than an all-out-dismissal of the intentions behind the actions. So much comes down to how well we know people and make the effort to understand them as they are—presently. Yes, there is a bit about people changing and growing up—something Middle Schoolers would really like people to notice.

The comedic episodes that make up the case file (aka The Fortune Wookie) have plenty say to its young readers even as it commiserates with them. How do we survive middle school with our singular sense of self intact? and seriously, what is the Big Pink, grandma? It is Angleberger’s sense of humor and personality-rich characters that make this read as fun as it is meaningful.

-{left: Han Foldo translates for Chewbacca, of course}

recommendations: any and all middle-grade student, Star Wars fan or no, though fans will get the references the easiest.  (I would love for a Whovian to do a series in Angleberger’s fashion.) for those who like humor; stories about friendship; are interested in activism; and dig origami or kirigami.

of note: >>It helps to read these books in order; Angleberger finesses some of the smoothest transitions between books in a series I’ve seen, but there is a lot of development over its course. >>Angleberger introduces a thread that makes for a highly anticipated next book. Principal Rabbski is implementing a new program that means “so long Arts & Music Ed”…all electives actually. I love how he addresses Middle School concerns beyond relationship troubles. Spend five minutes with N or friends on the subject of music, art, drama, etc. in schools and you will know these young people are not dispassionate on the subject of what is happening in their schools and with their education.

From Origamiyoda.wordpress on the next book

Art2-D2′s Guide to Folding and Doodling: An Origami Yoda Activity Book

Coming in March!
(see, I told you it would be pretty soon!)

This IS a case file, but it’s Kellen’s case file. (Tommy gets a few words in, too. And — unavoidably! — so does Harvey!)

It will be full of instrux for all kinds of stuff. I am really excited about and have worked like crazy on it. I hope you guys are going to like it!!!

And what of Rabbski and The FunTime Menace? Stay tuned….

my reviews of Origami Yoda (2010) and Darth Paper Strikes Back (2011)

{images belong to Abrams (of which Amulet is an imprint)}

"review" · fiction · juvenile lit · mystery · recommend · wondermous

{book} grounded

Sometimes it pays to misbehave. Or does it? Daralynn is grounded the day her daddy goes up in his air-o-plane with her older brother and younger sister. Now after their deaths, she is still left behind with her motion-sick mother and the small community of Digginsville in the Missouri Ozarks (of the 1970s). As Daralynn sorts out the differences between Before the Crash (BC) and After the Deaths (AD), she learns what it means to be grounded in every aspect of the word.

After her brother, sister, and father die in a plane crash, Daralynn Oakland receives 237 dolls from well-wishers, resulting in her nickname: Dolly. But dolls are little comfort to a twelve-year-old girl whose world is rocked by the dramatic changes in her life, including her angry, grieving mothers new job as a hairstylist at the local funeral home.

Dolly gets a job, too, where she accidentally invents a fashionable new haircut. But her real work begins when a crematorium comes to town, and someone has to save a dying business, solve a burning mystery, and resuscitate the broken hearts in Digginsville, Missouri, population 402. ~Publisher’s Comment.

Grounded, as a novel surrounding a significant loss, has a charm all its own. I say this and I am going to reference Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo in a minute. Kate Klise has drawn colorful characters that aren’t so outlandish as to be unrecognizable. It took a while for post-Vietnam and 70’s fashion to click in, and even still the story and its characters felt (and continue to feel) contemporary. Klise also brings to life the angry grieving widow, which is so beautifully convincing. But it is her first person protagonist that makes the story smile and tear-up.

I couldn’t help but think about DiCamillo’s India Opal Buloni when meeting Daralynn Oakland. She is a bit tom-boyish, too. And independent, inventive, and curious, and set adrift on her own. Except neither are really alone as the community comes to life about them in all its quirky wonder.

“Why did people think giving me dead dolls would make me feel better about my dead family? It didn’t make sense. All the strange things people did and said when other people died: None of it made sense.” (127).

Klise doesn’t try to make complete sense of why people respond to death the way they do. She does offer some contextual insight, enough to make responses seem more plausible (like the mother’s), but little more than that. The presence of another provides the anchor, not hard-won band-aid explanations. Kate Klise summarizes, “In my mind it’s always, always about the search for someone to keep us grounded in love.”*She creates a persuasive argument with Grounded.

Little makes sense, but that doesn’t stop Daralynn from wondering about why that is. And in some situations, when things don’t add up, they deserve a second or third look. Like the things that happen after the crematorium man comes to town. Daralynn (and the Reader) are rewarded for being observant, for questioning why things are the way they are.

Nothing feels more real than the weirdness of human behavior; which complicates the story considerably and creates mysteries that are natural in effect. Who is being true to themselves, and what happens when they are or are not? How do we survive our own grief, let alone someone else’s? Are the two even separable? and What will become of that disastrous haircut? 

Klise writes a good story. Her voice is so smooth, so effortless. I thought to read a short bit before bed and had to force myself to set the book down. It isn’t a really long read, and all the ribbons slide into a quietly pretty little bow. Using a writerly narrator who is telling the story from some point in the future is used subtly (after the least subtle signal on page 37) and intentionally, allowing metaphors and early observations their continual relevance, and allowing for a very tidy, well-crafted story.


recommendations: 9-13; boys and girls; those who like: humor, southern charm, (non-fantasy) Kate DiCamillo, wordplay, a bit of peril and mystery, who struggle with grief, who like non-message-y/non-therapy-driven books.

of note: I am rarely one to pitch a story for filming, but I would love to see this one adapted to screen.


*Kate Klise posts Grounded in Real Life” (Nov 2010) for Macmillan Children’s Publishing “MacKids” blog about the inspiration behind writing Grounded. do read it.


Grounded by Kate Klise

Feiwel and Friends, 2010. Hardcover, 193 pages.

[borrowed from the Library]