a study in charlotte

Do you like clever YA books? You'll like A Study in Charlotte, then. It's gender-swapped teenlock (teenlock = stories about Sherlock Holmes in his teen years...that's something I learned from fandom!), and an adventure and a half. I’ve been making my way through the BBC show Sherlock verrrrry slowly, and I’ve read and watched several other Sherlock Holmes adaptations over the years too. Brittany Cavallaro’s take on Sherlock Holmes is familiar in that it is smart and full of mystery and murder, but it has enough details turned sideways to make for a fresh, fun take on the world’s favorite detective. 

a study in charlotte by brittany cavallaro book cover
The last thing Jamie Watson wants is a rugby scholarship to Sherringford, a Connecticut prep school just an hour away from his estranged father. But that’s not the only complication: Sherringford is also home to Charlotte Holmes, the famous detective’s great-great-great-granddaughter, who has inherited not only Sherlock’s genius but also his volatile temperament. From everything Jamie has heard about Charlotte, it seems safer to admire her from afar.

From the moment they meet, there’s a tense energy between them, and they seem more destined to be rivals than anything else. But when a Sherringford student dies under suspicious circumstances, ripped straight from the most terrifying of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Jamie can no longer afford to keep his distance. Jamie and Charlotte are being framed for murder, and only Charlotte can clear their names. But danger is mounting and nowhere is safe—and the only people they can trust are each other.

When the descendents of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson meet at posh boarding school Sherringford in New England, it's a recipe for drama. But anger-prone Jamie Watson and mysterious Charlotte Holmes didn't expect a murder investigation to bring them together. Or did they? Their term at Sherringford will be one of late night rendezvous, alibis and danger as the modern heirs of the original Watson and Holmes are drawn to each other and into a web of deception.

Things I liked about this book: first, although Jamie is predisposed to like his Holmes counterpart, he doesn’t (in my reading) fall prey to instalove, which was a nice surprise. Instead, he gets to know Charlotte, and it’s clear that he considers and accepts everything about her – flaws and failings included – when he insists on being her friend. Second, I really appreciated Cavallaro’s thoughtful framing of consent or lack thereof in sexual situations. This, paired with characters’ conflicting responses to the sex they (or others) are having (running the gamut from slut-shaming to assigning importance where there was none to casual acceptance and so on) made for a school culture that felt authentic.

On that note, I think one of the things Cavallaro excelled at was not only writing a book that people wouldn’t be able to put down (probably goal #1 for any book, tbh), but also in making it very of-the-moment, and genuinely young adultA Study in Charlotte is a Sherlock Holmes mystery updated for both the modern world and its audience. Jamie’s obsession with a person he has never met in person mirrored the truth of my own teen experience. Charlotte's self-destructive choices and eventual emotional growth make total sense in context for a high school kid. The gender-swapped characters paid homage to the Sherlock Holmes of the past but were clearly their own. The result? A fun riff on Arthur Conan Doyle’s signature creation that will appeal to those familiar with Holmes AND those who are not.

In all: A Study in Charlotte is a quick, fun read, and a marvelous distraction. I can’t wait to see what’s next in the sequel The Last of August (out next week!).

Recommended for: anyone who has enjoyed BBC’s Sherlock (even the non-readers!), and for fans of clever contemporary YA.

the chimes

Friday, February 3, 2017 | | 1 comments
How did Anna Smaill’s The Chimes end up in my pile of books to read? That’s the question I’m asking myself after finishing it in one gulp yesterday. I stayed home sick from work and couldn’t bear to stare at a screen. The printed page worked though, so I read a really wonderful book in between naps and cups of tea. It’s the sort of book I thought would have been praised to the skies, the coverage unavoidable. If it was, I missed it. And my library only has two print copies in the system (and no ebooks), so they missed it too. My best guess is that I saw it mentioned in Book Riot’s Swords & Spaceships newsletter from November 4 (those lovely, simple days pre-election) – and I must have added it then to my library holds list. In any event, go find a copy for yourself and read it because it. is. fantastic.

the chimes by anna smaill book cover
After the end of a brutal civil war, London is divided, with slums standing next to a walled city of elites. Monk-like masters are selected for special schooling and shut away for decades, learning to write beautiful compositions for the chimes, played citywide morning and night, to mute memory and keep the citizens trapped in ignorance.

A young orphan named Simon arrives in London with nothing but the vague sense of a half-forgotten promise, to locate someone. What he finds is a new family--a gang of scavengers that patrols the underbelly of the city looking for valuable metal to sell. Drawn in by an enigmatic and charismatic leader, a blind young man named Lucien with a gift for song, Simon forgets entirely what originally brought him to the place he has now made his home.

In this alternate London, the past is a mystery, each new day feels the same as the last, and before is considered "blasphony." But Simon has a unique gift--the gift of retaining memories--that will lead him to discover a great injustice and take him far beyond the meager life as a member of Lucien's gang. Before long he will be engaged in an epic struggle for justice, love, and freedom.

In Simon’s world, the music of the Chimes at the end of the day wipes away memory, and the Onestory at the start of the day tells the story of humanity’s history. Since humans can’t hold on to memories, they hold on to bodymemory (repetitive actions mostly having to do with their trade) and objectmemory (imbuing specific objects with a memory they want to keep with them). But newly orphaned Simon has a gift – he can see memories and hold on to them longer than most. When he makes his way to London he falls in with a group of scavengers led by the ringleader Lucien and forgets about his past and his quest – for a time. Memory won’t leave him alone though, even in a world where that shouldn’t be possible.

Do you know that strange familiar feeling when a story is deeply original, but it somehow also reminds you of some thing, some touchstone in your memory? That is both the baseline story and the feeling evoked by this book. It is clear from the very start that something is deeply awry in Simon’s world, and that something has to do with music. Music is so pervasive it has replaced most speech, and the written word (code) has died out completely. From page 31 of The Chimes, “The words are simple, because words are not to be trusted. Music holds the meaning now.” The Onestory says that words were the thing that brought about the end of the world. And with no one who can remember yesterday, much less the past, all of London must accept that as fact.

The Chimes is chilling and poetic and original, and I loved it. Music permeates every page, every part of life in Simon’s London. Events occur subito or lento, not suddenly or slowly, and time is marked in musical notation. That said, you need not have a background in music to “get it” – everything can be picked up in context. And as you’d imagine with a story told in an amnesiac world, the truth comes to light only slowly, in fits and starts, as memory unravels. Meditations on the meaning and genius of music, truth, and the shape and fragility of human memory (and then what that means about the “essentials” of life) – these are the things that take a dystopian tale and marry it to literary fiction. The resulting story is just gorgeous.

Other marks in its favor: it’s fairly short, it has good cross-over potential (there’s nothing subject matter-wise that I’d hesitate to give to a mature twelve year old), and though it has the “tag” of literary fiction, it would fit just as well on a sci-fi and fantasy shelf. Also [spoiler: highlight to see text] the only romantic relationship is a gay one, so that’s happy-making [end spoiler].

So I’ve told you why I love it. But. This book will not work for everyone, as evidenced by its Goodreads rating. It doesn’t teem with a constant sense of danger, and there’s no villain to root against from the start.  Subtle, complex stories have to hit the right chord with the reader, and if you add up the heavily musical language, dystopian setting, and memory loss afflicting the characters, reader drop off is a given. It’s a book that takes a bit of patience, but it’s wildly inventive and unsettling and beautifully written once you’ve gotten inside and been swept away.

I happened to read The Chimes at the right time. I needed a story that was simultaneously beautiful and new, and that asked the age-old questions, “Do the ends justify the means?” and “What does it mean to be human?”

Recommended for: fans of the music of Patricia McKillip’s writing, the sincerity of Patrick Ness’ protagonists, and the subtlety of Leah Bobet’s worldbuilding, those looking for an adult readalike of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, and anyone who loves music, cleverly wrought dystopias, and/or literary fiction.

juana and lucas

Friday, January 20, 2017 | | 1 comments
It’s Inauguration Day here in Washington, DC. I have the day off of work because I live a couple of streets away from Arlington National Cemetery and my office is on Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s still a Friday, but the library is closed and I don’t want to turn on the TV. I do want to do something constructive – something that will make a difference and build up my spirits. So, I’m reviewing a book by a local author – by a Spanish-speaking immigrant, even. I want to share with you a book that is adorable, smart, different, and immensely readable. Let’s talk about Juana Medina’s Juana & Lucas.

juana and lucas by juana medina book cover
Fans of Judy Moody and Clarice Bean will love Juana, the spunky young Colombian girl who stars in this playful, abundantly illustrated new series.

Juana loves many things — drawing, eating Brussels sprouts, living in Bogotá, Colombia, and especially her dog, Lucas, the best amigo ever. She does not love wearing her itchy school uniform, solving math problems, or going to dance class. And she especially does not love learning the English. Why is it so important to learn a language that makes so little sense? But when Juana’s abuelos tell her about a special trip they are planning—one that Juana will need to speak English to go on—Juana begins to wonder whether learning the English might be a good use of her time after all. Hilarious, energetic, and utterly relatable, Juana will win over los corazones — the hearts — of readers everywhere in her first adventure, presented by namesake Juana Medina.

Juana is a rambunctious girl who lives in Bogotá, Colombia with her mother and her dog Lucas. Juana loves many things – her abuelos (grandparents), art, her best friend at school, her city (and of course her Mami and Lucas!)… but she does not love learning English. It’s difficult, it’s boring, and she wonders what the point is. When her grandfather tells her that the family will visit Florida, everything changes. Juana MUST learn English!

Juana & Lucas is an illustrated chapter book with a lot of heart. Juana has the same sort of thoughts and worries and dreams as any kid – she’s relatable, and she’s smart and fun. While Juana is hilariously lamenting how boring English is, she drops many little tidbits about life in Colombia, and the reader learns a bit of Spanish too – all Spanish words are italicized and understandable in the context of the story. Juana’s happy, functioning family (in a unique environment) is also important, as oftentimes parents in children’s lit are absent, dead, or worse.

Author Juana Medina both wrote and illustrated the text, and her art is a colorful mix of black lines and watercolor. The effect is cheery and vibrant, and the simplicity of the figures and outlines is likely to inspire her grade-school readers to imitate and carry on telling Juana’s future adventures. My favorite page spreads were the ones where Juana identifies every item by name.

In all, Juana & Lucas is a vibrant, fun early picture book for any kid or kid-at-heart.

Recommended for: early readers, reluctant readers, fans of comics and art, and… anyone, really!

Fine print: I picked up an advance copy of this title for review consideration from the publisher at Book Expo America.

the princess and the warrior

I go through cycles with book discovery. Sometimes I rely on recommendations from my book club, other times I pay attention to what the book blogging community seems to like, and occasionally I’ll go on a “throwback” kick and look up the backlist titles of favorite or new favorite authors. With Duncan Tonatiuh’s picture book The Princess and the Warrior, it was pure serendipity. I had planned to visit the Abrams booth at Book Expo America (an enormous annual book fair)(in other words, heaven!) to look for another title, and saw an image of the cover and note that Tonatiuh would be signing copies later. I quickly identified the story as fairy tale/myth, the art as traditional Central American, and was instantly sold.

the princess and the warrior by duncan tonatiuh book cover
Award-winning author Duncan Tonatiuh reimagines one of Mexico’s cherished legends. Princess Izta had many wealthy suitors but dismissed them all. When a mere warrior, Popoca, promised to be true to her and stay always by her side, Izta fell in love. The emperor promised Popoca if he could defeat their enemy Jaguar Claw, then Popoca and Izta could wed. When Popoca was near to defeating Jaguar Claw, his opponent sent a messenger to Izta saying Popoca was dead. Izta fell into a deep sleep and, upon his return, even Popoca could not wake her. As promised Popoca stayed by her side. So two volcanoes were formed: Iztaccíhuatl, who continues to sleep, and Popocatépetl, who spews ash and smoke, trying to wake his love.

The Princess and the Warrior is the story of Itza and Popoca, who according to legend lived long ago in the area near modern-day Mexico City. Princess Itza spent her days in the fields, teaching poetry to the workers. She had no interest in leaving her life to live in a palace, and so she was not swayed by the rich men who wanted to marry her for her beauty. Popoca, a simple warrior, won her heart with honesty and a promise of loyalty. In order to gain her father’s blessing, Popoca went out to fight a fierce enemy clan. When he was close to defeating them, Itza was tricked by the enemy’s messenger and fell into a sleep from which she never awakened. Popoca kept his promise to stay by Itza, and in time they turned into two volcanoes which look over Mexico City today.

I am HERE for fairy tale retellings and myths and legends, and this one is a great one, wrapped up in a beautiful package. Tonatiuh’s retelling includes not only a bittersweet story (ugh, the angst of lovers divided by deception!), but he also highlights the use of poetry, sprinkles Nahuatl and Spanish words throughout, and focuses on characters who defy gender stereotypes (Itza by valuing honesty and loyalty above riches and compliments, Popoca by accepting Itza as she is and promising to stay by her forever and then following through). Love story based on honesty, loyalty, and intelligence, featuring Native American characters, with a mythic background? It just hits on so many of my favorite things, and we’re not even counting the fact that I spent three years in grad school focused on Latin American history. I really like this book, friends.

On to the art! Which is basically a bonus for me at this point but for most people it can make/break a picture book. As you may be able to tell from the cover, the style pays homage to traditional pre-Columbian art, where people and animals are always depicted in profile. The digital collage method that Tonatiuh used highlights the texture of the textiles of the characters' dress (linen and other woven materials are distinguishable), and the colors and backdrops are bright and active. The style might take a minute to adjust to, but it enhances the story and adds another layer of context to the legend. There's plenty for little eyes to look at, and the Jaguar Claw warrior panels are particularly engaging.

In all, The Princess and the Warrior is a lovely picture book suitable for all ages. I plan to gift it to my young cousin who is obsessed with princesses, and I'll also strongly encourage my elementary school teacher friends to stock it in their classroom libraries. Diverse kidlit FTW!

Recommended for: fans of myth, legend, and pre-Columbian history, and anyone with a stake in supporting diverse children's literature and #ownvoices.

Fine print: I picked up a copy of this title for review consideration at BEA. I did not receive any compensation for this post.
Older Posts Home