Monthly Archives: November 2011

“The Summer I Learned to Fly” by Dana Reinhardt


Dana Reinhardt's "The Summer I Learned to Fly" is a quiet, charming novel about the summer of 1986, a pivotal moment in Robin Drew "Birdie" Solo's life. Birdie, fresh out of school, is helping her widowed mom run her new business, the local cheese shop. Each sunny California day at the shop, Birdie makes pasta with handsome surfer Nick, chats with lovable Swoozie, and does her best to keep her treasured rat, Humboldt Fog, out of mom's sights and safely hidden in her backpack. When Birdie discovers leftover cheese is continually being removed from the alley trash, she stumbles upon Emmett Crane, a quirky teen boy with a shady past and a penchant for making paper cranes. Emmett becomes Birdie's first true friend, leading her through a summer of heartache and discovery that concludes with an unexpected adventure far from home.

I hesitate to provide more details about the plot, because part of the joy of reading "The Summer I Learned to Fly" lies in its slow, careful revelation of Emmett's secrets. So let me simply tell you why I enjoyed this book so much; then you can learn all the details when you go out and read it yourself. :-p

Though set in the mid-80s, Birdie's story has a timeless quality to it. This book is most definitely not the kind that gets bogged down in the the latest fashions or the coolest gadgets. This book is, instead, a rich, layered story about human relationships. Reinhardt beautifully depicts Birdie and Emmett's shy friendship, in which Birdie finally discovers how much of the world opens up when you have a true friend by your side. Reinhardt also provides other relationships to cherish, including Birdie and Nick's so much more than a summer crush friendship, in which Birdie gracefully accepts Nick's girlfriend, and a mother-daughter bond that is frayed, challenged, and somehow strengthened as Birdie grows up and mom tries to move past her grief.

"The Summer I Learned to Fly" is a lyrical, subtle story about real people, in which all aspects of real life — joy, pain, sorrow, exuberance, fear, growth — are conveyed with depth, warmth, and genuine emotion. I had read one of Reinhardt's books in the past ("How to Build a House") and wasn't nearly as bowled over as I was here. There are so many perfect, authentic touches here, such as Birdie's guilt in reading her deceased dad's journal-like "Book of Lists"; Emmett's well-crafted crane messages, full of sorrow and hope; and the love and beauty that can be poured into pasta making. Perhaps those moments are what made this is a truly incandescent read for me. Regardless of why, I can tell you I found "The Summer I Learned to Fly" to be a wonderful, heartfelt story about a final, glorious summer of childhood innocence. I highly recommend it to boys and girls in early middle school and higher.

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Posted by on November 10, 2011 in Uncategorized


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“Icefall” by Matthew J. Kirby


In the interest of full disclosure, let me begin by saying that I never would've read Matthew Kirby's Nordic adventure "Icefall" were it not on the discussion list for my Book Fest Sleepers group. I don't do fantasy, which is immediately how I pegged "Icefall," based on its glowing glacier / magic hammer cover. My bad, Scholastic. My bad. "Icefall" is a rousing, action-packed tale of — get this! — historical fiction set in Viking times. This is not a fantasy story. At all. And before you run screaming in the opposite direction, please let me add that historical fiction is not one of my faves, either. But "Icefall" works in a genre-busting, hey, this is just a great story kind of way.

Plain middle sister Solveig, younger brother Harald, and gorgeous older sister Asa are sent by their father, the King, to a frozen fjord for the winter. The King hopes to keep his heir, Harald, and his other children hidden and safe from a rampaging foe, Gunnlaug. A trusted young soldier, Per, accompanies them on the trip, as does long-time slave Ole and household servants (and mother and son) Bera and Raudi. Before the inlet freezes completely, a warship full of berserkers — think giant, fierce warriors in bearskins! — arrives, sent by the King in a last gasp effort to defend his children against Gunnlaug's forces.

As winter surrounds and covers them, Solveig and her siblings adjust to their icy, isolated home. Brokenhearted Asa mostly stays in bed and steals furtive glances at Per, while young Harald bravely tries to buck up and grow into the man everyone demands he become. Solveig becomes a sort of apprentice to Alric, the skald (storyteller) who accompanied the berserkers to the fjord. Alric teaches Solveig the power of mythmaking, and observant, sensitive Solveig — long overlooked by her father for these very traits — displays a natural talent for weaving tales around the evening hearth fire.

When a traitor emerges in the group (the few cows are slaughtered, berserkers are poisoned and killed), the hungry, frightened occupants of this far-removed world begin to turn against each other. I loved how the claustrophobic setting and thickening suspicion heighten the suspense as the story progresses. Very well done! When Gunnlaug's marauders arrive in early spring, the survivors have been weakened by fear and illness, making them easy prey. Solveig then must use every bit of her ingenuity and skill to keep her clan together and find a means of escaping Gunnlaug's clutches.

Along the way, we learn much about ancient Norse belief systems, including death rituals, runes, ravens, and such gods as Odin and Thor, whose hammer figures prominently in the story (and on the book's cover!). We are also treated to the complex, touching relationship that develops between Solveig and Hake, the fearsome leader of the berserkers, in which love, loyalty, and sacrifice are all richly presented. And while the climactic scene is telegraphed long in advance — again, the book cover! — it does nothing to undermine its dramatic heft.

I was truly blown away by how much I enjoyed "Icefall." It's a perfect novel for middle grade readers (boys *and* girls) who are looking for an exciting story full of intrigue, action, and even mythology from a long-ago era. Its icy setting, amazingly dimensional characters, and well-integrated themes of courage and faith only enrich the experience. While the book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, enough plot threads are resolved to provide a satisfying conclusion.

PS – I can't leave this review without mentioning author Kirby's technique of inserting snippets from one of Solveig's stories throughout the novel. When we finally realize why Solveig is reciting this particular story to her surviving clan members, her actions resonate more powerfully. It's a wonderful device to introduce portions of each character's history, and, as importantly, to fully capture the emotional bonds Solveig has forged with each of them. Brilliant.

PPS – "Icefall" is out now. READ IT!

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Posted by on November 2, 2011 in Uncategorized


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“Where Things Come Back” by John Corey Whaley


Author John Corey Whaley was recently honored by the National Book Foundation as one of its "5 Under 35" young fiction writers. Whaley's first novel, "Where Things Come Back," was placed on the list for my Sleepers discussion group at this year's Book Fest at Bank Street College. [Which, side note, but Book Fest is a great event, y'all. Get on the mailing list for next year!] I can honestly say I would not have read this literary teen novel if not for Book Fest; I can also say that, a full two weeks after finishing "Where Things Come Back," I'm still not entirely sure what to make of it.

In the simplest terms, we have parallel stories with different narrators and points of view. The main thread is narrated by Cullen Witter, the kind of sardonic teen we know well in the world of YA fiction. Cullen's sensitive, endearing younger brother Gabriel mysteriously vanishes one day, shortly after a phony naturalist lands in Lily, Arkansas and announces the reappearance of the long extinct Lazarus woodpecker. The second thread, told in the third person by an omniscient narrator, involves a young, overwhelmed missionary named Benton Sage and his college roommate, handsome, popular Cabot Searcy. After Benton commits suicide, Cabot becomes obsessed with Benton's diary, which leads him to researching fallen angels, reincarnation, the apocalypse, and the Book of Enoch.

Right, so simple, linear plot, huh? 😉 There is much to admire about "Where Things Come Back." Whaley is a wonderful writer, impressively melding two very different storylines into a cohesive unit while maintaining suspense and tension along the way. There are lovely characterizations here — the friendship between Cullen and his loyal, unwavering best friend Lucas is breathtaking in its depth — as well as biting commentary on media hype and social hysteria. Whaley deftly explores the wounds caused by grief, portraying both the unending desperation of pain and the stoicism of survival. Even Cullen's snarky list of possible book titles can be both wistful and incredibly funny.

Yet, despite these obvious strengths and my genuine respect for Whaley's talent, I never felt very connected to Cullen. His detached, ironic manner — and his distance from his own emotions — made it difficult for me to feel invested in his story. For me, Cullen only came alive during his interactions with Lucas, as Lucas' profound love for his friend humanized this otherwise aloof character. The story itself (a brother physically lost, a troubled man lost to his own obsessions) also failed to maintain its intensity, as long passages would pass in fantasy or intellectualism. Until its finale, when Cabot emerges as a deranged monster, I was impatiently waiting for *something* compelling to happen.

With its bland folk art cover and truly bizarre plot points, I can't imagine a teen willingly selecting this novel. I felt as if I had to slog through long portions of this book, leading me to believe that teen readers would surrender long before the conclusion. In my Book Fest discussion group, several people actually raised the question of whether "Where Things Come Back" is even a teen book at all and, instead, perhaps an adult novel featuring teenage characters. Maybe this was my main issue, that this otherwise worthy novel is simply aimed at the wrong audience?

If you read "Where Things Come Back," please know it is most definitely not intended for very young readers. There are casual references to drinking, drug use, and sex, and Cullen (like many teenagers) regularly uses profanity in his daily dialogue. "Where Things Come Back" is out now. Hopefully you'll enjoy it more than I did.

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Posted by on November 1, 2011 in Uncategorized


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