Book Review: The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand

I tend to choose books from my eclectic reading list on a whim, but lately, in part because I’m preparing to write my youngest protagonist ever and in part because I was inspired by fellow author Aubrey Cann, who is doing the same, I’ve been on something of a Middle Grade kick. It’s been a long time since I’ve read MG and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but that was the point: to rediscover and explore.

And what an exploration it has been.

Only three books into my MG expedition, I encountered The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand. I LOVE THIS BOOK. Creepy, compelling, and spearheaded by a haughty perfectionist whose greatest weapons are her standards, Cavendish is an unexpected, nightmarish delight that both charms and chills.

Book: The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls

Author: Claire Legrand

Julie’s rating: ****

Synopsis

In the cobblestoned town of Belleville, everything is picturesque. Neighborhoods are well-kept, inhabitants are rich and successful, and twelve-year-old Victoria Wright is at the top of her class.

Life would be perfect if her classmates didn’t keep disappearing.

When Victoria’s best and only friend Lawrence Prewitt vanishes, too, it’s up to her to get to the bottom of things. There is something unusual, after all—something eerie, something sinister—about the things that have been happening lately: the missing children who her classmates can’t seem to remember, the too-bright smiles and glassy-eyed looks of parents and teachers when she asks about them, the warning note her own housekeeper silently slips to her at breakfast: “Be careful.” Something in Belleville is wrong. Very wrong.

And that something resides at Nine Silldie Place, The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls.

Thoughts

I’ve already said I loved the book. Here are a few reasons why:

1. The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls is all over that Coraline, Tim Burton-y quality of magical darkness. I LOVE IT. There’s even a hint of Matilda to it, though Victoria has no superpowers (excepting her infamous withering look, which tends to help her get her way).

2. The Home. Inside the orphanage is like a living bad dream: the walls whisper and move. Mirrors play tricks. Painted crows with human hands come to life and swoop down at you. Hallways stretch and redecorate, passages and rooms appear and disappear and change. At times the Home seems to speak and breathe and have a heartbeat. And if you hum in its presence…Well, find out at your own risk!

3. Victoria as lead. This twelve-year-old KICKS BUTT. She’s snobbish and proud (her biggest problem before Lawrence goes missing is getting a B and losing her spot at the top of the class) and yet wholly loveable. When she marches into the nightmare she does it with her head held high, willing herself above fear and refusing to be intimidated. Her indignation at everything from an annoying, yapping dog to the shocking horrors of Mrs. Cavendish’s Home is both endearing and sympathy-garnering. I really found myself rooting for her.

mrs cavendishAnd finally, separate from the writing but an amazing experience for me nonetheless: the illustrations. For one thing, it’s been a very long time since I’ve read a chapter book that was illustrated, so nostalgically-speaking that was pleasant and unexpected. For another, Sarah Watts’ works really were quite charming on their own (again: something of that elegant Tim Burton-y beauty and darkness). But what was coolest for me was a new sense of appreciation. As I’ve been experimenting with handdrawn images–> Photoshop in recent months, I found myself noticing things about Watts’ pictures I would not have observed before. The pencil-like quality of some strokes, while others were solid. Places where color was inverted (white on black rather than black on white). The way everything was arranged together, and how many lines were not clean or straight but everything still looked phenomenal.

See: Mrs. Cavendish smiled. “I make a point of knowing all the children in the area. Professional interest, you know.”

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Book Review: Counting to D by Kate Scott

Kate Scott is a very talented author in my local critique group. I had the pleasure of reading her debut novel Counting to D in advance of its release, and today share my thoughts on it. Counting to D officially launches February 11, but you can enter Kate’s Rafflecopter giveaway between now and February 2 for a chance to win your own copy!

              author pic           

To the review!

The Book

Book: Counting to D

Author: Kate Scott

Publisher: Elliot Books

Release date: February 11, 2014

Rating: 4 stars

Goodreads | Author Website | Elliot Books

Synopsis

The kids at Sam’s school never knew if they should make fun of her for being too smart or too dumb. That’s what it means to be dyslexic, smart, and illiterate. Sam is sick of it. So when her mom gets a job in a faraway city, Sam decides not to tell anyone about her little illiteracy problem. Without her paradox of a reputation, she falls in with a new group of highly competitive friends who call themselves the Brain Trust. When she meets Nate, her charming valedictorian lab partner, she declares her new reality perfect. But in order to keep it that way, she has to keep her learning disability a secret. The books are stacked against her and so are the lies. Sam’s got to get the grades, get the guy, and get it straight—without being able to read. —Goodreads

Review

Warning: May contain spoilers!

Any kid who’s ever moved will be able to identify with Sam Wilson, who at the beginning of Counting to D moves to Portland and away from her two close friends and the safety she’s known all her life. Moving is scary enough, but add to that a learning disability that means illiteracy and the pressure is on not just to find her place at Kennedy High, but to keep anyone from discovering her secret…

In addition to the brilliant, Sam-shaped portrait of dyslexia Counting to D paints—taking refuge in numbers, count patterns, advanced math; having to listen to textbooks, pretending to take notes during class, discreetly conning lab partners into reading directions and writing up reports; the paradox of wanting to be like everyone else and embracing the differences that predispose Sam to unusual talents—what resonated with me even more was a universal theme: wanting to be accepted.

At least as much as surviving Spanish and improving her ability to read and spell, Sam worries about having friends—and that opens this book up to so much more than dyslexia. As she meets new people and gets to know them, Sam is constantly asking, Does that make us friends? Does this mean we’re friends now? and evaluating how they perceive her.

And the friends she makes are half the fun: everything from smart geeks with slight BO problems to two-faced popular girls, a star athlete, and a somber valedictorian boyfriend. I LOVED the characters in this book! They were complex, surprising, and more than anything human: with their own shortcomings and vulnerabilities, same as Sam.

Contains other high school drama/rites of passage: cliques, bad grades, prom, relationships, parties, etc.

An inspiring read. Perfect for anyone looking for insight on dyslexia or just the kid next door trying to fit in.

And don’t forget the giveaway! Enter between now and February 2 for your chance to win.

Well that was unexpected.

Whittling away at my To-Read List, my three most recent reads were this:

  1. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka [depressing]
  2. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green [more depressing]
  3. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath [MAIN CHARACTER TRIES TO KILL HERSELF.]

I don’t know if you’re familiar with these books, but if not, let me break it down for you:

The Metamorphosis is about a guy who wakes up one morning as a monster– something like a beetle– and becomes totally useless and repulsive to his family.  They keep him locked out of sight in his room, feed him scraps and crumbs, and when he gets out he tends to upset the guests. (It’s unclear whether Gregor has had a mental lapse or is actually a bug. Some scholars think the story is a metaphor for the life of a writer. HOW ENCOURAGING.)

The Fault in Our Stars is about children (well, okay, mostly snarky teenagers) with cancer.

The Bell Jar is about a woman who loses interest in life and tries to kill herself, only to be sent to shock therapy and later institutionalized. NOT FUN FACT: author Sylvia Plath struggled with depression herself, and ended her life shortly after the book was published.

Now, while The Fault in Our Stars admittedly also made me laugh aloud more than any other book I can remember, isolationism, cancer, and mental illness are all pretty depressing subjects. Stack the three back to back and add several chapters about the violence-ridden dealings of an organized crime family (my latest beta reading which, despite its dark nature, I am very much enjoying) and you’ll get something close to the DOOM CLOUDS OF MISERY AND DEVASTATION brewing over my head.

Anyway, as I was finishing up The Bell Jar, I got an email saying that my latest library reservation was in.

Me: Oh thank god. Finally I can end this sadness.

*Opens email to see what book is in*

Me: AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

The Good News: despite the morbid nature of the title and the fact that there is a dismembered arm on the cover, I’m 61 pages in and can safely report that the book is HILARIOUS. Turns out David Wong, the eponymous main character and listed author of John Dies at the End, is the pseudonym of Jason Pargin, the editor in chief of Cracked.com.

THANK JESUS.

On Gabriel García Márquez’s Love In The Time of Cholera

I had heard about this book forever, but the first time I really noticed it was at the Kinokuniya bookstore in Shibuya. There the title was available not only in its original language (Spanish) but the also local language (Japanese) as well as the one I’m actually fluent enough in to read without having to consult a dictionary several times a page. Which is really pretty impressive, given that the whole of Japan is smaller than California and there isn’t a lot of space or market for books in foreign languages there, even in cities that see significant tourist traffic like Tokyo.

Without going into an incredible amount of detail, I’d like to say that having read the book I can now see why it earned its place in several languages on Kinokuniya bookshelves.

For starters, format. This book is unlike any other I have ever read. A word to the wise: Love in the Time of Cholera is NOT for the impatient. Flip through it and you will see very little white space. That’s because Márquez likes his prose. He likes it a lot. If lengthy paragraphs were foodstuffs, Márquez would probably butter his toast with them morning, noon, and night and have seven or eight cups throughout the day besides. There is spoken dialogue, but it is very limited, and rarely more than a single line at a time.

And yet, unlike Robinson Crusoe (the only other book I have read that is comparable in this sense), which was dry and hard to read, Love in the Time of Cholera is romantic. It WOOS you. There is poetry in that prose and it is divine. You warm up to it and it serenades you, not unlike Florentino Ariza’s Waltz of the Crowned Goddess played at a distance from Fermina Daza’s window in the evening darkness. That said,

The story’s direction is also unusual: gradual and roundabout rather than linear. It is organic: like a story told by a grandparent.

Subtlety. This is a work that is subtle in every sense. Its drama is subtle, its humor is subtle, is victories are subtle. There is a scene near the beginning that is at once hilarious and painful and mundanely relatable in which Dr. Juvenal Urbino and Fermina Daza stop talking to one another and almost destroy their marriage over a bar of soap. True story.

Humanity. Love. Vulnerability. Passion and dreams, disappointment and shortcomings. And yet– beauty through the pain. These are the things found in Love in the Time of Cholera, and the makings of a not only historical but profoundly human experience. Consider Florentino Ariza’s attempts to recover purportedly sunken treasure off the Colombian coast via diving and rowboat. His purpose is noble: the treasure will enable him to marry Fermina Daza. But when Florentino shows his mother the pearls and jewels his hired diver has recovered, she tests them and reveals that they are fake: he has been duped. And what about the Doctor who is successful but socially awkward, and uses the magical, generic question “Do you like music?” to formulaically propose friendship?

The novel is poignant: both cutting and beautiful.

A Crumb on Food

If you’ve glanced at my Goodreads box lately, you may have noticed the addition of a book called Food Rules by Michael Pollan. It is a brilliant, brilliant collection: so much so that I intend to write an entirely different post on the book itself and the medium it’s presented in. This post harkens more to the message of the book.

While the book has many great messages (it is full of adages and other wisdoms), a common theme I come away with is this:

You are what you eat.

This is not a new saying. We hear it often: you are what you eat, do, see, watch, listen to; who you associate with.

But when you start thinking of this in terms of grains and vegetables vs. maltodextrin, ferric orthophosphate, high frutcose corn syrup, xanthan gum, disodium inosinate, tripolyphosphate and red 40 (none of which my word processor recognizes as words, nor would my great grandparents recognize as food), the message doesn’t just resonate. It rattles. I don’t know about you, but if I am what I eat (that is, if my body absorbs it and it impacts my life and health now as well as over time), I would much rather be an apple or spinach or brown rice than a synthesized chemical. You know– punctuated with cookies and doughnuts here and there.

We live in a time when heavily processed and/or sugar-, salt-, and fat-injected foods are abundant and often more affordable than their healthier, wholefood counterparts. I did not realize to just what degree until I read Rule #13 in Pollan’s book:

Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle

The rule elaborates: most stores are laid out the same, with fresh produce, meat, dairy, and baked goods around the edges and all the processed foods in between. Think about all of those center aisles. Think about how much of the store they take up. Are our diets like that, too? What does that say about us? And given that, is it any wonder, as Pollan says in his introduction, that

Populations that eat a so-called Western diet– generally defined as…lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of refined grains, lots of everything except vegetables, fruits, and whole grains– invariably suffer from high rates of the so called Western diseases: obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

?

It gives one something to think about– and that’s just the introduction.

The book gives dozens of excellent pointers and pearls about what and how to eat from as many cultures and origins. Rather than tell you my favorite “rules,” I think I will just encourage you to pick it up– it’s a worthwhile read. But if I can leave you with anything on the topic, it would be this: your diet impacts your life. Make the most of it.

With Thanks to Mr. Dickens

Call me old-fashioned, but I like it when books send me to the dictionary.

I didn’t always. In fact, it really used to bother me– I disliked anything that took away from the narrative flow of a book, especially if authors went out of their way to be convoluted. I could barely sit still in high school as it was; I had neither the attention span nor the patience for books whose language went too often beyond my grasp. Studying for the SATs was bad enough!

Even now I almost never actually stop in the middle of reading to look up a word I don’t know (though in the better writing I have seen, you often don’t need to because enough context is given to derive meaning).  Instead I note words I don’t know on my bookmark. Then, when I finish the book (or when my scrap of paper fills up– whichever comes first) I’ll look up all of the words and print myself out a neat a little vocab sheet.

Ta-da! Learning!

Recently I finished Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Have you read it?

If not, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Engaging, haunting, and humorous (dry as well as whimsical; wonderfully European), it is the Brit Lit to end all Brit Lits. As the blurb by Sir Philip Sidney above puts it,

A tale which holdeth children from play and old men from the chimney corner.

Read it. You won’t regret it.

But to the point. Thanks to Mr. Dickens, I add twenty-some words to my verbal arsenal:

antipode: (n.) a direct or exact opposite

bagatelle: (n.) a trifle; an easy task; a short piano piece

buxom: (adj.) [of a woman] plump, well-endowed

chary: (adj.) cautious, wary; cautious about the amount one reveals

connubial: (adj.) of or relating to marriage

contiguous: (adj.) sharing a common border; touching; next or together in a sequence

contumacious: (adj.) stubbornly disobedient to authority

despondent: (adj.) in low spirits from loss of courage or hope

diadem: (n.) a jeweled crown or headband worn as a symbol of sovereignty

disconsolate: (adj.) without comfort; unhappy; cheerless

kosher: (adj.) food prepared according to Jewish law

lurcher: (n.) a crossbred dog (collie or sheepdog + greyhound) usually used in hunting; a prowler, swindler, or petty thief

necromantic: (adj.) divining through alleged communication with the dead

ophthalmic: (adj.) of or relating to the eye and its diseases

paroxysm: (n.) a sudden attack or violent expression of a particular emotion or activity

plenipotentiary: (n.) a person (diplomat) invested with full power of independent action on behalf of their government (often in a foreign country)

pugilistic: (adj.) fist-fighting; boxing

rapacious: (adj.) aggressively greedy or grasping

rubicund: (adj.) having a ruddy [red] complexion; high-colored

sagacious: (adj.) shrewd; having keen mental discernment

sententious: (adj.) 1. abounding in aphorisms and maxims; 2. given to excessive moralizing

truant: (n.) a student who stays away from school without leave or explanation; wandering, straying; skipping out

truculent: (adj.) eager to fight or argue

Enjoy!