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Flutter: The Story of Four Sisters and One Incredible Journey by Erin E. Moulton (2011)

“Monarchs are stronger than they look, baby,” Mama said, “and they have a powerful sense how to get where they are going, even if they have never been there before. And how to get home, for that matter. They’re resilient, strong, and smart, especially when traveling together” (p 164-5).

This adventure begins serenely. Maple Rittle and her older sister, Dawn, are carving pumpkins in preparation for Halloween on the mountain. Mama is humming in the kitchen with Beetle, the youngest Rittle, while daddy prepares Maple’s pumpkin. Maple chances to see a monarch butterfly outside the window though it is late in the season for it to be so far north.

The calm is suddenly interrupted with a scream when the fourth Rittle girl arrives prematurely. With their little sister fighting for her life in the hospital, Maple knows a miracle is needed. So she and Dawn head down river to find the Wise Woman and miracle water to cure Lily.

What begins as a journey of hope quickly turns dangerous as the girls encounter rocky rapids, hungry bears, and murderous poachers.

I believe Kirkus reviewed this book well:

While readers will turn pages to discover how all this is resolved and will sympathize with the girls’ motives for the trek, they’ll likely not buy that youngsters of these ages would believe in a magical presence and potion, and the sheer number of dangers strains credulity. Disappointing is the butterfly metaphor: Maple continually notices a monarch that acts as an encouraging totem and spirit guide at various dramatic stages throughout the novel. In the end, this turns out to be an unnecessary motif, because the girls ultimately learn that love and pulling together are really what effect miracles.

I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between this book and Birdsall’s Penderwick series. The titles are superficially similar. Both families have four girls and a dog with almost human-like intelligence. While I favor Birdsall’s writing and characters, the Rittles are a force in and of themselves and soon carve out a very different story from the rosie Penderwicks. Maple is tenacious and true, though I found it hard to believe a girl of Dawn’s age would embark on a miracle mission without simply asking her grandmother to take them to the Wise Woman. I would have liked to see more of the family before the girls set off.

The writing is fairly good and at times, very strong. I look forward to more from Moulton. The cover is beautiful and attractive. I’m sure it will circulate well.

Library copy (print) | Philomel | May 12, 2011 | 208 pages | ISBN: 978-0399255151 | Ages 9-12 | $16.99

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Wild Wings by Gill Lewis (2011)

At first, all I could see was the head of a bird above a pile of sticks, a creamy head with a brown stripe across the eye. Then the rest of the bird appeared. It was huge, with dark brown wings and a white belly. There was something prehistoric about it, like a beast of a lost world, too big for this landscape (p 28).

The first time Callum saw Iona McNair, she was standing as if frozen in a cold river.  Moments later, she plucks a trout out of the water with her hands. Callum’s friends Rob and Euan recognize her though, and send her away. Torn between his mates and a girl he finds intriguing, Callum doesn’t always do the right thing. But she has shared a secret with him. Osprays have returned to Scottland and they are nesting on Callum’s farm.

This story had shades of Bridge to Terabithia and Flipped to it but the characters here are never as fully endeared to the reader as they are in those excellent books. However, characters are clearly draw and their interactions realistic, though unsentimental and blunt in their portrayal.

The writing is stronger when the author tackles nature and the animals therein; therefore, readers will eagerly follow the female osprey, Iris, whose journey from Scotland to Africa and back again is tracked by Callum, his buddies and eventually their whole school. Some of my favorite chapters were those intermittent ones told from Iris’s perspective.

The novel includes beautiful illustrations by Yuta Onoda. It has received a starred review from Kirkus.

Library copy |  Antheum Books for Young Readers, a division of Simon & Schuster | 304 pages | May 24, 2011 | ISBN 978-1442414457 | $15.99

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A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper (2009)

24th October 1936

I did have several thoughts last night after I put my books away, but they were pathetic rather than profound. They were, I must admit, mostly about Simon Chester, Rebecca’s son (p 15).

This is the first book in The Montmaray Journals series, chronicling the royal family of the small, fictitious island country of Montmaray, located just northeast of the Bay of Buscay.

Sophie begins her journal on her sixteenth birthday. She lives with her uncle, the mad King John, her cousin, the intellectual Veronica, and her sister (who would rather be a boy) Henry. Toby, her charming elder brother is in England at school. Rebecca, the housekeeper, does little house work, spending most of her time caring for the King. But Rebecca’s son, Simon, is the object of Sophie’s ardor.

Few villagers live on the island but when two German’s arrive, their small island life hangs in the balance between the Facists and the Communists.

This book begins slowly, building late toward a faster paced climax/denouemont. It is a book with a lot of atmostphere, gothic overtones, and foundation in history. For me, it slumped in sections and took too long to plod through. I expected something to happen and so little did, until everything came to a head in at the conclusion.

There is a possible incestuous/homosexual relationship alluded to in very loose terms but not explored. Otherwise, it’s a pretty gentle read for the 6th through 8th grade kids. It is on the 2012 Garden State Teen Book Award ballot.

5

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys (2011)

They took me in my nightgown.
Thinking back, the signs were there — family photos burned in the fireplace, Mother sewing her best silver and jewelry into the lining of her coat late at night, and Papa not returning from work. My younger brother, Jonas, was asking questions. I asked questions, too, but perhaps I refused to acknowledge the signs. Only later did I realize that Mother and Father intended we escape. We did not escape.
We were taken (p 3).

It’s 1941 and Lithuania has been occupied by the Soviets for the last year. On June 14th, in the dead of night, the NKVD (the public and secret police of the Soviet Union acting under Joseph Stalin) round-up Lithuanians deemed troublesome.

Fifteen-year-old Lina, her ten-year-old brother, Jonas, and mother have twenty minutes to pack before they are led from their homes and sorted into overcrowded boxcars at the train station. Separated from their father, the family begins the long, cruel journey to Siberia.

For most Lithuanians, the boxcar is a tumbrel whose executioners are interminable hunger, pernicious guards, disease and freezing weather. Labeled thieves and prostitutes, those captured must rally together if they are to survive and maintain their humanity.

Desperate to learn of their father’s whereabouts, Lina passes on her art work – sketches and wood carvings – hoping they will reach the prison in which he is detained. It is how she captures the truth the Soviets hope to conceal from the world.

Gripping from the outset and fluid in its telling, I couldn’t put this one down. While it felt like my heart was in a vice throughout, a budding romance provided some levity and hope midway. Intermittent flashbacks to Lina’s life in Lithuania also provided a respite from the horrors of the NKVD and illumiated the reason her family was targeted.

An excellent book. Between Shades of Gray has received a starred review in Kirkus.

I also recommend:

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The Chemical Garden Trilogy: Wither by Lauren DeStefano (2011)

I fall asleep and have horrible dreams of sad girls with exquisite eyes, gray vans erupting with butterflies, windows that won’t open. And everywhere girls, tumbling from trees like orange blossoms and hitting the earth with sickening thuds. They crack open (p 111).

In the future, society is broken into two classes. The First Generations are old but very healthy. They were the first to benefit from genetic engineering – immune to diseases like cancer and other ailments like asthma.

The second class of people are descendants of the First Generations. They are the cursed. Males die at 25. Females at 20. Some of the First Generations experiment on the young trying to find a cure. Others are pro-naturalists, believing humanity is doomed to die out and those who remain should be left to live peacefully.

This has led to an underground market trading in young girls. Sixteen-year-old Rhine is caught by a group of Gatherers and sold to a doctor, Vaughn, bent on finding a cure to the genetic disease that will otherwise claim his son, Linden, who is 21.

Rhine becomes one of Linden’s three wives, desperate to escape the mansion that has become her prison and return to her twin brother in Manhattan, with Gabriel, a house attendant Rhine finds herself increasingly attracted to.

But it won’t be easy with Vaughn constantly watching and with his cold lab in the basement where Rhine can only speculate on what experiments are taking place.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Whither is another dystopia amid an influx of similar works in the wake of The Hunger Games. It’s strength is in its writing, but the setting and some of the story is less stable.

[SPOILERS]

Linden cannot be as ignorant as our narrator would have us believe. That he didn’t notice the other girls were shot when his brides (even in the process of being drugged!) noticed and that he didn’t wonder why the girls were kept like prisoners if they were willing applicants, is absurd. Even if he was ignorant of his own captivity, how could he be so deluded about the rest of the world (of which he has traveled)?

Also, DeStafeno’s version of the future didn’t jive with me either. If the polar ice caps have melted and other countries are undersea, how can Manhattan be above water?

So, all that aside, DeStefano does some good character building. Life inside the Governer’s mansion feels creepy and beautiful. The romance is a little stereotypical but I like that Rhine never seems to completely buy in to either boy.

[END SPOILERS]

Clearly, this is the beginning of a trilogy but this one could also stand on its own and I like that too. And I have to hand it to the book’s designer. Very eye catching and pleasing.

If you enjoyed this, try:

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Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (2011)

Every new year Mother visits
the I Ching Teller of Fate.
This year he predicts
our lives will twist inside out (p 4).

In 1975, ten-year-old Kim Hà, her mother and her three brothers celebrate the New Year, praying for the safe return of their father missing these last nine years from the South Vietnam Navy. In beautiful verse, Lai tells of the family’s decision to flee Saigon aboard a deserting Navy ship, their rescue by an American ship and the family’s decision to strike out for America to start a new life.   

Hà is a vivacious, spirited girl who carries this heavy story with humor and veracity, bringing to life the beauty of her country even in wartime. Spats with her brothers, anger at being treated unjustly by schoolmates in Alabama and a desire for sweet things will have readers of all backgrounds relating to and cheering for her.

Inside Out and Back Again received a starred review in Kirkus. Read other reviews: Fuse #8, Bookends, Pipedreaming, and Sherry’s Book Reviews and Tidbits.

If you enjoyed this, you must read:

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Stolen by Lucy Christopher (2010)

You saw me before I saw you. In the airport, that day in August, you had that look in your eyes, as though you wanted something from me, as though you’d wanted it for a long time. No one has ever looked at me like that before, with that kind of intensity. It unsettled me, surprised me, I guess. Those blue, blue eyes, icy blue, looking back at me as if I could warm them up. They’re pretty powerful, you know, those eyes, pretty beautiful, too (p 1).

Gemma is sixteen years old when she is approached, drugged and stolen from a Bangkok airport while on vacation with her parents. She is spirited away to the Australian outback by Ty, a handsome man nine years her senior.

Stolen is written in letter form by Gemma to Ty after her physical imprisonment is over. At the outset, Gemma is desperate to get away. Believing herself to be near some sort of civilization, she attempts to run away twice. Ty lets her because there is no place to go.

[SPOILER ALERT]

Her first attempt is on foot and short-lived. She climbs a tree and discovers:

There was nothing but sand and flatness and horizon. I used the branches to turn myself around, grazing my leg a little on the rock. But there were no buildings on the other side, no towns… not even a road. It looked the same on that side as it had looked near the house. Long, flat emptiness. I wanted to scream, probably the only reason I didn’t was because I was worried you would hear me. If I’d had a gun, I think I would have shot myself (p 66).

That night, she ends up bitterly cold and searching for a way through a fence Ty constructed. Only to be found and brought ‘home’ by Ty.

Ty then takes her on an outback expedition to catch a camel. He intends to use the camel’s natural immunity to snake venom to create an antibiotic, should they ever need one. All the while, Gemma hopes for rescue and remains alert for a chance to escape or signal help.

Her second attempt at escape involves the manual transition car Ty used to bring her to his house. Ty, thinking Gemma could not possibly drive it, surrenders the key, in hopes of convincing her that escape is futile. She fares better than he expected and gets away. But miles later, the car gets stuck, and Gemma proceeds on foot. As the heat and dehydration wear her down, and she is once again ‘rescued’ by Ty.

There is a changing point in the novel. It involves Ty’s artistic sensibilities, the vulnerability he exhibits (read: manipulation), and the gentle manner her treats Gemma with (when he’s not allowing her to be torn apart by the brutal environment). I like to think it also involves Gemma’s prolonged isolation with only Ty to converse with and the painful, weakening damage her body sustains during her abduction and her attempts to escape.  

But Gemma’s attitude toward Ty changes. She begins to understand him, making it harder for her to hate him. She goes so far as to feel tenderly for him. But her captivity ends before anything changes in their physical relationship.

I believe LizB is absolutely right when she writes, “part of what makes this book Award worthy is the discussions that will result.” I’ve seen varied reviews (some linked to below) and none of them fully encompass how I felt about the book.

For example, the setting and language are beautiful, complimenting each other in sparsity and hidden depths.

Yet the characterization… While Gemma resonates with me, Ty does not. Ty is described by some as humane (because he doesn’t rape her – what an odd distinction) but he was nothing more than a monster to me, ever. That he is broken makes him no more pitiable than a monster like Voldemorte. His actions determine my empathy and I have none for him.

Some say the lack of physical abuse allowed the reader to develop Stockholm Syndrome along with Gemma. hum. I thought Ty was very physically abusive, from the moment he drugged her and tossed her into the trunk of his car to the times he let her wander off on an escape attempt. He bosses her around verbally, makes her paint him and enter his twisted art… all in stark contrast to the beauty he is attempting to capture. He is ugly.

He wore Gemma down physically so he could break her mind. That he didn’t use his fist or his penis to do it is irrelevant.

For example, even as he promises to release Gemma to civilization after 4 months should she choose to go, he forebodes, “I can never let you go (p 235).”

I can understand how Gemma transforms her feelings. She is trusting, impressionable and desolate. She is manipulated, mentally and physically. She was stalked and studied.

As a reader, I was removed from those feelings. Rather, I read in trembling anticipation, my breathing short and sharp. It was a painful, heart-breaking thing to watch Gemma succumb.

Read other reviews: Bookalicious, A Chair, a Fireplace and a Tea Cozy, Persnickety Snark, and Wondrous Reads.