Tuesday, December 11, 2012

REVIEW: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation
Taken from Accounts by his Own Hand and Other Sundry Sources
Collected by Mr. M.T. Anderson of Boston 
Volume I: The Pox Party

“At long last, you may no longer distinguish what binds you from what is you.”

Octavian is a prince. He, and his mother, the princess, are cared for by a house of scientists and philosophers who study the world and perform meticulous experiments. Octavian is given the very best classical education, and learns to play the violin exquisitely. However, after a while, Octavian notices that he is not like other people. Only a few people have his dark skin color. No one else is evaluated like he is; even his poop is measured and examined daily. As Octavian grows older, he realizes how very wrong his world is, and he must break his bonds or die in the attempt.

This book was incredible, and not at all what I expected. A boy in a mask on the cover. A society of scientists with a secret. All during the American Revolution. I don't know why I had the impression that this was a fantasy novel. It is not. It is pure grade historical fiction.

The style sucks you back like a time machine. Anderson meticulously uses 18th century vocabulary, capitalization, and sentence structure, and apologizes in the Author's Note for the few moments he does not. More than once, I squeed about a word and vowed to use it more often. Anderson treats the novel as if it were compiled from primary sources. The first half of the novel is Octavian's written testimony. After an emotionally shattering event takes place, Octavian no longer writes, and the only information we receive about his adventures are from letters written in different voices from different parts of his journey. Only later does Octavian take up the quill again to tell his own story.

I do not wish to give too much away. The joy of this novel for me was in the discovery, in shifting my perspective with each new clue that something was not quite right.

It is also an incredible examination of slavery in Revolutionary America, when some were fighting for the freedom of people, others were fighting for their freedom to own property, and the slaves were caught in the deadly crossfire of words and bullets. Though I knew how slaves were treated, I was still shocked by the language and accepted dehumanizing mentality held by Colonial America. The book is an awesome assertion of individuality, an inspiring and brutal journey to freedom.

I can't wait to read the next one!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

John Green and Why/ How You Should Read

We interrupt our usual review programming to bring you something I am passionate about! Yet again, John Green has spoken what is in my heart, and this time it is about my favorite topic: books! He talks about how books are communication, and that reading is an act of empathy. How it is more important for the reader to get something inspiring out of a book than it is for the author's intent to be fully understood. AND how grammar  is so important!

If anyone asks you why reading is so important, here is a version of what Jon says (the list goes by so fast)! 

By reading critically and understanding language you will:

1) Have a fuller understanding of lives other than your own, which
2) Will help you to be more empathetic, and thereby
3) Help you to avoid getting dumped by that young woman in the first place, although more importantly,
4) Reading critically and attentively will give you the linguistic tools to share your own story with more precision.

And this will help you immensely in any field you enter, be it in finance where you have to give a presentation to the board, or in an argument where you are trying to explain your point of view, or as an author yourself!

Friday, November 16, 2012

REVIEW: An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 by Jim Murphy

An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793
by Jim Murphy

I absolutely loved this book. I was shocked that it was for kids! It was so gory and psychologically scary, and utterly compelling and informative. I definitely recommend it for people who love zombie plague stories. Or the 1700s. Or both!

This book tells the story of the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. It starts out slow, listing one death, then several in a boarding house. Then, it spreads down the street and to other portions of the neighborhood until the entire city is infected. It chronicles the panic, how people left the city in droves, and abandoned family members. It describes in detail the horrifying symptoms (complete with illustrations), including vomiting black blood and bile. And it tells of the heroic efforts of those who stayed in the city to help, which to me was the most interesting part of the book: the survival efforts, what happens when government breaks down, the unlikely heroes. It concludes with the sociological aftermath, those who wished to forget the plague, those who pointed fingers, those who had to defend their actions. As an afterward, it tells of the discovery of the causes of yellow fever a century later, and a vaccine in the mid 20th century. It ends with a warning that there has been no recent vaccine for yellow fever, and if it reemerges, we would be almost powerless to stop it. Upbeat ending for a children’s book, huh?

And that is exactly why I loved it. I enjoy kids books that don’t pull punches. They tell it like it is. I feel that what kids fear most is the fear of the unknown. The things parents are whispering about, but won’t tell them straight up. The monster in the dark that you can’t see. I feel that adults are this way too. Once you know what something is, once you can name it, once you know how to fight it, it loses some of it’s power.

This book is not only compelling, but it is highly informative. Jim Murphy did extensive research into primary sources, including letters, diaries and personal accounts of those who were there. Because of this, he was able to build a very intimate and highly descriptive narrative without embellishing with fiction. It does what the best nonfiction does: place you there in the dirty, quiet street, watching another cart full of dead bodies creak by. You feel you know the historical figures personally.

I would recommend this book to my adult friends too! Nowhere in this book did I think for a moment that it was “dumbed down” for children. I think it is comparable to John Adams by David McCollough (though a lot shorter) or Devil and the White City by Erik Larson (but with less speculation)!

If you want a quick, informative, highly disturbing glimpse into a moment of real life in the 1700s, this is the book for you!

I recommend this book if you liked:
Devil and the White City by Erik Larson
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

REVIEW: The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King

The Beekeeper's Apprentice
by Laurie R. King

“I became, in other words, more like Holmes than the man himself: brilliant, driven to a point of obsession, careless of myself, mindless of others, but without the passion and the deep-down, inbred love for the good in humanity that was the basis of his entire career. He loved the humanity that could not understand or fully accept him; I, in the midst of the same human race, became a thinking machine.” 

Mary Russell is a stubborn, frustrated, wildly intelligent girl of 15 when she stumbles across an old man sitting in a field watching bees. After fencing wits with him and impressing him with her keen powers of observation, he lets her into his life, first as a curiosity, then as an apprentice. The man, as you may have guessed, is Sherlock Holmes, who retired to Sussex to keep bees (yes, this is canon!) Mary and Holmes' relationship deepens from teacher and student to deep friends as they solve one case after another. Will they be able to maintain their bond when forces from the past threaten to tear them apart?

This review will not be my best, as my reading of this book has been choppy due to reading for school. I will cobble together what I can, and I hope that my impressions are accurate!

While the mysteries in this book are not my favorite, I have often discovered (from watching Castle) that we care less about the mysteries and more about the relationship of the main characters and how it develops over time. That is certainly true in this case. I had a hard time following the various mysteries at times. There were also a few stylistic quirks that irked me a bit. We were treated to not one, but two "and then we had more adventures that I won't tell you about, and now back to the real plot" (a pet peeve of mine). Towards the beginning of the book, the author would often jump ahead to say how this adventure that they had changed Mary's life and later on... and so you thought the adventure was over, but then it would return to a point in the middle of the adventure and continue. We also had a moment where the characters leave the country and do nothing relevant to the plot for a few chapters.

That being said, this Holmes is my Holmes. This is spindly, leaping, cackling, violin-playing, infuriatingly blunt Holmes. From the start, when he sat on the hill, rolled his "R"s condescendingly, and raised an eyebrow, I knew it was him. My Jeremy Brett from the Granada television series (which the author mentioned was her favorite Holmes). This Holmes had his energy, even at an old age, his passion, his incisive mind, and his deep hidden devotion to those close to him. At times, I did worry that his relationship with Russell, as Holmes called her, was getting too sentimental, but certainly by then end, I knew that that is the friendship I would have wanted with Holmes. The mutual respect and fatherly love he had for her by the end of the book was tuned perfectly.

As for Mary Russell, I loved her. She was not perfect. She was stubborn and bull-headed. But she was sharp, and brave, and did not give a shit about how she was perceived. She worked hard and earned every ounce of respect that Holmes gave her. She grew from a girl who was rebellious because she was angry to a formidable, self-possessed woman.

I did feel a little bad for Dr. Watson, or Uncle John, as Mary calls him. He is portrayed as a bit dim (compared to Mary and Holmes), but so full of love. This interpretation is absolutely supported by the original Holmes stories. Rather than having Watson as a true partner to Holmes, King holds up Watson as Holmes' empathy. Yes, Holmes has much of his own, but Holmes is the brain and Watson is the heart, and they need each other in that way. Mary, however, is Holmes' intellectual partner.

There are some truly moving moments in this book: a quiet talk about post traumatic stress and all the feelings it can unleash with a child who has returned from being kidnapped, a trip to Palestine that has special meaning for Russell, who is Jewish, and a night of emotionally intimate conversation between Holmes and Mary towards the end of the book that gave me the "if I was friends with Holmes, this is what I would want" moment. And the chess and beekeeping symbolism, sometimes both at once, was clever and fun!

While the mysteries were not as gripping as I would have hoped, the relationships and moments of humanity and beauty in this book have motivated me to get the next one!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

REVIEW: Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt

 Ok For Now
By Gary D. Schmidt

"I came over to the table to see how come it was the only lousy thing in the whole lousy room. 
And right away, I knew why. 
Underneath the glass was this book. A huge book. A huge, huge book. It's pages were longer than a good-size baseball bat. I'm not lying. And on the whole page, there was only one picture. Of a bird.
I couldn't take my eyes off it. 
He was all alone, and he looked like he was falling out of the sky and into this cold green sea. His wings were back, his tail feathers were back, and his neck was pulled around as if he were trying to turn but couldn't. His eye was round and bright and afraid, and his beak was open a little bit, probably because he was trying to suck in some air before he crashed into the water. The sky around him was dark, like the air was too heavy to fly in.
This bird was falling and there wasn't a single thing in the world that cared at all."

This is the story of how you make a bully. Or how you stop one from being made. It is about the boxes we create, and how we should break them down. How if you expect a boy to be a thug, he will be that. If you expect him to do great things, he will.

Doug Swieteck’s dad lost his job, so they had to move to “stupid Marysvale” away from his friends and into a tiny house which he calls The Dump. Doug feels like everyone in town looks at him like he doesn't belong. His father drunkenly rails against his new boss and the unfairness of life, his older brother is off fighting in Vietnam, his middle brother persecutes him, and his mother with the beautiful smile smiles less and less. Doug has secrets that he is trying to hide, and, more and more, he finds himself talking like his older brother, Lucas,  when Lucas is being a jerk. That is until one person trusts him. One person sees him as not just a “skinny thug.” Through this, he is introduced to the pictures in James Audubon’s Birds of America and his life is forever changed.

This book is a companion book to The Wednesday Wars, and I think that, through this book, Gary Schmidt perfected what he was trying to do with the first book. Doug is at a much lower place than Holling, and he has much further to go. He is trapped in his own pain and defensiveness. Then, he meets Lil Spicer, who trusts him with her bike, not naively, but as a test of friendship. One person believes in him. Then two: Mr. Powell, the librarian, who shows him how to draw the birds he is so enchanted by. Then, each person on his grocery delivery route. But then as soon as everything gets good, his brother is suspected of stealing, and Doug is shunned and belittled by neighbors, teachers, and classmates. He starts to do bad in school, and act out. It is amazing how, like Schmidt said with The Wednesday Wars, we behave how everyone expects us to behave. The question is who will exert more influence over Doug: those who think he is a thug who will never amount to anything, or those who see his goodness.

Doug’s relationship with the birds was incredibly powerful. I was surprised. I never liked Audubon’s birds, but it took Doug’s eyes for me to see the beauty and the terror of them. I had to keep looking back at the pictures (which were used as chapter headings) to see if the picture really showed what Doug said, and sure enough, they did. And his interpretation of the picture changed over time. Events in his life shed new light on the pictures and their meaning.

Through his new friendships and his relationship with the pictures, Doug struggles to become more than is expected of him, striving to change himself and his life. He begins to topple the cages that hold him and his family prisoner.

Schmidt writes with beautiful symmetry, rhythm, and symbolism, and we begin to see that those blurry archetypes we see are not the whole picture at all. Nameless characters become named. People realize they are wrong. Doors open, hands are extended. People try. Not everything ends up ok; the final chapter is heart-wrenchingly open ended. But again, Schmidt has written a book that is a must read for any kid who feels trapped by expectation, or any adult who has become set in their views. 

I loved this book especially because Doug's attitude often reminds me of me; muttering about the stupid people in the stupid town. Seeing the worst in people because I am in a bad mood. Spreading my hurt around. Many people think that becoming a bully is something that comes from very specific circumstances, but the seed is inside all of us. I also saw myself in the townsfolk who judged Doug on the actions of his brother. I find myself writing someone off because of something I heard. This book encouraged me to open up more, and find the good in people in every moment, even if I am having a sucky day. 

Damn good book, even better than Wednesday Wars, and one I will buy.

The Arctic Tern, by John Audubon (the image Doug describes above):

REVIEW: The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt

The Wednesday Wars
By Gary Schmidt

After we closed the books, Mrs. Baker asked me to discuss the character of Shylock.
 "He isn't really a villain," I said, "is he?"
"No," said Ms. Baker, "he isn't."
"He's more like someone who wants..."
"Who wants what, Mr. Hoodhood?"
"Someone who wants to become who he's supposed to be," I said.
Mrs. Baker considered that. "And why couldn't he?" she asked.
"Because they wouldn't let him. They decided he had to be a certain way, and he was trapped. He couldn't be anything except for what he was," I said.
"And that is why they call it a tragedy," said Mrs. Baker.  

The Wednesday Wars is about Holling Hoodhood, the Son Who Is Going To Inherit Hoodhood and Associates Architects Firm. He lives in the Perfect House, right in the middle of the town, where he is not allowed to go into the living room, and everything is covered in plastic. His life is set out for him by his forceful father, who makes every decision in his life based on if it will help advance his career. Until one day when his teacher, Ms. Baker, begins an independent study session with him, exploring the works of William Shakespeare. He then begins to wonder who it is he will become.

This book was amazing! Schmidt’s style is intricate and clear as a bell. Holling’s life starts out very small, mostly petty school troubles. He sees things through a narrow lens: “My teacher hates me.” However, as soon as he starts reading Shakespeare, his world is gradually widened. He sees other people’s point of view, and he gets a glimpse into lives that are not his own. He starts memorizing passages, and using Shakespeare’s words in every day speech. He begins to see that his father might not be the man he wanted to be. That there are things worth fighting for. That there are many sides to a question.

And the beautiful thing is that it doesn't happen through one brief training montage and he understands Shakespeare and life all at once. He reads one play at a time throughout the year, and each play reflects what is going on in his busy life. When he is dealing with love, he is reading Romeo and Juliet. When he is dealing with his father, he is reading Hamlet. When he is confronting a bully, he is reading Macbeth. While none of the stories really have clever exact parallels like so many of the YA Shakespeare lit painfully does, his knowledge of the work sheds a new light on his life, as Shakespeare should.

Since Holling begins to see the world differently, he starts to make different choices. Bolder ones. Riskier ones. Life-affirming ones. He begins to stand up for what he believes in. He stands up against his father, and he finds himself. And the brilliant thing is, he does it as a middle school boy.

This book touched me deeply, not only for the transformative power of Shakespeare (which my mother taught me in middle school), but because of the relationship between Holling and his older sister Heather. I have a younger brother who is often much smarter than me in many ways, and whom I can count on to take care of me like Holling did.

I highly recommend this for anyone trying to show kids the power of Shakespeare, and any adult who knows the power of Shakespeare and needs to remember what it was like to be a kid again and to choose for yourself.

Here is my friend Drown My Books' review of the book!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

REVIEW: Looking for Alaska by John Green

Looking for Alaska
by John Green

“When adults say, "Teenagers think they are invincible" with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don't know how right they are. We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken. We think that we are invincible because we are. We cannot be born, and we cannot die. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations. They forget that when they get old. They get scared of losing and failing. But that part of us greater than the sum of our parts cannot begin and cannot end, and so it cannot fail.” 

Miles Halter lives a safe, dull life. He loves both his parents, no one comes to his birthday parties, and he is obsessed with last words (of dead people, not of books, or conversations). He decides to go and seek "the Great Perhaps," as poet François Rabelais said, and enrolls in a boarding high school in the woods. There, his life is shaken up by the family of misfit students who adopt him, especially by the funny, sexy, spontaneous and destructive Alaska.

Oh dear. I am so behind. I read this book over a month ago, and it is now fading from my memory. I am sure I have many other things to say about this book, but right now you will only get the things that made the strongest impression on me.

First, let me say that I am so incredibly late to the John Green bandwagon. I came across him as mearly a perveyor of wisdom and whimsy on the Vlogbrothers YouTube channel. Once I learned he was not only a YA author but an incredibly lauded YA author, I felt I must see what more this lovable genius man could do. Why did I choose Looking for Alaska? It was the only John Green book not checked out (probably because it was in the storage closet and no one knew it was there!)

Things I remember about this book:

1) It reminded me of what I imagine Perks of Being a Wallflower is like (though I have never read it.)

2) It is so good! The style is pretty much what you would expect from John Green. Funny, with a huge smack upside the head of truth. I kept picturing the main character as either a young John Green, or a young Hank Green (his brother who co-runs Vlogbrothers), depending on what the character was doing.

3) The characters are excellent. Not a stereotype in the lot. Alaska could just be a manic pixie dream girl, but he gives her real, dark reasons for why she is so unpredictable. She must seize every moment and never stop going going going or bad things will happen. Miles' roommate, the Colonel, is another gem. You think he will be a bit of a neanderthal, but his charm, his brain and his heart just pick you up and hug you. His and Miles' relationship become one of the high points of the book.

4) This book is not just high school hyjinx. The whole time, each chapter title counts down to something. "63 days before, "50 days before," "10 days before." You don't know what it is counting down to, or whether it is good or bad. Some moments you are hopeful, but other moments you are filled with foreboding each time you see those numbers. When it happens, even though at times you think you know what it will be, it still knocks you off your feet.

5) It is one of the best studies of grief since "The Body" episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Possibly better than that.

6) It is peppered throughout with brilliant scenes from Miles' World Religions class, where they study not the dry facts of religion but where, as the teachers says, "We are engaged here in the most important pusuit in history. The search for meaning. What is the nature of being a person? What is the best way to go about being a person? How did we come to be, and what will become of us when we are no longer? In short: What are the rules this game, and how might we best play it?”

7) It was almost banned in a school because of sexual content, which lead John Green to post this video, called "I Am Not a Pornographer." I am a sucker for intellectual freedom.

I recommend it wholeheartedly, and I will definitely read more if his stuff! I will leave you with an inspiring, truth-dropping John Green vlogbrothers video:

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

REVIEW: Midnight in Austenland

Midnight in Austenland
by Shannon Hale
"'Have you been reading Gothic novels, Charlotte? You know what Mother would say. Women should not indulge in dark fantasies. It disrupts the proper workings of the womb.'
Charlotte snorted and coughed at once, she was so surprised. 'The proper workings of the womb?'
Eddie was trying very hard not to laugh. 'Indeed.'
'Never fear, protecting my womb from Gothic novels is my first priority.'
"I am very much relieved.'"

Charlotte Kinder has just gone through a messy divorce and needs to get away. She has no Jane Austen mania, like the Austenland heroine. She just needs a vacation from her life. So she decides to take it at Pembrook Park, the adult (no, not sexytime, just "for adults") roleplaying retreat manor house where actors and fellow guests leave modern society behind to live as Regency ladies and gentlemen. You can choose a new identity and be wooed by beautiful men and flounce around in lovely dresses. But when the games turn to ghost stories and murder mysteries, the line between reality and fiction blurs. Was that a real body in the attic, or just part of the fun?

This will be a short review, and please do not think it is short because I didn't like it. I loved this book! I devoured it in two days. I loved it more than Austenland. It seems much cleverer than the first book, for starters, both in narrative style and in plot.

For example, this little gem: "The pond lay dull and grey between the trees, no breeze to finger it's surface into uneasy ripples. The sky was clogged with clouds, preventing reflected sunlight from winking mischievously on the waves, as one might expect if the waters did indeed hide a secret. But the pond resisted all personification, neither begging for inspection nor warning of horrors best left alone. It just lay there, uninterested."

The prologue was a beautiful piece of writing. As this book is based on Northanger Abbey (as the first was based on Pride and Prejudice), Hale starts her book by explaining how her heroine is not a typical heroine. She was practical and nice, and never did anything unexpected or out of the ordinary. Even in this rather dull-sounding introduction, we manage to see ourselves in Charlotte. She is compelling in her normalcy.  The book jumps back and forth between the past events that created Charlotte, and the present as Charlotte tries to solve the mystery of the house and, in the process, solve the mystery of why she is so....nice.

I also enjoyed this more than Austenland because our heroine is not incredibly neurotic and obsessive. I felt that was a little off-putting about the first book. She went to be cured of something and finds love. Charlotte goes to escape, and finds herself.

It is less a girlish fantasy and more an actual journey of finding inner strength. And it is incredibly sexy and dangerous and gasp-worthy! There is just enough levity, and just enough darkness to thrill you.

Friday, September 7, 2012

REVIEW: Kraken by China Mieville

by China Mieville

“And the continual non-up-turnance of so valuable a commodity as a giant squid—the thought of getting their alembics on which made the city’s alchemists whine like dogs—was provoking more and more interest from London’s repo-men and -women.” 

Billy Harrow works at the Darwin Centre, a museum and research facility in London that is focused on evolution. Their prized possession is a dead, preserved giant squid. When the giant squid suddenly disappears, Billy is thrust down the rabbit hole (so quickly I had to put the book down for a sec) into an insane London underbelly full of magic and cults, criminals and police. Along the way, he discovers that the theft of the squid somehow sets off the chain of events that will lead to the end of the world. He must learn the rules and break them all if he is to save London, and the world, from a fiery doom.

Did you understand that synopsis? I'm not sure I did.

This book is insane, and often you have to do mental backflips to grasp what is going on, who is fighting who, who did this horrible thing and why? But it is really good.

It's China Mieville, who gave us the equally complex Un Lun Dun. He loves himself some London underbelly. They also share themes: the importance of words, the un/destined hero, and prophecy informing present action. He also gives us a giant new helping of world building, species and rules. Some are similar, like the house that contains a forest in Un Lun Dun vs. the Embassy of the Sea (a house that contains the ocean) in Kraken.

Other things are completely new: reading the future of the city through cutting open the (literal) guts of the street, the Tattoo (a parasitic villain who lives on a man's back), Chaos Nazis (those who believe that the core value of Nazism is decadence and dress like deranged clowns), Goss and Subby (a nightmarish duo: a man who talks mostly nonsense and a silent boy who are responsible for most bloody catastrophes in history), angels of memory (the anthropomorphic protectors of museums and libraries), and most importantly, the cult that worships all things squid-related.

No, not Cthullu, though that is what I thought for the first few chapters. And the strange thing is, Mieville manages to take us from laughing about the ludicrousness of worshiping cephalopods as gods to being incredibly moved by the devotion of one particular devotee (I won't give away who).

There are so many joyful and clever inventions in this book, and often they don't feel like belong to the same world. You wonder if Mieville has all these crazy ideas in his head and then decides to take all of them and funnel them into one book. But somehow, he makes every single one of the crazy ideas relevant to the plot, even unnamed characters you gloss over for the first 3/4 of the book. As far out as it goes, he manages to tie it all back together. When the climax finally comes, you realize where everything was going and that it could only end this way.

And I love that Mieville is a NERD. He sprinkles so many references to nerd pop culture in there (some of them very obscure). One entire segment is devoted to a man who is so much of a Star Trek fan that he basis his magic on Star Trek's technology.

The characters are incredibly exciting too: Wati (a Egyptian spirit created to serve the dead in the afterlife who rebelled and is now a union organizer), Collingswood (a sassy and brassy doesn't-give-a-fuck cop chick with self-taught magic mojo), Smiley the Chameleon (a man whose power it is to make you think that you probably know him, doesn't he work in the office down the hall?).  It was a joy to watch Billy Harrow transform throughout the book, not through a one time test, like with Bilbo and the Spiders, but gradually, absorbing information and strategy as he goes. He begins as protectee,  walking behind his guide and protector, then beside, then offering plans as a co-combatant, then leading the group against the apocalypse.

While Mieville has this crazy, brainy, intricate and often perplexing style, he sprinkles in moments of whimsy, like "squididity" and "squid pro quo." Silly little puns to make your turning brain go "meh heh" and give it a break.

All in all an excellent book. Bit of a steak meal, though, so I'm going for something lite next.

Monday, August 13, 2012

REVIEW: Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

Equal Rites 
by Terry Pratchett

“She was already learning that if you ignore the rules people will, half the time, quietly rewrite them so that they don't apply to you.” 

I'm sorry this is going to be a bit of a slapdash review of a book that is fading in my memory. Grad School has taken up all of my writing brain power.

So, Equal Rites. A wizard finds a blacksmith (who is a seventh son) whose wife is about to give birth to a seventh child. He bequeaths his powers to the child and dies before anyone informs him it is a girl. There has never been a female wizard before, and Granny Weatherwax, the no-nonsense village witch, is determined there never will be. Wizard and witch magic are too different. Wizard magic is all about flashy power and equations and making things happen. Witch magic is about rhythms and nature and asking for things to happen. Women shouldn't be wizards, just as men should not be witches. So Granny Weatherwax trains Esk (the girl) as a witch. Helped by the dead wizard's forcefully opinionated and loyal staff (the stick, not the group of people) Esk and Granny soon realize that wizardry might be Esk's only option if she wishes to not wreak havoc.

This book had all of Pratchett's wit and charm with very little of his meandering. He pretty much kept with Esk and Granny's story, and their journey to Ank Morpork to the Unseen University, and their ensuing battles. I quite enjoyed its simplicity!

It actually seemed like a little story-let. You have the origin story, the journey to the magic school, and right when you think the training montage is going to begin, Pratchett drops the final battle on you.

I think I liked Granny Weatherwax's transformation more than Esk's. Granny starts out very set in her ways, thinking cities were dens of iniquity, and always wearing black simple clothes. After a while, she begins to loosen up, and then ends up having the most fantastic battle of them all! Very Sword in the Stone. And her ensuing relationship with her opponent is one of the delights of the book.

Esk, and her compatriot Simon, have a weird, metaphysical, philosophical final battle that I still don't completely understand. About how not using magic is the real magic. No idea.

Any Granny Weatherwax fans should definitely read it, though! This is her first appearance in the Discworld series.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

REVIEW: Austenland by Shannon Hale

by Shannon Hale

“Well do I remember the first night we met, how you questioned my opinion that first impressions are perfect. You were right to do so, of course, but even then I suspected what I've come to believe most passionately these past weeks: from that first moment, I knew you were a dangerous woman, and I was in great peril of falling in love."

She thought she should say something witty here. She said, "Really?” 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that every girl must occasionally read fun frivolous girly books. Equally true, every great author needs to write them.

Shannon Hale, author of The Goose Girl, a fantastic book, has written a delicious, indulgent, smart, and surprisingly genuine girly book. Jane Hayes, graphics designer, is obsessed with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy (in a ashamed, hide-the-dvd-in-her-plants kind of way). To cure her of this, her great aunt Caroline bequeaths Jane a trip to Pembrook Park, a Jane Austen resort where women go to live in the world of Austen, surrounded by actors (specifically gentleman actors) to play the parts of Austen-like heroes: the brooder, the jovial rake, the common-man-turned-successful-sea-captain). Jane struggles with the dichotomy (real or not real?), and feels like a desperate, sad, ridiculous women, but then, things begin to turn around. Is she deluding herself, as always, or is she being offered something real in Austenland.

DAMN, this book was surprisingly good. I swear, I came home today and read the entire thing in one sitting (minus a chapter or two yesterday). It was so refreshing after reading books where I care about style and serious things. It was like exfoliating! Scrubbing off the slough of academia and large fantasy tomes to revel in a little bubble bath.

And yet, this book surprised me with it's depth. Yes, the plot is predictable, so is the plot of almost any romantic comedy. I began with the book at arms length, judging Jane for fangirling, and the being weirdly ashamed about it. But as the story continued I was sucked in, and became totally invested in her story, squeeing and crying out in emotional agony at the appropriate moments.

This is a must have for anyone who a) has the Austen fever and b) has ever fantasized about being swept off your feet by the guy of your dreams in a romantic setting. I'm looking at all of you, ladies.

PS: It is also a Movie.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

REVIEW: The Magician King by Lev Grossman

The Magician King
Lev Grossman

“Quentin had an obsolete sailing ship that had been raised from the dead. He had psychotically effective swordsman and an enigmatic witch-queen. It wasn't the Fellowship of the Ring, but then again he wasn't trying to save the world from Sauron, he was trying to perform a tax audit on a bunch of hick islanders…” 

The Magician King pretty much picks up where The Magicians left off. Quentin and his friends are kings and queens of Narnia-- I mean Fillory. Everything is pretty much perfect, and there is not much for them to do. Quentin longs for adventure, but the best he can come up with is an unnecessary trip to collect back taxes from an island territory. From there, the book is basically The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, with some side excursions and the mysterious Julia (self taught witch friend of Quentin)'s back story woven in.

Well, Lev Grossman does his brilliant and frustrating thing again. He lets the story meander leisurely. There are some frustrations along the way, but nothing too big. People live their lives. You come to love them, and the world they inhabit. You know something horrible is going to happen because that is what Grossman does. However, in this book it takes so long for something horrible to happen that you think, maybe this time it won't! You come to love the natural rhythms of the story, and accept the Narnian logic of things. And then within the last 100 pages, he takes everything you love, locks it in a house, and burns it to the ground. Metaphorically speaking. And damn it, it is satisfying.

It differs from The Magicians in a few ways, though. First, Quentin is no longer a dick. He has grown up into a decent person, still a little haunted by the events of the last book. Second, Julia (a minor character in the first book) comes into her own in this incredible journey of power, addiction, and transcendence as she teaches herself the magic denied to her when she failed the Brakebills exam in the last book. Third, Grossman seems to trust in Fillory just a bit more. It really comes into its own as Narnia, the land you love and long for, rather than a cardboard cut parody of Narnia. The scenes where Quentin is sailing on the ship are saturated with peace mixed with salty adventure, exactly what you wish for in a Fillory adventure.

It really takes a long time for Grossman to pull the rug out from under you, but when it happens he nails you not once, not twice, but three times in quick succession. Just when you think everything is safe (though you have a small voice telling you it might have been too easy) he will get you, but never in a way that you expect.  The ending is desolating and painful, but strangely right. Almost like Eustace scratching away at his dragon skin to become a new man in Dawn Treader. 

Another brilliant book from Grossman. I can't wait for the third!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

REVIEW: The Winter of Our Disconnect by Susan Maushart

The Winter of Our Disconnect:
How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with her iPhone) 
Pulled the Plug on their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale 
by Susan Maushart

"'If you ever want to know what was going through Frodo Baggins' mind as he stood clutching the evil ring over the lava pits of Mt. Doom in The Return of the King,' wrote Norman, 'buy an iPhone.'"

Susan Maushart sleeps with her iPhone. Her kids are always listening to their iPods, playing computer games, or surfing the web. Finally, Susan has had enough and she decides to do an experiment: the family will unplug for 6 months. This means no TV, no computers, no iPods, no cell phones. They go from constantly being connected to actually making a connection.

This was one of those books I put on my list never really intending to read. Non-fiction isn't really my thing. However, immersive journalism is. I was struggling with my own media addiction and needed a palate cleanser after so many YA and juvenile fantasy books, so I picked it up.

While this book is rather frustratingly structured (she tries to go chronologically, but then also by theme, so you end up with a lot of repeated information and you get lost in the timeline), the content really struck a chord with me.

There are two large worries that prevent the modern person from attempting an experiment like this: the fear that we will be bored, and the fear of loosing connection. The family struggles with both of these. The children whine and go to friends houses to use their technology, at first (the experiment is limited mostly to the house). However, then a transformation occurs. The family starts talking to each other. The kids spend time in each other's rooms looking at magazines and listening to CDs. They help their Mom cook dinner, and actually spend time at the table, rather than gobbling and racing off to play more video games. Friends came over for board game nights and sing-alongs around the piano. They looked at actual photo albums and told stories.

The most incredible change really resonated with me: the son used to love the saxophone, but then when he got a monster gaming station, he let it fall by the wayside, and said he would pick it up again "when he had more time." I say the same thing about my violin. However, when technology was forbidden him, he picked up the sax again, practiced for hours every day, had jam sessions with his friends, and started a band. He discovered he wanted to be a musician as a career. Think of what we could do if we didn't have computers. Susan makes an excellent point that often boredom is the mother of invention. It pushes you to fulfill unmet needs, to be determined, prepared, patient and experimental.

Another element to the boredom debate that Susan touches on is the myth that parents need to entertain their children 24/7. That they feel like a deficient parent if their kids are bored. Not only that, they feel deficient if they are not on call to help their kids out with every little problem. Susan learns through this experiment, and through her research, that boredom is actually a good thing. Kids learn best when they are able to figure things out for themselves. It gives them ownership over the knowledge. However, if a parent is constantly trying to IV entertainment into their kid's bloodstream, or doesn't let their kids get lost and have to find their own way back (even at age 23), they will never be self-sufficient. It is no wonder that 30 is the new 20. People remain children a lot longer because they don't know how to take care of themselves.

Fear of loss of connection was a huge issue for them (and would be for us). 1) Cell phones. What if an emergency happens? What if I am late to pick up someone, how do I tell them? It turns out, if there is an emergency, they will find you some how. The son was in a car accident, got a ride home, and called his mom afterwards. He handled the situation himself. And it turns out that if you set up a time to pick someone up, and neither of you have a cell phone, they will be there on time. Planning ahead. Who knew?

2) Missing news: newspapers. A huge theme of this book was, if you need to know, you will find out. You don't need to drown in minutiae. If something important happens, you will be told. Relax.

3) Loosing connection. It turns out, people feel more connected when they don't have the internet. The surfacey texting, IMing, Facebook messaging and e-mailing does a lot less for you than sitting down with someone face to face and having a conversation. This connected feeling we crave is really the need for human contact. Which is ironic, because the internet makes us feel like we are getting that, when we are really not.

The book also touches on the now well-known research about the Millennials (and us now) and how they (we) are lateral readers (surface over depth), and think the easiest research is the best research. No concept for reliable sources, multitasking actually doesn't exist and is detrimental to focus and performance, high computer/tv use leads to depression and atrophied social skills (possibly autism), those kids who had family meal times at the dinner table had more well adjusted kids than those who didn't, etc. She actually mentions a lot of books I had already read about the subject.

One thing that surprised me, though is that what we think of as normal teenage behavior (unresponsiveness, weird sleep patterns, surliness, sitting on the couch, eating junk food, and watching tv for hours, AND not expressing natural adult behavior until -gasp- 28) is actually not natural. People say it is natural because it is an epidemic, and every teenager does it now, but that was not always the case. It is a combination of inactivity, over-parenting, lack of sleep due to technology, and the perpetuated myth of the "this is how I am supposed to act" surly teen.

Within all the studies and research, Susan gives the reader concrete examples about how her family has reflected the studies.

Another nice thing about this book is that she does not take sides. It may seem that she is heavily anti-technology, but the relief she feels when she gets back her technology says otherwise. She has learned from the experiment to live in moderation.

I really recommend this book for anyone who had that nagging feeling that they should be doing something else other than Facebook.

More Books Like This:
The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
Eat, Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
A Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs
The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment by A.J. Jacobs

Monday, May 14, 2012

REVIEW: Un Lun Dun by China Mieville

Un Lun Dun
by China Mieville

"'There it was in the index. "Shwazzy, Sidekicks of the.'' Below that were subheadings, each with a single page reference. 'Clever One,' she read. 'Funny One.' 

'Look...' the book said. 'It's just terminology. Sometimes these old prophecies are written in, you know, unfortunate ways...'

'Was it Kath who was supposed to be the clever one?' Deeba said. She thought about how she and Zanna had become friends. 'So... I'm the funny one? I'm the funny sidekick?'

'But, but, but,' the book said, flustered. 'What about Digby? What about Ron and Robin? There's no shame in -'

Deeba dropped the book and walked away. It yelped as it hit the pavement."

Deeba has noticed something strange about her best friend Zanna. There was a picture of her face in the clouds. Animals behave strangely around her. Someone spray painted "Zanna forever!" on the wall. When Zanna and Deeba follow a strangely animated umbrella one night, they leave London and enter Un Lun Dun where Zanna is proclaimed "the Shwazzy": the Chosen One who will help save their city from the Smog. Only things don't happen exactly as they were prophesied and Deeba has to take on her friend's mantle to save the city she has come to love.

This book was pretty insane. And awesome. It took me a while to get used to the world; trash with a life of it's own, city bus airships, men with pins in their heads and clothes of books, houses with forests in it, a man who is a bird with a human body as it's vehicle, "binjas" (trash can ninjas), bookaneers (librarian adventurers), the Umbrellissimo (the man who controls the broken umbrellas that find their way to Un Lun Dun). It helped as soon as I started picturing it animated like a Studio Gibli film.

I loved the way it played with the idea of choice and free will, of prophecy and how it limits us. How those who were not supposed to do things can just say "fuck it" and do them because they need to be done.

This is another juvenile fiction book that does not coddle the reader in any way shape or form. Mieville paints, waltzes and plays chess with words. It doesn't matter that a word is not supposed to be in the vocabulary of a child. There is an incredible sequence with Mr. Speaker, the leader of words, who speaks and Utterlings appear to do his bidding. Deeba cleverly banters with him that words do not always mean what we want and turns his words against him.

Deeba is an amazing heroine. First, she has brown skin, which I am sorry to say is rare in science fiction and fantasy. I was so happy to see a non-white heroine! Second, she is urban London, lower class, and speaks in London slang. Another anomaly in sci fi/ fantasy. Third, she is clever as all get out. She outwits and logics (or un-logics) her way around Un Lun Dun, learning the rules, using them, and breaking them as she sees fit. She goes from being a side kick who just wants to go home to a true heroine and full-blooded citizen of Un Lun Dun.

Yet another kickass heroine who must lead her troops into battle, deal with losses, make mistakes, and outwit terrible enemies. And in the end, when she must choose between Un Lun Dun, and real London, she turns convention on its head!

And I must say, the epilogue is one of those pump-your-fist-in-the-air-yelling-WOOO! moments. Damn, it's a fun ride.

REVIEW: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairy Land in a Ship of her Own Making by Catherynne M. Vanente

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making
by Catherynne M. Valente

“There must be blood, the girl thought. There must always be blood. The Green Wind said that, so it must be true. It will be all hard and bloody, but there will be wonders, too, or else why bring me here at all? And it's the wonders I'm after, even if I have to bleed for them.”

September is a heartless girl, bored of her life, fed up with her mom who works in a factory all the time, and with her dad who left for war. So, when the Green Wind comes to abduct her to Fairyland, she doesn't even say goodbye, or leave a note. She must do favors for witches, befriend a wyverary (a wyvern whose father was a library), outwit the evil Marquess, and, as the title implies, circumnavigate fairy land after she looses her shadow and her heart.

This was an exceptional book, even more exceptional that it was juvenile fiction. It did not pull punches, either emotionally, complex-ily (if that is a word... meaning that it did not paint the world in black and white), and vocabularically.

It reads as a modern day Alice in Wonderland. September is just as curious, just as impertinent, and just as heartless as Alice, and she meets strange and fantastic things, like the herds of bicycles that roam the land, or the half-people who can only speak in complete sentences when joined together, discarded furniture that takes on a life of its own when it is 100 years old, or the land of Autumn.

While Alice simply wanders and has things happen to her, however, September struggles with morality in a morally grey world (does she aquiess to the evil queen to save her friends? Is the evil queen very different from herself?). There is a wonderful theme of what it is to be chosen and what it is to make a choice.

Early in the journey, she is given the choice to loose her way, lose her mind, or loose her heart. Since she was heartless, she chose to loose her heart. She managed quite well until she grew to deeply care for the friends she made. When she looses them, all hell breaks loose, and you can see what a twelve-year-old girl is really capable of.

This is not pretty Narnia adventure hardship. September must make a raft using her clothes and her hair so she stands naked and shorn against the elements. She bludgeons a fish to death out of desperation, and nearly die horribly several times to get where she needs to go, and even then, she has not faced the worst.

She is the embodiment of badass heroine who does what needs to be done and sacrifices what she has to to save the ones she loves.

It also make an incredible statement about regulation. The marquess has started to bring over rules and regulations to Fairyland to make it "safe" for children who cross over. But that is not the point of Fairyland. It must be dangerous and hard, so the children can emerge strong and confidant and brave. Same thing could be said with a lot of things in our world, including regulation of books and education.

I recommend this to everyone!

There are so many good quotes, I have to add this one at the bottom:

“When you are born,” the golem said softly, “your courage is new and clean. You are brave enough for anything: crawling off of staircases, saying your first words without fearing that someone will think you are foolish, putting strange things in your mouth. But as you get older, your courage attracts gunk, and crusty things, and dirt, and fear, and knowing how bad things can get and what pain feels like. By the time you’re half-grown, your courage barely moves at all, it’s so grunged up with living. So every once in awhile, you have to scrub it up and get the works going, or else you’ll never be brave again.” 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

REVIEW: Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance by Gyles Brandreth

Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance: A Mystery
by Gyles Brandreth

"Oscar's conversation was so brilliant he could make you forget the toothache. That night we sat in a dark corner of a London club with a dead man's head in a box before us and for forty minutes thought not a thing about it."

Oscar Wilde arrives at a (potentially illicit) appointment to discover his young friend Billy Wood dead with his throat slashed. With the help of his friend Robert Sherard (Watson to Oscar's Holmes), and his friend Arthur Conan Doyle, Oscar slips around London's drawing rooms and dark alleys to solve the mystery.

This book was a delightful read! The mystery itself was not that compelling, as it dragged on for months. It was predictable enough that I had it narrowed down to two suspects before the big reveal, but not so much that I knew for certain. 

The real fun of this book is Oscar himself. I loved this man before I read the book, but now, seen through the eyes of Brandreth (who was a biographer first), and through the fictional lens of his friend Sherard, I love him even more. He is at once the most commanding, jovial, and kind man you have ever met, and at the same time secretive, vulnerable and moody. He was very frustrating at times, deliberately withholding information from his friends, but you forgave him because he was such a generous and charismatic man. 

One element I found quite compelling were the comparisons between Oscar and Sherlock Holmes. In this book, Oscar is a great observer of human nature, like Holmes, and can tell everything about someone just by looking at him. Oscar also has a brilliant mind that is tainted by his one vice - in Sherlock's case, cocaine; in Oscar's case, young men. Conan Doyle also confesses (in this book) that he based the character of Mycroft Holmes (Sherlock's smarter older brother) off of Oscar, as the man who languidly sits in his club all day, until something sparks his interest, and then he can move a lot faster than you ever thought. (I LOVE that Stephen Fry has now played both Mycroft and Wilde).

I was planning on finding the book chock full of references to Wilde's works, but I could not find that many. He often quoted himself, and I'm sure he did it more often than I caught, but it seemed like he quoted Shakespeare the most. One moment that broke my heart was when he sadly muttered to himself Andrew Aguecheek's lament from Twelfth Night "I was adored once too..." 

All in all, a fun read. It would be even more fun if the whole sodomy trial wasn't looming over everything. As wonderful as Oscar's life is at this point, our foreknowledge of his fate makes everything he does part of his great tragedy. 

Books like this:
The Sherlockian by Graham Moore
All Men of Genius by Lev AC Rosen

Saturday, March 31, 2012

REVIEW: Cinder by Marissa Meyer

by Marissa Meyer

“She was a cyborg, and she would never go to a ball.” 

Cinder is a cyborg mechanic in New Beijing (the city built on top of the old Beijing after WWIV). She is both a mechanic that works on cyborgs and is a cyborg herself. Cyborgs are humans who were badly injured, so they had to be augmented with robot parts. They are considered second-class citizens.

Adri, Cinder's guardian, blames her for the death of her husband, the man who brought Cinder to their family and adopted her. Adri resents her and exploits her, making her the sole breadwinner. 

The Easter Commonwealth is in trouble. A deadly plague is sweeping the land, for which there is no cure. The Lunars (people who live on the moon and have mind control powers) are threatening war unless their sickeningly beautiful queen and Prince Kai of New Beijing get married. 

Cinder wants nothing to do with it, but everything changes the day Prince Kai visits her booth, and the plague hits close to home.

This was a really interesting book! I thought it was just sweet, with some good world-building at first, with some obvious foreshadowing, but as we delved deeper into the societal prejudices of the city, and the Catch 22 that Prince Kai struggles with, you want to keep digging deeper and find out what happens. You expect Meyer to simply tell the story of Cinderella with cyborgs, but honestly, it is just a bare outline. Yes, you have the ball, the lost...shoe and other things, the "pumpkin," the abusive family. But those are small touchstones in a very complex story that doesn't end with the prince finding her and having a happily ever after. 

The Lunars were an element that made me giggle for a while. Aliens from the moon that controlled your mind? Sounds like a 1950s B movie. But as we met more of them, they became a truly frightening nemesis. 

There was also a smattering of Snow White in there, in the story of the lost Lunar princess who's place was usurped by a queen obsessed with beauty. 

Excellent storytelling! I can't wait for the rest of the series!

REVIEW: A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz

A Tale Dark and Grimm
by Adam Gidwitz

“You see, Hansel and Gretel don’t just show up at the end of this story. 
They show up. 
And then they get their heads cut off. 
Just thought you’d like to know.”

It is true. Hansel and Gretel get their heads chopped off. And then their story begins. Hansel and Gretel were the son and daughter of a king and queen. In order to save the life of a loyal servant, they had to chop their children's heads off, so the children thought that after that, they should probably go and find new parents. 

They travel through different, more obscure fairy tales with themselves as the main characters, starting with "Faithful Johanness," "The Seven Swallows," "Hansel and Gretel," "Brother and Sister," etc trying to find a better family to take care of them, and in the process, they grow up. And they deal with some pretty deep stuff. Each of them makes mistakes with deadly consequences, but they learn from them. Each of them have to make terrible sacrifices. But they gain strength, intelligence, and willpower so they can safe the kingdom and come to grips with their horrible parental trust issues. 

This was a fantastic book! The style was delicious! Each section begins as a fairy tale; "Once Upon a Time, there was a ______" It continues in that style with frequent interruptions from a very chatty narrator, snarkily judging the character's decisions, explaining to the reader the feelings the characters must be going through, and most of all, vehemently warning of the impending gore and frightening subject matter, employing the readers to take the children out of the room, etc. It is absolute genius. It warns them, but then dares them to read on, and when bad things occur, the reader is prepared and brave, and is able to go on. They are not shocked by the horrible things happening and have to put the book down. This is juvenile fiction after all. 

In the back, the writer tells the story of how someone came into his second grade classroom and read "The Seven Ravens," in which a girl cuts off her finger. After being assured that he was not fired, he realized the kids got a lot out of it, and they begged him to tell more stories, asking questions, shouting responses, and getting involved in the story telling. 

With all the discussion recently about if kids can handle dark fairy tales, I think the answer is a resounding YES. This book shows that kids can have the strength to go through dark times and come out the other side. Kids need dark stories to know that people can survive and be better for it. If they don't put themselves in the right story when they encounter a dark time, they will crumble. If they think of themselves as a hero with a possibility of winning, they will fight. 

This is my favorite quote in the book:
“There is a certain kind of pain that can change you. Even the strongest sword, when placed in a raging fire, will soften and bend and change its form. So it was with Hansel. The fire of guilt and shame was just that hot.
Trust me on this one. I know this from personal experience. I hope that you never will, but, since you're a person, and therefore prone to making horrible, soul-splitting mistakes, you probably will one day know what this kind of guilt and shame feels like. And when that time comes, I hope you have the strength, as Hansel had, to take advantage of the fire and reshape your own sword.” 

Oh and check out the trailer. It is awesome!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

REVIEW: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness


A Monster Calls
by Patrick Ness
Inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd

"What do you want from me?" Conor said.
The monster pressed it's face close to the window.
It's not what I want from you, Conor O'Malley, it said. It is what you want from me. 
"I don't want anything from you," Conor said.
Not yet, said the monster. But you will. 

13-year old Conor O'Malley has a nightmare every night. He is in the dark surrounded by wind and screaming, trying despirately to keep hold of someone's hand, but that hand slips out of his grasp. It all started when he was told his mom had cancer. So you can imagine when a monster visits his house in the middle of the night, his response is, "I've seen worse."

The monster makes him a deal. He will tell Connor three stories of times when the monster walked abroad and meddled in the affairs of men. Then, Conor must tell the monster a story. Conor's story. The truth about himself. Only then will the monster leave. 

I went through a roller coaster with this story. I was excited and thought "What a terrifying-looking book" when I discovered it. When I got it out of the library, I was a bit surprised and disappointed when I found it in the juvenile section. Then I read it, and it was everything I could have hoped, and more. It was really dark and often cruel. It didn't talk down to kids, or soften terrible events because the author thought they couldn't handle it. It told them the truth. 

Conor has had to take care of himself since his Mom started the chemo. She's often too tired to make breakfast or clean the dishes. He does what needs to be done. His best friend, Lily, told everyone at school about his mom and now everyone tip toes around him. The teachers don't call on him, and when he acts out, he isn't punished because of his "special circumstances." He is almost invisible, and he can't forgive Lily for that. His mom is trying to be brave and optimistic for him, and he is trying to be brave and optimistic for her. The grandmother is trying to make him see the reality of the situation, that he needs to start preparing for "after," and he angrily shuts her out. His father doesn't want him.

When the monster visits, you are always questioning his motivations. His stories are ambiguous fairy tales, no clear heroes or villains, and sometimes the "wrong" person gets punished. As he tells the stories, the monster guides Conor through his grief, sometimes tenderly, sometimes brutally. Through the magic of a story, the monster often makes Conor act out violently, with real-life repercussions. It is a wrenching process for both Conor and the reader, and you don't know if the monster is causing more damage than good. At the end, you see, however, that it is exactly what Conor needed. 

This story is beautifully told, the way the colors of a bruise are beautiful, or a deadly blade is beautiful. It hurts you as it heals you. 

The illustrations are terrifying silhouettes, almost like Sin City for kids. The artist makes a lovely transition from the monster being a figure of fear to a figure of comfort.

Check out the beautiful book trailer to see some if the illustrations animated: 

I have never really read another book like this, but books that teeter on the edge of this are:
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel

Friday, March 9, 2012

REVIEW: This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein by Kenneth Oppel

This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein
by Kenneth Oppel

Young Victor Frankenstein and his twin brother Konrad live in a large mansion in Bellerive with their mother, father, two young brothers, their cousin Elizabeth, and occasionally their best friend Henry Clerval. While their lives are relatively happy, there is tension between the twins: Konrad the bright shining one, and Victor, his darker, more ambitions shadow. When Konrad falls ill, Victor is consumed by the mission to save him, even if it means delving into mysterious and potentially dangerous science.

This book is a very quick read! It is an adventure story, through and through, with intense and gripping action sequences as Victor, Elizabeth and Henry make a deal with a shady former-alchemist and fight to get the ingredients for Konrad's cure (high treetops with vicious vultures, deep and treacherous caves, and a final very personal ordeal).

The most compelling element for me was how Oppel takes the older Victor, Elizabeth, and Henry of the classic story and works backwards to extrapolate how they came to be who they are in Frankenstein. Victor is the most successful of all. He is both protagonist and antagonist. He has good intentions, but his passion, selfishness, vanity, and blind ambition distort his thoughts. He is a villain who doesn't know he is a villain; my favorite kind. And in many ways, he is your typical teenage boy, full of jealousies and too many hormones for his rational mind to handle.  It is easy for me how this Victor became the Victor of Mary Shelley's horror story. His need for power and dominance, his obsession with science and of gaining mastery over life and death to save his brother, his disregard for the effect of his actions on others are all classic Victor. He will sacrifice anything, even himself, to get want he wants. 

Oppel also allows us some wonderful and gruesome moments of the sublime. The sublime, as defined to me in school when we studied Frankenstein, is something that instills a mix of awe and terror, which often occurs when you see the Monster. Like a gristly car crash from which you cannot look away. They are scattered sparingly through out the book, but when Victor is confronted with one of those gristly images, or participates in a horrific act, you can see the subtle fascination it holds for him. Skin separated from bone, cutting through innards to get to the contents of a stomach; it attracts him as it repulses him. 

While there is less existential discussion in this one as there is in Mary Shelly's book, it is perfect for middle school and early high school students wrestling with issues of their own, and a great entry point for the classic Frankenstein.

Books like this:

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

REVIEW: East by Edith Pattou

From my other blog Palimpsest

by Edith Pattou

"Rubbing linseed oil into my blistered hands, I thought wistfully of how magic lets up skip over the steps of things. This is what makes it so appealing. But, I thought, the steps of things are where life is truly found, in doing the day-to-day tasks. Caught up in the world of enchantment as I had been at the castle, it had been the routine things I had missed most, which was why I had set up that laundry room and insisted on doing my own washing. But I had missed so much."

An immersive, detailed and faithful YA retelling of the fairy tale "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," East tells the story of a girl named Rose who, by an accident of birth, is destined to have wandering feet. She is an adventurous child, much to the chagrin of her family, and attracts the attention of a lone white bear. One night the white bear visits them, and states he will bring their poor family prosperity and health if he can have their youngest daughter Rose. Rose makes the sacrifice against her family's wishes and travels with the bear to his lonely mountain castle. She is surprised to discover that each night a naked man visits her and lies next to her in bed, but never says a word. A great mystery surrounds her imprisonment, but, when her curiosity gets the best of her, her transgression has horrible consequences, and she must undertake an impossible journey to make everything right.

I was nervous about this book at first. It is lauded as one of the best fairy tale adaptations on the market, but  I worried it would be superficial. Boy, was I wrong. Pattou is a master of adaptation. She remains faithful to the story, while giving life and breath and texture to the familiar tale. She takes the symbolic compass directions mentioned in the title and makes them reverberate throughout the book, creating a mythology of birth direction (like the zodiac) that determines your personality and your fate. Rose was born to replace her dead sister, who was an East, and thus mild. But Rose was accidentally born a North, which gave her an itch for exploration. Her father is a map maker, and creates an artistic compass rose for each member of the family. 

She also takes some of the more abstract elements of the tales, like traveling on the north wind, and finds ways to practically embody that in a real adventure: Rose takes a turbulent sea voyage with a drunken captain. She also rather deviates from the story at the end, but creates a compelling climax.

The story is set in 1500s Njord. They travel through countries like Danemark, Fransk and Arktisk, which are apparently the Norwegian names for Norway, Denmark, France and the Arctic. It was fascinating to explore a country that is not England or Italy in the 1500s. The names grounded it in time and space, but their unfamiliarity still give it a fairy tale quality. 

Pattou structures the story with multiple narrators. We hear the story from the Father, Neddy (her brother), Rose, the Troll Queen who enchanted the white bear, and the White Bear himself. They each have a distinctive narrative voice; the White Bear, as it is painful for him to talk in bear form, speaks in short sentences and images, like poetry. She has a talent for selecting which narrator will tell what section of the story. We hear Rose's struggle to make her decision to go with the White Bear from Rose. We see the aftermath of her struggle from Neddy, and we see the actual surprise of her leaving from her Father, each perspective bringing startling and heart-wrenching elements to the story. 

Also, I have been struggling with what my image of a kick-ass heroine is. Is she just a character with awesome fighting skills? With inner strength? Who speaks her mind? This book clinched it for me. A kick-ass heroine is someone who has an impossible task ahead of her, sucks it up, and does what needs to be done, even if it is crossing a narrow ice bridge over deadly water, or rebuilding a boat and learning how to sail it while the captain wallows in despair and drink, or traveling for weeks in the arctic alone to rectify a mistake. Rose is a kick-ass heroine and a role model for girls of all ages. 

Books Like This:
Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones 
Fairest by Gail Carson Levine
Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

Friday, February 10, 2012

REVIEW: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
by Ransom Riggs

“And that is how someone who is unusally susceptible to nightmares,night terrors, the Creeps, the Willies, and the Seeing Things That Aren't Really There talks himself into making one last trip to the abandoned, almost-certainly-haunted house where a dozen or more children met their untimely end.” 

Jacob grew up listening to his grandfather's stories about how he escaped the war in Europe and hid from monsters in an idyllic home for children with strange powers. As he got older, he started to realize that there was probably no such thing as girls who could levitate, or boys who could pick up giant rocks, or the mysterious caretaker of the house, "The Bird" - Miss Peregrine. Or child-eating monsters with tentacles coming out of their mouths. He distanced himself from his grandfather and ignored his desperate phone calls, blaming it on senility... until his grandfather ends up brutally murdered, and Jacob sees a glimpse of a monster disappearing into the dark woods. After many visits to a therapist, Jacob embarks on a quest to find the house, find Miss Peregrine, and get some answers. He gets more than he bargained for. 

I have a problem with expectations. I expected that this book would scare me shitless. That it would be full of thrills and chills, and that I would not be able to sleep. Like a weird mix of X-Men and the Woman in Black. That is not at all what this book is, and I was kind of disappointed. 

Don't get me wrong, this is a great first book for Riggs! He has some fun prose, like "The sky was the color of a new bruise." The beginning is fantastic, setting up his listless life, the shock and horror of his grandfather's murder, and the aftermath where everyone thinks he is crazy. I love his initial investigations when he sleuths around the Welsh island. I got some minor thrills when he is exploring the dark, musty ruins of what once was Miss Peregrine's Home, trying to solve the mystery of their fate, while hoping their ghosts did not kill him in the process. The last 50 pages are chock full of thrills, murder, monsters and bombs. 

However, (spoilers) he discovers the pocket of endless summer that is "the loop," an idyllic haven for the peculiar children who are now in their 80s, but eternally in children's bodies, still approaching the world as children. This was less satisfactory for me than if their was some element of Claudia from Interview with a Vampire in there. Fun, fucked-up psychology of an 80 year old trapped in a child's body. Anyway, this is where the story stops dead for me. They go swimming, and fall in love, and yes there are interesting characters to be introduced to, and lots of explaining, but other than that, not much happens for a good 100 pages. 

One interesting fact about the book is that all the photographs are real. He pulled them out of archives, yard sales, and personal collections. Sometimes I felt he was writing to justify the picture's presence in the book, but other times they creepily supported and expanded upon the text. 

It is a charming book (which is not what I expected to say about it), and a well-written first part of a series. At least it reads that way. I hope there are more books coming that can get into the guts of the action, mystery and horror without the weight of exposition. 

I said the same thing about the last book. Am I growing impatient?

Regardless, here is the awesome book trailer:

And here is the making of the book trailer:

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

REVIEW: Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

Shades of Grey 
by Jasper Fforde

“The safest course was actually the simplest-do nothing at all and hope everything turned out for the best. It wasn't a great plan, but it had the benefits of simplicity and a long tradition. ” 

Edward Russett lives in a future where everything is governed by color. "Something Happened" a long time ago that messed with everyone's vision. Now people can only see one color, and the color you see, and how much of it, determines your place in society, from the lowest Grey to the highest Purple. Nighttime is an empty time, as everyone has lost their night vision. It is socially important to marry within your color, or up-spectrum to either maintain or improve your social prospects. 

Everything is governed by the rules of "Our Munsell," a leader from centuries before when the "Something Happened." He had an "Epiphany" and brought order to chaos, regulating every aspect of the community, from high values (like politeness) to what people should wear on what occasion (for excursions into the wild, people must wear "Outdoor Adventure #9s). Rules cannot be changed. There is a spoon shortage because he forgot to include spoons in the list of utensils to be manufactured. Or he could have left it off on purpose. Munsell works in mysterious ways. 

The story follows Edward as he travels with his father to East Carmine to conduct a mandated chair census as punishment for a prank so he will develop some humility. He makes friends and enemies, and starts to uncover the dark secrets that serve as the basis for the society. 

Long synopsis, I know, but it is Jasper Fforde, and I am not even touching the tip of the iceberg on this one. Animals have barcodes. Most people die of Mildew or giant swan attack or balls of lightning. There is a place called High Saffron from which no one returns, but legend says has lots of color to harvest. Tip of the iceberg.

Happily, Fforde seems to have learned how to time-release information. His witty, intricate world-building is not as overwhelming as it is in the Thursday Next books and crops up at an appropriate time, with an explanation reasonably close behind it. 

The pacing was a little strange. The whole book takes place over the course of the week, but enough happens that you think he's had to have been there at least a month. At the same time, not much of "oh my god the society is horrible, and we need to do something about it" occurs until about the last 50 pages. 

I loved this book at first. Fforde gleefully plays with the reader's expectations. It made me happy to see that he couldn't resist literary references (a layover from Thursday Next and the Nursery Crime books: he includes a strange empty library, over-staffed by librarians with nothing to do (Munsell-regulated staffing rules). He even put in a few literary jokes here and there (list of approved sports includes "reeling and writhing" though no one knows what it is - Alice in Wonderland reference), and there is a memorial statue to Oz, though its meaning is lost to the citizens). They have "Leapbacks," where technology deemed too unnecessary or progressive is taken away... like light bulbs, or any car above a Model T. Same with books. Catch-22 is gone, legend says it was a very popular fishing book in a series. No one knows why Little Engine that Could was so subversive, nor what it was the little engine could do. It is Fforde at his comic best, an equal of Douglas Adams or Christoper Moore. 

However, the ending is very dark. In a book like this, you think it has two possible outcomes: 1) the main character reveals the evils of society and starts a revolution or 2) the main character discovers horrible things, but is too overpowered by society to effect change, and is absorbed back into it's rhythms or is killed. This one ends with a rather stomach-turning bastard child of the two. 

All I'm saying is that there better be a sequel where something satisfying happens. 

You might like this book if you liked:
A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore
The Fourth Bear by Jasper Fforde
Thursday Next: First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde