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: