Tuesday, December 17, 2013

REVIEW: Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

by Anne Ursu

“A boy got a splinter in his eye, and his heart turned cold. Only two people noticed. One was a witch, and she took him for her own. The other was his best friend. And she went after him in ill-considered shoes, brave and completely unprepared.” 

Hazel has moved from a more progressive, creative school to a traditional school in a new neighborhood. She feels so out of place. All the things she enjoyed about learning are discouraged. Her only touchstone is her best friend Jack. They let their imaginations run wild, inventing stories and playing baseball as superheros who are not allowed to use their powers. However, one day, Jack gets something in his eye, and he is completely different. He is mean to Hazel and doesn't care about what they used to care about. And then he disappears. Everyone thinks he went to visit his aunt, but Hazel knows something is wrong. She knows he was stolen by the Snow Queen. She must embark on a mission, facing wolves, witches, and ice, to save her best friend... who might not want to be saved.

I thought I would like this book a lot more than I did. "The Snow Queen" is one of my favorite tales. I felt this book was a bit lackluster for several reasons. First, the Snow Queen is a metaphor and a story they make up, as well as a real, concrete, straight from the fairy tale being. It straddled the land of metaphor and the land of reality. I almost wish that it remained in the land of metaphor, and used the story of the Snow Queen in a magic realism sense to depict the loss of a friend. But it wheels completely into the realm of fantasy, at times being slavishly loyal to the original, and at other times going strangely off the rails.

I did enjoy her constant allusions to other books like Lord of the Rings, Wrinkle in Time, Chronicles of Narnia, the Golden Compass, but it was a "huh I am in on the joke" enjoyment, rather than enjoying them for their artistic purpose. More than that, I liked her use of other Anderson fairy tales woven into Hazel's strange adventures in the snowy forest. The woods were mysterious and dream-like; unpredictable threats could jump out at any moment disguised as goodness. It made the journey disjointed and disorienting.

The ending was also unsatisfying, not because it is ambiguous, which it is, but because there are several elements left unexplained, like why the Snow Queen gave Jack the puzzle and what would have happened had he completed it.

Throughout, the book had a rather condescending tone towards science and "grown up things." It rankled me a bit, because science can go hand in hand with imagination, it is not the enemy. Hazel railed against anyone she perceived not to have an imagination which made me dislike her a little.

I appreciated Ursu's playful language, however, and the fact that she did not make the Snow Queen a villain in the traditional sense. There were several ancillary characters like Martin, Hazel's friend's imaginative uncle, who were delightful to read, if a bit flat.

It is a lovely story about how friendships change over time, but I felt it could have been stronger. I know several friends who enjoyed it, however, so perhaps I have missed something.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

REVIEW: Ice by Sarah Beth Durst

by Sarah Beth Durst

“She had a hundred reasons: because Bear had carved a statue of her in the center of the topiary garden, because she could always make him laugh, because he'd let her return to the station, because he won at chess and lost at hockey, because he ran as fast as he could to polar bear births, because he had seal breath even as a human, because his hands were soft, because he was her Bear. "Because I want my husband back," Cassie said.” 

Cassie has lived her whole life in her family's arctic research station. Her world is ice and science and tagging polar bears and survival. Her grandmother had told her fairy tales about her mother, the adopted daughter of the North Wind, who was supposed to marry the Polar Bear King but married a mortal instead. The North Wind was so angry that he threw the mother into the land of the trolls, never to be seen again. When Cassie grew up, she realized these were just stories to make her feel better about her mother's death. That is, until the Polar Bear King comes to claim Cassie as his wife. After agreeing to rescue her mother, Bear whisks Cassie away to his ice castle at the North Pole. She and Bear slowly and deeply fall in love, but when Cassie betrays Bear and he is torn from her side, she must brave the frozen wasteland to find him again.

I loved this adaptation of "East of the Sun and West of the Moon" even more than East. It is a rather faithful adaptation of the story, though elements are changed and added to enhance the themes Durst draws out of the tale. The story begins strong and ends strong, but when you hit the 3/4 mark, the story is difficult to adapt, as she travels to find Bear and encounters very vignette-y adversaries and friends, but such is the nature of the tale. Durst's adaptation is rooted in a very real exploration of a relationship: two people who love each other but have separate careers, interests, and plans for the future. They struggle and fight and that is what makes the story ring true. It is about coming to terms with who you are as a person and who you are as a couple. Cassie is 18, so she has a lot of growing up to do in a short period of time.

Cassie and Bear, the pillars of the story, are a joy to watch. Bear, unlike most Beasts or Bears or Cupids I have seen in "Beauty and the Beast"/"East of the Sun and West of the Moon"/ "Cupid and Psyche" adaptations, is not brooding or depressed or serious. His actually very loving and silly. They play together verbally and physically, ice skating in the ballroom and bantering back and forth. He cares deeply for Cassie and the polar bears he serves. He is easy to fall in love with. Cassie is smart and brave and stubborn beyond all belief. The amount of pain and suffering she must endure to find Bear is awe-inspiring. She is up there with September from The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairy Land in a Ship of her Own Making and Katsa from Graceling as some of the most resourceful badass chicks in literature.

Durst creates a fascinating mythology surrounding Bear and the creatures that help or hinder Cassie. Bear is a munaqsri, a being who cares for a particular species. He takes their souls from them when they die, and gives them to newborns. If they do not transfer a soul into the newborn, the baby is born dead. This element ends up being essential to the journey of Cassie and Bear and critical in the climax. I teared up on the metro as I read it, it is so well-crafted and emotionally satisfying.

I highly recommend this adaptation of "East of the Sun and West of the Moon."

Books Like This
East by Edith Pattou
Til We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
Cinder and Scarlet by Marissa Meyer
Stung by Bethany Wiggins

Saturday, November 9, 2013

REVIEW: Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy

Skulduggery Pleasant
by Derek Landy

“Her parents wanted her to find her own way in life. That’s what they’d said countless times in the past. Of course, they’d been referring to school subjects and college applications and job prospects. Presumably, at no stage did they factor living skeletons and magic underworlds into their considerations. If they had, their advice would probably have been very different.” 

When Stephanie's eccentric uncle suddenly dies, she meets someone rather mysterious at the reading of the will. Skulduggery Pleasant, her uncle's old friend, covers himself with a coat, scarf, had and dark glasses. When Stephanie is attacked by a terrifying man, Skulduggery reveals himself to be a walking, talking skeleton, an ancient sorcerer whose lost his life fighting the forces of evil, and pulled himself back together to finish him off. In the last few hundred years, he has become a wisecracking detective. Together, he and Stephanie must face a new threat, and stop a villain from destroying the world.

This book was absolutely clever and charming. While the plot was rather simple and conventional for the genre, and the villain was one dimensional, but the meat of the story is Skulduggery and Stephanie's relationship. Skulduggery is witty and silly fun on his own, but together with Stephanie the banter and chemistry is electric. They bat scenes back and forth like a tennis ball, matching each other in wit, humor and grit.

I loved Stephanie's slow assimilation into the magic culture. Once she knows it exists, she must choose to turn back to her old life, or plunge forward wholeheartedly into the danger and the dark. As she steps further and further in, her understanding of the very real threats that face them grow and her continuous determination to help Skulduggery is heartening. In this world, people have three names: the secret name they are born with, the name they are given by their parents, and the third name that they choose. That third name protects a sorcerer from using their other two names to control them, and it is usually deliciously descriptive. The moment Stephanie chooses her name was so powerful, I got shivers.

It bothered me how much Stephanie was on the sidelines of the fighting, either hurt or watching. However, she is 12 and a magic noob, so it makes sense that Skulduggery does most of the ass-kicking. Tanith Lee, a female swordslinger who joins up with them, gives us ample badassery on her own. And Landy allows her to giggle with Stephanie, which makes me so happy. No stoic, cardboard, humorless fighter chicks in this book!

I also appreciated Stephanie's family life. Usually in stories like this, the protagonist's family abuses them, or is apathetic, or is dead. Stephanie's family cares! Her dad is absolutely lovely, and has one of the most touching scenes in the book. You worry that in the sequels, Stephanie is going to break his heart.

A fun and fast juvenile read. I did wish it was more of a magical detective story, and less of an epic battle of good vs evil, but it was a joy to sit in the Bentley with Skulduggery and Stephanie and listen to them talk. I look forward to see where this series goes (there are 8 of them!)

Monday, November 4, 2013

REVIEW: Dodger by Terry Pratchett

by Terry Pratchett

“Dodger made haste towards the house of the Mayhews while in his mind he saw the cheerful face and hooked nose of Mister Punch, beating his wife, beating the policeman and throwing the baby away, which made all the children laugh. Why was that funny, he thought? Was that funny at all? He’d lived for seventeen years on the streets, and so he knew that, funny or not, it was real. Not all the time, of course, but often when people had been brought down so low that they could think of nothing better to do than punch: punch the wife, punch the child and then, sooner or later, endeavour to punch the hangman, although that was the punch that never landed and, oh how the children laughed at Mister Punch! But Simplicity wasn't laughing...” 
It was a dark and stormy night in turn-of-the-century London. A girl's scream rips through the air as she tries to escape a carriage with two brutish men on her heels. Suddenly, a young man emerges from a sewer drain and saves her. Thus Dodger, common geezer and tosher (person who explores sewers for lost items), gets swept up in a mystery that involves Charles Dickens, Henry Mayhew, Benjamin Disraeli, and even foreign powers. Will he be able to solve the mystery of the woman in the coach, and will he be able to maintain his identity as his star rises?

Pratchett calls this book a historical fantasy, and I can definitely see how that is true. It is more like historical fan fiction, where he manipulates facts to give you a really fun story. It took me a while to get into the rhythm of his long, convoluted and clever sentences, but I really enjoyed the book.

The world was excellently drawn, almost too much so, for I felt sometimes he was letting the historical personages run wild with their opinions on the world more than letting the plot advance. However, the characters are really fun, if a bit flat. The two characters that stand out in relief from the others are Dodger himself and his mentor and landlord Solomon. Solomon is a practical, cosmopolitan Jewish refugee. He lives simply and speaks wisely, and plays his cards close to the chest. It bothered me that Pratchett seemed to be implying that Fagin from Oliver Twist was based on Solomon, for Solomon was nothing if not an amazing role model. Dickens actually went back and apologized for the anti-Semitic portrayal of Fagin in Oliver Twist, so it colored my view of Dickens in the novel.

Dodger is a surprisingly compassionate hardened geezer (clever, streetwise person). He is more complex than you realize at first, protecting his town, and if he lies and manipulates a good person, he makes sure they are recompensed. He sees all sides of a situation, and feels sympathy for those who are portrayed as "villains" in the eyes of the public. I do sometimes wish that he was actually genuinely scared or that he failed horribly once or twice in the story, because his constant successes made me hate him a little, but just a little.

I honestly was expecting a lot of horrible things to happen in this book which never happened. Perhaps, I forgot this was a Pratchett novel, and not just a regular historical/ literary adaptation where they try to take the story down dark roads.

All in all, a pleasant and fun romp through 17th century London.

Books Like This:
The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett
Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore
Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance by Gyles Brandreth

Friday, October 18, 2013

REVIEW: Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson

Tiger Lily
by Jodi Lynn Anderson
“I'm not myself," she offered, guiltily. She softened around Tik Tok, and when she did she was, for those rare moments, girlish.
He smiled. "You can never say that. You're just a piece of yourself right now that you don't like.” 
Tiger Lily lives in Neverland, an island in the Atlantic where ships of Englanders occasionally wash up with pirates or children or folks who don't last very long. Englanders have a disease that makes them continue to grow older until they die, something the natives are not subject to. Tiger Lily is an orphan, adopted by the shaman of the tribe, a man named Tik Tok, who is "of two genders": he is a man who wears women's clothing. Tiger Lily lives up to her name: fierce, stoic, and unreadable except by those who know her well. She is a misfit in the tribe, so when she meets Peter Pan, the ominous and deadly boy in the woods, she is caught up in a world where she is needed, special, admired. Her relationship with Peter ignites with heart-thrumming intimacy.  But when Tiger Lily neglects her tribe to tragic results, and when a Wendy bird arrives, will they be able to maintain their connection, or will Tiger Lily lose everything?

This was such a fascinating book. It is narrated by Tinkerbell (not her real name, simply a name Peter condescendingly bestowed). She cannot speak, but she can sense the thoughts and feelings of those around her, making her a unique, slightly omnipotent storyteller. Neverland itself is a strange entity. It is set in our world. Their are fairies and mermaids, but no flying, no "second star to the right." And yet, Anderson manages to maintain what I loved most about the original story: the very real psychology of the characters.

This story also maintains the ache of the original. As an adult reader, you know what things mean. The larger implications of certain feelings become clear. You pity, envy, and are frightened of Peter. He becomes that boy. The one who cannot understand the feelings he is having. The one who shuts himself to any other reality but his own. The one who desperately means to keep promises, but then does not. The one who sends you to the highest highs but also deeply frightens you with what he is capable of. I understood Peter more in this book than in any other interpretation. Hook's desperation for Peter is not the comical Disney or musical version: it is dark and dangerous and self-destructive. Smee is still "lovable" but you remember why he is a pirate and not an affable accountant. He is still a murderer. Wendy is much stronger and also much weaker than in the original. She is so sure of herself because the world cannot be other than how she sees it. The lost boys are not romanticized as off on a camping trip. These boys act the way any children would if they were left to their own devices, forced to survive on their own. They hero-worship Peter, desperate to have some sort of direction, a compass to focus their days. But this, of course, takes a toll on a leader who is still very much a boy himself.

Tiger Lily is wonderfully complex and refreshing. She is not a preteen seductress, nor a silent generic "indian." She is guarded and pained and untrusting but also worthy and strong, and has the capacity for deep love. And she does not, as this book seemed to imply at the beginning, loose her mind, heart and need for life when she loses Peter (as all girls lose Peter).

The cast of new characters are more of a mystery to us, but they are no less compelling: Pine Sap, Tiger Lily's mishapen and introspective friend, and Tik Tok the shaman whose slow tragedy breaks our hearts.

This is a quality Peter Pan adaptation. Well-written and faithful to the spirit of the original.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

REVIEW: Timeline by Michael Crichton

by Michael Crichton

A team of archaeologists are digging up a medieval castle when their funders, the mysterious ITC, accidentally drop a hint that they know more about the site than they let on. The lead archaeologist, Professor Johnson, flies to New Mexico to find out what is going on and he doesn't return. Meanwhile, his team unearths an ancient parchment in the ruins, a document dating 600 years old, with the words "Help me!" in the Professor's handwriting. With the questionable aid of ITC, they must travel back in time and save the Professor. Will their expertise help them survive the dangerous middle ages, or will they be crushed underfoot by the march of history?

This is my first Michael Crichton book and I can't say I am a fan. I loved the movie of Timeline (warning, this review is tainted by that), and I hoped the book would be even better. I was surprised at how different the two were, and how the movie streamlined and improved upon the story Crichton told.

For example, time travel is not even mentioned until page 109. The first quarter of the book is taken up with wandering through ITC and the dig site. I honestly would have stopped if I hadn't known that time travel would happen, and the knowing made it even more excruciating.

Crichton loves to bathe in science. The book is saturated with it and it verges on fetishism. And yet the science is questionable. I know little about scientific theory, and even I could see that the logic was flawed. The theory of time travel is based on the idea of the multiverse. That (in an uber simplified version) because you shoot light particles through holes and some hit their target and some disappear, that something blocks them. Obviously, it is another universe getting in the way. It seems like that is the most complicated answer possible for such a phenomenon. The science behind the time travel that ITC uses is really moving a person from one universe to another. But also back in time in that universe. It is an unnecessarily complex method of time travel.

Crichton treats history almost the same way as science, reveling in explaining to the reader why everything we think about the middle ages is untrue. I quite enjoyed his fact dropping as history is more my scene, but at times it did verge historical masturbation. It is full of long anecdotes and facts that have little to do with the plot and more to do with how knowledgeable Crichton was about the subject matter.

The movie simplified a lot of convoluted plot points (ex. the Professor makes greek fire, rather than almost greek fire). Some of the adventures the heroes encounter feel like filler and provide a momentary inconvenience before setting them back on their path again.

The book did maintain an element of the movie I loved: the reality of the middle ages and how the modern archaeologists are completely out of their element. Kate, Andre and Chris each have their own baggage and their own area of expertise that ends up being indispensable to the mission.  Kate is an expert climber and architect. Andre is an expert on medieval life, culture, language and martial arts. Chris is an expert in the history of technology, and the workings of a particular mill that plays a pivotal role. Chris' journey was the most meaty as he goes through the crucible of medieval peril, transforming from a whiny serial dater to a solid, stouthearted friend.

There were some elements to the book that seemed entirely out of place. One adventure leads them to a green chapel where a knight waits with an ax to chop of their head.  Did you just read Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, Michael? And the Lady Claire, a sweet, smart, and determined character with a clear goal and a clear purpose in the movie becomes an absolute baffling mystery in the book: a randomly sexualized scheming deus ex machina and reward for sacrifice.

In the end, this book had an interesting premise which crawled, stumbled, danced a jig, and then awkwardly sat down again. All in all, the story and the history ended up being entertaining, but I thought, with Crichton's reputation, we would get a better book.

Books like this (but better!)
The Domesday Book by Connie Willis

Sunday, September 22, 2013

REVIEW: The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

The Wizard of Oz
by L. Frank Baum 
“I cannot understand why you should wish to leave this beautiful country and go back to the dry, gray place you call Kansas."
"That is because you have no brains," answered the girl. "No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home." 
The Scarecrow sighed.
"Of course I cannot understand it," he said. "If your heads were stuffed with straw, like mine, you would probably all live in beautiful places, and then Kansas would have no people at all. It is fortunate for Kansas that you have brains.” 

Dorothy lives in Kansas with her uncle and aunt. It is a grey little farm on a grey little plain. One day a tornado swoops down and takes Dorothy and the house up into the sky and down again, landing in the Land of Oz on top of the Wicked Witch of the East. Dorothy and her new friends the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman and the Lion travel through perils to the Emerald City to each receive what they most desire from the great and terrible Wizard of Oz. But will Oz's price be too much for them to pay?

Please do not read this if you are a part of my book club! This is my first time reading the books. I have seen the movie several times, and I have vague memories of reading Oz stories in picture book form, but I never had all of them, and the ones that stood out were the visit to Oz, the china town and the Hammer Heads. I had never read it all the way through.

I love it! The style is so charming. I shouldn't say that it reminds me of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairy Land in a Ship of her Own Making, it should be the other way around, but I hadn't read Oz yet!

I loved that the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman and the Lion weren't just Dorothy's backup dancers. They each had their own very specific talents -- ironically the exact talents they thought they lacked. On every adventure, the Scarecrow would come up with the plan, the Tin Woodsman built or used a tool to help with the plan, and the Lion had to complete the scary task. They used teamwork to solve problems and they could not have accomplished any part of their journey without the other. There were very few moments like that in the movie where they separately shone as part of the whole.

Dorothy, while still a child, is much more sensible than the Dorothy in the movie. As much as I love Judy Garland, she is very much the damsel in distress. Dorothy keeps a close eye on the food supply for the journey, and keeps her head down when she needs to. She deals with the supposed death or loss of her companions multiple times, and she handles herself in Oz with maturity. When the witch takes her prisoner, she obeys and comforts the lion (one of the more touching moments of the book for me). The end rescue happens in reverse from the movie. Dorothy has had enough and in a fit of frustration throws water on the witch and melts her (rather than as a desperate impulse in the movie). She rescues the lion and then goes to rescue the Tin Woodsman and the Scarecrow.

I was so shocked at the violence in this book. The Tin Woodsman kills a lot of animals with his ax. But I did appreciate how Baum handled Oz' request for Dorothy, a little girl, to kill the Wicked Witch of the West. She cries and states that she cannot kill someone willingly. I felt this was missing in the movie, the full weight of asking a child to kill someone.

I did feel that the adventures post Oz's departure were a bit too much. The movie handled it nicely, having Glinda appear at the balloon launch. Perhaps it was because I was used to the movie's ending that I didn't fully grasp the trajectory of this story.

I missed the parallels between farm life and the Land of Oz to show that she still carries some Oz with her at home. It makes me wonder if she will be as happy as she claims in the grey land of Kansas. And you do wonder, after the 100th time they repeat the brains, heart, courage, home mantra...what did Toto want?

I did love the book, however, and I will definitely put it on my shelf of classics I will read to my children, along with Peter Pan and the Secret Garden.

Monday, September 16, 2013

REVIEW: Stung by Bethany Wiggins

"As I jump out the window, I glance over my shoulder. The window frames a face with smooth skin and hollow cheeks -- a boy on the brink of manhood. He peels his lips back and growls, and I stare into his brown eyes. For a moment it is like looking into a mirror and I almost say his name. Until I realize his eyes are wild and feral, like an animal's...As I sprint across the empty schoolyard, past the silent, rusted playground, I dare a look over my shoulder. My brother is hobbling toward the fence, his angle hanging at an odd angle to his leg. His eyes meet mine and he holds a hand up to me, a plea to come back. A sob tears at my chest, but I look away and keep running."

Fiona wakes up in her bedroom. Everything is covered in dust. The world around her is lifeless, and there is a tattoo on her right hand. She is 4 years older than she was when she fell asleep. She steps into a world divided, where those bearing the tattoo must live outside the wall because they are infected with a deadly disease that could turn them at any moment into mindless beastly killing machines. Those within the wall are safe, but at what cost? When Fiona is captured by the militia, she is marked as a Level Ten, the deadliest of all the infected. Yet, she feels normal. As flashes of memories come back to her, she and her former classmate Bowen, now a hardened militia man, must discover her secret before it is too late.

This book was chilling. The opening images of a normal world gone wrong were nightmarish. Everything left as if the family had just stepped out, but dust-covered, broken, and warped. Vestiges of her old life present themselves in horribly twisted ways.

There are very few elements of the Sleeping Beauty tale in this adaptation, but they appear in the prick of a needle, the many-years sleep, and the healing power of a kiss, just not in the ways you would expect.

The story itself did not grab my heart the way Scarlet did. The bleak dystopia grabbed my brain, however, and I was moved by the dogged perseverance of Fiona towards the end of the book (after a few chapters of some wandering, and following). While her relationship with Bowen is compelling, I was more taken by her relationship with her twin brother Jonah, a Level 10 who has already turned into an aggressive killer, and how his repeat appearances change as the plot advances.

I found that the story meandered a little and the deus ex machina at the end was a little too abrupt and easy, but it was still a satisfying tale, and a fascinating world to explore. A solid sci-fi version of the fairy tale.

And the cover art is amazing, right?

REVIEW: Scarlet by Marissa Meyer

by Marissa Meyer
“A sickening howl stopped her, sucking the air out of her lungs. 
The night's chatter silenced, even the loitering city rats pausing to listen.
Scarlet had heard wild wolves before, prowling the countryside in search of easy prey on the farms.
But never had a wolf's howl send a chill down her spine like that.” 
This second book in the Lunar Chronicles follows a delivery girl named Scarlet whose grandmother has been missing for two weeks. The police have given up, but she tenaciously searches for clues. When she meets a young, handsome, ambiguously affiliated street fighter, Wolf, who might hold the key to her grandmother's disappearance, they embark on a journey that might save her grandmother, or doom Scarlet to the same fate. In the mean time, Cinder (protagonist of the last book), is breaking out of prison with the charming, but rather self absorbed Captain Thorne. And poor Prince Kai is left to deal with the evil Lunar Queen alone. 

I believe I loved this book even more than Cinder! Marissa Meyer creates awesome heroines, all of whom have very strong objectives having nothing to do with love. Any love that they may come across is secondary to their main drives. And so far they have each held jobs traditionally given to men (that of mechanic and delivery person) with unconscious aplomb.

The gentlemen, Thorne and Kai, are given equally complex treatment. Even though Thorne is shallow, you can tell he is capable of more than he gives himself credit for. And Wolf. Oh Wolf. I am a sucker for the primal but sweet and funny but also not-certain-if-he-is-going-to-eat-you wolfman (see Wolf in 10th Kingdom). And may I say, without giving too much away, that damn the romance in this one is passionate.

This book is action-packed with highly creative fights, chases, interrogation scenes, and brawls. The science fiction is deftly woven into the plot so that it is never to exposition or world-building heavy; it just flows with the story. I also appreciated how both the Scarlet story line and the Cinder story line were both equally as strong.

The Lunar Chronicles, Cinder and Scarlet, are probably some of my favorite fairy tale adaptations out there. They give nods to the important elements of the fairy tale: the pumpkin, the shoe, the searching prince, the red cloak, the wolf, the grandmother. Yet they are not slaves to them. They creatively interpret them to create new and compelling stories. As these ladies join forces, I am excited to see who fills out their crew of powerful fairy tale heroes and heroines. The next book, Cress, comes out soon!

Books Like This:
Cinder by Marissa Meyer
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Terrier by Tamora Pierce
The Fourth Bear by Jasper Fforde

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

REVIEW: The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell

The Death of Bees
by Lisa O'Donnell

"Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard.  Neither of them were beloved."

Marnie and her little sister Nelly bury their parents in the backyard on Christmas Eve. They were rotten parents, anyway. Marnie has grown up too fast, talking tough, wearing fishnets and short skirts and lipstick, selling drugs for a guy named Mick who she occasionally sleeps with, at the young age of 15. Nelly is younger and speaks like a grandmother with her "good gracious" and her "local constabulary." She sounds like a Jane Austen novel, and she is obsessed with Harry Potter. She might be a little off, but Marnie ferociously protects her. Lennie is the older next door neighbor who starts to notice that they are alone. He has a troubled past that will not let him be, and he invites the girls over to his home to care for them as much as they will let him. Then one day, the girls' grandfather comes looking for them. He ran out on their mother but he says he's changed. He is asking questions about their parents' whereabouts. Is he trustworthy? Will he find out his daughter is buried in the backyard? How did they really die? If all is revealed, will things get better for the girls, or a whole lot worse?

This book was the first book I read after the YA class, and it was fantastic! I loved the narration in three separate voices: Marnie as the slang-slinging tough girl, Nelly as the posh but vulnerable waif, and Lennie, speaking to his dead partner, as the emotional (not literal) grandfather of the girls. You would hear of the same event from all three different points of view and get drastically different information. It is amazing to hear their voices develop throughout the book: one becomes more natural, one becomes more assertive, one slowly looses their grip.

This book is about family. About how the family you get can be horribly broken, and how you survive and make a new one. And it's not just about the girls. It is about the whole community of poor living in Maryhill, Scotland. How they make the best or the worst of it. There is a beautiful passage about immigrants:

"It is dangerous and not because of the refugees they've housed there but because of the wee radges who don't like the refugees there. Glaswegians are very territorial, even in a shit hole like Sighthill. It never occurs to them the accents around them belong to doctors and nurses, teachers and lawyers, educated people forced out of nice homes in beautiful lands only to be stored in tower blocks in the northeast of Glasgow. I mean seriously. Imagine losing everything you are and everyone you know, to have survived rape, starvation, and homelessness, to have escaped death at the hands of genocidal maniacs only to end up in a moldy housing estate. Now we have immigrants with university degrees and doctorates prostituting themselves, selling drugs and doing whatever they must to survive the hell we call asylum..."

 Oh and the book is really darkly funny (and a bit gross in parts, so don't read it while you are eating). I highly recommend it! It is a fast read!

REVIEW: Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

Marcelo in the Real World
by Francisco X. Stork

“I deal with people like him a hundred times a day. They look at me and naturally assume I'm not as smart as they are. God help us. But think about it, it's a tremendous tactical advantage, not to mention personally liberating, to have others think I'm a dummy.” 

Marcelo is somewhere on the autism spectrum, close to Aspergers, but his doctors have been unable to clearly diagnose him. His special interests are religion and his internal music which sings in the back of his mind and no one else can hear. He is looking forward to spending the summer caring for the ponies at Paterson, the school for developmentally challenged kids he has been attending his whole life. However, his father thinks that he needs time in "the real world" and tells him he has to take a summer job at his father's law firm. Confronted with the real world, Marcelo must squelch his natural interests (talking about religion makes people uncomfortable) and learn the complex rules of the office. He meets Jasmine, his boss, and Wendell, the privileged son of another lawyer, and they help him to see, for better or for worse, what the real world is like. One day, Marcelo sees the photograph of a girl whose face has been sliced in half by a faulty windshield, and he must wrestle with what the real world thinks is correct, and what his heart tells him to do.

Marcelo was a beautiful book! I loved his unique voice right from the start: his need for clarification, his precise imagery (the phone ring sounding like it was full of rage). It was so unfamiliar and yet familiar at the same time. I too have a need for schedules and routine, and sometimes feel overstimulated or unwilling to venture into unknown places.

I was expecting the journey of an autistic boy learning to relate socially to people. I did not expect the deep spiritual elements in this book. And I did not expect the journey of a person from weakness to strength. I didn't expect Marcelo to become a hero with more clarity and self-awareness than most people I know.
I was profoundly impacted by his relationship with Rabbi Herschel and the moments they wrestled with the will of God: the tree of good and evil, and the final scene when they discuss how to listen to what is right, the fact that the right thing might hurt people, but we must trust that God will use the hurt in a positive way. They both touched me deeply.

I was not expecting Wendell the predator. He was such a danger, lurking there in the back of every moment Marcelo’s father was such an intriguing and multidimensional character. I don't want to give too much away, but somewhere he takes a wrong turn and has a difficult time getting back on track. That story is not quite resolved to my satisfaction, but real life never is.

This book is an amazing peak into someone's head that on the street might appear very different to you, but Marcelo struggles with the same things everyone does. He just comes at it from a different perspective. I was sad that towards the end, he begins to loose some of his uniqueness in favor of fitting in, but he develops a gentleness and a strength and a clarity of purpose that I envy. This book is great for those who are searching, for those who do not always fit in, and for those who struggle with what is right and wrong.

Books Like This
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon
Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt

Monday, August 5, 2013

REVIEW: The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

The Knife of Never Letting Go
by Patrick Ness

“Noise ain't Truth, Noise is what men want to be true, and there's a difference twixt those two things so big that it could ruddy well kill you if you don't watch out.” 

Todd lives in a strange town. Firstly, they are colonists on a lonely planet: religious colonists like the Pilgrims. Second, there are only men. All the women died when a terrible virus swept through the town, killing all the women and allowing all the men to hear each other's thoughts. It follows the men around like a cloud and they call it The Noise. There are no secrets in Prentisstown. Also, all the animals can talk, which is advantageous in some cases, but when you have an annoying dog who always has to poo, it appears more as an irritating situation.

One day, when Todd and Manchee (his dog) travel to the swamp to gather fruit for his adopted fathers, Todd is startled by a patch of quiet moving through ancient huts. When he returns home, his fathers force him to flee as the sheriff and his posse try to break down the door. Armed only with a book from his dead mother that he cannot read, a knife, his dog and baffled confusion and anger at his situation, Todd stumbles into the wilderness and meets the last thing he expected: a girl. He and Viola must hazard a dangerous preacher, hunger, wild animals, illness, and the string of communities who have all learned to deal with the Noise in different and often disturbing ways, to get to a legendary city called Haven. Along the way, Todd must begin to learn the awful secret of Prentisstown and resist the urge to complete it's corruption.

This book is absolutely fantastic. Unfortunately the most fantastic parts about it would reveal some pretty significant spoilers about the plot. I will do my best.

First of all, Manchee is the best dog. Ness did not give him more intellect than we would expect a dog to have, but the smooth flow of communication between man and dog was beautiful and made me wish we could communicate with our pets like that. We might not be able to discuss Aristotle with them, but the simplicity and clarity and harmony would be wonderful.

The world-building is fantastic. Ness represents the Noise with pages of scrawled writing overlapping and weaving in and out to make it crowded and chaotic and difficult to read. Prentisstown has become so sad and isolated that corruption is rampant. What started off as a quaint town of settlers has morphed into a booze-soaked, depressed, inbred (figuratively) and lost wasteland. The highlight of the book is is how the other towns Todd and Viola encounter have each dealt with the problem in their own way, a cultural Darwinian evolution, sometimes to great success, and other times to rather disturbing ends.

Todd and Viola are reluctant allies, with him spouting Noise while she has a bubble of silence around her. As their partnership grows, they are tested more and more as the Prentisstown men give chase, until Todd makes a horrible decision he can never take back. He must carry the weight of what he has done and find out the mysteries of the world he thought he knew before it is too late.

It is a wonderful exploration of what it is to know someone and what it means to be a man. And the cliffhanger ending blew my mind. I have never read a book with that much of a cliffhanger. It felt like the end to a season on a TV series rather than a book. I can't wait for the next one!

Books Like This
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The Giver by Lois Lowry
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

REVIEW: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Message from Me: I realize it has been an entire month since I have posted. That is because I have been reading a bagillion YA novels, some of which were great, some of which were crap. I have selected a few of the great ones to review (and will spare you the crap ones) and then I can get back to doing what I do best: reading books I want to read! Huzzah! Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.

The Hunger Games 
by Suzanne Collins

“Then something unexpected happens. At least, I don't expect it because I don't think of District 12 as a place that cares about me. But a shift has occurred since I stepped up to take Prim's place, and now it seems I have become someone precious. At first one, then another, then almost every member of the crowd touches the three middle fingers of their left hand to their lips and holds it out to me. It is an old and rarely used gesture of our district, occasionally seen at funerals. It means thanks, it means admiration, it means good-bye to someone you love.” 

(If you have read the book, you can skip this part) Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12 of Panam. Once the Districts rose up against the capital city, and now, to remind them of their terrible defeat, the capital city requires each district to send one male and one female child as tribute to compete in the yearly Hunger Games. The children must compete to survive, and there is only one winner. Katniss volunteers to spare her sister from the games and is plunged into a world of false pageantry and glamour until the day of the games dawns. She, and her fellow tribute Peeta, must survive at all costs. But in the end, only one of them can go home.

This is the third time I have traveled through The Hunger Games, but the first time I have read it in print. I first listened to the audio book, which did not leave a good impression on me. The actress playing Katniss had a thin whiny quality to her voice that made me dislike her. Then, I saw the movie, which I thought was a good adaptation. However, I loved reading this book.

Katniss is a smart, strong character, not at all whiny like the audio book had me believe. She focuses on the next thing that will help her survive. Her silence and distrust for everyone is not natural. It comes from her oppression. She learned to keep her mouth shut. She is pragmatic because she has to be. The one thing that remained from the audio book was my frustration at her being such a poor judge of character. If she had been horribly wronged in some way by someone she trusted out of malice, I could understand how she would see the worst in Peeta’s motives for so long. However, he has been nothing but kind to her, and she always questions it.

Now that I have read it again, smaller details start moving to the fore, like her relationship with her father and how it is a source of strength for her, and her relationship with her mother and her feeling of betrayal at her mother’s depression (which I had not realized was medical, rather than emotional).

The book is fast paced and action packed. It always seems longer when someone is reading it to you, but I zipped through this book, and was always surprised how the next adventure was right on top of the last one. It still dragged for me at the end, especially the one time when you think that Peeta and Katniss are getting out of the cave for good and going off to kill Cato, but then have to return for a final night in the cave.

The survival parts, where Katniss is alone in the woods, surviving and fighting and planning are so much more compelling to me than the romantic parts. In this read, I realized how truly clueless Peeta was that Katniss was pretending to love him. For some reason I thought the book had more Gale and Peeta romance bits, but perhaps that was because I listened to all the audio books in a row and lost the demarcation of each book.

This book is violent and disturbing, yes, but it is based on the old myth, Theseus and the Minotaur where young people were sent as tribute to feed the Minotaur. It is not as gory as Battle Royale, a movie of with a similar plot line, nor is it as disturbing as other books we have read this year (Never Fall Down). It is in fact, rather tame.

Children kill other children, but when you are a child, you see yourself as capable of adult things. You see yourself as the adventuresome hero who can do what must be done. In a way it is good that Suzanne Collins has so clearly defined the good guys from the bad guys, and that our protagonists only kill in self-defense, by accident, or through mercy.  If the delineations had been more nebulous, I would certainly be concerned or if our main characters had no regard for the lives of those they killed. As much as I love fully fleshed out villains, and ambiguous protagonists, the subject matter is such that it might have led to readers taking a callous view of human life.

Funny side note: The first time I listed to Hunger Games on audio book, my boyfriend and I were traveling to Disney World. We got to the hotel and were staring up at the plastic fountains and twinkle lights and smiling faces and perfect bedrooms, and the irony of the situation began to sink in.

Books Like This
True Grit by Charles Portis
After the Snow by S.D. Crockett
Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Thursday, June 27, 2013

REVIEW: Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick

Never Fall Down
by Patricia McCormick

"I see all this, smell the blood, like raw meat. And my eyes see it. But I don't feel anything. If you feel, you go crazy."

Eleven-year-old Arn lives in his village in Cambodia, selling ice cream and listening to Elvis. There is a war going on, but it is distant. That is, until the Khmer Rouge, the communist enemy, come to his village claiming the Americans were coming to bomb it, and they "evacuate" the people to farming camps. The children are separated from the adults, and any intellectual or rich citizens are killed. The population becomes smaller and smaller as the Khmer Rouge find increasingly specific reasons to kill people. Arn does what he can to survive as his friends and family die around him in the Killing Fields. He volunteers to participate in a band that tours other camps, singing of the glory of the communist party and the paradise they have brought. He is soon able to protect a small group of kids because he has become "a little bit famous." But with so much death facing him every day, he must become like the Khmer Rouge to survive. Will he be able to ever find himself again?

This book was absolutely brutal. It was the most gory and graphic thing I have ever read, or seen, including Game of Thrones or Joe Abercrombie or Battle Royale. I do love me some dark and gory stuff from time to time, but it was too much for even me. I couldn’t go a page without someone drowning in shit, or having a person explode and parts of their body are hanging from the trees, or a kid shoots himself in the face. I felt like I was being sandblasted with violence, and the nonchalance with which it is treated in the narrative made it so much worse. It certainly put you in the mind of the character, where you had to at some point turn off your emotions or your attachment to anyone because they were going to step on a land mine sooner or later. Often, the writer would tease you with hope, only to have that hope snatched away offhandedly a page or so later.

The worst thing is, this happened. To a real person. I did not realize this until about ¾ of the way through the book. I thought the author was taking all the worst parts of what happened in Cambodia and giving it to one boy, but no, this is almost verbatim what happened to Arn Chorn-Pond, the real man.

That is the difficulty of this book. On the one hand, it is really brutal and gory and extremely difficult to get through, but on the other hand this happened to someone. The world needs to know that this level of evil happens in the world. We need to honor the dead by reading their stories and try to find ways to prevent this from happening again. I feel like people will have different reactions to this book: some will rise and fight against the evil, and some will feel overwhelmed and hide.

The most intriguing part of the book for me is the way Arn’s brain handles the situation he is in. In order to survive and protect the people he cares about, he plays along with what the Khmer Rouge want. However, after being given some small perks and power, he slowly begins to turn into them. He becomes what he hates most in order maintain his sanity and stay alive. Once he is safe, he struggles with who he is and what he has done. How do you have a normal life when you have seen what he has seen, and killed people?

It also makes me wary of believing what I hear or read. The Khmer Rouge used heavy manipulations, lies and propaganda to get people to do what they wanted, and there were deep consequences for those who believed them.

Hope only comes in the very end of the book, almost in the post script, where you find out how Arn decided to channel his anger and pain and use his experience for good. 

Here is an interview with Arn Chorn-Pond and Patricia McCormick:

I believe that this book is important for everyone to read, but you must be prepared for its contents. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

REVIEW: American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

American Born Chinese
by Gene Luen Yang

“It's easy to become anything you wish . . . so long as you're willing to forfeit your soul.” 

I decided that I needed a break from the heavy emotional lifting of the last few books, so I chose to read American Born Chinese before Never Fall Down. Now that I am reading Never Fall Down, I know that it was a wise decision.

I loved American Born Chinese. It is the first of the books in this class that changes format, not only by being a graphic novel, but by telling three stories that inform each other, and in the end mix together. It also uses mythology to comment on modern situations, which, if you will pardon the expression, is my jam.

The first story, the story of the Monkey King, echoes back to the Hate List. The Monkey King wishes to join the god's party in heaven. He is capable and qualified to enter, but he is laughed at and denied entrence because he is a monkey. He trains and trains to become the most baddass monkey ever and then takes his revenge with violence. He tries to change himself to be more like his oppressors (much like Never Fall Down), and turns into a monster himself. He is unkind, unmerciful, and stubborn to the point of inertia. Even when God himself comes and speaks to him with kindness and understanding, he tries to prove he is better than God. He clings white-knuckled to his new human-like persona that he refuses let the charade slip even to save himself. What he doesn’t realize is that being a monkey is his strongest asset.

The second story is of Jin Wang and his struggle to fit in to American High School. Even though he has grown up in the United States, he is treated as an alien, even by the teachers. They hope for his presence to be a learning experience for the class, but they only intensify their xenophobia by their own ignorance of Jin Wang’s life and his culture. He ruins the one friendship he has because he is so concerned with how he is perceived. Like the Monkey King, he denies who he is to fit in.

Which leads to the third story: Danny, a white American boy, is visited by his hooooorribly racist stereotype Chinese cousin, Chin-kee. Chin-kee consistently embarrasses him and ruins his reputation wherever he goes. The story is told with a laugh track, like a sitcom, but in the end, there is a twist that brings all three tales together to a surprising and satisfying conclusion. 

This was an incredible story, very simple and very clear. The illustrations are beautiful and streamlined. It moved along at a nice clip, and it went by so fast I devoured it on one metro ride. The message is never told to you flat out as a moral, but it fairly shouts to you from the rooftops through the intertwining tales: Do not deny who you are. It is your strength.

REVIEW: The Hate List by Jennifer Brown

Hate List
by Jennifer Brown

“I sat back and looked at it. It was ugly, dark, uncontrolled. Like a monster's face. Or maybe what I saw there was my own face. I couldn't quite tell. Was the face the image of something evil or the image of myself?

"Both," Bea muttered, as if I'd spoken my question out loud. "Of course, it's both. But it shouldn't be. Goodness, no.” 

Valerie and her boyfriend Nick are bullied in school so they create a "hate list" a list of all the people who make their lives miserable. Nick is funny and sweet and loves Shakespeare....and then on the morning of May 2nd he opens fire in the school cafeteria, killing the students who are on that list. When Val realizes what is happening, she tries to stop Nick and gets shot in the leg before he turns the gun on himself. In Hate List we jump back and forth between the morning of the shooting, Val's memories of Nick and the horrible consequences of the event. Val is seen sometimes as a hero, but more often then not as an accomplice. The book chronicles the healing process (or not) of Val, of the school, of the town. Emotions are so tangled up for the kids, the parents, the school officials that Val becomes a walking symbol of what happened that day. In the face of so much pain and hate, how can Val face another year at school?

Wow. This book was gripping, beautiful and moving. So very sad and hard and hopeful.  I loved how it was not just a story about a school shooting. It could turn into a voyeuristic slasher blood fest quickly. And it is not a sappy love fest where easy answers are found in platitudes.  It is about how you deal with something like that, not just the victims or the victims’ families, but the “culprits” and their families and survivors in all senses of the word. How the media spins it to make the country believe everyone has healed and accepted the loss when that is not the case, and probably will not be the case for a very long time. It does not make things simple either. Nick was a nice kid, a good boyfriend, intellectual and passionate. There is no cut and dried explanation as to why he did what he did. He was teased and he got angry and he took drugs, but plenty of people do that without shooting up a school. We never uncover the mystery. We never receive a satisfactory diagnosis of a disease that we can cure in our school system or society.

I very much appreciated how Brown wrote adults. I have noticed a trend in many YA books where the authors feel they have to remove parents from the equation in order for kids to strike out on their own. The parents and authority figures either are horrible people, ignore the kids, have died, or are unable to relate to the kids. This is why I really admire John Green when he has his characters sit down and watch TV with his loving parents and actually enjoy hanging out and talking with them. While I understand the trope, I also feel like it isolates kids from adults, making them feel like adults will not be there for them, or understand their problems. In Hate List, the adults were simply people. Flawed, yes, but well-rounded people. The teachers are not just authority figures. They are struggling through their grief and loss as well, and not in a generic way, but in very specific ways. Dr. Heiler, while idealized, is a SUPPORTIVE ADULT FIGURE that she can tell things too! Incredible! He has a mysterious family that Val wonders about, a life outside of his office. Val’s mother is both frustrating and heart breaking as she wrestles with the fact that her child inadvertently caused people to die. She blames her and protects her and protects other people from her and trusts her and doesn’t trust her. I appreciated the chaos of their relationship and how it developed, moving forward and then snapping backward throughout the book. Her relationship with her dad, though, was rather sickening and destructive and difficult to read.

Val herself is massively wounded and confused. I don’t know how she got through every day, but humans are built to be resilient. She is another badass heroine, not because she fought bad guys, but simply because she faced every day. She survived through time and sheer stubbornness and forcing herself to be vulnerable  when the survivalist in me would armor up. While I was not satisfied with the ending, which made me worry about Val more than feel confidant she was on the road to recovery, her journey of healing was inspiring.

One small note: this book makes me painfully aware of how casually we use language. Have a frustrating day, say “I’m going to kill someone!” Or miming putting a gun in our mouths and pulling the trigger. Some day someone might mean it, and we will not know. Or someone might have lived through a tragedy like this, and the reality of the phrase will slice their wounds open again.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

REVIEW: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

File:Speak 1st Edition Cover.jpg

by Laurie Halse Anderson

"'Art without emotion is like chocolate cake without sugar. It makes you gag.' He sticks his finger down his throat. 'The next time you work on your trees, don't think about trees. Think about love, or hate, or joy, or pain- whatever makes you feel something, makes your palms sweat, or your toes curl. Focus on that feeling. 
When people don't express themselves, they die on piece at a time. You'd be shocked at how many adults are really dead inside- walking through their days with no idea who they are, just waiting for a heart attack or cancer or a mack truck to come along and finish the job. It's the saddest thing I know.” 

After calling the police at a party, Melinda enters her first year of high school ostracized. She has never told anyone what happened that night. She retreats into herself, silent on the outside, while inside she struggles with the event, with her feelings, with her parents, with school, with her ex-friends. She must gradually discover who she is again and how to turn her pain into strength, her depression into hope, her silence into words. 

Please note that this review has spoilers in it, but the main spoiler was something I knew before reading the book, and it did not effect my enjoyment. 

I only read this book because my first choice wasn’t available. I had heard how popular the book was, and for some reason, that turned me off. I also thought of it as “The Rape Book.” Oh, it’s that story of the girl who got raped and how horrible she feels and how damaged she has become. I tend not to read books that I think will put be through an emotional cheese grater. When staring down the barrel of these books, I can’t imagine any hope in them.

I am so very glad that I did not listen to me.

I would like to echo Laurie Halse Anderson’s realization that it is not a book about rape. Yes, rape happened. It was awful. Melinda had to go through a lot to be able to heal. The book is more about depression. About living with the after effects of trauma. It’s also about high school, politics, not fitting in, finding your true friends, and in the end speaking the truth about who you are.

Melinda’s voice was so distinct and yet so familiar. I was with her every step of the way. I too have created a little closet for myself at work where I can be alone and no one can find me. I too have felt mute because I was too afraid to speak up about how I felt, or what happened, or against or for something. I too have felt like everyone thinks I am awful, or that I had no one to talk to. This book is for everyone, boys and girls. 

Ultimately, the book is about healing. About slowly rediscovering who you are. About having the courage to peak out of the ground and feel the sunshine. Anderson is marvelously sublte. She gradually builds a beautiful metaphor of thawing and growing and seeds and clearing away weeds to convey Melinda’s journey. She also does not make anything easy or fast for Melinda. She takes her time, and as she lets glimmers of herself out into the world, she is rewarded with an answer.

She is able to turn pain into strength, and, unlike Desert Angel, her final confrontation is as cathartic as it gets. 

This book is so important right now, especially with the discussion of rape culture raging in both main stream and social media. I was greeted today with this article about how Patton Oswalt has changed his mind about rape jokes, and how other comedians are following suit. And this blog post of a former Disney employee telling her story about how she was raped, and reported it, and how the company reacted. 

I was shocked to find out that Anderson was asked by boy readers why Melinda was so upset about being raped. They don't understand. This is why we need to talk about it, rather than remain silent.

Monday, June 17, 2013

REVIEW: Desert Angel by Charlie Price

Desert Angel
by Charlie Price

Angel wakes up one morning to discover that her mother has been murdered by the mother's horrible boyfriend Scotty. He has buried her in the desert. Angel's only focus is survival as Scotty hunts her down as the only witness. She must face desert, betrayal, and the constant fear of a wily predator. But when she finds help in a small town, what might ultimately destroy her is the her inability to trust.

This is quick and dirty because I am super busy, but here it goes!I couldn’t put Desert Angel down! It was a riveting story. Angel has such a unique voice. She is damaged, and always in survival mode, gathering information about her environment in case she has to run, playing an eternal chess game with her pursuer. I loved the moments when she would try and get into his head to predict his next move.

The sad thing is, she has never known anything other than survival mode. Her mother always chose the worst boyfriends, and she has learned how to cope and not to trust anyone. When she is confronted with love and help, she is not sure how to accept it, or if she should. Even if she does accept it, she will put those she cares about in danger as Scotty circles her hideout.

The pace slowed down a bit in the middle and I found myself missing the action and the emotional connection. The story began to drag when the author focused on Scotty almost doing something, but not doing it yet. I was hoping for a big pay off, as there is a large piece of information that the reader knows, but Angel does not know when she is extrapolating his next move. Alas, the ending was a little anticlimactic. You expect a large confrontation with those she has come to care about fighting for her against Scotty, or her confronting Scotty alone and avenging her mother. However, there is only so much a YA book can allow a 14 year old girl to do, I guess.

It is an exciting thriller, but it is ultimately about opening yourself up to trust.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

REVIEW: Shine by Lauren Myracle

“Even so, I was proud of myself for taking action at all. I didn't hide or run away or pretend the ugliness didn't happen. I stood up and said something that was true. I said it out loud, and by doing so, I was standing up for lots of people, not just me.” 

by Lauren Myracle

Due to a traumatic incident, Cat has cut herself off from her friends, including her best friend Patrick. When Patrick is found outside the gas station where he works, beaten and with a gas nozzle in his mouth and fastened with tape, with a sign on him that said "Suck this, faggot," Cat must throw off her protective shell and hunt down the culprit while Patrick struggles in a coma. In her rural conservative small town she is faced with judgmental gossips, uncommunicative neighbors, and her friends who are clearly hiding something. She must be braver than she ever thought possible to face her demons and bring her friend's assailant to justice.

I had a very difficult time immersing myself in Shine. The plot was compelling: a girl forced to break through her protective shell of indifference and find who hurt her friend. It felt like an episode of a cop show. She goes and interviews various people around town, and then it circles back to someone you met in the beginning, but did not initially suspect. They have a final confrontation and all is revealed.

I then realized I was reading Veronica Mars. A girl who is sexually assaulted by one of her former friends turns inward and rejects anyone associated with that group, until the friend in that group she cared the most about is killed/ almost killed and she must confront each of the group again to solve the mystery. Through this process, she discovers that those she thought were bad have complex issues they are trying to deal with, and those she thought were good are not. Once I realized that, it was difficult for me to see this as anything other than formulaic.

I am not sure why, but I had a very difficult time becoming invested in any character’s story. I felt like a distant observer. Perhaps because Cat does not trust anyone, so you learn not to get too attached to a character, or take any of their words or actions at face value. I didn’t even feel like I knew Cat, even though we were in her head. Perhaps it was because we never saw her change from timid to brave. We see the before and we see the after, but never the transformation.  I almost wish the story had begun with her hearing about Patrick. Though the timeline was confusing for me, it seemed she had some time to digest the information and make a decision before the story begins. Her struggle would have been a meaty part of the story to examine.

As for the friends, we meet Gwennie for a hot second, think she is nice, see her neurosis, learn she has an eating disorder, and then never see her again. While other characters come back, we learn that they each have a secret problem that they are struggling with. At times the book felt like a chronicle of the greatest hits of teenage problems: rape or drugs or homosexuality or eating disorders or risk taking or mental illness or all of the above. We learn that several of the characters are trying to change their lives around, but you never really learn why? What are the stakes for them?

The only character I felt was utterly compelling was Cat's Aunt Tilly. She reacts to difficult situations by cleaning, or hiding or pushing problems under the rug, or ignoring them completely, or pretending they are over and done with. I was clamoring to learn her back story. Why was she like this? Was there anything that could happen that would make her face the problem? Does she have some wisdom to impart to Cat, or will Cat help her face her fears? Unfortunately, nothing happened with her. She did not grow or change. She was yet another adult figure in the book who could not be relied upon to help.

While this is not my favorite book, it does depict a teenager struggling to speak out against the violence in a community that resists the conversation, and might inspire high school students to follow her example.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

REVIEW: The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

File:The Outsiders book.jpg

“I could picture hundreds and hundreds of boys living on the wrong sides of cities, boys with black eyes who jumped at their own shadows. Hundreds of boys who maybe watched sunsets and looked at stars and ached for something better. I could see boys going down under street lights because they were mean and tough and hated the world, and it was too late to tell them that there was still good in it, and they wouldn’t believe you if you did. It was too vast a problem to be just a personal thing. There should be some help, someone should tell them before it was too late. Someone should tell their side of the story, and maybe people would understand then and wouldn’t be so quick to judge a boy by the amount of hair oil he wore. It was important to me.”

Ponyboy lives with his two brothers, the strong and serious Darryl who had to grow up too fast to support his family, and Soda, the cheerful golden boy who dropped out of school to work at a gas station. Though their blood family is small, their chosen family is much bigger: quiet Johnny, funny Two-Bit, and hardened, sinister Dallas. They are greasers, boys from the wrong sides of the tracks, who are in a dangerous quiet war with the "Soc's," the middle class and rich kids in town. And its not just name calling; the greasers live in a state of constant fear that they will be jumped and pulverized, maybe even killed. One of these incidents turns into a nightmare for Ponyboy and Johnny, and they end up on the run. But soon they must stop and make a choice between what is right and what is easy (thank you, Dumbledore). 

 I must admit, I resisted this book. I knew it was about greasers and gangs, and my only point of reference was Grease or West Side Story. I figured it was a grittier, more realistic machofest, boys trying fighting over arbitrary turf borders and participating in pissing contests.  I expected to not relate to any of the characters, and I expected them to die violently.  While I was correct about the latter assumption, boy was I wrong about the other bits.

Within the first few pages, as Ponyboy described the other boys in the greasers, I felt like I knew them. I expected them to all be versions of Dally, but right off the bat, and in spite of myself, I liked them.The love the three brothers had for each other, Darry’s struggles, Soda’s hidden pain, Ponyboy’s grief, Dallas’ self-destructive love, Two-Bit’s humor, and Johnny’s perseverance and honor resonated with me. Ponyboy was just a regular kid. None of the boys had chosen that life. You could imagine how, if circumstances were different, each of these boys would thrive.

It made me think of the movie Dazed and Confused. I remember thinking “Why are the Socs just driving around?” Then it hit me that they really had nothing else to do. No internet, no movies at home, often no family but the one they chose. No wonder everyone got into so much trouble. They had to invent their   own culture to give their lives meaning.

Hinton wanted us to see both the “hoods” and the Socs as real people, rather than stereotypes. She wanted to show the life she and her friends and family lived.  Through the characters of Cheryl and Randy, we saw how the divide could be crossed. The plot seemed a little contrived at times, i.e. convenient church picnics, but it forced the characters to change and grow.

The ending touched me the most: as Ponyboy is stumbling through his fog of grief, he reads Johnny’s letter and takes on a mission (see quote above). That paragraph is enough to change the world. I could see it resonating with hundreds of students today, especially when they realize S.E. Hinton wrote this book when she was 16. The past speaks to the present about something they understand deeply, and calls on them to make a change.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

REVIEW: Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

Will Grayson, Will Grayson
by John Green and David Levithan

“You know what’s a great metaphor for love? Sleeping beauty. Because you have to plow through this incredible thicket of thorns in order to get to beauty, and even then, when you get there, you still have to wake her up."

There are two Will Graysons. I will call them Will Grayson 1 and Will Grayson 2. Will Grayson 1 (written by John Green) has two rules in life that help him cope: 1) Don't care too much. 2) Shut up. It has kept him protected so far, but that is very difficult to do when you are best friends with Tiny Cooper, the largest, gayest friend a person could have, who cares with every fiber of his being, and lets everyone know it. Will Grayson 2 (written by David Levithan) protects himself with a shield of bitterness and scorn. The one person he allows himself to be vulnerable with is a boy named Issac who he met on the internet. When he and Issac decide to meet, the worlds of both Will Graysons collide, and they both must decide whether it is better to protect yourself, or to risk it all and tell the truth.

I loved this book! Maybe not as much as Every Day, but more than Paper Towns, I think. Levithan's Will Grayson is harsher, more jagged than the protagonist in Everyday. He has closed himself off from everyone, and is only kind and vulnerable with Issac. That is what draws us to him; we glimpse the man he could be. John Green's Will Grayson doesn't seem like your typical John Green protagonist either. He is more repressed. He too has closed himself off, and limited his life by not risking, not speaking the truth. Yes, he falls in love with a girl (Jane), but she is not the usual manic pixie dream girl John Green writes. She is softer, a quieter support for him, and she compliments him nicely.

The real manic pixie dream girl is Tiny Cooper. He is fan-frikkin-tastic. He is huge and loving and wants to make the world a better place... and better than that, he actually tries to do it every day. He makes big bold moves, the latest of which is to write the gayest of musicals about himself to be performed at his school, and the school rallies around him. Though we soon discover that he has his dark points as well.

Tiny Cooper and the two Will Graysons (and Jane) wrestle with living truthfully versus protecting yourself from hurt. With need and vulnerability versus appearing weak. Feeling nothing versus feeling everything. Both writers bring the best of themselves to the table and create a compelling duet of pain and joy. Initially I liked John Green's half better until the heart of Levithan's half broke open beautifully.

I highly recommend if for John Green and David Levithan fans, as well as anyone struggling with opening yourself to the world.

Books Like This
Every Day by David Levithan
Looking for Alaska by John Green
Paper Towns by John Green
Fault in Our Stars by John Green
The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt
Ok For Now by Gary Schmidt

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Message from Me: John Green, Neil Gaiman and Myself on Empathy

As many of you know, I am a huge fan of John Green and Neil Gaiman, not just as authors, but as heroes and far away mentors. They are both passionate and articulate about the power of reading, especially when discussing how reading engenders empathy. Here are two speeches, one by John Green and one by Neil Gaiman, about empathy and reading (both, coincidentally given at the BookExpo a year apart).

I would add one thing to what these great men have said. In order to get the full effect of empathetic fiction reading, you need to read books about people who are not you. For the first 20 years of my life, I predominantly read fiction about a young (usually brunette) girl who was either bored, or timid, or forced by society into some specific role. She then has to break out of this role and rise above and be awesome. I have played out this scenario in my mind hundreds of times, though usually in some sort of fantasy land, often of a medieval and British persuasion. These were the stories I related to, that I understood, that I was comfortable with. 

Now, at the ripe age of 28, I am branching out. It started with The Wednesday Wars, a book about a boy who lives with an abusively perfectionist father and learns to become a man through Shakespeare. This was one foot in and one foot out of my comfort zone: Shakespeare, easy; boy in abusive family situation, new. Then I read similar book by Gary Schmidt, Ok for Now, about a boy with an abusive father, and brothers, all going through deep pain and frustration, and how he must choose who he will be, the bully everyone thinks he is, or the man certain people allow him to be. And he is saved through the Audubon Birds of America. Another tiny step outside of my comfort zone. Then, John Green happened through his Vlogbrothers, and I read loads of his books. No overt arts involved. Just people, mostly teenage boys, living in the real world and dealing with real things. 

Then I took the plunge with Personal Effects. Abusive conservative military family. No one is saved by literature, no one is sensitive or dreamy or artsy. It is not couched in beautifully structured style and tied together with an overt truth, like John Green's books. It is raw and painful and strange. A new mind, a mind that did not at all work like mine. And I understood him. I felt for him. His experiences were no where near my own, but I knew what it felt like to be him. I had put up so many walls against the words "conservative" and "military," and this book allowed me to see behind the stereotype and connect with them as human beings.

I am writing this post now because I am about to embark on a YA literature class whose focus is almost solely on realistic, urban, or historical fiction. The reading list is diverse, and often we can choose from a list  which book we want to read. I am going to challenge myself to seek out experiences and cultures that are unfamiliar. I can sit in my little white, middle class, dreamy artsy girl box all I want and say I have empathy because I read books, but I can never truly have it unless I reach out and try to see the world through the eyes of someone outside my experience and feel what they feel.

I am also letting you know that, because I have to read about 20 books for this class, Palimpsest will change slightly for this period of time. I may or may not review the books I am reading, but look to see many books on this blog tagged as "non-mission," outside the specs of the blog's literal mission statement. However, I do truly believe that everything is interconnected; the past, the present, the future, imagination, all cultures and times overlap. We tell the same stories over and over, influenced by things we can't even remember. These books are a part of the human experience, which is truly a mash-up of everything. 

I will leave you with an RSA Animate video on the empathy, and how it will change the world. 

Friday, May 31, 2013

REVIEW: Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson

Fever 1793
by Laurie Halse Anderson

“What did it feel like to die? Was it a peaceful sleep? Some thought it was full of either trumpet-blowing angels or angry devils. Perhaps I was already dead.” 

Mattie is a 14 year old girl who helps her mother run a coffeehouse in 1793 Philadelphia, the then capital of the United States and a bustling metropolis. Mattie is your typical teenager, sleeping late, grumbling about chores, crushing on the painter's apprentice down the block. There is faint news of a minor fever causing a few deaths in the city, but no one is really worried. Suddenly, the death toll skyrockets and Mattie finds herself struggling alone in an almost deserted city filled with the sick, dying, and desperate. She must draw upon every ounce of strength she has to survive the terrible plague and save those she loves.

This is another book that went so fast I didn't take any notes. It has a slow start, but I feel all plague or apocalypse books do. You don't want to hear about going to the market, you want to get to the DEATH! And once you get there, the story really picks up. There is danger and despair and loads of horrifying situations, and Mattie must rise up out of her slumpy lazy teenagerness to do what needs to be done. 

The grandfather is a refreshing and excellent character. He is bombastic and strong, friends with everyone, cheerful, silly and brave. While many of the other characters seemed like tropes, Captain William Farnsworth Cook was a delight!

I was happy that this book touched a little on every significant aspect of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793: everyone fleeing the town, people stopped from entering other towns, Bush Hill, the Free African Society, the food shortage, the looters, the debate between doctors, the newspapers, the lack of government. Mattie gets to experience all of those up close and personal. 

Compared to other plague books, it is a bit mild, but it is the first juvenile fiction plague book I have read, so it is certainly a dark kids book! A nice, fast, apocolypsey read with more of a happy ending than most plague books get.

Books Like This
Company of Liars by Karen Maitland
The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

I'm apparently a sucker for a good plague book.