Saturday, December 27, 2008

snuck up on me

The Fireman's Wife by Jack Riggs
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: This is a book about choices and regrets. It's about not leaving things unsaid. I didn't realize how much I was into this book until about 3/4 of the way through, when the really dramatic thing happens (I'm definitely not going to give it away here). At that point, I realized that I really had developed a connection to the characters, to the point that I was almost in tears reading about their pain.

Friday, December 26, 2008

the anti-character

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, suspense
Review: Rebecca de Winter is dead when this story begins, and yet is its strongest character. She haunts the second Mrs. de Winter (whose first name we never learn) even before her arrival at Manderley. Convinced that Mr. de Winter is still in love with Rebecca, she allows herself to be completely undone by the prospect of stepping into Rebecca's shoes. She is scared witless by Mrs. Danvers, the overbearing and creepy housekeeper, who remains devoted to Rebecca and determined to keep everything at Manderly just the way it was before Rebecca died.

To be fair, Mr. de Winter seems to give absolutely no consideration of the fact that she might feel out of her league and doesn't seem to even notice her distress. However, even when the de Winters finally start communicating and things look like they might work out, she continues to act like a nitwit. It's very hard to sympathize which such a protagonist, but that aside, this is an excellent work of suspense.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

2008 Challenges

I'm pleased to report that I successfully completed both challenges I took on for 2008.

The A-Z challenge was a lot of fun, and I definitely read some books I would never have read if I hadn't needed a certain letter. One author I was pleased to find was Eva Ibbotson. On the other hand, I could have lived with reading Zola's Nana! Find my completed list here.

The TBR (to-be-read) challenge was decidedly less fun. There's a reason some of those books sat on my list for so long! But I did read 11 from my original list, and only one from my alternates (I decided Stephen King's The Stand was just way too long). Check out my completed list.

I think I won't try to do either of these challenges again in 2009. I'm still doing the 1% percent challenge (though I haven't made much progress yet), and I welcome any suggestions for new challenges to take on!

fun little mystery

The X'ed Out X-Ray by Rob Roy
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: children's, mystery
Challenge: A-Z (title)
Review: A fun little mystery for kids, where the thief is the one not suspected until the last minute. The kid-detectives use realistic methods to get clues, and are able to catch the culprit with the help of their policeman-friend.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

both sides of the story

The Other Mother by Gwendolen Gross
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: This is the story of two women, two mothers. Thea lives in the house where she grew up and is the stay-at-home mom of 3 kids, including a toddler. Amanda, a children's book editor, moves in next door, pregnant, about to start her maternity leave. When circumstances force the two women uncomfortably close, each must face her own choices to stay home or continue to work.

The best thing about this book is that Gross alternates chapters between Thea and Amanda, allowing the reader to get both sides of the story. To each mother, the other is a monster, but both have moments of being able to put themselves in the other's shoes.

The worst thing about this book is that Gross chooses to use the events of September, 2001 to bring her story to a close. The story starts in September, 2000 when Amanda moves in to her new house. The book is divided into sections by the months that follow, with no mention of year, until the following September when the inclusion of 2001 is glaring and obvious. Without going into detail, Gross gets her characters home safely and ends her story quite abruptly.

Gross's decision to use September 11th in this way is a shame because up until the last section this was a very engaging book. I cared about the characters and wanted them to be friends or at least come to terms separately with their own decisions. But it feels as though Gross could not figure out how to make that happen and decided to take the easy way out.

Friday, December 19, 2008

not just about being safe

The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction, YA
Challenge: A-Z (author)
Summary/Review: The king of a Bergania (a fictional country, though one that seems a lot like Switzerland) refuses to allow Hitler's troops to march through his country. Seeing this on a newreel at the movies, Tally is struck by his courage, and also interested in the prince, who's face she can't really see, obscured as it is by the plumes from his helmet. When the headmaster of Delderton (her boarding school) brings up an invitation to go to Bergania to participate in a folk dancing festival, Tally jumps at the chance, even though neither she nor any of her friends have any experience with folk dancing. Little do they know that their arrival in Bergania will coincide with a Nazi plot to get rid of the king and kidnap the prince.

That Tally and her friends are able to smuggle the prince out of the country is really only half of this story. The other half is what happens to the prince once he's safely in England. Because he has family there, and as in other Ibbotson stories, his family is fairly horrible. They are convinced that they must continue his training so that he can assume his rightful place on the throne of Bergania after the war. Except that he doesn't really want to be king. He wants to join Tally and her friends at Delderton.

And that's what this book is really about. It's about finding your place in the world, or making your place in the world, if the one that's set out for you isn't right. It's also about friendship and family and justice. If you've read other books by Ibbotson, you may find her books to be a bit formulaic, but this book is none the less charming for being similar to others.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

an accurate title

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop: A Memoir, A History by Lewis Buzbee
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: memoir, history
Challenge: A-Z (title)
Review: I almost had to fight with Buzbee in the first chapter of this book. He describes bookstores as places to go to browse (no objection yet), even to sit down and read (no particular objection here either), and to look for particular pieces of information. Wait! Here I object: isn't that what the library is for? Of course, I have my biases (being a librarian) and he has his (being a bookseller).

Having moved on from the first chapter, I was glad I did. I found this a delightful book. It truly is both a history and a memoir. More than that, it is both a personal memoir, and a memoir of bookselling as a profession. He tells his own story alongside that of the history of bookselling, and makes both very interesting.

He includes one statistic that I find distressing, though. He tells us that at an average of one book a week (roughly my own pace, depending on the book, and the week) from the age of 5 to the age of 80, a person will read 3,900 books or a little over one-tenth of one percent of the books currently in print. Far too few, if you ask me.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

doesn't hang together

Market Street: A Chinese Woman in Harbin by Xiao Wong
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: memoir
Challenge: A-Z (author)
Review: This short book is a memoir of about 2 years in the author's life, told in short vignettes. The style of writing and the translation are easy to read, but the story is hard to follow. The chapters are short and choppy and intervening events tend to be left out. For example, the first several chapters are all about how the author and her lover are so poor they can't afford food or wood to heat their apartment with. A few chapters later, however, they seem to have enough money to live without scrimping. It is quite unclear how this change in fortune came about. Similarly, in the latter chapters, a book is mentioned which is referred to as "our book." The book seems to be in the final stages of publication, but the reader has no idea what the book is about (although the contents seem to be subversive since they feel as though the Japanese police might show up to arrest them at any moment). All in all then, this is a sort of confusing read.

Monday, December 15, 2008

not too predictable

Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Challenge: A-Z (title)
Review: At first, this looks like a fairly predictable orphaned-English-girl-gets-shipped-off-to-live-with-distant-relatives story. Predictably, the family Maia is to live with in Brazil is horrid, and only allowed her to come at all so that they could get the allowance that comes with her. Fortunately, Maia has a very sympathetic, if somewhat mysterious governess who accompanies her to Brazil and in her adventures. It isn't until Maia's been in Brazil for a while that the story begins to come out of its predictable beginnings. There's a missing boy who may or may not actually be missing, and a child actor suddenly looking at the end of his career, and possibly Maia's new family has been living on ill-gotten gains for some time.

This is quite an enjoyable story, with plenty of adventure, and some intrigue mixed in for good measure. The characters are believable and the ending is quite satisfying, with the horrid family getting their comeuppance and Maia and her friends being able to live out their dreams.

wide range

This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women in association with NPR
Rating:
Genre: essays
Review: I really wish I had listened to this in smaller chunks. It's a lot to take in. Some of the essays were not exceptional, but others were absolutely wonderful. Topics ranged from the rule of law, love, and freedom to barbecue and jazz. And listening to this collection, rather than reading it, really does add a lot to the experience. Not to mention the opportunity to hear such voices as Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Jackie Robinson.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

prejudice and kindness

The Star Fisher by Laurence Yep
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction, children's
Challenge: A-Z (author)
Review: In 1927, Yep's mother moved with her parents and siblings from Ohio to West Virginia. Although her parents are immigrants with little English, the family had a good life in Ohio. But with the move to West Virginia, the family is brought up short by the prejudice that is demonstrated by some townsfolk. Fortunately, they are also confronted with great acts of kindness by other members of the town. Using the metaphor of the star fisher, who lives with one foot on the earth and one in the heavens, Yep convincingly uses his family's story to write a lovely book about family and friendship.

spread the talent around

Hi There, Supermouse by Jean Ure
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: children's
Challenge: A-Z (author)
Review: Nicola is outshined by her younger sister Rose, who gets all her mother's attention. One feels immediate sympathy for her, even if she is a bit whiny at first, being so close in age to her sister and yet constantly getting the short end of the stick from her mother. Everyone thinks Rose is pretty and talented and thinks that Nicola is a gangly tomboy. But when a neighbor sees Nicola dancing by herself, she thinks Nicola is natural-born dancer. But convincing her mother that she has any talent at all is not an easy task for Nicola or her neighbor.

Ure is to be commended for avoiding pat and easy answers in this book. Although things improve for Nicola, everything does not wind up easily for her. Nicola herself grows a great deal in starting to realize her own potential, as do her parents. The only character who shows no growth is Rose. But even that is believably written. This is a wonderfully written book that any child will be able to relate to.

faux lyricism

The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: history
Challenge: A-Z (title)
Review: This book isn't really about the zookeeper's wife. Rather, Ackerman uses the story of Antonina Zabinski as a backdrop to tell the larger story of the Nazi occupation of Warsaw and the Polish Resistance. As a story-telling technique, I have no problem with this, and Ackerman does it fairly well. We learn a lot about Warsaw during the war, as well as learning about such things as the zookeeping trade and animal life. The biggest drawback to Ackerman's use of the technique, I think, is that she starts with Antonina's memoirs, which seem to have been written very lyrically (from the short excerpts we are given), and then tries to use that lyrical tone throughout the whole book. It doesn't work very well, partly because Ackerman doesn't wield her lyricism as naturally, and partly because a war story doesn't lend itself very well to such a tone. It is an interesting story, although I think the story of the zookeeper (who was active in the Polish Resistance, fought for the Home Army in the Warsaw uprising, and was held as a POW in Germany) might have been more interesting than the story of his wife. I guess he didn't write a memoir.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

the perils of driving

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: non-fiction
Review: I was really hoping that this book would answer such questions as why so many people don't use their turn signals or insist on driving below the speed limit in the left lane. I was disappointed in that, but did learn other interesting things, like why you drive on the right in some countries, and in the left in others. Also discussed is why people drive more safely when there are fewer traffic signs and other warning devices than when there are more. It turns out that people drive more cautiously when they don't know what to expect than when they do. Similarly, people drive more safely when the car has fewer safety devices. Unfortunately, Vanderbilt spends the bulk of the book on this point and much less on the question that his title indicated he would be answering.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

oh the shoes!

So Yesterday by Scott Westerfeld
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: mystery, YA
Review: Why did it have to be about shoes? Really, the whole shoe thing is just not one I ever understood (not that I understand much about trends and fashion). But this is a great book that creates an interesting (and probably fairly accurate) scenario about how trends get started, how they spread, and why they seem to come and go so quickly.

But what if there's a group that's trying to undo the work of all the marketers and trendsetters (these would clearly be my people)? Are they the anti-cool? What if they themselves somehow become cool? This is the premise of Westerfeld's book. When Hunter (a Trendsetter) discovers the ultimate shoes in an abandoned building in Chinatown, he's determined to find out where they come from and whether they have anything to do with his boss's disappearance (her phone was found in the same building, but nobody seems to know where she is). What he learns about the "cool pyramid" and it's relationship to revolutionary France makes him re-evaluate his own status as a Trendsetter. It also gave me a lot of food for thought on the subject.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

personal libraries

An interesting essay about how people choose books for their personal library.

I rarely buy books (I am a librarian, after all). My criteria: if I were stuck in my apartment forever, is this a book I would want to read over and over again?

Saturday, November 29, 2008

a little unbelievable, but fun

Last Shot: A Final Four Mystery by John Feinstein
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: mystery, YA
Challenge: A-Z (title)
Review: While the situation is a bit unbelievable (two students stumble upon a blackmail scandal at the Final Four of NCAA basketball and are determined to save the star player) the characters themselves are well-drawn. The scenes with the big-name sports reporters are very funny, even if you don't recognize all the names. Anyone who enjoys NCAA basketball and a good mystery will like this book.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

don't wait up

Homecoming by Bernhard Schlink
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: The first two-thirds of this book were pretty good. We start with young Peter describing his childhood visits to his grandparents in Switzerland. His grandparents edit a series of light novels, one of which is the story of Carl, a German soldier, and his struggle to return home from the Russian front after WWII. Unfortunately, Peter has only the manuscript of the book, and the ending is missing. What happens when Carl returns home and finds his wife with another man and two small daughters? Does he stay and fight for his wife, or does he turn and leave? Peter is unable to find the book on his grandparent's shelves and forgets about it until he finds the manuscript again as an adult. Then he begins the quest to find the book so as to learn its ending.

The story of Peter's search for the book and it's author is quite interesting. Unfortunately, about two-thirds of the way through, Peter makes a startling discovery about his father, who he had thought died in WWII. The rest of the book is about Peter's search for the truth about his father, not just what happened to him but why he disappeared. This story is much less compelling, and even bizarre in places. Schlink tenuously connects this search to Peter's interest in the Carl story, but neither the connection nor the individual stories are resolved.

Monday, November 24, 2008

practically perfect

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: science fiction, YA
Review: It's not often you find a book that doesn't have a single wrong note to it, but this is one. This book really has it all, from suspense to a little bit of political philosophy to unrequited love. Collins takes all the elements of this story and puts them together in a tightly-woven narrative that keeps its pace throughout. Her message, about government and the masses, is not very subtle, but the book is so well written that it goes down very smoothly. I could gush on and on, but I won't. I will say that I'm very skeptical about the proposed sequel(s), because they couldn't possibly be as good as this one!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

cautionary?

Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: memoir, YA
Review: If the purpose of a YA memoir is to be a cautionary tale, I suppose this is a good one. Certainly it will make any teen think twice about accepting a job on a sailboat that's running drugs from St. Croix to New York. But perhaps Gantos's story of life in prison will not prove to be such a disincentive, since he gets a job in the prison hospital and never has to live with the general population. His biggest problem seems to be boredom. So yes, be cautioned, but Gantos's experiences overall are too atypical to really have much chance of changing the course of someone's life.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

love, regret, and war

I Had Seen Castles by Cynthia Rylant
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction, YA
Review: This is not meant to be a book of suspense. From the very beginning we know that the narrator is telling us the story of his experiences during World War II from many years since that time. We need not even have any suspense about the fate of his relationship with the girl he left behind, as it's reasonably clear that he's alone when he tells us the story.

Rather, this is a story of what happened to one boy when the U.S. entered WWII. Told with incredible detail, Rylant puts us inside the head of a seventeen-year-old boy who can think of nothing else but joining the army and doing his patriotic duty. Until he meets Ginny, who challenges all of his beliefs about war and patriotism. Looking back on it, he is able to recognize her extreme courage in speaking out against war and encouraging him to register as a conscientious objector, but at the time, all he could see was all the other boys going off to war, even though he knew that all too many of them were not coming home.

He joins up as soon as he is able and is shipped off to the European front. His patriotic ideals last for a while, but soon he admits that he is killing the enemy only to stay alive himself. Ginny's letters ring too true to bear, and eventually he stops writing back to her. When he returns from the war, she and her family have moved away, and he is never able to find her again.

This is also not a book of regret, although clearly the narrator regrets in some way the loss of Ginny, and the loss of his own innocence when he went away to war. But this is a book of truth. Rylant doesn't sugarcoat the nature of war or the effect it has on those who must fight it, both on the battlefield and at home.

unimaginable

The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: memoir, YA
Review: It takes a lot of courage to write a book like this. Most people can not write so openly and honestly about their feelings, especially when they know they've done something to grievously hurt their family. But Brent Runyon can, and does.

As an eight grader, Brent set fire to himself in a suicide attempt. He suffered sever burns over 85% of his body, but, obviously, did not die. Brent's story takes us from the events immediately preceding his attempt and through the many months of his recovery.

Much of the narrative is taken up with the details and routines that anyone suffering such severe burns must endure, no matter how they occurred. But in Brent's case there is the ever-present knowledge that he brought this on himself.

Although I wish we could have learned more about why Brent attempted suicide in the first place, he says very plainly (through recounted sessions with assorted psychologists) that he doesn't really know why he did it, can't remember what could have made him so sad and desperate, and certainly isn't going to do anything like it again. A cautionary tale indeed for any teens thinking of committing suicide.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

inside the head

Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, YA
Review: A wonderfully imagined look into the mind of a boy debilitated by cerebral palsy. The author, who himself has a son with cerebral palsy, imagines that Shawn, though confined to a wheelchair with absolutely no control over his own motor functions, is very smart, incredibly observant, and has perfect memory of everything he's heard since a young age.

Unfortunately, what Shawn's been hearing lately makes him think that his father is planning to kill him, to "end his pain." Naturally, Shawn has his own thoughts about that plan, but knows that he's completely powerless to stop his father. Yet the father is not portrayed as a villain, but is sensitively drawn as a father who is just trying to do the right thing by his son.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

feminist revisionism?

Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised the Nation by Cokie Roberts
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: non-fiction, history
Review: An interesting, though not particularly deep, look at the female relations of the men who get written about in the history books. Unfortunately, although Roberts makes much of the historical context when discussing how the women broke out of the mold, she does not give the historical context much thought when it comes to the men, leading her to be a bit harsh on the men sometimes.

Perhaps a bit more problematic is that approximately the entire second half of the book is really the same story about the men that we already know, with just brief glimpses of the women. What are we supposed to take away from this? That there's only enough about the "Founding Mothers" to write half a book? Or that, in the end, as interesting as they were, it wasn't the women who made the history after all? Well, we probably already knew that. But this book does give a brief glimpse into the trials and tribulations of the women behind the men.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

repetitive

The Ruby Ring by Diane Haeger
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Challenge: TBR (last one!)
Review: Very little about this book rings true. Which is a shame, because it's a good story, but nearly every scene seems contrived and forced. A few of the scenes that actually deal with art and painting are better than others, but there are too few of those scenes. Once Raphael and Margherita get together, all of their interactions are much the same, with a few variations in words and emphasis. A potentially interesting addition to the painting-turned-novel genre, but not in the same league as some others.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

insider's look

The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: memoir, graphic novel
Summary/Review: It's tempting to say that Satrapi chose to write her memoir as a graphic novel because she's not very good at narrative writing, but to say that would be to completely undercut what this book has to offer. Satrapi tells her story through brief narration and elegant black and white drawings, illustrating the repression in Iran (veiled women and bearded men drawn with no mouths) and the freedom of Europe.

Satrapi takes us from her childhood in Iran under the Shah through her experiences during the Islamic Revolution. Her parents send her to Austria when she is 14, and she stays there for 4 years. An outsider in Austria, she returns to Iran, only to continue to feel like an outsider, because she did was not in the country through most of the Iran-Iraq war, and therefore didn't suffer through the bombings and terror that her fellow Iranians did.

Back in Iran, Satrapi continues to be a rebel, but is able to enroll in college to get her degree in graphic arts. Throughout this section of the book, she depicts her personal struggle to reconcile her values with her life in Iran, and to find meaning in her life. She discovers that, for her, meaning comes through education, both personal and institutional, and leaves Iran again to pursue her studies in France.

Through both her drawings and her words, Satrapi tells not just her own story, but that of others affected by the repression in Iran. That this is a graphic novel gives the reader the feeling of a special insider's look into that world.

Monday, October 27, 2008

too much detail, too many characters

Nana by Emile Zola
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Challenges: A-Z (author), 1%
Review: Lots of detail. Sometimes way too much detail. And although the characters manage to somewhat resolve themselves into individuals (at least some of the men do), the way in which they're introduced made them very hard to distinguish one from the other for the better part of the book.

Friday, October 24, 2008

I'll stick to vampires

Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fantasy, YA
Review: As a teenager, Klause’s The Silver Kiss was one of my favorite books, so I was really looking forward to Blood and Chocolate. I’m sorry to say that I was pretty disappointed. In conveying a pack, Klause involves too many characters, most of whom are not fully drawn, and I had trouble keeping them straight.

I did like Klause’s take on werewolf lore, though. As she did with vampire lore in The Silver Kiss, she took the commonly accepted wisdom on the supernatural and modified it to fit her own story. She created a werewolf pack that existed as its own society, with its own rules and traditions. This allows her depict Vivian’s coming of age within the pack rather than telling the same story with the same human characters that have been used many times. However, she does include interactions with human society, giving the reader something they can easily relate to.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

single father

The First Part Last by Angela Johnson
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, YA
Challenge: A-Z (author)
Review: It gives nothing about this book away to say up front that it's about a single father in high school raising his brand new daughter. Johnson alternates the action forward and backward from the birth of the child, showing Bobby's struggles caring for an infant, and also giving brief glimpses of how things went when Nia was pregnant.

By itself, it's a touching but realistic story of two students with promising futures that suddenly give way to parenthood because of one mistake. But for me, the story really came down to the question of why Bobby was raising the baby. This question is answered toward the end of the book, and to reveal that really would give the whole thing away.

Friday, October 3, 2008

cheesy but hopeful

The Diamond of Darkhold by Jeanne DuPrau
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: science fiction, childrens
Review: I'm not sure why DuPrau chose to gradually lower the reading level of this series, but this book reads much more like a book for children than the first three in the series, even though the characters and subject matter remain on a young adult level.

Be that as it may, this is still quite a good book. In the third book, the people of Ember and the people of Sparks are just barely managing to live together harmoniously, but conditions have not improved over the hard winter. Food is scarce and tempers are running short. When Lina and Doon discover a book that describes something left behind for the people of Ember, they decide to go back to their city and try to find this mysterious item, as well as see what supplies may have been left behind when the people left.

What they discover allows DuPrau to end her series on a very hopeful note. She does not disguise the fact that life continues to be hard, but she makes it clear that by working together, the people of Ember and Sparks are able to come together and make a bright new future. As cheesy as that sounds, she writes it so well that you can't help but smile and feel hopeful yourself.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

darker than Dark

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: science fiction, YA
Challenge: A-Z (author)
Review: If Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials are supposed to be a darker Harry Potter, than Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking series is shaping up to be a darker His Dark Materials.

The book starts in Prentisstown, where all men's Noise (thoughts) can be heard by everyone, and there aren't any women. Todd, 30 days away from his 13th birthday, at which point he will become a man, has been told that the Noise came with the same germ from the native inhabitants of the planet that killed all the women. But one day Todd starts finding out that everything he's known about his town and his planet is not what he's been told.

Ness opts to reveal the secrets to the reader as they are revealed to Todd, a technique that can be frustrating, but mostly works well. Most of the secrets are revealed (we think) by the end of this first book in a projected trilogy, but there's still plenty of suspense as to what actually happens to our hero and whether good will triumph over evil.

Friday, September 26, 2008

with a whimper

The Ghosts of Kerfol by Deborah Noyes
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, historical fiction, ghost stories
Challenge: A-Z (title)
Review: Noyes bases her stories on Edith Wharton's Kerfol. The first story is just a retelling of Kerfol, fleshed out, and from the point of a serving girl newly arrived at the house. From there, Noyes each story moves the the house closer to the present time, with various manifestations of the hauntings.

Her descriptions are uneven though. In one story, the house is haunted only by the dogs, as in Wharton's story. In other stories, there are various other ghosts, and it's not always clear who they're supposed to be. In one story, a girl dies. In another, a couple is only hurt. I would have felt better if all the stories were building to a grand exorcism of some kind, or if the hauntings all got worse until some drastic action were taken. In other words, I wish the stories had all built on each other in some way. But this isn't really how Noyes chose to write her stories. Except she did, in some ways. I wish she'd chosen either to write completely individual stories, or chosen to write stories that all built up into something. As it is, the tension of the hauntings builds for a couple of stories, and then just kind of fizzles.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

knowing the unknowable

Between Here and April by Deborah Copaken Kogan
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: This book is built around Elizabeth's search to find the truth about what happened to April, her first grade friend who disappeared from school one day. At the time, Elizabeth couldn't get an explanation from her teacher, and her mother was too busy with a new baby and her own issues to really notice that Elizabeth's friend was gone. The truth of what happened isn't too hard for Elizabeth to find out as an adult. After all, when a mother kills herself and her two daughters, there are newspapers articles, which Elizabeth is easily able to find. But it turns out that her search is really to know the unknowable: why did April's mother do this seemingly unthinkable thing?

On a quest to try to answer this question, Elizabeth confronts issues of postpartum depression, especially in the early 1970s, before it was recognized as a treatable condition, and the common prescription of Valium to help women who were depressed, whether it actually benefited them or not. Although Kogan gets a bit heavy-handed on these subjects, her characters are well-drawn and believable.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

very straightforward

The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Challenge: TBR
Review: This is a very straightforward book. When Laurel's father dies, she must deal not only with her own grief but that of her friends and neighbors (her father was a well-loved judge in their small town). On top of that, she also has to deal with the histrionics of her stepmother, a woman younger than herself, who does not react in a way that Laurel finds seemly.

The night after the funeral, Laurel finds herself alone in her childhood home. Going through things from her past, she reminisces about her parents, and is able to come to terms with aspects of their relationship and her mother's final illness.

Welty writes her scenes sparingly, allowing characters to speak for themselves. The disparity between the actions of Laurel's stepmother's family and those of the locals is told through dialogue, rather than description, to great effect. One can't help but cringe on Laurel's behalf for what she has to go through before she is free to mourn her father.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

coming out funny

Absolutely, Positively Not... by David LaRochelle
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: YA
Review: Aside from the fact that I can't really relate to the story of a teenage boy coming to terms with the fact that he's gay, I really enjoyed this book. LaRochelle divides the story about equally between Steven's growing realization that he's gay and his process of coming out to his friends and family. Although the first half of the book became a bit tiresome after a while, the second half of the book more than made up for it. LaRochelle writes Steven's coming out scenes with humor and sensitivity.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

another Holden

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To you by Peter Cameron
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, YA
Review: I did not like Catcher in the Rye. Not the first time I read it (in high school) and not the second time (in my 20s). And this book is little more than Catcher in the Rye updated for the 21st century. Except they still use words like "faggy".

James, which at least is a better name than Holden, has not been kicked out of school, but has just graduated from high school and is considering not going to college, although he's scheduled to begin at Brown in the fall. Aside from a somewhat meaningless job, he spends his time being introspective and disaffected, and seems determined to remain so. He does strange, antisocial things for no apparent reason and with no apparent thought of the consequences and then not quite understanding why people are upset about what he did.

I can't quite put my finger on why I had a problem with this book, or why I don't like Catcher in the Rye. I guess characters who know they're acting in an asocial way and refuse to acknowledge why other people might think they're a little strange just bother me. It's fine to be asocial, but a character (at least an intelligent character, as both James and Holden are supposed to be), ought to have enough insight to understand that they're outside the norm, which is going to be troubling to some people.

Friday, August 29, 2008

dystopia from the inside

Feed by M.T. Anderson
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: science fiction, YA
Review: Rather than focusing on the political aspects of a dystopia, Anderson focuses on the cultural aspects. Almost everyone has an implanted "feed" from a very young age which gives them access to unlimited information, but also seems to allow corporations unlimited access to the individual. Everyone is constantly bombarded with offers and news of sales from corporations. This has the somewhat predictable result of dumbing down the population, to the point where all they care about are stupid shows on the feed, and shopping. But wait, that sounds kind of familiar.

There are other repercussions of the feed. People seem to be developing lesions, which continue unexplained throughout the book. By the end of the book, they have become fashion statements, with people who don't have them getting them surgically implanted. But where they come from, and why, is never explained.

Also never explained is the meaning behind the attack that is described at the beginning of the book, causing several characters' feeds to malfunction. Why was the attack carried out? Did it represent some larger faction of society that was disenchanted with the feeds?

Typically, I think, dystopic novels focus on the dissenters or malcontents. Having read this book, which touches on those who rebel only slightly, I can see why that trend developed. Quite frankly, reading about people who buy into the system is just not as interesting. Still, this was a good read, with an interesting premise.

effective verse

Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: YA
Review: I had a bit of trouble with this book at first. It's written in verse, which is not my favorite style. But once I got used to it, I found it to be an very effective technique. The uneven rhythm and stark language help to underscore the tension inherent in the story between those who are able to see beyond the walls of the projects and those who have a harder time of it.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

more than just the books

Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books by Aaron Lansky
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: non-fiction
Challenge: A-Z (author)
Review: Aaron Lansky tells us about a lot more than just his efforts (and those of his many, many supporters) to rescue Yiddish books. He interweaves his stories with a history of Yiddish language, culture, and literature. Although these brief history lessons are not nearly as entertaining as his anecdotes of traveling around the globe (although mostly to New York) to collect the books, put together they make for an engaging, even enlightening read.

Monday, August 25, 2008

all about empowerment

The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: YA
Review: Ok, this book is a little pat in some places. Turning your life around is probably not as easy as Carolyn Mackler would make it out to be. That being said, this is a really good book. Virginia (or Ginny) is a believable, sympathetic, likable character. Her problems are real, and her solutions to them are fun, if not entirely realistic. But they work for her, and I, at least, was willing to go along for the ride.

A good read aside, Mackler also deals with some serious issues in the book, including date rape and eating disorders (no, neither apply directly to Ginny). These I thought she dealt with very well, and very realistically, showing that not everything wraps up in a neat package at the end, and not every problem can always be solved.

Overall, this is just a good story about a girl who manages to find ways to empower herself despite not always (or usually) getting a lot of support from her family. But she has help from other people around her and figures out how to be herself, and, more importantly, how to be comfortable being herself.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Armenian genocide

Forgotten Fire by Adam Bagdasarian
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction, YA
Review: Bagdasarian fictionalizes this account of his great-uncle's survival of the Armenian genocide to good effect. Fictionalization allows for more reflection that a 12-year-old probably had at the time. But Bagdasarian does not take it too far, and physical details of people and surroundings are sparse. The experience is clearly the most important thing.

And the experience is brought to life all too well. The story begins in 1915 and Vahan, the fictional name Bagdasarian gives his great-uncle, is 12. He is the youngest son of a wealthy and successful Armenian lawyer in Turkey. But his father's position and influence do not save the family, and the horrors begin all too soon. Bagdasarian does not pull his punches.

If I would change anything about this book, I would only ask for more historical background. If, as Bagdasarian says, part of his reason for writing this book was to bring the atrocities committed against the Armenians to light, he succeeds. But a bit more historical information would have helped. Why were the Germans at the consulate willing to tolerate an Armenian presence? Why was Constantinople safe for Armenians when the rest of Turkey was so dangerous? Some more explanation on these questions and a few others would have been nice, but not having the answers did not detract from the power of this book.

Friday, August 22, 2008

principle before action

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Genre: YA
Review: Supposedly, this is a young adult classic, but honestly, I'm not sure why. It's just not very good. Sure, it's controversial (the characters swear and think about masturbation a lot), but that's not a good enough reason for it to keep being assigned in schools.

Also, I think the thing that should make the book controversial is its portrayal of gross cruelty by students and certain teachers. Not that I'm worried that kids will suddenly become cruel just by reading this book (those who are going to be cruel tend to come by it naturally, after all), but if we're worried about exposing children to unsavory things, it ought to cruelty for it's own sake.

But what I really didn't like about this book was that although we're told there's a principle behind the actions of Jerry, who refuses to sell the chocolates, we're never told what the principle is. There's some suggestion that Jerry himself isn't really sure what his principle is, but in the context of the book, that's just not good enough.

It all started when Jerry is "assigned" by the Vigils (the school's student secret society, which doesn't actually seem to be much of a secret to anyone) to refuse to sell the chocolates for 10 days. He does (there's no suggestion that he even thinks about refusing the "assignment") but then continues to refuse to sell the chocolates after the 10 days are up, even after he gets another "assignment" that he start selling the chocolates. But why does he continue to refuse? Is it something about the chocolate sale itself, or is it about defying the Vigils? We don't know. The action of defiance seems to be more important than the principle behind it. I think Cormier got it backward.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

the story I really wanted to hear

What-the-Dickens by Gregory Maguire
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fantasy, YA
Review: The frame of this story is that of 3 children in the care of their older cousin. There is a hurricane raging around them, and their parents have gone out to get more insulin for the child's mother. The outside world is a scary place for these children, who live largely separated from everyone else as a matter of faith, and they have no way of knowing whether their parents will make it back to them alive.

To distract them from the terror of the night, their cousin begins to tell them a story, which may or may not be true, about the time he encountered some skibbereen, commonly known as tooth fairies. It's more or less the story of a skibberee born without a clan who must find his way in the world. He finds a friend, they strike out together, etc.

Frankly, I found the story of the children much more compelling than the story of the skibbereen. Both stories are left dangling, with the children never finding out what happened to the skibbereen in the end, and the reader never finding out whether the children's parents returned. I cared much more about the eventually fate of the children. Their story was more than just an excuse for clever puns.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

too indulgent

We Became Like a Hand by Carol Ortlip
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: memoir
Challenge: TBR, A-Z (author)
Review: In this overly indulgent memoir, Carol Ortlip tries to make sense of the first forty years of her life. The oldest of 5 sisters, with a mentally ill mother who eventually leaves the family, Carol bears a lot of weight on her shoulders. When one sister dies in an accident just before graduating high school, perhaps it is no surprise that Carol finds the weight to hard to bear and abdicates her role as eldest, leaving both physically (at one point she goes to Alaska to work on a crab fishing boat) and mentally (descending into addiction). The last third of the book is the story of her struggles to deal with her own issues and the sisters' struggles to become the unit they once were with one part missing, just in time to come together to watch another sister die of a lingering illness.

As satisfying as it is to know that Carol is ultimately able to be there for her sisters, I did not find this book very satisfying overall. The language poetic to the point of being drippy, and I couldn't help but feel that Carol was just indulging herself in writing this memoir. Events and experiences are recording in what I assume is a faithful manner, but very little insight is given as to why various family members act as they do. I hope Carol found some release in writing this story, but I can't help wondering what she expects her readers, at least those outside the Ortlip sisterhood, to find in it.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Burgdorf revisited

Floating in My Mother's Palm by Ursula Hegi
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: Ursula Hegi takes us back to Burgdorf in the 1950s, a time when WWII is barely spoken of in Germany, although its scars are everywhere. This time we get the stories through the Hanna Malter, born a year after the end of the war, as she struggles to make sense of her town and her place in it. Told as vignettes, rather than as a continuing narrative, Hegi gives her young narrator a keen eye to observe her town and a clear voice to tell us about them.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

the many disadvantages

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: YA
Review: How many disadvantages can one person overcome? Junior, the narrator of this book, overcomes several disabilities at birth, and then must overcome the physical manifestations of those disabilities (oversize head, lisp, stutter, etc.) for the rest of his life. On top of that he faces the disadvantages that come with being a member of the Spokane Indian tribe: poverty, endemic alcoholism, and general hopelessness.

But Junior is a determined and very smart kid. Taking the advice of one of his teachers at the reservation school, Junior decides to attend the white school 22 miles away. Here he overcomes the disadvantages of prejudice at his new school and the fact that many people on the reservation, including his erstwhile best friend, consider him a traitor.

The story of overcoming so many disadvantages could easily become trite. But not in the hands of Sherman Alexie. In this semiautobiographical novel, Alexie gives his narrator such an engaging voice (not to mention Ellen Forney's drawings) that there is nothing trite about this book. This story rings true no matter what culture you come from, or what your personal disadvantages may be.

Friday, August 15, 2008

too many characters

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Challenges: TBR, A-Z (author)
Review: You know it's bad when you go online to see what the big secret is when you're halfway through the book. But that's what I finally had to do with this book. I just got overcome by curiosity. Or possibly driven mad by all the vague hints and innuendo. (And yes, all my suspicions were correct.) If you're looking to find the answer, you'll have to look elsewhere (I suggest Wikipedia), but at least now you know you're not alone in not being able to wait for the big reveal.

Aside from all the secrets, this book is populated by a vast and confusing cast of characters. Told in alternating chapters between the life of Ruby Lennox (who narrates her own story from the moment of conception) and the stories of her maternal antecedents (told in the third person), we learn about several generations of women who make bad decisions in marriage and what happens to them as a result. Needless to say, this isn't a particularly cheerful book.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

echoes

From Time to Time by Jack Finney
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, historical fiction
Review: I had heard that this book was not nearly as good as it's predecessor, Time and Again. Since I didn't think Time and Again was so great, I wasn't even sure there was a point to reading this one. But I was curious, so I did. And in some ways, I actually thought this book was better than the first one, or at least it had more potential.

This book begins with a group of people gathering to compare evidence of what I'll call "echoes" from alternate timestreams. I thought this was a very interesting way to begin: those who had read Time and Again would, of course, suspect that the echoes were caused by Si Morley's presence in the 19th century, but group didn't seem to have any idea what was causing the echoes. If Finney had chosen to continue with the thread of this question, this could have been a really interesting book.

Unfortunately, this line of thinking is never really developed. Instead, Finney gives us something that is really just an echo of the first book. First Finney essentially changes the ending of Time and Again, so that the Project exists, and then sends Si back to the present because he wants to find out what's going on with his old friends. He finds Rube, who has evidence of a timestream where WWI never happened (this is the only furtherance we see of the plotline from the beginning) and Si agrees to go back to 1912 to see if he can prevent the Great War.

In some ways it was more interesting to follow Si on his first time travel adventure, when all he was really trying to do was observe, rather than change things. Ultimately, however, Si's efforts to change things don't amount to much, so all he really does is observe things in a different time, making this largely the same story that Finney told already, but with more unfulfilled potential.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

a fitting end

Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fantasy, YA
Review: I thought this was a fitting end to the Twilight Saga. Between the first three books and what I knew about Stephenie Meyer, I was a little concerned that she had written herself into a couple of corners she wasn't going to be able to get out of without having more than one character act in a very out-of-character way. But she managed to resolve all these issues in a satisfying way, while still staying true to her characters, her story, and, I imagine, herself.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Those Who Deceive Us

Island of Lost Girls by Jennifer McMahon
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Challenge: A-Z (title)
Review: On the surface, this book is about an abduction and the search for a missing girl. The sole witness to the kidnapping is Rhonda, and as she tries to help find the kidnapper (who was dressed in a bunny suit at the time), she recalls a summer of her childhood a few years before her best friend also went missing. This summer was a turning point in her childhood much more than she knew at the time.

Both stories, past and present, are tragic enough. But I think neither is really the point of the book. To me, the point of the book was how very little in Rhonda's life is as she thinks it is. She begins to learn this during that one summer, but the full import of what was going on around her doesn't become clear until the hunt for the child she saw kidnapped is almost over.

And it's not that Rhonda's purposely deceiving herself, either in the past or in the present. But there are definitely things going on around her that she's not aware, and secrets that are being kept from her. Told in the third-person, but entirely from Rhonda's perspective, McMahon reveals these secrets in a slow but satisfying way.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

no investment

The Condition by Jennifer Haigh
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: At the beginning of this book, we meet a fairly normal-looking family starting their summer vacation at the family house on Cape Cod. At the end of the prologue, we get the inkling that something bad is going to happen to this family, and that very soon the summer house will be sold and the parents divorce.

The story then jumps about 20 years, to a time when the children are adults, and whatever happened after that summer is old news. This is a perfectly good technique if the writer is more interested in showing the long term effects of something than the immediate impact.

And it would have worked just fine in this case, except that the prologue was so short I wasn't able to develop any sympathy with the characters. Instead of getting the continuation of a story I was already invested in, I got a stub that wasn't enough to carry me though the rest of the book. But I persevered, and throughout the rest of the book, Haigh gives enough of the backstory for me to start to feel a little bit of sympathy, or at least to be a little bit interested in what happens to them.

Overall, the writing is quite fine, but the story itself winds up being a bit disappointing.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

lots and lots of words

NYTimes Book Review about the man who read the OED straight through. Somehow I think just reading the review is enough for me, but there were a lot of great words. I think my favorite might be obmutescence (willful speechlessness) or possibly acnestis (the part of an animal’s back that the animal can’t reach to scratch).

Sunday, August 3, 2008

time travel by hypnosis?

Time and Again by Jack Finney
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction, science fiction
Challenge: TBR (alternate)
Review: Time travel through self-hypnosis is definitely one of the most creative methods I've ever read about, and definitely one of the more bizarre. The idea is that if you are able to find a place that is virtually identical to what it was (or will be) in another time, you can hypnotize yourself into actually transporting to that other time. Not everyone can do it. But if you're good enough at it, you can apparently take someone else with you.

To all of which I say: whatever. It's an outlandish theory, but I suppose not a whole lot more so than other time travel theories. At any rate, Si Morley can do it, and repeatedly goes back to New York in 1882 with the idea of observing a certain event. Naturally, he is only supposed to observe, and not get involved in any way with any of the people of that time. Of course, that doesn't work out so well.

And the story itself becomes much different from what you think it will be as it goes along, which is always appreciated. Dealing with the ethics and possibilities of time travel, Si must make a decision that could effect the course of American history. In the end, though, he makes what seems to be a different decision.

Finney deals with these complexities in a subtle, interesting way, saving this book from becoming just another "Connecticut Yankee".