Thursday, July 31, 2008

How to be the Unchosen One

Un Lun Dun by China Mieville
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fantasy, YA
Challenge: A-Z (title)
Review: What do you do if you're the Chosen One's sidekick (and, no, we're not talking Buffy this time) but the Chosen One has forgotten that she's Chosen? If you're Deeba Resham, you declare yourself the Unchosen One, save the day anyway, and tell the prophecies to go stuff themselves.

When Deeba first goes to UnLondon, she is simply following her friend Zanna, who is the prophesied Chosen One. But it turns out that the prophecies are kind of, well, wrong. When the battle that is foretold to end with Zanna victorious ends instead with Zanna unconscious and returned to London with no memory of UnLondon, Deeba realizes that it's up to her to find a way back to UnLondon to defeat the Smog.

So she does, and along the way must convince not only the denizens of UnLondon that even if she's not the Chosen One, she can still be their champion, but she must also convince herself. Combining elements of Alice and Wonderland and Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, Mieville gives us quite the no-nonsense heroine.

And, as one of her companions asks her, "Where's the skill in being a hero if you were always destined to do it?"

Friday, July 25, 2008

just a hint of a ghost

Past the Bleachers by Chris Bohjalian
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Summary/Review: Bohjalian takes the story of a father grieving over the death of a son and wraps it around hints of a ghost story. About a year after his son's death, Bill Parrish decides that coaching the local Little League team for which his son would have played will help him cope with the loss. When he gets the roster for his team, he notices a name, Lucky Diamond, that he's never heard before, unusual in his small Vermont town. A natural at baseball, Lucky should fit in well on the team. But the mystery surrounding him and his arrival deepen, and Bohjalian adds a few seemingly supernatural occurrences (strange cat behavior and the like) to a few odd and vaguely threatening coincidences (a boy who makes mean comments about Lucky is almost killed by a flying baseball bat) and Bill (and the reader) question who Lucky really is and what he's doing there. While the answer to those questions isn't overly satisfying (although it's reasonable enough) the resolution to the story is immensely gratifying.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

baseball and Korea

Keeping Score by Linda Sue Park
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction, YA/children's
Challenge: A-Z (title)
Review: Like Linda Sue Park (as she says in her afterword), I don't remember learning to score a baseball game, but I know it was one of the many things my parents taught me to do as I was growing up. And like Maggie in this wonderful story, keeping score only added to my love of the game.

Park combines a story of a girl growing up with her love of the Brooklyn Dodgers (although the story ends before she would experience the ultimate disappointment of their move to Los Angeles) with a story about her concern about a friend who is sent to Korea and her growing awareness of the conflict there.

I couldn't give this book 5 stars because it gets a bit sappy near the end. But the rest of the book is well worth it, especially for Dodgers fans!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

inconsistent timing

City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fantasy, YA
Review: This book seemed like much less of a mush of other books than the first one in the series did, which was a relief. It picks up shortly after the first book left off, with all the main characters just recovering from the wounds they sustained in the big fight against Valentine's Forsaken. Which brings me to my only major problem with this book: the timeline. Although we're told that it was August during the events of City of Bones, in this book it seems to be late fall (there's always a chill in the air). Clary wakes up and eats a doughnut on her way to meet Simon, and then suddenly it's late afternoon. And a few more occasions of missing time...

If you can ignore those inconsistencies, though, this is a good read. Plenty of twists and turns, and unexpected action. A few characters wind up not being dead a few too many times (an author can only pull that trick so many times before all the tension leaks away). And, although the book dragged in a few scenes (ok, Inquisitor, we get your point), I'll be waiting with a fair degree of anticipation for the last (hopefully, since I don't think this story-line can last for more than one more book) book in the trilogy.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

slight alterations

The Passionate Eye: The Collected Writings of Suzanne Vega
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: collected works
Challenge: A-Z (author)
Review: Fans of Suzanne Vega will find lyrics to many of her songs in this collection, and will also enjoy reading some of her poetry and other writings. I found it particularly interesting to see how, with slight changes to the language, a theme from a poem or story got worked into a song that I knew well.

Monday, July 21, 2008

to YA or not to YA

Those of you who faithfully read my blog (thank you, thank you, thank you!) have probably noticed by now that I read a lot of young adult books. In this week's NYTimes Book Review, there's an interesting essay on what makes a book young adult, or not.

flip-flopping characters

Woman of a Thousand Secrets by Barbara Wood
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: Not having much knowledge about Central American geography, or history, or the mythology of the peoples native to that region, I can only assume that Barbara Wood has done her research. And if you want an easy-to-read primer on any of those subjects, this would be a great book to read.

If you're looking for really great characters, though, this is probably not the book for you. For the first two-thirds of the book the two main characters go back and forth every few pages between "I can't wait to get away from" and "How can I possibly live without" the other. While the two of them are filled with angst, the third main character is constantly plotting their individual downfalls in the background. I couldn't help but think of him as a Mayan Wile E. Coyote, but I don't think Wood meant him to be so ridiculous.

Still, the story's pretty good. I did want to find out what happened at the end. And I was pleased that Wood opted against wrapping everything with a pretty bow. It's a mostly happy ending, although not entirely, and I was particularly impressed with how she didn't answer every single question, but also didn't leave me with the feeling that there were a lot of loose ends.

Friday, July 18, 2008

What do you get when you cross Buffy with Harry Potter?

City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: YA, fantasy
Review: In this case, you get something that's actually fairly original. The influence of Buffy comes through often (Clare used to write fan fiction about the show), such as when one of the characters gets turned into a rat (she couldn't even pick a different animal?) or simply the fact that the core characters in the book are high school kids with an older mentor, all of whom, except for one, are Shadowhunters (Scoobies, anyone?). There are hints of Harry Potter as well, as the non-talented are scorned by a group who wants to wipe them out (although non-Shadowhunters are called mundanes, rather than Muggles) the leader of which was thought to be dead, but apparently isn't... There's even some Star Wars thrown in, with a modified "Luke, I am your father" moment, which, by the way, I saw coming from miles away.

So, yes, lots of similarities, some of them fairly glaring. And yet, Clare does make a new story out of it all. There's unexpected bravery, betrayal (unexpected and expected), and even a hint of gallantry. In short, it's a pretty good fantasy story. But I think I'll go watch some Buffy now.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Sympathetic Reilly

Handling Sin by Michael Malone
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Challenges: TBR, A-Z (title)
Review: This is a big book, with a lot packed into it, so it's sort of hard to know what to say about it. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of The Pickwick Papers, with misunderstandings and coincidences, and the main characters sort of bumbling around and managing to get themselves into and out of trouble with seeming to really understand what was actually going on around them.

Similarly, the book reminded me a lot of A Confederacy of Dunces, at least in the beginning. There's the sort of curmudgeonly and generally disapproving Southern man, who looks with disdain at almost everything around him, and is convinced that he could do everything better if only he were allowed to run things.

What makes this book different from either of those two is that Malone actually allows his main character to grow and learn during the story. This made "our hero" an actually sympathetic character (as opposed to Toole's Reilly) and I actually cared about the end result of his enforced quest, if not everything that happened to him and his companions on the way.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Lost Girl

Hangman by Chris Bohjalian
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: Bohjalian's writing is just as magnetic in this early work, but he does not demonstrate the deftness with plot and character that he shows in his later works.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

not a disappointment

Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: Some books disappoint on a second reading, but not this one. When it came time for my book club to read this book I was very excited, because I remembered that I really liked it the first time I read it. And I was not disappointed. I think I liked this book at least as much the second time around as the first.

This is a story with two contrasting themes. One is difference. Told mostly from the perspective of Trudi, a dwarf, who feels how different she is from the members of her community on a daily basis. And she sees how difference in others is persecuted under the Nazis.

The other theme of this book is community. One thing I really liked about this book is how we come to know so many members of Trudi's community throughout their lives. We understand as well as Trudi does why certain members of the community do certain things, because we have known them almost as long as she has. Hegi does a wonderful job of bringing the whole community to life.

And she is more than equal to the task of describing what the advent of Nazism does to this small German community. She does not shy away from the people who enthusiastically embrace Hitler and his party, but she does portray in a more sympathetic way those who at least question Hitler's policies.

Rather than making a judgment call, though, based on how her characters respond to the Third Reich, Hegi seems more interested in demonstrating the range of responses that existed in a small town, and how those differing responses change the character of the town itself.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

changing art of biographies

An interesting piece in London's Guardian about what's happening the world of biographies. Jennifer Schuessler of Paper Cuts has a slightly different take.