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


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".