Sunday, February 27, 2011


I realize I've been gone a terribly long time... apologies! Starting up work full-time sure takes it out of you. I'm working a 10-7 shift at the moment, which means by the time I get home I tend to be too focused on eating dinner and relaxing into the evening to get around to writing reviews. Working has also substantially cut down on my reading time, so I'm progressing at a rate of about 1 book a week - quite slow for me. But anyway, here's what I've been up to since I posted last:

Magic and Other Misdemeanors
by Michael Buckley
Book 5 in The Sisters Grimm series
Star Rating: 3 out of 4

Book 5 swings into action with Sabrina and Daphne's training to become Fairy-Tale Detectives, and the story keeps the pace up from there. The strange disappearance of the former mayor of Ferryport Landing has led to him being voted out. This leaves the Queen of Hearts in charge and the Sheriff of Nottingham at her right hand, which spells major trouble for the Grimms. The fairy-tale inhabitants of the town have grown tired of their imprisonment and resentful toward humanity, so the Queen decides to level crippling taxes on the human residents of the town, forcing all but the Grimms to move away. The Grimms try to conduct business as usual when it's found that items are being stolen from Everafters, but support for their presence is at an all-time low, and matters aren't helped by the continuing "illness" of their strongest ally, Mr. Canis. And just when they thought things couldn't get worse, strange storms begin to beset the town!

Have I mentioned recently how much I love this series? I mean, besides the obvious cue that I keep reading and reviewing and gushing over them? I feel like I should caution people about starting them because they're so darn addictive. Every adventure is exciting and original and the characters are hilarious. With perhaps one or two exceptions, I love every single fairy tale character usage; Buckley makes them consistent with their tales but still quite modern. I've been waffling back and forth on my favorite character for a while now, but I think the crown finally has to go to Puck:
"We don't want to bother you, but we were wondering if anything has been stolen. Say, something magical?" Sabrina said.
The ancient witch shuffled uncomfortably and nodded. "I had a small vial of water from the Fountain of Youth."
"Why didn't you ever use it?" Puck asked rudely.
Princess Academy
by Shannon Hale
Star Rating: 3 out of 4

I must confess that I looked at the title of this one and snickered. I can't imagine a book more perfectly named to appeal to young giggly girls. But since it had the Newbery Award sticker on it and all, I decided to give it a try. And I have to admit now that I'm glad I did!

There's a crown prince of the land to be married off, and court priests have "seen" that the princess will come from the small, poor province of Mount Eskel. Inhabitants of the mount spend their days cutting a special stone from quarries there. It's a hard, simple life, and not at all a natural picking place for princesses, but since the bird entrails (or whatever) have spoken, the court sends along a teacher to educate the girls of the town who are of eligible age. The story follows Miri, who is smart and determined, through her time at the academy. Far from being the prissy Barbie kind of read I'd imagined, the book centered around the value of education, leadership, and maybe most of all, community:
The conversation lagged and then stopped, but Miri was too tired and anxious to sleep. She watched the night shadows shift and creep across the ceiling and listened to the low, rough breathing of the other girls. Her pulse clicked in her jaw, and she held on to that noise, tried to take comfort from it, as if the quarry and home were as near as her heart.
I can't express how happy I was at the author's depiction of the changes education effects on the girls. Most go from not being able to read at all to understanding complex concepts like economics. Even better, the girls are able to take what they've learned and apply it in practical, useful ways for their people. There's also a wonderfully mystical subplot concerning the abilities of the Mount's inhabitants and the nature of the stone they cut; aside from being a fascinating story, it serves to ground the characters in that land and make the mountain a character in its own right. There's plenty of fun squabbling and contention in the book as the girls strive toward being the most viable princess candidate, but I found my favorite parts were the ones that took place in the small, homey village. Great read for young teens.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
by E. Lockhart
Star Rating: 2 out of 4

I had high hopes here because I've seen this book extolled across bloggorific circles, but it didn't work for me. Frankie is a young girl attending a snooty prep school, and she learns that her father (who also went to the school) was a member of a secret society there known as The Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds. Frankie is curious about the society, especially after she learns that it's an exclusively male society. Purely by chance, she manages to meet some of the crucial members (in fact, she starts dating one of them). She decides that she could do just as good a job at pulling pranks and the rest of the secret society doings as they, and takes matters into her own hands.

This is a book about pretentious people, which I should've known better than to read in the first place because I despise pretension. The prologue to the book is a written confession of Frankie's in which she uses words that aren't really words (i.e., "It is not for me to pugn or impugn their characters"), which is clever/cute once or twice, but she does it like FIFTEEN TIMES in the letter. It's bad when I'm sneering at a book less than 5 pages in. This gets explained as the book backtracks from the confession:
When there's a negative word or expression - immaculate, for instance - but the positive is almost never used, and you choose to use it, you become rather amusing. Or pretentious. Or pretentiously amusing, which can sometimes be good.
Even the explanation is pretentious. But anyway, I'm not saying the whole book is like that. Frankie is quite clever, though I didn't find her engaging, and her analyses of her contemporaries can be illuminating:
Expensive clothes and high status had little effect on Frankie. But their money and popularity made life extremely easy for Matthew, Dean, Alpha, and Callum. They did not need to impress anyone and were therefore remarkably free from snarkiness, anxiety, and irksome aspirational behaviors, such as competition over grades and evaluation of one another's clothing. They were not afraid to break the rules, because consequences rarely applied to them. They were free. They were silly. They were secure.
...and their company is unpleasant. Frankie meets Alpha at the beginning of the book, and later when they run into each other again, Alpha pretends not to know her. Why? We're never told. Matthew, the boyfriend, treats Frankie like a cute little pet and, though she plots behind his back, Frankie lets him. All the conversations with the Basset Hounds guys are peppered with snooty banter, insufferable self-confidence, and ennui. If I met these people in real life, I'd want to punch them in their smug faces. But supporting characters aside, the real dilemma comes from Frankie:
She sat through weekly sessions with the school mental health professional in order to explore her "aggression" and to work on channeling her impulses into more socially appropriate activities. The counselor suggested competitive team sports as a positive outlet, and pushed Frankie to join the girls' field hockey team.
This was not a productive solution.
It was the girls' team.
Boys didn't even play field hockey.
Boys thought nothing of field hockey.
Frankie was not interested in playing a sport that was rated as nothing by the more powerful half of the population.
And right there, we have the primary dilemma of feminism. If we accept that the society we live in is "patriarchal" -- that is, made by men for the benefit of men -- then the proper feminist solution is to reject that society and pursue an egalitarian ideal. Unfortunately, since that puts you out of the mainstream, you're marginalized and have little power. Conversely, one can work within the current system to gain influence there, but by doing so one tacitly accepts the rules in place.

Frankie clearly lands on the latter side of the fence: she wants power for herself and is willing to accept the male model in order to achieve it. Maybe this is a practical model. Men *are* the more powerful half of the population, and to get power in this world you may have to play by their rules. So I can't fault Frankie for that. What I do take issue with is that she thinks herself superior because of it. Frankie views the world through the "patriarchal" model and denigrates other females who don't do the same. They're viewed as weak, pathetic, simpering little things. One of Frankie's turning points in the book comes when her boyfriend, Matthew, calls her "harmless". Frankie wants to prove to him that she's not like those other girls, and she does so by distancing herself from them. She spends the whole book hatching plots to prove to the Basset Hounds that girls are as worthy of admission to (and leadership of) their society as boys, and ends up becoming just like them. That's just not a character I'll cheer for.

Whew! Marathon typing. Now I can finally return all of them to the library. I'm currently reading Affinity by Sarah Waters and LOVING it, so I can't wait to post that review!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Once Upon A Crime

by Michael Buckley
Star Rating: 2.5 out of 4
Book 4 in The Sisters Grimm series

I'm going to start right off by saying I didn't think this installment of The Sisters Grimm series was as good as the first three. I think Buckley got a little stuck in his formula with this one -- at some point in every book so far, Daphne gets mad at Sabrina and won't speak to her -- and it began to lose the wonder at the fairy-tale magic going on. (As I recall, this also happened in the Harry Potters at around book 4 [my least favorite, incidentally]). The writing was just as amusing, but the adventure just didn't seem as adventurous to me. Possibly this is due to the fact that this book takes place in New York City rather than the magical Ferryport Landing.

(Slight spoilers in the summary.) Granny Relda, the girls, Mr. Canis, and Hamstead must set out to fairyland in order to save Puck, who was gravely wounded in Book 3. Imagine Sabrina's surprise when "fairyland" turns out to be none other than New York City, her old hometown! Sabrina, who is nursing a burgeoning prejudice against Everafters, is disgusted to find her beautiful city inhabited by the few magical creatures who managed to evade being trapped in Ferryport Landing. The group is able to reach the fairies and, with some difficulty, procure help for Puck, but when one of the fairy leaders is murdered, the Grimms have a mystery to solve.

Now that I'm writing, I wonder if my "ehh" reaction to this book was because Puck's not in it much. Or rather, he is -- but spends it all in a floating recuperative sac that oozes a nasty-smelling goo. (Even unconscious, Puck causes trouble.) Daphne and Granny are rather static characters, having already made the choice about their lives, but Sabrina must decide if being a Fairy-Tale Detective is what she wants. Mr. Canis also has troubles in this book as his, ahem, other personality struggles to take control. And there are several new, interesting, and utterly hilarious characters, of course...
"My name is Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs." He reached into his pocket and took out his silver remote, pushed a button, and waited as a business card spit out from a slot in the front. He handed it to Granny Relda.
"Tbe Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs?" she said.
(OK, maybe it's not that funny. But it made me laugh for two minutes straight. My housemate thought I was having a fit.)

One really nice plotline of this book is that Sabrina gets to learn a little more about her mother. The girls had always thought their mother uninvested in Everafter affairs, but come to learn that the fairies of NYC hold her in near-reverential regard because of all she did to unite and support them. For Sabrina, this is a blow; her mother was an example to her of normalcy, but turns out to have been more involved than almost anyone else. Unlike Daphne, Sabrina finds Everafter concerns a burden and resents having been drawn into the magical world, and finding out about her mother confuses her choice a great deal.

I particularly love it when Sabrina and Daphne are in a sticky situation and communicate in a sort of secret language between them. Because they lived with so many horrible foster families before Granny Relda, they came up with lots of escape tactics and tricks; occasionally when they're in danger again, Sabrina will remind Daphne of a particular foster parent, they'll count to three, and then attack in unison based on their previous experience. How they attack is almost always hilarious, not to mention successful.

Anyway, it's still a worthy addition to the series and I'm enjoying every one tremendously.
"What's your name?" Daphne said.
"Chester," the driver said.
"We need you to follow a flying fairy," Granny said.
"Now there's a sentence you don't hear every day," Chester said.
...even in New York!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


by Dave Cullen
Star Rating: 4 out of 4

The cover alone is enough. There is only one word on it. It's in small letters surrounded by empty space, but it's not really empty; it's charged by all the memories, assumptions, and emotions surrounding that day, those deaths, and that name.

The events are these: on April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered thirteen people at Columbine High School before turning their guns on themselves. The boys had homemade bombs set strategically around the school, none of which went off that day; if they had, the death count would have been in the hundreds. Evidence was discovered after the fact that the shooting spree had been planned for over a year in advance; this included the so-called Basement Tapes, rage-filled video rants in which the two boys recorded their intentions in the weeks before the attack. Incompetent police work and media rumor-mongering contributed to creating a number of false impressions following the attack, which this book does much to clarify.

This book brings up so many emotions. I just want to quote passage after passage. Several paragraphs made me sick to my stomach; others made me want to cry. Cullen is able to convey the punch of that day's horror and trauma, and of the aftermath, in expert journalistic style:
Dylan was heavy into school stuff. Eric, too. They attended the football games, the dances, and the variety shows and worked together on video production for the Rebel News Network. School plays were big for Dylan. He would never want to face an audience, but backstage at the soundboard, that was great. Earlier in the year, he'd rescued Rachel Scott, the senior class sweetheart, when her tape jammed during the talent show. In a few days, Eric would kill her.
[Eric] researched the possibilities for an English paper. Guns were cheap and readily available, he discovered. Gun Digest said you could get a Saturday night special for $69. And schools were easy targets. "It is just as easy to bring a loaded handgun to school as it is to bring a calculator," Eric wrote.
"Ouch!" his teacher responded in the margin. Overall, he rated it "thorough & logical. Nice job."
And yet... there's sympathy to be found here too, for the injured, the families, the parents of the killers, and even a killer himself. Eric Harris was clearly the mastermind of the event: he was the one who went to all the trouble of making the bombs, finding a way of purchasing the guns, planning the date, and stoking the anger within them both toward this end. Dylan, on the other hand, presents a problem.
Murder or even suicide takes willpower as well as anger. Dylan fantasized about suicide for years without making an attempt. He had never spoken to the girls he dreamed of. Dylan Klebold was not a man of action. He was conscripted by a boy who was.
According to the evidence available, Dylan fit the mold of a suicidal depressive. He kept a journal of his meditations on existence, God, morality, but most of all, on love. Dylan was obsessed with romantic love, though he'd never received it; Cullen notes that "Love was the most common word in Dylan's journal." He was lonely. He was miserable. He was angry too, but until Eric that anger was directed inward at himself. I found it impossible not to wonder what might've happened to Dylan if Eric had never come along. True, he might've committed suicide like he planned. But he also might've found that love he seemed so convinced would save him.

It's clear through the transcripts of Eric's journal and website that he felt himself supreme (he even calls himself god), so far above other humans that killing people was a pleasure. Cullen painstakingly explains the nature of psychopaths, with their superiority, grandiosity, manipulation, and contempt, and compellingly presents the head FBI psych investigator's conclusion that Eric was a true psychopath. (Once you see the list of characteristics laid out, it's tough to really argue the point.) Cullen employs an excellent authorial method by describing Eric's position on the rest of humanity with "we" or "us" phrasology. Eric's malevolence seems to jump out from the page, straight at the reader. See this hatred? Cullen seems to be saying. This isn't abstract. He hated you.

I don't remember Columbine personally (I was only 13) and haven't read any of the many reports or newspaper articles this book cites. I couldn't even have told you the shooters' names beforehand. Now I doubt I'll ever forget them. These two wanted to be remembered for what they did at Columbine -- wanted to "live in infamy," to borrow a phrase, and now they do. But Cullen cleverly intertwines the history of the boys' plotting in with the story of the recovery that began afterward; as the boys spiral down, never to return, those still alive begin to heal. There's a great philosophical question: if you could have a life where you were reviled for Hitler-esqe atrocities but remembered forever, or a life where you were good and happy but lost to memory within a few generations, which would you choose? I think most people of good conscience, including most of those in this book, would choose the latter.

All are portrayed with great humanity. The language doesn't sensationalize. It's possible more lives could've been saved, or been lost, and the story of those lives was unforgettable. But when it comes down to it, this is a brilliant, heartwrenching book about one boy who hated all of us, and who convinced another boy to help him kill.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey

by Trenton Lee Stewart
Star Rating: 3.4 out of 4
Book 2 in The Mysterious Benedict Society series

In the first book, four children are recruited by Mr. Benedict to become members of a secret society attempting to foil a plot for world domination. These children are put through a particular sort of intelligence testing - more riddles and pattern-soving than actual IQ tests - and then sent forth to infiltrate a school where the evil mastermind is at work. The first book's amazing and I recommend it to everyone; the first third of it consists of the children's testing, and it's fun to try to solve the riddles along with them. (I failed miserably.) But beyond being intellectually stimulating, the book's plot was well-conceived and the characters delightful.

The four children are Reynie, Kate, Sticky, and Constance. Reynie is the main protagonist and the de facto leader of the group because of his great intelligence (which they all share) and his searing intuition, which often takes him straight to the heart of any problem. Kate grew up with the circus, and so knows all sorts of acrobatic tricks (I must admit I find it fantastic that the one with the greatest physical prowess in the group is a girl); she carries a bucket with her at all times containing useful items like rope, a flashlight, and a Swiss army knife. Sticky (real name George) is so nicknamed because of his memory, into which everything he reads sticks; and finally, there's Constance, who is little, crabby, disobediant, oppositional, snarky, usually angry, and sleeps a lot.

In this book, the children reunite after a year because Mr. Benedict has arranged for them to take a trip by following a trail of clues. However, something goes terribly wrong and Mr. Benedict is captured by Mr. Curtain, his nemesis from the first book. But the clues are in place... and the children decide to follow the trail. I'll say straight off that normally the We're Kids But We're Going to Try to Solve Everything trope irritates me - you're 5 years old and you think you're more competent than adults? Really? - but in this book it makes perfect sense. They're incredibly intelligent, after all, and Mr. Benedict designed the clues with them specifically in mind. The clues take them on a wonderful journey on ships and planes, to castles and deserted islands, and tests the limits of their strength. Plus, all through this book we get to solve the puzzling clues along with the kids. (I did slightly better this time. Maybe I'm getting smarter?)

I deeply appreciate the depth Stewart gives his protagonists. Reynie, having seen a power-mad would-be dictator up close in the last book, is considerably shaken by the experience. At this book's beginning, he is on the verge of seeing evil everywhere and of coming to believe that evil is more intrinsic, and perhaps more powerful, than good:
Mr. Benedict settled back against his desk. "It's natural that you feel as you do, Reynie. There is much more to the world that most children - indeed, most adults - ever see or know. And where most people see mirrors, you, my friend, see windows. By which I mean there is always something beyond the glass. You have seen it and will always see it now, though others may not. I would have spared you that vision at such a young age. But it's been given you, and it will be up to you to decide whether it's a blessing or a curse."
Maybe no other book series except Ender's Game presents extremely gifted children with such humanity. Each one has a distinct personality (not just from each other, but from any other characters I've read) and faces particular challenges because of it. Reynie's great gift is his intuition, a gift easily tainted by mistrustfulness; Kate is fiercely protective, but that impulse can lead her toward vengeance; Sticky's prodigious memory is a huge asset to the team, but he's insecure and not naturally brave, so he begins to get stuck up about his memory and doubts himself the rest of the time. And Constance must overcome her fear about her own gifts (as well as her cantankerous nature). They're a brilliant team, perfectly psychologically aligned.

And... it's funny!

"It will be a dark day," said Reynie grimly.
"It will be a dark night," said Kate.
Sticky started to say that it would be a total solar eclipse in conjunction with unseasonably heavy cloud cover, but Constance interrupted him.
Hugely recommended.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


by Brian Jacques
Star Rating: 3 out of 4
Book 1 in the Redwall series

I have a hyooooge weakness for books centered around sentient animal characters. Watership Down has been one of my favorite books for years. I already reviewed one of the Bunnicula series on this blog, as well as Zoo Story, which was nonfiction but still demonstrated the natural intelligence of many animals. And now, ladeez and germs, I give you yet another animal book, one of the staples of my childhood: Redwall.

Redwall Abbey is a warm, welcoming place of plenty in Mossflower Wood, filled with animals committed to peace. Many of them are members of the abbey's order, though beyond being nice and helping others, not much actual religiosity is evident. The abbey creatures iconically revere their patron, Martin the Warrior, a mouse who in olden days helped free Mossflower from cruel oppression. (That story is chronicled in another book of the series, Mossflower.) All is well at the abbey until the arrival of a famed and feared rat, Cluny the Scourge. Cluny's hoarde lays siege to Redwall in the hopes of conquering it even as one mouse within, Matthias, discovers his own strength in opposing Cluny and unravels ancient clues to his own destiny.

I think as a child I used to skip Jacques' descriptions of nature, sort of how I'd skip parts in Anne of Green Gables when Anne or the narrator would start waxing poetic about birches and purple sunsets. For Anne I think this was exactly the correct approach, but in Redwall, I missed some of Jacques' best work:
The new day dawned in a haze of soft sunlight. It crept across the countryside suddenly to expand and burst forth over all the peaceful woods and meadowland. Blue-gold tinged with pink, each dewdrop turned into a scintillating jewel, spiders' webs became glittering filigree, birdsong rang out as if there had never been a day as fresh and beautiful as this one.
It takes a confident author to use words like "scintillating" and "filigree" in a children's book. He does this throughout, and I found myself smiling in gleeful appreciation when words like "myriad" and "resuscitating" would pop up. Jacques trusts the intelligence of his child readers more than some YA or even adult fiction authors I've read recently, and it elevates the story tremendously. And of course, Jacques is rightly famous for his descriptions of the foods at Redwall feasts. I won't spoil the glories by revealing them here, but be sure to have some snacks handy while you're reading, because he's sure to make you hungry.

So much for the writing - now for the characters! Almost every one is a delight. Jacques depicts Cluny the Scourge in all his tactical brilliance: Cluny intimidates, deceives, infiltrates, manipulates, tunnels, towers, and batters Redwall with a tenacity that would've made knights of the Crusades proud. Every species within Redwall has particular characteristics: Constance the badger is strong and fearless, Jess the squirrel quick and clever, and Foremole the mole is hardworking and speaks in a different dialect ("molespeech"). But by far the crowning character achievement of the book is Basil Stag Hare, an irrepressible hare who ducks and bobs about the book like a cheery old British war veteran:
"Hmm, rats. I knew they'd come eventually, through intelligence on me grapevine, y'knkow. Could feel it in the old ears, too. As for Redwall, I know it well. Excellent type, Abbot Mortimer. Splendid chap. I heard the Joseph Bell tolling out the sanctuary message. Huh, even had some cheeky old hedghog telling me to run for it. Couldn't go, of course. Dear me, no. That'd never do. Chap deserting his post; bit of a bad show, what, what?..."
Framed against the siege is the story of Matthias, a bumbling young novitiate at the beginning of the book who is gradually transformed into a warrior imbued by the spirit of Martin. The book very clearly espouses the ideas of destiny and fate, both for Matthias and for the species in general. Having read many of the Redwall series, I can truthfully say that Jacques recycles character types according to species, and once you know the blueprint, you know the character: hares will be garrolous, otters brawny, and hedgehogs always on the lookout for some rich October ale. All the aforementioned species are also "good" types, while rats, stoats, weasels, ferrets, foxes, and ravens are almost universally "evil". It's a very simplistic moral scheme that led to a problem for me as a reader: it suggests the idea that good and evil are determined by race. This is a premise of the entire series, but in this book takes form particularly in Matthias.

Matthias is clearly destined to be heroic, but as soon as he discovers his intended identity he gets puffed up and self-important. His behavior toward other creatures can be superior and occasionally reprehensible: at one point the abbey captures a sparrow, clearly a sentient creature (though warlike), and Matthias leads the bird around on a collar feeding her candied hazelnuts when she behaves, like he's training a dog. He and his old advisor Methuselah refer to her as a horror and a "little beast," and later another character calls her a "heathen savage". The snobbery is incredibly repugnant, and in my opinion, smacks of old British imperialism. Once upon a time, belief in British superiority/destiny was used as an excuse to conquer and enslave, and Matthias' perspective strays dangerously in that direction. Aside from his dedication to the abbey's credo, sometimes Matthias is not so different from Cluny.

And unfortunately, it's all through the book. At one point an injured fox appears at the abbey, and Abbot Mortimer accepts him into their care, suggesting that all characters are not necessarily prejudiced by race. Of course, the fox then takes advantage of their hospitality, steals a bag of loot, and murders an abbey creature in his escape, which does nothing to improve our opinion about the nature of foxes. Matthias, in the course of his fated quest, comes to appreciate and even befriend sparrows in their diversity. All well and good! Only later he runs into a creature of an unfamiliar species on his travels, whom he tries to bully out of his way with his Very Important Wariorness, and then refers to the whole species as "hooligans". Um. Way to not generalize the lesson there, Matthias.

Being familiar with the series, I know that Jacques follows his mice good, rats bad formula devotedly. In one of the more recent Redwall installments, Taggerung, Jacques' hero is an otter raised by evil rats who maintains his innate goodness and heroism despite his nasty upbringing. (You can guess on which side of the nature vs. nurture debate Jacques falls.) But while the smug undertones of the Redwall universe didn't leave a good taste in my mouth, I will say that the story, plot pacing, and writing all hold up splendidly, and I would recommend the book.

I have one final nitpick: at one point in the book, a mouse prepares a meal with goat cheese. I want to know where the goat is. And who in the world milks it?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Book swag!

Ah... the joys of having $72 worth of trade credit at a local bookstore! (Well, $36 now.)

1) The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson. I read the first one fully expecting to be disappointed, since thrillers really aren't my genre of choice, and ended up staying up until past 3 AM finishing it. I also saw the movie adaptation just yesterday and loved it, I think, even more than the book. So it's definite: I have to read the others so that I can watch the movies. (This is a thing with me. I have to read the book first unless it's one of those Victorian-era tomes with a bajillion characters and settings. I remember being so confused by Sense and Sensibility until I saw the Emma Thompson movie and could finally separate all the Dashwoods and Elliots in my head.)

2) Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres. Most of what I know about this book is taken up by the fact that Nicholas Cage starred in the movie adaptation and he's one of the last actors on my list for Romantic Lead. But it keeps popping up on Best Of lists on the literature quizzes (and if you've never been to before, I apologize for stealing your day away by introducing it to you). I read enough of it to see that the writing's very good, and the story seems interesting, since I'm a sap for romance.

3) The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles. For years now I've thought this book was written by John Knowles, the author of A Separate Peace, a book I read recently because I'd never studied it in high school and then heartily disliked because the foreshadowing was so painfully obvious I understood why no one past high school touches it again. I feel like a dunce. This one's also romantic, I guess. Wasn't planning that trend, but I'll take it!

4) Mattimeo by Brian Jacques. I was a huge Redwall fan as a kid and still adore a couple of them. This one (with the original cover yet! My heart soars!) rounds out my three favorites, along with Salamandastron and Pearls of Lutra. Though I think eventually I'm going to have to get Mariel of Redwall and The Bellmaker too. And Mossflower. And Redwall. And maybe The Long Patrol too. ;-)

5) Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin. I know I read this a decade and a half ago, but I don't remember a bit of it. Still, for some reason I've been trying to slowly build up my library of children's classics over the past year or two. Possibly this is the only way my biological clock can find of manifesting itself.

Friday, January 21, 2011


by Kristin Cashore
Star Rating: 2.5 out of 4

Katsa is the niece of one of the kings of the Seven Kingdoms. Katsa is a Graceling, meaning she has eyes of different colors and a special power or ability; in Katsa's case, her Grace appears to be fighting, given that she inadvertently killed someone when she was little. She's now in her teens and is forced to work for her uncle King Randa, who sends her on missions to terrorize his adversaries with her Grace. Along the way she meets another Graceling, a prince of one of the other kingdoms, and gradually Katsa begins to assert her identity and humanity even while being drawn into a surprising and dangerous conspiracy.

I think comparisons to The Hunger Games are inevitable! Both are set in fantasy universes with stoic, kick-ass teenage heroines, both are rather violent (are we immune to the combination of youth and violence in YA fiction yet?), both have a friend-who-might-become-something-more... weirdly enough, both of them have main characters with the initials K and P (I raise an eyebrow)... and here's the best comparison: both of them have ridiculously compelling stories. Graceling was nearly impossible to put it down once I'd gotten into it. It was really excellently paced and I totally loved the plot.

Katsa is a great character, full of anger and doubts because of the violent lifestyle her Grace has forced her to lead. As the book progresses she begins to develop from her hardness into something fuller and more tender, yet she never seems weaker for it. It's often very pleasant spending time in her head:
She knew her nature. She would recognize it if she came face-to-face with it. It would be a blue-eyed, green-eyed monster, wolflike and snarling. A vicious beast that struck out at friends in uncontrollable anger, a killer that offered itself as the vessel of the king's fury.
But then, it was a strange monster, for beneath its exterior it was frightened and sickened by its own violence. It chastised itself for its savagery. And sometimes it had no heart for violence and rebelled against it utterly.
A monster that refused, sometimes, to behave like a monster. When a monster stopped behaving like a monster, did it stop being a monster? Did it become something else?
So why the 2.5 star rating, you may be asking yourself? Well... it's a nitpick, but one that I take seriously:
This was not the only such courtyard in the castle, but it was the largest, and it was the entrance point for any important residents or visitors. The green floor was kept to such a shine that Katsa could see herself and her horse reflected in its surface. The white walls were made of a stone that sparkled, and they rose so high that she had to crane her neck to find the tops of the turrets above. It was very grand, very impressive. As Randa liked it.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this paragraph. It's an ordinary descriptive passage, hardly worth quoting, and out of context it seems benignly adequate. And that's the problem. It's just adequate. This book has Plot with a capital P! This book has sympathetic, rockin' characters! This book is wow-tastic fantasy goodness! But, and forgive me for damning with faint praise, the writing is... competent. It gets the job done, no doubt - we do indeed come to understand that the floor is shiny - but what's the most cliched way of saying something's really shiny? It's to say that you can see your reflection in it.

Now, there's nothing wrong with using a common phrase... unless it's all you're doing. And unfortunately, Cashore is overwhelmingly unimaginative when it comes to filling in the edges of her creation; she goes for the most predictable and obvious phrases almost all the time. In one emotionally fraught scene she even has a character clutch his hair - and is there anything more dated or melodramatic than hair-clutching? It's not *badly* done, but it's not done *well*, and with such an engaging plot I wanted the language to soar. This is her first novel, which may account for it, and I don't mean to spend more time harping on the iffy points than the good. But I did find that it diminished both the book's quality and my enjoyment of it.

I also started wishing that Cashore had done more world-building. The Graceling phenomenon is fascinating, but where does it come from? Are there gods or goddesses in this fantasy world who grant gifts? Why do all Graceling have different-colored eyes - does a gene mutation cause Graces? There was no explanation for any of it; it was just part of the Plot. Additionally, there would be occasional strategy councils in the story where operatives would present information, and they would just say, "King So-and-so isn't responsible," without any reference to how that information was known to be reliable, or why it was true, or anything. It was put in because it was necessary info and then blown past because we had more Plot to get to. And the Plot was awesome! But the other elements seemed to pay a price for it.

However, I really appreciated that Cashore put her decision to combine youth and violence in great perspective:
How absurd it was that in all seven kingdoms, the weakest and most vulnerable of people - girls, women - went unarmed and were taught nothing of fighting, while the strong were trained to the highest reaches of their skill.
...which I thought an excellently cheeky point.

In any case, this is an engaging and enjoyable read, and I'd recommend it to all who like a rip-roaring good fantasy yarn (as long as you're not nitpicks like me). And I do plan on reading her sequel, Fire, as soon as I can get it from the library, so clearly the Plot was good enough for me despite my objections.  ;-)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Joining a Challenge!

Jamie & co. over at Broke and Bookish ( ) are hosting a wonderful 2011 challenge for non-fiction reading! Non-fiction is one of my newest interests and I've been meaning to read more, so the challenge fits my plans for my reading year perrrrrrfectly. Since this is my first reading challenge I'm going to do it at the easiest level. It's called "Master of Trivial Pursuit" and requires me to read 1-3 books from a bunch of different categories. Here are my tentative challenge picks:

Culture: I have The River of Lost Footsteps by Thant Myint-U out of the library right now - it's a memoir/history of Burma.

Art:  Been meaning to read Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans! Also, any books-about-books I pick up would fall into this category.

Food: No ideas yet - maybe I'll pick up a book about veganism for this one?

Medical: Oxygen by Carol Cassella, a memoir of an anesthesiologist coping with losing a patient

Travel:  Hmmm - think Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer would count for this? Or is that more Culture? Maybe I'll try a Bill Bryson too.

Memoir/Biography: Oh geez, there are way too many choices for this one. Though The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann is waving at me. Ooh, and I have the new George Washington biography on hold too!

Money: This is going to be the toughest one for me to find... maybe Freakonomics?

Science/Nature: I could read another Gerald Durrell!! *happy dance*

History: Columbine by Dave Cullen, and I'm sure I'll pick up another David McCullough soon too.

There's the list!! I'm excited. Any suggestions for others?

The Problem Child

by Michael Buckley
Star Rating: 3 out of 4
Book 3 in The Sisters Grimm series

I'm kind of on a zombie rampage for these now. Must... have... more...

Unfortunately, I don't think there's any way for me to continue reviewing them in any comprehensive way without letting loose some spoilers. Interesting issue in blogging, one that I hadn't thought of before I started: how much detail is too much? What information ruins a book versus whetting a reader's appetite? It's all very compex. I'm going to try to walk the fine line between not saying anything and saying too much, because I'm really loving these books and want to do them justice.

Sabrina and Daphne have discovered who's holding their parents captive: it's Little Red Riding Hood, fanatically deranged from her experience with the Big Bad Wolf and losing her grandmother. And she's not alone: Little Red has conscripted the help of the monstrous Jabberwocky (which she insists on calling "Kitty" - shades of Monsters Inc, only much less cute). The Jabberwocky can only be killed with the mythic Vorpal blade, thought to have been destroyed years ago. The Grimm sisters must try to defeat the monster and the girl in order to get their parents back, and must also cope with the sudden appearance of a family member they never knew they had.

I absolutely adore Buckley and his sympathy for his characters. This book delves into the Grimm family's immediate history, and we learn a lot more about why Sabrina and Daphne's parents decided to raise them not knowing about Everafters, and why Granny is so reluctant to teach them even now. The irritating yet lovable Puck has to choose between his villainous reputation as King of the Tricksters or whether to continue toward heroism by helping the Grimms. Even Little Red has her reasons for taking the Grimm's parents away: having brutally lost her own family, she's trying to create one for herself. It's immensely satisfying to see an "evil" character portrayed three-dimensionally, and her insanity is understood to be underlied with motivations that inspire pathos.

Sabrina's as hardassed as ever (on a passing note, it's awesome to me to see Buckley make her so flawed yet still sympathetic):
"That's not going to happen," the old woman said, as she pulled the covers over the girls. "Nothing bad is going to happen to me."
"Can you guarantee that?" Sabrina said. "Because if you can't, the two of us would be left alone in this town, and you saw how angry everyone got at the school. If something did happen to you, would the two of us be able to protect ourselves?"
Harsh. But a very valid point, and I like that Sabrina makes it. Most Everafters are far more powerful than humans, and they aren't pleased with the Grimms for having trapped them. Protecting Sabrina and Daphne is kind, but in the long run, teaching them to protect themselves might be a greater kindness. Both the girls understand this and begin to take steps to guard themselves: Daphne enrolls in Snow White's self-defense class, while Sabrina tries to teach herself magic.

The problem comes with magic. In this universe, magic is a dangerous thing for those not intrinsically touched with it; it can be addictive, both because of its power and because of the temptation to use it all the time rather than solving things a more resourceful way. Over the course of the book, it's revealed that the easy way may not always be the best way, that power not just addicts but corrupts, and that the use of magic always comes with a cost. Sadly, I'm making it sound much more preachy than it is - Buckley weaves the morality in with deft ease.

These would be great books to read and discuss with one's kids. I'm really looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Unusual Suspects

by Michael Buckley
Star Rating: 3 out of 4
Book 2 of The Sisters Grimm series

The Sisters Grimm is on its way to being one of my favorite fantasy series ever. It's absolutely delightful. Every time a new fairy-tale character appears, I get a thrill of gleeful recognition and anticipation. There are so many fairy tale characters to use, too - endless possibilities! There are currently eight books and I think I'm going to have to read them all very soon.

In this installment, Sabrina and Daphne Grimm must start going to school. The girls, particularly Sabrina, have delayed this dreaded event for several weeks already, though as it arrives Sabrina reaches an excellent perspective on the matter (slight spoilers in the quote if you haven't read the first book):
Despite her delay tactics, Sabrina was actually looking forward to her first day of the sixth grade. School offered her something that Granny Relda's house didn't - normal people. She would be surrounded by dull teachers and glassy-eyed kids, watching the clock tick slowly, and she would be as happy as a pig in mud. When you lived with a flying boy and the Big Bad Wolf, a little boredom was welcome.
However welcome boredom might be, it doesn't appear in this volume. Sabrina's first day at school is grueling - Daphne, who has Snow White as her teacher, fares far better - especially when the day ends with the discovery of her teacher's dead body, apparently killed by an Everafter. It's up to Granny and the girls to solve the mystery, which gets deeper and thicker the farther they go.

This volume raised the issue of the appropriateness of violence and danger in children's lit for me. How much is too much? How scary is too scary? Granted, this book is nowhere near Harry Potter 7 or Hunger Games levels, but Sabrina and Daphne are only 11 and 7 respectively, so a little goes a long way. Still, I must admit, it made for a great adventure.

This book also incorporates a dark theme into the mix: bigotry. (Slight spoilers from Book 1 for the rest of the paragraph, but I don't think they can be avoided if I'm going to talk about the rest of the books in the series.) Ever since the girls found out that their parents are being held captive by a terrorist Everafter group, Sabrina, ever tough and increasingly angry, begins to develop a prejudice against all of them. At times, Sabrina really becomes quite ugly:
"Liebling, Everafters are people." Granny said, setting down her knife. "They have families and homes and dreams."
"And murderous plots, kidnapping schemes, and plans to destroy the town."
"You don't really believe they are all bad, do you? What about Snow White and the sheriff?"
"They're Everafters. We just haven't discovered what they're really up to yet."
Though Granny and others are quite clear through the story why Sabrina is wrong, Buckley makes a good case for Sabrina's side too. Her anger is wrongly generalized, it's true, but the book is sympathetic toward her reasons and the struggle she's been through thus far. It's a wonderfully nuanced depiction of that old adage to hate the sin but love the sinner; her troubles are real, and though her method of coping with them is unacceptable (Daphne refuses to speak to her at points), it's clear to see how she came to think and say the things she does. Sabrina is sometimes tough to like in this book, but neither she nor anyone else is a caricature.

In fact, one of the things I love most about these books is that the Everafters are three-dimensional. It'd be incredibly easy to pigeonhole each character into just what they were in their fairy tales, but Buckley, having created a world in which these people have lived for hundreds of years, gives them their defining traits but also allows them to grow. Each one is a brilliant and unique rendition. And even with the darker themes of this installment, Buckley keeps the funny coming:
"What's he doing?" Sabrina asked.
"Meditative yoga," Granny replied, as if this were the natural response. "It's helping him remain centered and calm. Keeps the dark stuff at bay."
Of course, the Big Bad Wolf does yoga, Sabrina thought. Why did I even bother to ask?
...and now, I'm off to read the third one! :-D