Sunday, February 27, 2011

Mini-Reviews

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

Columbine

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

Redwall

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 sporcle.com literature quizzes (and if you've never been to sporcle.com 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

Graceling

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 ( http://brokeandbookish.blogspot.com/ ) 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

Paper Towns

by John Green
Star Rating: 2.5 out of 4

Man. That was a hard star rating to decide. This book fell squarely into the debate I regularly hold with myself between judging something because I Don't Like It and because It's Poorly Done. After consideration, I've concluded it's not poorly done - in fact, I think it's done rather well for the most part. The problem for me is, all of the book's central characters are teenagers coming up on their high school graduation, and I find high schoolers teeth-gratingly annoying. (Perhaps this is why I haven't read much YA up until now.) So I'm giving the book my highest possible starring without implying I like it.

The central character, Quentin Jacobson, has had a crush on his neighbor Margo since they were nine years old and discovered a dead body together. She's popular at school and he's not, so they haven't communicated much for years (eye roll - if you want to talk to someone, just talk to them!), but one night she shows up at his window and convinces him to drive her around to various schoolmates' houses helping her take her revenge on them. Soon afterwards she disappears, which she's done often before. (Margo, we are to understand, is a Free Spirit.) Usually Margo leaves clues on where she can be found, so besotted Quentin sets out to try to find her this time.

Green does a great job recreating the mentality of an 18-year-old boy. (Sample dialogue: "I decided during government that I would actually, literally suck donkey balls if it meant I could skip that class for the rest of the semester.") The writing is straightforward to the point of being simplistic, often funny depending on one's sense of humor, and almost unremittingly centered around testicles. It's a quick read because of that, which isn't a bad thing - again, depending on one's perspective.

Quentin is quite likable as a character, as is his friend Radar (so nicknamed for the M*A*S*H character, only he's black and wears contacts now), but unfortunately I couldn't dredge up much sympathy for Margo. Margo pulls pranks, sets out for petty revenge, and screws with people's heads on a regular basis with impunity. The entire book is basically Margo screwing with everyone, and the ending does very little to relieve her of responsibility for that. In fact, though I hate to say it, I found the ending sadly preachy for a book so real and down-to-earth the rest of the time.

Over the course of his investigation, Quentin uses Margo's marked copy of Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" to try to discover facts about her, and in so doing he gradually teaches himself empathy, the art of putting oneself in someone else's place to see from their perspective. It's a lovely use of Whitman, though maybe laid on a little thick for the benefit of a teenaged audience. The mystery part of the story is just well-developed enough to keep Quentin running around in circles and almost unhealthily obsessed. The book contains plenty about video games, school bullies, teenaged parties, and THE PROM, but it's so much more when it's about Quentin's self-journey that at times Margo almost becomes a MacGuffin - an element that drives the plot but isn't important on its own merit.

Is this an accurate portrait of high school teenagerhood? Honestly, I have no idea, because my teenage years weren't anything like this. I was homeschooled - actually went to an online school for high school. We didn't talk like this. We didn't think like this. We didn't behave like this. Online schools have no pecking order - there was no popular clique, no band kids, no bullying, no social stratification of any kind. As I recall, many of my conversations revolved around the Nature of the Universe. We were heady teens, like mini-adults with a few extra hormones. So I think I just Do Not Get the "typical" high school experience, and unlike many other things I read about that I similarly haven't experienced, I'm not able to empathize with it. I'll have to ponder why that is. My gut reaction is to say it's because teenagers are annoying and high school popularity contests are interesting to no one but the participants, but I'm sure there's more to it than that.  ;-)

Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives

by Thomas French
Star Rating: 4 out of 4

If you like animals and zoos as much as I do, this book will be a treat for you. French, a Pulizter-winning journalist, spent six years researching the Tampa Lowry Park Zoo and delves deeply into its characters, both human and non, and the daily operations of a zoo, and then frames them in terms of the larger debate about the morality of holding animals in captivity. It's chock-full of fascinating tidbits about animal behavior and biology. For instance, did you know that elephant urine is so corrosive it can eat through metal? I didn't! I shared this factoid with my housemate, but he didn't seem to appreciate the addition to his knowledge... but oh well. I think that kind of thing's awesome.  :-D

The descriptions of animal intelligence were staggering to me. Orangutans, it turns out, are great tool-makers and -users, as well as engineers: "One orang used a wire to pick a lock, and another used a piece of cardboard to dislodge a security pin that held the doors of his cage closed... 'Orangutans,' Linden writes, 'have made insulating gloves out of straw in order to climb over electrified fences.'" Elephants, it turns out, are equally if not more intelligent, using one another's bodies as battering rams against electric fences. But it was this description that really got to me: more than intelligent, these animals are compassionate.
After years of observing the species inside the park, the staff knew that elephants - unlike most animals - were aware of death and were drawn to the remains of their kin, sometimes burying them in branches and grass. Some researchers even believed that elephants could identify the fallen body of a cow or bull they had known in life. Once, after a cull in Uganda, park rangers had stored severed feet and other body parts of the fallen inside a shed. That night, other elephants pushed their way into the shed and then buried the body parts.
But the debate over zoos is inescapable. French is admirably even-handed in his attention to both sides of that debate, though he clearly feels anger and regret over humanity's contribution to the extinction of countless plant and animal species. Given the demonstrable intelligence and sophistication of many of these species, is it viable to entrap them in an artificial, enclosed environment where they won't learn or practice the skills of their species? Even with good intent, is putting them on display ethical? It's a sobering debate:
All zoos, even the most enlightened, are built upon an idea both beguiling and repellent - the notion that we can seek out the wildness of the world and behold its beauty, but that we must first contain that wildness. Zoos argue that they are fighting for the conservation of the Earth, that they educate the public and provide refuge and support for vanishing species. And they are right. Animal-rights groups argue that zoos traffic in living creatures, exploiting them for financial gain and amusement. And they are right.
French also makes a subjective point: who among us, upon visiting a zoo, hasn't felt a sense of sadness blended in with our excitement and awe? Beautiful as it is, important as conservation and education are, there's something that feels wrong about it. Yann Martel in his Life of Pi made wonderful points in favor of zoos, including that zoo animals no longer have to fear predation, drought, illness, or humans' indifference. But possibly we have something to fear - our own urge to dominate and control.

It's hard not to feel repelled by some of the descriptions of human behavior at zoos; people can be damn fools when it comes to treating animals with respect, or even taking proper care of their own interests. French relates several zoo horror stories involving human deaths because of negligence, ignorance, or outright stupidity. However, he also does a wonderful job of presenting the zoo keepers with all their love and care toward the animals. There's a hilarious division among the keepers between bunnyhuggers (the type who'll nickname and baby-talk animals) and non-bunnyhuggers (who tend to be the ones working with frogs, snakes, tarantulas, and other less cuddly charges). Some of the bunnyhuggers even go so far as to name the animals along a Star Wars theme:
One of the young howler monkeys had been christened Anakin, as in Anakin Skywalker, which was Darth Vader's name before he grew up and went to the dark side. The name made sense, because howler monkeys are born with tan fur and then turn black as they mature. It was an inside joke. A keeper thing.
As interesting as the human characters are, for me, the best part of the book dealt with the animals at the zoo. There are unforgettable characters here: Ellie, the first-time pregnant elephant; Enshalla, a beautiful but very nasty Sumatran tiger who dominates all the male tigers that're brought in to mate with her; and Herman, the alpha chimpanzee, who's kind to his fellow chimps and has a serious weakness for human blondes.
Like many of the animals at Lowry Park, most of the chimps disliked the veterinarian because they associated him with the sting of a tranquilizer dart and other indignities required for their medical care. One day, Murphy appeared in the chimp night house with a tranquilizer gun so he could attend to Herman. Murphy was a good shot and almost never missed. But this time, his aim was off. The other chimps would have run and hid. Herman just picked up the dart, walked over to the mesh, and handed it back to Murphy so he could try again.
I feel like I've quoted enough from this book to merit a copyright infringement lawsuit and still not gotten to half the good stuff! All I can say is, it's really wonderful.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Fairy-Tale Detectives

by Michael Buckley
Star Rating: 3 out of 4
Book 1 in The Sisters Grimm series

Sabrina and Daphne Grimm are orphans who, after a failed string of foster homes, are being shuttled off to their grandmother's house in a remote village. There's only one problem: before they disappeared, their parents told them that their grandmother was dead. The woman who comes to pick them up from the train station, Granny Grimm, is cuddly-looking enough, and Daphne, who's 7, likes her immediately. But Sabrina is 11 and feels she bears the mantle of responsibility for the two sisters; after so many horrible experience with other foster families, she doesn't trust "Granny" one bit.

This suspicion doesn't dim upon seeing Granny's house - it's a sweet little nook, but it borders a dark forest and has a dozen locks on the front door. Books about the house bear strange titles like "365 Ways to Cook a Dragon", and the spaghetti noodles they're served for dinner are, well, black. After that, Sabrina has had enough of crazy and decides they'll escape that night, only to discover that the forest is inhabited by... pixies??

I really enjoyed this book. It's written for a younger audience and rather reminiscent of the first Harry Potter book in that way, only instead of creating a new magical world, Buckley reinvents the magic of folk and fairy tales. The book is chock-full of magical creatures from legend: fairies, giants, magic mirrors, flying carpets, and many, many more. Granny, who (slight spoiler!) turns out to be legit, explains to the girls that the fairy creatures call themselves Everafters and are trapped in the town by an ancient bargain with Wilhelm Grimm, a Grimm Brother and their own ancestor: as long as a Grimm lives in Ferryport Landing, all the Everafters are kept there too. Granny acts as town detective by investigating strange occurrences, and before the girls are even settled, there's a mystery a-brewing.

It's really a brilliant cast of supporting characters - I don't want to say too much for fear of revealing all the fun! - but Buckley draws from fantasy both old and new. After Granny and her sidekick Mr. Canis (three guesses as to which Everafter he is, Latin-lovers!) are captured by a rampaging giant, Sabrina and Daphne - and Granny's intelligent Great Dane, Elvis - must figure out a way to rescue them and solve the mystery. The girls are aided, and in Sabrina's case, irritated by a young rogue they meet in the woods named...can you guess?... Puck. (The girls don't recognize the name, Sabrina having only gotten to Romeo and Juliet in school.)

Both the girls are smart and courageous, though in different ways: Sabrina is tough and wary, while Daphne is open-minded and good at creating bonds. They're wonderfully realistic as sisters. I particularly loved Sabrina's character because Buckley is so sympathetic toward her:
"How was I supposed to know?" Sabrina cried. "Anybody would have thought she was crazy!"
"I didn't," Daphne said, finally breaking her silence.
"You don't count. You believe everything," Sabrina argued.
"And you don't believe in anything," the little girl snapped. "Why are we even talking? You don't care what I think, anyway."
"That's not true!" Sabrina said, but before the words had left her mouth she knew they were a lie. What Daphne thought hadn't mattered in a long, long time, at least not since their parents had deserted them. But it wasn't like Sabrina wanted it that way. She was only eleven and didn't want to have to make all the decisions for both of them. She would love to feel like a kid and not have to worry about whether they were safe. But that wasn't how things were.
Buckley's writing is often very funny, and the story moves along at a great pace. It's a treat to read, never knowing which fun character might show up on the next page, and there are clear through lines set up in this first book for the rest of the series. All in all, I thought it was fantastic, and I'll definitely be picking up the next one at the library soon!

(On a random note: what is it with orphans in children's books? I can probably list ten books off the top of my head featuring them... there should be a subset of children's lit studies devoted to orphan tales!)

The Witch of Exmoor

by Margaret Drabble
Star Rating: DNF

I'm not very good at putting books down once I've gotten into them, which is why I've begun to set myself a 100-page limit. If the book hasn't grabbed me by then I stop reading, but typically something catches before that mark (though Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo didn't nab me until exactly page 100). I had trouble with this book because more than not nabbing me, it was actively irritating me up until about page 92. Then I thought, ooooh, it's improving, just hang on!

Well, I made it to page 150. And now I'm done. Those pages of the book can best be summed up by one of those political cartoons: a dog has had an accident in the house and is being punished by the dog owner (Drabble) gleefully pushing the dog (the reader) toward the pile of doody, which is captioned "The Prententions of the British Middle Class."

The Witch of Exmoor is a story of a family, the Palmers, who've risen to the British middle class and are lucky enough to enjoy great privilege. The three adult children are all married and have children, and their main concern is their mother, Frieda, who's recently sold the family house in favor of a damp, ramshackle castle on the edge of the sea and moved in there with every intention of becoming a hermit. (In my mind, if the family can afford to buy a castle, they ain't middle class. But maybe it's different for Brits.) Is Frieda senile - or worse, mad?

These characters are snobbish and unpleasant. At the beginning of the book, one of them brings up the question: if you could change society while uncertain of your own role in it (meaning you could conceivably end up at the bottom of the pack), would you?
'You could decide,' continues David, 'that a small contingent of the very poor are necessary for the proper functioning of society, and that it would just be bad luck - a sort of social sacrifice - if you ended up as one of them. It would be quite hard to argue, I think, that a numerically overwhelming mass of the very poor can constitute a just society, but it certainly has been argued.'
('Not to say practised,' murmurs Emily.)
I'm hardly someone who should object to parenthetical asides - I don't think I've written a single review yet that hasn't had one or two - but except for this instance in which she uses a character to comment, Drabble-as-narrator castigates her characters herself. She writes often in direct address, wanting to know whether you noticed this thing? You did? Of course you did. Yes, you're quite right in your low opinion. Here's some other tidbit of icky information. I grant that it's an effective trick; Drabble begins by describing the *type* of person each character is rather than describing the character, thereby pulling all the reader's own prejudices against that type into play. But when she's still doing it pages and pages later, it just feels like she's being a nasty gossip.

The "would you create a different society if you could?" question recurs throughout the first 150 pages. It's a fascinating question. The problem is, none of the characters ever go further than asking it. The book shifts to follow each of the characters, and each one in turn muses, "Hm, would I?" (and typically decides, "No") without any deeper reflection on the topic. The point, that they're snooty middle class folks who don't want to lose their status, is crystal clear anyway - was it necessary to have them each repeat the question over and over with no further development?

Things get even more heavyhanded when Drabble introduces the metaphor of disease and pollution for middle-class snobbery. Frieda, at her last family dinner, serves hamburgers made of mostly gristle to her family (as a symbol of their own pretentions to being something better than they are); later, when family members have been sent to assess the castle situation, this comes out:
David wondered if he could forgive Frieda for dispatching him to the abattoir and the chicken gutters. The stench and tumbled carcasses remained with him. That had been what she intended. The scrappy raw-pecked self-abusing fowl and stunned curly-headed bullocks haunted him, as did the pale girls in bloody overalls, the young men with dull eyes. The human factory farm. Pig skin, chopped gizzards, mechanically recovered meat. Cheap and nasty food for cheap people.
It's intensely unpleasant reading about characters who think things like that. And they think it, if not all the time, at least every few pages. But it's just that the metaphor is so obvious. One character even muses outright, "AIDS and leprosy, status and vanity." Truly, Ms. Drabble, we get the point. Please put the sledgehammer down.

Can I be mad that her plan worked? No - she means these characters to be repulsive, and they are. It's clear she's an excellent writer, too, if just from the quote above. I thought the book started getting better as I read past page 100, sort of similar to Muriel Spark's caustic style (though lacking her humor), but by then I was too burned out investing in characters who weren't bringing me anything in return to carry on. My problem is that all the points she's making are clumsily done. In my mind, satire and metaphor are scalpels, not bludgeons. If I wanted to read something that spelled itself out for me, I'd pick up my oven's owner manual.

Bunnicula Meets Edgar Allen Crow

by James Howe
Star Rating: 3 out of 4
Book 7 in the Bunnicula series

 
The Bunnicula series for childen is utterly delightful. It combines the Gothic mystery of the Goosebumps, wonderful animal protagonists, and a zany hilarity Roald Dahl would've been proud of. I kid you not: almost every single paragraph of the book is funny. We had the first five in the series on our shelves growing up, and I reread them often because they're just so darn likable.

 
Bunnicula Meets Edgar Allan Crow is, I believe, the last in the series. The books follow the adventures of the pets of the Monroe family and are narrated by Harold, a large longsuffering dog who really just wants to nap, eat, and be comfortable. Howie, a dachshund puppy, is overenthusiastic, has a vivid imagination, and is really not too bright, and of course there's Bunnicula the rabbit, who just sleeps, mostly - and then there's Chester. Chester is a cat. Worse, Chester is a cat who reads and has the bad habit of leaping to paranoid conclusions based on what he reads. He's neurotic and high-strung, and together they're all utterly hilarious:
Chester shook his head. "I fail to understand Howie's obsession with chasing birds," he said.
[Harold] sighed. "It must be part of his job."
"Well," said Chester, "one of these days his 'job' is going to get him into a heap of trouble. Crows are not to be messed with, my friend. They're nefarious. Just look at that one."
Yawning, I glanced at the crow on the envelope to see what all the fuss was about. What I saw was a crow. On an envelope. I didn't think it looked particularly nefarious. Of course, I had no idea what "nefarious" meant.
Chester usually finds something to become paranoid about and drags Harold and Howie into his conspiracy theories. Howie is eager, but Chester has to force sensible Harold into it by sitting on Harold's head and pawing his eyeballs to wake him up. Chester, as a character, is pure cat; Howe even includes the wonderful cat-trick of tail-licking in order to cover up embarrassment (cat owners will recognize this trait with a chuckle).

 
In this book, one of Monroe sons, Pete, wins a competition to have his favorite mystery author come speak at his school. The author arrives at their house to stay, dressed in a sinister black cloak and accompanied by his pet, a crow.
Chester's eyes met mine. "The crow is coming," he murmured. "The crow is coming, Harold. Do you know what that means?"
"Um, it means... we'll be having corn for dinner?"
"No, Harold. It does not mean we'll be having corn for dinner. It means we're doomed. That's what it means."
"Oh," I said. "Well, that's a relief. Corn gets stuck in my teeth."
(One can hardly blame poor Harold for not keeping up with Chester 100% of the time. He's a dog, after all, and therefore the last to spot a conspiracy. But he's the first to scent out bacon.)

 
Chester becomes convinced that the author and his "evil" crow are out to steal Bunnicula. At one point, Chester even surmises that they may try to turn Bunnicula into a bat. (Chester really reads too much.) Harold is properly skeptical - until both Edgar Allan Crow and Bunnicula disappear the next morning. I won't reveal any more of the plot, except to say that it's right in keeping with what I expected and a perfectly satisfactory addition to the Bunnicula ranks.

 
The Bunnicula books are wonderfully engaging fluff, and they aren't long at all - this one took me maybe an hour to read. I guarantee it'll be an hour of hearty amusement.
"And what about that crow of his?" [Chester] ranted. "Do we think it's a coincidence that he's named for Edgar Allan Poe?"
"Who?" I asked.
"Edgar Allan Poe, the greatest writer of horror fiction of all time. Poe also wrote poems. Surely you have heard of his poem 'The Raven.'"
Before I could ask him why he was calling me Shirley, Chester narrowed his eyes and launched into a throaty recitation...
"I like the part about napping," I told him. "And the tapping part reminds me of a certain someone who has a problem with a certain other someone getting his minimum daily requirement of sleep. But I can't say I really see your point."
"My point," Chester snapped, "is that in the poem the visitor on the other side of the door is a raven, Harold! Which is more or less a crow. And the raven has only one thing to say."
"Corn?" I conjectured.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Killer Angels

by Michael Shaara
Star Rating: 3 out of 4

This book justifies that wonderfully cliched old reviewing phrase - compulsively readable.

The Killer Angels is the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelization of the greatest battle of the Civil War: Gettysburg. The novel follows the stories of several generals and colonels on both sides; in my edition, the ranks and relationships of the primary characters were summarized at the beginning, which was very helpful to refer to until I'd gotten them all straight in my head. The book begins with the armies moving around each other only to eventually converge on Gettysburg, until then a small Pennsylvania town of no consequence, for the three days of battle. It's an excellent look at tactics (or lack thereof), the stress of command, and the mentalities of the men who lived at that time. Knowing the outcome from history classes doesn't diminish the force of the conclusion; my heart ached for my favorite characters and I found myself almost wishing things had turned out differently for them.

My favorites of the bunch were the Confederate General Longstreet, who was Robert E. Lee's second in command, and Union Colonel Chamberlain, who was the first on the scene at Gettysburg and secured the high ground (and thus the advantage) for the North. Longstreet spends much of the novel advising Lee to pursue a defensive strategy by circling behind the Union army; his recommendations are heard but dismissed for more offensive attacks. It's impossible not to imagine how Gettysburg might have ended differently had Longstreet been in charge; still, Lee is endlessly sympathetic in the book, being ill and exhausted and yet so quietly reassuring to his men. Chamberlain, on the other side, has the unenviable position of holding the high ground against the first attack until reinforcements arrive, holding the leftmost flank against a charge wherein he is outnumbered at least ten to one, and, on being relieved of the left flank as a reward, ends up smack dab in the middle of the final Rebel assault. Seriously. This poor dude.

Though I appreciated that the novel paid particular attention to strategy and deployments - the novel is interspersed with dead-useful maps detailing troop positions and movements at various times during the three days - at a certain point I began to think that telling the novel solely through the eyes of command staff was limiting. The commanders typically issued orders to their troops and sat back to watch the result, which means for the first half of the book, there's no one to really express the horror of the battlefield or the gravity of losses on both sides. The generals think in terms of regiments, not lives; there was no perspective from ON the battlefield. It just didn't have the gristle I was wanting, nor the immediacy. But then the second half of the book happened, and I changed my mind.  ;)

As it went on, I thought the book did a better job of weaving in the experience of the common soldier. In this quote, Colonel Chamberlain is walking among his men before a battle:
Jim and Bill Merrill, two brothers, were standing next to a sapling. Chamberlain frowned.
"Boys, why aren't you dug in?"
Jim, the older, grinned widely, tightly, scared but proud.
"Sir, I can't shoot worth a damn lying down. Never could. Nor Bill either. Like to fight standin', with the Colonel's permission."
"Then I suggest you find a thicker tree."
He moved on. Private George Washington Buck, former sergeant, had a place to himself, wedged between two rocks. His face was cold and grey. Chamberlain asked him how it was going. Buck said, "Keep an eye on me, sir. I'm about to get them stripes back."
I do have a quibble with the writing style, however, and it was irksome enough to me to bring the book's rating from a 3.5 down to the 3. Shaara doesn't distinguish between the inner thought patterns of his characters, and thus they all sound the same. This mightn't be a problem for me, except they're all so distinctly and annoyingly similar (this is Chamberlain, but could be any of them):
Don't like to wait. Let's get on, get on. But his mind said cheerily, coldly: Be patient, friend, be patient. You are not leaving here... My, how the mind does chatter at times like this. Stop thinking. Depart in a chariot of fire. I suppose it's possible. That He is waiting. Well. May well find out.
It makes. It sound. Like all the generals. Are suffering. From sunstroke.

Despite this, even if you're not interested in the military or war novels, this book is worth the read. I emerged from it with a much better picture in my mind of how the Civil War was perceived at the time by both sides (it's amusing to switch from one side to the other: the Rebels are constantly pouting that the North is making a war over states' rights into a conflict over slavery, while the Union are all over there not really thinking about slavery at all. Oops). I found all the main characters interesting and sympathetic, and the final section of the book, in which Shaara writes up short summaries of what happened to each officer after Gettysburg, was very welcome, and even heartwarming. I'll leave it at that with one final quotation:
Chamberlain closed his eyes and saw it again. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. No book or music would have that beauty. He did not understand it: a mile of men flowing slowly, steadily, inevitably up the long green ground, dying all the while, coming to kill you, and the shell bursts appearing above them like instant white flowers, and the flags all tipping and fluttering, and dimly you could hear the music and the drums, and then you could hear the officers screaming, and yet even above your own fear came the sensation of unspeakable beauty.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie


by Alan Bradley
Star Rating: 2 out of 4

I feel kind of bad that I didn't much like this book. My mom recommended it to me because she really loved the main character and the use of chemistry. Now, I am not a chemistry person. I'm not even generally a mystery person; the only series I'll pick up voluntarily are Simenon's Maigrets and Peters' Brother Cadfaels. I've read several Agatha Christies and don't feel much compelled to read any more, and I struck out terribly on Lord Peter Wimsey, though I'm determined to give him another try someday. So I think this book simply wasn't my cup of java.

The main character is 11-year-old Flavia de Luce (in passing - what a name! It rivals Benedict Cumberbatch for pure naminess), a curious and precocious young lady with a great talent and fascination for chemistry. She lives with her two older sisters (Ophelia and Daphne...ouch) and her father, the former of whom tie Flavia up and lock her in closets for fun. (Being the youngest of three daughters myself, I can slightly empathize with Flavia's daily hardships, though I was only ever tied to a pole in the basement and burned at the stake, and it was all in good fun.) Things begin to accelerate when a dead bird with a stamp in its mouth is left on the front doorstep and the next day a dead body is discovered in the garden. Flavia's father is arrested on suspicion of murder, and Flavia, being Flavia and therefore almost impossibly precocious, decides to solve things.

Making an 11-year-old your main character clearly has its pitfalls. Flavia is alternately brilliant or dense as the story requires, and while that's probably reasonable... maybe... it's never clear to me whether this is all done by design or whether the author simply needed the innocence of a child to cover up his deficiencies at creating a compelling mystery. Was I the only one who guessed the murderer the same page that s/he appeared? I can't have been. It was too obvious. And yes, I do realize that just about every mystery plot has been exhausted by now... but simple Economy of Characters makes it clear. Couldn't Bradley have thrown in one or two skulky bystanders with scars and limps to broaden the field?

The only unpredictability as far as I could see was the chemistry element, but even that employed the old Sherlock Holmes trick, where of course Holmes will solve it when you can't because Holmes has some sneaky bit of esoteric knowledge to whip out of his deerstalker. Flavia smells a particular scent on the murdered man's breath just before he passes to the great beyond (he also utters the Latin word "Vale," which seems a rather natural thing to say upon dying to me if you, um, know Latin), but of course she doesn't identify it until late in the book. We poor suckers aren't even told what it smelled like in order to do a surreptitious Google search. Pooh, I say.

The thing is, I didn't find Flavia very interesting to spend time with. For a girl so imaginative when it comes to thinking up revenges against her nasty sisters, I found her thinking style (and hence the writing) awfully dull. She's very lively when it comes to interactions with other characters though, especially the police inspector in charge of the case, who's wonderfully world-weary and an excellent balance for Flavia's exuberance. Still, by the end of the book I was so annoyed with her that I started skipping paragraphs until the action started up again; my conscience smote me after a day or two and I went back and read them, only to discover I'd missed absolutely nothing. My favorite portion of the novel comes around the middle, where Flavia bikes to the prison where her father is being held and he tells her his story, mostly because a) the story is interesting, and b) it's not Flavia.

I am judgmental. I hang my head. I have to make great effort to differentiate between when I don't like a book and when the book's actually bad, and because I'm thinking it's the former, I'm giving Sweetness 2 out of 4 out of fairness. I don't think it's a bad book, but neither Flavia nor the mystery worked for me.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret

by Judy Blume
Star Rating: 0 out of 4

I LOATHE THIS BOOK.

A while ago I went on a children/YA book kick, trying to catch up on all the well-known and -loved stories I'd somehow missed. Overall, it was a positive experience; I read some I loved, some I liked, and some I was nyeh on but appreciated that they were surely wonderful in their time. But none that I actually hated. That is, until this one. Because as I was settling into bed early that night, I picked up Are you there, God? It's me, Margaret. I'd only meant to read a few chapters before slipping away into snoozeland, but once the horror began I couldn't stop until I'd seen it to the gory end.

This book is about three things. They are, in order of importance:

1) Religion,
2) Puberty, and
3) Peer pressure.

Plot synopsis: girl moves to new town and immediately is made a member of a "secret club" with 3 other girls who go to her new school. The function of this club is to chat about growing breasts, starting periods, and cute boys, because clearly 12-year-old girls have nothing more interesting to talk about. Don't get me wrong - I'm sure I talked about these things when I was 12 too - but I also talked about books and movies and nature and future plans, and so did all of my friends. There's absolutely no reason to paint so narrow a picture of tweenhood, unless...

a) You actually subscribe to the ridiculous idea that this IS all 12-year-old girls think/talk about -- in which case, you should not be writing a book for 12-year-old girls, because we don't want them similarly deluded
OR
b) you are writing a MESSAGE book and this is part of the important MESSAGE -- in which case, barf.

This secret club also exerts a good deal of peer pressure on our young, stupid heroine, but by the end of the book she comes to realize that you can't believe everything you hear. How does she realize this? Because she insults the girl in class who's already developed breasts - clearly a heinous offense, despite all four of the other girls yearning after their own - and learns from Boob-Girl's reaction that she may have been wrong all along to judge her based on her rack. What a poignant lesson. What tolerance. I'm drowning in obvious here. But the entire book is this way - painfully obvious, preachy, and patronizing to the intelligence of YA readers everywhere. Maybe it could've been saved with a strong central character, but Margaret isn't sympathetic. She's whiny and trite and - I'll say it - plain dumb.

Then there's the religion. The girl's father was raised Jewish and the mother Christian, and both of them no longer subscribe to their religions, so they've decided to raise little Margaret without one. Yet she has to do a year-long project for school, so she decides to research religion as her theme. She goes around to alllllll the synagogues and churches she can find, only she's so unbelievably obtuse she can't perceive any difference between all of them, but the music sure is pretty. Enter Theme: All Religions Are Really The Same At Heart, So Why Can't We All Get Along? (This goes right along with the theme of Don't Judge People For Their Boobs.)

And anyway, Margaret prefers to pray to God her own way, by sending up pitiful little missives for him to pretty-please-with-syrup-on-top make her iddle-widdle breasts grow big and strong. The book culminates with a showdown with both sets of grandparents showing up and ruining Margaret's life by trying to force her into their particular religion. Finally, she can stand it no more -- she shouts that she just won't be ANY religion. Oh, the humanity. The wailing and tearing of hair. Observe my sobs.

The worst part of it is, when I railed to my housemate about it the next morning, he shrugged at me and opined that the book probably wasn't so far off the "normal" 12-year-old experience. I, he reminded me, cannot look to my own upbringing as an example of what most kids go through. And he's right, I can't. (I was homeschooled.) But what BS! What if some poor kid takes it as how things are supposed to be, that this is the right of it all, and so ladens herself with all these idiotic pressures and perspectives about what's "normal"? What's "normal" is NOT HAVING TO WORRY ABOUT CRAP YOU DON'T HAVE ANY CONTROL OVER LIKE BOOBS AND PERIODS, YOU STUPID LITTLE TWIT. How about THAT?

Hiss. Spit.