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.