Monday, December 13, 2010

Into the Woods

The Forest of Hands and Teeth
by Carrie Ryan

As a Pittsburgher born and bred, some might think I would have a great appreciation for the zombie genre created by hometown boys George Romero and Tom Savini, but aside from greatly enjoying The Walking Dead, I am not really a fan of zombies or of horror, in general. However, when I heard the premise of The Forest of Hands and Teeth, I was intrigued, as it transported the genre to a puritanical society steeped in secrecy.

Unlike many works about the zombie apocalypse, Ryan's debut novel is set a century or more after the initial outbreak, rather than at its onset. The protagonist, a teenage girl named Mary, has never known the world outside of her small village, which is surrounded on all sides by the Unconsecrated, as the zombie population is called. They are protected by a fence that was constructed at the village's founding, and most villagers believe they are the only people left in the world. As such, the people of the village are expected to marry at an early age and aid in the repopulation process.

When Mary's mother is bitten by an Unconsecrated, she is forced to join the Sisterhood, the religious organization that presides over the village, as she has not been claimed as a bride. While there, she is spoken to by Gabrielle, an outsider that somehow made her way to Mary's village, which, along with a few other events I do not wish to spoil, leads Mary to journey outside of her village.

I cannot stress enough how unlikable the heroine in this book was! She is ridiculously selfish, to the point where I honestly didn't care if she lived or died. Despite having the love of a boy she was childhood friends with, Mary prefers his brother, who she still pursues despite his engagement to her best friend. When the group finds a refuge from the Unconsecrated, Mary is unsatisfied and insists that the group keep moving forward. She just seems to take everything she has for granted, and I was extremely frustrated with her. Why is it that so many YA writers have been creating such wretched female protagonists as of late?

Aside from the characterization of Mary and the inexplicable love all major male characters seem to have for her, this was a fantastic debut. The pace was a bit languid for the first five or so chapters, but it picked up significantly following the introduction of Gabrielle. The writing was gloomy and atmospheric, and though description could be sparse, especially where the characters themselves were concerned, it suited the book well.

Unfortunately, there were many loose ends at the conclusion of the novel. No reason is ever given for the outbreak of the Unconsecrated, for example. Ryan has since written two other companion novels (The Dead-tossed Waves and The Dark and Hollow Places), but if the protagonists are anything like Mary, I do not intend to read them.

Grade: B

Monday, December 6, 2010

The War to End All Wars

Leviathan & Behemoth
by Scott Westerfeld
Locus Award for Best Young Adult Fiction 2010 (Leviathan)

In the first installment of Westerfeld's new trilogy, Leviathan, we are introduced to Alek, the sheltered son of the recently assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and Deryn Sharp, a Scottish girl pretending to be a boy in order to serve in the Royal Air Force. For the first third of the novel or so, the chapters alternate between the two characters, allowing readers to familiarize themselves not only with the two leads, but also with the disparate societies from which they come: the machine-obsessed Clankers and the life-fabricating Darwinists. Our heroes finally meet when Alek, while on the run from German forces, witnesses the crash of the British airship Leviathan in the snowy Alps, and, despite his better judgement, decides to aid its crew. Not long after, the story truly gets under way when Alek's men join forces with the Leviathan after another German attack.

The story moves at a breakneck pace, often spending more time detailing the design of various machines and battle maneuvers, rather than developing the characters, which was a major complaint of mine. I knew as I began Leviathan that it was the first of a trilogy, but compared to other such books, it felt more like set-up, not a story that could stand on its own. Additionally, the novel claims to be a steampunk alternate history of WWI, but aside from changing the axis and allies to Clankers and Darwinists, there is little difference with reality. However, since Westerfeld decided to create his own heir, rather than use one of the Archduke's real children, it is possible that in later volumes the course of history will veer from our own.

Despite the first volume's apparent flaws, I still decided to read Behemoth, and I am glad that I did. This second installment is much more like a novel than a screenplay (unlike its predecessor), and a decent amount of character development is present. The novel's setting of Istanbul also provides a new cast of characters, as well as a plotline heavy on intrigue and politics, as both the British and Germans attempt to gain the Ottoman Empire as an ally.

Consistent throughout both novels are two things: the writing style and the illustrations (drawn by Keith Thompson). Given that the series is set during WWI (and steampunk, on top of that!), I would have liked to see a writing style reminiscent of the period, at least in the characters' speech, if not the exposition. Unfortunately, Westerfeld does not deliver, and while his writing is serviceable, it is not very impactful. Thompson's illustrations, on the other hand, are a sheer delight. There are typically one or two such pictures per chapter (all in black and white), and they served as a great aid in depicting the various machinery described in the book.

Even with its flaws, the Leviathan trilogy is proving to be an enjoyable one, and I only hope that the final installment, Goliath (to be released in October 2011), improves upon the series yet more.

Leviathan: B-
Behemoth: B+

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

To Fight the Unbeatable Foe

Going Bovine
by Libba Bray
Michael L. Printz Award 2010
Although the protagonist, Cameron Smith, doesn't learn he has Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease until a decent number of chapters into the book, all one has to do is read the book jacket to know the kid has mad cow disease and is going to die. But, rather than making this novel into a melodramatic movie-of-the-week tearjerker, Libba Bray does something a bit unexpected and writes of all of life's small pleasures. By giving Cameron a quest to find Dr. X and a possible cure, she grants him the ability to forget that he is dying, if only for a little while, and enjoy what life has to offer. Although many hints are given that the entire journey is only playing out in Cameron's imagination, of course, this makes for a much more entertaining read than a novel with some kid wallowing in a hospital bed.

While I couldn't really identify with Cameron's slacker persona, Bray's witty writing, bursting with pop cultural references, was hugely entertaining. What I enjoyed most, though, was probably the linking of Cameron's quest to that of Don Quixote. At the beginning of the novel, Cameron's English class is assigned to read the classic work, and though Cameron never completes it, numerous parallels between Cervantes' novel and our hero's adventure are apparent. There are obvious similarities, such as naming Cameron's guardian angel Dulcie and purchasing a Cadillac Rocinante, and the narrative style, which consists of short, farcical episodes with sundry characters Cameron meets along his travels is reminiscent of Quixote. The two differ in one major aspect, however, and that is how the authors choose to end the story. While I hate to spoil the conclusion for those who might choose to read Going Bovine, let me say that it is not the bitter conclusion of Cervantes' novel, but something much more uplifting.

One of the quotes on the back cover suggests that this book will be one that people take to college in the hopes that others will have read it and been affected by it, as well. I definitely agree with this idea. Going Bovine should become this generation's The Perks of Being a Wallflower. A book that speaks to us about the trials and tribulations of becoming an adult, but also the many joys experienced on that journey. As Cameron says, "To live is to love, to love is to live," and I could not agree more.

Grade: A+

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Magic of Knowledge

Enchantress from the Stars
by Sylvia Engdahl
Newbery Honor 1971

Long out of print and re-released at the beginning of the millennium, Engdahl's Enchantress from the Stars tells the story of Elana, a young woman studying to serve as a field agent in some intergalactic anthropological service. While traveling with her father and fiance (both also field agents), the three are ordered to intervene in the current affairs of a primitive planet called Andrecia, and when another agent traveling with the crew is killed by one of the colonists attempting to claim Andrecia as their own, Elana is asked by her father to aid in their plan.

As the existing civilizations of both the medieval Andrecians and their more advanced conquerors might collapse if they knew more advanced civilizations existed, the field service agents cannot allow themselves to be discovered by either group. Thus, the idea to present Elana as an enchantress is born.

Engdahl does a brilliant job juggling the three narrative strains throughout the book, each one having a distinctive voice. My personal favourite is that of Georyn and his brothers, which, as Andrecians, is written in a fairy tale style with Elana as an enchantress, her various scientific gadgets as magic, and the colonists' construction equipment as a dragon. The colonists are depicted as stereotypical spacemen with rayguns, though Jarel lends a bit of humanity to them as he begins to question their reasoning behind the colonization of this particular planet. And, finally, Elana's narrative, which is the primary one of the novel, is written as a field report.

This is a fairly sophisticated novel, which is likely why it is now categorized as YA (having been published in the 70s, there was no real distinction between children's and YA fiction at the time). Not only does Engdahl's narrative accurately portray the same events as interpreted by three disparate cultures, but it also asks challenging questions of its readers, such as if it's appropriate to guide the events of a particular civilization or if it's worthwhile to pursue knowledge if it will render one an outsider. I cannot recommend this book strongly enough.

Grade: A+

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Losing My Religion

by Pete Hautman
National Book Award for Young People's Literature 2004
Religion is a very difficult issue to discuss. Questioning religion, which is the main premise of Hautman's Godless, is even more difficult to present well, especially to a young audience. Through the agnostic-leaning-toward-atheist protagonist Jason, the author asks all the right questions pertaining to faith and religion, though none are answered by the novel's end. This is, perhaps, a wise decision, as it permits the audience to decide for themselves whether or not to believe in any given religion, thus enabling the author to present occasionally negative views on organized religion without leading the reader to accept them.

After Jason concocts the idea to create a religion centering around the town's water tower, he recruits his friends to join his newly founded faith. For the most part, the kids regard the whole enterprise as a goofy activity that keeps them from complete boredom. However, Jason's best friend, Shin, becomes totally engaged with the concept, even going so far as to write a holy book to accompany their new religion (the excerpts from which become the headers of each chapter, typically paralleling the events described therein). As a foil to Shin's religious fanaticism, we have the town bully Henry, who uses "Chutengodianism" as an excuse to vandalize public property and dictate the actions of his friends. I must say I was happy to see so many variations of religious experience within the novel, and the portrayal of Just Al, the leader of the Catholic youth group Jason is forced to attend, was spot-on in his blind faith.

I have to admit, though, I'm a bit puzzled as to why this particular work won the National Book Award. It was certainly engaging, and it posed all of the right questions, but it just didn't have much impact. Maybe Octavian Nothing spoiled me, but I was just expecting more from a novel that won such a prestigious award.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Secret Identities

by Perry Moore
Lambda Literary Award for Children's & YA 2008

Thom Creed is every parent's dream child. He's the star of the basketball team, a good student, and the winner of a volunteer award for his work at a local youth center. He also has two rather large secrets: he has super-powers and he is gay. Add to the equation the fact that his father is a disgraced former superhero (he caused numerous civilian casualties in a World Trade Center type attack, where the terrorists were replaced by a planet-destroying alien) and you have the formula for a by-the-books coming-of-age novel with a few twists here and there.

When I first heard of Hero earlier this year after a member of my book club nominated it to be read, I was intrigued by the premise. I have always liked superhero fare, having grown up on Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League, and I was sold on the gay perspective. However, once I borrowed a copy from my local library, I was quickly disappointed, as it simply did not live up to my expectations. To begin with, the writing was very uneven. I realize that this was Moore's first novel, and as such, it may not be as polished as other works that I have read recently, but I seriously have to wonder if he had an editor. I frequently noticed typos (the worst being when an exclamation point was incorrectly referred to as an explanation point), and there seemed to be some inconsistencies (at one point Thom encounters a group of villains he's never seen or heard of, but they are all referred to by name in the narration). To be perfectly honest, I considered putting this book aside after the first fifty or so pages, but I kept chugging along because of its award.

I am glad I kept reading, as the last third of the book is much tighter than the other two-thirds and the world destruction plot was interesting. This is not to say it was original, though, as I figured out most of what would happen long before it did, from the identity of Dark Hero to that of the assassin haunting the league. The characters were likable, but generic, and I found the bigotry against Thom to be a little unbelievable. Taunts from peers made sense, but graffiti on his house? The latter certainly never happened to my gay friends, and we lived in a pretty conservative town.

All in all, Hero is something to recommend to nerdy teens who might otherwise have no fictional GLBT role-model, and it's a decent effort for a first-time author.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What Makes the Monster?

The Monstrumologist
by Rick Yancey
Michael L. Printz Honor Book 2010

Every October, my book club tries to read a spooky YA book. Last year's selection was The Graveyard Book, so I suppose with that in mind, I can understand why other members of our group were expecting harmless ghouls to be the focus of Yancey's new work. Of course, they were terribly wrong, as the book is extremely graphic and reads somewhere between a penny-dreadful and 18th century Gothic literature. To give an example, the book begins with a vivid description of how an anthropophagus (the featured monster of the book) has not only eaten the corpse of a virginal girl, but impregnated it, as well. Worse, the anthropophagus fetus is still alive, so our twelve year old protagonist, Will Henry, must watch as his master, Dr. Pellinore Warthrop, aborts the abomination. This book is definitely not for the squeamish.

Will and the doctor spend the entirety of the novel trying to thwart other massacres at the claws of the anthropophagi, which we learn much later in the novel are in New England because of a failed experiment of Warthrop's father. Both Doctors Warthrop, as well as the characters of Dr. Starr and Jack Kearns, present various degrees of morality, and through them, one of the major themes of the work is explored: What makes a monster? Is a monster a creature of nightmare who feeds upon human flesh? Or can it be something more human? A man so dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge that he endangers innocents? Or a man who becomes his monstrous prey, no longer retaining any sense of compassion or empathy? Though Yancey never directs the reader's thoughts to any particular answer, the well-planned plot leads the reader to question the motives of all involved.

Presented as a journal compiled by Will later in life and given to the author, The Monstrumologist is written in a characteristically Victorian style, replete with verbose sentences spanning several lines of text and sundry literary allusions. For a reluctant reader, it may prove a bit challenging, but the subject matter and amount of gore should be enough to keep the attention of most. Being a fan of Victorian and Gothic literature, this book was a welcome change to much of the YA I have been reading recently, and I highly anticipate the next installment Curse of the Wendigo, which was released several weeks ago.

Grade: A+

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Battle Royale Revisited?

*A Note*
Starting with this entry, all books reviewed will be given a letter grade to make my opinion more clear. Older entries have been graded retroactively.

The Hunger Games Trilogy
by Suzanne Collins
Consisting of: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay

Thanks to a friend loaning me all three of Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy, I can finally join the rest of the YA-reading world in my frustration with the final book. I am, however, glad that I waited to read the series until it was released in its entirety, as I would not have been able to stand the wait between books. That said, I completed the entire trilogy within several days' time, thanks to a short trip back home for an interview.

For those of you living under a rock, Hunger Games tells the story of Katniss Everdeen, a girl chosen to participate in an annual competition where youths aged twelve to eighteen must kill each other for survival. The games, we are told, are used to punish the twelve districts of Panem (a country replacing what remains of the US in the near-future) for an uprising that took place seventy-four years ago. So each year, two teens (a boy and a girl) are drawn at random from each district. People may volunteer to take the place of the randomly chosen, as Katniss volunteers to go, in order to save her twelve year old sister.

The remainder of the first book focuses on the events of the games themselves, and as Katniss is our narrator, we know only what she knows. At times, this can be frustrating, as she spends much of the first few days simply distancing herself from the other competitors. Eventually, she makes a few strategic alliances and wins the game. The two remaining books detail the new uprising in the districts and Katniss's integral role in the revolt against the capital.

As I've already complained, the choice to use Katniss as the narrator is problematic at times, especially in later books, as she is frequently kept in the dark about various plans until they are executed. What makes this choice worse is that Katniss is not a very likable character. She's cold, distant, and self-serving; ideal qualities for someone competing in the games, I suppose, but not for the protagonist of a trilogy.

The writing is rather brusque, which suits our narrator perfectly, but does not often provide adequate detail for my tastes. Some passages become especially muddled in the last book during battle scenes, and the death scenes of several major characters left much to be desired. One would think that after spending three books becoming attached to a character that they would be granted more than a few meager sentences! Additionally, the latter two-thirds of the last book are incredibly rushed; I would have liked a more even pace, though I understand that it may have been intentional, as one does not have time to collect thoughts on the battlefield.

I also really would have liked more information on the history of Panem. We are never told what led to the destruction of the US as we knew it. Why did the capital move to Denver (We are told it's a major city in the Rockies, which leads me to think of the Colorado capital)? Did the religious right finally attempt to secede from the union, ultimately destroying our nation? Or was it terrorism that brought about our demise? I am truly hoping that in the film adaptation, Collins gives us more information on the world she's created.

All in all, I can easily understand why the trilogy is so popular right now. It's a great read with some truly interesting ideas about revolution and society, even if those ideas could have been expanded upon. Go read it before the films are released.

Series Grade: A

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme

by Nancy Werlin

Imagine if the lyrics to a popular song were not merely poetic words set to music, but a list of tasks one must complete or risk going mad. This is the main premise of Werlin's book Impossible in which seventeen year old Lucy Scarborough, a perfectly rational girl, is told that she must complete the impossible tasks described in a version of the ballad "Scarborough Fair" before giving birth to her child (I should mention here that at the beginning of the novel she has no boyfriend and is a virgin). Having been raised by foster parents after her biological mother became mentally ill and took to a life in the streets, when Lucy first learns of the ballad and the tasks, she dismisses it as nonsense. However, after a bizarre turn of events on prom night leads to Lucy's becoming pregnant, she begins to reconsider, and, ultimately, pursues the accomplishment of the tasks after learning that all of her family records indicate that generations of women in her family have given birth at seventeen and descended into madness.

When I first read the premise, I found myself thinking it sounded a bit far-fetched, but Werlin tells it as a modern fairy tale, and I found myself completely immersed within the first few chapters. The characters are also all very likable, so it was easy for me to invest myself in them and their plight; I wanted them very much to succeed. And just as much as Lucy and her family are likable, the antagonist, Padraig Seeley is just as detestable. He is exactly as Sidhean in the previously reviewed Ash should have been: calculating, cold, and merciless.

Something I found particularly refreshing was that despite the presence of magic, curses, and the faerie realm, the mundane characters did not rely on magic, but rather science and logic to break Padraig's curse. Additionally, this helped to reinforce the modern setting of the novel, replete with medical records and a healthy dose of skepticism.

My only complaint is that some of the events, especially the ending, are a bit too neat for my liking. The presence of the boy-next-door, Zach, is all too convenient for the necessary romance of the novel, and as much as I (and probably most of the novel's target audience) like him, I seriously have to question how quickly he and Lucy not only realized their feelings for each other, but acted upon them. For a novel that otherwise asked its audience to be rational, I found this to be a bit off-base.

Grade: B+

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Girl Who Cried Wolf

by Justine Larbalestier

Let me start by stating this is not the type of book I would normally enjoy. Written in colloquial speech (here an inner-city teen) and presented as a direct confession to the reader, the writing is far from the eloquent prose that I am accustomed to typically reading. However, the story is so well-constructed that I barely even noticed.

The premise is quite simple: Micah, our narrator/confessor, has been accused of murdering Zach, the most popular boy in school. At first, we are told that they were only classmates, but over time it is revealed that not only were they friends, but they also shared a secret love affair, though Micah consistently denies this when pressed by her parents, counselors, and Zach's girlfriend, Sarah. We, the readers, are the only ones meant to know the entire truth, which is given to us in snippets, as the narrative goes back and forth from before and after the murder.

Things are not entirely clear-cut, however, as we're told from the beginning that Micah is known for her lies. On her first day of high school, she claims to be a boy, and when it is discovered that she is a girl, she says instead that she is intersex. She also tells her classmates that her father is an arms dealer, among other things. Knowing her character, it becomes difficult for the reader to believe her story, especially as it becomes increasingly far-fetched. I won't say much about what is revealed later, though I will state that it involves the supernatural.

By the end of the book, I was entirely unsure what to believe. Was Micah simply spinning an elaborate lie? Or did all of this really happen, regardless of how fantastic it might seem? I believe this uncertainty is a testament to Larbalestier's ability to create a truly unreliable narrator, which she succeeded in so doing brilliantly, and it is for that reason alone that I must recommend this book.

Grade: A-

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Dark Is Rising

The Dark Is Rising Cycle
by Susan Cooper
Consisting of: Over Seal, Under Stone; The Dark Is Rising; Greenwitch; The Grey King; and Silver on the Tree
Newbery Honor 1974 (The Dark Is Rising); Newbery Medal 1976 (The Grey King)

While this series had been recommended to me before, I finally was able to read it when it was chosen as my book club's July selection. Unfortunately, my apartment flooded the weekend right before the meeting, damaging the last three books, which I had borrowed from a friend, and I only just got around to finishing all of them a few days ago.

Overall, I found the series to be well-written, probably more so than other children's books of its time, as Cooper never simplified her writing or condescended to her audience, as some children's authors are wont to do. I must admit, though, that the first and final installments are probably the weakest of the cycle, as they don't seem to have the same human element or the sense of urgency that is present in the other three books.

In the first book of the series, Over Sea, Under Stone, we are introduced to three siblings on holiday in Cornwall and their eccentric "uncle" (in reality, a family friend, not a blood relation). The pace is a bit slow at first, and even after the quest for the Grail had begun, I don't believe my interest was firmly held until the appearance of the sinister vicar and his henchmen. I would say the last third or so of the book is captivating, but the rest is rather dull, and I can attest that some children to whom I read the opening chapter found it to be such.

The rest of the novels in the series beginning with The Dark Is Rising follow the protagonist Will Stanton, last of the Old Ones, though the Drew children do make an appearance in the third and final books, respectively. It is on Will's eleventh birthday that he discovers he is the last of the Old Ones, and we as readers are meant to learn about the Old Ones and their abilities through him. Unfortunately, Cooper explains very little about the origin of the Old Ones, or what they truly are, which is something that annoyed me while I completed the series. It is also never revealed why Will is the last, or why the Dark has chosen now to make its final stand.

The second through fourth books follow Will and his companions (Merriman, the Drews, and a Welsh boy named Bran) as they search for various artifacts(a harp, a sword, the Grail) that will prevent the Dark from rising. While the action should culminate in the final installment, I found it to be rather anti-climatic, and aside from the personal struggle of a Welshman with whom Will and Bran are acquainted, there was very little tension or emotional impact.

While I would recommend The Prydain Chronicles before The Dark Is Rising Cycle to anyone interested in Welsh inspired fantasy, the series was still intriguing and well-written, even if more exposition could have been given at times. Having read Alexander's work countless times since childhood, I have to admit I still cry at the end of The High King each time I read it, so let that be a testament to his ability to write lovable characters as opposed to Cooper, whose work is much more cerebral.

Series Grade: B

Monday, August 16, 2010

Two Mini Reviews: Ash and The Book Thief

Before I ever had a blog or decided to start reviewing YA and juvenile fiction, I read Ash and The Book Thief for my book club in April and June, respectively. Since it has been a short while since I read these two particular novels, I'm just going to put up a couple of mini reviews. For books I've read more recently, I'm hoping to do more detailed reviews in the near future. If you have any suggestions for format or reading selections, please let me know!

by Malinda Lo
William C. Morris Debut Award Finalist 2010
A retelling of the fairy tale “Cinderella,” Ash follows the titular character (short for Aisling) in her quest for belonging after the death of both her parents. Treated as a servant by her stepmother due to her father’s outstanding debts, her only solace lies in reading the familiar fairy tales of her childhood. Longing to escape to the fairy world, she is eventually approached by the fairy Sidhean who offers her the opportunity to make her dream a reality. However, she also meets and befriends the king’s huntress, Kaisa, and must choose between the two disparate worlds.

Labeled a lesbian Cinderella story by many reviewers, I expect that a number of conservative parents will be upset by their teens reading this book. It is for that reason that I would like to clarify that there is nothing explicit regarding the relationship between Kaisa and Ash. It is a simple, old-fashioned romance, and I imagine that if the two persons involved were of the opposite sex, no one would think anything of it.

Written with clear, simple prose reminiscent of the fairy tales that directly inspired it, Lo’s debut novel is an enjoyable, albeit brief read. The world in which the novel takes place is fully developed, complete with its own holidays and fairy stories. My only complaint with the book is that the ending was much too neat and predictable. I had hoped that Kaisa would need to sacrifice something in order to prevent Sidhean from taking Ash to live with him in the fairy realm, but no such event occurred. With the vast number of stories relating various quests into the fairy realm to retrieve those taken by the fairies, Sidhean’s willingness to remove his claim upon Ash seemed to be a bit out of character.

While I had my qualms with the work, I am greatly looking forward to Lo's next novel, which is to take place in the same world, albeit a century or two before Ash. I would certainly recommend this to any fans of shoujo ai or of fairy tale retellings.

Grade: B+

The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak
Michael L. Printz Honor Book 2007
When I first started reading this beautifully melancholy book, I was put off considerably by the writing style. The narrator of this particular WWII story is Death himself, but Zusak portrays him as being far more human than the typical scythe-wielding reaper. He has an annoying tendency to stop in the middle of the exposition to focus on one particular word or event, which is always written in bold face. It reminded me quite a bit of Alvy in Annie Hall and his frequent destruction of the fourth wall. And, while it might be perfectly acceptable to have such a narrator in a Woody Allen film, it didn’t suit the mood of this novel at all. It really felt to me like Zusak was somehow trying to be hip, or to connect with his teenage audience.

Literacy and the power of words figure prominently in the work, and not merely because Liesel, the novel’s protagonist, learns to read via the books she steals (or more often, rescues). What amounts to one of the most beautiful scenes in the book occurs when Max, the Jew hiding in Liesel’s basement, presents her with a picture book entitled “The Word Shaker,” in which all the hateful rhetoric of the Fuhrer and the Nazi party is embodied in the form of a forest. One day, a girl lets a single teardrop fall for a man, later planting the seed of friendship that had formed from it. Though the two tend to the tree until it is one of the tallest in the forest, it ultimately falls to the axes of hate and discrimination. Even lovelier than the symbolism of the story itself is what Max uses to write the story: a copy of Mein Kampf that had its pages painted white.

Instead of presenting a tale specifically about the Holocaust and its victims, Zusak instead chose to focus on the lives of everyday German civilians and how the war affected their way of life. Through incidents involving various characters, readers see what became of those who refused to join the Nazi party or for their children to be sent to special academies. I greatly appreciated the author’s efforts to create sympathetic characters in an environment and era that, all too often, are demonized by the US; it is important to remember that not all Germans were the enemy and that many of them were simply trying to go about their lives as normal.

Ultimately, though I disagreed with a few of Zusak’s choices regarding style, I highly recommend this book and can easily see why it has won so much praise. I grew to be very attached to the characters, and as I expect you all to be, as well, I warn you to be prepared for quite the tragic end.

Grade: A

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Since first deciding to start a blog, I have struggled with decisions over content. This has, more often than not, led me to completely neglect the blog. So, rather than continue to wemble over what to write about, I have come to the decision that this blog will, henceforth, be dedicated solely to children's and young adult literature, as well as any other works that might be adapted for this market. With that in mind, I hope to be writing more frequently here.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Parting with Toys

What makes a toy? Is it simply a plastic action figure, a stuffed animal, doll, or board game with which a child engages himself for amusement? Or, as Pixar has posited for three films now, is a toy something more? I certainly like to think that each and every one of my toys would go through hell and back if it meant being loved and played with. Despite being in my mid-twenties, I have a collection of animals with whom I sleep every night, and I have sundry others waiting for me at my parents' house, including what was my best friend until at least the age of nine, my stuffed orangutan, Jake.

I often feel guilty leaving my toys behind. Not all of them have an entire room with which to amuse themselves, as Jake and some of my other favourites do. I must confess that a good number have been placed in trash bags and closeted (if one knew just how many stuffed animals I had as a child, this might sound perfectly reasonable); however, knowing the ethics of toys, I feel extremely guilty placing these particular toys under such duress. They don't know if or when they will ever be played with again, and for that, I am very sorry. But, I am a rather sentimental person, and I cannot bear to part with my friends of so many years.

Perhaps also, it is because I refuse to grow up entirely. I could not possibly do what Andy did at the end of the third and final Toy Story film, not only because I would worry what would become of my toys when another child grew up, but also because I could never completely part with that aspect of self. And in so doing, my toys suffer year after year. I realize that I am being extremely selfish, and if I truly loved my toys I would attempt to find them worthy homes, but I couldn't bear to have them mistreated, whether in a home or a daycare, and as I have no guarantee that all daycares are "cool and groovy," they shall have to remain in storage limbo, at least for now.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Rapunzel, Rapunzel! Let Down Your Hair!

When I read a few days ago that the “Tangled” trailer had been posted online, I was very excited and immediately watched it. I’ve been a Disneyphile since I was a child and spent every summer watching every Disney classic in chronological order, starting with “Snow White.” So when Disney started this new film initiative under John Lasseter’s direction, I was elated. While “Princess and the Frog” did not perform as well at the box office as may have been hoped, artistically it did not disappoint.

“Tangled,” however, seems rather mediocre, at least judging by the trailer. Maybe it’s the comedic tone that causes me to think this, as I prefer my fairy tales to be the romantic sort. Flynn really reminds me of Tulio and Miguel from “The Road to El Dorado…” Come to think of it, his horse resembles El Tivo, as well, and from the trailer, this seems to be an adventure comedy, rather than the typical fairy tale fare that Disney is known for.

Now, I don’t mind such films. I like “El Dorado,” and I thought “Bolt” was quite enjoyable. But, those films also weren’t fairy tales. They were completely original films. “Tangled” doesn’t seem to follow its source material at all, save from the idea that a girl with seventy feet of hair has been locked in a tower her whole life. I had very high hopes, especially with Glen Keane’s involvement, but this vision of Rapunzel is quite different from what I was expecting.

I think what bothers me the most is that Rapunzel is barely present in this trailer. In a marketing move attempting to entice more boys to see the film at the theatre, Disney has rebranded the film as "Tangled," and appears to be naming Flynn Rider as the central character and Rapunzel as a sidekick he gains later in the film, probably somewhere before the half-hour mark. What happened to the empowered female protagonists of the 90s? Rapunzel seems like a vapid valley girl from this trailer, although that may simply be because of her ignorance about the outside world (I have my fingers crossed).

I will certainly give it the benefit of the doubt when it’s finally released in November – the only Disney film I ever skipped was “Home on the Range,” which I still haven’t seen – and I hope to be pleasantly surprised.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

To Remain? Or Return?

In May, my book club selection was Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. Now, I have been a fan of Mr. Gaiman’s work ever since I discovered The Sandman. However, I had neglected to read this, his first novel. Reading something he wrote in 1996 after having read his more recent works made every blemish in this work apparent, creating some difficulty for me in completing it. I’m not writing this to focus on his writing, though. One of the questions asked at our club meeting rather intrigued me, but in order to progress, I need to explain a bit of the book’s plot first.

The main premise of the book is that there is a world below that in which we dwell, where those who slip between the cracks wind up. Being that this particular book is set in London, its counterpart is London Below, and our protagonist, Richard Mayhew, finds himself there after rescuing an injured girl. And, despite spending the vast majority of the novel trying to find a way home, trying to regain the sense of normalcy he had before the whole adventure began, once he has gotten his life back, he almost immediately seeks his way back to London Below.

Now, London Below is not some amazing Neverland, where one’s problems seem to disappear and every wish is granted. Rather, it’s a dark, dreary place where one must fight for his very survival day in, day out. And yet, our hero chooses to return there, after returning home to a promotion!

This prompted someone at book club to inquire, “Would you return to London Below?” Unsurprisingly, the vast number of those present said they would not. I wonder, though, how many people would return if it had been Neverland? Or Narnia? Or Oz? Or any number of other fantasy worlds? The primary reason so few of us wished to return to London Below was because life there is so very difficult. Why ever would one give up a good job and nice home to live in squalor? I certainly don’t understand it, although it was suggested that after having lived through such an adventure that Richard couldn’t settle into a desk job again and remain happy.

Personally, I would never want to go to London Below. Even as a child, I hated going outside and getting dirty, so I would be miserable wearing the same patchwork garments everyday, dirt and soot smudging my face. Eating pigeons and cats is also something I’d prefer to avoid! Not to mention all of the shady characters skulking about who might want to kill me for fun!

However, I might very well consider staying in a place like Neverland or Narnia, so long as it wasn’t always winter and never Christmas. It seems logical to remain in a place if conditions there are better than the life one would be leaving behind (which they certainly would be for me at this current point in time). Never having to grow up would also be an added bonus. So, what would you do? Remain, or return?