Friday, December 30, 2011

The Witch-queen of Swampsea

by Franny Billingsley
National Book Award finalist 2011

Set in turn-of-the-century England, Chime recounts the story of teenage Briony, a self-effacing girl who claims to be a witch. In the first few sentences of the novel, she claims also to be a murderer, blaming herself for the swamp sickness that has claimed the lives of numerous townspeople, as well as the death of her step-mother. Her twin sister, Rose, who appears to be autistic but is never described as such, is also a major cause of Briony's self-loathing, as the girl again blames herself for her sister's condition. Due to the great amount of self-hatred depicted, I a number of people at my book club had difficulty slogging through this book, but it definitely pays off in the end.

While this novel definitely has elements of fantasy with various swamp spirits playing key roles in the plot, it often doesn't read like a fantasy novel, leaving several of my colleagues confused as to whether Briony was hallucinating or actually experiencing the various events involving the spirits. This uncertainty is probably the only qualm I had with the book, overall. The prose is usually rather elegant, indicative of Briony's class and her love of writing, and the story blends fantastic elements with reality rather well. The love interest, Eldric, is quite likeable, as are Rose and Briony. But, despite all its positive factors, Chime just didn't stick with me. I may well read it again someday, but I found myself really having to cull through my memory just to write this short review, and I know a friend of mine felt the same way.

Of the finalists for the National Book Award, this and Okay for Now are definitely my preferred titles; however, none of the nominees really jumped out at me as titles that will become canonized. Time will tell, I suppose.

Grade: B+

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Luke Aaluk's School Days

My Name Is Not Easy
by Debby Dahl Edwardson
National Book Award finalist 2011

In the 1960's, an Inupiaq (Eskimo) boy called Luke, whose real name is too difficult to for non-Inupiaq to pronounce, is sent to a Catholic boarding school, along with his two younger brothers, to complete his education. The majority of the students are other Inupiaq kids and kids from the Athabascan tribe, and the two groups do not get along. Speaking their tribal languages is forbidden, and the boys find it difficult to live under the guidelines imposed by the strict Catholic faculty.

While the subject matter is interesting, primarily because there is little fiction pertaining to Native Alaskan matters, and I certainly learned a decent amount about various real-life incidents like the Duck-In and iondine-131 testing among students, I found the writing to be distracting and a bit sloppy. At the beginning of each chapter, Ms. Edwardson would note the character upon whom the chapter would focus, but the POV for specific characters would shift throughout the book. For example, the majority of Luke-focused chapters would be written in first-person through his perspective; however, near the end of the book a clearly marked Luke chapter is written in third-person for no apparent reason. This happens with a few other characters, as well.

Also, since there's no over-arching plot, the book reads more like a series of school vignettes. Unfortunately, this has a negative effect upon readers' emotional connection to the characters, so when dramatic events take place, such events did not have the impact they might have had with a better writer.

My Name Is Not Easy is the second National Book Award finalist that I have had qualms about. It, and the previously reviewed Inside Out and Back Again both seem, to me at least, to have been nominated because of their diverse subject matter alone, and not because of the strength of their writing or expected longevity.

Grade: B-

Saturday, November 19, 2011

From Saigon to Alabama

Inside Out and Back Again
by Thanhha Lai
National Book Award 2011

In 1975, young Ha and her family are scraping by in Saigon, waiting for her father, a naval officer, to return. When the family learns that South Vietnam will soon fall to the communists, however, Ha's mother makes the difficult choice to flee. Crammed onto a boat with hundreds of other families, Ha and her family decide to go to America, where they are sponsored by a man in Alabama.

While the book is divided into thematic sections -- Saigon, the boat, and America -- the American section is definitely the longest and one of the more emotional sections, as Lai details Ha's attempts to fit in at school and in the community. Aside from a neighbor who happens to be a retired teacher who helps Ha with her English, there are few likeable American characters. It is unclear if this was intentional in order for readers to better sympathize with the Vietnamese protagonists or if it is factual, as Ms. Lai based a number of events on her own childhood in the South.

Given the subject matter, I had expected the book to be far more emotional. Perhaps it is because the verse prevents any major character depth or analysis, but I felt rather disconnected throughout its duration. I'm glad that there is a children's book about the fall of Saigon written through the POV of a Vietnamese child, but I feel like this book, at least, is more focused on America and assimilation. It's a worthy attempt, but it falls short.

Grade: B

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Mowgli Meets Dracula and the Wolfman

The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman
Newbery Medal 2009, Carnegie Medal 2010

I first read this book back in October of 2009, long before I had this blog. Recently, I was assigned the audiobook version for a children's resources class, hence my post. While I will focus primarily on the plot and characters, I'd also like to speak a little of the book versus the audio version.

In the opening pages, the parents and sister of the main character (a baby boy) are murdered by the Man Jack, while the baby manages to escape to a nearby cemetery where he is promptly adopted by the Owenses, a married couple who died sometime in the 1800's. While the book chronicles the life of the boy (christened Nobody "Bod" Owens) through adolescence and his eventual confrontation with the Man Jack, the manner in which it is written is more akin to a series of vignettes than a traditional novel.

There have been complaints by some that the characters who populate the book, being ghosts, vampires, werewolves, etc., are inappropriate for the young readers at whom the novel is directed. However, it should be pointed out that these characters are all friends, teachers, and mentors to our young protagonist and that the entire work is also modeled upon The Jungle Books, in which a young boy is raised in the jungle by animals. Just as some animals intended Mowgli harm, but the majority looked after him, the majority of the supernatural characters here have Bod's best interests in mind.

As has come to be expected, Mr. Gaiman's writing is a brilliant marriage of Kipling's stories and characters with a modern setting and Mr. Gaiman's trademark wit. Regarding the audiobook, which is narrated by Mr. Gaiman, it has some nice additions, such as performances by Bela Fleck, and being read by the author himself provides perhaps the truest reading of the material. I personally prefer reading the book myself, however, as I found my attention wandering while listening to the audiobook for too long.

I read a year or two ago that a book focusing on Silas, Bod's mentor and the Bagheera character, was in the works, but I've not heard anything more about it. While I would certainly enjoy returning to Bod's world, this installment works perfectly on its own.

Grade: A

Monday, October 31, 2011

Two Transmedia Titles

The Maze of Bones
by Rick Riordan

Similar to the set-up of The Westing Game, in which various people must solve a mystery in order to be chosen as the recipient of a fortune bequeathed in a will, here the members of the Cahill family are given the option of keeping $1,000,000 or forfeiting it in order to participate in the quest. Our protagonists, the orphan siblings Amy and Dan reluctantly decide to participate after deciding that their grandmother, the writer of the will, would have wanted them to do so.

The siblings soon find themselves the targets of their wealthy and powerful relatives, who all assume the kids have been given priviledged information by their grandmother before her death. Along with their au pair, they attempt to unravel the first clue before the others, which happens to center on Ben Franklin this volume.

While the first volume of The 39 Clues series provides entertaining fluff, the characters are all pretty static and stereotypical, from the Russian spy to the teen celebrity. Given that this is a corporate series with various authors, I expect that plot will remain more important than characterization for the duration.

The series has a website tie-in where kids can participate in the quest and solve clues, but a good deal of this is dependent upon the cards that come with the books (and are sold in additional packets). The books stand alone, and it really seems to me that this marketing ploy was an afterthought.

Grade: B-

Skeleton Creek
by Patrick Carman

In the first installment of the series, readers are introduced to high school students Ryan and Sarah, best friends whose parents have forbidden them from seeing each other after Ryan is injured while the two investigate a supposedly haunted mining dredge. Sarah becomes increasingly obsessed with the site, forming conspiracy theories about the town and its supposed secret societies. The two continue to communicate via e-mail and by the installment's end, Ryan and Sarah are investigating the site once again.

Presented as found evidence in the form of Ryan's journal, the best element of the series is the innovative use of video to tell the parts of the story from Sarah's perspective. The argument can be made that for the majority of the book it's not absolutely necessary to watch these clips, but the final scene is only available through the video component, so I recommend navigating between the text and videos as intended.

Again, the characters here are pretty flat. The mystery of the dredge is what drives the book forward, and the book would be pretty forgettable were it not for the video component.

Grade: C

Friday, October 28, 2011

Good Kids Can Have Bad Records

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key
by Jack Gantos
National Book Award finalist 1998

Joey Pigza is a good kid. This is apparent to his teachers, but often obscured by his uncontrolled ADHD. When he accidentally injures another student, however, the school can no longer stand idly by; Joey must be sent to the local special education center until he can keep his disorder properly checked.

While some of the handling of ADHD is a bit dated now (given that there are more treatment options than Ritalin), this is still a fabulous book on the issue. Mr. Gantos writes in a first-person, almost stream-of-consciousness style to emulate Joey's thought processes, which provides great insight into the mind of a young boy with this disorder. Joey himself also learns tolerance for those with mental and physical disabilities through his interactions with other children at the special education center, befriending a boy with malformed arms and another who is developmentally disabled.

Those interested in continuing to follow Joey's exploits should check out the other books in the series, starting with the next installment, Joey Pigza Loses Control.

Grade: A-

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Monsters We Make

A Monster Calls
by Patrick Ness

Thirteen year-old Conor's mother is dying from cancer, though neither he nor his mum will admit this. His grades in school are slipping, but the teachers give him a pass, ignoring him for the most part, as do the other students, with the exception of a few bullies. His father is in America with a new wife and baby, and his uppity grandmother is coming to stay with them. Conor wonders how his life could possibly get any worse.

Haunted by nightmares each night, Conor isn't terribly surprised when a yew tree in his yard springs to life and threatens to devour him if Conor doesn't tell him his own story after the yew tree finishes telling three of his own. Suspecting it's a dream at first, Conor awakes the next morning to find piles of leaves and berries scattered on the floor of his bedroom.

Mr. Ness is a fabulous writer, and here he shows that he is just as capable of writing a compelling story for middle grade readers as he is for teens. Each of the monster's stories parallels an event in Conor's life, though the outcome of each tale is often far different from what he (and readers) might expect. More sophisticated readers will pick up on the extended metaphor represented by the monster sooner than the final reveal, yet that doesn't weaken the story, as Mr. Ness crafts a very emotional climax.

Accompanying the story, which was written from an idea by the late Siobhan Dowd, are brilliant illustrations by Jim Kay, who manages to capture the emotions of the book perfectly.

I honestly cannot recommend this book enough. I have difficulty empathizing with real people, let alone fictional ones, but the writing here is just so good that even I had my heart wrenched by the end. I will be shocked if this isn't at least short-listed for the Newbery this year.

Grade: A+

Friday, October 7, 2011

A Child's View of Afghanistan

Note: I am currently enrolled in a children's resource class in my library program, and this past week we were discussing the promotion of global awareness through materials, including The Breadwinner. I generally try to keep my blog focused on the newest releases, but I also plan to write about any novels published in the last decade that are assigned in my classes. Occassionally, I might also write about older books if they're relatively obscure or recently republished.

The Breadwinner
by Deborah Ellis
Middle East Book Award 2002

Written in 2000 (and hence pre-9/11), The Breadwinner tells the story of eleven year-old Parvana, a girl growing up in an Afghanistan governed by the Taliban. Before the takeover by the Taliban, her mother was a journalist and her father a teacher. The family lived in a large house, owned a television, and sent their daughters to school. But with the regime change, women were forbidden to work or attend school. The numerous bombings have forced the family from their comfortable home into a one-room apartment in Kabul, and Parvana's father sells his services as a letter-writer or reader in the marketplace.

A few chapters into the book, Parvana's father is arrested. The only reason given is that he was educated in England. With the only male in the family being Parvana's two year-old brother, Ali, Parvana's mother decides that Parvana must disguise herself as a boy in order to support the family until her father's release from prison.

The reason this book seems to be admired is likely because it's one of few books for young readers to detail events in Afghanistan under the Taliban. The writing here is very straightforward, introducing the reader to the culture through the narrative, rather than in lengthy explanations. A short glossary in the back also helps to define some of the foreign words, such as burqa and karachi. While most children reading The Breadwinner are probably unfamiliar with Afghanistan outside of what they might hear on the news, Parvana's presentation as a normal kid will enable them to empathize with her struggle.

Interestingly, Islam is almost entirely absent from the narrative. I'm not sure if the intent here was to prevent the demonization of the religion, though, given when the book was written. Perhaps, instead Ms. Ellis simply didn't want the narrative to become mired in complex explanations of Islamic practices.

Given that Ms. Ellis only spent a few weeks in Afghanistan doing research before writing this novel, some people will complain that it lacks an authentic voice. The issue of authenticity is a complex one, and I will not get into it here. If you are interested in this issue, I highly recommend Malinda Lo's blog post. I will point out, however, that a very similar (albeit more depressing story) is told in the Afghan film Osama, so Ms. Ellis can't be totally off-base.

Grade: B+

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Black Creek Project

by Lauren Myracle

I devoured this book in one sitting about a week ago for my first book club meeting here in Pittsburgh. At least for the time being, our plan is to read buzz books for the upcoming Newbery and Printz awards, and this was a selection for the latter.

Cat is a sixteen year-old girl in a tiny North Carolina backwater. Her best friend, Patrick, is an effeminate loner who was raised by his grandmother (until her recent death). The book begins with a newspaper article detailing a horrible hate crime committed against Patrick in which he was knocked unconscious by a baseball bat and tied to the gas pump at the station where he worked as a clerk, a gas nozzle stuffed down his throat with a note reading "Suck on this faggot" nearby. He is in a coma, and the local police seem to be doing little to find the culprit. Cat decides to take matters into her own hands and solve the mystery.

Ms. Myracle did a good job in detailing what life in a rural Southern town is like: kids dropping out of school, teen pregnancies, drug abuse problems, bigotry. I particularly liked the ladies who attended church to gossip rather than worship, as well as the portrayal of a closeted athlete and his self-denial. The pacing was brisk, while still managing to tie up the various plot threads by the end, but the writing was just adequate.

My major qualm with this book is that the hate crime committed against Patrick is really just a vehicle to discuss the destructive power of drugs, namely meth. I was expecting an LGBT book, and this doesn't quite fit the bill. This is an anti-drug book. While I don't think the hate crime angle would have worked properly if Patrick hadn't been a gay character, I am rather bothered that he was used in such a degrading manner to tell a compelling story. It reminds me a bit of the "women in refrigerators" from 90's era comics.

Given its subject matter, I can understand why Shine was chosen as a buzz book. I do not feel, however, that it is worthy of winning the Printz medal, as the material could have been handled better by a more capable writer. I'll be the first to admit it's a good read, but this is of the page-turner best-seller variety, not the literary award variety.

Grade: B

Friday, September 23, 2011

New Town, New Possibilities

Okay for Now
by Gary D. Schmidt
National Book Award finalist 2011

The late 60's were a difficult time in which to grow up. Civil rights, the Vietnam War, the assassination of Robert Kennedy...These all made it increasingly difficult to navigate through childhood and adolescence. For Mr. Schmidt's protagonist, Doug Swieteck, add in being the new kid in town, and having an alcoholic father and a brother newly returned from the war. Life is far from easy for Doug.

After a local store is robbed (and the younger of Doug's two older brothers is suspected), Doug is either treated with contempt or ignored completely by his fellow classmates, teachers, and townspeople. The only people who give him a chance are Mr. Powell, the local librarian, and Lil Spicer, the daughter of the local grocer for whom Doug works as a delivery boy. Throughout the book, Doug's moods fluctuate wildly, depending on how he's being treated, which I found to be extremely realistic.

The other major story thread throughout the book concerns a copy of Audobon's bird prints, which are being auctioned off one by one to fund the library. As Doug learns how to draw with Mr. Powell each Saturday, copying the Audobon prints, he gradually becomes attached to the pieces and begins a crusade to return the sold prints to the library. In an age where government funding of libraries is being significantly decreased, as law-makers question the role of libraries in this digital age, it was wonderful to see Mr. Schmidt portray the library as a place of learning, and also for him to promote advocacy.

What I was probably most impressed with was Mr. Schmidt's ability to convey a broad range of emotions through simple text. Since our protagonist begins the book as an illiterate, the sentences are succinct and usually devoid of adjectives, yet they never seem to condescend to the intended audience.

There's a lot of buzz about this book at present, and a good many people are predicting a Newbery. I haven't read the other books that people are predicting will be nominated, so I can't say for certain if Okay for Now will win, but I can say that it's well worth a look.

Grade: A

P.S. I still don't know why the cover depicts a boy with a paper bag over his head.

Monday, September 12, 2011

"Chasing the summer I spent with you, I pass through the end of winter."

by Maggie Stiefvater

I previously reviewed The Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy this spring and had been eagerly awaiting the final installment, which was slated for publication in July. As soon as I received proof of residency and was able to obtain my library card here, I put the book on reserve, with 42 people ahead of me. Last week, I received the e-mail stating it was on hold for me, and I picked it up on Thursday night, finding time to read it this weekend.

Was it worth the wait? Definitely. I have to admit, after reading Linger, I felt that Shiver would have been better served as a stand-alone novel. I didn't like the addition of new characters and the switch between POV each chapter, not to mention the mad science and the increasing implausibility of the entire scenario. While those things are still present in Forever (and the solution to the pack's problems feels like a total deus ex machina), Ms. Stiefvater's brilliant writing convinces even the most skeptical reader that certain actions are feasible.

Just as in Linger, the narrative is split four ways between Sam, Grace, Isabel, and Cole, who channels more of his mad scientist persona than his rock star one in this installment. While the trilogy predictably ends happily, there are some twists and turns along the way.

What I especially enjoyed with this installment was the writing of the wolves. It can be rather difficult to portray animal intelligence accurately, but I think Ms. Stiefvater hit the nail on the head.

While I stand by my earlier statement that the idea works best as a stand-alone, since the trilogy does exist, I wouldn't want its last installment to be any other way.

Grade: A-

*Note: The title of this post comes from the translated song lyrics of "Cloud 9", a song from the TV anime Wolf's Rain, which I highly recommend if you're looking for another wolf-related property, or simply a great show.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Still Alive, Still Reading

I realize that it likely seems as though I've completely abandoned this poor blog, but I assure you I have not. I meant to blog about the brilliant Gemma Doyle trilogy back in June, but I was sidetracked by Harry Potter, which I re-read in its entirety about a week and a half before the release of the final film (on that note, I will say that HP is much better spread out, as it gives one more time to savor the relationships between the characters). I've also been reading literature as of late (Sherlock Holmes), as well as textbooks for the upcoming fall semester of grad school. I will definitely try to be better about writing here in the coming weeks, but for now, please just know I am not dead.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Congratulations to Mr. Patrick Ness!

Earlier today, Mr. Ness announced on his blog that he has won this year's Carnegie Medal for Monsters of Men, the third in the Chaos Walking trilogy. You can read my review of the series here.

In Mr. Ness's acceptance speech, he heavily criticized the closure of libraries happening all over Britain. It's terrible to think that library closures are not only an American problem, but it's also wonderful to have such powerful advocates. Please don't only read Mr. Ness's brilliant books, but go out and support your library, wherever you are!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

More Than This Provincial Life

First, I'd like to apologize for my long absence. I've spent the last few weeks packing everything I own, moving 450 miles from Chicago home to Pittsburgh, and settling into the new apartment. For much of that time, I've been without Internet, so I'm only just now getting to write about the following book. I am also currently without a library card, having just moved, so posts may be sporadic for the next few weeks.

A Northern Light
by Jennifer Donnelly
Carnegie Medal 2003, Printz Honor Book 2004

In her small turn-of-the-century upstate New York town, Mattie Gokey is considered a bit peculiar. Along with her best friend, Weaver, she continues to attend the town schoolhouse daily, despite being sixteen, in the hopes of receiving her diploma and attending Barnard College. With her mother recently deceased, however, as the oldest child Mattie is expected to tend to her father's farm and her younger sisters. College, and the life it could bring, is a distant dream.

While working a summer job at a neighbouring hotel, the Glenmore, Mattie finds herself embroiled in a murder case, as she is the recipient of a number of letters the victim had written. Despite having been asked to burn the letters by the victim prior to her death, Mattie keeps them, slowly unraveling the motive of the murder.

The book tends to be marketed as a mystery due to the subplot involving the Grace Brown murder, but I would categorize it as an historical slice-of-life novel, as the focus throughout is on Mattie and the various events occuring around her. Those expecting a whodunit mystery will be rather disappointed here.

I felt that Ms. Donnelly did a wonderful job in conveying what ordinary life was like in rural New York in the early 1900's, from detailing mundane farm chores to the attitudes of the day concerning feminism and racial prejudice.  Her meticulous research is not just apparent from the lengthy bibliography in the back of the book, but from the quality and accuracy of the writing itself, which is somewhat rare, even in historical fiction.

More than anything, this book appealed to me because I liked the character of Mattie so much.  I could very easily relate to her, as I was always the odd one with my nose in a book, dreaming of distant locales more interesting than my own, and I thought the "word of the day" chapter headings were a fantastic touch, given Mattie's obsession with vocabulary and writing.  I do have to wonder, though, if the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast had any influence over Ms. Donnelly's writing, as Mattie often reminded me of Belle, just as her love interest, Royal, was a somewhat less chauvinistic Gaston.

Grade: A

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Another Powerful Heroine, Courtesy of Kristin Cashore

by Kristin Cashore

Set in the same world as Graceling thirty-five years earlier, Fire recounts the tale of the last human monster in the Dells. Though able to both read and control the thoughts of others, Fire chooses not to intrude upon the minds of those around her, using her powers only as a last resort in matters of self-defense. However, when two noblemen begin to plot against the king, the crown asks her to use her powers to aid in interrogating spies, and she eventually agrees to do so.

Like Katsa, Fire is a wonderfully written female protagonist. She fears becoming manipulative, as her father was, relishing her power over others. She yearns for children, but promises herself she won't bring any other monsters into the world. Though considered a monster because of her abilities, Fire's hopes and fears demonstate how very human she is.

While the story is derivative in some aspects, Ms. Cashore's brilliant characters manage to invigorate the story. I will admit I found the book a bit tedious at the beginning when Fire and her long-time friend Archer were the only major characters, as Archer's treatment of Fire bothered me, but once the plot moved into King's City and introduced the royal family, I felt the pace picked up significantly. My only other major complaint is with the final chapter's abrupt segue away from the climatic battle to a memorial service some time later. I would have liked to have read more about the battle, rather than to simply be told of its outcome in a few paragraphs. So much of the book built up to that moment that it was a bit of a let down to have so little time devoted to it.

All told, Fire proves to be an entertaining diversion, but I feel it did not quite live up to my expectations after having read its predecessor.

Grade: B+

Sunday, May 15, 2011

"What an incomprehensible machine is Man!" -- Jean Nicolas Demeunier

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation Vol. I & II
by M.T. Anderson
National Book Award 2006 (Vol. I), Printz Honor Book 2007 (Vol. I), Prinz Honor Book 2009 (Vol. II)

When I first read Octavian Nothing last year after receiving the books for Christmas, both volumes quickly became two of my favourite works for young adults (surpassed only by the His Dark Materials trilogy). In my book club, volume one had been nominated twice, losing both times by only one vote, before finally winning after its third nomination. I had been wanting to re-read the books for some time now, but book club gave me an excuse to put aside new books in order to do so.

The premise of the novel concerns a young boy, called Octavian, who is being raised by the Novanglian College of Lucidity in Boston in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War. His mother, Cassiopeia, claims to be a princess, and the boy is taught Greek, Latin, music, etc. as any child of the nobility might. Things are not as they seem, however, as Octavian and his mother are actually African slaves, and the boy is taught in the classical method as an experiment in which the collegians are attempting to determine if Africans are as mentally capable as their European counterparts.

After his mother rebuffs the sexual advances of a nobleman from whom the college hopes to receive investments, both she and Octavian lose many of their previous privileges, though Octavian's schooling does continue in part.

The latter half of the first volume and the entirety of the second detail Octavian's involvement in the Revolutionary War, first on the side of the rebels and later as a member of Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment. While the beginnings of Mr. Anderson's work asks its audience to question the so-called benevolence of the College, this latter half is even more philosophical, asking what liberty is and whether it can truly be bestowed upon humanity so long as governments exists.

An epistolary novel, both volumes are mainly comprised of the diary entries of Octavian Nothing, as well as various letters, advertisements, and other documents that aid the telling of his tale. As such, Mr. Anderson does a truly brilliant job making his audience believe that this journal was written in the 1700's, using archaic spelling and grammar. While this might cause the work to be viewed as difficult to the average teenage reader, I think Mr. Anderson should be commended for his authenticity, as well as for his historical accuracy.

Although such dense language often causes characterization to become lost in the mire, there is no such problem here. The characters are quite vividly portrayed, well thought-out, and, often, sympathetic. The language is such that one can genuinely feel the characters' doubts and hopelessness, as well as their joys. And, given its epistolary nature, I think this is a great accomplishment.

Grade: A+

Saving the Monstrumologist

From Rick Yancey's Facebook: "I have just received word that the publisher of the series will NOT be renewing the contract for any future books after the release of Isle of Blood in September. Though the good folks at Simon & Schuster are quite proud, as I am, of the books’ critical success, sales simply have not been what either of us had hoped for. In short, the series is dead unless by some miracle sales of the books take off. I wanted to take this opportunity to publically thank S&S for believing in this project, my family for supporting me through the long nights and weekends while I struggled to “edit” Will Henry’s journals, and, of course, you, the fans of the series who have cheered for its success. I am very proud of you and very thankful that you came to share my passion for these characters and their world. I encourage you to share your passion with your friends and feel free to drop me a line here or at my website. If you are so inclined, you may contact the publisher at the link attached or write to it at Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. Thanks again!"

When I read this on Friday, I was rather upset, as The Monstrumologist is one of my favourite series currently being written. I will definitely be writing to Simon & Schuster, and I encourage other fans to do the same. I understand that sales have not been as good as were expected, but I would think the publisher would wish to support a series that has done well critically. Despite this outcome, I hope that Mr. Yancey will continue to write The Monstrumologist series and that it may find a home elsewhere.

Those unfamiliar with The Monstrumologist series, can read my reviews for volume one here and for volume two here.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Unpolished Greenstone

Guardian of the Dead
by Karen Healey
Morris Debut finalist 2011

While attending boarding school (due to her parents' plans to travel around the world for a year), seventeen year-old Eleanor "Ellie" Spencer comes face to face with the myths of the Maori people. A black belt in tae kwon do, Ellie is asked by her best friend Kevin's friend, Iris, to teach some stage fighting to the cast of a student production of A Midsummer's Night Dream at a local university, which Iris is directing. When the girl playing Titania suddenly drops out of the production, Iris enlists the help of a bewitching specter of a woman, who takes more than a passing interest in Kevin.

Meanwhile, a series of grisly murders, collectively known as the Eyeslasher murders, have been perpetrated throughout the country, both on the north and south island. As Ellie begins to spend more time with mysterious day-student Mark Nolan, she realizes that the two seemingly disparate events may be related, and not only is her friend Kevin in danger, but the whole of New Zealand.

With so much of its plot steeped in Maori folklore, I was quite intrigued by the premise of Guardian of the Dead, as I was rather unfamiliar with Maori myth, but I was disappointed with the result. The first half of the book, which is about 180 pages, is well-written for a debut work. The tension between the characters builds as the chapters progress, and Reka, the mysterious woman, is rather unnerving. All of this, however, comes to little fruition as the second half unfolds, introducing a convoluted plot where the patupaiarehe (New Zealand's native fair-folk) attempt to gain immortality and reclaim their native land from the Western settlers.

My main complaint with the latter half is that the pace is so brisk that one has a difficult time keeping up with the myriad side characters that are introduced prior to the climactic battle for New Zealand. I would have preferred fewer characters that had been more developed. I also felt that a number of characters had a few enhancing details sprinkled on for flavour that neither added nor detracted from the story. Prof. Garibaldi, Ellie's classics teacher, is American (and, apparently, a magician), but it's never really explained why she's teaching in New Zealand. And Kevin's asexuality seems tacked on, a simple excuse for why he can't become Reka's consort.

Now, I will say that I liked Ellie. It's not every day that the protagonist is an overweight, comic-reading fan girl, so that was refreshing. She was the only character that was completely fleshed out, so I'm glad that she was likable.

All in all, Guardian of the Dead was an entertaining read, but there's not much else I can say about it. I'd be interested in seeing what else Ms. Healey produces, especially if she continues to polish her writing style, but I hope she waits until after finishing her dissertation, as her ideas deserve her full attention.

Grade: B-

Monday, April 18, 2011

Free to Be

by Julie Anne Peters
National Book Award finalist 2004, Stonewall Honor Book 2005, Lambda Award finalist 2005

Regan's brother Liam has always been a bit different. His best friends have always been girls and he's always had an interest in fashion. His father suspects that he might be gay, but only Regan knows the truth. Liam is transgendered. Every night she keeps Regan up at odd hours while she dons her dresses, wigs, and make-up, permitting her true self, Luna, to emerge.

This novel is essentially the story of Luna's transition, as seen through Regan's eyes. Unfortunately, with its contemporary setting in the western United States, that story is not a very pleasant one. In addition to a male chauvisnist father and a pill-popping mother who refuse to accept the reality of the situation, Luna has to deal with the taunting of her classmates and local townspeople. With the lack of support and understanding presented to her, Luna contemplates suicide numerous times, and without Regan, who, despite her selfish wish that Luna was not so different, provides the only moral support in this difficult period of Luna's life, she may well have done more than contemplate.

Ms. Peters does a good job of explaining a complex and somewhat controversial topic in terms that a younger audience can understand, though I feel that the book would have been more powerful if told through Luna's point-of-view, rather than Regan's. The decision to use Regan as narrator has ensured that the audience remain outsiders incapable of understanding the problems of a transgendered youth first-hand. While Regan is sympathetic of Luna's plight, she can never truly understand the thought processes that go through Luna's mind, and thus, neither can the readers. True, some readers may be alienated by a book told from the perspective of a transgendered individual, but if so, this book was not written for them in the first place.

I found Regan to be a rather selfish character, more concerned with how her classmates and potential boyfriend would view her as Luna's sister than with how Luna was coping with her situation. Also, I felt that the characterization could have been stronger. Some aspects of the characters, such as their interests and hobbies, seemed like they were just tossed in as an after-thought. For example, Luna apparently is a manga fan, as exemplified by a scene in which her friend Aly returns a copy of Love Hina. But this interest is never explored, which makes me think the author was merely trying to retain the contemporary feel without any knowledge of the pop culture she mentions in passing.

Also, I realize that I am probably ridiculously naive and idealistic, but I seriously had to keep reminding myself that such biased individuals as Jack, the father of Regan and Luna, actually exist. I know that discrimination is still a major issue, especially in the transgender commmunity, but I can't fathom why. People are people. It's very simple. And we should all be free to live our lives however we may choose, provided that no one else is harmed.

I am glad this novel exists so that it might provide some understanding to people who otherwise might fear or mock transgendered people. While there were some minor flaws, I would still gladly recommend this novel.

Grade: A-

Sunday, April 17, 2011

An Astounding Debut

by Kristin Cashore
Morris Debut finalist 2009

With her mismatched eyes, Katsa unnerves everyone in her uncle's court. The eyes are a symbol of her status as a Graceling, one who has an exceptional ability...and hers just happens to be killing and torture. Or at least that's what she believes, as she's employed as a glorified thug by her uncle, King Randa.

While participating in a rescue mission of a kidnapped Lienid noble, Katsa has a chance encounter with another Graceling, the Lienid Prince Po, so-called because of his gold and silver eyes. He later comes to Randa's court in the hope of gathering more information about the perpetrator of his grandfather's kidnapping, and while combat training with Katsa, the two become close friends.

Eventually, evidence leads the two to the kingdom of Monsea, where Po's aunt is queen to the mad King Leck, whose Grace enables him to cloud the thoughts of others and to make lies seem to be reality with only his words. Katsa is put to the test protecting the princess from her father and his soldiers while struggling to remember the truth of her quest.

When reading a debut novel, one can usually tell. The characters might not be as fleshed out as one might like, or there will be unfinished plot holes. This is not the case, however, with Ms. Cashore's fully realized debut. It is apparent from the first chapter that much time and thought has been put into both the pacing of the plot and character development. The characters, especially Katsa, are very believably written and, even more importantly, likable. Katsa, with her fear of losing her identity should she marry, reminded me of both Alanna from the Song of the Lioness quartet by Tamora Pierce and Oscar from the 70s manga series Rose of Versailles, so fans of those series (and strong female characters, in general) should definitely check this book out.

I only have one qualm with this novel, and it's a rather minor, stylistic thing. There appear to me a number of phrases and fragments in some more action-oriented scenes, and I realize this is probably to heighten the dramatic effect, but it irritated me a bit. For example, "His boot was caught in a stirrup. The stirrup buckled to the saddle, and the horse sinking fast." The sentence still would have been dramatic had it followed standard conventions and been written thus: His boot was caught in a stirrup, which was buckled to the saddle, and the horse was sinking fast. This didn't really detract from my enjoyment of the book, but it was something I noticed rather frequently and could have done without.

When I reached the end of the book, I was sad to see it end. I had grown attached to the characters as I might those in a lengthy series, and I wanted very much to hear more of their stories. This, to me, is the mark of a true storyteller. I am certainly planning on reading the prequel, Fire, but I am most looking forward to the sequel Bitterblue, as well as anything else graced by Ms. Cashore's pen.

Grade: A

Friday, April 15, 2011

Brief Update

Sorry for not posting. I've been in Pittsburgh the last few days to secure housing for the upcoming move, and while I had Internet access, I've not had time to blog. Posts for Kristin Cashore's Graceling and Julie Anne Peters's Luna should be up by the end of the week. I'm also currently reading Karen Healey's Guardian of the Dead, so I imagine that will be up soon, as well.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Reconciling Religion and Science

Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith
by Deborah Heiligman
National Book Award finalist 2009, Printz Honor 2010

I would like to preface this review with two statements. Firstly, I don't typically read non-fiction, so I may not be judging this work by the same criteria as one more familiar with non-fiction writing. In fact, I think the only other non-fiction work I've read in the past several years has been Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, which I absolutely loved.

Second, since this book has a good deal to do with religion, I want my audience to be aware of my own views, which I hope won't colour this review too much. I am first and foremost a humanist, and I would also consider myself an agnostic. I feel that people are free to believe and practice religion however they choose to do so, as long as they are respectful of other people's belief systems and are not harming anyone or anything. Any comment bashing my beliefs will be deleted.

Rather than focus the entire book on an explanation of Darwin's famous evolutionary theory and how he formulated it, Ms. Heiligman instead chooses to focus on the relationship between Darwin and his wife Emma, as well as their opposing religious views. Despite having studied theology at college, as Darwin devotes more time to understanding the theory he is concocting, he begins to doubt God's part in creation more and more. This greatly concerns his religious wife, as she fears that they will be parted after death, and she often entreats him to reconsider his religious views. What I personally found to be particularly interesting was Darwin's fear that his work would offend religous parties. As such, he would ask his wife's opinion before publishing his various scientific works and would alter certain passages if she so recommended. This was extremely refreshing to me, given how hostile the religious can be to the secular and vice versa in our current society.

As someone who doesn't particularly like reading non-fiction, the focus on character made the book more enjoyable for me than it otherwise might have been, as it reads more like a romance than a biography. I also felt that the work handled the religious question extremely well without catering too much to the secular or to the religious, presenting both Charles's and Emma's perspectives clearly. For the most part, the narrative moves at a good pace, though there was never a moment when I forgot that I was reading non-fiction. Ms. Heiligman presents a captivating new look at a brilliant scientist, and I encourage people of all philosophies to give it a look.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Voice from Beyond

Thirteen Reasons Why
by Jay Asher

When honor student Clay Jensen arrives home and finds a package with no return address waiting for him, he opens the parcel and discovers a set of seven tapes, each side labeled with a number from one to thirteen. Finding an old cassette player in the garage, he pops in the first tape and discovers that the tapes were recorded by his classmate, Hannah Baker, who recently committed suicide, and each of the tapes is dedicated to a person whose actions led her to kill herself. The tapes are meant to be mailed to each person on the list until the thirteenth person receives them, and she claims that another set will be released publicly should this not be done.

Hannah is a girl destroyed by rumours. When one boy exaggerates the goings-on during their first date, she earns a reputation of an easy girl, despite having only just received her first kiss from said boy (according to the tapes, at least). From that one rumour, Hannah's life spirals into chaos and depression, leading her to ultimately give up on life, believing that things would never change and people would never see her as she truly was.

As he listens to the tapes, Clay presents the reader with his perspective of the situation, sometimes filling in gaps in Hannah's story. We learn that he had a crush on her, but due to her reputation, he was afraid to pursue a relationship with her. Clay struggles with her death and blames himself for not having seen the warning signs and intervened.

Mr. Asher's idea to tell the deceased's story via cassette tape was rather an innovative one. I don't usually listen to audio books, but I'm quite intrigued by the idea of listening to this particular story.

Chris Crutcher's influence upon the author is certainly apparent, not only in the subject matter, but in the way that the teens in the book grapple with it. However, unlike Crutcher, Mr. Asher doesn't tie everything neatly into a bow by the end, although there are allusions to a possible intervention for another of Clay's classmates.

My only complaint with this debut work was that we are only given one side of the story. While Hannah often acknowledges that the particular actions of a student weren't problematic on their own, but only due to the snowball effect, I would have liked to see the other students on the tapes either defend or clarify their actions.

With its timely subject matter, Thirteen Reasons Why should be required reading for all high school kids.

Grade: B+

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Original Toy Story

The Mouse and His Child
by Russell Hoban

Out of print until 2001, Russell Hoban's novel for children is not something for everyone. While the themes presented are universal, the manner in which they are presented is often too dark for the intended audience. I certainly appreciate authors who don't over-simplify their writing for child audiences, but I really feel that this particular work is better appreciated by the adults reading to the children.

The basic premise concerns a pair of clockwork mice. When wound, the father lifts the child mouse in his arms and twirls him about. Things go well for the mice for only the first chapter, at which point they are sold, and later broken, resulting in their placement in the trash. From there, the novel keeps a generally gloomy tone while the mice enter the employment of Manny Rat, who they are able to escape but who remains trailing them for the majority of the book, hoping to destroy them.

Along their travels, the mice encounter many interesting characters, including an oracular frog; an experimental theatre troupe consisting of two crows, a parrot, and a rabbit; a philosophical turtle; and several fellow broken toys from the same shop. However, this being a plot-driven novel, the space of a chapter is used to introduce the next group of characters or setting that will aid the two mice in their journey toward freedom and self-winding. Thus, very little time is devoted to character development. I should have liked to have spent more time with the characters, even if it meant being introduced to fewer of them, should it have meant that I'd have a better understanding of those characters. The majority of the characters are very one-dimensional, with the exception of Manny Rat, who I feel is the only dynamic character in the work.

While an enjoyable read for adults, I think children might be bored by this work. That's not to say that it's slow or that nothing happens; quite the contrary is true. However, much of the humour and the philosophy would simply go over children's heads.

Despite its flaws, I am glad that The Mouse and His Child is back in print, and I hope that it will find its audience.

Grade: B

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Disbanding the Boys' Club

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
by E. Lockhart
National Book Award finalist 2008, Printz Honor Book 2008

The titular Frankie Landau-Banks is a devious mastermind behind a semester's worth of pranks carried out by secret societ the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds. Vaguely familiar with the Order, as her father was a member during his school days, and inspired by the Cacophony Society after doing a project about them for one of her classes, Frankie decides to turn the orderly world of her prep school on its ear, including the boys-only Basset Hounds.

As per usual, this book had been on my "want to read" list for a while, but it was book club that provided the impetus for me to finally do so. While I have read some reviews complaining that the writing could be overly pretentious at times, I found the writing to be one of the novel's greatest strengths. Though at the beginning the novel occasionally fell into the frame of the typical teen romance novel, I appreciated that Ms. Lockhart was confident enough in her readers' intelligence that she devoted an entire chapter to false positives, both real and imagined. I suppose such chapters, as well as the references to the panopticon, are why some view this work to be pretentious.

I didn't find Frankie to be a likeable character, and I could not relate in any way to her desire to break the rules. I also was somewhat disappointed that the novel seemed to assert that those women who choose to engage in feminine activities were doing so only to appear to the men in their lives to be proper women. I certainly shall never deny that a number of women do dress certain ways or, for example, pretend to be less intelligent than they actually are, to attract men. However, to conclude that there is little, if any, personal enjoyment to be found in feminine activities bothered me. In my frilly Victorian-esque dresses, I suppose I appear to most like a lost Disney princess a la Enchanted, but I choose to be this way for no one save myself. I wonder what Frankie would think of such individuals, as she seemed to have such disdain for the other female characters in the book.

While I can understand her desire to be involved in the same activities as the boys, I really felt that she only wanted to be involved in order to assert her superiority over them. She criticized Matthew for keeping secrets from her and for treating her like a pet, but she didn't seem to have much respect for Matthew as a person either. Her interest seemed purely superficial to me, which is probably why I found her so hard to like. I hated her double standards.

Despite my disagreement with the author as stated above and my difficulties with Frankie, I highly recommend this book. Girls should read it for its empowering message (even in the guise of the misguided protagonist), and boys should do so to better understand the obstacles that still impede women from being true equals with men even now.

Grade: A-

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Half-Year Sun

The Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy
by Maggie Stiefvater
Consisting of: Shiver and Linger (Forever coming in July)

When Grace Brisbane was eleven, a pack of wolves dragged her from a tire swing in her backyard; however, one wolf protected her from the rest of the pack and she survived. Ever since that day, Grace has been obsessed with the wolves of Mercy Falls, especially the one who saved her. When her savior is shot after a local teen is supposedly killed by wolves, Grace finds him on her back a naked teenage boy.

Things move pretty quickly between Grace and Sam, much to the chagrin of Grace's often-absent parents, who claim that at age seventeen Grace cannot possibly be in love. Other more pressing troubles ensue when the sister of the supposedly dead teen discovers that the pack is more than what they seem, and Sam fights to retain his humanity.

In Stiefvater's werewolf lore, those who are bitten become wolves. However, rather than being dictated by the full moon, the shifting is dictated by temperature. Thus, the wolves are human during the summer months, although each year it takes a higher temperature for the wolves to turn. Eventually, they simply stop shifting completely, though no one knows why. Typically, most werewolves seem to get about a decade of shifting, but for some unbeknownst reason, this is Sam's last year as a human. And thus, he and Grace are desperate to find a cure.

The writing is simple, yet lyrical, often reading like the poetry Sam so much admires. The characters are fully developed, and with the narrative shifting between the two lovers chapter by chapter, we are able to fully understand the complexities and vulneratbilities of both, which is often missing in other teen romance fiction, where we are only presented with the girl's idealized vision of her lover.

That being said, I feel the premise would have been stronger had Ms. Stiefvater left the characters at the end of Shiver. While Linger is still a decent read, the added perspective of Grace's friend Isabel and newcomer bad boy Cole muddles the narrative. The story also takes an overly melodramatic shift, nearly transforming the story from an honest romance into a teen soap opera. I am definitely interested in seeing how the story resolves itself in Forever this summer, and I hope it's a return to form.

While my husband may mock me, deriding the series as "Twilight with werewolves", I am not ashamed to admit my enjoyment of this series. Turn on some old Promise Ring albums while you read this one.

Series Grade (Thus Far): A-

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Dream-makers

The Invention of Hugo Cabret
by Brian Selznick
Caldecott Medal 2008, National Book Award finalist 2007

Having wanted to read this book for a while after its release, I finally stumbled upon my chance last month at book club. One of my associates there had brought her copy to the club, hoping to spark interest in the upcoming film adaptation (directed by Martin Scorsese!) to be released this fall. Perhaps because I was sitting next to her, or perhaps because I was the first to speak of an interest in the book, I was able to borrow it.

Although the book is over 500 pages long, it's a graphic novel/prose hybrid, consisting of over 200 illustrations, so it's a fairly quick read. Being a children's novel, the prose is relatively simple, as well. Nevertheless, Brian Selznick's gorgeous illustrations are far more descriptive than any prose might have been, as it would have been difficult to truly convey the dreamlike quality of a number of scenes, especially those involving Papa Georges's pictures.

The plot at its most basic tells the story of a young boy, Hugo Cabret, who is living in a train station in Paris. His father, a clockmaker, died recently in a fire, and his uncle has disappeared. Everyday, Hugo tends to the clocks in the station so no one will realize his uncle has disappeared. Hugo also keeps an automaton in his room, as his father had been working on it prior to his death and Hugo hopes to repair the machine.

After Hugo is caught trying to steal a wind-up toy, his father's notebook pertaining to the automaton is confiscated by the old toy-seller, Papa Georges, but the man agrees to return it if Hugo works for him. As time passes, Hugo begins to uncover not only the secrets of the automaton, but of the strange old toy-seller.

Although the plot is fairly straightforward, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a truly magical work. Why? Well, for me, it must be because at its core the book is about cinema, the people who create it, and the people who love it. And cinema is a world of dreams. It certainly helps that I am a terrible film geek and quite fond of early silent cinema, which is featured prominently in this book. However, I feel that anyone with a dream will adore this work.

Grade: A

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Another Boy Wizard

The Bartimaeus Trilogy
by Jonathan Stroud
Consisting of: The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem's Eye, and Ptolemy's Gate

Although from the outset the first installment, The Amulet of Samarkand, feels a bit like a rehash of Harry Potter, especially since the protagonist Nathaniel is an above-average wizard with an indifferent caretaker, the series has its own distinct voice. Unlike the world of Harry Potter where muggles live unaware of the wizarding world, the class structure of Nathaniel's world is based upon magic. Those who practice magic comprise the upper classes, as well as the ruling class, while those who do not practice magic are lower-class commoners. And it is not merely Nathaniel's Britain, but every major empire in history that has adhered to these divisions, or so Bartimaeus the djinn tells us.

The first book alternates chapters between Nathaniel and Bartimaeus, the mid-level djinn that Nathaniel has summoned in order to steal the amulet of Samarkand and take revenge upon Simon Lovelace, a junior minister in the government. Unbeknownst to Nathaniel, Lovelace plots a coup against the government; however, thanks to Nathaniel's interference, there are a few snags in the plan.

In the next installment, The Golem's Eye, Nathaniel is working in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, thanks in part to his role in preventing the coup of the first book. After an increasing number of attacks occur at magic shops across London, Nathaniel is ordered to investigate. The majority of the government believes the resistance to be involved in the attacks, but Nathaniel has other suspicions, given the number of magical beings that have been killed in the attacks, in addition to the humans. With information supplied to him by Bartimaeus, the two set off to Prague, believing the culprit to be a golem.

A third voice, that of Kitty Jones, a minor character in the first book, is added to that of Nathaniel and Bartimaeus, lending the reader both information about and sympathy toward the resistance. In the latter half of the novel, she and the ragtag members of the resistance infiltrate Gladstone's tomb, planning to steal the powerful magical artifacts therein. However, the tomb is protected by a demented spirit dead-set upon destroying humanity, and Kitty and Nathaniel must reluctantly work together to defeat both foes.

While the first two books could probably be read as stand-alone adventures, the final installment, Ptolemy's Gate would be difficult to enjoy had readers not previously been familiar with the world of Bartimaeus. Major plot points from both of the other books culminate in an unexpected revelation and a harrowing final battle. Without saying too much about the story, the basic plot is that the magical government is weakening, as more commoners begin to build a resilience to magic.

Although all of the books are well-written and thought-provoking, I felt the final installment to be the strongest of the three, which is rare in trilogies, sadly. In this final book, Stroud presents us with information about the Other Place, the home world of the spirits, as well as Bartimaeus's backstory involving Ptolemy. The parallels between Ptolemy and Nathaniel by the end of the book, especially Nathaniel's final act in the battle, make for a very satisfying conclusion.

All in all, I am sorry to have waited to read this fine trilogy. I will gladly defend it against those who may deride it as a Harry Potter clone, and I look forward to the planned film adaptation.

Series Grade: A

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Real Heroine

I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced
by Nujood Ali & Delphine Minoui

As a new initiative this year, my YA book club has decided to institute several themed months, including non-fiction, the first of our themes. I Am Nujood narrowly defeated Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith (which I hope to read on my own), although it isn't generally marketed as YA. I'm assuming that the book is marketed toward adults due to its subject matter, but with its young protagonist and simple writing, the book is certainly accessible to younger readers, as well.

As stated in the title itself, the book concerns the plight of ten year old Nujood, a Yemeni girl forced into an arranged marriage with a man in his thirties. In Yemen, it is not uncommon for rural people to arrange such marriages, though the families of girls in such marriages typically stipulate that the girl will remain untouched until she reaches puberty. Of course, there is no guarantee that such requirements will be adhered to by the groom, and, in the case of Nujood, it was not. After being forced to have sexual relations with her husband, who also physically abused her, Nujood decides to file for divorce, secretly going to the courthouse while visiting her parents in the capital.

What follows is a whirlwind of events, all of which are barely described, perhaps simply because Nujood herself did not understand their complexity. This true story has an almost Hollywood ending, with Nujood not only being granted her divorce, but sky-rocketing in popularity all over the world, earning sponsorships and securing her family's future.

Although this was a truly amazing and inspiring story, I have to admit I was a bit disappointed. I had mistakenly believed that this was going to be Nujood's own writing about the subject, rather than the writing of a third-party. As such, I view the work with a bit of credulity, as one cannot know how much of the work is coloured by Ms. Minoui's own perspective. I would certainly be interested in reading Nujood's perspective at a later date, and I'd like to follow her journey into adulthood.

Grade: B

Sunday, January 30, 2011

High School Nostalgia

Tales of the Madman Underground: An Historical Romance 1973
by John Barnes
Michael Printz Honor Book 2010

In John Barnes' debut YA novel (he's a Nebula nominated sci-fi author), he brilliantly recreates the first week of Karl Shoemaker's senior year of high school. Karl is an average kid living in an average midwest town (Lightsburg, OH, a fictional suburb of Toledo); however, he's been a member of a school therapy group, dubbed the Madman Underground, ever since his father died. But this year, he plans to avoid the therapy group and live as a normal teenager. Of course, this is much easier said than done.

At over five hundred pages, Tales of the Madman Underground truly dedicates itself to exploring this one week in Karl's life. Of course, in order to understand the impact of various events throughout this week, there are sundry flashbacks explaining why characters are in the Madman Underground. There's Paul, Karl's possibly gay best friend; Cheryl, the sexually abused cheerleader; Squid and Danny, two athletes with alcoholic fathers; and Marti, the new girl who's been to nearly every gifted school in the country and just wants a chance to be normal. Being outcasts, for the most part, the group does its best to help each other out, and given the nature of some of the kids' home-lives, aid is needed relatively frequently.

While the book is set in the early seventies, having grown up in a boring suburb of Pittsburgh in the new millennium, this still read like my high school experience. I knew a number of kids like the characters in this novel; our problems and entertainments were much the same as Barnes describes them. And, while I usually try to prevent myself from coloring my reviews with emotion, I feel that this novel worked so well because nearly everyone can relate to it. While it might have been a tad unrealistic to have so much happen in just one week, I appreciated Barnes' refusal to neatly tie up any loose ends and write a happy ending for our protagonist.

Grade: A-

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes
by Chris Crutcher

While Tales from the Madman Underground is a semi-realistic portrayal of high school life, Staying Fat for Sarah Bynes reads more like an after-school special. The basic premise is that overweight swimmer Eric's best friend, the titular Sarah Byrnes, enters a catatonic state and is admitted to a mental ward. The two had bonded as kids due to their status as outcasts, as Sarah was horribly burned on her face and arms as a child and never received reconstructive surgery. Over the course of the novel, Eric discovers that Sarah's father has been abusing her and is forced to choose between telling an adult and losing Sarah's trust, or staying silent and possibly losing her completely.

While I enjoyed the oft snarky narrative of Eric, and the book did an excellent job of discussing sensitive issues like abortion with all sides accounted for, I feel the end of the book is completely unbelievable. A side character, who is barely present throughout the book, manages to intercept Mr. Byrnes, and the swim coach, who, while she has affection for Eric, barely knows Sarah, takes her in immediately. Had the ending not been so trite, I feel this novel would have been considerably stronger, but as it is, all of the work Crutcher puts into his characters is diminished by this happy ending.

I suppose it's a product of its time. I remember reading a number of novels in the 90s that had their respective protagonist surmounting unlikely obstacles. With a subject such as abuse, one can understand wanting the happy ending, especially when all too often, such endings never happen in reality, but if it had been curbed even slightly, it might have been more realistic. Despite its flawed ending, I still recommend this novel.

Grade: B+

Monday, January 24, 2011

Exploring Humanity's Dark Side...Again

The Curse of the Wendigo
by Rick Yancey

After reading the first installment of The Monstrumologist last autumn, I greatly anticipated the release of the sequel. I received a copy for Christmas and began to read it on the bus home to Chicago (completing about half of it during the trip). While Will and our Byronic doctor return, none of the other characters from the first novel make an appearance in this installment (my husband was rather disappointed with the absence of Kearns, though I've read that he is in the upcoming third novel). As in the first installment, the writing attempts to mimic that of the Victorian Era in which it is set and utilizes several apt literary allusions throughout the course of the work, including that of Dante's Inferno. This installment also includes several historical figures (Jacob Riis, Bram Stoker) in secondary roles, which I felt helped the work with its goal of being read as truth.

While the first book's monster is clearly presented as such, things are not so black and white in this second installment. When Warthrop's best friend goes missing in Canada while investigating the wendigo myth, his wife Muriel (Warthrop's former fiancee) convinces Warthrop to search and retrieve him. Numerous bizarre events occur during the hunt, but Yancey never clearly states if the wendigo is a supernatural being or the psychological ailment that shares its name. This may disappoint younger fans looking for monsters, but we older readers know well that mankind is often the most terrifying monster of them all. Just as the monstrous actions of Dr. Alastair Warthrop were juxtaposed with those of the anthropophagi in the first book, here we are asked once again if one's actions can lead us to become monsters. Was it Chanler's jealousy, both of his wife's love for Warthrop and of Warthrop's superior skills as a monstrumologist, that ultimately led to his dissent into madness? Or did he truly ride the wind and become a wendigo?

The first installment was quintessentially gothic. The action took place in a small town remote from the rest of society, and there were various forays to cemeteries and mad houses. We questioned humanity through the lens of a Byronic hero, who, though extremely intelligent, was equally moody and arrogant. And while he remains in this installment, the shift between the frontier gothic reminiscent of Charles Brockden Brown and the urban gothic that dominates the latter half of the book is a bit jarring. Rather than trying to pay homage to both sub-categories of gothic literature, I feel that the work would have been stronger should it have focused on one or the other. But this is a minor complaint.

Those who enjoyed The Monstrumologist will surely also enjoy The Curse of the Wendigo. And any who complained about a lack of character backstory in the previous installment will be quite gladdened by the amount of information given about our good doctor.

Once again, I look forward to reading the next installment, Isle of Blood, which is to be released this fall. Given its setting in the Middle East, I am curious if it will include any references to William Beckford's Vathek, but I suppose I shall see soon enough.

Grade: A-

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Land of Confusion

The Chaos Walking Trilogy
by Patrick Ness
Consisting of: The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, and Monsters of Men
Guardian Award 2008, Carnegie Medal short-list 2009 (The Knife of Never Letting Go); Carnegie Medal short-list 2010 (The Ask and the Answer)

I first began the trilogy in November when my book club read The Knife of Never Letting Go. At first, I didn't particularly like it, as the protagonist Todd and the stream of consciousness style were both a bit annoying, but once the momentum started to build, it was difficult to put down.

The main premise concerns a planet, known only as New World, that has been colonized (presumably by Earthlings, though one cannot be certain, as they refer only to their ancestral home as Old World). On New World, there is a curious ailment, called Noise, that affects all men, broadcasting their every thought to those around them. Animals are also affected by this, but women are somehow immune. At the beginning of the first novel, we are told that all of the women of Prentisstown have died from a virus released by the native Spackle during a war decades earlier.

When Todd discovers a spot in a nearby swamp in which there is no Noise, he reports it to his adoptive parents, Ben and Cillian, who immediately pack up his belongings and urge him to flee, fearing for his safety. The quiet is, in actuality, a girl named Viola, recently marooned in the swamp when her scouting ship crashed. Having no way to contact the coming colonists she left behind, her only choice is to trust Todd and hope that the fabled settlement of Haven has the means with which she might contact the others. Thus begins an unrelenting race to reach Haven before Prentisstown and its power-mad mayor has the opportunity.

Along their journey, Todd and Viola encounter various other settlements, each with a different social hierarchy than Prentisstown, including a matriarchal society and another town where men and women live apart from each other. In the later installments of the trilogy, Ness delves deeper into gender issues, pitting Mayor Prentiss' group of men against a terrorist organization led by and comprised mostly of women. The stakes are amped up higher by Ness' choice to put Todd and Viola on opposing sides, connecting each of them to the leaders of each side (Mayor Prentiss and Mistress Coyle, respectively).

Ness also creates an intriguing race in the native Spackle, who share a collective consciousness with each other and the world itself. Their language is expressed through thought-broadcasting (the Noise so despised by the colonists), and late in the series it is questioned if the human race is capable of ever fully utilizing this thought network as the Spackle do.

While the first novel is narrated solely by Todd, subsequent installments add one narrator each, so the third volume has three distinct voices (Todd, Viola, and a Spackle known as 1017). Interestingly, the series uses different fonts for each character, so one knows at a glance whose thoughts are recorded on the page; however, several members of the book club that I attend have noted that the e-book does not maintain these different fonts.

I don't think I've read such a highly lauded series that so challenges readers' thinking since first reading His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. I cannot recommend this series enough, and although it is often dark and grim, the conclusion is a satisfying one in which we hope the characters might find the bright future of which they dream.

Series Grade: A+

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Brilliant World-Building

*I had written this before Christmas break, but I had no time to post while at my parents' house, and I've only just regained the Internet at my apartment. More books read in December should be posted soon.

The Earthsea Trilogy
by Ursula LeGuin
Consisting of: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore
Newbery Honor Book 1972 (The Tombs of Atuan)
National Book Award for Children's Books 1973 (The Farthest Shore)

Although called a trilogy, each of LeGuin's three novels can easily stand on its own, as there is little connecting the two, aside from the setting and the presence of the character Ged (the protagonist of the first novel). Themes of overcoming self, as well as darkness, are the only other similarities throughout.

The first installment, A Wizard of Earthsea, recounts the childhood and youth of Ged (better known as Sparrowhawk). Unlike the other two installments, which each focus on one major event of his career, this one reads more like an entry in a dusty tome of history, detailing only events that are important to Ged's later career. As such, there is little dialogue, internal or external, which makes it difficult for readers to relate or even care about Ged's exploits.

The main story thread concerns Ged's quest to rid the world of a shadow, which he unwittingly released when attempting an esoteric resurrection spell. Along the way, the cocky boy learns the value of humility and the beauty in simplicity, growing into an adult, as well.

The Tombs of Atuan, which focuses on the retrieval of an ancient ring, is the strongest of the three, I feel. As it spans the shortest amount of time (for the majority of the novel, anyway), it can dedicate time to character development that the other novels cannot. Because of this, I feel I know more about the priestess Tenar, who only appears in this installment, than I do about Ged. I don't want to fault LeGuin for this, as I think her intent was to create an interesting world and its history, not necessarily to create complex characters to inhabit it, and in that she succeeded magnificently.

The final installment is a good balance between the other two Earthsea books, as it permits the narrative to meander a bit while still attempting to develop the character of Arren, the young prince accompanying Ged to the end of the world. While both the third and first installments involve quests where the characters sail to the ends of the earth, due to its dependency upon a limited amount of time, The Farthest Shore is better able to present an entertaining adventure than its predecessor. The main theme of death is also handled well, though if I were more invested in the characters it would have had more impact.

As mentioned before, what LeGuin does beautifully is world-building. Her characters are simply vessels to transport the reader to the richly detailed worlds of her imagination, which can only be compared with Tolkien in terms of scope.

Series Grade: B+