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