Saturday, January 31, 2009

Review: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Ready for another book confession? Here it is: I don't like fantasy books. I have read and enjoyed about ten fantasy books in my entire life, seven of them start with the words "Harry Potter and the..." and the last three are "His Dark Materials." That's considered fantasy, right? Yeah, it has bears that talk for no scientific reason; it's fantasy.

Why don't I like fantasy? I haven't a clue. But every time I've tried to pick one up (outside of the aforementioned ten - and I picked up Harry Potter under duress), I get bored or frustrated and don't finish it.

So I'm surprised by how much I liked Graceling. I didn't just like - I really, really liked it. Generally "I couldn't put it down" is the highest compliment a person can give a book, but I kept forcing myself to take (short) breaks from this one - because I didn't want the adventure to be finished!

Katsa discovered her Graceling power at the tender age of eight - when she killed a lecherous cousin by punching him in the nose and sending shards of bone into his brain. In a world where Graceling abilities can range from swimming to cooking to archery to mind-reading, Katsa's is a fearsome Grace that is immediately put to use by her uncle, King Randa. He has Katsa trained to become his lady killer - a lady of the court who can also kill with her bare hands - or an arrow, or a sword, or a dagger.

But Katsa is more than just the lady killer - with the help of a few sympathetic members of the king's court, she has formed a Council that seeks to right the wrongs committed by kings and other people in power who would abuse their place. While a killer certainly is good as an assassin, Katsa finds her skills are just as useful at helping her sneak through the dark, or incapacitating people who are in the wrong place at the wrong time.

When the Council undertakes a mission to rescue the kidnapped father of the Lienid king, Prince Po becomes one of those who were in the wrong place at the wrong time - Katsa quickly incapacitates him and continues with her mission. But Po - grandson of the man Katsa was rescuing - is a Graceling himself, with skills that are almost a match for Katsa.

Katsa finds Po's presence at court intoxicating and confusing - but when the kidnapping of Po's grandfather leads to a deeper mystery, he and Katsa are the only ones who can save a young princess in danger from her father, and unravel the mystery that could threaten the stability of the seven kingdoms.

This book pretty much has everything one could want in a book: action, adventure, mystery, and romance. Cashore has created a very well rounded world that I hope we get to visit again. Some of her world building comes off as a bit heavy handed; for example, Katsa and Po have several conversations about Graces that at first feel like really, really obvious foreshadowing, but when those conversations don't actually have any bearing on anything else that happens in the story it begins to feel like they were stray thoughts about how Graces work that Cashore felt she absolutely had to address, and did so in an awkward way. Not to mention that at times Katsa comes off as a little overpowered - is there anything she can't do?

What was wonderful, however, is the strong feminist undertone throughout the book. Katsa has lots of extremely feminist thoughts about marriage and self-defense for women, noting that men, who have the most power, physically and politically, are the ones who are trained to wield weapons and fight, while women who are powerless in every way, and in most need of defense, learn nothing. I always love a good story about a woman who knows how to take care of herself (whether that's physical fighting like Katsa, or a more intellectual wit, such as Frankie Landau-Banks has) and wants to teach others the same skill.

Finally, is it just me or is this other cover for the book soooooooooooo much cooler than the cover my version had. Because women with weapons just look badass, and I don't recall sai's appearing anywhere in the story.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Book Roundup: Awards Season!

The winners of various book awards have been trickling out the last few days as the 2009 ALA Midwinter conference has wrapped up. Somehow I managed to not read a single book that won an award (though I've read three of the four Printz honor books). However, as most of my reading over the past six months has been guided by the Best Books for Young Adults nominees, I was most excited to see that list.

Perhaps the best book news for me was seeing that my absolute favorite book of 2008, The Hunger Games was named one of the ten best books for young adults for 2009, along with one of my other favorites, Ten Cents a Dance and Bog Child. And once again, I apparently read a different version of Nation than everyone else, since it made the top ten list, which kind of boggles my mind.

Glancing at the whole list, I see a few books that I would have included aren't there (including the just-reviewed Patron Saint of Butterflies and Gay America), but the books that really stood out to me all seem to have made it, so that's good :-) Perhaps I'll have more insight later when I've had a chance to really compare what I've reviewed so far with what made the list, but for now, work calls.

Review: The Patron Saint of Butterflies by Cecilia Galante

I have a feeling I'm going to end up confessing all of my book obsessions on this blog. I've already confessed my obsession with the Salem witch trials, and horse books, so here's obsession number three: religious communes.

I know. It's weird. I don't know why I like these books - I haven't even read all that many, really, but when I come across one I have to read it. Luckily, The Patron Saint of Butterflies is an excellent book - I'm so glad my compulsion led me to read it.

Agnes and Honey have grown up as close as sisters at Mount Blessing, their strict religious commune in Connecticut. They are Believers, who absolutely follow the teachings of their leader Emmanuel, teachings about everything from maintaining modesty (so everyone wears blue robes) to avoiding red and orange foods (symbols of the devil). Agnes and Honey were born in the commune - Agnes to parents that have been with Emmanuel since he founded the commune, while Honey's mother abandoned her when she was an infant. Honey has since lived with Winky, the groundskeeper for Mount Blessing who tends a beautiful butterfly garden with Honey, and shares with her his love of butterflies and illicit Yankees games on his black and white TV (electronics are also forbidden to the Believers).

But lately, Agnes and Honey have been growing apart. Agnes is desperate to become a saint, and tries to live her life as perfectly as possible. When she feels she fails in attaining perfection, she punishes herself in some way, ranging from fasting until she faints to sleeping with rocks in her bed. Honey, on the other hand, is feeling rebellious towards the commune: she's beginning to doubt that Emmanuel is godlike in any way. Her rebelliousness constantly gets her, and Agnes, who often accompanies her despite her better judgment, sent to the Regulation Room, where Emmanuel beats wayward Believers with belts.

When Agnes' Nana Pete drops in for an unexpected visit to the commune, she discovers for the first time the horrors of the Regulation Room. After Agnes' little brother, Benny, has his hand hurt in an accident - and Emmanuel tries to heal the injury with faith and a needle and thread - Nana Pete loads Honey, Agnes and Benny into her car and whisks them away from the dangers of the commune.

The family is sent on a road trip that is about a lot more than just getting Benny surgical treatment and Honey and Agnes away from the beatings in the Regulation Room - it leads them all on a journey to discover what faith, and family, really are.

This was an extremely touching story that had me near tears twice (once from sadness and once from happiness - and the latter happens much less to me than the former!). Many of the characters are extremely well drawn and nuanced, even characters that don't get as much focus, such as Winky. Both Agnes and Honey have heartbreaking stories - Honey continues to feel abandoned, even though her mother left 14 years ago, and Agnes' struggle towards sainthood is painful to read about at times, yet I was constantly compelled to keep reading.

Review: Gay America: Struggle for Equality by Linas Alsenas

Aaaaaaaand I'm on a roll with the LGBT books.

Gay America is a great non-fiction for teens look at lesbian and gay American history over the last 100 or so years. The book is divided into chapters by decade with each chapter starting with a short narrative story that exemplifies at least part of the lesbian and gay experience during that decade.

And note that I've switched from the abbreviation (LGBT) to just saying lesbian and gay, because that would be the one shortfall of this book: I can't recall a single mention of transgender history, and few references to bisexuality explicitly. Most references to bisexuals are in the form of women who married men, but still carried on same-sex love affairs. Granted, it's much harder to identify someone as bisexual if they don't self-identify, but the silence is a bit glaring.

What I do have to give major props for is the wide inclusion of lesbians. It seems that a lot of gay history focuses on gay men. Here Alsenas at times goes out of her way to address lesbian history, which I'm thankful for.

This seems like a pretty thorough book, with a lot that I didn't know, which is always a good sign for a non-fiction book if you ask me. At times the text felt a little condescending (are modern teenagers really so self-centered that they need to be reminded that in the 1930s gay people wouldn't have been able to connect on the internet?), but the plethora of information and the excellent layout compensate for that.

Review: Last Exit to Normal by Michael Harmon

Ahhh. It's like the universe heard my rant the other day about gay characters in young adult fiction. While the gay men in Last Exit to Normal don't entirely fulfill what I was specifically asking for (YA books with gay protagonists that aren't about how it's ohmigosh SO HARD to be gay), it's certainly a step in the right direction and a unique addition to YA LGBT lit (gotta love that alphabet soup, huh?)

Last Exit to Nowhere doesn't spare any subtlety in relaying the basic relationships of the main characters. 17 year old Ben begins narrating the novel by telling us about the incident when he was 14 when his father came out as gay. According to Ben, this revelation absolutely destroyed the family. His mom picked up and left, and Ben began acting out - smoking pot, drinking, getting into trouble with the law - in his frustration over something he saw as his dad's fault. Ben has a poignant line that comes up several times throughout the book to explain his anger at his father: the only reason Ben exists is because his father was too much of a coward to acknowledge his sexual orientation, and instead lied to himself and his family for years.

After a particularly egregious run-in with the law, Ben's father and his partner, Edward, decide that the only way Ben will truly become rehabilitated is if he's completely removed from the bad influences in Spokane, Washington and the whole family moves back to Edward's rural hometown in Montana.

Life isn't easy back in Montana for anyone. The men move in with Edward's mother, a tough old broad who is set in her ways and isn't afraid to let Ben know it. But ultimately, while she doesn't agree with Edward's lifestyle "choice" she does love her son and is willing to respect Ben provided that he show her the proper respect first. More difficult, though not unexpected, are the small town bigotries about a skateboard punk from the big city and his two dads. Ben is used to being hassled over having a gay father, but that doesn't mean he likes the situation.

What he dislikes more, however, is the situation at his new next-door neighbor's house. On their first day in Rough Butte, Mr. Hinks comes over and tells the newcomers that he doesn't have any particular problem with them, but they're to stay away from him and his son. But after Ben witnesses Mr. Hinks beating his son with a belt, Ben can't stay away. He quietly and semi-secretly befriends 11 year old Billy, determined to help the boy out in any way he can.

Along the way, Ben begins to learn what it's like to put in a hard day's work, and what it truly means to be a man.

I absolutely loved how the relationship between Ben and his dad was portrayed here, even though it's an incredibly painful and awkward relationship at times. Ben has a lot of frustration and anger built up towards his father, and perhaps it's not all unjustified. But perhaps best of all, Ben's father isn't just a gay dad - it's not like Ben's angry just because his father is gay. To me, it seemed like Ben's dad did everything right that he possibly could - after he came out, he put himself and Ben in therapy, he read all the parenting books he could find about raising troubled teenagers, etc. On the other hand, however, it's very easy to see why all of this would be semi-infuriating to Ben and cause him to lash out more.

I also really liked Edward. He's cheeky and snarky, and definitely gets along with Ben (who is also often cheeky and snarky), but then at other times he steps back and is definitely in the role of step-parent. It's a great blend that works well to build him into a well-rounded character and not just a flat "Boyfriend" character.

This is a book that is going to ring true with a lot of teenagers, even ones that don't have gay parents. Ben's frustration with his father is something universal, and watching their relationship evolve is a story a lot of us need to see.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Review: Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Doyle

Yesterday was a bad book day for me. I had several long subway rides, and I had this and Feathered with me - I was very unhappy for most of the day. Reading disappointing books can throw off my whole day.

Down to the Bone doesn't waste any time in letting us know what this book is going to be about. On the first page Laura is reading a love letter from her girlfriend in the middle of class on her last day of her junior year of high school, and by page 10 the note has been discovered by her teacher, read in front of the class, and Laura has been thrown out of her conservative Latino Catholic high school for being a tortillera. Shortly after, Laura is also thrown out of her house, along with her little puppy (who has so many cutesy nicknames half the time I didn't recognize the dog when it was called by its actual name), because not only is she a "degenerate," but she won't reveal her girlfriend's identity.

From there, the story rambles on, jumping ahead months at a time in order to reach the next significant plot point. Laura's girlfriend, Marlena, is shipped back to Puerto Rico to marry a guy when her family discovers her diary and her writings about Laura. Laura pines over Marlena and is heartbroken when she calls up to say they were both sick and wrong and that she wholeheartedly loves her new heterosexual life. From there, Laura - who is also now determined to be straight in order to get back into her mother's good graces and see her little brother again - falls in with a huge group of friends of varying stages of queerness, which seems like an odd choice for a wanna-be straight girl. She has to deal with her conflicting feelings for the lone straight guy in the group, her mad crush on a waitress at a local gay restaurant, and hostile co-workers.

All in all, way too much was happening in this novel. On the back cover, Brent Hartinger asks where all the lesbian books are, and where the racial diversity is at in young adult queer lit. Well, I don't know where Brent has been, but lesbian protagonists aren't a new thing (and in my experience, their books tend to be better than the gay male books...). As for the racial diversity, yes, there has been a lack of that in YA queer lit, but do we have to accept a sub-par book in order to start filling that gap? It feels like Doyle recognized we need more young lesbians of color in literature, and decided to tackle every possible permutation of The Gay Book in her one novel in order to fill the gap. And all of these problems feel like they've been put there in order to avoid writing an actual plot.

The biggest offense in this book has absolutely nothing to do with homosexuality, but is actually the writing style itself. We are told everything in this book (sometimes in excruciating detail - do we need to know her right hand slapped her right thigh and she raised her left eyebrow? I'm really not even exaggerating that example) rather than shown it. We are told that Laura likes giving natural things as gifts, followed by an awkward and out of place paragraph detailing why. Every time a new person joins the group there's another awkward introduction scene where details of a character's personality, that don't have any bearing on the plot, are re-hashed.

And then a small, personal annoyance: every character in this book is around 17 or 18 years old - yet apparently all know exactly what they want in a romantic partner. Some don't like bi-girls, others don't like girls that are too butch or too femme, some like a girl who takes control in bed and others don't. It had me sitting there wondering if I was the only person who hadn't even figured out that she liked men and women by the time she was 18 (Laura isn't really struggling with this issue - she knows she likes girls, she just wants to like boys instead). There was lots of black and white in this book, even when so many of the characters hated labels being applied to themselves, they were willing to judge one another by relatively inflexible standards.

I really feel like literature of gay teens has come a long way since books like Annie on My Mind - a classic and important book, but the quintessential "problem" novel where the two girls face mostly heartache because of their sexual orientation. We need more books like my favorite Empress of the World - a romance where the two romantic leads just happen to be girls. The biggest angst in that one is Nic trying to figure out how she can like a girl when previously she's liked boys. She doesn't think it's weird or wrong that she likes Battle, it's just confusing. Even better will be when books more like Another Kind of Cowboy become the norm. There's still a lot of focus on Alex's sexuality in this one, but there's also a plot outside of romance or sexuality, the world of competitive dressage. When gay characters can appear beside straight characters in stories that aren't about being gay, then we'll know we've reached some sort of equality. At this point, while racial diversity is certainly important and all people should see themselves represented in some way in literature, this one doesn't feel like its advancing much of a cause between the simplistic plot and overall poor writing.

Review: Feathered by Laura Kasischke

Wow, was this book ever a struggle to get through.

Terri, Anne and Michelle are off to Cancun to soak up the sun during spring break. The three are determined to make this week - the last spring break of high school - totally different from the rest of their lives in cold, snowy Illinois. Sun, drinks, and cute boys are the order of the week!

Terri dives headfirst into the fun, drinking and laughing it up with her fellow spring breakers. Anne and Michelle are slightly more hesitant, perhaps spurred on by the numerous speeches about safety their mothers have delivered, and have an additional item on their agenda: explore the ancient Mayan ruins that aren't too far from their hotel.

On the first night at the resort, Anne and Michelle meet Ander, a fatherly-type figure, old enough to be the father of most of the spring breakers, and with a foreign (not Mexican) accent. He's planning on visiting the ruins the next day as well and invites Anne and Michelle to come with him. Both hesitate - accepting a ride from a male stranger is exactly what their mothers warned them not to do - but ultimately agree.

At the ruins, Michelle is drawn into the myths and bloody history of the Mayan culture as Ander weaves stories about the sacrifices of virgins at the top of the pyramid. For the first time in her life, Michelle feels like she's actually having an adventure, actually doing something she could never do back in Illinois. Anne, meanwhile, is getting extremely creeped out by Ander. She refuses to accompany him and Michelle to the top of the pyramid and instead meets of trio of high school guys, also from Illinois, who are willing to drive Michelle and Anne back to the hotel, so long as they don't mind making a detour to a party at the Club Med first. (Insert ominous music - you know what's going to happen next)

Kasischke does do a good job of giving the story a sense of danger and depression throughout. Michelle is constantly reminiscing about some of the more depressing aspects of her childhood and growing up. What stuck out most to me, perhaps, was her constant fixation on things she couldn't do because she was a girl. She couldn't become a doctor or an astronaut because no woman she knew in her hometown had gone on to do those things - that's what men did. She doesn't make eye contact with men because she's terrified that they all think she's going to be coming on to them. I think these feelings will ring true to a lot of young women, and while I appreciate these issues being brought up in fiction, at times they felt heavy handed here. But these ruminations are the sole reason I'm pulling out the feminist label for this book, because they are issues that feminism is trying to tackle, even if they aren't handled in a particularly feminist way in this book.

Also interesting here was the use of alternating first person and third person narrative styles, like Another Kind of Cowboy used. I thought it was interesting that I stumbled across that particular stylistic device two books in a row. Additionally, Anne and Michelle tell their stories in two different tenses - Anne's parts of the book are first person, present tense while Michelle's are third person, past tense. Unlike Another Kind of Cowboy, however, it eventually becomes obvious why the two girls are narrating in totally different styles.

My biggest problems with the novel have to do with the ending - which is clearly a spoiler. If you've read the book and want to know my reaction to the end, or don't care about knowing the end ahead of time, click on "Read More"

Once the story starts following Anne, Michelle and the boys the story becomes rather predictable, at least if you've read the jacket and know that Michelle is supposed to disappear at some point in this story. But that predictability isn't necessarily a bad thing - what got bad about this novel is how nicely everything ended.

I think when I put this book on my to-read list, I was hoping for some sort of examination of Missing White Woman Syndrome in the light of instances like Natalee Holloway's disappearance. Definitely didn't happen. In fact, this read a lot like the after-school special version of a case like Natalee Holloway's - terrible things happen to these girls (but we never know how actually terrible), but everyone ends up back in Illinois by the end. Yes, Michelle is traumatized, until a feather brings her totally back to reality. I Am Not A Doctor, and my knowledge on amnesia is limited to what I just read on Wikipedia, but generally amnesia doesn't seem to work that way. It was an incredibly frustrating ending to what was already turning out to be a disappointing/frustrating book.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Review: Another Kind of Cowboy by Susan Juby

Oh, man, when I was a kid I loved horse books. Is there a woman out there who didn't devour them when she was a kid? I think there's something about it in our DNA. Misty of Chincoteague was the one I read over and over again - probably because it was one of the books my mom remembered reading as a kid, so it was something we could share.

I don't recall actually, seriously, wanting a horse though. I do, however, remember once terrifying the daughter of one of my mom's friends while we were pretending we had horses. I was very thorough in my pretending - after galloping the horses around the yard and making sure they were well fed, I decided we also had to clean up after the horses - conveniently we had a rock pile the looked rather like horse manure. This apparently was too much for the girl and she ran crying to her mom. :-( I wasn't trying to traumatize her - it was just a natural extension of pretending you had a horse!

Which is probably part of why I found Alex in Another Kind of Cowboy to be so charming and endearing. As a kid, Alex dreamed of riding horses. When his family couldn't afford a horse - or his mother simply refused to allow one anywhere near her house, believing that Alex wasn't responsible enough to care for one - Alex rode his bike around the neighborhood, using an old red dog leash as reins and making sure the bike/horse had feed and water every night.

While Alex loved everything about horses, his true passion was awakened after seeing dressage riding on TV. Not that his dad was ever going to allow that - so when his dad wins old Colonel Turnipseed (Turnip for short) in a poker game, Alex takes up the manly cowboy event of Western riding. But Alex never gives up his dream of dressage, and when a pair of dressage riding teachers, Fergus and Ivan, move into town, Alex works out an agreement with them that lets him learn the art of dressage in exchange for chores around the farm.

Living in a completely opposite world is Cleo, daughter of a rich and famous LA director, Cleo loved collecting plastic horses as a child. She never wanted anything to do with real horses, but her parents, wanting to get her involved in an athletic activity, threw money at all of the right people until Cleo was able to get riding and dressage lessons with one heck of a horse. After a significant lapse in romantic judgment leads to the family's house being robbed, Cleo's parents ship her off to Canada where she can attend an elite all-girls riding school. However, the school's focus is on jumping - which terrifies the hell out of Cleo - so with more money exchanging hands, Cleo's parents arrange for her to begin taking lessons from Fergus and Ivan as well.

Alex and Cleo have almost nothing in common. Alex adores his horse, adores riding, and doesn't mind putting in a hard day's work. Cleo is indifferent to her horse, couldn't care less about riding, and thinks it's incredibly unfair that she is paying for lessons and boarding her horse yet she's expected to clean out the horses stall. The only thing they do seem to have in common is Cameron, a dreamy boy Cleo meets at a party and falls head over heels for, but Cameron is a lot more interested in Alex than he is Cleo!

After an awkward almost-date, Alex comes out to Cleo, and an uneasy friendship begins. Cleo supports Alex's sexuality and pesters him to come out to his eccentric family - twin sisters who want to be movie stunt women and a hair dresser aunt who consistently tries to kill the family with her attempts at cooking. But Alex finds Cleo's fascination with his aunt and his sister's frustrating, as well as her inattention to her horse and the art of dressage. Additionally, Alex has the constant pressure of hiding his identity from his alcoholic father and his latest girlfriend - a local realtor who lends Alex her dressage-trained horse when it becomes obvious that old Turnip can't handle the rigors of the event.

Alex finally seems to get one wish answered when Cleo gets a new roommate at school - one who is more interested in partying and booze than horses or school. Cleo starts spending more and more time drunk at parties, leaving her unable to visit Alex's family - or show up for dressage lessons on time. Meanwhile, Alex's father begins to grow suspicious of why his son would be interested in a "girly" event like dressage, and life for both Cleo and Alex looks like it's going to collapse at any moment.

Juby seems to really know her stuff about horses and dressage - or at least she knows enough to sound smart, which is more than enough to fool a total lay-person like me. Yet despite all of the information on horses and dressage, it's all explained well enough that said lay-person can understand what is going on.

Alex's sexuality is handled extremely well - while in some ways this is a book about coming out and accepting yourself, since the book has the larger story of dressage it no longer becomes a Book About Being Gay. On the other hand, Cleo's problems are handled with much less subtlety and sometimes have the feeling of an after-school special.

One final note of interest: the story is told in alternating chapters by both Alex and Cleo, with Alex's chapters being told in third person and Cleo's in first. Just one of those writing choices that make me go "huh" and wonder why the author went that route. Right now I'm thinking it's because Alex is such a private person that he would never tell his story, but then why not just stick with third person throughout?

Review: Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson

I love books about New York City, my new home. And after spending most of my life on stage, I love books about theatre as well. Combine these two with Maureen Johnson's flair for quirky characters and fun dialog and you have what may be the perfect book for me (just missing the end of the world theme that has been so common in my reading as of late!)

The Martin family has lived in and run the Hopewell Hotel since the 1920s. By now, it's certainly seen better days (some of which are detailed in the guide book excerpts sprinkled throughout the book) - by Scarlett's fifteenth birthday, all of the staff has been let go and while she's excited to be given responsibility over the prestigious Empire Suite (as every Martin takes over the housekeeping and guest maintenance duties for a specific room on the fifteenth birthday), the hotel now sits empty more often than it's full. Still, Scarlett is expected to spend the summer cleaning towels and manning the front desk while her friends have exciting adventures around the world.

Enter Amy Amberson, a former New York City starlet who has returned to the City to find her roots (or her voice, or release her chakras...she seems to have lots of reasons for returning!), and of course she wants to stay in the Empire Suite. A woman who knows what she wants (at least at the moment) and how to get it, Mrs. Amberson immediately conscripts Scarlett as her personal assistant for the summer, constantly sending Scarlett on errands for everything from books on how to write to ensuring Mrs. Amberson has an endless supply of organic tea.

But one new guest isn't going to save the hotel, and the Martin family faces crisis after crisis. Responsible older sister Lola suddenly finds herself jobless after spending too much time trying to keep up with her rich boyfriend. The oldest member of the Martin clan, Spencer, is at the end of a year off from school, so now he either has to find a paying acting gig or accept a scholarship to culinary school (hardly the life of his dreams!). A show comes up at the last minute - a parking garage-staged production of Hamlet - but when the show starts facing problems it's up to Scarlett and Mrs. Amberson to save the day. Scarlett not only has to balance her new job as Mrs. Amberson's gopher, but a budding, confusing, and knee-weakening romance with southern charmer Eric, one of Spencer's fellow cast members. And Marlene, the youngest Martin, is a childhood cancer survivor who needs to be the center of attention (unless it's Scarlett's attention - the two sisters have a tempestuous relationship).

Johnson has perfectly captured so much in this book, from the craziness of the theatre to the difficulties a family faces when one of its members has special needs. Marlene's portrayal - and Scarlett's reactions to her - was spot on.

One thing totally outside of the story that I found interesting on a personal level was Johnson's acknowledgments. Over the past year or two I've started paying more attention to the acknowledgments and author's notes - I used to only read them if they were in historical fiction and gave some insight into the historical accuracy or research of the novel. Now that I'm paying closer attention I'm finding more and more of my favorite books all reference the same group of authors - usually Scott Westerfeld, Justine Larbelestier and Holly Black. It's just interesting to me how some of my favorite writers all seem to like each other as well!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Review: Ivy by Julie Hearn

... It's inauguration day. I have no clever lead in to this summary and review.

Ivy has lead a hard life, even by the low standards of Paradise Row. Orphaned as a young child and left to live with her invalid aunt and scheming cousin, Ivy has suffered more than her fair share of humiliation and abuse by the age of five, when we first meet her. She has fiery red hair and oddly colored eyes, quite unlike her aunt's family. When Ivy is given the chance to attend school with her favorite younger cousin, she is wary, but is excited to get out from under her aunt's wrath.

But school isn't any better for Ivy. Humiliated by her teacher and other workers at the school, Ivy runs away on her first day and falls in with a "skinner" - someone who literally steals the clothes off of people's backs - called Carroty Kate. After Ivy lies to Carroty and tells her she has no home to return to, Carroty takes Ivy under her wing and the two become an inseparable pair - to the mild chagrin of the others in Carroty's gang of n'er-do-wells.

In order to keep Ivy calm in the early days of the partnership, Carroty Kate introduces her to the soothing effects of laudanum - the drug that, ten years later when the story picks back up, with Ivy back under the care of her aunt and cousins, Ivy has a terrible addiction to.

Now Ivy spends much of her time in a laudanum-induced daze. To the endless contempt of her family, Ivy doesn't contribute to the family business (either pulling scams or selling flowers) - she's too doped up. She hasn't told them where she spent the two years she had disappeared.

Despite the heavy drug use, Ivy's unique appearance has grown into a sort of a beauty as she has aged. In the market one day she attracts the attention of an artist, Oscar Fosdick, who insists that she become his new model for his paintings. With the promise of a generous salary, Ivy's family sign her up for the job.

And here's where the conflicts begin: from the first day, Ivy and Oscar's mother are constantly at odds. Another (more famous) artist lives next door, and finds Ivy to be the spitting image of his late wife (who died after an overdose of laudanum) - and as another layer of intrigue, his young servant is quite smitten with Ivy as well. Ivy is increasingly unhappy in her work as a model - both because it is tedious work and the constant harassment from Mrs. Fosdick - but her chances for happiness seem to be foiled at every turn.

Lots of reviews are comparing this to Dickens. I have to admit that I haven't really read any Dickens, but I kept feeling like, at least in narrative style, I was reading Jane Eyre. I kept expecting the page to read something along the lines of "Reader, I married him." Thankfully nothing that obvious came up, but this does seem to be a rather meta novel - the narrator is very aware that she/he is conveying a story.

In the author's note at the end, Hearn explains that she was inspired by a real life painting that appears in the novel, and wanted to, in a way, create a better life for the ill-fated subject of that painting. However, I found that explanation rather jolting - the painting appears rather late in the story, so it seemed like an odd point of inspiration. Additionally, the "better life" Hearn tried to create comes about rather conveniently at the last moment.

Overall, this book felt extremely flat. I had small problems with everything from the narrative style to the motivations of various characters. Individually, my issues are in fact rather small, but considering there are so many of them they add up to a less-than-thrilling novel.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Review: Forever Changes by Brendan Halpin

While reading this book, I couldn't help but have flashbacks to middle school, when I was obsessed with Lurlene McDaniel books. That's not to say that McDaniel's books and Forever Changes actually have anything in common - they're really quite different, except for starring teenagers with terminal illnesses - but I think the worry was always there in the back of my mind that at any moment this well written book would descend into narm.

Thankfully, it didn't.

Brianna is a senior in high school with cystic fibrosis. After having watched another friend with cystic fibrosis die recently, Brianna is probably the only person in her AP calculus class that isn't obsessing over getting college credit for the course. She loves math, and is incredibly good at it - so good her father keeps pressuring her to apply to MIT - but Brianna knows there's a very real possibility that she won't live to get her high school diploma, let alone a college degree.

But she also tries not to focus too much on her own mortality. She is an "illness mentor" to Ashley, a freshman who also has cystic fibrosis and looks up to Brianna to help her with everything from giving her the confidence to audition for the school play to coping with her parents' impending divorce, and good illness mentors keep the mentee's spirits up, not bring them down with thoughts of death. Then there are Brianna's best friends, Melissa and Stephanie, who provide Brianna with a daily dose of Munchkins from Dunkin' Donuts (seriously, did Dunkin' Donuts sponsor the book? Because there were lots of Munchkins eaten during this book) and constantly need Brianna's help to shepherd them through their math homework.

Over the course of her senior year, Brianna also develops special friendships with Adam, a fellow AP Calculus student who introduces Brianna to the psychedelic music of Love, a rock band their calculus teacher may or may not have been part of back in the day, and Mr. Eccles, the aforementioned calculus teacher who ponders the infinite and mortality with Brianna in the face of his own health problems.

While it is a bit of a cliche, with encouragement from her friends and her father, Brianna ultimately applies to MIT, even though she still has reservations not only about her chances of getting in, but her chances of seeing graduation day. And on top of the concerns over her MIT application and increasing amount of homework, plus helping her dad with the bookkeeping for his new side business of customizing motorcycles, Brianna can feel herself slowly getting sicker.

My biggest gripe with this book is that I feel it's going to feel incredibly dated in a few years. Will Not Another Teen Movie and Kyra Sedgewick on The Closer be as recognizable in five years as they are today? (Of course the reference to Jack Sparrow is a timeless inclusion ;-) Not every book has to be written with longevity in mind, perhaps, but some of these pop culture references felt rather forced.

What surprised me in how much I liked it was all of the math that was in the book. Brianna is constantly trying to figure out the force, speed or volume of everyday activities and items in her life. While she never seems to be able to figure them out exactly, it was a different way (for me) to look at math. And then Mr. Eccles actually had the ability to make math sound vaguely interesting. Not that I would have wanted to be in his class (I failed Advanced Algebra twice before finally passing it, and imaginary numbers ticked me off - the whole point of math is supposed to be that it's concrete, right?), but he certainly put a philosophic bent on calculus.

Additionally, let me reassure you that despite my earlier reference to Lurlene McDaniel, her books and this one really have nothing in common. Brianna has a lot of spunk to her, and while she does reference having sex as one of the things that was on her "Things to do before I die" list, she certainly isn't obsessed with having a boyfriend and being a perfect angel. She talks back to her dad, goes out to parties, and usually has a fairly pragmatic view of her death - rarely does she descend into self pity.

I also have to say, that while I saw the ending coming, and parts of it seemed a little too pat and perfect, it also had me with tears in my eyes while I was on my break at work.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Review: Looks by Madeleine George

This is a slim book, but it's not a fast read because of it's length: it's a fast read because of the engrossing and unique tale Madeleine George spins about two girls and their struggles with their bodies, making friends and, of course, high school.

Meghan Ball is the fat girl - at least, that's what poet Aimee Zorn dubs her before she learns Meghan's name. Meghan has perfected the art of invisibility - she's so large that people treat her as if she were part of the scenery, or perhaps mentally disabled, and will say things around her they would never say if anyone else were listening.

At first there's only one exception to her powers of invisibility: the school's jock hero J-Bar has made it his personal mission to harass Meghan as much as possible - so long as he thinks the only witnesses are his jock friends.

The second exception is new student Aimee Zorn, who is as thin as Meghan is fat. Meghan sees a kindred spirit in Aimee, as if their polar opposite physiques could make them an unstoppable team. Years of perfecting invisibility, however, seem to have robbed Meghan of her ability to speak to the enigmatic new girl, so all Aimee sees is the fat girl - someone worthy of pity thanks to the merciless teasing from J-Bar Aimee witnessed.

Aimee joins the literary magazine and becomes fast friends with the editor, Cara, while Meghan lurks in the shadows of Aimee's life, first desperate to befriend her, then desperate to warn her away from Cara. When Aimee doesn't heed Meghan's warning, she realizes that she needs the fat girl's help - and an unstoppable team is born.

Surrounding Aimee's and Meghan's story is a colorful cast of characters, from Aimee's slacker ex-almost-step-father, to Mr. Handsley, the advisor for the literary magazine, passionate fan of the Caesar (as in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar) and enemy of jocks everywhere, to the incredibly obtuse Ms. Champoux (like the hair soap) who is probably the worst morning announcement reader ever.

Now, I'm not a fan of poetry, but generally I loved the poems that are scattered throughout this book. There are some great contrasts in poetic styles, from the cliche'd bit of high school poetry about birds first submitted to the literary magazine by one of Cara's simpering devotees to the rough, raw and ragged poetry that Aimee digs out from her weak little frame. They're great poems (or not so great poems used for great contrasting effect) and are used in just the right amount to keep from overwhelming the prose.

I also loved how Aimee's anorexia was treated, for Aimee is never actually diagnosed with anorexia through the entire book - she merely has allergies. To everything. So she doesn't eat. Lots of YA books have been written about girls with anorexia, but for such a complex disorder so many books reduce it down to one cause with one pattern of behaviors.

And finally, Mr. Handsley may be my favorite fictional teacher ever. Sure, I knew I was going to like him when he was so passionate about Julius Caesar (not my favorite Shakespeare play by a long shot, but it's more fun than Romeo & Juliet), but then he kicked a kid out of class for calling another kid a faggot and I just about cheered. I would have liked a lot more of my high school teachers if they'd had the guts to do that!

This is a great book about standing out from the crowd, and how living one's life as if one were invisible isn't actually a life at all.

Review: Peace: The Biography of a Symbol by Ken Kolsbun

My second National Geographic book in a month! I feel so educated.

This was a nice little book about the history of the peace symbol, from it's creation as a symbol for nuclear disarmament to the multitude of causes it represents today. Most fascinating to me were the legal battles the peace symbol has been part of, including whether decorations (such as peace signs) can be added to American flags.

On the other hand, I wasn't a fan of the layout of the book. The introductory summary to each chapter had a quotation in large letters that was interspersed with the narrative text (so you'd read a couple of lines of summary, and then be faced with a couple of words of quotation, and then go back to the summary). And then sometimes there'd be a picture in the middle of the page, but instead of splitting the text into two columns, the text continued all the way across the page. While neither choice made the book unreadable, they seemed like poor design choices from my perspective.

Review: Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi

I have long been a fan of science fiction. I blame my parents: they've been Trekkers since the original series was out (though we're all nervous about that new movie that's coming out...but that's a post for a different blog!). Hence, a lot of my reading skews towards science fiction, though often it's "soft" science fiction - as opposed to hardcore Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke. Those stories focus a lot on the science and technology of the future - like a lot of Star Trek can do. The stories that generally appeal to me however are of the softer variety, where the story is clearly in the future and science-y stuff has happened, but that's kind of on the periphery and the story is going to focus more on the characters and how they feel. And while I like the "hard" science fiction, there's one big turn off for me: it's all about dudes. Women and girls don't get to have rollicking action adventures nearly often enough.

Which is why I found Zoe's Tale to be so fun. There's lots of hard science fiction in here - we've got new space colonies being settled, aliens that have had consciousness artificially installed, and space battles.

Big space battles.

And right in the thick of all of this science fiction action adventure is Zoe. Adopted daughter of the leaders of the new colony (called Roanoke. And their first settlement is Croatoan. Of course this colony is going to have Big Problems) and a revered almost-Goddess of the Obin - the aliens with the artificial consciousness, thanks to the work of Zoe's biological father. For most of her life, Zoe has constantly been accompanied by two Obin, named Hickory and Dickory, who act as her bodyguards while they record her entire life in order to teach the Obin back home about what it means to live.

Being part of the first waves of colonists to Roanoke isn't exactly exciting, but it's a lot more exciting than continuing to live a comfortable life on New Delhi, Zoe's last home. But founding the new colony becomes much more exciting (in a less-than-positive way) when the Colonial Union government reveals at the last minute that the colonists aren't being sent to the planet they originally thought - they're going to found Roanoke on a completely different planet, and be completely cut off from the rest of human civilization in order to shield the colony from being discovered by the Conclave - a group of aliens who are hostile to humans expanding their colonial presence in space. The Conclave wants to destroy Roanoke, and the only way to protect the fledgling colony was to mislead the Conclave about their location and cut off all radio contact with Roanoke.

Of course, even the best laid plans can fall apart. And that's where the science fiction action adventure really kicks in. While life on Roanoke is initially rather quiet, with the colonists having to learn how to live without any of the electric devices they've always relied on (from PDAs to farm equipment). Adapting to life on a different planet presents its own set of challenges, everything from learning to live with the rotten smell of the plant-life to the presence of other species on the planet. Zoe has some adventures while on the surface, but it's nothing compared to what happens when the Conclave does find Roanoke...and the choices Zoe must make in order to protect her family, friends, and the sacred bond she has with the Obin.

This is the fourth book in Scalzi's Old Man's War series. I haven't read any of the other books, but was convinced by Lynn Rutan's review over here that not only would this be right up my alley, but it wouldn't be hard to get into. She was absolutely right. Scalzi does an excellent job giving the backstory so it's entirely possible to enjoy this without any previous knowledge of the story. It doesn't hurt that Zoe is an incredibly fun character with razor sharp wit. Scalzi includes an extremely informative author's note at the end about how he went about writing a parallel novel (this follows the events of The Lost Colony) and writing a teenage girl. Not having read The Lost Colony, I have no idea how successful this works as a parallel piece, but he definitely got the teenage girl part exactly right.

I didn't run out immediately to get the previous Old Man's War books (I had a huge stack of books I reserved from the library come in all at once, so I have to wade through some of those first!), but I'm sure I'll eventually wander over to them.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Review: Helen's Eyes: A Photobiography of Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller's Teacher

Wow, that's a long title for such a slim book.

For years I've been fascinated by the life of Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan. They were a dynamic pair, and I think they always held my attention because they were a pair of women who lived their lives largely unaided by men - great role models for my young feminist self. Both women did marry, but they maintained a strong friendship and working relationship for almost fifty years.

This is a solid photobiography of Anne Sullivan's life, especially for younger readers who may know about Helen Keller but not so much about Anne Sullivan. There are lots of pictures, naturally, but they're not always the most compelling as the photography of Anne's lifetime didn't lend itself well to candid or action shots. The layout of the book is nice, though if you want to get the most of the photographs read it in a well lit area, as often they will layer sepia-toned photographs on top of each other, placing a letter or a picture of a house behind photos of Annie, Helen and other people in their lives. The sepia-on-sepia tones make it hard to see any details unless you're in direct light.

Review: Cherry Heaven by L.J. Adlington

Book number two of 2009. And another dystopian novel. Remember how I said I love this genre? I think I'm beginning to feel overkill. Or maybe that was just the frustration of realizing part way through the book that I was reading a sequel/companion book without having read the first one. The jacket blares in several places that LJ Adlington also wrote The Diary of Pelly D, but it doesn't say anywhere that this is a sequel and/or companion piece.

Cherry Heaven is told via alternating points of view: one that alternates between third person limited and third person omniscient (most of the book follows Kat, but will jump to someone else's POV whenever it's convenient) while Kat and Tanka J move from the battle-scarred City Five with their foster parents to the peaceful New Frontier, while the other point of view is the first person journey of a girl escaping a brutal factory and journeying across the New Frontier to find her old home and seek revenge against the people who wronged her at the factory.

Yes, it's a little convoluted at times, but over all fairly enjoyable.

Kat and Tanka are orphans who have been raised by their foster parents, though Kat and Tanka call them aunt and uncle. When Aunt Milijue and Uncle Prester are offered prestigious positions in the New Frontier - invited by the leader of the New Frontier Q Essnid himself. The family moves into a homestead called Cherry Heaven - apparently ten years ago or so the cherries raised on this farm were legendary, but then a terrible tragedy befell the family, ending the cherry supply.

Ten years ago, the New Frontier almost fell victim to the violence that was tearing apart the cities on the other side of the planet (the violence that left Kat and Tanka orphans): a madman named Oklear Foster was killing people of the Galrezi gene clan (don't ask me what exactly that means - all I know is there are three gene clans in this world and the Galrezi are pretty much universally despised. And it is apparently possible to be of a different gene clan than your parents, because Kat and Tanka's parents were Galrezi while Kat and Tanka themselves are part of the elite Atsumisi gene clan), and among the people he killed was the family at Cherry Heaven. The house has sat empty since then, though the last cherry harvest has been left untouched in the cryo-freezer.

At the same time Kat and Tanka are moving into Cherry Heaven, Luka has escaped from the Blue Mountain bottled water bottling factory. She's been forced to endure barbaric working conditions at the hands of Director and Bossman for the last ten years. But she is determined to prove that she is not merely Galrezi scum, but is in fact smarter than anyone and hatches an ingenious - and painful - plan to escape. Of course, escaping the factory is just the first step. She has to travel on foot as winter looms, avoiding the security forces that are searching for her and want to put her back into the hellhole of the factory.

Kat and Tanka must adjust to life on the New Frontier as dangers loom around them. Wanted posters around town make Luka seem like a half-crazed maniac, and Kat is sure she keeps seeing a man lurking in the cherry orchard. In the meantime, they must also contend with finding new friends (and boyfriends), and an ongoing contest sponsored by Blue Mountain, where the finder of a marked bottle cap will win a day with the world's biggest movie star.

Overall I had a lot of frustrations with this book. There was so much that wasn't answered for me, and I'm not sure how much of that was because it's a sequel and how much was sloppy writing. Why on earth (well, whatever planet they're actually on - humans destroyed Earth through a multitude of wars long ago and humanity has now migrated to another planet) does everyone have gills? As I asked above, how can children belong to a different gene clan than their parents? I'm no scientist, but it seems to me that gene clan would refer to the genes you inherit from your parents. Did Milijue and Prester fake Kat and Tanka's gene test? And then there's the mystery at the heart of the novel - what happened ten years ago at Cherry Heaven? A satisfactory answer (or even excuse!) is never presented. I have to admit, I'm mildly curious as to how much of this is answered in the previous book, but I don't know if I'm curious enough to actually seek it out, as I fear I would just find more frustration.

Review: Ten Cents a Dance by Christine Fletcher

My first book of 2009! That I read several days ago...I do my blogging in spurts. I'll spend a couple of days reading and working, and then use my days off to catch up on all of my blogging. Not the most sustainable method of blogging, but it's what I've got.

Ten Cents a Dance is a heartbreaking and in some ways terrifying story of a teenaged taxi dancer during WWII. Ruby Jacinski has lived her whole life in Chicago's Back of the Yards. After her single mother is no longer able to work in the physically demanding meat packing plant, Ruby quits school and takes up at the plant in her mother's place. She works in the least glamorous place imaginable - packing jars of pickled pigs feet (bleck!).

Whenever she can convince her mother to let her out of the house, however, Ruby loves to go with her best friend from the neighborhood to dance halls. Ruby is an excellent dancer, and her moves, good looks and spunk attract the attention of one of the neighborhood's bad boys, Paulie Suelze, who suggests she start working at the Starlight Dance Academy, where she could pull down as much as $50 a week. Compared to her $12 a week salary at the meat packing plant, Ruby jumps at the chance.

Of course, the Starlight Dance Academy isn't the sort of place Ruby's mother wants her working, even before Ruby realizes how seedy the joint is (she originally believes it's a very elegant and respectable establishment), and so begins Ruby's balancing act. She must keep her mother and younger sister believing that she's a telephone switchboard operator. As a dancer at the club, she has to balance the needs and desires of a diverse client base in order to keep raking in the generous tips and free after work meals that pad her regular pay check. On the one hand she has an extremely generous but rather straight-laced and racist benefactor, and on the other she and a friend have been entertaining a pair of Filipino gentlemen who may not have the most money but can dance and enjoy going to hopping jazz joints. There are the other women at the Starlight who are all vying for the same pool of men in order to keep earning money. And then there's Paulie, who starts dating Ruby behind her mother's back (another secret she has to keep from her family), who doesn't seem to care about what Ruby does at work, but is increasing the pressure on her to be "sweet" to him in the backseat of his car.

In short, it's a tangled web that Ruby falls into. She fights racism, attempted rape, pressure for sex, family loyalty, balancing work and home life, having a socially unacceptable job - and all of this against the background of the beginning of World War II and Chicago's ethnically divided neighborhoods.

There was a lot going on in this book (just look at all the tags this one fits under), but Fletcher handled all of it wonderfully, in part because she didn't try to give everything equal significance. For example, a lot of the racism happened on the periphery or in the background, as there were some jazz clubs that Ruby and her Filipino date couldn't get into because of his ethnicity, and a lot of the women at the Starlight carelessly threw around racial slurs when referring to the different types of men who might patron the establishment (the worst of it happens after Pearl Harbor).

At some points, Ruby is painfully naive, but it added to the weight and the heartbreak of the story, especially because Ruby tries so hard to be tough and worldly.

The author's note at the end of the book gives some fascinating insight into the creation of the book, from Fletcher's inspiration to the extensive research she put into the book (she really wanted to know exactly where all of the various ethnic neighborhoods were and what people of different groups thought of each other).

Friday, January 2, 2009

Favorite books of 2008

So we're on the second day of 2009, and I'm still ruminating on 2008. Procrastination has always been one of my finer talents.

Here are some of my favorite books that I read in 2008. Not all were published this year (though most of them were, because I've been pulling books to read from the list of BBYA nominated titles), but all of them were read at some point between January 1st and December 31st 2008.

In no particular order:

  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.
    This may be my favorite book of the year. It has everything that I love in a book: a kick ass female protagonist, action and adventure, a smart and exciting plot, dystopian governments, and did I mention that Katniss quite literally kicks ass? I started reading this book on the way to work one day (as so much of my reading is done on the subway - it's possibly the best part about living in New York), and I read the first third or so on the subway and during my breaks at work. I got home and did a little bit more reading until I got to the end of the chapter when it was announced that the Hunger Games were about to begin. I took a short break to go to the bathroom, get a drink and check my e-mail. I had posted on Good Reads earlier in the day that I was reading the book, and Cindy Dobrez commented that she couldn't wait to hear what I thought. I replied to tell her that so far I was enjoying it, but I had to leave because the Hunger Games had begun.

    Three hours later I returned to the computer to begin raving semi-incoherently to anyone who would listen about how much I loved this book. I drove my fiance crazy while I was reading it because I couldn't keep quiet. And then I discovered that the author was going to be in town that weekend, and I just so happened to have the day off of work, so I woke up way too early on a Saturday morning in order to haul myself into Union Square and meet Suzanne Collins (and several other awesome YA authors). The author event wasn't as awesome as I had hoped it would be, but that doesn't take away how much I loved this book.

  • The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks by E. Lockhart.
    I've read three of the five books nominated for the National Book Award young people's literature category this year: This one, Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson and What I Saw and How I Lied, the eventual winner. From those three, in my not so humble opinion, Disreputable History is by far the best! Frankie is incredibly smart and witty, though not immune from the charms of a handsome older boy and, perhaps most impressive to me, she isn't afraid of the word "feminist." For Frankie, it's an obvious thing that she's a feminist and she doesn't understand why some people think that's weird. And because Frankie self-identifies as a feminist, it gives the epic pranks she orchestrates throughout the novel a much deeper level of meaning.

  • The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex.
    This was the book I read for most of my road trip out to New York. Driving halfway across the country with three very unhappy cats in the backseat made me very sympathetic to Tip's trials and tribulations with her cat, Pig.

    This was just a pure fun science fiction adventure story. This is a book that is going to be enjoyed by readers for years.

  • The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent.
    I've read a lot of books on the Salem Witch Trials. A lot. I can't tell you how many research papers and book reports I've done on the trials. And yet I'd never read a book from this point of view: the daughter of someone accused of witch craft. Yet the book is engrossing long before the trials enter the picture: danger lurks around every corner in this book, starting with fears of disease and death before moving on to jealous neighbors and the news from nearby Salem that a group of young girls are accusing their neighbors of witchcraft, and the courts are sentencing people to death based on these accusations. While The Hunger Games had me gasping with excitement and anticipation throughout, The Heretic's Daughter is one of the few books that has actually brought me to tears (the Salem prison is a terrifying place).

  • Life as We Knew It and The Dead and the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer.
    As my last couple of posts have made abundantly clear, I love books about the end of the world. While the last several end-of-the-world books I've read have dealt with the aftermath long after the initial tragedy, Life as We Knew It and this year's companion novel The Dead and the Gone deal with the disaster as it happens. The premise is an asteroid hits the moon, knocking it out of its usual orbit and closer to earth, which of course wreaks havoc with the environment. Life as We Knew It is a more rural story, as Miranda and her family struggle to survive in their home while The Dead and the Gone is about a boy alone with his two sisters in New York City. They are two very different looks at the same disaster, which I found fascinating. Overall I felt Life as We Knew It was the stronger story, as The Dead and the Gone felt like it struggled too much with balancing what the readers needed to know: it had to give enough information on the disaster to keep new readers up to date, but it didn't want to bore readers of the first book by rehashing the details, which made the first third of the book feel very uneven and ultimately like it wouldn't be very satisfying for a new reader.

  • Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.
    The link leads to my earlier review of this one. Nothing really new to add, except that I still really like it :-)

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Review: Newes from the Dead by Mary Hooper

Still catching up on the slew of books I read in the last couple of days of 2008. I've already finished my first book of 2009 (though I did technically start it yesterday), plus I want to do some sort of write up on my favorite books of 2008...I don't work for the next two days, so hopefully I'll catch up!

But first, Newes from the Dead.

It took all of my self control not to just flip to the end of the book and to learn what happened here. This is the story of Anne Greene, a woman who was hanged for infanticide, yet didn't die.

The book is told from two points of view in alternating chapters, starting with Anne Greene conscious, but unable to move. She knows she was hanged, and knows she should be dead, and yet...she doesn't seem to be. So Anne goes back to the beginning, and through her chapters relays the story of how she came to the gallows, as well as reflecting on where she may be now (purgatory? hell? Certainly not heaven, though at one point she thinks she sees angels).

The rest of the story takes place after Anne has been cut down from the gallows. She has been declared dead, and scholars and doctors are beginning to gather above an apothecary's shop in order to witness the dissection of Anne's corpse. Hers is one of the five bodies a year given to science in order for the scholarly men to learn about the human body. While these chapters are told in the third person, they are told from the point of view of Robert, a young scholar with a severe stuttering speech impediment. He's a smart and compassionate young man, and observant: he will be the first to notice movement under Anne's eyelids.

Neither half of the story seemed very interesting. Anne's story of how she ended up being sentenced to death is one that will be familiar to anyone who's read realistic fiction about maids in powerful households. Robert's half of the story is slow and methodical - we go through several chapters of waiting before all of the observers and doctors even show up to begin the dissection. Most of the drama in the early Robert chapters comes from Anne's former employer being impatient for the dissection to begin.

I kept reading because I wanted to know how on Earth Anne had survived a hanging, and just how well she survived. Was she going to be a vegetable? Or make a full recovery? The story itself never actually answers these questions. There's a comprehensive author's note at the end that explains what happened to Anne and the current theory on how she avoided dying. At the end is included the historical pamphlet with a contemporary account of Anne's story. Really, that was all I needed to satisfy my curiosity. The idea of someone surviving a hanging is interesting, but there really wasn't enough here to merit an entire novel.
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