Saturday, December 29, 2012

Review: Princess of the Silver Woods by Jessica Day George

Princess of the Silver Woods--Jessica Day George
December 11, 2012 by Bloomsbury
336 pages--Goodreads

When Petunia, the youngest of King Gregor's twelve dancing daughters, is invited to visit an elderly friend in the neighboring country of Westfalin, she welcomes the change of scenery. But in order to reach Westfalin, Petunia must pass through a forest where strange two-legged wolves are rumored to exist. Wolves intent on redistributing the wealth of the noble citizens who have entered their territory. But the bandit-wolves prove more rakishly handsome than truly dangerous, and it's not until Petunia reaches her destination that she realizes the kindly grandmother she has been summoned to visit is really an enemy bent on restoring an age-old curse. 

The stories of Red Riding Hood and Robin Hood get a twist as Petunia and her many sisters take on bandits, grannies, and the new King Under Stone to end their family curse once and for all.


I am rarely disappointed with Jessica Day George's books, and Princess of the Silver Woods was no exception.  It was just a good story.  I read it all day on Christmas and finished it early the next day.  

There is a lot of repeat from Princess of the Midnight Ball.  The villain and some of the plot elements are the same, making it more of a sequel to Midnight Ball, than a stand alone in the same world, like Princess of Glass is.  I loved how Glass had an extremely different take on the fairy tale than what we're used to, and I wish I could have seen more of that dynamic in Silver Woods.  

Sliver Woods blends Little Red Riding Hood with Robin Hood in an interesting and fun way.  Oliver (Robin Hood) is given a compelling back story that explains within the world of Westfalin of why he turned to banditry.  I loved the scene when Oliver sort of accidentally kidnaps Petunia.  He is endearingly awkward throughout the whole novel.  Sadly, archery plays no part whatsoever in this story.  How can you have a Robin Hood retelling without firing a single arrow?  Along with the lack of archery is a lack of merry men.  Going into more of the Robin Hood story would have given the story a different angle that would have made it feel less like a repeat of Midnight Ball.  The book is supposed to focus on Petunia and her story, but I feel like the band of thieves are a vastly under-utilized resource.  

The relationship between Oliver and Petunia is a bit insta-lovey, but that's how George's stories usually go, so I can accept it.  In the same vein, the villains are mostly two-dimensional, evil just because they are, which is less compelling.  Also, I started out already knowing who to distrust.  Even in retellings, I like to be surprised by the twists and turns of the story.

I'm being nit-picky about the book's faults.  That's a bit because what I like about the book is hard to quantify.  It's something like reading Ella Enchanted again for the first time.  It's returning to the land of fairy tales for a fun few hours of imagination.  It's getting a wide mix of personalities between the princesses: some spunky, some feisty, some vulnerable.  It's those face-palm, embarrassed-for-the-characters-because-I've-been-in-that-situation-before moments.  It's the thrill of reading through the climax on the edge of my seat even though I already know there will be a happy ending.  It's just that vibe that's so hard to articulate.  Silver Woods has issues, but I still really liked it.  It's a very curl-up-on-the-couch-with-Christmas-treats-for-a-few-hours kind of read.  It's meant to be light and fun and quick.  And it is. 

Side note:  Absolutely gorgeous cover!  Mysterious with a splash of red.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Book Chat: Top Ten Favorite Books I Read In 2012

Misty's book chat for the month at The Book Rat and the Top Ten Tuesday over at The Broke and the Bookish were about our favorite reads for the year.  So I combined my responses to both into one post. 

The Wednesday Wars--Gary Schmidt
Much Ado About Nothing--William Shakespeare
Speak--Laurie Halse Anderson
Leviathan--Scott Westerfeld
Dark Life--Kat Falls
Alloy of Law--Brandon Sanderson
The Humming Room--Ellen Potter
Seraphina--Rachel Hartman
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry--Mildred D. Taylor
Entwined--Heather Dixon

Like up your responses in the comments.  Let me know what you think!  What books did you love this year?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Review: Entwined by Heather Dixon

Entwined--Heather Dixon
March 2011 by Greenwillow Books
472 pages--Goodreads

Azalea is trapped. Just when she should feel that everything is before her . . . beautiful gowns, dashing suitors, balls filled with dancing . . . it's taken away. All of it.

The Keeper understands. He's trapped, too, held for centuries within the walls of the palace. And so he extends an invitation.

Every night, Azalea and her eleven sisters may step through the enchanted passage in their room to dance in his silver forest.

But there is a cost.

The Keeper likes to "keep" things.

Azalea may not realize how tangled she is in his web until it is too late.

I read this book by the recommendation of one of my aunts.  I've never gotten a bad recommendation from her, and this book was no exception.  It was great.

The best part of the novel is definitely the relationships between characters.  They are real.  The princesses aren't prim and perfect; they lose their tempers and throw things at each other and say horrible things to their father and have selfish moments and foolish moments.  However, aside from the oldest three, the princesses are a bit homogeneous   I had a hard time keeping track of who was who.  At the same time, having deeply developed characters is difficult when you have twelve of them that are so similar, so it's not the end of the world.  

The interplay between the girls is great, and often funny, especially when the suitors come to call (I love Mr. Bradford and Lord Teddie).  "That rotten shilling-punter nuffermonk" is probably the best insult outside of Shakespeare, who had some real doozies.  I love the little moments of humor throughout the book: girls discovered spying on their sisters from inside trees, awkward and embarrassing dinner conversations, a finger biting tea set, etc.

There is just a touch of swoon-worthy romance with some wonderfully diversified love interests, but romance is not the focus of this retelling; the father-daughter relationship is, and I absolutely loved this.  Since the princesses are the main characters, it's easy to focus on the loss of their mother, but Entwined addressed the oft-ignored King as a grieving husband who now doesn't know how to interact with his daughters.  It hurts to think of his wife, but they remind him of her every time he sees them and that hurts, even though he loves them.  Some reviewers have commented that the middle of the book moves too slowly, but I think they're missing this aspect of the story.  The point of Entwined is not the curse and not romance, but this difficult relationship between a father and his daughters.  Their relationship doesn't just magically get better; it improves slowly with many wrong starts and steps backwards.  It's difficult and messy.  I loved this slow progression, but I can see how the lack of action would irk some readers.  

What did bug me about the plot was the climax.  I like slow builds to epic conflicts with huge finishes and satisfying resolutions.  This climax felt like a whole bunch of little fights strung together.  It was a bit too much stop and go.  This being said, I couldn't put it down until I finished it, so it wasn't a huge problem.  Another small hiccup:  I never found Mr. Keeper compelling.  He's supposed to be this suave, mysterious potential love interest, but I was only ever creeped out by him.  Perhaps this was because I'm the reader and I know what part he's supposed to play, but still.  

Entwined is my favorite retelling of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" that I have read so far.  Usually the girls are cursed or enchanted into dancing, but these princesses started out just trying to escape the strict rules of mourning and a father who doesn't understand them.  The fairy tale didn't dominate the story; it just provided the framework.  Dixon made the story into her own enchanting tale.

And bonus points for the book, the Heather Dixon is awesome.  Check out her blog sometime.  She's the type of person I would love to be friends with.  She walks down the streets in public singing and acting out all the parts to musical numbers from animated movies.  I thought I was alone in this practice!

So, great book.  Pick it up.  Don't expect tons of action or loads or romance, but a sweet and real story of how a family copes with loss.  And the cover is shiny!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Review: Half the Sky by Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Half the Sky--Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
2008 by Knopf
294 pages--Goodreads

From two of our most fiercely moral voices, a passionate call to arms against our era’s most pervasive human rights violation: the oppression of women and girls in the developing world.

With Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn as our guides, we undertake an odyssey through Africa and Asia to meet the extraordinary women struggling there, among them a Cambodian teenager sold into sex slavery and an Ethiopian woman who suffered devastating injuries in childbirth. Drawing on the breadth of their combined reporting experience, Kristof and WuDunn depict our world with anger, sadness, clarity, and, ultimately, hope.

They show how a little help can transform the lives of women and girls abroad. That Cambodian girl eventually escaped from her brothel and, with assistance from an aid group, built a thriving retail business that supports her family. The Ethiopian woman had her injuries repaired and in time became a surgeon. A Zimbabwean mother of five, counseled to return to school, earned her doctorate and became an expert on AIDS.

Through these stories, Kristof and WuDunn help us see that the key to economic progress lies in unleashing women’s potential. They make clear how so many people have helped to do just that, and how we can each do our part. Throughout much of the world, the greatest unexploited economic resource is the female half of the population. Countries such as China have prospered precisely because they emancipated women and brought them into the formal economy. Unleashing that process globally is not only the right thing to do; it’s also the best strategy for fighting poverty.

Deeply felt, pragmatic, and inspirational, Half the Sky is essential reading for every global citizen.

I read Half the Sky after watching the documentary of the same title on PBS a month or two ago.  It was a surprisingly compelling read.  The oppression of and violence toward women and the huge problems in the world are not subjects I really want to read about, but the Kristof and WuDunn spend the majority of the book on the stories of individual women.  I wanted to know how these stories resolved, so I rarely wanted to put the book down.  Half the Sky was a good mix of stories about individuals and information about organizations you can support financially or volunteer with.  The book definitely has an agenda and a bias, but I felt like they did a good job of addressing the issues with a decent amount of objectivity.   They represented the complexity of each issue, frankly acknowledging that there is no easy fix for any of these problems, but still make you feel able to help.  The book focused on sex slavery, education, maternal health, and violence against women.

The book was very effective in its progression.  We learn about a teenaged girl who is raped with a stick and develops a fistula (a hole in her vaginal canal into her rectum or bladder).  We dwell on that horribleness for a little while.  Then we learn that those kinds of injuries are sustained all the time in childbirth because mother's don't get the proper medical attention or even help from a trained midwife.  The injustice is heightened and we want to do something to change the situation.

In any book like this, we run into the conundrum of respecting other cultures' beliefs and practices while at the same time standing up for what is right.  They did a good job of, for the most part, describing things that most people would agree are not cultural things but universal human rights violation, such as the lack of prenatal care and medical services to lessen maternal mortality.  The  spent a small amount of time on female genital cutting and mentioned head scarves (head scarves are not inherently oppressive, but a matter of modesty), which are more culturally loaded.  Though one of authors is Chinese American, both authors are American, so the book is written from a Western perspective.   I don't think that discredits or invalidates the book.  Half the Sky is still draws awareness to the issues, even if the stories are told by someone outside the problem.

My main criticism of the book is that it ignores violence discrimination against women in the United States, where we are far more likely to be able to have an impact.  I understand that they wanted to focus on the developing world, but ignoring the domestic abuse that happens in our own neighborhoods felt like a gross oversight.  

Overall, it was a very good read.  I didn't expect to like it as much as I did.  Though the subject matter is disturbing, they did a good job of presenting it tastefully.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Book Haul #3

The class that had book orders is now over, so this is the last book order.  Sad.  I'll just have to find somewhere else to get my books.

Hatchet--Gary Paulsen
Entwined--Heather Dixon
Because of Winn Dixie--Kate DiCamillo

What new books have you acquired?

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Review: A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth Bunce

A Curse Dark as Gold--Elizabeth C Bunce
March 2008 by Arthur A. Levine Books
396 pages--Goodreads

Charlotte Miller has always scoffed at talk of a curse on her family's woolen mill, which holds her beloved small town together. But after her father's death, the bad luck piles up: departing workers, impossible debts, an overbearing uncle. Then a stranger named Jack Spinner offers a tempting proposition: He can turn straw into gold thread, for the small price of her mother's ring. As Charlotte is drawn deeper into her bargains with Spinner-and a romance with the local banker-she must unravel the truth of the curse on the mill and save the community she's always called home.

This was a slow, thoughtfully paced novel, but that worked well with reading it in twenty minute sessions as an audiobook.  The slowness will probably bother some readers, but I liked being given the time to absorb the whole situation and appreciate the story.  
The setting is developed thoroughly and accurately   Bunce did tons of research in writing the book.  But I didn't find myself caring much about the characters.  

I liked it as an adaptation of the Rumpelstiltskin fairytale.  Jack Spinner was an interesting character.  His development was satisfying and different from any other adaptation I've seen before.  He is the villain, but a sympathetic one.  I couldn't help but compare this novel to Suzanne Weyn's Crimson Thread, which is another Rumpelstiltskin retelling set in the Industrial Revolution, though a bit later on.  Crimson is definitely more lighthearted, and the Rumpelstiltskin character is not as compelling.  

Reading the relationship between Charlotte and Randall is painful.  You don't often see marital strife portrayed in these kind of books; it's usually just happily ever after.  Seeing a couple struggle would have been refreshing if it wasn't heart-wrenching,  but it fit their ridiculously quick courtship.  However, I didn't like how Bunce resolved this conflict.  SPOILER, He just comes back and everything's fine?  What?  And now he does magic?  And all their problems are just swept under the rug, unresolved.  I didn't like their period of distrustfulness  but it was compelling and interesting and real and deserved a better resolution than that.

For most of the novel the magic just didn't work for me.  Maybe if I had gone into it knowing it was a historical fantasy, I would have liked it better, but with the Industrial Revolution setting I was expecting historical fiction.  Even though Bunce set up the magic with all the the hexes and superstitions, the magic felt implausible.  I did like the eventual explanation of Jack Spinner and his origins.

The climax felt a bit sloppy and haphazard.  It was scattered and hard to tell exactly what was going on and who was there.  The conflict was resolved, but I felt almost as if something was missing.

The theme of what's in a name is very important.  The name Charlotte means strong or free, and she lives up to her name, almost to the point of stubbornly refusing any help ever, like she has to prove that she, a woman, can keep her mill running.  I can't say much without spoiling things, but Uncle Wheeler and Jack Spinner are worth paying attention to.  

On the whole, I liked it, but it wasn't fantastic.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

Pride and Prejudice holds a special place in my heart.  It was the first classic novel I actually liked.  It got me started on analyzing and thinking deeply about literature, putting me on the path to becoming a teacher.  It was my introduction to the rest of Austen's works.  It was one of the many movies I watched with my mom growing up.  It was witty and piercing social commentary and a swoon-worthy romance.  I've built the book up a lot , so I am critical of movie adaptations.  They just don't capture everything in my head.  The Collin Firth version is fabulous but oh so long; you can't really watch it in one sitting.  The Keira Knightly version, in my opinion, misses the real flavor and point of the novel.  It made me want to puke into my shoes the first time I watched it.  My opinion of it has since improved, but it still bugs me every time I watch it.

So, when I discovered The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, I was a bit hesitant.  I'm especially wary of modernizations of Austen's works.  Some things work well in 19th century England but not in modern America, like Charlotte and Mr. Collins.  However, I've been really impressed with how they've adapted and in some cases expanded the story.

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is a Youtube webseries developed by Hank Green (brother of John Green) and Bernie Su.  It's been running since April and has a format different than anything I've seen before. Lizzie posts new video blogs every Monday and Thursday. Aside from the main story in the vlogs, she and the rest of the characters are on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter in character and their interactions on social media are not just for fans--they add to the story.  Caroline and Bing's conversations are not essential to the progression of the plot, but we get to see another dimension to their characters.  And if you tweet them, they respond in-character.  It gets sort of meta-fictiony at times.  Even knowing full well that it's a fictional work from 200 years ago, it's sometimes easy to forget that these are not real people.

I love what they've done with the characters, especially Lydia.  I've never liked Lydia.  She's so flighty and brainless and boy crazy and reckless. In the Diaries, she still comes off that way at the beginning, but as you get later in the series you catch glimpses of Lydia being genuinely hurt by Lizzie calling her a skank.  You see her really care about her sisters.  Especially in some of her recent vlogs (Lydia has her own channel), we see more of her personality from her own point of view, rather than always filtering through Lizzie's commentary.   We are starting to see more about why she is so casual with guys beyond just her party-craze:  every guy in her life has let down or hurt either her or her sisters.  I don't know yet how the Lydia/Wickham situation will work, but I think it will be deeper than just a night in Vegas.  I'm excited to see how it turns out.  She's a deeper character in this adaptation than she usually is, and I find her story very interesting.

Other random thoughts:  Charlotte plays a much bigger role and is awesome.  We see more of Lizzie's flaws through her vlogs; she comes off at times as judgmental and vindictive sometimes.  I tend to idealize Elizabeth in the book and the Colin Firth movie, but she is a real, flawed person in the Diaries.  Mr. Collins is outrageous, as always.  Lizzie's impersonations are hilarious.  Fitz would be an awesome friend to have in real life and needs to be in the series more.  Some of the beginning episodes are a bit meh, but stick with it and they get better.

This is Lizzie's YouTube channel.
You can find the whole story in chronological order combining all social media outlets here.
And here is the first video.  A warning:  don't start watching the series unless you either have phenomenal self-restraint or a couple of hours you can dedicate to watching the whole series without guilt.  Once you start watching, it is really, really hard to stop.  Use extreme caution as finals approach.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Review: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry--Mildred D. Taylor
1976 by Puffin
276 pages--Goodreads

Ever since it won the 1977 Newbery Medal, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry has engaged and affected millions of readers everywhere. Set in a small town in Mississippi at the height of the Depression, this powerful, moving novel deals with issues of prejudice, courage, and self-respect. It is the story of one family's struggle to maintain their integrity, pride, and independence in the face of racism and social injustice. It is also the story of Cassie Logan, an independent girl who discovers over the course of an important year why having land of their own is so crucial to her family. The racial tension and harrowing events experienced by young Cassie, her family, and her neighbors cause Cassie to grow up and discover the reality of her environment.

I first read Roll of Thunder in 7th grade and I despised it.  I hated it with the fiery passion of a thousand suns.  Okay, maybe that's an overstatement, but I thought it was dead boring.  I liked reading fantasy and that was about it.  I knew little about the Depression or segregation.  I didn't like historical fiction much and the story of a black family in the South didn't interest me at all.  I just didn't have the context to appreciate it.  I may not be giving my 7th grade teacher enough credit.  He may well have contextualized the novel, but I don't remember anything other than just reading the book.  Reading it now knowing much more about the Jim Crow era and what it meant to be black in the South during the depression, knowing about not just Martin Luther King Jr but Emmett Till and lynch mobs, having more context I appreciated the story much more.  It's still a slow moving novel, but it is very good.

I got a lot of To Kill a Mockingbird vibes while reading this, but Roll of Thunder is a more immediate story.  As much as I like Scout and Atticus, they are not part of the black community.  All they risk is scorn; the Logans risk losing everything.  Their danger is ever-present and real.  Mockingbird has a wider focus and as such, loses some intensity while Roll of Thunder is tightly focused.

The characterization is great.  The lines of good and bad are not drawn down racial lines.  It's not super in-depth since it is a children's book, but there is some complexity in the characters.  Mr. Jamison is an honest, decent white lawyer.  Jeremy likes the Logans despite the racism in his family.  Many of the black families want to support the Logan's boycott, but they also need to survive.  TJ has been wronged by the system but is not absolved of personal responsibility in his bad choices.  Uncle Hammer's anger is justified, but his violent reactions are not.

I really appreciated the relationship between Mama and Cassie.  How do you raise a black child and teach her to have self respect, but also teach her that white folk won't see her as worth anything and she'll have to act a certain way to survive?  How do you decide how much to tell your child about the brutality going on around her when you know she sees some of it but may not understand everything?  How do you balance the need to protect your child with the need to let her grow up?

The book did a wonderful job of portraying racism through the eyes of a child.  How does a nine year old even process that she is despised because of the color of her skin?  Does she really understand what it means that the night men are riding?  Does she understand that her family could not just lose the land, but her father could be beaten or tarred or lynched?

The novel uses n word occasionally, and I can see this bothering some readers.  I don't particularly like the word's use, but I think it is justified in this story.  Taylor says in the introduction to the novel that history is not politically correct, that racism it is not polite; it is full of pain.  She does not sugar coat things or shy away from the truth.  She is tasteful about her use of the word, but you will want to take that into consideration in recommending the book to young readers.

The book loses points because while it is excellent now, it didn't appeal to me at all as a kid and I think many of my classmates agreed with me.  I feel like some Newbery winners are amazingly written from the perspective of adults, but kids don't like or appreciate them.  And if kids don't like the book, what's the point?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Top Ten Books I'd Want on a Desert Island

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish

This is a week late, but last week was too busy for me to get the post out.  So I'm putting it out on Monday...It's my blog; I do what I want.

I'll recognize that both How to Build a Raft  and the Desert Island Survival Guide are disqualified because they are too obvious and not real books.  Assuming I won't be rescued for a while, these are the books I'd want on a desert island.  I'm cheating and using lots of series.  

#10 Cyrano de Bergerac--This is my favorite play and the source for the name of my blog. Actually, if I had my choice, I'd want the filmed play staring Kevin Kline instead of just the book.  Of course, then I'd also need a TV and a DVD player and a source of electricity that would be better used signalling for help.

#9 Dragon Slippers--To comfort myself on the lonely deserted island, I will need a cutsey, fun, fairytale-esque adventure.  Dragon Slippers fits the bill.  

#8 The Giver--The dystopia would lose a lot of its effect outside the context of society, but I like the book well enough to bring it along.

#7 Anne of Green Gables--I was a quieter version of Anne when I was growing up.  Just as precocious, just as romantic, just as silly.  Hopefully I mellowed out as successfully as she did.  I would definitely want the first book, if not the whole series.

#6 The Lord of the Rings--I read the whole series years ago, but now the movies dominate my memory, so I need to reread it.  On my island I'd have time to appreciate the slow epicness of Tolkien's creation of an entire world, including all the languages and cultures.

#5 The Iliad and The Odyssey--Homer practically makes up the twin pillars of Western thought and literature. I seriously need to read these.  On an Island I'd actually have time to do so.  And there's poetic irony in having The Odyssey with me while being stranded.

#4 The Mistborn Series--I was blown away when I read these last summer.  They were epic and phenomenal and I want to reread the whole series again.  And Sanderson's writing is just great, so.

# 3 The Collected Works of William Shakespeare--I really like Shakespeare's use of language and if I'm stuck on a desert island, I'll have time to get to know it all.

# 2 The Collected Works of Jane Austen--Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion always rank high on my list of favorites and I like all of Austen's books.  Her social commentary may not mean much on a solitary desert island, but I can still enjoy the verbal swordplay.

# 1 The Harry Potter series--Duh.  These are some of my very favorite books and Harry Potter was my childhood--I grew up with Harry.  If I had nothing else to read, I could be satisfied with Harry.

Let me know what your top ten picks are in the comments.
Mini tangent:  How about I get shipwrecked on a dessert island instead?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Review: Foiled by Jane Yolen and Mike Cavallaro

Foiled--Jane Yolen and Mike Cavallaro (Illustrator)
April 2010 by First Second
160 pages--Goodreads

Aliera Carstairs just doesn't fit in.

She's invisible at high school.

She's too visible at the fencing gym.

Aliera's starting to wonder...where does she belong?

I love browsing shelves.  I always find books I never would have encountered otherwise.  This was the case with Foiled.  I was actually looking for American Born Chinese, which was not on the shelf despite the library catalog's insistence that it was checked-in.  Scouring the shelves, I discovered this book, which looked interesting enough to check out, so I did.  When you browse you find both jewels and duds, and as much as I didn't want it to be, I think this one was a dud.

This was my first real venture into graphic novels.  I'm not counting the time a couple years ago when I flipped through the Artemis Fowl graphic novel but figured it was only for those who couldn't finish the real book.  This year I was introduced to graphic novels as a different, completely valid, and vibrant form of story telling, so I was excited to give a graphic novel a try.

The illustrations are great.  Cavallaro focuses in on just the right images, images I wouldn't normally have considered such as shadowed silhouettes on the wall.  He captures the characters' personalities wonderfully.  He does some great things with color too.  The majority of the story is unexpectedly cast in two tones.  This is explained away by Aleira's colorblindness, but it was a very different choice that did some great things with the story.  The gray/brown tones make the rare colors significant.  Cavallaro even makes the publication information page look interesting.

I liked the graphic aspect of the book but had issues with the novel aspect.  It feels like the book just a set up for a longer series, but doesn't have a story of its own.  It's as if Harry Potter stopped after Hagrid announced "Yer a wizard, Harry."  What?  You can't sotp it there!  The plot that is present feels haphazardly thrown together.  This drives me insane because Aleira's character is awesome   She's snappy and strong and unsure of herself and exactly what a high school girl feels like, and the plot didn't do her justice; it didn't really let her do anything.  The conflict isn't introduced until the middle of the book, but then that's not the real climax, and we go through some tunnels and ...what?   Maybe the problem was that Yolen didn't introduce the fantastical elements early enough; they're sprung on us halfway through the book without any preparation, so it just feels clunky.  

I didn't even dislike the book. I wanted it to be good and I saw the potential for awesomeness.  The lack of awesomeness when such potential was there was frustrating.  I really wanted to like the book, but it just left me kind of meh.  Hopefully, my next try with a graphic novel will be better.

**Random notes that didn't fit with the rest of the review:  Avery is creepy and not in a masterful Ben-Linus-manipulative-awesomely-creepy way, just in an euhhh off-putting way.   I can see why he was characterized that way, but I didn't like it.  I liked the use of fencing throughout the book.  It's a sport not often used in books and I wish we could have seen more of it.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Book Chat: Spines

I know this is waaaaay late and that the Misty from The Book Rat's November book chat will probably show up later this week, but here at last I've finished my response to her October book chat about book spines.

Books Mentioned:
The Humming Room--Ellen Potter
Breadcrumbs--Anne Ursu
My Life as a Book--Janet Tashjian
The Mysterious Benedict Society--Trenton Lee Stewart
The Maze Runner--James Dashner
Jane Austen Made Me Do It--Laurel Ann Nattress
1984--George Orwell
Mistborn--Brandon Sanderson
Hero of Ages--Brandon Sanderson
The Three Musketeers--Alexander Dumas

Be sure to to check out Misty's original video and everyone who as made a response.  If you have any great book spines, be sure to share them.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Review: Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

Breadcrumbs--Anne Ursu
September 2011 by Walden Pond Press
313 pages--Goodreads

Once upon a time, Hazel and Jack were best friends. They had been best friends since they were six, spending hot Minneapolis summers and cold Minneapolis winters together, dreaming of Hogwarts and Oz, superheroes and baseball. Now that they were eleven, it was weird for a boy and a girl to be best friends. But they couldn't help it - Hazel and Jack fit, in that way you only read about in books. And they didn't fit anywhere else. 

And then, one day, it was over. Jack just stopped talking to Hazel. And while her mom tried to tell her that this sometimes happens to boys and girls at this age, Hazel had read enough stories to know that it's never that simple. And it turns out, she was right. Jack's heart had been frozen, and he was taken into the woods by a woman dressed in white to live in a palace made of ice. Now, it's up to Hazel to venture into the woods after him. Hazel finds, however, that these woods are nothing like what she's read about, and the Jack that Hazel went in to save isn't the same Jack that will emerge. Or even the same Hazel.

Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen," Breadcrumbsis a story of the struggle to hold on, and the things we leave behind.

This was an absolutely beautiful read.  The prose is stunning.  Several times throughout the book I had to stop reading so I could jot down a particularly good passage.  Ursu's narrative voice reminded me of The Tale of Despereaux with the narrator who steps in now and then to comment, verging on meta-fiction at times.  The book has a hint of nostalgia with many nods to other children's stories ranging from Harry Potter to Narnia.

It's a very different fairy tale adventure from what we normally get.  There's no big showdown with the witch.  It's as much a spiritual journey as it is a physical journey, with more inner demons to fight than physical foes.  Early on, Hazel wonders why anyone would choose to stay with the Snow Queen.  Her journey through the woods is an exploration of why she herself would stay.

The book deals with some surprisingly deep themes for a middle grade novel:  growing up and how relationships change in response, mental illness, divorce, separation, and how children process such issues.  I wish the book had gone a bit further into this, but it would have distracted from the plot.  It's just so rare to see a middle grad novel deal with depression at all, that I wanted to run with it.  Anyone have suggestions on a children's book that does go deeper?  

Ursu develops all her characters well, but young readers will connect especially with Hazel.  Her doubts, her fear, her ache to belong resonates with many adolescents.  I saw myself in her as I read.

I fell in love with the first half of the book, but I didn't enjoy the second half as much.  This is because I read the first half in one sitting and I read the second half in 10-15 minute sessions before bed.  This is a book that is meant to be read in one or two dedicated sittings.  By breaking the reading up into a bunch of short bits, I lost a lot of the book's magic.  The book depends on a quasi meta-fiction vibe, and that style of storytelling takes getting used to.  Breaking out of the book so often made it hard to get back into the swing of the narrative.

The resolution is a bit clipped.  I wanted to know how Hazel and Jack's relationship would turn out.  We end knowing their friendship will never be what it was before, but that is all we get.  I think Ursu's ending was deliberate; as with much of the book, she's not going to just give us the answer.  She leaves it open to interpretation, and I still can't decide if I liked that or not.

I had a teensy issue with the title.  With a name like Breadcrumbs, I expected a bigger tie-in to "Hansel and Gretel."  I came into the book knowing it was a retelling of "The Snow Queen," but still, I thought we might get a double retelling out of it.  I'm still looking for the significance of the title.

This has almost nothing to do with the plot, but I love the wolves.  Ever since reading Julie of the Wolves in middle school, I've had a thing for them.  They are beautiful, majestic creatures and I love seeing them woven into stories in a positive light.

I really liked the book.  It's a different sort of coming of age tale.  One that focuses on how how friendships change and sometimes break as children grow.  One that resists change.  One that sends the main character on a journey in which her main opponent is her own self doubt.  It is magical and real and honest.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Review: Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Lord of the Flies--William Golding
Originally published in 1954
182 pages--Goodreads

William Golding's classic tale about a group of English schoolboys who are plane-wrecked on a deserted island is just as chilling and relevant today as when it was first published in 1954.

At first, the stranded boys cooperate, attempting to gather food, make shelters, and maintain signal fires. Overseeing their efforts are Ralph, "the boy with fair hair," and Piggy, Ralph's chubby, wisdom-dispensing sidekick whose thick spectacles come in handy for lighting fires. Although Ralph tries to impose order and delegate responsibility, there are many in their number who would rather swim, play, or hunt the island's wild pig population. Soon Ralph's rules are being ignored or challenged outright. His fiercest antagonist is Jack, the redheaded leader of the pig hunters, who manages to lure away many of the boys to join his band of painted savages. The situation deteriorates as the trappings of civilization continue to fall away, until Ralph discovers that instead of being hunters, he and Piggy have become the hunted: "He forgot his words, his hunger and thirst, and became fear; hopeless fear on flying feet." Golding's gripping novel explores the boundary between human reason and animal instinct, all on the brutal playing field of adolescent competition.

I'm not entirely sure how I missed reading this book in high school since it is so often on the required text list.  Because it is a widely read book and it was published over 50 years ago, I will include spoilers.  If that bothers you, beware. 

Golding takes the Robinson Crusoe shipwrecked adventure story and turns it from a triumph to the human spirit to the decay of man's violent nature.  Disturbing?  Yes.  It's about the descent into savagery; I don't think that could be properly conveyed without some element of the disturbing. 

The slow breakdown of Golding's mini-society is excellently crafted.  It is incredibly creepy because it is so believable.  It's not just that the boys kill Simon in their primal dance, but that I can actually see this happening with a group of boys left all on their own.  I can see things getting out of hand and going irrevocably too far.  The book is a mirror to society, reflecting tendencies we see in people around us and in ourselves.

Golding meant for this to be an allegorical novel to analyze the breakdown from order to savagery.  He is not subtle, but his portrayals rarely feels overhanded.  Even though the characters have very specific and narrow roles (the intellectual, the savage, the leader, the prophet, the masses), they still have depth. They don't really have breadth, but within their roles they are deeply developed.  I also liked the depiction of the ever present threat of the Beast--the fear of the unknown, the compelling drive to violence, the savagery in all of us, the label attached to the scapegoat to escape the fear of ourselves. 

I really liked the ending sentence, where the officer turns away from the warlike boy savages to stare at his cruiser, the tool of the adult war that underscores the whole story. It's a reminder that the book doesn't just deal with the possible in society, but with problems we already have.

There is a strong connection to Lost. The Island brings out the best and the worst in people.  The rule of law breaks down.  There is a "prophet" in tune with the Island.  And there are enough Beasts, smoke monsters, and Others to keep everyone on the edge.  The Maze Runner spends less time on the collapse society but is another depiction of the cruelty people are capable of when they are desperate.

I didn't enjoy Lord of the Flies as much as I would have liked to.  It made me think, but not as deeply as other books have.  I wish I'd had the opportunity to study this in a class, because I would have taken more time and thought with it if I had read a physical copy instead of the audiobook.  I'm glad I read it, but I won't feel the need to reread it for a while.  This book has made it on to a lot of the "Best Books of the Century" lists, and I think it deserves its place.  It is a rich text that provides a lot of food for discussion, both about Golding's literary craft and his commentary on society. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Book Haul #2

I love book orders.  Just a small haul this time around, but another one is on its way.

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Peterson
Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu
The Raven and Other Poems by Edgar Allan Pe
I'm nobody! Who are you? by Emily Dickinson
Skippyjon Jones by Judy Schachner

What books have come into your hands recently?

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Loving Sherlock but Begrudging Holmes

I seem to have a habit of not discovering TV shows until they're a couple seasons in, or I hear about them and then decide for some strange reason that I'm not interested enough to pursue them, only to regret that decision later.  Now I'm anxiously awaiting the return of Downton Abbey in January and am slowly catching up on Doctor Who.  I should just give the BBC a free pass from now on. 

I tried out Sherlock a little while ago because I've heard so much about it from other Doctor Who/Downton Abbey fans.  This was a bit of a stretch for me; I don't like Sherlock Holmes novels, blasphemy though I know that is.  They're boring--and not because they're classics, but because you have no possibility of solving the mystery yourself.  Holmes solves mysteries by pulling out a random bit of information that no one else could possibly know.  "This pipe weed only comes from a small village in northern Madagascar so the murderer is obviously...  These footprints contain mud that is from Westminster Abbey so..."  Are you kidding me?  Lame, lame, lame, lame, lame. The fun in reading a mystery is trying to figure it out before the detective reveals the answer.  But when the key to the mystery is so obscure, all you can do is sit there and wait for Holmes to condescend to let you in on the secret.  

So, with trepidation I sat down and watched the first episode of BBC's Sherlock.  And oh my gosh, it blew me away.  While Sherlock does observe things we would never notice, those things are pointed out to the audience (think Psych but more sophisticated), so we can follow along with much of Sherlock's thought process.  Since we get to play a long, the mystery is a lot more fun.

Aside from the resolution of my personal pet peeves, it's just a good show all around.  They mysteries are interesting, the stories are modernized well, and the interplay between Cumberbatch's Sherlock and Freeman's Watson is engaging.  Actually, all of the characters are well done.  Moriarty is wonderfully creepy.  Mrs. Hudson has spunk while still being quaint.  Even Mycroft has a certain annoying charm.  Each episode is an hour and a half long, so we have time for a satisfying, well developed mystery.

And now season 3 won't air until next fall, giving me time to catch up on three seasons of Doctor Who. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Review: Jane Austen Made Me Do It by Laurel Ann Nattress

Jane Austen Made Me Do It--Laurel Ann Nattress
October 2011 by Ballantine Books
464 pages--Goodreads

“My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” If you just heaved a contented sigh at Mr. Darcy’s heartfelt words, then you, dear reader, are in good company. Here is a delightful collection of never-before-published stories inspired by Jane Austen—her novels, her life, her wit, her world.

In Lauren Willig’s “A Night at Northanger,” a young woman who doesn’t believe in ghosts meets a familiar specter at the infamous abbey; Jane Odiwe’s “Waiting” captures the exquisite uncertainty of Persuasion’s Wentworth and Anne as they await her family’s approval of their betrothal; Adriana Trigiani’s “Love and Best Wishes, Aunt Jane” imagines a modern-day Austen giving her niece advice upon her engagement; in Diana Birchall’s “Jane Austen’s Cat,” our beloved Jane tells her nieces “cat tales” based on her novels; Laurie Viera Rigler’s “Intolerable Stupidity” finds Mr. Darcy bringing charges against all the writers ofPride and Prejudice sequels, spin-offs, and retellings; in Janet Mullany’s “Jane Austen, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!” a teacher at an all-girls school invokes the Beatles to help her students understand Sense and Sensibility; and in Jo Beverley’s “Jane and the Mistletoe Kiss,” a widow doesn’t believe she’ll have a second chance at love . . . until a Miss Austen suggests otherwise.

Regency or contemporary, romantic or fantastical, each of these marvelous stories reaffirms the incomparable influence of one of history’s most cherished authors.

I won this collection from one of Misty's giveaways during Austen in August over at The Book Rat (thanks again, Misty).  I thought it was a collection of essays by authors on how Jane Austen had influenced their lives and their writing, but it turned out to be a collection of Austen spin-offs, continuations, and retellings.  This was my first venture into the world of Austen spin-offs, and for the most part, I liked it.  I didn't enjoy the contemporary stories as much, but that is due just to personal taste; I am rarely interested in contemporary adult stories.  Most of the stories were a fun, new look at Austen's characters.

Writing a review on a collection of short stories is difficult.  I can't really talk about overarching plot, characters, or writing style without going into a long list of every story and how it worked, so I'll just touch on my favorites.  
--In "Jane Austen's Nightmare" by Syrie James, the main characters of each novel come to tell Austen that she portrayed them poorly.  It was fun to see Emma being a busybody, Elinor claiming she is too perfect, and Fanny complain that Austen made her boring.  
--"Nothing Less than Fairyland" by Monica Fairview is a continuation of Emma.  I had never considered Emma and Knightly's married life, but trying to live in the same house as Mr. Woodhouse would be maddening.  I thought Emma's characterization was just a bit off, but it was a good story.
--"Jane Austen and the Mistletoe Kiss" by Jo Beverley gives a widow a second chance at love.  Cute and short with a touch swoon-worthy Regency romance. 
--"What Would Austen Do" by Jane Ruino and Caitlen Rabino Bradway was a lot of fun, mostly due to the main character's voice.  A teenaged boy with an Austen-obsessed mother, he has just a touch of snark, some sarcasm, and the general teenaged 'all the adults in my life are insane' attitude.

Those who enjoy Austen spin-offs will enjoy this collection.  There's a wide variety of stories, from metafiction to mystery to contemporary romance to young adult to Regency romance to sequels to stories about Austen's family and more, so there's something in it for everyone.  

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Top Ten Favorite Kick-Butt Heroines

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish

#10 Alanna
It has been many moons since I read the Song of the Lioness series, so I don't remember much about Alanna, but I remember really enjoying the books.  I'm a sucker for a girl disguising as a boy (Go Mulan!) and it's set in a medieval fantasy word (I still want to be a knight).  Alanna was the first girl I remember encountering in this situation in book form.  

#9 Ella of Frell
Ella Enchanted is my favorite retelling of Cinderella.  Ella doesn't wait for her fairy godmother to rescue her; she goes out and rescues herself.  She faces down ogres.  She speaks dwarfish.  She gives up the prince.  She legitimately breaks the spell (I have issues with the too-freaking-easy spell breaking in the movie adaption).  Ella is a fairytale princess we can believe in. 

#8 Princess Cimorene
There's something just charming about a princess who would rather learn fencing and Latin than embroider and marry a prince.  Cimorene has the guts to run away, cook for a dragon, face down wizards, and chase away the bothersome knights who keep trying to rescue her.  The whole Enchanted Forest series is a fun middle-grade adventure.  

#7 Mariel of Redwall
I adored the Redwall series in middle school.  The badgers, otters, and Long Patrol hares  are the true kick-butt characters, but I can't think of any female hares at the moment and  Mariel was my introduction to the series, swinging her knotted rope around defending Redwall Abbey from pirates.

#6 Melinda Sordino
Melinda doesn't go on any adventures in Speak, but I think she's the true heroine among all these other fantasy characters.  She says, "No; you raped me; that's not okay.  It was horrible and I'm a mess now, but I'm not going to stand by and let you use my friend or use me again."  While we may never swing a sword or fire a bow, most of us will be asked to speak out about something.  Melinda is a real heroine.

#5 Hermione Granger
Hermione hardly even needs a justifying paragraph.  She's just awesome.  Though not as proficient at hexes as Ginny, she will sick canaries at your face, stick by you in the face of deranged murderers, and know just the right spell to save your life.

#4  Beatrice of Sicily and Elizabeth Bennett
I love witty and clever characters.  The verbal swordplay in Much Ado About Nothing and Pride and Prejudice is fantastic.  These ladies can hold their own and insult you without you ever realizing it, because you're not smart enough to catch on to their wit.

#3  Katniss Everdeen and Tally Youngblood
Two (1 2) dystopian series with great beginnings.  Two heroines left mentally scarred and just plain messed up by the end of the series.  Katniss and Tally definitely kick butt and take names. 

#2:  Deryn Sharp
Another girl in disguise, Deryn is awesome.  She's smart.  She's capable.  She can fly.  She can swear better than Alek.  She is loyal to a fault and can ride out a storm on the back of the Leviathan.  And she has a talking loris.

#1:  Vin 
If you haven't yet read Mistborn, you are missing out.  Vin is one of the best female leads I have ever seen.  She's strong but vulnerable   She's awesome and capable without being overpowered.  Sanderson is incredibly good at developing believable, interesting characters and Vin is no exception.

What are your top ten picks?  Do you disagree with any of mine?

Friday, October 26, 2012

Review: Rip Tide by Kat Falls

Rip Tide--Kat Falls
May 2011 by Simon & Schuster Children's Books
320 pages--Goodreads

Ty has always known that the ocean is a dangerous place. Every time he swims beyond the borders of his family's subsea farm, he's prepared to face all manner of aquatic predators-sharks, squid, killer whales . . .

What Ty isn't prepared to find in the deep is an entire township chained to a sunken submarine, its inhabitants condemned to an icy underwater grave. It's only the first clue to a mystery that has claimed hundreds of lives and stands to claim two more -- lives very precious to Ty and his Topsider ally, Gemma.

Now in a desperate race against the clock, Ty and Gemma find themselves in conflict with outlaws, Seaguard officers, and the savage, trident-wielding surfs -- plus a menagerie of the most deadly creatures the ocean has to offer.

Kat Falls brings to life the mysteries, marvels, and monsters of the deep in this fast-paced and inventive action-adventure.

Rip Tide is the sequel to Dark Life, which I really enjoyed reading this summer.  I was disappointed through the first third or so of Rip Tide because it wasn't living up to the standard Dark Life had set, but fear not--the book gets better as it goes on.

Rip Tide is just as action-packed as its predecessor.  Dark Life begins with a shark attack in paragraph two.  Rip Tide shows a bit of restraint and waits all the way until page four or five before setting a squid on us.  While the first book sometimes feels like no more than one escape after the other, Rip Tide has a more developed, intricate, mystery-driven plot.  Ty is more proactive and the plot ends up being better for that.

I love the setting of these books.  With the rise of the oceans and flooding of the land, most of the world's population lives in stacked, UV-scorched cities; but Falls puts her characters in the deep sea as pioneers with a bit of sci-fi technology.  We still get the Firefly vibe in this book, though not as strongly--no Reavers this time around.  [Side note.  If you haven't checked out Firefly yet, do.  Space cowboys!]  Falls' books just have that rough-and-tough, independent, tame-the-land feeling, complete with the good-hearted settler, the vigilante sheriff, the crooked smuggler, the town mayor, etc.  It's a western, but underwater.  I realize it sounds kind of weird, but it's good.

The main characters/good guys aren't developed much (typical teenage boy protagonist, determined, good at heart, a bit naive), but Falls does a great job with her villains.  We never really know where Shade is.  Fife is the sleazy showman that you can't underestimate.   Radder is the dumb,brute strength with a twist.  However, Captain Reavus' character felt a bit contrived.

Even though these books are part of a series, the plots of each book stand alone rather than forming one huge story arc.  Little in this book depends on you having already read Dark Life. I appreciate series like this.  We aren't left with a stupid cliffhanger designed to make us buy the next book.  It's just a satisfying story.

I like the reader for this audio book.  Keith Nobbs fits Ty's voice well. He occasionally struggles with dialogue a bit, especially with differentiating Ty's voice from Gemma's, so it's sometimes hard to tell who's talking.  But aside from that, it was a good listening experience.

One other teeny tiny complaint.  I don't want Ty to die, but a salt water crocodile will ALWAYS win in a fight against a human.

All in all, Rip Tide is a great book, especially if you're looking for something a bit different in the flood of post-apocalypse novels.


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