Sunday, January 27, 2013

Book Chat: 2013 Bookish Resolutions

I'm not much of a resolutions person, but these are my bookish resolutions for this year.

Book chats are hosted by Misty over at the Book Rat.  Be sure to check out her original post as well as the response posts, and leave your own blog/vlog response.

Where do you find cheap books?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Review: The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson

The Adoration of Jenna Fox--Mary E. Pearson
April 2008 by Henry Holt and Co.
266 pages--Goodreads

Who is Jenna Fox? Seventeen-year-old Jenna has been told that is her name. She has just awoken from a coma, they tell her, and she is still recovering from a terrible accident in which she was involved a year ago. But what happened before that? Jenna doesn't remember her life. Or does she? And are the memories really hers?

This fascinating novel represents a stunning new direction for acclaimed author Mary Pearson. Set in a near future America, it takes readers on an unforgettable journey through questions of bio-medical ethics and the nature of humanity. Mary Pearson's vividly drawn characters and masterful writing soar to a new level of sophistication.

I really enjoyed this book.  From the intriguing beginning all through the book it was well paced.  I was engrossed by Jenna's story and could not put the book down.  It was compelling in the same way as the episode of Stark Trek: Next Generation in which there is a trial to determine whether or not Data is alive.  Some plot elements were easy to guess, but I was reasonably able to put aside my guesses and just go with the flow of Jenna's slow re-discovery of her life and her world.  The book is in first person and Jenna's voice is distinct, but not something every reader will like.  She spends a lot of time musing semi-poetically about things. I think that quality is appropriate for this book, but it will bug some readers and it took me a while to get used to.

Adoration is set in the near future.  The science is foreign enough to be futuristic, but plausible enough to be believable for a story set 50ish years from now.  While the book has some science fiction elements, it doesn't rely too heavily on them, making it great for readers who don't normally go for hard sci-fi (like me).

There is so much room for discussion with this book.  I would love to use it in a classroom of 9th or 10th graders.  What does it mean to be human?  What does it mean to be alive?  What is thought or consciousness?  How far will parents go to save their child?  How far should science be allowed to go?  Should it be limited at all?  Can you ethically save someone when there is hardly enough to be considered human?  Can you ethically not save them if you have the power to do so?  These questions don't have clear right or wrong answers, but they are important to consider.  Pearson writes in such a way that she brings these topics up for discussion without trying to force the "right" answer down on your throat.

Jenna's character is erratic at times.  She is perfectly fine one minute and the next she is angry and yelling at people with no transition in between.  It feels at times as if she has two separate personalities.  This may be Pearson's attempt to show Jenna straining against the restraints of her parents, but it feels unnatural.  Also, Jenna's relationship with Ethan is too rushed.  Total and complete trust comes into play after they have known each other for just a couple of weeks.

There is a sequel, for those who are interested, but for me the story is complete as a stand-alone.  Even the epilogue doesn't need to be there; it throws off the flavor of the rest of the book.  Adoration is definitely a slower, more ponderous book, but it makes you confront difficult issues in a satisfying way.  

There is some strongish language in a few places.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Review: American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

American Born Chinese--Gene Luen Yang
September 2006 by First Second

A tour-de-force by rising indy comics star Gene Yang, American Born Chinese tells the story of three apparently unrelated characters: Jin Wang, who moves to a new neighborhood with his family only to discover that he’s the only Chinese-American student at his new school; the powerful Monkey King, subject of one of the oldest and greatest Chinese fables; and Chin-Kee, a personification of the ultimate negative Chinese stereotype, who is ruining his cousin Danny’s life with his yearly visits. Their lives and stories come together with an unexpected twist in this action-packed modern fable. American Born Chinese is an amazing ride, all the way up to the astonishing climax.

This was my second try with graphic novels, and this time it turned out quite well.  Balancing the themes of identity, isolation, assimilation, and friendship, Yang's graphic novel is split between three seemingly unrelated stories that come together in the end.  

What I loved most about the book was that this is not a story just for Chinese Americans or even just for recent immigrants.  Danny's and Jin's and even the Monkey King's stories are relate-to-able to anyone who has ever felt like they didn't fit in, which is pretty much everyone.  The whole point of the book is to be what you are, but that theme is not presented like a preachy self-confidence lesson.  The novel recognizes how hard it is to be yourself when yourself doesn't fit in.  It acknowledges that some people are and will always be jerks.  It captures awkward and sometimes rocky teenage friendships in such a way that we can all see something reflected from ourselves.

Yang's illustration style is a bit more comic-book-like than I am used to.  The characters are drawn with rounded edges, and the whole book uses a bright color palate.  However, the illustrations are deep in their simplicity.  They say a lot with few or no words.  

A few minor complaints.  I was annoyed by the body humor (fart jokes and the like), but the book is about teenage boys.  You can't teach Jr. High kids a lesson on onomatopoeia without "fart" and "burp" causing giggles.  Also, I think the Monkey King's reversal was too swift; we aren't prepared for his complete change in his personality.  I can see why it happened, given the ending, but I would have liked a bit more development in his change.

This book can be enjoyed on many different levels.  Some readers will pick up American Born Chines expecting a light, easy read, and I think they'll be surprised at how deep it is.  I liked it.  I can see why it won the Printz.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Review: Death Cloud by Andrew Lane

Death Cloud--Andrew Lane
June 2010 by Macmillan
313 pages--Goodreads

The year is 1868, and Sherlock Holmes is fourteen. His life is that of a perfectly ordinary army officer’s son: boarding school, good manners, a classical education – the backbone of the British Empire. But all that is about to change. With his father suddenly posted to India, and his mother mysteriously ‘unwell’, Sherlock is sent to stay with his eccentric uncle and aunt in their vast house in Hampshire. So begins a summer that leads Sherlock to uncover his first murder, a kidnap, corruption and a brilliantly sinister villain of exquisitely malign intent . . . 

The Death Cloud is the first in a series of novels in which the iconic detective is reimagined as a brilliant, troubled and engaging teenager – creating unputdownable detective adventures that remain true to the spirit of the original books.

This was a fun read.  I would have eaten it up in middle school.  It moves quickly with trouble following our main character around the whole time, so there are a lot of escape sequences.  The book starts off with a bang and an intriguing prologue.  Other reviewers have noted an Alex Rider vibe, and I would agree with them.  The teen characters in the novel and powerful.  It is expected that they can save the day, and they do.

I liked the focus on deduction to solve the mystery.  I don't like when a detective solves the case by pointing out an obscure fact that no one else could know:  this ash comes from a line of cigars sold exclusively in a particular shop in downtown Singapore; thus the murder is...   Holmes usually has a particular problem with this manner of mystery solving, but not in this version.  There is a bit of Scooby-Dooing (the villain goes on a rant and explains his secret plan to the hero) (thank you Misty for the term) near the end, but for the most part we follow along with Sherlock as he puts things together.

The villain is a half-baked, simplistic, and revengeful.  Holmes needs a Moriarty, not a bumbling crook.  Granted, Holmes isn't a mastermind yet, but still, I expected more out of the villain.  One other minor issue:  Mrs. Eglantine never goes anywhere.  Mycroft makes this big deal about her not being a friend to the Holmes family, and then she does nothing.  I can understand if Lane wants to wait until later in the series to have her be a super villain, but she needs to at least shoot Sherlock a dirty look at the end so we don't forget she exists.

This is the only YA series endorsed by the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, so it must be an accurate-enough-to-canon thing.  Lane writes a reasonably believable 14 or 15 year old Holmes.  He's more relate-to-able and less a sociopathic recluse than the adult Holmes, but that is necessary for a YA book.  Death Cloud is a great introduction for teens into the world of Sherlock Holmes.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Abuse and the LDB

Okay, I have to discuss the latest development of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries with someone.  First, watch today's episode of Lydia Bennet's video blogs.  And all the rest of the series, but especially these last two episodes.

I am convinced that the big scandal of Wickham-Lydia is emotional abuse.  There may be some some legal trouble too, but George is very subtly manipulating Lydia, and I see this turning into an abusive relationship.  Lydia may not disappear as in the book, but she will be trapped.

Here are the warning signs of abuse that I see:

  • Change in Lydia's personality--Lydia has been significantly more subdued in recent episodes
  • George makes her feel indebted to her--the mysterious something in Vegas, letting her come over all the time even thought it's not convenient for him
  • Along with that, he makes her feel guilty about whatever it is he's done for her
  • Lydia is isolated from her friends and family--maybe she's isolating herself or maybe George is mainpulating her away from them.  Either way, no one else is there to see the changes in her personality, and George becomes the only source of recognition and affection
  • George expresses jealosy at her having relationships with others
  • George makes accusations--stealing drugs while babysitting, seeingsomeone else/cheating on him
  • George forces her to do things she doesn't want--even if it's as small as admitting they're dating, and their exclusive status goes one step further into isolating her
  • **Updates since episode 28
    • George continues to make Lydia feel bad about herself.
    • George actively keeps her from seeing her family.  He makes the choice between him and her family an ultimatum and makes it seem like her family has always been against her. 
    • George threatens to leave.  He's made Lydia dependent on him so his leaving would break her heart.
    • George uses "I love you" as leverage for his apology
    • George guilts Lydia "I've done everything for you" "It would kill me to leave you."
I'm fascinated by this down-spiral, half knowing what's coming but not knowing how it will be adapted.  If I'm right and it turns out to be abuse, kudos to the writers for coming up with such an apt modern adaptation.  And holy cow, the actors are phenomenal.  George is not an obvious jerk; he's charming and seemingly protective.  Lydia has been hurt before and based on her fight with Lizzie and the reputation she's established, she may feel like she doesn't deserve anything better, or she may need to prove that she can handle herself.  She may not see what George is doing as a problem.

What do you think, fellow LDB fans?  Am I overreacting and reading something into nothing?  Did you notice any warning signs I missed?  Where do you see Lydia and George's relationship going?  

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Jane Austen's Guide to Getting a Man

In light of the skweeeee-worthy episode of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries that came out on Thursday, I thought I would share some more of my thoughts on Pride and Prejudice and Austen's other work.  I am a bit of an obsessive Austen-ite, but I realized recently that any woman who actually tried to do what Austen’s heroines did to snag a husband needs a major intervention by loving yet concerned friends and family.  

So here for your entertainment are six pieces of relationship advice from the women who know best just how to reach that happy ending.

#1  Be offended when you eavesdrop on a guy after your first encounter and never, ever forgive him.  When he asks you out, turn him down and insult him mercilessly for things he didn't actually do.  Show up  a few months later, without explanation, to creep at his house while he's not home.

#2  Set your best friend up with every semi-eligible young man in the area while ignoring/arguing with the man you secretly love.  Accidently convince said best friend to fall for the same guy.

#3  Watch silently as the one you've loved all your life falls for a complete jerk.  Do nothing.

#4  Fall in love, but reject the young man's proposal when he asks to marry you.  Wait eight years.  You will meet him again, but he will no longer be interested in you.  Arrange for all competition to conveniently fall off of high walls or small cliffs and break their heads.

#5  Accuse your significant other’s father of killing his own wife.  And of being a vampire.

#6  Step One:  Walk in the rain.
Step Two:  Fall and incapacitate yourself.
Step Three:  Lie helplessly in the rain until a dashing hero finds you and carries you back to your abode.
Step Four:   Have your heart broken by the afore said jerk.
Step Five:  Repeat Steps One through Three.  Trust me—this time it will work.
Note:  This method is most effective if you lose the will to live and teeter on the brink of death for a few days.

Do you have any relationship advice from other fictional leading ladies?

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Book Haul #4

Yay, Christmas.  And the start of a new semester.  Both mean new books.

All New Letters from a Nut--Ted L. Nancy
The Name of the Wind--Patrick Rothfus
Growing Bonsai Indoors--Pat Lucke Morris and Sigrun Wolff Saphire
Princess of the Silver Woods--Jessica Day George
Frankenstein:  A Cultural History--Susan Tyler Hitchcock
Frankenstein:  Prodigal Son--Dean Koontz

Did you get any great books for Christmas?

Monday, January 7, 2013

Review: Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan by Rick Bowers

Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan--Rick Bowers
January 2012 by National Geographic Children's Books
154 pages--Goodreads

This book tells a group of intertwining stories that culminate in the historic 1947 collision of the Superman Radio Show and the Ku Klux Klan. It is the story of the two Cleveland teenagers who invented Superman as a defender of the little guy and the New York wheeler-dealers who made him a major media force. It is the story Ku Klux Klan's development from a club to a huge money-making machine powered by the powers of fear and hate and of the folklorist who--along with many other activists-- took on the Klan by wielding the power of words. Above all, it tells the story of Superman himself--a modern mythical hero and an embodiment of the cultural reality of his times--from the Great Depression to the present.

I bought this book solely because of the title.  The phrase 
"Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan" was so intriguing that I had to pick it up.  The book parallels the history and development of the Ku Klux Klan with the creation and development of the Superman mythos.  For the first three fourths of the book, the two stories are only juxtaposed, not interwoven directly.  It is not until the very end of the book that Superman directly confronts the KKK in a radio series.  Though this is an interesting incident, it is an isolated one; and I think it is a bit too tenuous for a good thesis.  The book is more of a dual biography than an exploration of a direct confrontation, which is what the title advertises.

Though the title was a bit misleading, is was an interesting book.  It is targeted at a younger crowd, 5th-8th grade or so.  Kids that age, especially comic book fans, would be very interested in the development of their favorite superhero.  The book  brings out a lot of intriguing facts, such as the similarities between Superman's origins and Jewish mythology (Moses in a basket/Kal-El in a rocket), and Superman as a bit of everything, making him able to appeal to everyone (he is both a country boy and a metropolitan reporter; he is alien, the ultimate foreigner, but he is quintessential American; he mild-mannered and quiet but a strong defender).  The chapters on people infiltrating and spying on the KKK were particularly interesting. The juxtaposition of the spies' secret identities works well against the backdrop of the Superman mythos.  

The book does a good job of contextualizing the KKK against the backdrop of the Reconstruction and the perceived threat of "non-traditional Americans."  It explains how the Klan emerged by pandering to the fears and desires of a few before turning militant.  However, in some parts the book over-biased against the KKK.  Let me be clear, what the Klan stands for is not okay, and I in no way agree with its premise.  But the "The KKK is bad" message was overhanded.  The book stops being merely factual and gets a bit propagandistic, to the point of oversimplifying the issue.  I read non-fiction to learn and understand, not to learn catch phrases to throw around.

The way the Superman radio show took on the KKK was very interesting.  The book gives us a synopsis of the plot of the 16-part series that juggles action and excitement with a moral message without getting too preachy.  That a mainstream media production both would and could successively combat an ideology is very cool.

I appreciate that the end of the book was not sugar-coated.  Bowers readily acknowledges that some of the people involved in the creation of Superman were just in it for the money.  Not every body lives happily ever after, some of them died selfish or bitter.  The loose ends don't tie up neatly, an accurate reflection of reality.  It was an interesting book--not a play by play of a book-long confrontation with the forces of evil, but good.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Review: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

The Way of Kings--Brandon Sanderson
August 2010 by Tor Books

Roshar is a world of stone and storms. Uncanny tempests of incredible power sweep across the rocky terrain so frequently that they have shaped ecology and civilization alike. Animals hide in shells, trees pull in branches, and grass retracts into the soiless ground. Cities are built only where the topography offers shelter.

It has been centuries since the fall of the ten consecrated orders known as the Knights Radiant, but their Shardblades and Shardplate remain: mystical swords and suits of armor that transform ordinary men into near-invincible warriors. Men trade kingdoms for Shardblades. Wars were fought for them, and won by them.

One such war rages on a ruined landscape called the Shattered Plains. There, Kaladin, who traded his medical apprenticeship for a spear to protect his little brother, has been reduced to slavery. In a war that makes no sense, where ten armies fight separately against a single foe, he struggles to save his men and to fathom the leaders who consider them expendable.

This is a slow, slow burn that builds up to a wildfire.  With three separate prologues, Way of Kings takes a long time to get into.  Only Sanderson gets a 350 page grace period; I would have given up on any other author.  My patience was eventually rewarded, and the book ended phenomenally, but you really have to stick it out.  

The world building in Way of Kings is more in-depth than in his others.  The basic ecology of the planet is entirely different from what we're used to, so Sanderson spends a ton of time developing the world, the climate, the plants, the animals, and multiple cultures.  At times this is fascinating and other times it is tedious.  Way of Kings is the beginning of a ten-part, so there is a lot of exposition to go through.  His extensive world building will be a hurtle for some readers.  It's worth the investment, but it is quite an investment.

There is a huge cast of characters, but Sanderson excels at character development, so even when we only see a character for one chapter, we still feel like we know them well.  This is what I love most about his books.  His villains are especially well developed.  He gets you inside their heads so well that you can't help but love them even as they're stabbing you in the back.  Each character feels justified in their actions, which makes them far more compelling than villains who are bad just because they are bad.  

Kaladin's story was particularly interesting.  Similar to the prince in Elantris, he drops to the very bottom of society, becoming bait for enemy soldiers.  In that hopeless existence he manages to inspire and unite the other bridgemen.  Sanderson never has simplistic right-or-wrong plots.  Not only does he give you each character's perspective, each character faces impossible moral conundrums.  Should you save the few people you know and care about or should you save the much larger number of people?  Should you live honorably even if it could get you killed?  Do ends justify means?  Hard questions make for an interesting plot and real character development.

The magic system is only hinted at through most of the book.  Unlike in Mistborn where there is a teacher to explain the magic system, no one really gets how Stormlight works, so the characters discover the magic system along with the readers.  It's an "I have no idea what I'm doing, but this is keeping me alive, so let's figure it out" kind of thing.  I'm interested to see where he takes it in future books.

Like most of Sanderson's books, Way of Kings has a twist near the end that tosses into question everything we had understood previously.  Think the twist at the end of Well of Ascension, but perhaps a bit smaller.  It's one of those WHAAAAAAT?!?!? moments.

I got involved halfway through the book, and as always, the climax was great.  It's a good book, but one meant for readers who already like Sanderson's writing style.


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