Monday, July 29, 2013

Mini Review: The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy

The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom--Christopher Healy
May 2012 by Walden Pond Press
419 pages--Goodreads

Prince Liam. Prince Frederic. Prince Duncan. Prince Gustav. You’ve never heard of them, have you? These are the princes who saved Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White, and Rapunzel, respectively, and yet, thanks to those lousy bards who wrote the tales, you likely know them only as Prince Charming. But all of this is about to change.

Rejected by their princesses and cast out of their castles, the princes stumble upon an evil plot that could endanger each of their kingdoms. Now it’s up to them to triumph over their various shortcomings, take on trolls, bandits, dragons, witches, and other assorted terrors, and become the heroes no one ever thought they could be.

The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom is just a fun book.  It's a bit cheesy, but it's funny and cute.  It's a zany sort of slapstick adventure with some word play thrown in.  Saving Your Kingdom is 
long for a middle grade novel, but it clips along at a quick pace.  The characters are just great.  They're a bit one dimensional, but there's enough characters that you get a lot of variety.  Ella the adventurous, Frederick the timid, Lila the awesome.  Troll is a lot of fun, and I love Gustav's direct bullheadedness.

I don't have much else to say, so I'll just finish with some of my favorite quotes.

"Neville and Horace stopped and eyed them smugly through the bars.  Eyeing smugly was something the pair excelled in.  They'd actually shared the title of Best Smug Eyers in their graduating class at bandit school."

"The rooftop level of the Bandit King's castle had been constructed as a convenient spot from which the robbers could spill boiling oil down onto anyone who tried to break into their headquarters, but it also served as a nice place to have duels, and occasionally, to sunbathe." 

"This was not Liam's finest hour.  The frustrations of the past several days had been slowly eating away at him and muddying his mind.  On a normal day, had Liam been confronted by a fire-breathing dragon, he would have come up with a brilliant tactic for defeating the beast.  He would have lured the dragon into a tight spot to trap it, or maybe found some clever way to make the huge chandelier overhead fall down onto the monster.  But this day?  This day he decided to kick the beast in the tail and yell, 'Take that, dumb dragon!'
"The dragon, as you might suspect, was not impressed." 

"On still another road, a green-haired man wobbled by on peppermint-stick stilts, a fiery-plumed bird of paradise perched on his shoulder.  But he's not in this story, so don't pay any attention to him." 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Review: Divergent by Veronica Roth

Divergent--Veronica Roth
April 2011 by Katherine Tegan Books
496 pages--Goodreads

In Beatrice Prior's dystopian Chicago, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is—she can't have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.

During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles to determine who her friends really are—and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating boy fits into the life she's chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she's kept hidden from everyone because she's been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers a growing conflict that threatens to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves . . . or it might destroy her.

Divergent is one of those books that is action-packed and dramatic for the purpose of being action packed and dramatic.  It all felt very empty.  And SO IRRATIONAL.  Garg!  The world building is weak.  The characters are flat and do irrational, unexplained things.  They miss glaringly obvious plot "twists".  And yet this book has wormed its way into so many people's 5-star list.

First, the world building:  so many holes.  I get that Roth has this really cool premise that she wants to try out, but the cardinal rule of dystopias is that they are supposed to be extensions of current society.  They're supposed to explore the problems in our society.  That means your dystopian world has to be at least semi-plausible; we have to believe that we could get there from here.  But we get almost no explanation on how this post-civilization Chicago works.  What made human society fall apart?  War?  Internal conflict?  Tumblr?  I seriously don't see the entire country breaking up because of personality traits.  And what happened to the rest of the world?  For that matter, what even happened to the rest of the country?  What about people who lived in rural areas?  What exists outside Chicago's boundaries?  And while we're at it, how is everyone surviving in this city?  Where is the food coming from? Where are the farmers?  Where are the cows supplying hamburger meat?

Even the little world building we get doesn't make sense.  Everything about Dauntless is messed up.  They're supposed to be protecting the city, but no one patrols or guards or protects.  The Dauntless just jump off buildings, shoot muffins off people's heads, and perform other acts of recklessness chalked up as bravery.  And what the crap is up with Peter?  I get that Roth is going for the whole "corruption within the factions" thing, but, just what?  Stabbing your competition in the eye or tossing them over a cliff is a supreme act of cowardice, and he should have been banished.  You can't trust someone who will eye stab you.  It takes much more courage to admit to weaknesses than to pretend you don't have any, but the Dauntless are too focused on visible "bravery" and physical domination.

And why did all the transfers pick Dauntless in the first place.  We get Tris's reasoning and a bit of Al's, but why on earth did Will and Christina transfer?  This is never explained.  They're just there because Tris needs a group to train with.  Overall, the characters in this novel are not explored or fleshed out; they're just flat.  Tris, in particular makes no sense.  She's illogical.  Or stupid.  Allow me to demonstrate.  Warning:  spoilers.

  • Hmm, Erudite wants to start a rebellion, but they need a way to control the Dauntless.  They also have simulation serums that alter what the brain perceives.   Oh, look.  A new serum from Erudite.  Don't worry; it's just a tracking serum that we're injecting ALL the Dauntless with.  It couldn't possibly be a very convenient mind control serum.
  • I need to destroy the computer controlling the dauntless-wide simulation.  I could shoot the computer that's controlling the simulation.  No, I'll instead hand the gun to the person who's trying to kill me.  Don't worry, the power of love will save me.
  • One of my brainwashed friends is trying to kill me.  I could disable him by shooting him in the arm or leg.  Nah, I think I'll shoot him in the head.

There is a lot, a lot of violence.  If you don't like action flicks with guns and punching, Divergent is not your book.  It certainly wasn't mine.  But action lovers who don't care much about character development or plot progression will probably like it.  It's kind of like The Maze Runner and summer blockbusters in that way.

I could not take the romance seriously.  And that's all I have to say about that, so I'll rant about other things instead.  Let's just conflate depression and cowardice, why don't we?  As if we don't have enough problems in this country with how we handle mental illness.  And while we're at it, let's just promote the idea that the best thing to do after being sexually assaulted is to not report it.  Because reporting=cowardice apparently.  Garg. 

By the end of the book I got at least a bit invested in what would happen to some of the characters (Uriah, Will Christiana,  all deserved larger parts).  I was slightly curious about the plot, but it had ceased to make sense so I didn't care much.  Divergent wasn't awful, but I'm not invested in the rest of the series.  

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Review: Dodger by Terry Pratchett

Dodger--Terry Pratchett
September 2012 by Harper Collins
360 pages--Goodreads

A storm. Rain-lashed city streets. A flash of lightning. A scruffy lad sees a girl leap desperately from a horse-drawn carriage in a vain attempt to escape her captors. Can the lad stand by and let her be caught again? Of course not, because he's...Dodger.

Seventeen-year-old Dodger may be a street urchin, but he gleans a living from London's sewers, and he knows a jewel when he sees one. He's not about to let anything happen to the unknown girl--not even if her fate impacts some of the most powerful people in England.

From Dodger's encounter with the mad barber Sweeney Todd to his meetings with the great writer Charles Dickens and the calculating politician Benjamin Disraeli, history and fantasy intertwine in a breathtaking account of adventure and mystery.

This book is a lot of fun.  Dodger is a hilarious swindler who would take offense at being called a thief; he just finds things that have been misplaced, or would have been misplaced soon anyways.  But he's good-hearted and skilled at what he does.

I love Terry Pratchett's style of narration.  Something about the straight-faced, understated, tongue in cheek humor just captivated me from the very beginning of the novel.  Maybe it's the word play, things like Dodger learning how to be a successful urchin by learning how to urch or a man giving Dodger a cursory glance with a good deal of curse in it.  It's not a style that works for everyone, but it works perfectly for me.  It's just funny.  I loved each time Mr. Dickens stole a title or line for his future books from Dodger.

Dodger is historical fiction in the same way that Leviathan is historical fiction.  Pratchett calls it historical fantasy.  Is it entirely plausible that all this stuff in this book (multiple assassination attempts, several heroics, being raised from rags to riches, etc) happens in just week?  No. But who cares?  This is the sort of book that throws plausibility out the window and says "wouldn't it be cool if.." Pratchett fudges dates and places to make it work out so all his historical figures can come together.  If you can accept that, the book is fun.  Otherwise, the craziness will bug you.  

My only question is why didn't we get more of the Outlander?  That was a serious let down.  It could have been so cool to have a *SPOILER* lady assassin after Dodger for most of the book.  Instead, Pratchett doesn't build up nearly enough tension and throws the Outlander in at the very tail end of the book with no explanation or development.  Most of the villains are like that too, more boogy men than fleshed out threats.

I will definitely have to give some of Pratchett's other books a try.  I really liked Dodger, but it's a book I'd hesitate to recommend.  I can't even pin down exactly what it was that made me like it, so I don't know what to identify in other readers that would make them like it.  It's an interesting read.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Between Shades of Gray--Ruta Sepetys
March 2011 by Philomel Books
344 pages--Goodreads

Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they've known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin's orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions.

Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously--and at great risk--documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father's prison camp to let him know they are still alive. It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives.Between Shades of Gray is a novel that will steal your breath and capture your heart.

Excellent.  Just excellent.  Between Shades of Gray is not an "Oh my gosh; this is so awesome!!!" book  It's a slow burning, sticks with you, love it the more you think about it type of book.  It has a lingering beauty in the tone, subject matter, and writing style.  It is honest about the horrors Lina faces without being depressing.  It is a story of suffering and a story of hope.

The Holocaust features prominently in WWII novels, but I had never heard of these Soviet prison camps and the deported Baltic citizens.  Seriously, how do people not know about this?  I guess it shows the emptiness of our "never again" attitude toward the Holocaust and genocides in general.  I would love to use this book in connection with a unit on Anne Frank (too bad I'm not teaching 8th grade this year) and then connect it to other, more modern genocides.

Sepetys is very honest in her portrayal of the characters; they are not demons and martyrs, but flawed people just trying to survive their very harsh circumstances.  They are very real.  In that light, I like Kretzsky's character.  We like to demonize our antagonists, but really no one is just black or white in this book or in real life.  Kretzsky and Lina and everyone else is made of spectrum of goods and bads.  I wish we could have seen more from his character, but this book is Lina's story, not his. 

There is some mature content in the descriptions of the NKVD's brutality.  It is accurate without being gratuitous, and I appreciate that. 

Between Shades of Gray is an excellent, excellent historical fiction.  I will be sure to read it again.  And the cover is just so pretty.  This cover, not the eyelash one.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Review: They Called Themselves the K.K.K. by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

They Called Themselves the K.K.K: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group--Susan Campbell Bartoletti
August 2010 by Houghten Mifflin Books for Children
172 pages--Goodreads

"Boys, let us get up a club."

With those words, six restless young men raided the linens at a friend’s mansion in 1866. They pulled white sheets over their heads, hopped on horses, and cavorted through the streets of Pulaski, Tennessee. Soon, the six friends named their club the Ku Klux Klan and began patterning their initiations after fraternity rites, with passwords and mysterious handshakes. All too quickly, this club would grow into the self-proclaimed “Invisible Empire,” with secret dens spread across the South. On their brutal raids, the nightriders would claim to be ghosts of Confederate soldiers and would use psychological and physical terror against former slaves who dared to vote, own land, attend school, or worship as they pleased.

This is the story of how a secret terrorist group took root in America’s democracy. Filled with chilling and vivid personal accounts unearthed from oral histories, congressional documents, and other primary sources, this is a book to read and remember.

This is a very interesting and compelling read.  They Called Themselves the K.K.K. does a wonderful job of contextualizing the Klan within the Reconstruction.  I appreciate that Bartoletti uses this book to really try to understand the Klansmen, their reasons, and their motivations.  Rather than just condemning the acts of the Klan, which we already know are wrong, the book explores why a person would be driven to join a hate group and do monstrous things.  This is what I like best about this book and this is exactly where Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan falls very, very flat.  I read non-fiction to understand, not to rehash oversimplified good-bad dichotomies.  

On that note, I love the quote by W.E.B. Du Bois about Klansmen: "These human beings at heart are desperately afraid of something.  Of What?  Of many things, but usually of losing their jobs, being declassed, degraded, or actually disgraced; of losing their hopes, their savings, their plans for their children; of the actual pangs of hunger, of dirt, of crime."   I think fear is a big part of what drives prejudice.

This book focuses on the early development of the Klan during Reconstruction.  I expected it to spend more time on the Jim Crow Era and the Civil Rights movement.  It's still good, and I will definitely be able to use Chapter 6 about Klan violence against sharecroppers during my Roll of Thunder unit. 

The audiobook for They Called Themselves is excellent, but somethings just don't work well in that format, specifically the timeline.  The physical book is a good balance of text, white space, insets, and  pictures, though the dialects might be difficult to understand in print.  The source material occasionally uses offensive language or images, but it is handled tastefully.  Bartoletti doesn't censor the history.

The source notes are definitely worth a look, especially the bit about Bartoletti's visit to a modern day Klan meeting.  It's creepy.  The Klan still uses the same rhetoric and fans the flames of the same fears about people who are different.  Children are still learning this close-minded life view, and not just in Klan families.  These same arguments are  prevalent in today's politics, though in a diluted form.  That's why meaningful interaction with people who are different from you is important.  

All in all, They Called Themselves the K.K.K. is a well researched, engaging, well crafted narrative and excellent non-fiction text.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Review: Fallen Grace by Mary Hooper

Fallen Grace--Mary Hooper
June 2010 by Bloomsbury USA
320 pages--Goodreads

Grace Parkes has just had to do a terrible thing. Having given birth to an illegitimate child, she has travelled to the famed Brookwood Cemetery to place her small infant's body in a rich lady's coffin. Following the advice of a kindly midwife, this is the only way that Grace can think of to give something at least to the little baby who died at birth, and to avoid the ignominy of a pauper's grave. Distraught and weeping, Grace meets two people at the cemetery: Mrs Emmeline Unwin and Mr James Solent. These two characters will have a profound affect upon Grace's life. 

But Grace doesn't know that yet. For now, she has to suppress her grief and get on with the business of living: scraping together enough pennies selling watercress for rent and food; looking after her older sister, who is incapable of caring for herself; thwarting the manipulative and conscience-free Unwin family, who are as capable of running a lucrative funeral business as they are of defrauding a young woman of her fortune.

A stunning evocation of life in Victorian London, with vivid and accurate depictions, ranging from the deprivation that the truly poor suffered to the unthinking luxuries enjoyed by the rich: all bound up with a pacy and thrilling plot, as Grace races to unravel the fraud about to be perpetrated against her and her sister.

Fallen Grace an interesting, slow, thoroughly researched novel.  I like this time period and enjoyed learning more about it.  I hadn't realize how huge and crazy the cult of mourning was.  Thanks for that Victoria.  Hooper doesn't shy away from details about the Victorian poor. This book is dark and nitty gritty without being depressing.  There is some mature content, but it is handled well and not explicit or gratuitous.

I liked Grace, but she was just a bit to perfect.  She's one of those beautiful, angelically good women who have no real flaws; they're just trapped in bad circumstances.  The villains are also flat in their characterization.  They're not developed, they're just evil.  Evil.

There's a bit too much deus ex machina throughout the book.  All the characters are connected.  There are random coincidences all over the place.  Things wrap up just a bit too neatly at the end.  It's almost predictable without actually being predictable.  Maybe Hooper is trying to imitate Dickens since he does this all the time.  The narrative also jumps point of view suddenly and without indication.

Can I step aside from the book for a minute and just say that a woman is not fallen or ruined or tainted because she is raped.  I know Hooper was just projecting Victorian morals into the book because that's how the characters would have seen it, but it bugs me.  A lot.  And can we stop talking about pulling girls from the "temptation" of prostitution.  Prostitution is a horrible life that women didn't take up unless they felt they had no other options.

Despite a few complaints, I liked it.  Fallen Grace is a compelling read, though a slow one.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Review: For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund

For Darkness Shows the Stars--Diana Peterfreund
June 2012 Balzer + Bray
402 pages--Goodreads

It's been several generations since a genetic experiment gone wrong caused the Reduction, decimating humanity and giving rise to a Luddite nobility who outlawed most technology.

Elliot North has always known her place in this world. Four years ago Elliot refused to run away with her childhood sweetheart, the servant Kai, choosing duty to her family's estate over love. Since then the world has changed: a new class of Post-Reductionists is jumpstarting the wheel of progress, and Elliot's estate is foundering, forcing her to rent land to the mysterious Cloud Fleet, a group of shipbuilders that includes renowned explorer Captain Malakai Wentforth--an almost unrecognizable Kai. And while Elliot wonders if this could be their second chance, Kai seems determined to show Elliot exactly what she gave up when she let him go.

But Elliot soon discovers her old friend carries a secret--one that could change their society . . . or bring it to its knees. And again, she's faced with a choice: cling to what she's been raised to believe, or cast her lot with the only boy she's ever loved, even if she's lost him forever.

Inspired by Jane Austen's Persuasion, For Darkness Shows the Stars is a breathtaking romance about opening your mind to the future and your heart to the one person you know can break it.

For Darkness Shows the Stars does a good job of both drawing on Persuasion while also standing as its own story.  The problem was I wouldn't let it be it's own story.  I could not stop comparing For Darkness to Persuasion and finding all the places it fell short.  I just couldn't let things go, and that kept me from enjoying the book as much as I could have.

The romance was neither tense nor tragic.  Seriously, Elliot.  Kai left when you were 14.  I had four concurrent crushes when I was 14 and none of those ever came close to panning out.  Move on.  I do like that Peterfreund built up their relationship as close childhood friends.  Then as adults Elliot and Kai talk to each other all the time, killing all the tension that is supposed to be there.  Anne and Wentworth never know what the other is thinking.  That's what makes the letter so satisfying: they finally, FINALLY express what we've been hoping they felt this whole time.  That tension just isn't there in For Darkness, even with Elliot and Kai's melodramatic fights.  

The letter itself was a disappointment   Nothing will ever be as swoon-worthy as Austen's original, and since Peterfreund hadn't been using Austenesque language, it would have been out of place to cut and paste it in.  But the rewritten letter is just so bland in comparison.  It honestly felt like a Sparknotes version of the original, and it was so much less than what I knew it could be.

I am impressed with how well Peterfreund translated Regency England's social structure to her post-apocalyptic world.  The classes are broken out just as rigidly and unsurmountably.  The Posts (rising middle class) are the new unknown middle ground threat.  The Reduced are just how the aristocracy and gentry would have viewed the peasant class, people who need to be watched over because they're not capable of caring for themselves.  Peterfreund also does an excellent job of making it clear why Elliot had to stay.  We can get a bit over-romantic while reading Persuasion and become convinced that Anne and Wentworth could have been happy as we overlook the fact that a war had just begun and he had no prospects and could have very easily died and left Anne a penniless widow cut off forever from her family.  It was the right choice for her to stay.  With Elliot we realize it would have been selfish of her to leave.  Had she left, the estate would have fallen apart from ill management and hundreds of people would have suffered.  

Peterfreund took a huge risk in reworking such beloved source material as Austen's Persuasion, and that risk didn't quite pan out for me, which is partly my own fault.  By the end of the novel I had finally allowed For Darkness to be its own novel and started to enjoy it more.  For Darkness Shows the Stars is not Persuasion by any measure, but it is good.  

Side note:  There was far too little of the Crofts/Innovations.  The Crofts are my absolute favorite Austen couple ever.  We see less of them in the movies, but in the books they are adorable.  The Innovations hardly spend two scenes together.  We see a lot of Felicia, and that's good, but I missed the Sophie going along with the Admiral's crazy driving and always sailing with him and the Admiral talking about how much he loved his wife, how he is used to having a woman (his wife) on his arm, and asking why all women can't be named Sophie. 

Sigh.  I should just go and reread Persuasion.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Review: Bomb by Steve Sheinkin

Bomb:  The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon--Steve Sheinkin
September 2012 by Flash Point
266 pages--Goodreads

In December of 1938, a chemist in a German laboratory made a shocking discovery: When placed next to radioactive material, a Uranium atom split in two. That simple discovery launched a scientific race that spanned 3 continents. In Great Britain and the United States, Soviet spies worked their way into the scientific community; in Norway, a commando force slipped behind enemy lines to attack German heavy-water manufacturing; and deep in the desert, one brilliant group of scientists was hidden away at a remote site at Los Alamos. This is the story of the plotting, the risk-taking, the deceit, and genius that created the world's most formidable weapon. This is the story of the atomic bomb.

This is one of those books that has won so many awards that you wonder if it can ever live up to it's reputation.  Bomb does.  Beginning with an FBI take down of a Soviet spy, this book is engrossing.  Science.  Spies (willing and reluctant).  A world war.  More spies.  It's a book that both teens and adults can enjoy. 

Sheinkin does an excellent job of interweaving primary sources with exposition.  With firsthand accounts from scientists, spies, pilots, politicians, and survivors, the entire book is interesting.  Unlike some nonfiction texts, Bomb makes history accessible.  You don't need much background in the history or science to understand and enjoy the book.  Sheinkin also gives us a sound understanding of the context of the decision to use the bomb.  He makes us understand why Truman felt justified in using the bombs on Japan, but he still acknowledging the horror of what happened.  He neither excuses nor condemns.  He just lays out what happened and lets us draw our own conclusions.  

The ending is positively chilling.  "The making of the atomic bomb is one of history's most amazing examples of teamwork and genius and poise under pressure.  But it's also the story of how humans created a weapon capable of wiping our species off the planet.  It's a story with no end in sight.  And, like it or not, you're in it."

My only question is, where were the Germans in all of this?  I know the focus of the book is America vs Soviet Union, but come on.  There's no way they weren't spying on the Americans.  Yes, it creates tension to not know how close the Germans were to completing the bomb while the Americans faced set back after set back, but still.   

Bomb is no dull history text book.  It is an interesting and engaging text worth every award it has received.   I haven't been so engaged in a nonfiction text in ages.  Both the topic and the writing style are excellent.  


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