Chopsticks

Jun. 27th, 2012 02:35 pm
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ChopsticksChopsticks by Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral.
This is a story told mostly in pictures which is curiously shelved as a regular novel rather than a graphic novel. That’s maybe because it’s told in photographs rather than drawings, though drawings and paintings that the characters make also show up. There are also programs, instant message conversations, homemade mix albums, and Youtube links (which I didn’t have time to look at), with just a touch of actual spoken dialogue. (If you buy it as an iPad app instead of a print book, the links are live and let you click right through.) In that way, it’s slick and modern and cutting edge of fiction, kind of. The story, though, is a twist on the age-old story of lovers whose families don’t approve. Glory is a 16 year old piano prodigy, famous for improvising mixes of classical pieces and modern rock on the stage. She is known, puzzlingly, as the “Brecht of the Piano” and has her first world tour lined up. But somehow, despite her father’s strict practice schedule, she finds time to fall in love with the boy next door, a new immigrant from Argentina called Francisco at home and Frank for Anglos. He’s an aspiring artist, but failing at school, mostly because he doesn’t care enough about America to put in the effort. With Glory, though, he is all sweetness and consideration. Glory’s father, however, sees nothing but a bum and tries to sever contact between Glory and Frank. The separation leads to madness – the less contact Glory is allowed, the less she can think about anything else. This directly impacts her on the stage, as she starts playing nothing but variations on “Chopsticks”. The tour is cancelled; she is sent to the Golden Hands Rest Home for Young Prodigies. The book begins with the ending: Glory has gone missing from the home, and no one knows where she is. It looked to me like she found a way to rejoin Frank, now 18 and able to return to Argentina. However, the back cover implies ambiguity and a potentially untrustworthy narrator. I’m not sure if that’s the authors being hopeful or me not having the patience to figure out puzzles, reading as I do in my chronically sleep-deprived state. I’d be happy to hear thoughts from anyone else who’s read this; otherwise, it’s an interesting scrapbook-style book that lets the reader put the story together.
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“Do you have any books you listened to on the Odyssey Award committee that you think I would like?” I asked our teen librarian. She gave me this one. Had I read the back cover first, two years after the unexpected death of a male family member would have sounded really uncomfortably close, given that I started the book exactly two years after my own brother’s unexpected death. I’m glad I went ahead anyway.

The Piper's SonThe Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta. Read by Michael Finney.
Tom Mackee wakes up in a hospital bed with a huge headache and no memory of getting there. Sitting next to him is his old friend Francesca Spinelli, whom he hasn’t seen in two years and isn’t happy to be seeing now. His Uncle Joe was blown up in the London train bombings of 2005, joining Tom’s grandfather Tom Finch, who died in Vietnam, in the “bodies never returned” club. In the two years since Joe’s death, his family has fallen apart, Tom’s mother leaving Sydney for Brisbane with his little sister Annabelle. Tom stayed to help his father, who was struggling with deep alcohol problems, until his father disappeared, too. Now it’s been a year since anyone in the family has seen the man who was so charismatic in leading local unions that he was called the Piper. Meanwhile, Tom has dropped out of university, stopped seeing his friends, quit their band, and left the girl he loved. He’s been living on the dole with a couple of potheads, using drugs, alcohol and casual sex to numb the pain. But now those roommates have been kicked out of their apartment and thrown his things on the street. Tom has no one to turn to except his Aunt Georgie, his father’s sister. At close to 40, she’s pregnant for the first time by her ex-husband. Though her own life is a bit messy, she agrees to take Tom in only on the condition that he finds a job, so he finds mindless part-time data entry work to appease her. Then, wandering into the Union Bar, where his family has hung out for years, he learns that his former roommates, previous employees there, stole a large amount of money. Something finally snaps, and Tom insists on starting work at the Union to pay back what his former friends stole. But this means working with Francesca and Justine, two of the Five Horsewomen of the Apocalypse who were part of his gang before. Tara Finke, his lost love, is overseas, but even the cook at the Union knows how he broke her heart. Meanwhile, Georgie can neither talk nor speak to her ex, and won’t admit the obvious fact of her pregnancy even to her best friends.

This is marketed as a teen book, though Georgie’s point of view gets nearly equal time with Tom’s, and even Tom is no longer a teenager. The only reason that I can see for this is that Tom’s gang of friends featured in Marchetta’s earlier book, Saving Francesca, which was definitely a teen book. Here, Marchetta does an amazing job looking at the way grief can muck up lives. Both in Tom’s family and his circle of friends, everyone loves one another fiercely, and yet no one has been able to keep things together enough to stay together. It takes a whole bunch of broken people working in their limping way towards healing to start putting things right. Even though Tom is not someone I’d normally identify with beyond this shared grief, Marchetta keeps him a sympathetic character even when he’s acting like a jerk for large portions of the book. I’m very glad to have listened to this, because while I know what Australians sound like in general, it’s difficult for me to keep the voices sounding right in my head when I’m reading silently to myself. Michael Finney does a fine job, reading with just the right tones and managing that difficult task for a male narrator of convincing and distinct female voices as well as male. I’m not usually one for depressing realistic fiction, but I really enjoyed this one, so much that I checked out Saving Francesca right away. The Piper’s Son is sad, funny, beautiful and ultimately heartwarming. You should read it.

Cross-posted to http://library-mama.dreamwidth.org and http://sapphireone.livejournal.com .
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I was so excited to get a review copy that I had to post a review here, even if I was sent the review copy in order to purchase it for the library, which I can’t do, because it’s clearly a teen or tween book, and I only get to buy the adult gns.

JinxJinx: Little Jinx Grows Up Written by J. Torres. Pencils by Rick Burchett. Inks by Terry Austin.
Li’l Jinx, a young tomboy, featured in her own comic from Archie comics starting in the 1940s. This new book stars a Jinx starting high school in the modern era. The notes say that the story is trying to be “real, not ideal”. It felt like a teenaged version of Ramona or Clementine, with four episodic yet chronological chapters recounting Jinx’s misadventures put together. Jinx deals with her friends and acknowledged “frenemies”. She gets her cell phone confiscated for texting in school, tries out for the boy’s football team with unfortunate results, and tries to figure out what it means when kissing her best friend Greg doesn’t result in an instant romance. It felt- well, maybe real with sugar added. It doesn’t stint on teen awkwardness and embarrassment, but there isn’t anything about, say, serious bullying or death. This is the kind of high school you’d want to experience yourself, and is perfect for those who are happy to read light-hearted school anecdotes. It might not be quite as realistic as the authors seem to be hoping, but I certainly enjoyed my time hanging out with Jinx and her friends.

Cross-posted to http://library-mama.dreamwidth.org and http://sapphireone.livejournal.com .
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This one was recommended by Colleen over at Chasing Ray – thanks, Colleen!

12 Things to Do Before You Crash and Burn 12 Things to Do Before You Crash and Burn by James Proimos Herc was nicknamed Hercules by his father when he was six. But his father has just died in a plane crash. He was a popular self-help expert, loved by his audience, but a terrible father. Herc, definitely up there on the difficult teen scale, gives this eulogy at the funeral: “He was an ass. My father was a complete and total ass.” Following this, and no doubt further trying incidents at home, his mother ships Herc off to his uncle in Baltimore for two weeks. In the train on the way there, he sits by a Beautiful, Unattainable Woman who is reading Winnie the Pooh. When she leaves the book behind, he determines to track her down to return it. Meanwhile, his uncle, busy working long hours, gives him, like the Hercules of legend, twelve tasks to accomplish: Choose a mission. Find the best pizza joint in town. Clean out the garage. Muck the stalls at Riverbend farm. Read a complete book under a tree. Go to a place of worship and pray. Go on seven job interviews. Spend the day thinking big thoughts. Write them down. Eat a meal with a stranger. Make your uncle something. Recite a poem at Blake’s Coffee shop Midnight Poetry Reading. Complete your mission. Somehow, the force of his uncle’s personality is enough that Herc goes with it, forming most of the book.

There are, in my opinion, way too many Dead Parent teen books, but this is one of the good ones. Despite the potentially depressing premise, this is hilarious, with short, active chapters. In fact, the whole book is really short at only 128 pages, which makes it perfect for reluctant teen readers. The tasks seem random and he accomplishes them in ways that are definitely more surface-oriented than serious - but Herc manages to sort through his tangled feelings for his father along the way. And who could resist his discomfiture at finding out that the woman of his dreams is named Thelma or the job interviews at entry-level jobs where he makes up different punning names suitable to the job for each one (wishing I had the book here for quotes now.) In any case, this is one certainly to read for pleasure and also to put in the hands of teens who need something fast and fun that still packs a wallop.

Cross-posted to http://library-mama.dreamwidth.org and http://sapphireone.livejournal.com .
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When I first read The Thief and its two sequels, I mentioned that I was waiting for more. And more came out… last fall, but I only just now got to it.

book coverConspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner. Read by Jeff Woodman Most of this book is told in the first person, narrated by Sophos. He was in The Thief, which I apparently don’t remember as well as I thought, because I didn’t remember him at all. Other characters that I remember from the other books do come in, though – the King and Queen of Attolia and the Queen of Eddis. Sophos is a young man exiled to an island by his uncle, the King of Sounis. He never wanted to be the heir to the kingdom, and knows that he is a disappointment both to his father and to his uncle. Then he is kidnapped and sold into slavery. It is only when he learns of treason against the king that he makes up his mind to escape and try to claim his kingdom from the Mede Empire and from the rebel barons. Turner does her usual excellent job of mixing the political with real human characters. I didn’t find that the plot had that same kind of unexpected twist that I found with the first couple, though there was certainly plenty of plotting and double-crossing. There are also the workings of the gods, which in realistic fashion are never entirely clear. The narrator, Jeff Woodman, has a perfect voice for a boy coming into manhood, which works perfectly for most of the book. He shares the downfall of many male narrators, unconvincing female voices. They either sounded very young or ancient, and he made the odd choice of giving the love interest the old lady voice. Fans of Turners other books will want to make sure to read this. Newcomers might want to start at the beginning – it’s a series well worth getting into.
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book coverGoing Bovine by Libba Bray. Read by Erik Davies Sixteen-year-old Cameron Smith is a disaffected loner/stoner teen trying to skate through life with minimum effort. He knows he’s a disappointment to his family and doesn’t care much about the people he hangs out with at school. The place he feels most at home is Yubi’s, the record store in town, but even there he collects CDs from an artist that he finds ridiculous. Then his life takes a turn towards the grim and scary. As he’s biking home one night, he encounters fire giants and meets a dark and malevolent knight. Further, he’s diagnosed with mad cow disease. Soon he’s in the hospital struggling to stay alive. Apart from a few incongruities like having teens on the same corridor as senior patients, these hospital scenes and the run-around with doctors seemed all too familiar. Where was the humor and adventure I remembered from the reviews I read when this was first published a few years back? Then Cameron is visited by Dulcie, a punk-rock angel who had appeared to him without talking a couple of times previously. Dulcie tells him that the world is about to end – the fire giants and the black knight have come through a wormhole created by the mysterious Dr. X, who vanished some years ago. Only Cameron, with his rogue prion-influenced brain, can find Dr. X and convince him to close the wormhole and keep reality from ending. To get there, he’ll need to follow clues on billboards and personal ads and use his intuition. He’ll also need to take the patient from the next bed with him. He’d met Gonzo, a Mexican-American hypochondriac video-game obsessed dwarf at school. Dulcie gives him the temporary health he needs for the trip, and Cameron and Gonzo are off. The already somewhat trippy story gets crazier yet as they have one adventure after another. They meet a garden gnome who claims to be the god Baldur under a curse, join a happiness cult, and more. Every so often, the story flips back to the hospital, so that it’s not clear if the adventure is really happening, is a product of Cameron’s failing brain, or if we’re looking at parallel realities. Music from multiple fictional artists weaves in and out of the story, along with Disney world, snow globes, and the Buddha Cow. Going Bovine is hilarious, extremely profane, filled with adventure, deep thoughts, and some sex. It won the Printz award for teen literature when it came out, and rightly so. I was blown away by all the strands woven together to make a story that so perfectly captures both the beauty and the tragedy of life. I listened to this on audio. Erik Davies had a perfect sounding teen voice for Cameron, though his girl’s voices were somewhat less convincing. For the most part, though, the narration was convincing enough to suck me right into the story.

Cross-posted to http://library-mama.dreamwidth.org and http://sapphireone.livejournal.com .

Smile

Aug. 22nd, 2011 02:26 pm
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book coverSmile by Raina Telgemeier. Smile is the true story of a girl navigating middle and high school with the dreaded braces. Already somewhat insecure, Raina is horrified when two of her front teeth get knocked out. The solution is oral surgery, braces, and even headgear at night. How can she even have a chance at looking cool? Along the way, she deals with band, an earthquake, starts to get interested in boys, and navigates the decidedly treacherous waters of friendship. Though it’s solidly set in San Francisco in the early 1990s, anyone who’s experienced middle or high school will find common ground with Raina. Here, the graphic novel format really helped the setting stay in the background while the characters stood out. This is a disarmingly honest story of a journey from insecurity to self-discovery, with braces. It is well deserving of its recent Eisner award.

Originally posted at http://library-mama.dreamwidth.org .

Leviathan

Jul. 6th, 2011 02:33 pm
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book coverLeviathan by Scott Westerfeld Australian YA author Westerfeld of Uglies fame takes a turn toward a steampunk alternate history with this first in a trilogy. The year is 1914. Prince Alek, son of the Archduke Ferdinand, is woken in the middle of the night by his tutor, who takes him for what he thinks is a midnight training ride in one of the two-legged walkers that Austria-Hungary is becoming famous for. Except that it turns out not to be training. His parents have just been assasinated, his people have turned against him, and Alek must run for his life. Meanwhile, Deryn Sharp is posing as a boy so that she can join the British Air Service, where genetically engineered ecosystems of animals create large dirigible-like ships that float through the air. Unlike Jacky Faber, Deryn finds the constant jockeying for position among the midshipmen wearing, but she is already experienced in the air, brilliant and courageous. She ends up serving on the Leviathan, a very large airship that is carrying Dr. Nora Darwin Barlow and some precious cargo on an urgent diplomatic mission to the Ottoman Empire. The world is on the brink of war between the Darwinists and the Clankers – can two young people from opposite sides prevent it? The action is non-stop, the characters a delight, and the technology intriguing. We have it in teen, but so far I haven’t seen anything in to make it inappropriate for middle graders, while it’s deep enough to work for adults as well. I’ve already devoured the first two books and am now waiting for book three to come out in September.
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book coverZombies vs. Unicorns edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier. Zombies are in right now. Really in, and I personally really don’t like them. That’s why I’m so glad that this anthology of short stories has come out, so that everyone can see once and for all why unicorns are so much cooler than zombies. That would be my way of looking at it, anyway. The book is geared towards a teen audience and has twelve stories, six each zombie and unicorn, each team headed by a separate editor. Here are the authors that I’ve heard of: Garth Nix, Naomi Novik, Maureen Johnson, Diana Peterfreund, Scott Westerfeld, Meg Cabot and Libba Bray. These are very good authors, though I admit that the only zombie story I made it all the way through was Alaya Dawn Johnson’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, and that only because the opening comments described it as funny. Every story is preceded by an argument between the two editors on the background of the story, tidbits about zombies or unicorns (depending) and the relative merits of zombies and unicorns. Even when I didn’t read the story, the notes were priceless. A thoughtful feature of this book is that every story is marked with a zombie or unicorn icon so if you are a diehard member of one team or another, as it turns out I am, you can avoid the stories from the other side. Some of the stories are dark, like Kathleen Duey’s “The Third Virgin”. Some, like Naomi Novik’s “Purity Test” (what if the girl the unicorn picks isn’t really a virgin?) and Meg Cabot’s “Princess Prettypants”, where the unicorn literally farts rainbows, are hilarious. I hear the zombie stories were pretty good, too.

Crossposted to http://library-mama.dreamwidth.org and http://sapphireone.livejournal.com
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book coverAn Abundance of Katherines by John Green. Read by Jeff Woodman This has been on my reading list for a while, though, as our teen librarian thought I would enjoy it, and she has Magic Powers regarding knowing what books I will like. Our hero, former child prodigy Colin Singleton, is heart-broken, feeling like he has a hole in his gut. He has just been dumped for the nineteenth time by a girl named Katherine. His best friend, Hassan, who doesn’t believe in dating at all, takes him on a road trip to help him recover. They wind up in tiny Gutshot, Tennessee, where they are hired to help with an oral history project for the factory there. They make friends with the owner’s daughter, Lindsay Leigh Wells, while Colin tries to make a mathematical formula to predict the future of relationships. Green makes the book thoughtful and very very funny, and I loved every minute of listening to it (except for one or two minutes when I knew that Colin was about to do something really stupid.)

White Cat

Jul. 5th, 2010 02:28 pm
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book coverWhite Cat by Holly Black The more I read of Holly Black, the more a couple of themes come across: Magic is real and scary. Family is not to be trusted. This book is set in a slightly different modern-day than her other books. Teenaged Cassel wakes up on the snowy roof of his boarding-school dorm room, knowing that his cover is blown. He’s been trying to pass for normal, even though he comes from a family of curse workers, all of whom work for one of the big five crime families. Cassel himself isn’t a worker, but con games are in his blood. Even lying low at boarding school – trying to escape some truly dark memories – Cassel is supporting himself as a bookie, running betting schemes all over the school. Now that the school sees him as a danger to himself, he’s sent to stay with his family until he can get a doctor’s consent to go back home. Once with his family again, the plot thickens. His oldest brother, a strong man for the crime family, is clearly up to something, and his young wife is suffering from some kind of spell. His next oldest and favorite brother is losing large amounts of his memory – is someone doing memory work on him, or is he doing such large amounts of memory work that the blowback is tearing holes in his own memory? All magic is called cursing here, and all the magic Cassel sees is used for cursing, controlled by the crime families ever since it became illegal shortly after Prohibition. Then, at his mother’s house (abandoned until she gets out of jail), he finds a white cat, the same white cat that he was following in the dream which ended up with him on the roof. In the dream, the cat’s name was Lila, the same name as his childhood best friend, the daughter of the head of the crime family; Lila, around whom his terrible memories center. Cassel needs to figure what is going on, and decide if there is anyone he can trust or if there is such a thing as real friendship. The plot is full of twists in the main plot, and has some nice subplots as well. The overall tone is dark and sarcastic, the plot fast-moving, and Cassel a likeable character despite his repeated assurances to the reader that he is not a good person. Fans of Holly Black’s other work will enjoy this, of course. The urban setting calls to mind Charles de Lint, though Black’s work is less dreamy and much faster paced, while the crime world fantasy is reminiscent of Stephen Brust’s Jhereg series, but less comedy than some of those works. It’s good stuff, and the cover makes it look like there will be more.

The only really annoying part was the cover – which looks fine on its own, until you read the descriptions of Cassel in the text, where he is described as definitely not white of indeterminate origins. That pretty boy on the cover looks lily-white to me, another frustrating example of covers being whitewashed on the theory that dark skins don’t sell.
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book coverThe Entymological Tales of Augustus T. Percival: Petronella Saves Nearly Everyone by Dene LowThis one I picked up just based on the title. It’s funny and light, set just after the turn of the last century. Petronella, a plucky British lass, is just about to have her coming out party, having just turned sixteen. However, two unfortunate events occur. First, her uncle Augustus accidentally swallows a beetle and develops an insatiable and most improper appetite for bugs. Secondly, two foreign dignitaries who showed up at her coming-out party uninvited are kidnapped from it. Despite rival factions of eccentric relatives trying to prevent her from doing so, Petronella sets out to solve both of these mysteries. She is aided by her best friend Jane and Jane’s brother James, a beautiful specimen of manhood. (If only James would notice Petronella as anything but a younger sister! Alas!) Petronella and her Uncle Augustus are both charming characters whom I would love to see more of. This is a romp for middle school and up both as historical fiction and for the mystery, at an age level where mysteries are in short supply.
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book coverFront and Center by Catherine Gilbert Murdock I know that I wrote about Dairy Queen when I first read it, but I’m so entranced that I thought I’d mention that book three in this series is now out. D.J. Schwenk is back to school after spending several months helping her brother Win recuperate from a spinal injury. She’s broken up with Brian Nelson and intends to focus on school and basketball. Only of course life can’t be that simple. Her coach informs her that college coaches are scouting her, and she has to decide on colleges now - junior year - or all the scholarships will be gone. Why so fast? And can someone who can barely manage to talk to classmates handle the potential pressure of a Big 10 team? Plus, her best male friend, Beaner, wants to date, which she might enjoy - if only Brian Nelson would stop coming around. I am just in awe of Murdock for writing books that cover deep thoughts and feelings while managing to be laugh-out-loud funny at the same time. I especially love how authentic this feels - DJ’s narrative in long casual sentences with a wry sense of humor, and the rural Midwest setting with character names like Knudsen and Jorgenson.
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book coverUnder the Jolly Roger by L.A. Meyer. Read by Katherine Kellgren Several years ago, I read the first book in this series, Bloody Jack, a rip-roaring tale of adventure on the high seas, as Mary “Jacky” Faber, street orphan, disguises herself as a boy so as to make an honest living as a ship’s boy. I read it in print at the time, which was fun. Now my love and I are rediscovering the series on audiobook. I think that someday soon I will have to write Katherine Kellgren a fan letter, because she is such an amazing reader. The books are full of people and accents from all over, from Jacky’s Cockney to Irish to Jamaican and American, which Kellgren brings beautifully to life. There are also a number of folk songs, and Kellgren not only has a fine voice for singing them, but also manages to make the different character’s singing voices different. This series is winning her all the major audio book awards, and rightly so, but I also loved her work on the Enola Holmes series, where Enola putting on a Cockney accent still sounds different from Jacky in this one.

Under the Jolly Roger is the third book in the series. Jacky has made her way back to England in search of her beloved Jaimy, from whom she was parted for all of the second book. She has only just found him again, disguised as a boy again, when she is caught by a press gang. This time, the ship (Wolverine) is captained by a lecherous man who refuses to let her go even when she reveals her female nature. Events move quickly, if increasingly improbably, as Jacky works her way from Midshipman (a rank she earned in the first book) up to Lieutenant in the Navy, then captures her own ship and gains a letter of marque so that she can operate as a privateer. We do not care about the improbability, though, any more than we care about the improbability of Indiana Jones, because this is about adventure, pure and simple. Well, with some music and romance thrown in, too, because even though Jacky is broken-hearted about Jaimy in this book and vows to live single, she always has a very hard time resisting a pretty boy, and there are several on the Wolverine. This is a great sea-faring romp for teens and up. It will be good in print, too, but listen to the audio if you possibly can.
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book coverThe Princess and the Bear by Mette Ivie Harrison Here’s one I grabbed randomly off the teen new book shelf, rather than finding through reviews or from being previously familiar with the author. It turns out to be a second book, and so is somewhat mistitled to match better with the first book, The Princess and the Hound. Really, this book is about a hound (who was for a while in the previous book turned into a princess, and who becomes human partway through this book) and a bear, who really used to be a prince. If you got all that, I think that The Prince and the Hound would have been a more accurate title. They have been companions for a long time, living peacefully in the forest, and the chapters alternate perspectives between these two characters. As the story opens, the hound meets a cat-man who is spreading magical and literal death in the forest – unmagic. The hound and the bear reluctantly decide that the only way to stop this is to visit the Wild Man in the mountains, who first turned the prince into a bear a couple centuries previously. The bear who was a prince has a bear come to realize how terrible he was at being human, so that he is ashamed and even more reluctant when the Wild Man says that the only way to stop the problem is to go back in time to when he was prince and try to undo some of the harm that he did. The premise does not come off quite as convoluted as it sounds, though there is a bit of set-up. Anyway, the hound and Chala, when she is a woman, reflect a lot on the various natures of humans and animals, how they are alike and how different. The Bear/Prince, on the other hand, thinks about the nature of magic, gifts, and power. If the ending felt a little sudden and tidy to me, it’s still both exciting and thoughtful. Animal lovers especially will enjoy this tale of animals, humans and magic.

Ash

Feb. 3rd, 2010 11:52 am
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book coverAsh by Malinda Lo It’s fairy tale time! Here is Cinderella re-envisioned both more modern and more magical. It’s set on the edge of Woods, and there are rumors of Faeries in the wood. The modern Philosophers discourage belief in them, but the old Greenwitches still do. Our heroine Aisling’s mother was once apprentice to the local Greenwitch, but Aisling’s education in magic is limited to the fairy tales her mother tells her. (A note for those not familiar with Gaelic: Aisling is pronounced ASH-ling, so that Ash is a natural nickname.) Then her mother dies, and Aisling is grief-stricken. She takes to spending all her time on her mother’s grave, much to the concern of her father and the local Greenwitch. They’re afraid she’ll attract the Fairies, but she is too young and too absorbed in her grief to care. He remarries, probably hoping that new sisters and a new mother will help. And then he dies, debt-ridden, and the new stepmother, never overly kind, takes out her disappointment and anger on Ash. They move closer to the capital, hoping for a rich husband for the oldest stepsister, and Ash is forced to take the place of the household servants to repay her father’s debt. But all this time, Ash has been sneaking to the Woods whenever she can, occasionally meeting with a handsome but eerie Fairy lord. In spite of the new Philosophers, the Hunt, led by the King’s Huntress, is an ancient tradition still kept, and the town where Ash now lives is the starting point for the Hunt. Gradually, during her occasional escapes into the forest, Ash comes to know the young Huntress, Kaisa, who teaches her to track and ride. Increasingly, Ash is pulled between the inhuman and powerful attraction to her fairy lord and the complete escape from the human world that he promises and her attraction to the Huntress.

Besides being beautifully told, the story has some unique points to recommend it. First, many fairy tales don’t have any fairies in them, but this retelling turns the bland and benign fairy godmother of the original back into the chancy Good Folk that have always felt more real to me. They are neither good nor safe, and yet they are the closest thing to an ally that Ash has. There’s magic, and adolescence, for you. Secondly, I confess that I didn’t notice much until a bi friend pointed it out to me, but fairy tales’ assumption that finding the right person of the opposite gender will lead to happily ever after is problematic. This is the first fairy tale to my recollection that isn’t blindly hetero. Ash has to choose between her fairy and her human love – clearly between a natural and an unnatural attraction, but it is the pull to the male fairy that’s depicted as unnatural. That Lo was able to make this work without feeling out of a place is an accomplishment for which I applaud her. This might just be one of my favorite fairy tale retellings of all time.

Fire

Jan. 18th, 2010 02:55 pm
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book coverFire by Kristin Cashore. Read by Xanthe Elbrick Fire is set a few decades before Graceling on the other side of the nearly impenetrable mountains. It was a little slow to pick up, as we start with the back story of the odious Lek, the villain in Graceling, then peaceful times with our new heroine at home. This side of the mountain, there are no Gracelings. Instead, there are monsters, especially beautiful, brightly colored and bloodthirsty animals and people, which can mesmerize victims with their beauty and call victims to them with their minds. Fire, so named for her vivid hair, is the last human monster. She tried to live below notice, making up for the life of her wild monster father, Canceril, who as adviser to the previous king, deliberately let the kingdom sink into chaos and lawlessness, now verging on civil war. Fire struggles with her feelings of mixed love and loathing for her now-deceased father. She lives near her adopted father, Brocker, a former commander, and his son Archer, her best friend and sometime lover. Fire can see into minds, though she tries not to, and as her story opens, she is accidentally shot by a strange man whose mind is filled with a strange fog and who is shot himself before he can be questioned. Still, somehow, the story is slowish, until at the request of the king, Fire journeys to King City to help with the questioning of an especially troublesome prisoner. She agrees, despite the king’s brother’s violent suspicion that she is only going to take over the king’s mind and continue her father’s work. Briggen, though only a few years her senior, is commander of the king’s armies and second in line for the throne. Now Fire finds herself wrestling with the moral limits of her powers, trying to keep from falling in love with someone who hates her, and enmeshed in trying to stop multiple plans to topple the kingdom, some more obvious than others. Once again, Cashore brings us vivid characters with real problems, both personal and political. Xanthe Elbrick does a fine job with the narration, though her male voices sounded a little fuzzy to me. Still, this is a wonderful story for reading and listening to, and I look forward to hearing more from Cashore. I hope she is able to continue either Katsa or Fire’s stories at some point, as neither one feels as if her story should be done.
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book coverThe Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. Read by the author. I’m guessing that most of my readers don’t need me to tell them to read Neil Gaiman. That, and this book winning both the Newbery and a Hugo… but there it is. I read it and it was cool and now I feel like writing about it. The tale of Nobody Owens, raised by ghosts in a graveyard after the murder of the rest of his family, is still too dark for me to share with Lightning Bolt. However, Gaiman handled the opening murder scene delicately enough that a slightly older child probably would be ok with it. I liked the way he used characters that experienced fantasy readers would probably recognize without ever using the standard label. For example, Bod’s guardian, Silas, who is neither quite alive nor dead, is seen only by dark, doesn’t eat the same kind of food as Bod, and has unusually strong powers of persuasion. I loved the way the stories of isolated incidents at various points of Bod’s childhood built up stealthily into a plot. I appreciated that Gaiman didn’t settle for the easy resolution to the story. And I was smitten by his narration. I have heard some authors read their books quite badly, others passably. Gaiman ranks up there with some of the best professional narrators I’ve heard. Neil Gaiman rocks. But then, we knew that already.
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book coverShelf Discovery by Lizzie Skurnik Here we have a book of beautifully witty book reports on the books that women my age read in their teen years. Somehow, Skurnik manages both to find depths in books that a) the average teenager probably didn’t notice and b) when old enough to appreciate said depths, one might not see a reason to go back to all those trashy-looking teen paperbacks. And yet, here they are – so many of the books I read as a teen: The Moon by Night and Harriet the Spy, Jacob Have I Loved and Clan of the Cave Bear. There are also chapters devoted to the books that I looked at and never read – the whole realistic teen fiction oeuvre of Judy Blume, the Lois Duncan and V.C. Andrews thrillers. I still don’t read books just to be scared. But still, Skurnik writes so enthusiastically about all of these books that I found myself reading numerous bits aloud. Madeleine L’Engle has a “vision of Christianity that an atheist devotee of the Flying Spaghetti Monster would find it hard to object to.” The sex scenes in this particular V.C. Andrews book are not really steamy enough, but still provide welcome relief between the scenes where the characters hit each other with back story like brickbats. Why has teen literature lost sight of the parents who truly deserve to die? Oh, yes, and some more well-known writers of chick lit contribute some book reports as well – Laura Lippmann, Meg Cabot, and others. But it’s mostly Skurnik, and she is delightful on her own. Go on, now. Get the book. Read a book report. I dare you to stop at just one. Me, I have some teen books to read.
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book coverSilver Phoenix by Cindy Pon Ai Ling was a scholarly girl who mostly stayed properly home with her mother. Then, her father gives her a jade pendant before leaving for a month at the emperor’s palace. Months later, their family finances dwindling, Ai Ling decides that it’s time to go find her father. It’s not easy for a girl of marriageable age to travel alone in China, but Ai Ling finds herself facing one demon after another, recognizing them from the book that she’d thought her father forbade only because the stories were so frightening for a young girl. Early on, she is rescued by the handsome and exotic Chen Yong. He’s travelling in search of his real parentage, a secret even from his adoptive parents. They start travelling together, and are joined on the way by Chen Yong’s adoptive brother, the openly flirtatious Li Rong. Their straightforward journey to the palace takes unexpected turns as mountain paths lead them to strange lands mentioned only in the classical texts that Ai Ling and Chen Yong have read. Eventually, they are given a deeper quest by the Goddess of Records. Ai Ling is a delightful and sympathetic heroine. Though she finds the courage she needs to fight off the demons attacking her, she also never develops Amazing Martial Arts Prowess, instead finding her own magical abilities. She also has a refreshingly large appetite, which gives plenty of opportunity for vivid descriptions of the food. This was a delightful adventure with a Buffy meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

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