Thursday, October 30, 2008

Baby Jacob

Congratulations to Momma of 2008 Boy #4 - Martha! Baby Jacob was born yesterday, October 29. To add to the celebration, today is Martha's birthday! Happy Birthday all around.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell

I picked this one up because it is nominated for this year's National Book Award.

Evie is 15, busy practicing smoking with chocolate cigarettes with her best friend Gloria, lusting after a boy who is clearly in love with someone else, and just generally being a normal teenage girl in 1947 Queens. When her stepfather surprises her mother and her with a vacation to Florida, it seems fun and exciting. It turns out to be anything but.

From the beginning, you can tell that no one is really who they say they are. Her stepfather and Peter (the hunky war "buddy" that Evie falls hard for) have something shady in their past. The Graysons act suspicious and don't offer much personal information to the group. In short, there is atmosphere as thick as the Florida heat in this book. Glances, quiet conversations, secret notes, clandestine meetings. All clues to what is really going on with her family and the other vacationers at the out of season hotel they are staying at. Evie picks up on the undercurrents, even if it takes her some time to figure out their true meaning.

The author did a bang up job of creating the setting and building atmosphere. The characters all kept their secrets, but they still managed to be multifaceted, fully realized, and incredibly interesting at the same time. Evie figures out much of what has happened, but that doesn't mean she knows the full extent of everyone's participation.

Without giving away some major plot points, I wanted to mention that I really loved how the author tied in post-war profiteering into the story. It was original and a theme that snaked its way into the wider story in unexpected ways.

A big thumbs up.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Swan Kingdom by Zoe Marriott

Alexandra is a princess. Much to her father’s disappointment she isn’t beautiful, nor is she terribly concerned with gowns and jewels. Instead, she takes after her mother and is much more interested in the life force, or enaid, that keeps their land alive and healthy. In this world there is a magical connection that people feel to the land. Those that have this connection are called cunning women. They can create poultices and heal the sick, do “workings” or small tricks like encouraging kindling to catch on fire. There are varying degrees of skill and Alexandra, unbeknownst to herself, has a connection much stronger than most. Her mother’s murder by an evil creature in the woods curtails Alexandra’s education and sets in motion a spiraling set of events that upsets her family and the entire kingdom.

This fantasy was inspired by Hans Christian Anderson “The Wild Swans” which I have never read. Somehow I got it confused with “The Goose Girl” by the Brothers Grimm and kept wondering why she wasn’t herding a bunch of geese. And when it was very apparent there were no geese in this story, I started wondering when she was going to meet the swans she was supposed to herd. That should have been a clue that I was mixed up, after all who herds swans? Alas, I never actually clued into that until the end of the story. Regardless my point is that even if you have crazy misconceptions, not to worry, Marriott’s story stands up very well on its own.

Not that it was a perfect novel. When Alexandra is sent to live with her aunt in a neighboring country, I very much wished we had gotten to know her better. Her aunt was appealing in ways that few of the other characters were. She had a past, she was angry and dour, she was just plain interesting and I wanted more. I was sad when the story left her behind.

I also wish that the author had fleshed out exactly why her mother chose not to show Alexandra the full extent of her powers. Was it fear, jealousy, condescension? We know her mother failed, but at what? It seemed like a major plot point got dropped.

All in all, this is a fantasy that will appeal to those that read widely among the genre. It has danger, romance, seemingly impossible tasks, all the elements that make for a satisfying read.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Unraveling by Michelle Baldini and Lynn biederman

Amanda is painfully insecure. She’s tired of being an unpopular, unnoticed nothing and is convinced that the way to reverse this is to get a boyfriend. She has been IMing all year long with Paul after an impromptu end of summer make-out fest about what their next meeting will be like. It does not end as she hopes. Lessons unlearned, she shifts her focus to Rick, popular jock boyfriend of a popular girl. She has intense secret rendezvous with him in his car during school breaks. He wants to go further. She thinks he’ll like her more if she does. He says he’ll take her to homecoming dance if she’ll sleep with him. She says yes.

Amanda’s mother is called “The Captain,” a micromanager who rules her family with a barbed tongue and who is only ever satisfied with Melody, Amanda’s younger sister. The writing is often clumsy, but the emotional intent is clear. Amanda is not good enough. One of the highlights of the novel was when Amanda sneakily saves her mother’s password so that she can read her mother’s emails. I was saddened that the emails were so shockingly unreflective and filled with, “poor me poor me what have I done to deserve such a daughter.” I had expected a more complex inner life, or at least some introspection about how the family dynamic is headed towards disaster. Frankly, I was led to wonder how her friend has stood by her all this time without throttling her. Amanda’s mother would easily step on anyone’s last nerve.

The relationship between the mother’s childhood and Amanda’s treatment were introduced, but not ever connected very satisfyingly. In fact, I was rather taken aback that the subject of abuse wasn’t raised. Amanda is clearly being emotionally and verbally abused.

The strongest thing about Unraveling is the emotional life of Amanda. Her insecurity, her feelings of worthlessness, her desperate attempts to secure love that end in disaster. It rang true to the point of it being painful to read. It is the strength of the novel.

The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd

Ted loves the London Eye, a large observation wheel composed of glass and steel capsules that allow you to see for 25 miles in any direction on a clear day. It is his absolute favorite thing to do in London where he lives with his parents and his older sister Kat. So when his Aunt and cousin come to visit, he is pleased that Salim wishes to go for a ride. Once there, a man rushes up to them and offers them a ride ticket that he no longer wishes to use. What to do? It would save loads of time, the queue is long, and the wait even longer. They decide Salim will take the ticket and ride the London Eye by himself. They watch him get on board, but 30 minutes later when his capsule lands, Salim doesn’t disembark. Where did he go? How does someone disappear from a sealed glass pod? The mystery begins.

Ted’s brain, as he so often reminds us, runs on a different operating system. In short, he has Aspergers Syndrome. As such, he doesn’t recognize emotions, can’t decipher social complexities, thinks extremely literally, doesn’t like to be touched, and has a specialized area of interest - the weather. Ted narrates the story and I found his voice to be very convincing. He laughs when others laugh even when he doesn’t understand what is funny so that he can fit in, he smiles when others smile so that they will like him and be his friend. He is a boy who recognizes his social limitations and wants to overcome them even if he can’t decode what the proper reaction would be. It is an often lonely and alienated life, which is buffered by a loving, if often exasperated family. Dowd’s writing really encapsulates what one imagines life with Aspergers would be like.

I suppose it is inevitable that Ted should be compared to Christopher from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. The two books did strike me as similar in tone and both play the disconnect between they view the world and the way those without the syndrome for laughs. Both feature a mystery that the protagonist doggedly solves. The London Eye Mystery is much lighter as one could expect for a book aimed at younger readers. There is much that is different, their family situations, their level of symptoms, etc. (as in it has been too long since I read Curious and can’t remember what else is different).

The mystery itself is solid. Ted offers a range of possible, although not always very plausible reasons for Salim’s disappearance. One by one, along with his sister Kat, the theories are either supported or discarded. It interested me that Dowd didn’t shy away from more serious topics, even though she didn’t often delve into them. For instance, when Ted doesn’t understand why someone would want to kidnap Salim because Aunt Gloria is not rich (in his mind people are kidnapped for ransom alone), Kat mentions that another reason would be for sex. This is mentioned, the seriousness noted, but not dwelled upon (thankfully Salim has not been kidnapped at all let alone for sex). I thought this was very masterfully handled. Dowd recognized the ugly underbelly of humanity, but didn’t let it bog down her rather lighthearted mystery. As such, it turned out that the mystery was more realistic and less of a crazy romp than I expected it to be when I picked up the book.

This book strikes me as something that would work on a variety of levels for readers of different ages. The older the reader, the more they will understand and appreciate the humor in the story. A worthwhile read. And one that convinced me if I ever make it to London, I will absolutely have to take a ride on the London Eye.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Welcome James

Congratulations to Joanna and her family on the much anticipated arrival of James! He was born October 12 at 5:21 a.m. at a healthy weight of 8 lbs 2 oz.

We can't wait to meet you James!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott

This discussion of Living Dead Girl will contain SPOILERS. I doubt that people haven't heard any of this before, but I wanted to warn you just in case.

So I wasn't sure whether or not I would write about this book. Which sort of makes sense because I really didn't want to read it. It seemed too much, too ugly, too disturbing. But with all the chatter going around about the title, I really wanted to see what everyone was talking about. Especially since I can't seem to find anyone who didn't enjoy the book. Everyone seems to have found it haunting and unforgettable.

So yes. Haunting and unforgettable it is, you know, in that way where you wish you just hadn't watched America's Most Wanted so that you could sleep again without wondering if the serial rapist is going to get you tomorrow as you walk to your car. And unforgettable in that way that it is extremely likely you'll never let your child out of the house unsupervised before they are 30. And if you think I'm exaggerating, read it. You'll find I'm not.

I had quite an issue with people saying that the book isn't graphic. I understand what they were saying, but I was expecting something else. Generally when something isn't graphic I assume it will occur off page. I assume it will be insinuated, but it not spelled out. For instance, the abuser takes the victim into a bedroom and shuts the door. You know bad things are happening behind the closed door, but you aren't told anything about what they are. In contrast, the sexual abuse in this book is very graphic, not because the author gives a blow by blow account (thankfully we are spared that), but you know exactly when she is being raped, you know when she is forced to give oral sex, you know everything that is happening to her as it happens. What makes it even more horrifying is the frequency. Alice is abused morning, noon, and night. There is never a moment when the two of them are together when he is not either sexually or physically abusing her. It was literally too much to bear.

The writing is very good. You feel Alice's numbness. You understand her hatred of Ray, her abuser. Her hatred of herself and what she's become. She knows she is irreparably damaged. That she has become a monster willing to help Ray kidnap another child so that she'll be spared the abuse. She knows she might even like it. This is where the author really excelled in her writing. She showed us the cycle of abuse and how people can have their humanity driven out of them. How they can be driven to commit unthinkable things. And how they can regain their humanity if they try hard enough. Alice, for all the thinks she is dead, still has a spark of hope that helps her overcome.

I did wonder about Ray. He was physically and sexually abused by his mother. He killed his mother by faking an accidental death. He kidnaps a girl named Alice, abuses her for years and then kills her. At that point he kidnaps our current Alice. He tells her that if she tells or runs away he'll kill her family - pretty standard talk for an abuser. But Alice keeps telling us that although Ray lies about everything, he isn't lying about that. Soon enough we find out that he did indeed go and kill Alice's family. After she's dead. Which seemed like too much. Ray is already the worst nightmare that you could have, but to go and kill someone's family after the fact seems like a risk he wouldn't have taken.

All in all, I did not like this book. It was well written, but I found it gratuitous in its disturbing detail. I certainly do not agree with the people who are so strongly suggesting that this is a book that everyone should read. It is not. To be honest, I'm not even completely sure I'd be comfortable putting it in a teen collection. Publishers have definitely been pushing the limits of what is considered YA lately, and I think this might have pushed just a little too far.

Yellow Flag by Robert Lipsyte

Kyle has grown up in a racing family starting with his Great Grandfather. He loved it as a kid, but at some point, after racing cars for several years, he decided he'd rather not do it anymore. It was a hard won battle and he got heavily involved playing trumpet in the band. Now he's 17 and in a jazz quintet that could be going places. He's sort of loving his life. Then his older brother has a bad wreck. Not only is that scary in its own right, but he's also got some intimidating and life changing decisions ahead of him. Does he drop everything to race for his brother? Does he refuse his family and stick to his guns? Kyle thought he had everything figured out, but as he's drawn back into his family's racing business the more he discovers he really hasn't got a grasp on anything.

I think it's possible that Lipsyte is the only author that could have possibly gotten me to enjoy a book about car racing. He has such an incredible talent for describing action and raising the tension until you absolutely must know what happens next. The racing action was superb, as was the behind the scene details of what racing entails - the sponsors, the car maintenance, the different jobs people have to do to support the person driving the car. I also felt it was a realistic portrayal of the pressures a child would face when he is born into a family that has focused their entire beings on car racing.

My only real complaint was a character that was a friend of Kyle's that responds to everything with, "saw that movie..." and goes on to name a movie, name the actors, etc., in what one assumes is an attempt to relate to a situation. It completely irritated me.

Other Reviews:
Ms. Yingling Reads

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Cycler by Lauren McLaughlin

I'll admit, I had to try this one due to my shameless love of gender-benders. Plus, I read several recommendations....

Cycler is the story of Jill, a normal teenage girl concerned about the upcoming prom and the boy she likes. There's just one thing: when she hit puberty, instead of just getting her menstrual cycle, she also got a unique cyle of her own. For four days every month, Jill turns into Jack. After the first few occurances and numerous stumped, disbelieving doctors, Jill and her mom create a meditation plan that erases Jill's time as a boy from her Jilltime memory. This is okay for a while, but then Jack becomes his own personality and decides that he would like to have a life of his own.

I think Jill's homelife would have been bad either way, since her parents are pretty disfunctional. Her dad retreats into his own world of yoga and maleness in the basement after Jill's "change." Meanwhile, her mom is a complete man-hater, making Jill see her time as a boy as an utter abomination that must be obliterated from even her memory. I think this is part of why her dad retreats; if her mom hates Jack so much, just because he is male, how must she feel about her husband? To me, Jill's mom is the true villain of this story, in her inability to deal with the situation without stigmatizing an entire part of her own child.

Fortunately, Jill has her friend Ramie (of whom her mother doesn't approve, either). Ramie is what we sometimes call a "free spirit;" she loves fashion, but is not an empty-headed fad whore. Instead, she creates her own fashions, often making herself an outsider at school, but occasionally creating something truely fantastic. Her and Jill have been friends since the third grade, yet Ramie knows nothing about Jack. This leads to some serious issues later.

Then there is Tommy Knutson, the cute, quiet new guy that Jill has set her sights on. He is a bit of a mystery, but it becomes Jill and Ramie's mission to secure him as Jill's date for the prom. Will it work? Will Jack or Jill be present on prom night? What wrenches will Jack throw into Jill's plans?

I found McLaughlin's use of this strange, hypothetical "disease" to be an interesting way to tackle issues of gender identity that face many teens today, especially concerning the way parents deal with transgender/questioning children. It is strong and disturbing metaphor, especially the descriptions of the actual transformations. I will be very interested in hearing others' reactions, teens' in particular. Might even try this one for Book Exchange......

Other reviews:
Goddess of YA Literature

The Tiffany Aching adventures by Terry Pratchett

This summer I had more traveling to do for work so I started checking out books on CD. I have a small, but nice collection at my library so I started there, picking books I have always meant to read but never got around to.

The highlight of my CD experience was
Terry Pratchett's The Wee Free Men. I can't imagine reading it without having the pleasure of listening to it read by Stephen Briggs first. His voices stayed with me when I read the next 2 books and helped with all the fun Feegle bits and the language in general. You can hear excerpts here, here and here. (You'll hear the Feegle voices on Wintersmith.)

I've been reading for our library's Mock Newbery and I have to admit these stories have caused a bit of a problem for me. They're just so good. It made my other reading pale in comparison. Crivens!

His website has some fun games:
Feegle Free Fall (attack ships and big jobs but not hags)

Monday, October 6, 2008

Angel by Cliff Mcnish

Freya is recently out of the hospital where she lay essentially comatose for years. She wasn't suffering from a disease, instead she was suffering from being visited by an angel who never returned. After the first visit she waited for him to come back, when the angel never returned she retreated into her mind. Now after long years of therapy and a father who she credits with bringing her back to herself she's out in the world again. Back at school, and she's even become friends with the in-crowd. Everything is going well, until she spies an angel. A very different angel. This one is dark and full of hate and he is following Freya around.

This was a very interesting book. At first I wasn't sure if Freya was suffering from delusions or if she had actually been visited by an angel, especially because the cover flap states that she's turning into one. What to believe? When the answers finally come it is rather beautiful.

McNish writes short chapters, each one beginning with a black page that I've tried to figure out if they are significant and don't think they are, but somehow they added a gravity to the story. How? No idea, but I liked them.

I also really enjoyed McNish's take on angels. It was original and extremely thoughtful. He tells a story filled with light and dark, the eternal struggle between hope and despair, and shows us the powerful influence a person can have on another's life.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Night Road by A.M. Jenkins

First reviewed by Jenn. She gives a great summary so I won't repeat that here. I had a bit of a different reaction than her which is why I decided to write about it as well.

The author had an extremely interesting take on vampires. I really enjoyed that she created an entirely new mythology that was well thought out and consistent throughout the entire novel. I especially liked how they were Hemes, very definitely not vampires. Sure they feed on humans and drink their blood just like vampires, but they are NOT vampires so do not call them that. Seriously don't do it - it even tells you not to on the cover. The author tells us that they are actually still human, but have been infected with a virus that changes their physiology. The vampire myth has evolved from them, but they basically view themselves as differently abled humans. It was fascinating.

I also loved that the whole process of how the Hemes fed was so sexual. Everyone knows (although apparently many Twilight fans are blissfully and astonishingly unaware) that the bite is a metaphor for sex. So bravo to the author for making it so unabashedly obvious. Regular humans, or Omnis, as Hemes refer to them, get intense gratification akin to sexual gratification from being fed on. Hemes have the ability to either feed without the Omni being aware that they have been fed on, or creating a relationship with an Omni who is aware and can possibly become addicted to the process because it is so enjoyable. In fact they often combine the act of feeding with sexual acts to increase the pleasure both parties get. Phew! Is it getting hot in here or is it just me!

This being said I found the dialog stitlted and unrealistic. The main Hemes are hundreds of years old and it appeared to me that the author wanted to make a distinction between how they spoke and how the newly created Heme spoke. The dialog, instead of showing me that they were from another time period just seemed clunky.


I also had a major problem with Cole not picking up on the whole Royal situation. Obviously, this Royal character was following them. Obviously when Gordo mentioned that he had seen this strange person at a frat party wearing the same outfit and adornments as when Cole ran into him at the bar it was Royal. And then it is OBVIOUSLY Royal's car that Cole found in the parking lot. It was frustrating as a reader to have Cole be so incredibly obtuse. Yes he was distracted by training Gordo and by his own emotional past, but so distracted he ignores all signs? Dude.

***End of Spoilers***