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Nation Nation by Terry Pratchett

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
I tend to over-think the ratings I give to books. Sometimes I just want to say “this was a good book” without attaching any other value. Sometimes I can’t figure out the difference between a 4 star book and a 5 star book – and then I read something that feels fresh, but draws on all sorts of compelling themes, where I don’t want to leave the world of the book or the characters – and then I know – THIS is a 5 star book.

Which is all a way of saying that the premise is hard to describe, and it sounds pretty silly when you try. But the style is fantastic, with plenty of quirky humor and wordplay, plus a good sense of movement in the plot. And the characters – well, I hated to see them leave the page. I wanted MORE. There’s a bit of an adventure story, but never just for the sake of adventure – and it always ties into the bigger themes about faith and science and friendship and community, without being didactic. It’s a little genre-defying too, and I think this gives it a nice wide appeal. Good for any reader (probably middle school through adults) who likes to think and have a good plot, plus the world would draw in people who like vivid settings, plus the characters are fantastic, plus the style is great for those of us who are picky about those things.

Plus, I can’t read the word “trousermen” without snickering.

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It feels silly to lump these two very different books into one post, but I’m going to do it anyway.  Also, after weeks of my sister borrowing my clunky old laptop, I’m borrowing her shiny brand-new one.  It’s literally very shiny – she’ll be able to see my prints.  There’s nothing wrong with my laptop (apart from its weight and 10-minute battery life), but I can’t resist trying out a new one.  Also, I just started reading Nation – the only Printz Honor I hadn’t read yet – and I’m totally hooked.

In My Father's Den In My Father’s Den by Maurice Gee

My review

I’m not sure what to say about this one, so I keep saying nothing…The writing is precise and perfect for the story. The narrator – both the character and the audio book reader – keeps you at a distance, even when revealing the most personal things. The story looks like a mystery on the surface – a girl has been killed and the narrator is a suspect. You wonder for a bit how reliable the narrator is, until you learn to trust his voice and observations. The story goes back into his childhood, to his fanatical religious mother and his father, escaping with books into his private den. I would recommend it particularly to people who like books where that slight distance is kept. The audio version is great, and the narrator has a cool, level voice – and reads in a New Zealand accent (for those of you who like accents). If you’re looking for a straight-up mystery, this one probably won’t be what you want, but as more of a psychological exploration it’s fascinating.

Evil Genius Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
Evil Genius is a tricky one to categorize. The plot reminded me a bit of a season of 24 (minus the torture) – regular plot twists, people who aren’t what they seem, intrigue and action and technology and explosions. But it’s also a story about a bright boy raised without any real relationships, facing things at a young age and without real support from adults.

From the description, I expected the book to be more of an action/comedy – over the top and fun. It’s quite long, though, and the plot gets more and more convoluted, and there’s some great character development buried in there. I really want to see more of the characters, and I feel like they almost got lost in the premise and the plot. It took a surprisingly long time to read, and things didn’t really pick up until about 200 pages in. I would recommend it to kids (probably middle school) who like big books and that blend of plot twists and technology.

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This is only the Odyssey Award‘s 2nd year, but as a huge fan of audiobooks, I’m keeping an eye on it.  The quality of an audiobook can really make a huge difference – the right reader, the right accents or voices, sound quality, all of that.  A good one will hook you into a story that you might otherwise pass by, or bring to life a book you already love.  A bad one – well, let’s not talk about how painful they can be.

This year’s award went to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, written and read by Sherman Alexie.  I read the book when it came out, and I loved not only the tone but the perfect blend of heartbreak and humor.  I started listening to the audio version yesterday and I’m loving it.  The only problem with the audio version is that you miss out on the great illustrations, which are meant to be Junior’s own work.  But that’s easily remedied by taking a peek at the physical book.  Alexie doesn’t try to do voices, which is perfect since Junior is narrating the story.

He reads with the Indian lilt that Junior describes in the story, which really gives the feel of the story for readers who don’t have that voice in their head.  I don’t know about anyone else, but when I read a book, I “hear” it in my own accent, regardless of the accent of the character.  So I love listening to books with accents in audio format, because it reminds me that not all the characters sound like me.  Kind of like listening to I Am the Messenger read in an Australian accent – it gives a different feel to the whole book.  So obviously Alexie knows the right voice for the book – and his fairly straight delivery is perfect for that realistic blend of brutal reality and laughing so hard you look crazy going for a walk with your ipod.

I haven’t listened to any of the Odyssey honors yet:

  • Curse of the Blue Tattoo by L. A. Meyer; narrated by Katherine Kellgren
  • Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis; narrated by Mirron Willis
  • I’m Dirty written by Kate and Jim McMullan; narrated by Steve Buscemi
  • Martina, the Beautiful Cockroach: A Cuban Folktale written and narrated by Carmen Agra Deedy
  • Nation by Terry Pratchett; narrated by Stephen Briggs

Nation is in my to-read pile right now, and I thought about requesting the audiobook but the holds list went crazy before I thought of it.  I read Elijah of Buxton but didn’t quite love it enough to reread it on audio.  Once someone orders the audio of Blue Tattoo, I’ll give that a listen, since I really enjoyed the first book in the series.  The other two books look a big younger – and it’s nice to see the variety of ages happily coexisting in the award – YA, middle grade, and picture books.

First up – yes, I’m a huge nerd when it comes to the big children’s book award annoucements.  Not quite enough of a nerd to get up at 6:45 to watch the live feed, but enough for it to be the first thing I thought about when I woke up.  I was making some last-minute guesses in my head, trying to remember all my favorites before checking the internets to see what took home the shiny medals.  It’s like the cat in the box that might be alive or might be dead – all the possibilities exist until I turn on the computer.  This version of reality makes it possible to make last minute wishes (please not Madapple) and last minute hopes (wouldn’t it be nice if The Graveyard Book got the Newbery?)

For that real-time experience, I tried to follow the Twitter updates, where I got news on the Printz and a few other awards, but it stopped abruptly at the Wilder Award and left me hanging.  Fortunately ALSC had a list up, which includes everything except the Printz, Morris, and Alex Awards (the YA awards) – as far as I can tell.

Printz: Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

Honors: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson, Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, and Nation by Terry Pratchett.

I’ve read them all (except for Nation, which is somewhere in my to-read pile) and I have to give an enthusiastic “well done!” to the Printz committee.  There were some really fabulous books this year, and it can’t have been easy.  I didn’t really think that Jellicoe Road had a chance, but I’m totally behind it.  Octavian and Tender Morsels were my favorites, so I don’t have to feel slighted on their behalf.  Frankie was my favorite from the Mock Printz I attended, so it’s nice to see her on there, too.  And Nation was just recommended to me recently.

Happily, I’d also managed to read the Newbery and Caldecott medalists, too (although not all the honors).  I’m so happy for The Graveyard Book taking the Newbery – it’s got great literary merit plus (I think) plenty of kid appeal, which is of course not a criteria, but more like a happy bonus.  The House in the Night wasn’t one of my top favorites, but I can definitely stand behind it, and I think it’s a solid choice.  I also really liked two of the honors – A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever and A River of Words were both awesome in totally different ways.  I haven’t read the third honor book yet.

I was quite pleased with a few of the “smaller” awards, too – the Odyssey (for audiobook) went to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which I’m about to start listening to.  The Geisel (for early readers) went to one of Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie books, and the question there is how the committee chose just one – Are You Ready to Play Outside? I haven’t seen it yet, since those puppies fly off the library shelves, but I’m confident that I’ll love it.

All around, it’s been a very satisfying morning – and now I get to geek out some more and see how other bloggers reacted!

Yes, I’m alive and still reading, although you wouldn’t know it from this blog.  I’m weeks – WEEKS – away from being a real librarian, if the Lord is willing and the creeks don’t rise (or whatever that saying is).  Actually, there is a creek nearby that flooded recently, and floods closed off parts of I-5 a few weeks ago and made it tricky for many of my fellow future-librarians to get to residencies in Seattle.  Fortunately I did not have to go up this quarter (100% online classes), and the nearby creek was is no danger of flooding my house.

Hmm, was I going somewhere with that?  I went to all these fabulous mock awards workshops recently (you know how I love mock awards) – a Printz and a Caldecott.  And the real announcements are only a few days away!  And then we can start making predictions for next year!  Just kidding.  If I weren’t exhausted and lazy, I’d get up off the couch and find the lists of what we voted for.  Instead I’ll just try to remember.

Mock Caldecott:

Winner: Silent Music

Honors: A River of Words, What to do About Alice, and Wabi Sabi

Silent Music and A River of Words were very close in points, which would of course not fly in the real committee.  Silent Music didn’t really grab me, but I liked all the others (and swooned a little over various illustrations in Wabi Sabi and A River of Words).

Mock Printz:

Winner: Little Brother

Honors: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks and My Most Excellent Year

Frankie was my personal favorite from the bunch we read – although not my favorite for the award – so I was pleased to see she did well.  I certainly liked the others, but I don’t know how well their literary merit would stand up for the committee.  They’re definitely all good books, though, and highly recommendable.

My reading has been pretty sluggish lately – I feel like I’m plodding through things even though I like them – like Eva Ibbotson’s latest, The Dragonfly Pool, and now Evil Genius.  Usually when I’m supposed to be doing classwork, I fly through books and can’t put them down. Very curious.

I won’t try for any top 5/10 of the year, since it’s more fun to think of books that fit “best of” in really random categories.  I’m leaving a lot of really fantastic things off the list, “whether from forgetfulness or the multitude of names” (as they say in the prayer book), but these constitute a portion of my favorites.  My complete 2008 list is here, and I think I have comments/reviews for damn near everything on Goodreads.

Best audio book: a tie between Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy and M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, both of which were brough to life by the readings in ways I didn’t anticipate.

Best eye-roller: sorry, Stephenie Meyer – even your drama-laden series can’t top Jennifer Donnelly’s The Winter Rose, which wins because not only is it an eye-roller and impossible to put down, but it actually has this thing called likeable characters.

Best gripping story:  in the adult category, Mary Doria Russell takes honors for The Sparrow.  For YA, Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go, if only for that last chapter.

Favorite fantasy landscape: Elizabeth Knox’s Dreamhunter and Dreamquake – such an incredible sense of place, both in the “real world” and in the Place.

Book most helped by TV viewing: Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, where remembering characters from “Rome” actually helped a lot in keeping all the relationships straight.

Still making me laugh: The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex – even before Kitri gave me a Koobish t-shirt for Christmas.

Series I can’t wait to reread (historical fiction): Elizabeth E. Wein’s books, starting with The Winter Prince and ending (so far) with The Lion Hunter books.

Series I can’t wait to reread (realistic fiction): Ellen Emerson White’s series about Meg Powers, starting with The President’s Daughter.

Series I can’t believe I waited so long to reread: Elizabeth Peters’ Vicky Bliss books – sure, I’ve reread them before, but the release of a new one gave me a good excuse.

Best use of a fairy tale: Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels.

Best use of the English language: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves.  Sweet mercy in a firkin!

I gave blood this morning and now I’m CRANKY and don’t want to go to work.  I also realized I miscounted my credits for graduation and am one – ONE! –  shy.  Oh, the humanity.  I’ll get it sorted, but it’s annoying.

Another thing annoying me is that my favorite YA books of the year aren’t on the Mock Printz list.  Not that next week’s discussion won’t be fun, but I might as well get annoyed while I’m on a roll.  My top three right now are probably Octavian Nothing, Tender Morsels, and The Knife of Never Letting Go, with Pretty Monsters and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks following close behind, along with The Adoration of Jenna Fox. Okay, two out of six isn’t bad, but I’m not ready to fight for those two they way I am for my top three.

I’m almost done with the mock list – just Skim left to read.

I haven’t seen many Printz predictions, but I liked Carlie’s list, even though we disagree about Madapple.  Actually, I could see the Printz going to Madapple, but I didn’t like it.

All this listing is reminding me that I never did any end of the year round up – although I did count the other day, and I almost hit 200 books for the year – a 20 or so increase over 2007.  As usual, I don’t count picture books or short non-fiction – that would be cheating.

One thing I always notice, looking back over what I’ve read, is finding things that seem like I read them ages ago, when it was really only a year.  Other books I remember really liking at the time, but they haven’t really lived on in my imagination.  Some I don’t remember until I see the title and get the feel of the book all over again.  I’ll come back with a round up.

“Do you read children’s books?”  “I’m afraid so,” said Nick.  “I started when I was young, you know, and never got out of the habit.”  – Tam Lin

I’ve been reading Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, which I think I heard about at Chasing Ray (although I can’t find the specific mention of it that first hooked me).  Ignore the hideous cover – it is a fantasy story, but I’m 380 pages in and so far it’s a college story full of English and Classics majors with incredible abilities to quote the greats, dealing with relationships and academics and making me strangely nostalgic for my own days as an English major.  I don’t know anyone who can quote like that, but the spirit of the book feels just right, and makes me wish I could relive college (minus the homework and dining hall meals, and with the option to fast-forward the boring bits and have more self-assurance).  There are only hints of the fairy tale background, which I’m not really familiar with, so I’m probably just turning a blind eye to all kinds of forshadowing.  There’s no fantasy so far, just the possibility of a book throwing ghost, disturbing department heads, some bagpipes, and Classics students riding horses through campus at odd moments.  I’m totally hooked.

The big snow melted, and it’s snowed twice more since then.  In any other year, those thin layers of snow would have been thrilling.  Now I’m jaded and unimpressed with a mere inch or so – which feels so un-Oregonian of me, I don’t know what to think.

Classes start again this week and I’m the opposite of prepared.  Only one class this quarter, and then I ought to have all my credits squared away.  Yikes!

I listen to tons of podcasts while I’m at my boring job, and I recently got hooked on the CBC’s Writer’s & Company (thanks to Crooked House).  She can take a writer I’ve never heard of – or read – and ask such interesting questions that I’m completely enthralled.  Big picture questions and detail questions both, that make me feel familiar with the author.  Anyway, I just listened to her interview with Salman Rushdie – and while there was nothing wrong with the interview, it did NOT make me want to read any Rushie.  I also heard, a while back, another podcast where he was reading from his latest novel – same reaction.  There was just something about his attitude, and sense of the world, that irked me.  Feel free to try to talk me out of this – but it’s not like I’m running out of good books any time soon.  Especially since Tam Lin, with all of its references,  is reminding me that I ought to tackle the occasional classic.

January 2009

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