You are currently browsing the monthly archive for September 2009.

Unwind Unwind by Neal Shusterman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Leaving aside the issues of 1) why the future is always a scary place in YA lit, and 2) why I feel the need to read so many of these dystopian stories, let’s talk about Unwind. I picked it up because the premise was intriguing, and I’ve read enough of Shusterman’s books to know he’s got some follow-through and won’t make the story cheap and sensationalistic. Instead, we’ve got a nice brisk pace, a gripping story, and complex and interesting characters. The story is told in the third person, but the focus shifts between three main characters – two slightly older teens, a boy and a girl, and one thirteen year old boy – with occasional short chapters focused on supporting characters.

This technique worked surprisingly well, since Shusterman always makes a point of letting you know right off the bat that we’re meeting a new character – a teen mother, or a teacher who will play a brief but key role, or a guard at the harvest camp who will turn out to be important. It also works because these secondary characters are quickly sketched but remarkably developed. With a few small details, you suddenly understand a motivation.

And the book’s “issues,” you ask? Never simplified, no pat answers, no easy resolution. Rather than being preachy on any side of an issue, the story lets the characters tell their stories without judgment. While there are some reprehensible religious characters, there are also characters who realize there are other ways to be religious. There are characters who learn to accept the good that can come out of terrible things. It’s never simple.

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The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary by Candace Fleming

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Looking through this book is like looking through old family photos and letters – only with excellent research, stories, anecdotes, and ephemera. Oh, and if your ancestors happened to be the Lincolns. While Abraham often takes the spotlight, especially during the chapters dealing with the Civil War, Fleming never neglects Mary and we get an excellent sense of both her early life, before marriage and as a young wife, and her life after the assassination. The format allows Fleming to both tell a story – the chunks of text don’t feel choppy when read through in order – and to include so many tidbits and digressions that wouldn’t necessarily flow smoothly in a traditional biography. It’s a big book, both in terms of format and length, but the scrapbook effect makes it easy to just keep turning the pages. This is biography enough to work for a school project, as well as chock-full of details that would engross anyone interested in the Lincolns or the period. An example of solid, fascinating non-fiction. Detailed references and notes finish it off.

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And here’s my review of The Knife of Never Letting Go from last year, just to keep things all in one place.   And for the record, Manchee is still my favorite fictional animal.

The Knife of Never Letting Go: Chaos Walking: Book One (Chaos Walking) The Knife of Never Letting Go: Chaos Walking: Book One by Patrick Ness

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Teensy-tiny mild spoiler at the end – nothing specific.

Here’s a book where form and content are wonderfully matched. Todd’s first person narrative is gripping and suspenseful, and the use of an imagined dialect is perfect for the world he’s coming from. Noise is visually depicted on the page with changes in font and size that never feel gimmicky – the effect of turning the page and seeing the Noise Todd hears as he walks through Prentisstown is much like the shock of turning the page and seeing Octavian Nothing’s scratched out words. Plus, the sometimes choppy sentences give a real sense of immediacy, and this gets turned up a notch for the more tense scenes – and there are plenty of them!

The characters are fantastic and vivid, including all the people Todd and Viola meet along the way, and as someone who’s not an animal person, I have to give special mention to Todd’s dog, Manchee. He was probably my favorite character, and despite his limited abilities with language, he had an incredibly strong “voice.” As Todd tells us in the opening sentence, “The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.” But oh boy does he come alive on the page.

This is a huge page-turner, and despite its length moved along at a nice brisk pace, with plenty of action. There is a fair amount of violence, but it’s a source of anguish for the characters, rather than feeling gratuitous. There’s plenty of moral complexity in the story, and it’s incredibly thoughtful for how action-packed it is. For me, it’s that combo of emotional complexity and fast pace that really make it stand out. Plus, the dystopian elements aren’t too heavy handed, and the dash of sci-fi adds interest without detracting from the story.

Oh, did I mention it’s a cliff-hanger? Plenty is left for the next volume, in terms of Plot, but there are smaller loose ends – like knowing more about the Spackle – that seem just as compelling. But really, by the last few pages, I was so invested in characters surviving that I didn’t care about anything else.

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The Ask and the Answer: Chaos Walking: Book Two The Ask and the Answer: Chaos Walking: Book Two by Patrick Ness

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Knife of Never Letting Go Chaos Walking Book One was all rush rush rush, with characters on the run for most of the story. Here, there’s still plenty of suspense and action, but most of the story takes place in and around Haven. This second volume also switches off between Todd and Viola’s viewpoints – I can’t quite decide if this combination gives the story less momentum or not. With alternating viewpoints, Ness can leave us hanging with one character, then the other, and so on, which adds to the tension but doesn’t necessarily contribute to a breathless pace. Instead, we spend more time seeing how Viola and Todd react differently to their circumstances. We (shudder) get to spend more time seeing how Mayor Prentiss thinks and acts. The history of the planet unfolds a bit more, and political tensions and compromises play a bigger part in the story.

I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll just say that it’s best to read the books in order, and that I think the series will appeal to kids who like fast-paced stories with good character development, and who don’t mind a fairly heavy dystopian setting. There’s a fair amount of violence that could be too much for younger readers, even though it’s never gratuitous and the moral implications are always key to the story.

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The Stolen One The Stolen One by Suzanne Crowley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A fairly engrossing story set in Elizabethan England, one of those stories with gritty details about everyday life as well as plenty of descriptions of fashion and embroidery. There’s a bit of a mystery to the story, as Kat attempts to find her true parents and, she imagines, her real place in the world. The truth is revealed gradually, both through what Kat uncovers as well as through excerpts from her adopted mother’s journal, which makes the story something of a page turner but also means you know the truth long before Kat, having had access to that extra information.

The setting is fairly limited – a bit of time spent in the village where Kat grew up, followed by time at Elizabeth’s court. Once she gets to court, and is given a place due to her skill at embroidery, Kat rarely leaves the fairly small realm of Elizabeth’s ladies in waiting. There’s the occasional trip to wear the wardrobe is stored – and the descriptions of the dresses are vivid enough to delight anyone with an interest in period clothing – but having so many scenes set in and around Elizabeth’s private rooms gives the whole story an interesting sense of claustrophobia. It’s not a big, sweeping novel that gives you a sense of the Elizabethan world – instead it focuses more on a few characters and their lives, with history as a backdrop.

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I recently read Jen Robinson’s comments on star ratings (among other things) which of course got me thinking again.  I don’t like to rate a book on Goodreads without writing at least a few sentences about the book – I think of the star as shorthand to me, when I’m looking back over lists.  It reminds me of those books that I loved when I’m trying to remember my favorites of the year, for example.

But the difference between a 3 and 4 star book, to me, is often just mood.  If a few days have gone by and the book is still vivid in my memory, I might be more likely to give it four stars.  If the characters stuck with me, ditto.  If I thought it was well done but it didn’t appeal to me personally, I might only give it 3.  A book that I enjoyed, but it lacked something stylistically?  Probably 3 stars.  Anything with at least 3 stars, I would recommend it to someone – maybe not anyone, but someone.

Which is all to say, I guess, that Jen’s comments reminded me that I’m always a bit uncomfortable assigning stars – and I would hate to have to do that as a professional reviewer.  To me, the comments are so much more important.  If all the bloggers I read just assigned stars to books, that would drive me crazy!  What someone chooses to say about a book – what sticks – tells me much more about both the reader and the book.

Remembering all this is usually what forces me go back and write about books I finished a week or two ago.  Not that I frequently refer to my own comments, but the process of thinking it through and writing it down solidifies my impression of a book.  Then, when I’m glancing at covers or flipping through lists, I have a better chance of remembering the mood of a book or what was appealing about it.

I finally got my copy of The Ask and the Answer, perfectly timed since I’d just finished rereading The Knife of Never Letting Go, but I’m practicing supreme self-discipline and finishing up another book first.  I have way too many books going, stuck in odd places and picked up at random.  The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey is somewhere in my car, The Lincolns is sitting next to my bed – and those are just the most recent ones.

I started Suzanne Crowley’s The Stolen One the other night, in a moment of desperately wanting something girlier than what I’ve been reading.  It’s set during the reign of Elizabeth I, and the cover features a very glam and clean heroine with enormous hair, but I’m halfway through and it’s pretty compelling.  And I don’t want another book on my conscience while I read The Ask and the Answer.  And I needed something without action or chase scenes or moral dilemmas about self-defense.  Embroidery and period costumes and family secrets and several dashing gentlemen?  A refreshing change.

Reading Eragon and The Knife of Never Letting Go one right after the other was an interesting study in contrasts – they both feature a young man on the run dealing with moral dilemmas.  Eragon has no problem killing multiple villainous characters attacking him, by magic or swordfighting – but the second that he’s not in immediate danger, he’s in favor of knocking someone out rather than running them through.  He objects when another character beheads a slavetrader who is in retreat – although they just killed several henchmen.

I got the sense that Paolini was desperately trying to develop a character for Eragon – a man of growing moral principles, etc.  I would have bought into him as a character much more if he’d also experienced pangs over killing people in the fight scenes – sort of an “I did what I had to do, but I wish it hadn’t been necessary” type of thing.

Todd, in The Knife of Never Letting Go, experiences much more complex questions.  He wants to kill the character who threatens his life, and he has several opportunities, knife in hand.  But he’s reluctant to kill – a reluctance that becomes more poignant and more complex as the story progresses.  It causes problems but it also defines his character.  When he does kill, he suffers, reliving the moment over and over.  Even when killing is an act of self-defense, the characters in the story respond in complex ways, feeling both relief and guilt.

Good grief, I feel sorry for Todd just thinking about all the things that will happen to him in the next book – I don’t know what they’ll be, but I’m sure it won’t be easy.

Another reason to put off reading the sequel: once it’s over, I’ll just want the third book.  Sigh.

Remember how I’m taking over my library’s bookgroup?  And how they decided to read Eragon?  And how I wasn’t too enthusiastic about it?  The group meets tomorrow afternoon, and I’ve still got 300 pages to go, but at least it’s making me laugh.

Gosh, where to start?  There was that awesome first sentence: “Wind howled through the night, carrying a scent that would change the world.”  That left me speechless.  Okay, not really – did the scent really change the world?  Or the person/thing that gave off the scent (and honestly, I’m not really sure what the scent is supposed to be – the elves?  This is one rare example of Paolini not overdescribing something.)

Then there was that awful description of a massacred town that had me snorting with laughter.  It takes real skill to make a massacre – and a dead baby – the funniest scene in a book.

Then there’s the fact that Eragon doesn’t have much of a personality.  I suppose if you’re reading for plot and fantasy elements, the hero’s personality isn’t too much of an issue.  He gets snappy over things, like you would expect from a teen boy, resenting advice adults.  He likes to wander in the forest by himself, hunting.  He lives at subsistance level on a farm in the mountains, but it’s not until he sets off on his adventures that he gets muscles (seriously?)  “The long days and strenuous work stripped Eragon’s body of excess fat.  His arms became corded, and his tanned skin rippled with lean muscles.  Everything about me is turning hard, he thought dryly” (170-171).

I have many predictions about where the plot will go, who Eragon’s father will turn out to be, etc. etc.  But who knows, maybe I’ll be surprised.  I’m curious to see if the characters develop much, because right now I feel ambivalent about them.  I’d be curious to see how the Knopf edition differs from the original, self-published version.  It is a remarkable effort from a teenager, and kids do respond well to it.  Witness the bookgroup member whose mother, when I called with a reminder about the meeting, told me that he’d put off starting it, but once he picked it up was totally hooked.

Paolini obviously grew up on a diet of Tolkien, which is making me think about the ways Tolkien manages to make things work, while Paolini doesn’t always succeed.  I think there was more humor in Tolkien, and a better sense of tragedy, too.  And characters that felt living and breathing.  They do have those blasted elven poems in common, though.  Skim, skim, skim.

The Serpent's Tale The Serpent’s Tale by Ariana Franklin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
While it stands alone in terms of plot, I would recommend reading Mistress of the Art of Death first, because the stories are really more about the characters and their world than about the mystery. Like the first book, this one has its gruesome and disturbing moments, and the England of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine is never romanticized. Adelia continues to give us that handy outsider perspective and of course uses her medical knowledge to solve murders that others don’t even recognize as more than accidents, the work of highwaymen, or suicide. The supporting characters always keep things lively, including Adelia’s baby, who is more realistic and fleshed out than most fictional babies. I’m glad I switched to the audio version for this installment, because the reading is really, really excellent – Kate Reading’s voice makes it impossible to imagine any other, and she does fantastic, fairly subtle voices.

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Sacred Scars (A Resurrection of Magic, Book 2) Sacred Scars by Kathleen Duey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When I read Skin Hunger, I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic. It was disturbing at times, and I felt at a distance from the characters. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the book, and wondering what would happen to them. That was in December of 2007, but the world of the book stuck with me so completely that when I picked up a copy of Sacred Scars from the library, I started reading it on the walk home. While I couldn’t remember the plot of the first book in detail, Duey provides just enough information to remind the reader without doing a full recap. And, as I discovered, the world-building had been so successful that I was swept back up into it.

This time, I didn’t feel a distance from the characters in the same way, even though Hahp, in particular, wasn’t always likeable. The alternating storylines are set far apart in time, but how far apart we never quite know, and the distance shrinks quite a bit as the story progresses. Each storyline has its own tensions, but wondering when the two will meet adds a delicious third tension that made this nice fat novel fly by. Things wrap up a bit in the end, but it’s definitely a middle-of-a-trilogy story with plenty of things left hanging.

In terms of plot, the second volume is less puzzling than the first, because we know more about the relationships between all the characters. I felt like I was able to put together several pieces of the puzzle here, which got me wondering about how many clues had been in the first book and if I was too distracted by other things to figure them out. So I suppose I can go back and reread (this is a series that begs rereading) while I wait impatiently for the final installment.

This is definitely a YA series, with language and violence and a sense of darkness that would make it inappropriate for younger readers. Although the worlds are very different, it might appeal to the Megan Whalen Turner crowd for its complexity and world-building.

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I feel so neglectful of my books (let’s blame the second season of Mad Men) since I’ve been rereading The Knife of Never Letting Go at a practically decorous pace.  I read a single chapter yesterday – oh what have I become?  Thank goodness for audiobooks – The Serpent’s Tale in particular – which lend a greater sense of accomplishment to my day, thanks to lots of driving around.

I would share photos from the wedding, except being a bridesmaid hampered my photo-taking, and by the time the reception rolled around, I was having too much fun to get out the camera.  I do have a nice one of the bride knitting beforehand, waiting in a Sunday School room for the ceremony to start.

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Our shawls are simply gorgeous, although I’ve yet to take my own photos.  Sunday was fortunately cool, so a lace shawl was perfect during the ceremony, and I kept it on until we started dancing.

Bronwen and I have known each other practically our whole lives, and it was a joy and an honor to be involved in the wedding and to see her married to someone as sweet as Caleb.

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Although I haven’t been doing much knitting of my own recently, I did have great fun with a quilt for Katy’s baby – so satisfying to pick out the fabrics, then lay out all the squares in patterns, then see it all come together so quickly on a sewing machine. Then give it away – which is both sad, because I want to keep keep keep, but also happy to know it will be put to good use.

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The green leaf pattern is the backing fabric, and I loved it more and more as I handled it.

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Now I need to get my own sewing machine, so I can do this kind of thing more often.

September 2009

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