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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.

September 2009
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