You are currently browsing the monthly archive for October 2011.

The SaturdaysThe Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m sure I read this as a child – I MUST have read this as a child, since I devoured these kinds of old-fashioned books – but no specific elements of the book made me say, “yes, I remember that moment!” Still, the whole atmosphere of the book felt intensely familiar – the children, their plans to have more thrilling Saturdays, the comfortable housekeeper, the accidents and mishaps and charm of the thing.

This is one of those stories that you have to experience to appreciate – the plot summary doesn’t do it justice – and I found the audio version an excellent way to experience it. Pamela Dillman’s voice suits the world of the story nicely, giving distinct voices to each character and adding to the old-fashioned charm.

Without any hesitation, I’d recommend this as a great family read-aloud or audiobook for a car trip. While it’s hard to imagine kids today having as much freedom to roam as the Melendys, in any town but especially in New York, it only makes the story more magical 70 years after it was written.

Source: my public library

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Kat, Incorrigible (Kat, Incorrigible, #1)Kat, Incorrigible by Stephanie Burgis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The premise is a bit like Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot (set during an alternate Regency period that includes magic), although for a slightly younger audience. The cover is adorable, but it makes the book look even younger – I’d recommend this to tweens who like upbeat historical fiction with a little magic and romance (although for other characters, not Kat).

The story was fun but never felt original. I did appreciate that the characters were all fleshed out as the story went on – the sisters and stepmother got a bit more dimension. One uneven thing in the story was the use of magic – although there seems to be a whole system of regulation, with the Guardians keeping an eye on things, most elements were thrown in with no explanation, like the mirror or the golden hall. They end up being key to the plot, but the magical system is never well-explained – something that would bother some fantasy fans, I think.

Light and enjoyable, but not particularly memorable. Apparently sequels are on their way, and maybe some of these issues will be tied up there, but I wasn’t hooked enough to pick up future books (although I’d buy them for the library if the first one does well).

Source: my public library

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EllRay Jakes Is Not a ChickenEllRay Jakes Is Not a Chicken by Sally Warner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This early chapter book introduces readers to EllRay Jakes (short for Lancelot Raymond – his mom wants to be a fantasy writer, he tells us, and this is what he got stuck with). The story has plenty of humor to lighten the bullying plotline, with a resolution that feels slightly tidy but also has nice emotional complexity. Recommended to early elementary school kids.
Source: my public library

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Just My Type: A Book about FontsJust My Type: A Book about Fonts by Simon Garfield

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

More broad than deep, this book is a fascinating exploration of types, fonts, or whatever you want to call them. It’s a topic I have a mild interest in, but reading the book has definitely made me more aware of font choices in books, signs, and on websites. (It’s also made me annoyingly aware of my own handwriting.) I’d recommend it to anyone who finds the topic interesting – it’s got plenty of visual examples and the style isn’t too technical.

One minor quibble is that Garfield will often display the name of a font using that font, making it easy to see which qualities he’s talking about, and he’ll occasionally display single letters in that font while discussing them – but not always. It was frustrating to read about “font X’s fascinating capital Q” but not be able to visualize it – more consistency here would have been nice.

Enjoyable as the book was, it also made me realize why I tend to stick to fiction – I prefer an emotional arc and some rich characters in my books, and all the fonts in the world can’t quite make up for the lack of them. This just means that it takes me longer to get through non-fiction, since I don’t feel compelled to pick it up and find out what happens. But that’s just me.

Source: my public library

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Four SeasonsFour Seasons by Jane Breskin Zalben

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an emotionally engrossing novel that takes us through four seasons of Ally’s life, from almost-thirteen to almost-fourteen. She’s been taking piano lessons since the age of four, and now all of her free time is taken up with lessons and classes at Julliard. Ally is torn between loving the piano and wanting to be a normal kid and have free time to spend with her friends. She struggles to find the motivation to practice as much as she should (boy, can I relate to that – I was having flashbacks to ballet lessons for much of the book), with the thought of disappointing her musician & singer parents and her stern teacher if she opts out of recitals or even quits.

Each season of the book has its own emotional highs and lows – the intensity of lessons in the spring, combined with a few crushes, the friendships and disappointments at the summer music camp, and the escapism and depression of the fall. Things take an upward turn in the winter, but Ally earns her personal victories and the resolution never feels too easy. The plot manages to move along at a brisk pace, but this isn’t a book for readers who are bored by an in-depth exploration of teen emotions. At times it can be slightly over-wraught, but this feels mostly in keeping with the way it feels to be thirteen.

My only complaint is the occasional stilted dialog – characters, especially her parents, saying things that sound more authorial than natural, being clearer with their thoughts and emotionals than real human beings usually are. Another small issue (as another reviewer pointed out) is the incredible number of times Ally’s mother cries. I get crying at the drop of a hat, but for a while there, barely a scene goes by without her needing a hankie, and it starts to feel like a quick shorthand for her emotions rather than adding any emotional depth.

Overall, I’d recommend this, especially to young teen girls who are interested in stories about what it feels like to be thirteen. Young musicians might delight in reading about common experiences, but this also has wider appeal to anyone who enjoys reading about how we choose to live life.

Source: my public library

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The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Fire and Thorns #1)The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an absorbing fantasy that really shows off its excellent world-building. It’s the kind of story where the landscape, buildings, culture, food, clothing, language, religious traditions, even the weather all come together to create a place that the reader feels should actually exist someplace. Add onto that some excellent plotting and pacing, and things are looking good.

Carson gives you a familiar enough plot – a girl marked from infancy as someone special, but who lacks the confidence and determination to fulfill that promise until circumstances force her to grow up and come into her own. But there enough unpredictable plot elements and enough flawed and complex characters to keep you on your toes. The romantic subplots, in particular, were pleasantly outside of the usual pattern for fantasy.

Another strength of the book is that it treats Elisa’s spiritual life in a complex and believable way. The religion of the book is its own thing, although parallels can of course be made between it and real religions. It adds texture to the world of the story, in the way characters are and are not observant of it, as well as the role it plays in Elisa’s growth and ability to become a stronger person.

As other reviewers have pointed out, it is a little problematic that Elisa doesn’t begin the bulk of her character transformation (from intelligent but passive) until after she begins her physical transformation (from overweight and lazy to more active, but never skinny). I did see some character development before the events-beyond-her-control that lead to her weight loss – she’s begun conversations with the priest, she begins to befriend her stepson and tries to make inroads with her husband and his council. So it’s not as if she does nothing until she’s skinnier – but the majority of her personality development comes later in the book. So I’m inbetween on this one – I found her a compelling character because of her flaws, although I still think the main strength of the book is in world-building and plotting.

I’d recommend this for middle-schoolers and up – especially fans of Robin McKinley, Kristin Cashore, Tamora Pierce and the like. Also, although this is the first in a series, apparantly, and there are still questions to be answered, the main plot points are resolved by the end of the book so you aren’t left hanging. I’d read more books in this series, especially to see what other world-building details are added.

Source: my public library

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Yes, I’m emerging from under the constant stream of reviews here to talk about something that’s not a book (although books will come into play).  I’m getting married next Sunday (that feels like it should be capitalized – Next Sunday) and I’m taking two weeks off – one to get things done beforehand without being stressed out and one to relax afterwards in some sunshine.

Naturally, I have a long to-do list of wedding-related things, and even more naturally, I feel more compelled to get other things done instead.  Last week in my free time I could be found organizing the coat closet and tidying accumulated piles of paper.  Today I can be found catching up on mini-reviews on Goodreads and posting already written reviews here (they’ll show up throughout the week).  Urgent?  No.  Sense of accomplishment?  Yes.  Sense of life being in order before making momentous changes?  More or less.

I miss writing chattier posts – lately it’s just been reviews because I’d write those anyway and it makes me feel like I’m still writing – but something is missing.  I mostly write for myself, and to share what I’ve been reading, but if anyone has any opinions on what they’d like to read here, or things I used to write about and you wish I still would, please do leave a comment.

In other news, I volunteered for the Cybils this year and was chosen as a second round judge for middle grade fiction – we read the shortlist that the first round judges put together, and choose a winner from that list early in 2012.  Nominations are open through October 15th – check it out and see if one of your favorites hasn’t been nominated yet!  I’m super-excited to be participating – I consider applying as a judge every year and this is the first time I did, so it’s an honor to be chosen.  I didn’t volunteer for round one because they start reading a huge list NOW, and NOW is not a good time for me to put more on my plate.  But maybe if I’m feeling crazy another year.

In my final book-related news, I’m trying to decide what to pack to read next week.  I’ve got 13 library books checked out (with a few more on hold that I’ll pick up this week) and they’re almost all big, fat and hardcover.  I’m leaning towards some historical mysteries and maybe Blood Red Road (nice light vacation reading, right?) and a Georgette Heyer, but we’ll see what makes it into the suitcase.  This is what happens when bookworms honeymoon.

The Penderwicks at Point MouetteThe Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Penderwicks only improve with age – each book in the series attaches me more firmly to the family, and each time I reread a book I appreciate it more. Which isn’t to say that they aren’t rewarding on the first read – quite the opposite. This third book marks the first time I listened to it before reading the print version (I’ve also reread it in print). The audio version is outstanding – both Birdsall and Susan Denaker, the narrator, do an excellent job at distinguishing between the characters. When I reread, I kept hearing Denaker’s voice in my head for certain characters and lines.

The book begins with the family being torn apart – Mr. Penderwick, Iantha and Ben to England, Rosalind to New Jersey, and the rest of the girls to Maine with Aunt Claire. After some time spent following Rosalind, we switch to the younger girls for the rest of the book, until the very last chapter when we find Rosalind again. She’s back at home, waiting for the rest of her family to return, feeling that anticipation. The books ends just as they all reunite, which felt like the perfect ending.

The second time around, I loved the foreshadowing of various things, some of which I picked up on when I listened to the book, and other things only in hindsight (the duck, for example). In fact, I have a hard time separating my love of these books from a more critical approach. But I do think that the ability to sweep up a reader into the world of these characters, to make them feel like real people, is a mark of excellence. True, there is a bit of a rosy hue to some parts of the story, but I also think that fiction can get rapped over the knuckles too much when it comes to coincidence. Life – life outside of books – is filled with amazing, mind-boggling coincidences, the kinds of things that would seem unreal if we encountered them in fiction. I’m inclined to give fiction a pass for a certain quantity of coincidences – what happened here felt perfect and right as opposed to unbelievable.

Birdsall says on her website that there will be a total of five books about the Penderwicks, and knowing this makes me look for plot strands that she might pick up in a later book. Some of the plot of this one has been coming since the first book, so now I try to imagine what will happen to the family in two more volumes. One thing that I’m almost certain of concerns Aunt Claire, but mostly I’m anxious to see what happens to the girls as they grow up. Also, I think I’ve decided on Batty as a favorite – she’s come a long way since her days in wings.

Source: my public library (both audio and print editions)

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October 2011
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