Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Favorite Reads of 2008

For my final post of the year, I bring to you my favorite reads of 2008. Looking back, I found that I have listed 21 books as "recommended". So now the trick is to somehow narrow that list down to my top five. Here they are, in no particular order. (I'm terrible at choosing one over the other - picking five out of 21 was hard enough!)
If I was required to pick an absolute favorite from the year, this one might be it. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks became a new favorite of mine immediately, and made Brooks an author whose books I will now keep a special eye out for. Describing the plotline of the book really does not explain how beautifully the story is told. It is the story of a book, a manuscript that has been rediscovered, and is now being researched and restored. As the one in charge of restoring the book, Hanna, discovers more about its history, the reader gets a glimpse of that piece of the book's life. Like I said, that description does nothing to describe the depth of feeling that comes through in each of these stories. I love books, and book history, but I think that this book would appeal to anyone who loves to read well-researched historical fiction.
I Am the Messenger was the second book that I read by Marcus Zusak (the first being The Book Thief), and it placed him solidly on my list of favorite authors. The story follows Ed Kennedy, an underage cabdriver who doesn't have much of a plan for his life, a fact which seldom bothers him. Then he stops a bank robbery, and his life becomes a kind of mystery. He begins receiving playing cards, aces, which have cryptic instructions on them that he struggles to decipher and follow. His life changes dramatically as a result of these strange messages, in a way that is uplifting but not pedantic. Ed is a fantastic character, one who you love to root for, who is deep and complicated and not perfect, but who you would love to have as a friend. This book is often catalogued as a teen book, but it would be enjoyed by teens and adults of any age.
Another teen book, actually a series, that can easily be appreciated by adults (I've actually recommended it to several friends) is the Eugenides series by Megan Whalen Turner. This series consists of The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia. I wish I knew whether or not there were going to be more books in this series, because the character of Eugenides is terrific, and I can't wait to find out more about him. The best part about this series is how crafty and surprising Eugenides is. The second best part is the fact that none of the characters are formulaic - they are all surprising and individual, never doing what you would predict. This is an excellent series for middle schoolers on up to adults, and would be enjoyed even by those who don't tend to read fantasy.
For some reason, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, by Mark Haddon, reminds me of I Am the Messenger. I think that part of it has to do with the way that they both hook you instantly. They are both quick reads, and once you begin them it is almost impossible to put them down. Nothing in the plot is similar to I Am the Messenger, however. The Curious Incident is about a 15-year-old autistic boy who sets out to discover the identity of the murderer of his neighbor's dog. It is told in first-person point of view, so we know every thought that goes through Christopher's head. The fact that he is a high-functioning autistic makes this a fascinating story to read. He is logical to the point where he can't understand metaphors or cliches, so he just responds as if he did not hear them. His interactions with others make this story humorous, but it is also dark in many ways. Enough babbling, I just loved this book.
My final recommendation of favorite reads of the year was Half of A Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This was a heartbreaking book, about the seccession of Biafra from Nigeria in the late 1960's. Biafra's symbol is the rising sun, a theme that is carried throughout the book. The war ends badly for the Biafrans, as the validity of the country was never recognized by most of the world. The story is told from the point of view of three different people, whose lives interact in various different ways. It is beautifully told, and even though the reader knows the outcome of the war, the book itself is filled with hope. It is a long book, and a difficult read, but well worth the time.
And there you have it. My five top favorites of 2008. If you are interested in seeing what the other 16 titles were that I labeled as recommended, just click on the link in this post.
Happy New Year's Eve!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Books I read this year, but just couldn't bring myself to finish

Because today is the second to last day of 2008, I thought I would do my first year end wrap-up post. In this post I would like to talk about the books that I began but was simply unable to finish. There are a variety of reasons why this is the case - it really depends on the book.
The first book on this list is God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. I have to begin by saying that I do believe in God, but I went into this book with an open mind, because I do agree with some of Hitchens's main points (religion can be bad, after all). And I actually got through more than 70% of the book. But I just had to stop. Hitchens just kept restating his point over and over, and many of his examples did not even seem to apply to the issue. He was just mad and wanted to rant and rave a little bit. I had had enough.
This next book I actually almost finished. But then I couldn't keep reading. I honestly am not sure exactly what it was, but even after reading 80% of Call Me by Your Name, by Andre Aciman, I just did not care, and did not even want to know what happened to the characters. This happens to me sometimes - I put in a great deal of effort to read a book, hoping it will make it worth my while, but I just give up if it doesn't seem to be going that way. Sometimes I'll stick it out, and sometimes not, and this just happened to be one of those that I did not.
Mothers and Sons, by Colm Toibin, is another book that I probably could have stuck with, but I could not really find a reason to. I think part of it was my frame of mind at the time I was reading it. The stories tended to depress me, and I could not seem to find any redemption from any of them. I probably only read two or three, so I may have missed a very good story or two, but the initial stories did not keep me reading long enough to find out.
Rose of No Man's Land, by Michelle Tea, was one of those books where I was just looking for a chance to put down. I had no good reason for why I didn't like it, I simply was not enjoying the book, but I continued to read it. Right up until Rose did something completely disgusting that, while it was definitely an excellent way to characterize her, fully put me off of this book for good. It may seem petty, but I will quit reading a book if the characters continually make decisions that I have a difficult time reading about. This was one of those books.
A Walk Through Time, by Stanley Liebes, seemed like an interesting book, but I found after reading about a quarter of it that I just didn't feel like slogging through to the end. It was written based on a display at a museum, one that showed the timeline of the universe and Earth's history over a mile-long walk. It is a very intriguing idea, and I'm sure it made for a fascinating live display, but reading a book based off of it was slow and disjointed.
Poor Carlo Chuchio, I just could not make myself care about his story. In The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio, by Lloyd Alexander, Carlo sets out on a grand adventure, meets all sorts of interesting characters, and, presumably, finds what he seeks and learns about life in the process. This is the only children's book on this list, because typically I will give books written for kids a little bit more leeway when it comes to keeping me interested. But in this case, I gave this book a good chance, and just could not complete it.
The final book on this list, Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, is interesting because it is the only book on the list that I am not sure why I stopped reading. I think it was simply moving too slowly for me, and it was such a large book that I feared I would never finish it. But I think that I will be giving it another try. This one has officially been added to my to-be-read list, and will be given another chance.
I would be interested to know if anyone else has read any of these books, or has any opinions on them. Did you love or hate any of the books listed here? You may be able to convince me to give others a second chance as well.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Warriors series by Erin Hunter

Well, I didn't get much reading done over my holiday trip, but I did manage to finish one book. And that book wrapped up a series. I review the Warrior books as a series because reviewing them individually gets seriously repetitive and does not do them justice. This is actually the second of these series that I've read - I read The New Prophecy series before reading this one (my review is here), but reading the series out of order is not really that big of a deal.
I have to say that if these books had been out when I was in elementary school, they would have been my favorites. Even with the level of cat-against-cat violence, I think I still would have loved the idea of these wild forest cats living according to a warrior code. The first book in this series, Into the Wild, introduces us to Rusty, a house cat who feels the call of the forest. He meets some of the warrior cats of ThunderClan, and is accepted among them as an apprentice warrior, and renamed Firepaw. He must deal with prejudice against "kittypets" such as him, and prove that he can be a loyal and valuable member to ThunderClan.
The main plotline of the series as a whole is Firepaw's rivalry with Tigerclaw. In the first book Firepaw discovers Tigerclaw's treachery - he would do anything to gain power, even kill members of his own clan. Later, as Firepaw becomes a full warrior and is renamed Fireheart, he must continue this battle. It isn't until the third book, Forest of Secrets, that Fireheart is able to prove Tigerclaw's treachery and get him exiled from the clan forever. But that is not the end of his troubles with Tigerclaw. Tigerclaw continues to plague ThunderClan, and carries a personal vendetta against Fireheart. In addition to this main plotline, the clan must hold its own against the three other clans of the forest, as well as dealing with natural occurances like drought, storms, and fire.
I have to say that I do love these books, although they are a bit on the overdramatic side at times. And the violence is not something that can be ignored. These cats fight and kill each other, and are also killed by predators like birds of prey and feral dogs. They live a tough life. But for a kid that can handle that level of violence, these books are great. Older elementary school kids or younger middle schoolers are usually who I recommend this book to. There are powerful themes of acceptance and loyalty, trust, friendship, and family. And now I get to move on to another book in this world! The books in this series are: Into the Wild, Fire and Ice, Forest of Secrets, Rising Storm, A Dangerous Path, and The Darkest Hour.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Challenges for the new year

I am well aware of the fact that I have severely over-extended myself in terms of the challenges that I signed up for for 2009. You may have noticed that my list just keeps getting longer and longer, and I'm sure you are wondering if I've lost my mind. The answer: probably. I will be discussing next year's challenges in more depth at the end of this month, or the beginning of the next. For now, I wanted to bring up two that I have signed up for that are going on now, but that will finish before the end of next year. (I have already mentioned the From the Stacks Challenge, which will be wrapping up at the end of January.)
The first of the two that I have not yet read anything for (shame on me!) is the Medieval Challenge. This one goes until the 8th of February, 2009. This means that I better get a move on, since I signed up to read six titles. So far on my list are one non-fiction about the time period, one book written during the time period, and a modern book about the time period. (I plan on doing two each.) The titles are: Medieval Britain: the age of chivalry by Lloyd and Jennifer Laing; The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer; and Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks.
For the second challenge, the Really Old Classics Challenge, I somehow went just a little bit insane and decided that I would read 29 books on this topic. I think I wasn't thinking very clearly that day, but now I feel like I can't go back on that number. Silly, right? Anyways, the challenge runs until the end of July 2009, so I have more time. The idea for this challenge is to read the classics written before the 1600's. I have already read a few in past years, so my goal is to read titles that are new to me. If I run out, rereading these classics is never a bad thing.

Oh, and on a completely separate note - I will be out of town for the next week or so. I may manage to get a review up, if I finish a book and have the time (not likely), but don't hold your breath.
Happy Holidays everyone!!

Math Doesn't Suck by Danica McKellar

This is a fantastic book. It put me off a little bit at first with its teen-magazine-like cover, and its subtitle - "how to survive middle school math without losing your mind or breaking a nail". But McKellar does a terrific job of explaining a lot of difficult math issues in a way that is fun and makes sense. I read this book because I tutor kids who are mainly doing middle school level math. This book gave me a lot of ways to help explain things when kids are stuck.
One thing to know going into it, in case it's not obvious enough from the cover - this is a book geared entirely towards middle school girls. Middle school boys are not at a level of maturity where they can read a book that talks about cute boys, crushes, shopping, and make-up, and take it with a grain of salt. They simply wouldn't be able to get through it. The idea is to make girls feel like it's okay to be smart and good at math. So many girls feel "nerdy" if they're good at science or math, and nerdy is absolutely what most girls do not want to be in middle school. This book is for girls who are tempted to pretend they are someone else, just to be approved of. Math Doesn't Suck is full of examples of successful grown women who use math every day in their jobs, and are glamorous at the same time. The message here is "being smart is cool" and never dumb yourself down for other people. I admire McKellar for using her star power in this way - and I wish her and all the middle schoolers who read this book luck. Middle school is difficult, but if girls can use this book to help them gain the confidence they need, they'll be on the right path.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Jack Plank Tells Tales by Natalie Babbitt

Jack Plank is an out-of-work pirate; he lost his job because he just wasn't very good at it, and times were getting hard for his ship's crew. So they let him off in a Caribbean town called Saltwash, where he tries to make his way. He takes a room at a boardinghouse where they know he was a pirate, and they give him a week or so to find a job and prove that he plans on being a productive member of society.
What follows is a series of stories told by Jack, each one outlining why he is not able to do a specific job - he has a story for each one, although sometimes the story does not seem to directly relate to the job itself, or why he is unable to do it. But in the end, Jack discovers what he is able to do - tell a story!
The stories are whimsical and often silly, as are his audience's responses to his tales. This book was written for kids in grades two through six, but would probably be enjoyed by the younger ones more. It would also be a fun story to read aloud to, or along with first or second graders. It is not a book that would be enjoyed as much by every age, but for younger elementary school children, it's a great choice.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

Here is my third entry for the From the Stacks Challenge. (Previous entries can be found with the label below.) This is one that I've had for about a year - it was a Christmas gift from my brother-in-law and his girlfriend last year, and it took signing up for a challenge to get me to read it. Not because I wasn't interested, it's just very difficult to get me to read my own books. That's specifically why I sign up for these sorts of challenges.
I knew nothing about this book, beyond the information anyone can glean from the cover print. The book was written in 1954 by Iris Murdoch, who wrote more than 20 books. This one takes place in London, presumably during the time that it was written. I found Under the Net to be more entertaining than I expected. The main character, Jake Donaghue, is a man who is afraid of hard work, who never has a job or a place to live, but manages to live well off the generosity of this friends. The only job he seems to do is as a translator for a french author. Jake wants to be a writer in his own right, but as mentioned before, he's not very good at actually working on something.
Jake's life changes when he is once again without a place to live, and gets in contact with his old girlfriend and her movie-star sister. This brings him back into contact with Hugo, the man who he broke off contact with years before. Jake has to come to terms with a variety of opinions he holds about these friends from his past before he can face his future.
I really enjoyed reading this book. It is hard to explain how funny the book is - there are parts that seem like some kind of movie caper or heist. Jake's character is very well drawn - you root for him even when he's behaving like an idiot. His friends are interesting and varied, and not like anyone I know. And once Mister Mars, the movie dog, joins him (in a very funny kidnap-the-dog scene), I was loving it. Written by someone less talented, this book could have been terrible, but Murdoch does a wonderful job telling the story with both humor and drama.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Brisingr by Christopher Paolini

I first picked up the Inheritance Cycle books when I was doing a project on books that were written by teens, last fall. While I was impressed that Eragon was written by a 15-year-old, it really wasn't very well written. It was fun to read, and if the story was derivative, well, what can you expect from a teenage fan of fantasy writing their first book? I did read the second book soon after, and found that the writing had gotten better. Brisingr is definitely readable, Paolini's style has improved, and I am still enjoying the story of Eragon and his dragon Saphira.
I was honestly really surprised by some of the turns the plot took in Eldest - I wondered to myself how Paolini was going to solve the quandries he had created. Nothing is really resolved in this book, but the plot definitely moves forward, and I have hope that Paolini will be able to resolve all of the loose ends satisfactorily in the fourth book. My main complaints about this third title are probably the same as my complaints for the second book. It feels as though Paolini is writing the book with a thesaurus at his side, and sometimes he seems to choose a word simply because it is larger and less well-known, not because it fits perfectly in a sentence. Similarly, his use of the dwarven, elvish, and other languages he creates for his world is ponderous at times.
I would recommend this series to any teen who enjoys fantasy, especially dragons. The book does not seem derivative if you have less to compare it to, and it exposes anyone who reads it to the themes of the hero's journey. This book is the least derivative so far - revelations about Eragon's true parentage make it so that he is no longer the son of Darth Vader with sibling he never knew of. We are no longer following as closely to a Star Wars plot-line, although, as mentioned above, it is still a story of the hero's journey, making it extremely recognizable to anyone who is well-read. These books are fun, although they could not be called light reading, and should be given a chance beyond just groaning about how similar they are to every other fantasy out there. They do stand on their own.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Textbook Round-Up (Part II) - Reference and Web Programming

Whew, I am finally done for the semester. Next semester I will only be taking two classes, so hopefully I won't be quite so overwhelmed with school.
In my last textbook post, I talked about all of the books used for my Intellectual Freedom and Youth course. This post will cover two classes, with only three books.
The first is the two-volume set Introduction to Reference Work, by William A Katz. These are very comprehensive books, covering all sorts of reference needs. Katz analyzes not only the source of the materials he discusses, but also the cost, and how they could be used at different types of libraries. The first volume covers all the necessary sources: encyclopedias, dictionaries, periodicals, ready reference, etc, etc. The second volume discusses actually doing reference work. My only complaint with these books was that the information on the internet was out-of-date. Really anything that was published in 2002 and talking about the internet is going to be behind, but some of the information seemed like they didn't even bother updating it for the 2002 edition. This was disappointing, to say the least. Other than that these books were an excellent match for the class, and would be very useful for any new librarian learning the ropes.
The only textbook used in my web programming class was HTML, XHTML & CSS, by Elizabeth Castro. This was a stellar book, one I would highly recommend to anyone who is learning how to work with any of the above languages. It is also excellent for reminders, in case your skills have become rusty. I even had the opportunity to recommend this book to a patron who was looking for a good book on the subject. The class was good, although I'm still not sure how it applies to my overall Library Science degree, and I doubt I will be pursuing web design in the future, but for learning about it, this book was great.
And that's another semester finished! Next semester it will be Collection Management, History of Library and Books, and Evaluation of Youth Services. I am not joking when I say I am really excited.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Misadventures of Oliver Booth by David Desmond

Oliver Booth is one of those people that you either despise or feel sorry for, sometimes at the same time. His character has absolutely no redeeming qualities, and the author is quick to let you know that no one else on the planet seems to like him very much either. In fact, Desmond works so hard to make us dislike Oliver that it is really difficult to read about him, or care what happens to him, unless you enjoy reading about people who are constantly embarrassed and miserable.
Oliver Booth is an "antiques" dealer in Palm Beach, Florida, where he runs a shop full of replicas that nobody ever sees, because he gets hardly any business. When he is lucky enough to acquire a sales clerk who is intelligent, friendly, and French, his luck begins to turn around. He is noticed by one of the wealthiest women in town, and he and Bernard are sent to Paris to choose antiques to decorate her guest house. Mrs. Van Buren sends them because of Bernard, not because of Oliver, and she seems to think that it is her place to see that Oliver is continually humiliated. "People like Oliver" need to be taught a lesson. A lesson in what? How to not try to be something you are not? In Oliver's case he is constantly pretending he is part of the upper-class society of Palm Beach, which he can never join due to his lack of money and good looks.
This whole book was an inside joke about the society of Palm Beach - it could be called satire, but it was so full of stereotypes and cliches that it lacked the bite that most satires have. I generally don't enjoy watching as people make fools of themselves, so I really did not enjoy watching Oliver bumble through life, but I understand that I am in the minority there. I suppose that I just do not find the foibles of the really-rich to be all that funny, and the bad and cliched dialogue and superficial, stereotypical characters certainly added nothing to the story. Overall, if more books are written about Oliver and his hi-jinks (which it seems is the case), I will not be reading them.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Textbook Round-Up (Part I) - Intellectual Freedom and Youth

This semester I took a course covering issues of intellectual freedom and young adult services at libraries. Intellectual freedom is a fascinating issue, and one that I am very happy to support through my work at the library. It is interesting to see how the freedom to read pertains to children and teens - it is often from parents that challenges come, and so being familiar with how to handle material challenges is critical for any librarian serving young adults.
The first book that we used, and the one that we spend the most time in, was The New Inquisition, by James LaRue. This is a fantastic book that should be on the shelf of any library, and should be read by every library worker. It gives insight into why challenges happen, and how to handle them effectively, by trying to understand the patron's concern, rather than becoming defensive. LaRue also gives some great practical tips for handling challenges.
Another book that we looked at, but didn't spend too much time in was Radical Reads, by Joni Bodart. This book gives a list of 101 books that are all controversial titles, and why they should be recommended to teens. In addition to summaries and bibliographic information, she includes reviews, booktalks, curriculum tie-ins, and much more for each title. The appendices also include information on building a rationale for books in your collection that you think may be considered controversial, and may come up against challenges.
A third book that we used in this class pertained more towards customer service. That book was Defusing the Angry Patron, by Rhea Joyce Rubin. This book examined the reasons behind anger, and offered ways to approach different people based on the source of their anger. This is a very practical book, and would be great for anyone who works in customer service, although it is tailored to libraries.
A final book that I found very useful for this class was the American Library Association's 2007 edition of Banned Books, by Robert Doyle. This book includes all of the books that have been challenged recently and why, in alphabetical order by author's last name. There are also indexes of authors, regions, and reasons for the challenges, as well as information on critical court cases. This book is invaluable for anyone studying the reasons why specific books have been challenged in the past. It is amazing to see how challenges still come up every year, even for classic titles.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy and Martel-Harper Challenge Wrap-up

This is the second, and final, book I read for the Martel-Harper Challenge, hosted by Dewey at The Hidden Side of a Leaf blog. (The first book was To Kill A Mockingbird, and my blog post about it is here.) I am very sad to say that as of very recently, Dewey is no longer with us, but I wanted to finish this challenge because it is such a terrific idea.
The challenge is based on the books that author Yann Martel sends to the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, with recommendations of why he should read them. The Death of Ivan Ilych is the first on this list of books, and here is the letter that accompanied it. (This is the only letter that seems to have gotten a response, even if it is only a couple of sentences.)
This was a fascinating short story (at 60 pages, maybe it could be called a novella?). I found it at first entertaining, in its satirical depiction of upper-middle class Russia in the late 1800's. The story opens with Ivan Ilych's funeral, where his acquaintances have come to pay their respects. He cannot be said to have any friends, even his own family does not seem to feel true sorrow or grief at his death. It is a farce, where everyone must pretend to feel something they do not. The story then goes back to tell the tale of Ilych's very typical, mundane life. He does everything that is expected of him, moves through life in exactly the way he should. The way that Tolstoy pokes fun at this lifestyle is very entertaining, even when Ilych first realizes that he is ill. As the story proceeds to be about his slow and painful death, it becomes less satire, and more of a look at what it means to live, and therefore what it means to die.
In his letter to the Prime Minister, Martel points out that anyone, anywhere in the world can read this story and relate to it, regardless of the fact that none of us are living in tsarist Russia. All of us understand the fear of death, and the fear that our lives our meaningless, that we made a mistake somewhere in our lives, didn't live them the way that we should have. Tolstoy is an expert as showing us the truths of life, and that in the end, we are all the same.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Half of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This was a beautiful, tremendously sad book to read. Sad because while the characters are all so hopeful, the reader knows how the story historically ends. This is a story of the Nigerian Civil War, or the Nigerian-Biafran War, a war that took place in the late 1960's. Biafra seceded from Nigeria in 1967, a fact that causes much joy among the characters of Half of a Yellow Sun. However, most people who read this book will know that the war caused tremendous suffering, in terms of the violence, starvation, and sickness that it caused, and Biafra does not win the war. But even in the worst of times, the Biafrans believe they will be vindicated.
The story is told from three different points of view - Ugwu, Olanna, and Richard being the focus of the third person perspectives. Ugwu is the house boy of Odenigbo, a radical professor who believes in secession and thinks that Europe should leave the Africans to govern themselves. He sends Ugwu back to school, even though he is older than all the other children, and encourages him to read as much as he can - he is never treated as just a servant. Olanna is Odenigbo's lover. She is from a relatively wealthy family, was schooled in London, and has joined Odenigbo at the university where he teaches. Richard is a British man who is in Nigeria because he is fascinated by tribal art. He is the lover of Kainene, who is Olanna's twin. He also participates in the life of the university, and so becomes part of the group that spends time at Odenigbo's house, when he is not staying with Kainene. These three characters, while their stories intertwine and overlap in time, each tell a different part of the story. Ugwu and Olanna are in the same house, yet their stories are very different, as they have separate responsibilities, friends, and circles of acquaintances. As the war begins, this story structure works very well for describing the events and experiences of the Biafrans of all different walks of life.
This is definitely one of those books that stays with you after you put it down. Even while I was reading it, I was haunted by that image of a rising sun. It brings so much hope to those fighting for their independence, yet the reader knows that in the end, Biafra does not succeed. The imagery created by that half of a yellow sun, which appears everywhere, is hauntingly beautiful. The choices that Adichie makes with her characters also strengthen the story. I had wondered to myself why central characters like Odenigbo and Kainene weren't also used to tell the story from their perspective, but I think that their voices would not have had the same expression as the three main characters. Odenigbo is too confident, unwilling to show any weakness, while Kainene is too jaded and bitter, with her hope buried deep. It is interesting to imagine how the story would be different from their points of view. This would be an amazing choice for a book club - already I find myself unable to stop talking about it once I get started. So I think I will stop now, with this recommendation - read this book.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Places In Between by Rory Stewart

Rory Stewart spent almost two years walking across Asia, but was unable to spend any time in Afghanistan until the fall of the Taliban. So in January of 2002, he made his way to Herat, there to begin his walk to Kabul, and thus finish his journey. This book is an account of the five weeks that he spends on foot across the snow-covered mountain passes of Afghanistan.
Stewart writes with a great sense of history, and he has a greater depth of understanding of the various cultures that have interacted to make this part of Afghanistan what it is than most people. This history and culture make their way into his tale, as he describes the background of both the people and the land as he travels through. Throughout the book Stewart also includes quotes from another traveler, the Mughal Emperor Babur, who traveled the same route in the 1500's. It is a fascinating juxtaposition.
I enjoyed this book, especially once Stewart found himself the owner of an unwanted dog, a mastiff with no ears, no tail, and very few teeth, who he names Babur. Experiencing the way that Stewart is treated at each village is engrossing - the hospitality he expects is often not forth-coming, but other times the people are overwhelming in their generosity. Perhaps it is because of the constant war, or because he is Scottish, but many villagers are unwilling to interact with him at all. He travels through snow and minus twenty degree weather, living mainly on bread, unless the villagers have a little more to offer him. The journey definitley does not sound enjoyable in any way. With the addition of Babur, Stewart becomes a more sympathetic character to the reader, yet becomes even more unwelcome in the towns he passes through. We know that he does not get killed in these circumstances, since he did write a book about it, but sometimes you're left wondering how he got away.
With the violence, poverty, and unfriendliness he found in Afghanistan, I wonder what Stewart thought of the rest of his travels. He brings them up sporadically throughout the book - stories of traveling through Iran, India, Nepal. I would love to read about those travels, and I find it strange that Stewart chose to write only about his trip across Afghanistan, at least for this book. The book does give the reader a varied and deeper picture of the tribal regions of Afghanistan, more than any other book I have read about the area. For that reason alone it is worth reading.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Dragons of the Dwarven Depths by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman

This book has been sitting on my to-be-read shelf for at least a year. I picked it up when I saw a signed copy at the book store, otherwise, I probably wouldn't have bothered.
I enjoy the Dragonlance books, but I would not call myself a huge fan. This title is the first in a new series, the Lost Chronicles. The Lost Chronicles series documents some of the events that take place in between the original Chronicles series. This first book covers the events between the first and second books. I read those ages ago, so trying to remember it for this one was a little bit difficult.
Dragons of the Dwarven Depths begins right where Dragons of Autumn Twilight leaves off. Lord Verminaard has just been killed, and the companions have helped his slaves escape. Now they are all trying to figure out what to do next. None of the various factions within this group of refugees can agree, causing problems for Tanis and his friends, who are just trying to help. They end up splitting up - Tanis and Flint head out to find the fabled dwarf kingdom of Thorbardin; Caramon, Raistlin, and Sturm (later followed by Tika and Tas) head to the haunted keep of Skullcap, where Raistlin is drawn by some strange power; and Riverwind, Goldmoon, Laurana, and Gilthanis stay to help the refugees. The story switches back and forth as it follows these various groups, bringing them all together again in Thorbardin.
I did find this book an entertaining read, but I can't say whether or not I'll bother picking up the other two books in the Lost Chronicles series. I am sure that for diehard fans of the Dragonlance books, getting to read more stories by the original authors is a treat. But to me, the whole book felt like an inside joke - it really should only be read by people who have read the other books, as so much of your understanding of the strange things that happen relies on that. And it is simply not as well written as many of this team's other books. The editing is terrible, which is always frustrating, and in parts it really felt like they phoned it in. All-in-all, this is one edition to the Dragonlance series that is fun to read, especially for big fans, but otherwise should not be bothered with.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Blue Way by Daniel de Faro Adamson & Joe Andrew

While looking for some books on socially responsible investing, I came across this one - the subtitle is How to Profit by Investing in a Better World. But this book is about more than socially responsible investing. The Blue Way refers to supporting companies that support Democrats. The assertion of the authors is that the Republican party is against everything that socially responsible companies are for, or at least their actions have shown this for the past decade or more. And although it seems taboo to discuss the political contributions of companies and CEO's, that is exactly what this book wants to talk about. Many of the companies that are listed in socially responsible mutual funds donate big money to the Republican party, or to individual campaigns. The authors have identified 76 companies on the S&P 500 that they describe as "blue" - contributing a majority of their political donations to Democrats. The authors then set out to show that these 76 companies are more successful than those that support Republicans.
Adamson and Andrew do get their point across. They have run the numbers, and the numbers show that these companies have done much better than the average S&P 500 company over the past decade. Of course, this book came out in 2007, and much has changed about financial markets since then, but it is still an interesting fact. The reason why the authors feel that they have to emphasize their facts so heavily is that conventional wisdom goes against these results. Republicans are traditionally the party of big business. The other main point the authors make is that the reason "blue" companies are more successful than "red" is that their business model is more progressive, in more ways than one. They spend a tremendous amount of the book discussing the importance of progressive leadership, both in business and in politics.
This book was not really what I expected, and it spent more time on topics other than investing than I would have expected, seeing as how the word "investing" was in the title. But the authors did make some very interesting points, and gave me a lot to think about. They discussed changes that certain very large companies have made to make themselves more socially responsible, companies like Nike and Gap, who I didn't realize had made so many steps in that direction. I'm still not sure that I agree that it makes sense to dig into data about political contributions; I also did not particularly care for the incredibly consumerist take on reality. There was barely a mention of the fact that perhaps instead of purchasing stuff from a "blue" company, we could instead not buy stuff at all. But I guess that wasn't the point of the book.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Here is the first entry for the From the Stacks Reading Challenge that I am participating in. I have chosen my list of books which include this one, as well as Dragons of the Dwarven Depths (Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman), Crimes Against Nature (Robert F Kennedy), Under the Net (Iris Murdoch), and Life of Pi (Yann Martel). Kind of a random selection, but I have so many to choose from, I went with books that were gifts. I always feel bad when I get books as gifts, and then next time I see the person who gave it to me, they ask about it and I have yet to read it. This will take care of a couple of those.
I have heard so much about this book, but it took this challenge to get me to read it. After the first ten pages or so, I knew that I was going to love it. I actually had no idea what it was even about, so I had no preconceived notions whatsoever. The main character is Christopher, a fifteen-year-old autistic boy who is also a genius when it comes to math and logical thinking. He has developed ways of understanding his world that allow him to adequately function on his own, but new situations are still terrifying for him. He has no real concept of human emotions, and he lacks understanding when it comes to many types of communication. Everything is very literal for him, making most people difficult for him to comprehend. He lives with his father, who knows him very well, and he goes to a school with other special needs children, where his main teacher understands exactly how he needs to be taught. Even with his difficulties, his life works very well, until the night he finds his neighbor's dog dead in its yard. Christopher decides to become a detective like one of his heroes, Sherlock Holmes, and find out who killed Wellington (the dog did not simply die of natural causes). This investigation exposes more truths than Christopher is capable of handling, and the choices he makes to try to set his world right change his life forever.
The story is told in first-person narrative, in Christopher's voice. It is brilliant, Mark Haddon does an amazing job of putting the reader into Christopher's mind. Within the first couple of pages, I loved him, and learning about the way he thinks and perceives the world was fascinating. Christopher has worked very hard to develop ways of interacting with the world that will help him to feel safe, and when those controls fall away, seeing how he acts is frightening, because you come to fear for him and his well-being. This is a tremendous book, and shows that no matter what problems we face in our own lives, if we do our best and face the problems head on, we can do anything.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar

In the Country of Men takes place in Libya, in the 1970's. This is a time and place that I know very little about, but the scope of this novel is not very wide, and the narrator gives a full picture of his world. The narrator is nine-year-old Suleiman, describing the summer when his father's rejection of ruling government brings his family much pain. Suleiman understands very little of what is going on, and so as a reader who does not know very much about this time period, I also did not understand much. Matar does an excellent job of keeping the story within what a nine-year-old would be able to grasp, yet allowing for enough hints to give the reader a better understanding.
The hardest part about reading this book was watching Suleiman's moral deterioration. He is incapable of acting in the adult ways that his parents expect, and he begins to strike out at his friends and family as a way to try to regain control of his environment. He knows that the way he is behaving is wrong, but he just wants attention, and possibly appreciation from anyone, even if that means betraying his family and himself. The rest of his life is colored by this one summer, but it seems that in the end, his own actions have little effect on his life. It is the bigger changes, the trouble his father brings on them and what his mother does as a result of it, that truly alter the course of his life.
It would be interesting to pair this book with one or two non-fiction titles about the political situation in Libya at this point in time. As with many books that I read, I feel like I miss something when I don't know the whole background that the author is writing from. This book is an interesting read even without that understanding, however, it makes me realize how little I really know.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Breaking Dawn by Stephanie Meyer

**WARNING: SPOILER ALERT - MAJOR SPOILER ALERT - Please do not read this review if you care about spoilers!!! - SPOILER ALERT!!***
Okay, now that that's taken care of. I'm really not kidding about the spoilers though, I can't really talk about what I think of the book without giving away big chunks of plot. Sorry.
So anyways, it took me awhile to get around to reading this one. I have read the rest of the series and enjoyed reading them, although I can't really say that I liked them very much. The main characters and their love affair really just kind of annoyed me. Everything was always the end of the world and Bella's heart was being ripped out of her chest and torn to shreds. Constantly. It was just too much angst and pathetic whining. But they were fun to read, regardless.
I really had no idea what to expect from this one, what with all the major conflicts over it - fans hating it, wanting it to be re-written, etc. I didn't even know whether or not to expect Bella to actually become a vampire. I had no expectations whatsoever. So I was very pleasantly surprised when I discovered that I actually liked this book a lot better than the other three.
First of all, a good portion of the story is told from Jacob's point of view, which was nice, because Bella really gets to me. And at the end of Jacob's part of the story, Bella becomes a vampire. I wasn't sure what to expect from vampire-Bella, and although she was obnoxiously perfect, she was no longer pathetic and angst-y. She now felt worthy of Edward, which meant that she stopped whining about how she did not deserve his love. So that was nice. And although Renesmee totally creeped me out at first, she grew on me. Even the whole werewolf-imprinting thing wasn't so bad, though it felt like sort of a cop-out. The remainder of the story was typical life-and-death conflict, but I expected that. So although the book was definitely still just like the others, I can actually say that I truly liked this one. I am not sure what other fans got so worked up about, but I suppose that I would not understand, having not been a very big fan of the series. I'd be curious to see what others thought of this latest installment.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Amazing that this book should be my 100th book review of the year. This is probably my all-time favorite book, and after re-reading for the third time, I am reminded why. It is amazing what you get out of a book that is different each time you read it. I think that is a measure of how good a book really is, sometimes.
The Handmaid's Tale is similar to many of the other books that I have read recently, the dystopias that I love so much. This is by far the best. The world that Atwood creates is much more similar to our own than that of 1984 or Brave New World. Although 1984 takes place not long after the upheaval that creates its world, The Handmaid's Tale takes place in a world that is so similar to our own. The main character remembers so much from "the time before" that is recognizable.
The way that women are controlled in this new society is frightening, and it's always the worst when we learn that many women support what the new society is doing. They feel safer with the new order, although how anyone can ever feel safe when everyone is under heavy government surveillance, I will never understand. Everyone must constantly watch their step, make sure to not attract undue notice. The narrator of the story does her best to go along with it, stay out of trouble, but as a handmaid, she has one of the most despised, but also powerful, positions in society. She also remembers too much about "the time before" and that makes it difficult for her. She imagines what it will be like when future handmaids have never known any other kind of life - they will cease to question it.
There are so many fantastic levels to this book, but after reading it this time around, what stood out to me the most was the descriptions of "the time before". When I first read this book, I think that I imagined it to be more similar to our own time than it actually is. As the narrator remembers her life before the current regime, she remembers details that seem like our world, but are slightly off. She describes a time when a woman tried to run off with her daughter, right in the middle of a grocery store - she thought it was a random occurance, but apparantly it was not uncommon. It was becoming clear that women were having more and more trouble having children, and those who were able to get pregnant were the truly lucky ones. Another factor is that of the Compubank. It is similar to our ATM card system, but paper money has been abolished. The narrator believes this is what gave the new government so much power. They were able to freeze the accounts of all women, not allow them access to any sort of money. It's a chilling thought. These are just a few details in a book that is rich with them.
This is a wonderful book, even if you are not a fan of alternate futures, or dystopias. If you've never read it, read it. If you have, you will always get something new from reading it again.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

I have mentioned before that I have not historically been a huge fan of graphic novels, but I find them growing on me lately. One of my main issues when it comes to reading them is the art. This may seem very obvious, but if I dislike the style of the illustrator for the graphic novel, I often won't give the book a chance. I'm learning to do differently though.
I picked up Watchmen mainly because of the movie coming out. This is silly, because for the most part, at least lately, I have hated what Hollywood does to the books that I love (Lord of the Rings being the exception to the rule). But I do like movies based on comic book characters, so . . . well anyway, I read it. I was not a huge fan of the style at first, but it grew on me. It only detracted from the actual story occasionally, so that was good. The story itself is terrific. I love the "Who watches the Watchmen?" theme of the whole thing - who knows who is really good or bad, who decides that? What does it mean to "do the right thing" in very morally complicated situations? The way that the superheros deal with these questions defines them. The other thing that I really liked about this book was all of the stories within stories. It seemed like it might have made it hard to keep track of, but really, the secondary stories added to the overall theme, making reading the book a very rich experience.
I honestly don't know whether or not I will see the movie, because of my hatred for the past few books-into-movies I have witnessed, but as it's about comic book characters, well . . . I probably actually will. And I will definitely be looking into reading more work by Alan Moore. And I may even give Sandman a chance, because I do really like Neil Gaiman, and maybe, like with Watchmen, I can get over my dislike of the visual style.

Monday, November 17, 2008

1984 by George Orwell

This is one of those books that I have read at least three times, this most recent time being the third, I think. This image is actually the edition of the book that I own. It's so different from some of the others, especially the more modern editions. This is the 1984 edition, which is meaningless, because the book was not a prediction for where we would be in 1984. I just find it interesting.
This is absolutely one of my favorite books ever. It's funny how you can read a book like this and remember things that seem so important to the story, you wonder how you forgot them. Even though I've read this book twice before, I still kept having, "Oh yeah!" moments. The story of Winston Smith and his comrades of the Party, of Oceania and Big Brother, is so compelling, so intricate, it should be read by everyone.
One thing that I wanted to discuss about this book was the fact that in the various prefaces, forwards, afterwords, etc in the different editions they always talk about how Orwell did not mean for the book to be a prediction or prophecy, but a warning. But I think that even more than a warning against the future, he meant it as a warning to open our eyes to the present. So many of the aspects of the control that the Party has over the people of Oceania are things that we experience now. Doublethink is alive and well, but that is only important if you acknowledge it for what it is, and don't let it fool you. Orwell could not have known about the war on terror, but that is exactly the kind of war that the Party wages against its "enemies" Eurasia and Eastasia. An unending war, whose purpose is to create an economy (supplies and weapons), give the people an enemy to hate, and give the government permission to take away freedoms. There are so many other details that you will notice as you read this book - it really is a matter of reading to open your mind. If you've read 1984 before, read it again; and if you've never picked it up, now is a good time.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Extras by Scott Westerfeld

As I mentioned previously (a few posts ago), I wanted to review this book separately from the other books in the Uglies trilogy, because I felt more like it was a companion novel. The other three books all follow the character of Tally Youngblood, and center around the plot of the destruction of that world/way of life. This book takes place three years later, in a completely different city, and while Tally does show up eventually, she does not do so until two thirds of the story is already over.
The main character of Extras is Aya Fuse, a fifteen-year-old who is stuck being ugly because her parents still believe she should wait until she is sixteen to get any kind of surgery (in Aya's city, anyone can get whatever kind of plastic surgery they want, whenever they want - not just to be Pretty anymore). Not only is she Ugly, she's also an extra, a nobody who wishes she was famous. In her city, everyone has at least one hovercam that follows them and helps them document their world. Everyone is constantly uploading information to their own personal feed, and if enough people see their stuff and send it on, "kicking" it up higher in the feed numbers, that person becomes famous. Once a person is famous, they are constantly dealing with their celebrity status, as other less-famous people try to get stories about them. Aya's dream is to "kick" a huge story, one that will make her at least as famous as her older brother, and will save her from her fate as a boring nobody extra. She obviously finds her story, and Tally shows up to save them from themselves.
I really enjoyed this book. I even liked it better than the previous three books that took place in the series. It could probably be read without reading those others, but there will be a few inside jokes that would be lost on the reader. Other than that, Westerfeld explains the world well enough that it makes sense. I loved the fact that Aya's city seemed to be a commentary on the blogsphere. Maybe we aren't as obsessed with getting famous as everyone in her city is, but certainly there are plenty of "kickers" out there, as well as paparazzi and hangers-on trying to get famous from rubbing elbows with someone else. The book really does bring up some very valid issues about fame and popularity, and why they are important to some people, or not at all to others. It is an engaging read that would be enjoyed by fans of the series, as well as by teens who want an interesting book to read that will make them think (but not too much).

Thursday, November 13, 2008

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

This is a fantastic book, which I love. It is one of those classics that I actually did read (and I even remember it!) in high school. The story of the Finch family and their small Alabama town of Maycomb is one that everyone can relate to in one way or another. Lee does a beautiful job of telling the story of the family and the town without directly telling you. The descriptions and anecdotes of the book are my favorite part. It's like getting a glimpse of someone's life without them telling you every detail, just by observing. Lee makes us feel like we've observed and absorbed this small town story.
I wanted to take this opportunity to address all of the challenges that I have signed up for. This is the first book that I have completed for one of those challenges. Challenges are hosted by various bloggers, and are a fun way to get ideas for reading, as well as a way to discuss lots of interesting books with lots of interesting people. Most of the challenges I'm participating in don't actually start until January, but a few have already begun. This book qualifies for the Martel-Harper challenge.
The Martel-Harper challenge refers to a unique relationship between a writer and a politician. The relationship is actually almost 100% one-sided, but it is a relationship nonetheless. Yann Martel is the author, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is the politician. For months now, Martel has been sending Harper two books a month, enclosing a letter with each one to explain why he feels Harper should read it (read more about it here). The challenge is simply to choose two of those books each quarter to read. Here is the letter that Martel included with To Kill A Mockingbird.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Universe Story by Brian Swimme & Thomas Berry

The full title of this book is The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era - A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos. It's quite a mouthful. But that is exactly what this book is about. I wasn't really sure what to expect when I began it - I had picked it up to read for a book club meeting that I never attended. But I thought it sounded interesting, so I kept it in my stack anyway. It certainly qualifies as an interesting read. I guess that I am still just trying to form my opinion of it more fully.
The book begins with a description of the formation of the universe, then following through in each chapter with the developments that led up to our (human) appearance on Earth. Each step forward, from the first prokaryotic cell to the first plant to make it on to land is given a name. These names exemplify how the authors feel about each of these profound steps, and individualizes it for the reader. But at the same time it felt a little silly. Once we get to human civilization, each chapter covers all of our technological changes, especially those that brought us into the current technological phase. It is the belief of the authors that we have lost the sense of the universe that our ancestors had, that we see it now purely in terms of science, and what technology can do with it, rather than as the glorious creation that it is. (I use the word creation, but the authors do not seem to believe in a "creator", at least not in the terms that we often think of it - more that the universe created itself.) The authors contend that if we don't get back some of our wonder and awe of the universe, we are in danger of thinking of ourselves separate from the fate that we have created for the Earth, and thus eventually dying along with it.
This book was written in 1994, and so has a different analysis of the environmental movement than we might see if it was written today. I think that if it was written today, the authors may have had more hope for the future of a Ecozoic Era, rather than a Technozoic Era. I really did enjoy their description of the universe as a celebration of life, and the authors did an excellent job of explaining how if each individual piece of the universe's creation had gone somehow differently, we would not be here. It was fascinating. I guess I've never really lost the awe and sense of wonder that I have about the universe and the Earth itself, but this book may be a good reminder for those who have. Overall, I agree with the authors, but I felt that this book was just a bit too heavy-handed in its attempts to inspire.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

I love this book. I read it for the first time a few years ago, and I thought it was great then. Now that I know more about teen lit, and have read considerably more young adult fiction, I like this book even better. I have heard discussion that we need a new Catcher in the Rye, a new coming-of-age novel for the younger generations. I think this is it.
The main character, Charlie, is this incredibly awkward, rather odd high school freshman. The story is told through his letters to an anonymous reader, someone who Charlie doesn't know and who doesn't know him. There is never any information given about this mystery reader, beyond the fact that Charlie likes them because they "didn't try to sleep with that person at that party even though [they] could have". Charlie begins writing letters because he is afraid of starting high school, and he really doesn't have any friends to share this fear with. He does make friends with a group of seniors, however, and these become the people who are most important to him. They love him for who he is, and they encourage him to be himself. Along with his English teacher, they are formative in helping him discover who he is as a person and a high school student. Charlie helps them through various difficulties, and they help him when he struggles with his depression and panic attacks.
The beautiful thing about Charlie, and about all of the characters in this book, is that they are so real. Not a cookie-cutter to be found. Charlie's older siblings are the least well-formed, but even they are good characters. Chbosky does nothing to hide Charlie's strangeness, and he does an excellent job describing how depression feels from Charlie's point of view. His family and friends are not perfect by any means, but they are real, and it is obvious that they love Charlie. This is a great teen book for all of these reasons, but it also explores some of the more frightening aspects of being a teen, of figuring out how to be a good friend, boy/girl friend, brother/sister, student. Of how to balance your needs with the needs of others. I would recommend this to every teen that we recommend Catcher in the Rye to, without reservation.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

The last time I read this book, I did so all in one sitting. After beginning it again, I can remember why. It begins with descriptions of the new way of making humans in this futuristic, dystopian world. We discover in the first few pages that no longer are people born, they are decanted from bottles, where they are grown from the very tiniest embryo. Not only that, but their predestination for their station in life is determined before they leave the bottle, and so the conditioning begins while they are still a fetus. It is just creepy. Huxley does a fantastic job in describing this world, and when he describes how the concept of parents is absolutely obscene, we can understand why. The next rather horrifying thing that we learn about this world is that "everyone belongs to everyone", which really just seems to mean that the men can have sex with whatever woman they want, and the women don't really get to say no. All of this preconditioning and the idea of sex being meaningless, creating no attachments between people for any reason, is supposedly to produce a happy population. And it seems to work.
The best, and scariest, part of Brave New World is the fact that most people do not seem to mind the state of things at all. Their world is at peace, they have a job that they have been conditioned since before birth to like, they have the drug soma available to them, and they never have to be alone (in fact, they are never supposed to be alone). Even those people who are deliberately stunted before birth, who are created for menial jobs, do not have any interest in knowing the truth about their reality, and would rather just be happy with what they have. Only the Alphas, and perhaps the Betas, the people who have been conditioned to do the tasks that require individuality and intelligence, ever have any doubts about their world. But how can you go against a government that merely has the best interests of humanity at heart?
After just reviewing the Uglies series, I have to acknowledge that Scott Westerfeld was definitely influenced by Brave New World. It is clear that his book is written for teens, however, and while Brave New World is often read in high school, it was not written for a teenage readership. It may be difficult for some teens to understand, but should be included on everyone's reading list. Reading about the extremes that a society can go to is always fascinating.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Uglies Trilogy by Scott Westerfeld

For awhile now I have been reviewing series as a whole, rather than as separate books, at least, I do if the whole series has been published already. I find that for a lot of teen and children's series, reviewing them individually gets seriously repetitive and annoying. So I was waiting to review Scott Westerfeld's Uglies series until I finished Extras. But now that I'm reading Extras, I'm realizing that it is more of a companion novel, and not so much part of the series. I would like to review it separately, so I might as well go ahead and review the rest of the books, since I finished Specials a few weeks ago.
The first time I saw Uglies, I was hooked by the cover. After reading the back cover, I was intrigued, but I could also see how such a book could be absolutely terrible. So I never bothered reading any of them until they were on a list for a class I took on teen materials over the summer. I really enjoyed all three books, and as they are easy to read, I zipped through each one.
The main character of all three books is Tally Youngblood. Uglies begins when she is fifteen, just waiting for her sixteenth birthday, when she will be made Pretty. In this alternate future, everyone undergoes the surgery at sixteen that makes them perfectly beautiful, making everyone theoretically equal. It is the belief of the controllers of this society that if everyone looks the same, and has the same opportunities, there will be no strife. But there are other, hidden controls put on the population that keeps them in line. Tally hates being an Ugly, and she doesn't even have any friends who are Uglies anymore, as she has a later birthday than all of them. When she meets Shay, another soon-to-be sixteen-year-old, she latches on to her like a lifeline. Shay tells her about David, someone who lives in the Wild outside of the city. This seems incomprehensible to Tally, and she thinks that Shay is insane for wanting to leave the promise of becoming Pretty. When Shay makes her escape, the city controllers force Tally to make a choice: betray her friend by following her, or never become Pretty.
From there Tally simply seems to be forced into one crappy situation after another. In all three books she never seems to have much control over her decisions, and is constantly forced to betray someone. But after learning the truth about the world that she lives in in Uglies, she knows that she can do the right thing, even though she constantly has someone mucking around in her brain and changing her body with surgery without her permission.
The world that Westerfeld creates is really interesting. He does a decent job of explaining how such a world could actually function, without going into too much detail. My favorite part of the series is the fact that it brings up the issue of control, and what it means to be under control. Is it better to live in a totally controlled society, but one with complete peace? Who gets to decide what constitutes beauty, or what makes something fun? Is it right to buck a government who is lying to its people, even though the truth might be more frightening than the lie? These are the questions Tally faces, and I like the theme of insurrection and government take-down. The issue of being Pretty is not addressed as cleanly as I would have liked. The government in the books makes the case for biology - Pretties are created the way they are because that is what our biology says is attractive. The issue of what makes someone beautiful is addressed peripherally; taken further, this could have been a very interesting concept.
Overall, I have to say I did enjoy the series, and I do love the theme of questioning authority and the accepted way-things-are. These are good books for teens who are looking for a fun read that also has something a little bit deeper (but not too deep). I'm looking forward to finishing Extras, and comparing it to the rest.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

I am really not sure what to say about this book. It's kind of amazing that I've never managed to read it before now. None of my high school English classes ever required it, and I had no real desire to read it after that. Now I've read it for my course on Intellectual Freedom and Youth, because it is another one of those classic titles that has been challenged more times than you would believe. It was most recently challenged in 2004, and for the past 50 years it has been challenged based mainly on the language and sexual content. (One of the challenges refers to "sexual exploits" of the main character, which is rather amusing, since he has none.)
I found the character of Holden Caulfield to be rather annoying, and I really got tired of reading about him after awhile. There comes a time when a character's voice in a story simply becomes too much. How many times can you listen to a first-person narrative that is so repetitious? If I wasn't reading this for a class, I honestly would probably have given up on it. I just stopped caring. But at the same time, the story that Holden is telling about himself and his world is very compelling. The picture that he paints is not altogether honest, either about himself or the schools that he talks about, or even all the "phonies" that he obsessively describes. Once I got past his obnoxious repetition of condemning all the phonies that he sees, I really started to pay attention to Holden himself, to his fears about becoming one of those phonies. Or maybe he is afraid that he is one, or has been in the past. Thinking of it in those terms made the story a lot more interesting.
I'm told that if you read The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager, you think that Holden Caulfield is absolutely brilliant. I'm not sure how true that is, but it is an interesting book, and one that is very different depending on what age you read it at. If you read it as a teen, give it another try as an adult, and you may discover something new about the book.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Foundation by Mercedes Lackey

I don't know if I've mentioned it before, but I love Mercedes Lackey. She is another fantasy author whose new books I always make a point of reading. She is very different from Juliet Marillier, who I talked about just a couple of posts ago. Lackey's books are lighter reading, though no less enjoyable. They definitely qualify as a guilty pleasure for me.
Foundation is the story of the founding of the Herald's Collegium in Valdemar. It takes place before most of the books in the Valdemar series, but includes a lot of references for those of us who've read the rest of the books. It is very similar to most of the series beginnings: a boy (or girl, but in this case, it's a boy) who is struggling in life (in this case, he is an orphan, and working as a slave in a mine) is Chosen by a Companion (mystical being in the form of a white horse). This boy then has to learn how to live at the Collegium and become the Herald that he is meant to be. Mags is the main character of this book, and he is perfectly likeable. The only problem I had with this book is one that is usually not an issue in Lackey's books. The ending felt incredibly unfinished to me. Even within the series, Lackey rarely leaves so many loose ends, or at least they never feel this loose. This one left me with a lot of questions, which presumably will be answered by the next book in the series. It was just a bit disconcerting. I always look forward to more books by Mercedes Lackey, but now I know that I have another trilogy to look forward to.