Saturday, June 28, 2008

Airman by Eoin Colfer

I have never read any of the Artemis Fowl books that are also by Colfer, but if they are as good as Airman, then I can see why they are so popular. I debated putting this book in the fantasy category, but I realized that it is really closer to speculative historical fiction. It takes place in the late 19th centruy, in a made-up country: the Saltee Islands, which are off the coast of Ireland. The main character is Conor, a boy who was born in a hot air balloon, who knows that flying is his destiny. He is a mechanical genius, even at the age of fourteen. All his dreams go out the window when he trys to stop an act of treachery against his king. As a result of the events of that night, he is sent to prison - the diamond mines of Little Saltee. Knowing that he is not ever meant to be released, Conor must find a way out, with only his dreams of flying left to keep him going.
Airman is exciting and clever, and the characters that Colfer creates are entirely believable. The creation of the Saltee Islands alone is incredibly creative, the story of the islands being so original and rather funny. In addition to the action and excitement, the book has humor, and warmth. Conor not only has to use his mind to get himself out of prison - he has to grow as a man as well. Who he becomes as a person is just as exciting as what he can do with his mechanical genius. It will be interesting to see if this book becomes a series as well, as there is definitely more story to tell about Conor and the Saltees.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Flight by Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie really knows how to begin a book for teens. As with The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Alexie begins this book with a bang. The voice of the main character invites the reader to call him Zits. Immediately, every teen can identify with this person, and his struggles to accept himself even while hating that part of himself. Zits then goes on to give a description of his transitory lifestyle, one that takes him from foster home to foster home. By the end of the first chapter he has again gotten himself kicked out of another home and the cops are chasing him.
Alexie is an expert at capturing the impulsiveness of teenagers, that characteristic that makes adults think, "Why in the world would you do something like that?" Zits is the embodiment of this, never seeming to consider the consequences of his actions. These actions lead him to entering a bank with two guns - one a paint gun, one a real pistol - at which point he begins to experience an unreal time distortion. Through his time traveling experiences, Zits must learn to consider consequences, think through whether or not he actually wants to use the guns that are in his pockets.
While Flight enters the realm of science fiction with its time travel aspect, it still belongs squarely in regular fiction. Zits' travels are really just a way for him to become exposed to a world beyond his experience, where being entirely self-centered is not an option. This is a fantastic book for teens, readers and non-readers alike, easy and quick to read, while at the same time dealing with very difficult subjects.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Tamar by Mal Peet

Tamar is the name of two of the main characters in this book. One is a fifteen year old girl who is telling the story in modern times. The other is a man in the Dutch resistance during World War II; Tamar is his code name. The Dutch resistance fighter's part of the story is told in third person, while Tamar in modern times is the voice of her own story. She believes that she was named for her grandfather, the resistance fighter, who asked his son if he would call her that before she was born. But who is the man she calls Grandad? She feels closer to him than anybody else, until the day he commits suicide. He leaves her a box of his items, but they are only clues, a puzzle to try to figure out who he was. The puzzle leads her along the river Tamar, which is where the code name for the resistance fighter came from, and hence her name. What she discovers is surprising, although the resolution of the identity of her grandfather is not, as reading the book leads you to the conclusion before Tamar learns about it herself.
Although the ending is less of a surprise than I had thought it might be, the book is still suspenseful and moving. The scenes from the Dutch resistance during WWII have you turning pages as fast as possible, while following Tamar up the river that she is named for slows things down a bit. The reader is brought along with Tamar, wondering right with her what the point of this journey up the river actually is. By the time she reaches the end, we know what the answer to the riddle is, but the form it takes is unexpected. The story puts one teen's struggle for her identity along with a story from her family's past, and the historical detail provided is fascinating. This is a very well-written, enjoyable book, both for teens and adults.

Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block

The thought that comes most often to my mind these days in regards to young adult fiction is, "Why didn't I know these books existed as a teen?" Was I just so wrapped up in my own fantasy books, I just didn't notice anything else? We certainly didn't read Weetzie Bat in school. Oddly enough Weetzie Bat is fantasy, of a sort.
Weetzie Bat is the name of the main character of the book, but that is not nearly the oddest thing about this story. Her story takes place in a pseudo-Los Angeles, where Weetzie's main desire in life is to find the perfect men for her and her best friend Dirk. She finds a genie in a lamp, makes her three wishes, and then must live with the results of those wishes (one being that she actually falls in love with a guy named My Secret Agent Lover Man). But love is not always perfect, nor does it go according to our wishes. As Weetzie's family grows, she has to learn to define love and family for herself, and realize that only those things can hold our lives together.
I was truly amazed at the depth contained in this tiny little book. I read it while waiting for my flight at the airport. It is beautiful and poetic, and strange at the same time. Worth reading for anyone interested in young adult fiction, as it is definitely a classic.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

I Am The Messenger by Markus Zusak

Reading this book propelled Markus Zusak onto my list of favorite authors, which is a place reserved only for those authors who have written more than one book that I adore. (Writing more than one good book may not seem like that difficult of a feat, but when I say good, I mean one of those books that when you finish, you just say "wow".) I read The Book Thief, and even saw Zusak speak and had him sign my copy and chatted with him a little bit. At that point, as far as I knew, he'd written one book that I loved. Now he is in a new spot in my reckoning.
I Am The Messenger is completely different from The Book Thief, not only in subject matter, but also characters, plotline, and story location. Yet they are similar in that the main characters of both books face situations that would never come up in our lives. But Zusak creates a feeling of similarity between his readers and his characters, so although you are nothing like the person you are reading about and will never encounter the things they come up against, there is still a connection.
Ed Kennedy is the main character of I Am The Messenger, and the things that happen to him surely would never happen to us or anyone we know. He manages to stop a bank robber, not too heroic of a feat, as the man bungles the job on his own, but this begins a chain of events that Ed does not know how to control. Soon after this bank robbery, Ed finds a playing card in his mailbox, an Ace of Diamonds, with a message written on it. Ed deciphers the message, and then finds himself in the role of messenger, which does not stop after he completes the first ace. Who is supplying Ed with the aces, and why? These are the questions that keep Ed going, when there seems no other reason to deliver the messages anymore.
The other characters in the book, Ed's hapless friends, his mother, his dog, all offer no help in his endeavors, as they are suffering from their own senses of apathy or lethargy. But they all bring depth the the book, and more realism to this unreal situation. As Ed discovers himself through the messages, he opens up the lives of all of those around him, including the reader.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

From the very beginning of this book, it is obvious why it is one of the most popular teen books out there right now. The main character of the book, Junior, wastes no time in explaining to the reader why he is an outcast and a loser, not only in his small town, but also at his school. Every teen can immediately identify with him, no matter what their background. Junior goes on to describe what most teens can't identify with, what most of them know absolutely nothing about: life on an Indian Reservation. He describes it in unflinching detail, with all of the worst, and best, parts included.
Junior's story follows him as he realizes that the only way he'll escape the trap of the reservation is to go to the white high school. By taking this step he is putting himself in the position of outcast at his new school, and traitor to his old one. Junior must learn to deal with the everyday struggles of his new school while also dealing with the prejudice of his tribe, including his former best friend.
This book is incredibly honest and forthright about the struggles that Junior faces. It is also incredibly funny. This is a fantastic book for teens, especially reluctant readers, as the subject matter, and Junior's illustrations, will really get them into the story.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Bird Woman by Kerry Hardie

I feel that I probably missed a lot of the significance and symbolism in this book due to my lack of knowledge and understanding about modern Irish culture. Especially as it concerns the conflicts between North and South, and between Catholics and Protestants. I was still able to enjoy the book, and appreciate it on many levels, but some of it I found just plain confusing because of that lack of knowledge. So I suppose that's sort of a disclaimer for anyone who wants to read this book.
The story is that of Ellen, a Northerner and Episcopalian, who is a Healer. At first she does not know that she can heal, she just knows that she sees things, sometimes things that cause such problems in her mind and heart, she ends up hospitalized until she is sane again. After she is released, she meets Liam, a Catholic from the south, an artist who she feels drawn to. She leaves her home and destructive marriage, and follows him south. Ellen is such a solitary person, and her differences from those she now lives among do not help her to connect to anyone. As her healing power gets stronger, she must learn how to live with it. It is only when she is called back home, where she has not been for over ten years, that she begins to learn about being comfortable with herself.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

This book was one of those that makes you wonder if the people who made it a best-seller actually read it. I enjoyed the book myself, but it takes practically half of the one thousand pages in order to actually get into the story. If I wasn't someone who was interested in this sort of fantasy, I would have put it down long before that. As it was, I gave it a chance, because it still kept me reading, and eventually I got into it.
The story takes place in England, in the first decades of the 19th century. Magic is something that is discussed theoretically by gentleman, but not something that is actually practiced in any way. The practice of it is even seen as somewhat vulgar. However, there is one man who has been practicing magic, although he is rather cantankerous, and does not associate with others. So it takes some convincing for this man, Mr. Norrell, to come out of his manor, move to London, and begin practicing magic in the public eye. The publicity he gains does nothing to improve his personality, and he is not well liked or understood. Jonathan Strange is the first man to come along who Mr. Norrell takes a genuine liking to, as a fellow magician. Their relationship begins as that of tutor and pupil, but becomes a rivalry after a few years, as their views on magic differ greatly. Their rivalry is the majority of the story, in addition to the plotline of the fairy who has enchanted a lady and her servant. Strange must eventually solve the riddle of this enchantment, as his wife becomes caught up in it as well.
The story gets very interesting once it gets through the first few years of Strange and Norrell's acquaintance. Before that, it is like reading Dickens, where you are just waiting to find out what the story is actually going to be about, and wondering when it will really begin. Clarke's writing is obviously very detailed, and she does an excellent job of bringing forth the time period in which the story takes place. The book ends well, and leaves open the future of English magic, and of her celebrated magicians, for either the reader to imagine, or perhaps for the writer to expand upon in a later volume.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier

This is Marillier's only book that is written for young adults, as far as I know, but it has all of the elements of her other fantasy writing. Like her other books, it is drawn from traditional folklore and is set in our world, although magic is a part of that world. In this case the folklore is Romanian, and the story takes place in a castle called Piscul Dracului. The main character is the second of five sisters who for years have been traveling to the Other Kingdom through a secret passageway in their bedroom, every full moon. The sisters range in age from five to seventeen years old, with Jena being fifteen years old. Jena's best friend is a frog she found in the forest who speaks to her telepathically and joins her in everything she does. Although Jena is only fifteen, and female, she is given a lot of responsibility, and helps her liberal-minded father with his trading business. The story begins when her father is very ill, and must leave for the winter for warmer climates if he wants his health to improve. Jena and her sisters are left in charge of the manor in his absence.
The sisters' cousin, Cezar is eighteen, and seeks to take control of the family and the business while their father is gone. Jena must learn how to protect her family from his machinations, while keeping her younger sisters in line, managing the manor and the business, while her older sister has become lost in her love for a man from the Other Kingdom. It is a coming of age story, about learning to trust yourself and those you love, and at the same time learning to let go of those things that you have no control over.

**this review also posted at hip librarians book blog**

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Reader and Raelynx by Sharon Shinn

This is the fourth, and I believe final, book in the Twelve Houses series by Sharon Shinn (here is my review of the rest of the series: The Twelve Houses series). I have enjoyed this series tremendously, as Shinn always does a fantastic job with her characters. The main characters in this series are mystics - people with a variety of magical powers that they believe are bestowed upon them by a variety of gods. Mystics are in danger in the world, as a new cult is spreading, spouting ideas that mystics are evil and need to be destroyed. This fourth book wraps up the conflict that has been brewing in the last three books, ending with a war.
One of my favorite things about Shinn's books are her romances, which are always wonderfully written. The other thing she does very well is creating suspenseful situations, the kind that make it impossible to put the book down, or even to pay attention to anything else that is going on around you - the story sucks you in so completely. This series is a great read for anyone who enjoys fantasy. It even has a satisfying conclusion, so you don't feel quite so bereft that there will not be any more written about these characters. And of course, you can always read some of her other series next.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Before I Die by Jenny Downham

Here is another book that I read even though I knew it would make me cry. It is the story of Tessa, who is sixteen years old and dying. She has stopped going to school because of how sick she is, and now only wants to live out her remaining time like any teen would, on her terms. So she has made a list of things that she wants to do before she dies. It is not a list of lofty goals, but a list that many teenagers would make, if they were honest with themselves. She wants to have sex, do drugs, do something illegal. And as she works her way down the list, it changes, and other wants are fulfilled, while she realizes that some of the things she thought she wanted were meaningless.
One of the most beautiful things about this book are the characters. Tessa is so well written - she is just as pissed off as any teenager who is not able to do what they want. She is stubborn, and she makes you incredibly angry with some of her stupid choices. Her friends Zoey and Adam are also great - you want to hate Zoey and love Adam, but in truth, the characters are much more complex than that, and Tessa seems to be more aware of this than the reader. The book is sad, of course, as it is about death, ultimately. But it is also beautiful, as life (and death) can have so much beauty. The book itself seems to grow and mature as you read it, becoming fully realized only in its end.

**This review also posted at hip librarians book blog**

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Boy Toy by Barry Lyga

The premise of this book is one that is bound to disturb many people who read it. And the book lives up to that reputation. However, the matter is dealt with in a way that is easier to read, because the main character is looking back at events that happened five years previous.
Josh is a senior in high school, someone who everyone knows, but not because he is popular or well-liked, although he is a critical member of the baseball team. Everyone knows him because five years ago he was involved in a sexual molestation trial against his seventh grade history teacher. And now his former teacher, Eve, is being released from prison. Josh struggles to deal with his memories of the molestation, his friendships, his college decisions, and the girl that seems to like him regardless of what she knows about his past. He comes to realize that he has been punishing not only himself, but his closest friends for the past five years, and he begins to accept the truth about what actually happened to him.
This book was a little bit shocking due to the rather graphic nature of the material. I think it is better for the reader that we are learning about the past, rather than experiencing the present, during the sex scenes. What was most shocking for me was the way that Josh had dealt with what happened to him for the five years in between - he still blames himself. It is in dealing with the revelation that it was not his fault that Josh truly begins to grow up, and finally begins to heal.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Dog Years by Mark Doty

I decided to go ahead and read this book even though I knew without a doubt that it would make me cry. It is a memoir about a man and his dogs, and how they help him through the death of his partner, and how he lives through their deaths in the years following. They are beautiful dogs, retrievers, golden and black, Beau and Arden. They are described with love, through a poet's eyes.
Beau and Arden help Doty to survive the death of his partner, and they give him hope for the future. But they, too, will become sick and eventually die, Beau sooner than later. It is heartbreaking to read of the profound depression that overtakes Doty when he realizes how sick Beau is. This time, he pulls through the death again with the help of Arden, and his current partner. Reading about the tenderness that attends each death was difficult for me. Even though Kitty died over a year ago now, it is still difficult for me, and I wasn't even beside her as she passed. She wanted to be alone, but after reading this book, I almost wish I had stayed with her. Dogs are not solitary as cats are, however, so I suppose it is different.
As sad as this book is, it is a lovely story about dogs and their humans. For those of us that have dogs, it is enjoyable to read descriptions of their mischievous behavior, that we recognize so well. And their intense loyalty and love for their humans is magical. Dogs are wonderful friends, and this book is worth the sadness for anyone who loves them.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Silver Bough by Lisa Tuttle

The Silver Bough is a good example of modern fantasy, although it is cataloged with the regular fiction. The story takes place in Appleton, a town in Scotland that is on the end of a peninsula. The three main characters are American women, who have each ended up in Appleton for different reasons, but become central to the magic that is about to happen there. There is always some sense of something lost and forgotten in the town, and many people blame it on the abrupt departure of the last Apple Queen, in the 1950's. The town has been going slowly downhill since then.
A landslide on the only road into town is the beginning of the magic, when Appleton suddenly becomes cut off from the outside world. Not only is the road blocked, but the phones and cable are also all cut. The three women begin to experience things that cannot be explained, except by magic. Not all of the magic is harmless or good, however, and many of the residents begin to believe that they are being pulled into the realm of Faerie, out of which the peninsula, or the island it was once believed to be, originally came.
The main characters in this story are likable, but not entirely believable. One of them is a librarian who lives in a little cottage that is practically part of her library. She is able to thus live her fantasy of living in the library. I can definitely sympathize with this, and I even experienced some of her thrill while reading it. The library that is central to the town and the story is a historic building, where no more than two employees are ever needed. It is filled with old volumes and strange curiosities. How exciting to work (and live!) in such a place!
I enjoyed the book, but there was something missing about it. Maybe everyone's problems were too easily resolved, or the story itself did not take enough twists and turns. I am not sure. I felt the lack of something, but I cannot articulate what it was. It was still a good book, and an enjoyable read. The town of Appleton is an exciting place to visit.

Monday, June 9, 2008

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

The first book that I read by Geraldine Brooks, March, stunned me. I thought it was magnificent. So when I read about People of the Book, not only did it sound like an interesting premise, but I was hoping that it was as well written as March. I was not disappointed.
The story follows two lines, one that of book expert and restorer, Hanna, and the other that of the book that she is given to work on. Hanna goes through her job of restoring the book so that it can be put on display in a museum, but she also takes samples of some of the things she finds in the old book bindings, or on the pages. She then continues to analyze these samples. As her story moves forward, we move back in time with the book, discovering where each of these pieces came from, and how they changed the book itself.
People of the Book is beautiful, touching, and memorable in its detailed richness. Every piece of history, whether it be a book, work of art, or family heirloom (or all three) touches so many people, we can never know its full story. Following this book's history is a journey. Brooks does a tremendous job researching the various time periods that she describes. As in March, the history is part of what makes the story so fascinating, and she does not cheat her reader on any of it. People of the Book is an amazing story, and puts Brooks squarely on my list of favorite authors forever.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Re-Gifters by Mike Carey, Sonny Liew, & Marc Hempel

I haven't read very many graphic novels, and honestly, I am not that interested in the genre. I do not enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy reading regular books, and often the style of the art really distracts me from the story. I really liked the style of Re-Gifters, however. And the story is great.
It is sort of a coming-of-age story, as the main character, Dixie, learns about how to value herself. She is "in love" with a dreamy surfer boy who does hapkido with her, but it is obvious from the beginning that he has no interest in her. Dixie has to make some poor choices before she discovers that she is worth more. The story is short, but ends triumphantly.