Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Will of the Empress by Tamora Pierce

This is the first (and only?) book in The Circle Reforged series, the follow-up to The Circle Opens quartert. (You can read about the two previous quartets in this series here and here.) In this book the four teenagers who were the center of the previous series are once again brought together. Most of the story takes place four years after the the other books, although there is some introduction before then. The basic beginning is that while her three friends have been traveling all over the world for the past two or three years, Sandry has remained at home helping her uncle run his land. His friends begin returning, but a distance has grown between them all, from their time apart. The distance is emotional as well as magical. The four teens once had strong connections between their magic, but that is no longer the case.
Sandry has been called to visit her cousin, the Empress of Namorn, and her uncle sends her three friends along as protection, despite the separation they feel from each other. While in the Empress's court, Sandry realizes that her cousin has been causing hardship on her lands, and wants Sandry to marry so she will gain control over them. While Sandry is contending with these political machinations, the other three are fending off various bids for their attention. They are all powerful mages, and the Empress wants them in her service. For Briar that means offering him access to her greenhouses; but for Daja and Tris, the Empress does not know what to offer. When the bids for power become dangerous, Sandry and her friends realize that they must leave. But first Sandry must figure out what to do in order to protect her ancestral land from further disruption by the Empress.
I enjoyed this book more than the others in this series I think. The others were fun, but had no real depth, and were a little bit formulaic. This one was a little bit more complicated, and now that the main characters are older, the issues that they must confront are more interesting. They must learn how to trust each other again, and also how to trust themselves. This book could be read without reading the others, but the reader might be a little confused by some of the references to previous characters and happenings.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande

I picked this book up because it was named one of the best non-fiction books of 2007 by whoever it is that chooses those things for my employer. It is a collection of essays about the practice of medicine in today's world, from the point of view of Gawande, who is a general surgeon at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, among other things. For this book he speaks from experience, but also obviously did a lot of research and travel.
The book is divided into three parts, each of which covers a topic that Gawande believes has improved medicine. They are Diligence, Doing Right, and Ingenuity. Each covers topics as diverse as hand-washing and movable hospitals in Iraq. All are connected, and Gawande does a good job of keeping the message coherent. Medicine has made some incredible leaps in performance, but in this book those that are described are the small changes in habits, not the large changes that research brings. It is amazing to read about how many more lives are saved due to these small effects.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Circle Opens quartet by Tamora Pierce

This is the second series that focuses on the characters of Sandry, Tris, Daja, and Briar. (I talk about the first series, the Circle of Magic, here.) In this second series, the four teenagers are older, fourteen years old or thereabouts, and they are all separate from each other. Each of them, except for Sandry, are traveling with their teachers, and are too far away from each other to maintain their magical connection. This makes it so that the stories are much more focused on each of the characters individually, rather than on the group as a whole.
The first book, Magic Steps, focuses on Sandry, who has stayed at home to care for her uncle. The story begins with Sandry discovering a young mage, and realizing that it is her duty to train him. It also begins with a gruesome murder, and so the story follows both her training and the tracking of the murderers. And of course, it takes her new pupil to help her catch the perpetrator. Each of the other three books follows this basic pattern. Each young mage comes across someone who they discover and must train, at the same time as they are combating the nefarious deeds of the bad guys. And of course they are learning about themselves as individuals, and are growing up quite a bit in the process.
This series was entertaining, although the murder aspect of it did get to be a bit much. Just a little bit too coincidental, for obvious reasons. But it did allow for more character development, which was interesting, and created a good base to build further series on. The other books in this series are Street Magic(Briar), Cold Fire (Daja), and Shatterglass (Tris).

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Fortunes of Indigo Skye by Deb Caletti

This is the only Deb Caletti book I have ever read, but since reading it I have recommended her books to teens several times. The Fortunes of Indigo Skye is the story of a normal girl who has something rather extraordinary happen to her. Indigo is finishing her senior year of high school and working as a waitress when she meets "Vespa guy". He comes into the restaurant simply to order a cup of coffee in the morning. It's not until Indigo scolds him for smoking (a pet peeve of hers) that he comes out of his shell to talk to her. Later that day he leaves her a letter, within which is a check for 2.5 million dollars.
From here the story becomes fairly typical, mostly what you would expect from a story where a teen all of a sudden comes into a bunch of money. Indigo has to learn how to keep her promise to Vespa guy, who asked her to use the money to make herself bigger, rather than smaller. She fails rather miserably at this task initially, buying all sorts of things she has no need, or even any real desire for. Her money changes her relationships with her friends, family, coworkers, even her boyfriend. Indigo does learn her lesson, and although the story is a little bit predictable, Caletti's characters have enough depth to make up for it. The characters themselves are not cardboard cutouts of each other, or of some archetype or another. They are solid, well drawn individuals, and this is what truly makes the story.
Like I said, I have not read any of Caletti's other books, but if they are anything like The Fortunes of Indigo Skye, they are well worth recommending to any teen, especially girls looking for something a little bit different.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Circle of Magic quartet by Tamora Pierce

The four books in this series (with the charming titles of Sandry's Book, Tris's Book, Daja's Book, and Briar's Book) tell the story of four children who are brought together to learn about the magic that each has. Each child has been through some hardship or another, and are all found by the mage Niko, who brings them to Winding Circle Temple. It is not until almost the end of the first book that the students realize that they actually have magic, and that that is why Niko brought them to the temple. By the end of the first book, they each have a teacher who trains them in their particular craft.
The main plotline of the four books is the story of the four teens connection to each other. In order to save themselves at the end of the first book, Sandry uses her weaving magic to weave all of their magics together. This not only enables them to learn something of each other's magics, it also makes them individually more powerful. And they become exponentially more powerful when they work together. In these stories they face an earthquake, a pirate attack, forest fires, and a plague together, using their magic and their connection to solve each problem.
Throughout the books the themes of togetherness against all odds and acceptance are prevalent. Each young person faces prejudice of one sort or another, and they all must come to terms with their differences if they are to rely on each other so closely. They grow closer at the same time as they are growing up, and growing in their power. These books are actually kind of a crossover between older children's and teen, but they could be enjoyed easily by either.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

New Moon by Stephanie Meyer

New Moon is the sequel to the bestselling book, Twilight, the beginning of the bestselling saga of Bella and Edward. I am thoroughly enjoying reading these books, although their popularity is a little overwhelming. This book is getting returned to the library today, to go on to fill one of the other 205 holds that still remain. This level of request for a series is unprecedented, even by Harry Potter, although I honestly have no evidence to back that assumption up. It is usually only the most recent book in a series that has hundreds of requests, yet each of the books in this series has at least 200. It could be the Twilight movie coming out soon I suppose . . . Some spoilers may follow, I feel compelled to give the warning, if you care.
New Moon was just as entertaining, suspenseful, and exciting as Twilight, although with a little bit less of the teenage drama. The devastatingly beautiful vampire Edward leaves Bella towards the beginning of the book, in an effort to protect Bella and give her the long, happy life that she does not want. Into his place steps Jacob, the boy from the reservation who is Bella's friend, who has all of a sudden grown into a very attractive young man. And he is also coming into his inheritance, in terms of the supernatural legacy of his family. So now Bella has to contend with both werewolves and vampires, in addition to teenage love and lust.
One thing about these books that I find fascinating is the fact that there is so much teenage love happening, but no sex. Edward is afraid that he will lose control and kill Bella if they get too physically close, and she and Jacob can never really figure out how they feel about each other anyway. Meyer does an excellent job of capturing all of that teenage angst that makes you want to pull your hair out. It is almost too much, but never quite so much that I have to stop reading. I find equally fascinating the obsession in the pop culture surrounding these novels, especially regarding Edward and Jacob as some sort of examples of perfect boyfriends. Either one could kill you if they lose control over themselves around humans for even one second, but oh aren't they wonderful? No, I'm sorry, I just don't get it. The books are fun to read, but maybe you have to be a teen to really understand.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Gifts by Ursula K Le Guin

I read this book while looking for epic fantasy for a paper on teen genres that I am writing. I decided not to include it in the epic fantasy sub-genre, but it is still a very interesting world. The world is that of the Uplanders, people who live in almost feudal communities spread out over the area known as the Uplands. Each family has a land-holding, with many farmers and serfs working the land. Each family also has a gift, and it is these gifts that keep one family from taking over all of the other lands. But some lands have been taken over, when one family's gift was not powerful enough, or could not be applied to protecting their lands.
The story is narrated by Orrec, a young man who keeps his eyes bound to protect those he loves from his gift. The gift of his family is unmaking, and if it is too powerful or cannot be controlled, it must be stopped in this way. Orrec believes that he cannot control his gift, so he covers his eyes to keep it from working accidentally. Gry is Orrec's best friend, and she also deals with the difficulty of her gift. Her family's gift is calling animals, and is used to bring animals to the hunt. She refuses to lure animals to their deaths in that way, which alienates her from her mother and others in her family. Orrec is forced to learn about the politics of the Uplands while dealing with his blindness, and he must decide if he is being used by his father, or what kind of gift it is that he truly has.
The world that is created in this book is very interesting. The Uplands seem difficult to live in, almost more so for the leading families, because of the gifts. The gifts are not easy, and are not even pleasant most of the time. They are used sparingly, to keep others in control. Orrec and Gry both must decide if they want to be used in this way, simply because that is the way that it is done. They are dealing with this on top of their normal teenage issues, as growing up for anyone is difficult enough. The story unfolds slowly, but is very beautiful, as Le Guin's writing always is. Sinking in to this tale happens without the reader realizing it, and even though it is difficult, it's resolution is satisfying.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Saint Iggy by K.L. Going

Saint Iggy was certainly not what I expected it to be. It is a young adult book, another one written in that first-person diary format that is so popular. But this one does a much better job of actually capturing the voice of the main character. It doesn't sound like an adult would, telling a teen's story - it doesn't even sound like an adult trying to sound like a teen. It sounds like a teen, and one who perhaps has some learning or developmental disability. Iggy himself admits that he was a drug baby, who had to be kept in the hospital when he was born because he was addicted. His voice tells this story beautifully.
Iggy lives with his parents in the projects, but he is not really parented at all. His father is always high, and his mother has been gone, "visiting" somewhere, and he's not sure if she'll be coming back this time. His parents are not bad people - they have worked to keep Iggy with them, despite their drug problems. One thing this book does is show you what drugs can do to a family. Iggy himself does not do any drugs; he knows first-hand how they can ruin your life. But when he gets kicked out of school, he has to figure out what to do, and obviously his parents aren't going to be of much help. He goes to one of his only friends, a law school drop-out who lives in the projects because he feels it brings him closer to "the streets". He and Mo begin a journey that will change both of their lives, though it may seem ordinary at the start.
The journey that Iggy takes in this book is mostly figurative, but it is life-changing. Iggy's voice is funny and clearly true to who he is. He does not try to be anyone else, even though he is doing his best to figure out how to be a better person. This book is fantastic because it can be thoroughly understood and enjoyed by even the most reluctant reader, but it will also entrance someone who thinks they have read everything in the genre.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

One Whole and Perfect Day by Judith Clarke

This story starts out rather slow, first with a thorough description of the main character, Lily's, family. It then goes on to describe how Lily is "the sensible one in the family". She seems to be the only one who can be relied upon to take care of things around the house, get the groceries, and take care of meals, regardless of the fact that her mother is perfectly capable. But her mother is distracted and usually stressed by her work, and Lily knows that if she wants something done, she has to be the one to do it.
As the story moves along, we meet others who are in some way connected to Lily, who will be important to the story and its finale. These include Lily's sometimes-racist grandfather and her grandmother who speaks constantly to an old friend that she hasn't seen in decades. However, Nan speaks to this friend as though she was standing right next to her, all the time. We also meet Loni, Lily's ne'er-do-well brother, who was recently kicked out by their grandfather. This is actually a good thing, and Loni is trying to do well now that he is on his own. We meet college students who are friends of his, and then we meet their parents.
All of these characters have important roles to play in the drama that unfolds around Lily's desire to have one whole and perfect day. She simply wants a day where her family behaves like a normal family, like they all get along and love each other. Because she knows that they love each other, it is simply difficult to get them all to behave. Lily focuses her sights on the birthday party that Nan is planning, wishing for that to be her perfect day.
This is a very enjoyable book, very satisfying in the way all of the pieces come together. The characters learn a lot about themselves and each other as the story moves along - they learn about racism and prejudice, responsibility, and even love. And Lily learns what it means to love your family for who they are, and that every day can be that day she is striving for.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Chinese Handcuffs by Chris Crutcher

I have never read a book by Chris Crutcher, although he's written many books for teens, some of which have won awards of one kind or another. If this book is any indication, I can see why he is popular with teens, but this book in particular was just a little bit over the top. How much trauma can two high school students handle? Let's find out.
Dillon is the main character, who is an incredible athlete, but refuses to participate in any of his high school's sports. His brother was a drug addict who committed suicide about a year before the story takes place. His best friend was his brother's girlfriend, who he has been in love with for years. The story begins as Dillon is becoming closer friends with another athlete, a girl named Jennifer, who is the star player on the school's basketball team. While Dillon is busy dealing with his own issues, he realizes that Jennifer might be struggling as well.
Jennifer's life is even more trauma-filled than Dillon's, what with the sexual abuse that she has suffered all her life. She has been threatened into submission by her step-father, who beats her mother in addition to abusing her. She stays to protect her little sister from his sadistic tendencies, since she can't seem to protect her mother or herself. And as if being abused by her step-father isn't enough, she has had to live with the fact that her own father did the same thing to her when she was five. Enough trauma yet?
This book wasn't really all that terrible, even though it got to be a bit much. The characters make some incredibly frustrating decisions that make you wonder if a real life teenager would ever be that stupid. But it turns out okay (mostly) in the end.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood is definitely one of the top on my list of favorite authors. The main reason for this is Handmaid's Tale, but I always find her books to be very compelling and enjoyable reads. In Alias Grace Atwood brings a story with no right answers, one that forces the reader to consider the role of women and servants in the 1800's.
The book takes place over decades, with the main story happening over one year. Grace is a "famous murderess" who has been in prison since her sentence was commuted from hanging to life in prison. But there are those who believe that she is innocent, that she was used by her accomplice, and took no part in the murders. It is at their urging that a doctor, a specialist in mental illness, comes to speak with her. Dr. Jordan's reasons for working with Grace are more selfish, as he hopes to publish a paper based on his findings of her case, and thereby increase his fame. So we learn Grace's story through her retelling of it to Dr. Jordan, as well as through various newspaper articles and books of the time. Grace herself does not know what her part in the murders was, although she seems to believe that she is innocent. But still she does not question too heavily her imprisonment.
Grace is a fascinating character, as we get to know her through the story of her life. She paints a vivid picture of what happens to girls who must work as servants to make their way in the world. One aspect that is especially interesting is the comparison between Grace's life and that of Nancy Montgomery, one of the murder victims. Nancy was the housekeeper of Thomas Kinnear, the other victim, but she was also his mistress. When Grace comes to work for them, it is clear that Nancy no longer thinks of herself as a servant, although that is still the position that society puts her in. It is unclear what Mr. Kinnear himself thinks of her position. The social intricacies make for an interesting read, in addition to the mystery of the murders. It is not certain how trustworthy Grace's own story is, but putting together the pieces is one of the best parts of the book.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Snow Queen by Mercedes Lackey

The Five Hundred Kingdoms is definitely becoming one of my favorite settings for new fantasy books. Lackey does a fantastic job creating the world, and keeping it consistent from book to book. These books can also be read individually, without worrying much about messing up the storyline. Some characters do crossover (mainly Elena, from the first book, The Fairy Godmother), but the books are still stand alone novels.
The Five Hundred Kingdoms are a place where The Tradition rules, although most people seem to be unaware of it. The Tradition is a magical force that works to bend the world to its will - its purpose is to create fairy tales. These fairy tales can be good or evil, so it is the job of the Fairy Godmothers to keep the evil tales from coming about. They also keep an eye on the good tales, because those can become bad very quickly if the right circumstances are not brought about to make the tale complete. It is rather amusing, and clever, the way that Lackey makes these things work out.
The Snow Queen is the story of a Fairy Godmother who is mainly in the role of punisher. She spirits away young men who are on the verge of becoming uncaring and evil, and teaches them a lesson. These are necessary lessons that make them better people in the long run, but they never see it that way initially. So Aleksia leads a rather lonely existence. She watches over a vast array of northern realms, including a people called the Sammi, whose culture is intricate and intriguing. Aleksia becomes involved with the Sammi when someone starts destroying whole villages, claiming to be the Snow Queen. As always, Lackey creates wonderful, sympathetic characters, and of course there is a happy ending. Luna Books, the publisher, is a Harlequin imprint, so sometimes the romance becomes a little bit more hot and heavy than we are used to seeing from Lackey. But not this book. Of course there is a romance, but it is all contained within the hearts of the characters, no bodily interaction required. These books are fun reads, completely guilty pleasures, and The Snow Queen is no exception.

Friday, July 11, 2008

At Large and At Small by Anne Fadiman

I will admit that I have read very few collections of essays, and I was unaware of the difference between the various types of essays. This book is a collection of familiar essays, which Fadiman defines in this way:
"The familiar essayist didn't speak to the millions; he spoke to one reader, as if the two of them were sitting side by side in front of a crackling fire with their cravats loosened, their favorite stimulants at hand, and a long evening of conversation stretching before them. His viewpoint was subjective, his frame of reference concrete, his style digressive, his eccentricities conspicuous, and his laughter usually at his own expense. And though he wrote about himself, he also wrote about a subject, something with which he was so familiar, and about which he was often so enthusiastic, that his words were suffused with a lover's intimacy (p. x)."
And this is exactly how Fadiman approaches each of her essays. They each seem incredibly well researched, but she also seems very familiar with the subjects already, and like she says, her eccentricities are very conspicuous. She goes from an essay on collecting butterflies, to one about Charles Lamb, and from there to the subject of ice cream. Each essay is thoughtfully written, no matter what the subject, and teaches the reader not only about the subject, but also about how the author views it. Fadiman definitely gives a very different perspective on Coleridge, and her obsession with the arctic explorer Stefansson is fascinating. I found the essays on simple things, rather than people, to be the most interesting. Among these subjects is the aforementioned ice cream, as well as coffee, the mail, flags, and sleep.
As someone who does not normally pick up books of essays, I have to say that I truly enjoyed this one, and I may have to start seeking out more such collections. Some of my favorite writers have written such collections, so I suppose that would be the best place to start.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Warriors: The New Prophecy series by Erin Hunter

I decided to review these books as a series, although I did review them individually at first (see those reviews on these pages: Midnight, Moonrise, and Dawn). I realized after beginning the series that I had actually begun in the middle of the story, having missed reading the original Warriors series (which I am currently catching up on). But this series can actually be read without having read the original Warriors books - Hunter does a good job bringing the reader up to speed with the lore.
The New Prophecy series has all the right elements for a very entertaining kid's book. There is a good amount of suspense and action in every book, as the cats deal with a variety of difficulties in each story. But there are also some very central themes that all kids deal with. There are many questions of loyalty and tolerance of outsiders, of trust and what it means to be a friend, and there are even some issues of romance and relationships. Hunter does a good job of keeping to the lore, and staying consistent with terms, and what the cats might know about the human world. The stories are entertaining just for that.
These are great books for ages 9 and up, although it does get bit violent in some of the books. Cats fighting and dying is not the most pleasant thing to read, but they are warriors, so it is to be expected in the story. I am looking forward to reading the other series that are in this same story line. I started in the middle, now I'll be going backwards, and then forwards again.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Monster by Walter Dean Myers

Steve Harmon is a teen who has found himself to be in very deep trouble. He is in jail for his involvement in the burglary and murder of a local store keeper. The prosecution is trying to make him out to be a monster, so that even though he did not pull the trigger, the jury will hold him responsible. In order to deal with facing the trial and jail every day, Steve writes a screenplay of the events. The screenplay covers the events of the day, while journal-like entries cover Steve's nighttime fears. It is a compelling structure, giving the reader a real understanding of what Steve is going through. It helps us to answer the question, is Steve a monster? What was his involvement in that hold up? How can we know the truth?
Myers does an excellent job of creating suspense around the trial and its outcome. While the lawyers are causing the jury to question the truth, the reader also wonders what the truth really is. It seems that even Steve isn't really sure. The moral ambiguity is just as fascinating as the courtroom drama. At the end of the book, we are still left with the question, what does Steve's lawyer sees when she looks at him? What about his father, his mother? It is up to the reader to decide what Steve's true involvement in the crime was.