Friday, August 29, 2008

Sight by Adrienne Maria Vrettos

The cover of this book is sufficiently creepy to get anyone who enjoys thrillers to read it. It is a close-up of an eye, the main feature of which, for me, were the eyelashes. Yick.
I really enjoyed this book, although not for its creepy aspects or suspense, or even for the mystery that the characters are trying to solve. For me, the characters are the best part of the book. All of the main teen characters are very well drawn, and each is unique and not stereotyped or cookie cutter at all. Even some of the adult characters are more interesting, although they are more prone to be carbon copies of each other. The main plot follows Dylan, who has visions of children in the seconds before they die. She helps the police find their bodies, or sometimes discover how they were killed, but she seems powerless to control this power. She cannot stop the children from dying. When a serial killer appears to have returned to town, she is desperate to keep her secret from her friends, but at the same time she knows that she must try to use it to stop him.
Dylan ends up opening up to her friends, and the story does wrap up the mystery of the serial killer, but not in any sort of satisfactory kind of way. The ending seemed slapped on, and left me wondering what the heck happened. But the story wasn't really why I enjoyed reading the book anyway. I loved the characters and reading about the choices they made. Although there is no set up for a sequel, and for the plot line there is no need of one, I would enjoy reading more about Dylan and her mother's crazy family, and her life in her small town in the mountains.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Revolution is Not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine

This semi-autobiographical book tells the story of Ling, a young girl who lives in Wuhan, China during Mao's Cultural Revolution. The story covers three or four years, beginning when a Cultural Officer, Comrade Li, comes to live in her family's housing complex. Ling watches as her neighbors turn against each other, as school children become so wrapped up in the conflict that they condemn their teachers, and she deals with her parents neighbors and closest friends being humiliated and sent to work camps. Her own family is seen as being too bourgeoisie, and her parents are punished by being forced to work menial jobs at the hospital where they were once doctors. The story ends after Mao's death, and although her family is back together again, it is clear that Ling will never be the same.
The writing level of this book is such that it could easily be read by middle schoolers, and maybe even well-read fifth graders. None of the material would be objectionable for this age group, and the book teaches valuable lessons about the meanings of ideas like free speech and patriotism. The scariest part about the book is the role the children play in the revolution, the way they are brainwashed so easily. It is important that kids have a book to read that shows the truth behind such movements, and teaches them to question even what their government tells them. This book, while simplistic, could definitely serve as a starting point for discussion with teens about these issues.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C Wrede

The four books in this series are Dealing with Dragons, Searching for Dragons, Calling on Dragons, and Talking to Dragons. They are humorous fairy tales that turn a lot of traditional fairy tale stories on their head. The whole series is a very entertaining read.
It begins in Dealing with Dragons, with Princess Cimorene deciding that she is incredibly bored by palace life. So she volunteers to be a dragon's princess. At first the dragons aren't sure what to do with her, but Kazul takes her in. It is obvious to Kazul that Cimorene is not a typical princess, and may actually be an interesting companion, rather than a nuisance. It takes some time for knights and princes to stop trying to rescue Cimorene, but eventually she makes it clear that she wants to be there. She then helps Kazul fight off some wizards, and the book ends with Kazul being selected as the King of Dragons, regardless of the fact that she is a female.
The stories continue, with Cimorene meeting the King of the Enchanted Forest in Searching for Dragons, and then marrying him at the end of the book. The wizards keep up their dastardly attempts to thwart both the Enchanted Forest and the dragons, causing havoc as they go. And by the fourth book, it is up to Cimorene's son, Daystar to fix the problems they've caused.
Each of the books is told from a different character's point of view, though they do mainly follow Cimorene and her friends. They are hugely entertaining, and very easy to read, so they are great for anyone who enjoys this genre, or middle schoolers just looking for something different.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Songs of Eirren series by Edith Pattou

The first of the two books in this series, Hero's Song, was practically unreadable. Like many many teen fantasies, it suffered from some of the genres predictability and unoriginality. But this book really went above and beyond. I think a lot of it had to do with the author's language and descriptions. I have read tons and tons of fantasy, so you'd think that I would have become either bored with or at least inured to some of the repetition. I can see that Hero's Song would be enjoyable to many teen readers, as it follows the story of a young boy who is rather likable, as he goes on his quest and grows up a bit in the process. But I was consistently bored and felt like rolling my eyes throughout.
The second book, Fire Arrow, was better. The story is more original, although still following the basic quest plotline. But the things that bothered me in the first one did not trouble me so much this time. I am not sure if there was really much of a difference, but I at least enjoyed reading it.
When it comes to choosing a book to read for this genre, there are dozens and dozens of series and authors to choose from. Many are probably going to be derivative and unoriginal, but I have found more to be good than bad, overall. Hero's Song may not be as irritating to someone who is less familiar with the genre, and Fire Arrow can almost stand alone without it anyway. I, however, managed to get through them simply so that I could write my paper on the subject.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Dragon's Keep by Janet Lee Carey

The story of Rosalind and her dragon's claw was a much sadder one than I expected. We learn right off the bat that Rosalind has had the curse of a dragon's claw since she was born, and only her mother knows of its existence. They began a fashion of wearing gloves all of the time in order to protect Rosalind from the people's scrutiny. She is already fated to be the 21st Queen of Wilde Island, the one who will end the war with the dragons and restore the Islands to glory. Her mother of course was aware of the fact that she would give birth to this prophesied queen, but when she had trouble getting pregnant, she used a witch's method of drinking from a dragon's egg, unknowingly creating the curse for her daughter.
The saddest part of the story is the lives of the dragons. When the dragon who has been terrorizing the island is killed, Rosalind feels a tremendous depression upon seeing the body. One of the most upsetting scenes in the book is when, during the people's celebration of the creature's death, her mate arrives to mourn over her body. He then proceeds to open her body cavity and retrieve the eggs that were growing there. He later kidnaps Rosalind, renames her Briar, and forces her to care for the dragonlings when they hatch. The princess comes to love the family of dragons, but not in a terribly sweet or saccharine way. The emotions in this book are written with true depth, making them so much more powerfully felt by the reader. They are not in any way trite or unnecessary.
The story does have a happy ending, of a sort, although this starts to seem impossible the closer you get to finishing the book. It is a truly lovely book, although the sadness in it does make it difficult to read. Rosalind is a triumphant character, as are the dragons she cares for, causing the reader to feel deeply invested in their fates.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson

The fact that there are evil librarians in this book, and that they are a part of the title, made me want to read it more than anything else. The problem is that all of the librarians in the book seem to be evil. So that was disappointing.
The book starts out with Alcatraz Smedry, the main character and narrator of the story, turning 13 and receiving a mysterious gift from his long missing father. He has grown up in foster care, and so does not know what to do with this strange present. Then his grandfather shows up. As Alcatraz's world slowly falls apart, we discover that the world Alcatraz knows is fully controlled by a cult of evil librarians, who are keeping the world under their thumb by controlling the people's access to information. Alcatraz and some other members of the Smedry family go to rescue the Alcatraz's gift, which has been stolen by the librarians. They encounter all sorts of ridiculousness, which the others are used to, but Alcatraz finds incredible. Things like people-sized talking dinosaurs, cars that drive themselves, lenses that shoot lasers, and a map of the world (as it truly is) with a major continent in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, in between Asia and the Americas. All of these things and more are what the evil librarians are trying to keep away from the populations they control. The Smedry's find what they seek, but the book is definitely set up for sequels.
This was a fun read, and would be appropriate for older elementary age or younger teens. While it was fun, I also found it annoying, as the narrator has no respect for reading or libraries. But that is his character, and it is supposed to be funny. It just grated on my nerves a little bit. It's true that whoever controls information controls the world, which is why librarians support free and open access to all information. The idea that librarians could truly rule the world with evil intent is very amusing in itself.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Hush: An Irish Princess' Tale by Donna Jo Napoli

This book was not exactly what I expected, but I enjoyed it. It follows the story of Melkorka, an Irish princess from the 1100's or so, who is kidnapped by slavers. They have no knowledge of who she is, and are only kidnapping her and her sister because they are mainly child slavers. They have a couple of women with them, but as they travel, they focus on picking up the lone children they see on the coasts they pass. In order to protect themselves, she and her sister do not speak. Melkorka fears being known as a young woman - she wants her captors to believe that she is a boy. But her silence becomes a defining feature, and her captors come to believe that she is some kind of sorceress. As they travel, they reach lands that are further and further away from her native Ireland, eventually reaching Russia and parts of the Ottoman Empire. She is eventually sold, at an exorbitant rate, due to the fact that her captor is terrified of what she will do to him when she is no longer his. But he cannot refuse what he is offered for her. By this time they have returned to the west, and continue out to Iceland, further west than Melkorka ever thought to go.
Although Melkorka is completely silent towards all of the other characters in the book, the story is told from her point of view, first person. We know more about what she thinks and how she feels than anyone else. The story is not as grim as might be predicted, although everyone she meets eventually is either sold off, or, like her sister, escapes to an uncertain fate. By the time she is sold as a concubine, she has no friends, although she has been able to help various people along the way. The story feels true, and has some interesting historical details, although it is limited by what Melkorka experiences. This is a good book for older teens, and could work for more mature younger teens as well, as it does not get into anything to grim or graphic even with the theme of child slavery.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Eugenides series by Megan Whalen Turner

I am not sure if there is actually an appropriate name for this series, but the main character throughout is Eugenides, or Gen, so that is how I am referring to it. The books in this series are The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia.
This series is probably one of the best fantasy series that I have read in a while. Part of the reason that I loved it so much was how different it is from so much other fantasy that is out there. There is no real magic, although there is involvement of various gods and goddesses. And there is plenty of court intrigue and politics. And of course it takes place in a past world slightly different from ours.
Eugenides, Gen, is a teenager of undetermined age when the story begins in The Thief. He is let out of prison (where he found himself after bragging about something he had stolen, from the king no less) only to be used to steal a priceless artifact, one that no one has ever managed to take. Throughout the journey, Gen is a rather bumbling fool, but he is much more in control of the situation than he seems. The most wonderful thing about this book, and the series as a whole is the character of Gen. He is one of the more brilliant and likable heroes, although he is very self-effacing. In the sequels, he suffers various tragedies, and yet still remains in complete control of his destiny.
Gen is a fantastic character, but there are many other wonderful characters in this series as well. The two queens, of opposing countries, are both very realistic, very detailed characters. And the contrasts between their courts is very well drawn. This series is amazing, and highly recommended for both teens and adults, for fantasy readers and regular fiction lovers alike.

Friday, August 1, 2008

A Boy of Good Breeding by Miriam Toews

I got bogged down about three quarters of the way through this book, and almost didn't finish it. And then I was surprised by the rapidity with which everything in the book was wrapped up. It seemed to take a very long time to get to the end, but I may have been reading too many other books at the same time. That happens sometimes.
A Boy of Good Breeding is filled with some of the oddest characters you can imagine coming across, but that makes it all the more realistic. The world is filled with strange people, and many of them seem to live in Algren, Canada's smallest town. The mayor himself is off in a way that is difficult to define, but stems from the fact that he is obsessed with making sure that his town remains the smallest, no matter what it takes. He also believes that his father is the prime minister of Canada, though only his mother's dying ramblings back up that idea. Mayor Hosea Funk honestly made me uncomfortable. I was embarrassed for him throughout the whole book.
The other main characters are much more likable, though no less odd. Knute is a twenty-something mother of Summer Feelin', a four-year-old girl who expresses her joy in life by flapping her arms. This habit is endearing, if a little worrisome. But really, who of us doesn't want to just explode with joy sometimes? That seems to be the feeling that Summer Feelin' embodies with her joyous flapping. Knute has come back home to Algren, at about the same time that Summer Feelin's father, Max, returns. Like the rest of the book, I felt like Knute and Max's relationship took a tremendously long time to develop, only to be very quickly wrapped up in the end.
I think that what bothered me about the book was its pacing. It was really very slow, and then it was a very quick happy ending wrap-up at the end. The characters were really interesting, but the way the story moved along made it difficult for me to invest myself in the book the way it perhaps deserved.