Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

Here is another book for the Medieval Challenge that I was unable to complete before the challenge ended. Only one book to go! I chose this book because it is historical fiction that takes place during the Medieval period - the twelfth century to be exact. The final book I am reading is another Medieval text - The Canterbury Tales, by Chaucer, in a Modern English prose format.
The Pillars of the Earth is a rather difficult book to describe for a review, but I will do my best here. It begins in 1123, with a description of a hanging, where the lover of the man being hanged puts a curse on the three men who have sentenced him. From there it jumps to 1135, where we begin to learn the story of Tom Builder, an out-of-work mason who's greatest dream is to build a cathedral. After this point it is a little bit difficult to give any kind of coherent synopsis without just telling you the story of the entire book. We meet Prior Phillip, a monk with a big heart who constantly underestimates the cruelty and maliciousness of others; Ellen, the mother of Jack, who is the girl who cursed the three men in the prologue, who now lives with her eleven-year-old son in the forest; William Hamleigh, the son of a power-hungry mother and father, with a mean streak in him that makes him the obvious villain; and Aliena, daughter of the Earl of Shiring, who follows her own heart, even when it ends up costing her family everything. These are the characters that the novel follows over thirty years, as they are all tied into the fate of the building of the Kingsbridge Cathedral.
This book is an incredibly in-depth and well researched story of this time period, known as The Anarchy, a time of civil war in England between Empress Maud and King Stephen, after the first King Henry dies without leaving an heir. The town of Kingsbridge is not a real place in England, but modeled after an amalgam of many such towns of the middle ages (I think there is actually a Kingsbridge in England, but this is not supposed to be the same place). The characters are all very well drawn, although Follett's efforts to make us hate William are a little bit over the top (how many women does a man need to rape before we get the idea that he's the bad guy?). And all throughout the book Follett does an excellent job of really making us care about the characters, through the tradgedies and disappointments, as well as through the good times. The other issue I had is minor, but it seems that Follett does not trust his readers to remember what happened 100 pages ago, so he reiterates the story for you to the point where you want to say, "Yes I am reading this book, I know about that." But maybe for some readers, that is helpful. Either way, I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys family sagas or historical fiction, or anyone who just enjoys a good story.
In addition to the Medieval Challenge, this book is another one I am using for both the A to Z Reading Challenge and the New Author Challenge. I am also using it for the What's in a Name Challenge. That is a fun one where you read books with a specific theme in the title. This title is for category number five - a book with a "building" in the title ("pillars" are part of a building, right?).

Friday, February 27, 2009

Compass Points Challenge

Of course I would hear about the Compass Challenge only a few days after I finish a book that would have been perfect for it! Oh well.
The idea is to read four books, each one with either north, south, east, or west in the title. The challenge runs from March 1st to August 31st.
I haven't picked out any titles for this one. I don't even think that there are any books on my to-read list that qualify, but I'll find something.
If you'd like to join, just click the button and head on over to the blog!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley

Terra Cooper is a control freak. She has found that it gives her comfort to control those things that she can - she has pushed herself through school to graduate a year early, and she is compulsively neat and tidy. She also works hard to control her appearance. Terra is very good-looking, except for the large port-wine stain covering her right cheek. She knows more about make-up then most girls her age, as she layers it on precisely every morning in order to try and cover her birthmark. She works out obsessively, to show the world that she is attractive despite the birthmark, and to show her father that she will not become like her obese mother.
But Terra cannot control her family. She cannot control the way that her father treats them, especially the way he maliciously harangues her mother. Her father has them all in his control, forcing Terra and her mother, and her brothers when they come home for the holidays, to tiptoe around him, being extra conscious of all his needs. When Terra meets Jacob, she realizes that feeling in control is not the same thing as knowing where you are going. And when she and her mother get a chance to go to China, without her father, Terra begins to realize that both she and her mother have been missing out on a lot of life because of him. Terra learns that she does not have to cover up her birthmark, or hide underneath her make-up. Her mother learns that she is stronger than she has been led to believe by her husband. They both come back changed.
I really enjoyed this book, and I loved all of the map symbolism that carries the book. Terra's father is a disgraced cartographer - she has grown up surrounded by maps. Headley uses the map theme throughout the book, as Terra finds her own map for her life. It is a very effective way of drawing the reader along through the story. I also loved the characters, all of them were richly detailed. Terra herself is more complex than the beginning of the book (or many plot summaries) would have you believe. This was an easy book to read, but it deals with some tough issues. It would definitely be enjoyed by high school age girls, and would probably be fine for most eighth graders as well.
I am excited to have gotten a chance to read this new book - it just came out February 1st. It also qualifies for a few challenges. The first is the New Author Challenge - I have never read any books by Headley, but I will definitely be on the lookout for them now, and will surely recommend them. I am also using this for the A to Z Reading Challenge ("H" book) and the RYOB Challenge.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Candyfloss by Jacqueline Wilson

Candyfloss is the story of Flora Barnes, or Floss as she's known to her friends and family. (Candyfloss is cotton candy in Britain - there's a handy glossary at the end of the book to translate many of these sorts of terms for American kids.) The book begins with Floss's birthday, and an announcement from her mother that they will soon be moving to Australia. The only problem is that Floss's parents are divorced, and no one's told her father yet. Floss has to choose which parent to stay with, although everyone thinks it's obvious that she will join her mother. But her father's business is failing, and she worries about him being alone. So she stays, creating all sorts of problems between her and her mother.
In addition to her family difficulties, Floss has problems with the girls at school. Her "best friend" Rhiannon is a terrible person, a total snot who would rather look down her nose at Floss and tease her than stick up for her. It takes Floss a while to realize it, but eventually she chooses the right friend. She continues to help keep her dad's spirits up as things get progressively worse for them, but things do turn around in the end.
This was a good book, but it may be a bit heavy for younger kids, and Floss is a little bit too childish for some older kids to connect with. I thought the book was sweet, although I felt that a disproportionate number of the chapters ended on a melancholy note. Things just don't go right for the family for most of the book. It'd be a good book for most fifth or sixth grade girls, who are in the awkward stage of becoming teenagers.
**A note on the cover: When I saw the covers available for this book, I thought the copy I had (shown above) was the better cover. It is just way more appealing to me. But after finishing the book, I realized that the pink socks had absolutely no relation to the book at all. There is mention of socks, but that's because Floss loses her white school socks in the move to her dad's, and must wear yucky blue socks which she gets made fun of over. No sparkly pink socks to be found. On the other hand, the cover to the right is exactly how Floss is described - there are even little cartoons at the beginning of each chapter that describe the action that look just like this. So even though I initially found this cover less appealing, it is obviously the better one. Just a random thought.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Library Loot - February 18, 2009

A rather random selection picked up this week:
  • The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans by Plutarch (for the Really Old Classics Challenge)
  • The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo (mainly because of the movie, which I haven't seen, and probably won't, but I wanted to read the book first anyway)
  • The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E Lockhart (this has been on my list of books to read for awhile, and I needed another teen book)
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (my hold of this one finally came in! Now if I can just get to it before it's due back . . .)
  • Three Girls and Their Brother by Theresa Rebeck (another Alex Award winner)
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows (another hold, probably to be returned before I can read it, alas)
  • Dynamic Youth Services through outcome-based planning and evaluation by Eliza T Dresang, Melissa Gross, & Leslie Edmonds Holt (for my Research Methods - Youth Services class)
And that's it - I have hope that I will get to most of these before they are due back! Now that I've finished Le Morte D'Arthur, I don't have anything sucking away my reading time. Well, except for school . . .
If you would like to share your library loot head on over to A Striped Armchair or Out of the Blue and join us!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Firestar's Quest by Erin Hunter

Ah, yes, another Warriors book. This one is lucky thirteen for me, as I've read the first two series of books (at six books each) in this saga. Now I will be catching up on the manga stories of these cats, and eventually I'll get to the third series. (If you want to read more about what I have to say about these books, just click on "Erin Hunter" in the labels. If you haven't read any of the other Warriors books, or do not have any idea what they are about, then this synopsis and review is not going to make much sense.)
Firestar's Quest is a "super edition" book, a standalone story about the leader of Thunderclan. It is longer than the other books, the size of at least two of the books from the first series (although I've noticed the books getting longer in the third series). This book takes place five or six months after the end of the first series, and about six months before the beginning of the second series. Firestar begins dreaming of fleeing cats, and one cat in particular, mournfully trying to get his attention. Firestar is used to receiving dreams from StarClan, but these dreams are different. They come from the ancestors of a different clan, SkyClan, that has never been heard of in Firestar's forest. SkyClan left the forest when their home was destroyed by Twolegs (humans) - they eventually found some place else to settle, but then had to scatter for some unknown reason. Firestar has been given a quest to find the remnants and pull them back together to make a real clan again.
I really enjoyed this book, more than some of the individual series books. It's a good size for a kid who wants a longer chapter book, but it would probably be enjoyed most by someone who had already read the other Warriors books, at least the first series. This book deals with many of the same themes as the others - loyalty, pride, family, trust. It is structured like many of the other books, but obviously it's longer, so more time is spent developing the new characters in this story.
(And for a meaningless side note, one thing that is really funny about these books are the medicine cats - they are the shamans of the clan. Hunter has her medicine cats learn about the true uses for many herbs, and then use those to heal their clans. I just find it amusing that the herbs used are ones that kids would not necessarily recognize, but Hunter sticks to their proper usage anyways.)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Le Morte D'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory

According to I have been reading this book for over a month. I would just like to point out how ridiculous that is, seeing as how almost no book ever takes me that long. Le Morte D'Arthur is definitely not a book that can be taken on lightly.
I read this book as part of the Medieval Challenge, which ended a few days ago. I wanted to read a couple of books that were actually written during Medieval times, but that may have been my downfall with this particular challenge. Spending a month on one book for the challenge is not the best way to finish when your goal is six books. So, anyways, I will continue posting as I read the last two books I planned on for the challenge, but only here on my blog.
Le Morte D'Arthur is the classic written compilation of the stories of King Arthur. It was written by Sir Thomas Malory in the early 1400's and printed by William Caxton in 1485, after Malory's death. Malory himself wrote the stories that were already known in various other French and English translations. He brought them all together in written form. It is titled Le Morte D'Arthur because Caxton made a mistake in thinking that the title for the last part of the book was meant to be for the whole. The story is divided into twenty-one books, each one further divided into chapters which are then summarized by Caxton.
This book was almost impossible for me to finish, for a variety of reasons. First, it is over 900 pages long. Secondly, it is written in Old/Middle English, which is not easy to read quickly. I would have given up on it, except for the fact that I really did want to read the book in its entirety - I really wanted to know the original stories that are the basis for so much modern (and past) fantasy, in books and movies. I was unprepared for the repetativeness of the story. There are endless listings of knights, jousts, tourneys, and a flock of nameless damosels, maidens, and gentlewomen. (The only women that need names, it seems, are those who stick around for more than a chapter or two, or those who are exceptionally good or evil; knights on the other hand get to have multiple names no matter how unimportant.) It is interesting to see how the stories are used as moral examples for their times - especially in the Holy Grail chapters, only the knights that are the most pure and holy have a chance of finding what they seek, and then they get the honor of dying and going straight to heaven when their quest is done.
All in all, I am honestly glad to say that I have read this book, but I would not necessarily recommend it to anyone. If there is a good modern version out there, one that doesn't alter the story in any way, but just makes it easier to read, that may be the way to go.
I also read this book for the Really Old Classics Challenge and the Centuries Challenge. This is the first book read for both of those, although I do have a stack sitting by of really old classics to read. For the Centuries Challenge, this book obviously qualifies for the 15th century.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Library Loot - February 11, 2009

Another ridiculous week of bringing home too many books. (I think I may have a problem.)
So this week I had on hold a handful of the 2009 Alex Award winners:
  • Mudbound by Hillary Jordan
  • Over and Under by Todd Tucker
  • Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris
  • The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick
  • Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow
And here are the rest of the books that I brought home:
  • The Given Day by Dennis Lehane (I'm pretty sure I had this one checked out before, and had to return it without reading it - that's a chronic problem that I have. Maybe the poor thing will get read this time!!)
  • Graceling by Kristin Cashore (one of the best teen books of 2008, or so I hear, so I'll give it a try)
  • The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, prose version in Modern English by David Wright (in case you are wondering I did return the other Canterbury Tales that I had picked up a couple of weeks ago - I decided that I could not deal with any more Old English, so I'm cheating and reading a Modern English version)
  • The City of God by Saint Augustine (for the Really Old Classics Challenge)
And for those of you who are curious, here is what my several stacks of books looks like. Here we have the two main stacks in front, and then we have three more stacks bracing them from behind. This is why I need to stop putting books on hold at the library! I can't even get through what I have. Oh, and this is what the stacks look like after my lovely canine friend has been playing around them - normally they are more stack-like.
If you would like to join in sharing your library loot, head over here.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Aurora County All-Stars by Deborah Wiles

Twelve-year-old House Jackson is the main character of this book about baseball, friendship, family, and Walt Whitman. The story begins with House sitting at the death-bed of Mr. Norwood Rhinehart Beauregard Boyd, known to the local children as Mean-Man Boyd (and less vocally, Baby-Eater Boyd). None of House's friends know that for the past year he has come to Mr. Boyd's house every day to read to him. Now he is the only one there with Mr. Boyd as he passes away.
House was the star pitcher for the Aurora County All-Stars, a baseball team with no coach, no uniforms, and no Little League affiliations, that played just one real game a year, on the fourth of July. House had missed last year's game, and had spent the year not playing baseball, healing from a broken elbow. This year's game would be his big comeback, until Frances Schotz (the girl responsible for his broken elbow) returns for the summer to conduct the Fourth of July Aurora County Birthday Pageant. Every kid under the age of fourteen has been signed up for it, but of course none of the All-Stars want to have anything to do with it. As the leader of the All-Stars, House must learn how to compromise in order to make this day special for everyone in the community, and honor what he learned from Norwood Boyd.
This was a very enjoyable read, and would be great for older kids or younger teens. I was surprised by the depth of this book, although it never feels heavy or difficult. House is a great character, very likable, lovable even, and his family is terrific. Most of the characters are good, not cookie cutters, which makes the details of this story more interesting. While this book is a good sports book, it has appeal for kids who like all kinds of stories.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Women in Early Medieval Europe 400 - 1100 by Lisa M Bitel

This was my third book read for the Medieval Challenge, and the second of the non-fiction books I have read about this time period. Actually, the other non-fiction book I read discussed the true medieval time period, 1040-ish to the 1500's, and this book obviously covered an earlier time period, 400 to 1100. But as they focused on different topics, there would not have been much overlap anyway.
I have to say that I loved this book. I have not read a history book that I enjoyed so much in a long time. Women in Early Medieval Europe could easily be used as a textbook for a class on either early medieval history or women's studies. It is an extensively researched and well notated book that focuses solely on women, and their impact on the history of this time period, as well as the time period's impact on them. Bitel does an excellent job of finding the stories about women from the little that is said about them. She points out that the histories written during this time period are by men, and women are only discussed if they are somehow connected to the male main characters, as mothers or wives. The only women that merit real attention are those that either break the rules set for them by society, or who are especially pious and noble, and therefore used by the historians as examples of what women should or should not be.
In addition to the histories written during these time periods, Bitel examines records of laws and accounts, often finding evidence of women when it is not explicitly stated. And of course we know that women existed, because people continued to procreate and extend their reach over the land. Bitel discusses the reasons for why women were included or left out of records to great extent. This is a fascinating book both on the level of women's history and early european history.
Women in Early Medieval Europe is part of the Cambridge Medieval Textbook series. For anyone interested in good non-fiction about this time period, I would recommend checking out any books in this series.
I am also using this book for my first read in the Dewey Decimal Challenge. I am a little bit confused by the way this challenge is structured, but it looks like I can read the books out of order (thank goodness). So this book is for the 900's category - Geography and History (this book's specific Dewey number is 940.1).

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Heir To Sevenwaters by Juliet Marillier

I have posted on this blog before about my love for Juliet Marillier, so you can't be surprised by the fact that I loved this book. It was not my favorite of her books, but it was still a very enjoyable read.
Heir To Sevenwaters is another book in Marillier's Sevenwaters series (originally a trilogy). These were the first books I read by her, and I just adored them. Marillier is a fantastic storyteller when it comes to traditional folklore. The Sevenwaters series takes place in Ireland, and has a lot of aspects of traditional Celtic mythology. This book takes place a few years after the events of Child of the Prophecy. The main character is Clodagh, daughter of Lord Sean of Sevenwaters (for readers of the series, Sean is Liadan's twin brother). Sean's wife is pregnant with a much-desired baby boy, although everyone fears for her health, as she is past the age for being able to carry a child without complications. The baby is born with no complications, and everything is looking as though it may be okay, until the baby is kidnapped and a changling is left in his place. However, only Clodagh can see the changling - everyone else thinks she's losing it. She takes it upon herself to rescue her baby brother from the Fair Folk who she knows have taken him, while her father searches in a more human way. Although she does not have any of the special abilities that mark some of her family (except for being able to communicate mind-to-mind with her twin), she finds that her love and the courage of her heart are all she needs to complete her quest.
Reading about the Sevenwaters family again was so much fun. This book could probably be read without having read the others, though, as Clodagh sort of fills you in on the important family history. Of course this one had a romance, all of Marillier's books do, although this one was not as flawless as her others. She definitely sets the story up for a sequel, more so than I remember the other Sevenwaters books doing. Maybe it will be another trilogy? For fantasy lovers, these books are very highly recommended, and I would recommend them to anyone who enjoys great storytelling or a good romance.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Library Loot - February 4, 2009

Only one book picked up this week (thank goodness). I have several others waiting for me now that I'll be getting soon, but at least I only added one more book to my stacks. One of these days I'll take a picture so you can marvel over the ridiculousness of it.
So, what did I get this week?
  • Candyfloss by Jacqueline Wilson - this title has been on my list for awhile, and I needed another teen/kids book to read, so I decided to get it now.
And that really is all that I have for this week. Now that I've started school I have less time to read books that are not textbooks, which is a big part of why I haven't been finishing books at my usual rate. The other part of it is Le Morte D'Arthur. Has anyone else ever tried reading this thing? It's taking me ages. But I am more than halfway through, and I will persevere!!!