Monday, January 25, 2010

Un baba cool

Dear The French,

I was just informed by a French word-a-day blog that your word for "hippie" is "baba cool." Why was I not informed of this earlier?  My previous French teachers obviously had their priorities all wrong.  Anyways I just wanted to say that I thoroughly approve and I think this word just knocked "pamplemouse" from my #1 French word slot.

Grosses bises,


P.S. This totally makes up for you disturbing me by making songs about killing Larks and making French kids sing your national anthem--although for seriously making kids sing about slitting people's throats is messed up

Monday, January 18, 2010

Here, There Be Dragons

During the first World War one soldier escapes the battlefields of Europe only to enter the fray in the Archipelago of Dreams, a land where the fiction of our world is fact and the fact of our world is fiction.  Three Oxford Scholars: John, Jack, and Charles struggle to survive in a world beyond Avalon where there are not only elves, dwarves, trolls, and goblins, but characters like Nemo his Nautilus as well.  Even though they are strangers to the land they are entrusted with the protection of its most important book, the key to navigating the waters of the Archipelago, the Imaginarium Geographica

It's funny how the universe balances itself.  The book I read before this I picked up expecting a fantasy and got a historical fiction.  This time the summary's emphasis on WWI made me expect a historical fiction when what I got was a fantasy.  At least this book was consistent throughout.

Owen weaves a charming fantasy tale in this novel that takes all of our favorite stories and weaves them together into one narrative.  The legend of King Arthur is blended with Dickens characters and Greek Mythology.  I've seen re-tellings of Greek myths and Arthurian legends before, but it is rare to find a book that involves re-tellings of stories drawn from so many sources.  Some of the references even I didn't pick up on which means that I discovered some interesting facts from doing further research on allusions in the text.  He also plays with repeated narratives a bit and the nature of stories based in truth being distorted over time.  A lot of the narrative is predictable and there isn't much to think about besides the basic lessons on character you'd expect from a hero's quest type of story but not everything has to be weighted down with meaning.  Sometimes you just want to read something clever and fun, and this book certainly does that well.

The only criticism I have is that Owen comes to this novel from the graphic novel world and it's rather obvious.  The narrative is a bit clunky in the way that many song lyrics that sound great when sung look simplistic when read straight.  A lot of the narrative focused on dialogue and describing what was happening in a straightforward fashion and seemed almost like a transcription of a graphic novel.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I prefer a bit more subtlety and thoughtful asides.  Still this novel is great fun and I look forward to the others, which in this case I believe are already out and available at my library, lucky me!

One caution I feel compelled to make is that if you're of the type who doesn't Jasper Fforde novels and claims they're too clever and smug in their allusions, then you won't like this one either.  There are some times when Owen seems to be throwing a reference to something out just to be clever, but I'm okay with that. 

Here, There Be Dragons The Chronicle of the Imaginarium Geographica Book 1, James A. Owen ISBN: 9781416912279

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing Traitor to the Nation

Octavian is raised by a group of philosophers in the Novanglian College of Lucidity.  He is taught Latin and Greek and violin and the importance of scientific observation.  He excels in his studies and despite their vigor he grows up relatively happy in the company of his mother and his teachers.  Everything changes, however, with a loss of funding and the coming of the Revolutionary War.  Octavian learns hard truths that force him to see the lines drawn between black and white and re-examine his entire life.  You may think you know the story of Boston and the Revolutionary War, but before the end of the novel you'll be re-examining stories held as truth as well.

I hope the above summary is helpful to you because the one I received from the jacket of the book certainly was not.  The talk of princesses and forbidden doors made the novel sound like some sort of fantasy, and the cover looked vaguely steampunk with its metal mask.  Boston and the Revolutionary War weren't mentioned at all, which are a huge part of the story.  As a result I went into this novel expecting a fantasy and what I got was a historical fiction.  I think this is a huge disservice to the novel because while I have wide enough interests that I ended up enjoying it I would have been really ticked off if I was a pure fantasy enthusiast and I had picked this up based on its summary and if I was a historical fiction enthusiast I probably would have read the description and dismissed it.

To some extent I can see why it was written this way because this book also pulls the whole entirely change the tone and meaning of the novel halfway through crap that I discussed in the previous post and I suppose whoever wrote the summary didn't want to reveal important plot points, but I think to some extent it is necessary, especially because the change actually occurs about a third of the way through, meaning most of the book bears no resemblance to the jacket summary. 

Other than the whole switcheroo bit that bugged me and took some adjusting I enjoyed this book.  I love Octavian's voice and the book certainly does give you a lot to chew on and, as I mentioned above, make you re-examine the history of Boston and the Revolutionary War.  Taking a story that is so familiar and so close to the hearts of Americans and making them question it really does take talent and is a wonderful thing when done successfully.  I also enjoy the bits of ephemera peppered throughout.  The only thing that stopped me from being more enthusiastic in my recommendation of this book is that the change of tone really is difficult to swallow to the point that unless your interests are really varied you're unlikely to enjoy both halves.  I hear the next book in the series is better, however, probably because it's more uniform.  And I have to cut Anderson some slack because unlike Her Fearful Symmetry I can see why he had to change the book and I think it was necessary.  So in the end I'd recommend this book, though to the historical fiction crowd not the fantasy crowd.  I think it's definitely worth the read for the way it changes the reader's pre-conceived notions of the era.  Although for younger readers I caution that it is rather mature.  It's not gory or explicit but it deals with a lot of serious and disturbing issues of the time so I'd read it before giving it to your kid so you can judge whether or not they'll be able to handle it.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing Traitor to the Nation, by M.T. Anderson ISBN: 0763624020

Her Fearful Symmetry

Elspeth's death changes the lives of the residents of the building next to the cemetery.  Elspeth's lover, Robert lives in the first flat.  He's writing his thesis on the Highgate Cemetery and guiding tours there in the meantime.  Passing Elspeth's grave during his daily tours does not help speed his recovery after her death.  Elsepth's twin nieces (the daughters of Elspeth's own twin) inherit and move into Elsepth's flat after her death and struggle to learn what they can about the aunt they never knew in an unfamiliar country.  The third flat is occupied solely by Martin after his wife Marijke leaves him, causing Martin to slip further into his OCD tendencies.  The appearance of Elspeth's ghost in the building only further complicates the lives of those she left behind.

This book is certainly different from Niffenegger's first (which I adored!) but I liked it as well.  When I say that the books are different, however, I'm not just talking about subject matter. The Time Traveler's Wife really had two characters in it for all intents and purposes.  The story was about Henry and Claire and anyone else who appeared in the story was only there to serve their story line.  They were more plot devices than any real characters with depth.  Which was fine, that's what the story called for and I loved it.  Her Fearful Symmetry, however is really an ensemble piece.  In fact I didn't like the main characters at all.  I found them too self-absorbed to be sympathetic.  My favorite character, and the one who kept me reading more than the others, was Martin (of course I'd like the OCD guy).  Martin also seemed like the only true protagonist to me because he's the only one who changed during the narrative and was different at the end than when he started (although I suppose you could make a case for Robert as well.)

Normally I prefer ensemble pieces, but in this case I just didn't care enough about enough of the characters, so while I liked both my favorite is still definitely Time Traveler's Wife.  Besides finding the characters generally unsympathetic I also didn't like the way the story seemed to completely change in the middle with Elsepth's ghost making herself known.  The first half of the book was definitely stronger and was about loss: Martin losing Marijke, Robert losing Elsepth, the loss inherent in moving to a new country and leaving your parents behind for the twins, and even the narrative from the perspective of Elspeth's ghost was about her dealing with the loss of her body and her old life.  Then suddenly Elsepths' ghost makes contact and it becomes some sort of supernatural thriller.  I think the story would have been much stronger if Elsepth's ghost had remained an observer.  It always ticks me off when authors decided to start writing a different story mid-book.  I feel like I make an agreement with the author in the first few chapters of what to expect and I always feel vaguely betrayed when they break that agreement. I also didn't really like the way the novel ended although I won't go into specifics to avoid spoilers.

Still, I did enjoy the book (especially the first half) and I admire Niffenegger's research, which really shows.  She even ended up becoming a guide at Highgate Cemetery herself because she learned so much about it.  If you ejoyed her first book I'd say this one is worth a read, if for nothing else than Martin's character who is wonderful and touching throughout.

Hear Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger ISBN: 9781439165393


Steam punk meets gene punk in Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan.  The time is the eve of World War I, but the time line is not the one we are familiar with.  It is a world where Charles Darwin was able to go further in his research and manipulate genes to create vast, living airships out of a hodgepodge of animal genes.   Those who find his practice ungodly have responded with similarly strange, animalistic machines to combat them.  Your guides in this world are a young Machinist Alek, the son of Archduke Ferdinand, and a young Darwinist girl Deryn who just wants to fly.  Alek is forced to flee for his life, a fugitive from his own country, while Deryn flees her family and disguises herself as a boy so she can enlist and get a seat aboard the magnificent airship, the flying whale, the Leviathan.

I loved the world presented in this novel, and I like that I got to explore it from the perspective of both sides of the conflict.  I also liked that one of the two protagonists was a girl (there's even an amusing moment where the male lead, oblivious to the truth, says that she's exactly the kind of boy he wished he could be, hah!) as well as including an important female scientist among the main characters.  Yay for positive role models for young girls!  Much better than the find yourselves an abusive boyfriend so you can get pregnant and not have to attend college role model that seems to be so popular among young girls today *coughtwilightcough* 

But I digress, Leviathan engulfs you in its world and keeps you turning the pages until the 'to be continued' at the end (thankfully Westerfeld is a quick writer) while exploring important issues and the gray areas between the extremes.  It's not quite as thought-provoking as his Uglies series, but it is aimed at a younger audience so that seems appropriate.  If it gets kids wanting to research more about the real history surrounding WWI, all the better.  The only thing that upset me about this book was the fact that when I finished it I couldn't start the next.  The dual perspective also makes it so you can recommend it to girls and boys, and if you have any young boys or girls in your life I suggest you do so. 

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld ISBN: 9781416971733

Friday, January 1, 2010

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Every night Minli's father tells her stories full of fabulous adventures and mythical characters like the Old Man of the Moon, who reads the book of destiny and ties people's fates together with red string.  One day Minli decides to set off on her own adventure to find the Old Man of the Moon and ask him how to change her family's fortune.  Along the way she meets a dragon, a king, and the fearsome Green Tiger.  Everyone she meets has a story to tell, and each story leads her closer to her goal.  Minli's quick wit gets her out of many tough situations, but it gets her into many as well.

When Grace Lin rejected her Asian heritage as a child her mother left a few books of Chinese folklore to tempt her on the shelves.  Lin loved the tales despite their often sparse translations and wound up filling in the details in her head.  That experience along with her travels in Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan inspired this novel.  Her love of the material is evident throughout and I love the way she wove stories into the narrative, setting them aside in a different font and bold, bright headings.  I also love the illustrations Lin peppers throughout.  There's nothing terribly deep to consider and it's definitely juvenile fiction but the stories and illustrations are so charming that I thoroughly enjoyed it anyways.  This would definitely be a great book to read aloud.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin ISBN: 9780316114271

Bog Child

Finding a dead child curled up in the peat is a difficult way to start off your day, but these are difficult times for Fergus and the child ends up being the least of his worries.  The year is 1981 and Ireland is in the midst of a violent conflict called The Troubles.  Fergus's only hope of getting away is to earn good enough grades on his finals to go to school in Scotland, but how is he supposed to study with his brother slowly dying in a hunger strike in prison?  And what should he do when his older brother's best friend tries to get him to run goods across the border for the Irish Republican Army?  In the meantime the child ends up being an archaeological find preserved by the bog and Fergus has to play host to the archaeologist and her daughter that come to investigate.  Is voting for a cause enough, or should Fergus act?  Will his brother survive? Will they uncover the mystery of the bog child?

I really enjoyed this book because it does a good job presenting the situation at the time as well as depicting the fact that every day life does continue even during difficult times.  Fergus's brother is in danger of dying in a protest, but he still has to study for his finals and practice for his driving test.  He still forms a crush on the archaeologist's cute daughter.  Life goes on, even in the midst of death.  I also enjoy the parallel story of the bog child that is revealed through Fergus's dreams and the friendship he forges with a soldier for the other side.  This book does not have any easy answers, and I love that.  One thing that did bug me about the book is the fact that nothing is written in dialect except when the characters curse.  I guess parents are less likely to object to fecking, but that seems like a cop out to me.  If you don't want to write the dialogue in dialect so it's easier for kids to understand, fine, but be consistent with it.  Still, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it, especially for its insights to a conflict that I think most American teenagers are largely ignorant of, and probably plenty of American adults as well.

Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd ISBN: 9780385751698

Wanting Mor

Jameela has never had much, but she does have a roof over her head, even if the floor is dirt.  And food to eat, however simple it may be.  And most importantly, she has her mother, her 'mor'.  With her cleft lip she has never considered herself beautiful, but she has always tried to be good.  But when she wakes up one morning to find her mother dead there's an even larger cleft created her in life.  Her father moves her to town where she works as a servant, then he marries a selfish woman, and ultimately abandons her.  Jameela tries to be good, but she can't help missing her mother, wanting mor. 

This novel, based on a true story, is set during the 2001 Afghanistan war and it does a wonderful job depicting the life of a girl growing up at the time.  The descriptions describe the setting in a matter-of-fact way without exoticizing things with a glossary in back to refer to for unfamiliar words.  The cruelty and despair of the times are depicted alongside acts of kindness and hope.  The narrative is clear and easy to understand and while it does depict some harsh situations it does so in a way that is appropriate for younger readers.  I'd say that this book is on the younger side of the YA scale and is great reading for a preteens and teens who want to better understand life in Afganhistan.  However, I think it is a bit too juvenile to be really enjoyed by and useful to adults.  For an adult description of modern life in Afghanistan for women I'd recommend A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.  I loved this book and, while not appropriate for younger readers, it really gives a lot for an adult reader to reflect on. 

Wanting Mor by Rukhsana Khan ISBN:9780888998583

Catching Fire


When Katniss called the capitol's bluff by pulling out the poisoned berries she unwittingly sparked the flames of a revolution that took up her mockingjay token as its symbol.  She's out of the frying pan of the games, but she landed in the fire.  Now she has to convince the citizens of panem that she acted out of love, not rebellion or her family and friends will pay the price.  Should she run? Should she join the revolution? Should she play along with the capitol and hope they'll show forgiveness?  In the meantime life is becoming harder for the citizens of district twelve as military presence increases and rules are more strictly enforced.  Soon, as the next Games approaches her choices are taken away and she has a new set of problems to face.  Will her rebellious spark be catching and start a revolution to save them all, or will Katniss, the girl on fire, be caught by the capitol in a plot to put out her own flame and the revolution in one fell swoop?

I finished Hunger Games after getting home on Christmas night and was unsatisfied with the ending so I started right into Catching Fire.  I ended up staying up until 4:30 in the morning to finish that one as well and probably would have continued on to the next if it was out.  The second book is pretty consistent with the first and my praises and criticisms are pretty much the same.  This books starts to get more into more of the political side, but about halfway through it gets caught up in another action plot.  I hope in the third book we get to see more of the revolution.  Once again I'd recommend this book, but with the caveat that I'd wait to read them all until the third book comes out, then I'd make sure to buy or check out all three at once.  They read pretty quickly anyway so I think an adult could probably read all three in a weekend day.  I wish I had waited.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins ISBN: 0439023491

Hunger Games

In a time after the collapse of the United States the capitol city of a nation called Panem rules over 12 districts with a campaign of fear.  The citizens of the capitol enjoy lavish parties and extreme fashions while children in the outer districts struggle just to fill their bellies.  The districts tried to rebel once, and the result was the total destruction of district thirteen and the creation of the Hunger Games.  To remind the districts of just how helpless they are the capitol hosts its own extreme reality TV show each year. The participants are 24 children--a boy and girl between the ages of 12 and 18 from each district.  The location changes annually and can range from a barren desert to a jungle full of vicious genetically altered predators.  The goal: to be the last child left alive. 

Nothing says "Merry Christmas" better than a good dystopian novel so I started this one Christmas morning.  It was so engrossing that I even ended up reading it on the car ride to my cousins' house--something I usually don't do.  On the way back home it was too dark to read in the car but I still spent the entire ride in its world going through all the possible outcomes.  The premise is not entirely original (why is it that all dystopian worlds call their cities 'districts'?) but the telling was very well done.  At times I felt that it might have been tending a bit too much towards the action side of the story and not enough towards the philosophical and political implications, but I think this was a bit unfair of me considering its intended audience.  I also enjoyed the fact that it didn't talk down to the reader or pull any punches.  I've criticized adult novels for being too afraid to kill off children before, but apparently young adult novels have no problem with it!  Overall I'd say this book provides readers plenty to consider without sacrificing pace and even adding a nice romantic plot to keep the teen girls squeaming and eager to read more (if this sounds condescending it's not intended as such because I more or less include myself in that group).  I think it could easily be enjoyed by teens and adults and would recommend it to both groups.

I took this from my review of the sequel because I realized for it to be effective I should probably post it here: "Once again I'd recommend this book, but with the caveat that I'd wait to read them all until the third book comes out, then I'd make sure to buy or check out all three at once.  They read pretty quickly anyway so I think an adult could probably read all three in a weekend day.  I wish I had waited."
Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins ISBN: 0-439-02348-3