Sunday, August 29, 2010

Fever 1793 Review

Book Talk: Mattie lives with her grandfather and mother in the coffee house that they run in Philadelphia.   Business seems to be going well, especially after a summer fever breaks out near the docks causing more people to head to their coffee shop away from the docks and city center.  Some families abandon town for the countryside, but Mattie's family thinks that it's just another summer sickness brought in by immigrants, so they stay where they are and keep the shop open.  By the time they realize that this is no normal fever, it might already be too late.

Rocks My Socks: I love all the details in this book about an episode of American history that I had never heard of before reading this book.  Apparently there really was an outbreak of yellow fever in Philadelphia in 1793 that killed five thousand people, or ten percent of the population.  I also love the lessons that can be learned from this period.  For example, many people who would have otherwise lived died because they were thrown out on the streets and abandoned by their friends and families who were too afraid of getting the fever from them to help.  There were, however, notable exceptions such as the members of the Free African Society in Philadelphia many of who volunteered around the city, helping the sick and those left behind.  There's a lot of great details crammed into the narrative, but I never felt overwhelmed by them.

Rocks In My Socks: The plot moves along pretty quickly with a lot of detail about the place and time so there's not a lot of fleshing out of the characters.  Mattie does grow up a lot during the narrative, as any girl who lived through such a crisis would, but I would have liked to have seen more detail about and growth of the other characters especially because I really liked them and would have liked to read more about them.  I also felt like the end of the book was a bit too clean considering how messy the fever was.

Every Book Its Reader: I'd recommend this to 9-14 year-olds, especially those who like historical fiction or who are studying that period in school.  The plot is interesting enough on its own, though, that an interest in the period isn't necessary to enjoying the book.  Most of the main characters in the book are female, but the themes are pretty universal so both genders should be able to enjoy it. 

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson

Feed Review

Book Talk: Titus is an average American teen:  he chats with his friends on the internet, he tries to pick up girls, he goes to parties and tries to sneak into 21 and up clubs, he vacations on the moon, and he has a feed implanted in his body that allows his mind constant access to the internet and allows corporations constant access to his mind.  You know, just a typical teen.  But one day he meets a girl who isn't so typical: she goes on about current events like the lesions that keep appearing on people and the effects of pollution and the looming war and she even writes by hand!  She's pretty cute, but she can be such a downer.  After all, Titus is an average American teen, what does he care if the world is ending?

Rocks My Socks:  The opening sentence: "We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck."  How could I not want to read more?  I love the first-person perspective on this story because it makes Anderson able to narrate a truly chilling dystopian scenario without sounding preachy.  I also love how the narrator does act more or less like an average teen; he's not an unlikely and inspiring hero we should all emulate. He is confronted with some pretty big issues and while he may not always deal with them nobly he does act realistically for his character and seeing the consequences of that is more moving to me than if he had broken character to play the white knight.  I also love how it's never really revealed how things got to be the way they are.  There's excerpts from the feed at the end of some chapters that contain clues but really we never find out because the narrator doesn't know. The slang and the ridiculous trends followed by the teens are also deliciously disturbing although also, sadly, realistic.  There's not much you could say that teens would find trendy that I wouldn't believe, even outside of dystopian fiction.

Rocks In My Socks: If I really want to get nit-picky and find something to criticize, it does get on my nerves that even though the book is set in the future the gender roles seem pretty traditional.  Just like in Fahrenheit 451 it's the attractive young girl with the old-fashioned family who inspires the male narrator to re-examine the role of technology in his life.  It never seems to be the old-fashioned boy who gets the girl to re-examine her priorities.  Among his friends the girls are obsessed with fashion and re-styling their hair and boys are concerned with looking macho for one another. 

Every Book Its Reader: The book is geared toward young adults but there's enough there to make it an excellent read for adults as well.  I highly recommend it with the caveat that since the book is partly about the degeneration of language the narrator employs a fairly constant stream of language that some readers (or more likely their parents) might find inappropriate.  We did get a complaint from a parent at my school about it, although the wonderful librarian that I work with (who also was the one to recommend the book to me) was able to defend it to the parent by citing its necessity for the narrative that is, after all, casting the harsh light of dystopia on it rather than encouraging it.  On the plus side the coarse language means that it is at a very easy reading level, and as it is also high-interest and fast-paced it would be a great book to give to teens who are struggling with reading.

Feed  by M.T. Anderson

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The City of Ember Review

Book Talk: The city of Ember is in the dark.  The only light in the city comes from bulbs and beyond the city is nothing but shadow.  The citizens of Ember live and work and die under this electric light, getting supplies from vast stores under the city left by those known as the Builders.  They live in ignorance, not even understanding how the very electricity that keeps their city running works.  Supplies are running low, and blackouts are plaguing the city--will two twelve-year-olds be able to save Ember before the lights go out for good, or is it already too late?

Rocks My Socks: I love the two protagonists--Lina and Doon.  Their curiosity and persistence leads them to keep following clues and asking questions about how the world around them works when most everyone else seems content to just keep living their lives despite all the problems plaguing the town.  I also love the little details that DuPrau puts in--such as words or phrases like whose meaning have been lost or the fact that the town can only keep track of the time and date by clocks and calendars because there are no seasons or sky.

Rocks In My Socks: The plot was pretty basic and predictable and I felt like some things were explained almost too thoroughly so that the book seemed to drag a little bit at times.

Every Book Its Reader: I'd recommend this book to 9-12 year-olds or adults looking for a really quick read.  The book isn't really geared toward one gender more than the other with a protagonist of each and plenty of adult characters of each as well.  Even though the book does take place in the future it definitely felt more like a fantasy than a science fiction book to me.  It's not heavily either genre though, so I'd recommend it to fans of general fiction as well.  The book reminded me of The Giver but for younger readers.  The citizens of Ember aren't very intelligent and don't have particularly advanced vocabulary and because the plot is so basic it would be good for children who aren't very strong readers.

The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Raleigh's Page Review

Book Talk:  Andrew grew up listening to his teacher talk about the opportunities and beauty waiting in the new Eden called America, but the land seemed as impossibly far away to him as the original garden of paradise.  Then, one day, his father writes a letter to Sir Walter Raleigh negotiating the terms of making Andrew his page.  Before he knows it he is in London working for one of the Queen's favorites--an eccentric aristocrat who is obsessed with the idea of American colonization.  But there are many bumps to overcome on the road to America and Andrew must risk his life repeatedly as a spy gathering intelligence, acquiring tools, and on the rocky waves of a sea in a storm.  And once he gets to America it's not the peaceful paradise he's expecting.

Rocks My Socks: The book is very well researched and I  learned a lot of fascinating details about the time period.  The characters were interesting and endearing, one of my favorites being the French gardener who also works for Raleigh.

Rocks In My Socks: As much as I love good research I felt that the author stuck too closely to the historical facts he was able to uncover. At points he gave too many details and at times and I found myself skimming from boredom, especially when he had paragraph-long lists, for example of specific items packed on the ship.  I also felt that he could have invented more--the book was interesting because of its historical setting, but the plot on its own would not have been enough to hold my attention.  There isn't much of a story arc, the protagonist (or any other character) doesn't really go through any major changes and I got no sense of rising action, climax, and falling action at the end.  I felt as if he just had finished the period he wanted to discuss so he ended it.

Every Book Its Reader: I'd recommend this to children ages 9-12 who are studying the beginnings of America in history.  Adding a bit of a story and fleshing out the world of that era should be interesting to someone learning the dry facts and help them to understand the times better.  The book should be able to be enjoyed by boys and girls but it is definitely geared more towards boys as every major character is male and there is no major romantic subplot (although I'm sure many girls might appreciate that as well, even I found it a bit refreshing.)
Raleigh's Page by Alan Armstrong

Hyperion & Fall of Hyperion

My first post in the new format is a doubleheader--a book and its sequel.
Book Talk:  In the distant future humanity has survived the death of Old Earth, but it is now facing a new Armageddon.  The Hegemony of Man is on the eve of war with the Ousters and a strange monster called the Shrike has appeared, killing hundreds and spawning a cult.  The fate of humanity rests on the shoulders of seven hand-picked pilgrims who have been sent on the final journey to meet this monster head on: a catholic priest, a colonel, a poet, a scholar, a starship captain, a private detective, and a politician.   As they travel closer to the Shrike, each shares their story, but the more they learn the more the mystery thickens. 

Rocks My Socks:  Much of the details of the plot are classic science fiction, but the structure and the way it is told are rooted in literary fiction, drawing inspiration from The Canterbury Tales.   The book is also filled with literary references, starting with its name: Hyperion.  The book actually encompasses even more genres because as each pilgrim tells their story the genre changes, with a military fiction break for the colonel, a noir detective story for the PI, a tear-jerker family drama for the scholar, and so on.  My favorite stories were the PI and the poet. 

Rocks In My Socks:  I don't normally read that much science fiction, so it was very difficult for me to get into the book at first.  There's hardly any exposition in the beginning so I was thrown into the deep end of a future with complicated technology and politics and expected to keep my head above water until I got the hang of swimming.  I don't think I understood what was going on at all for the first few chapters.  Simmons does, however, go back and explain these world-building details again later so that if you don't understand everything at first, don't worry and just keep reading.  You'll pick it up eventually.  Or drown, I suppose--maybe you should have a literary life guard on hand.

Every Book Its Reader: I'd recommend this to both fans of literary fiction and science fiction.  There isn't enough of the other genres of this book to make me recommend it to hard-core fans of those genres, but those who enjoy cross genre works (like those in Stories) will enjoy this book's variety.  I would say that this book is definitely for adults, however.  Beside it being a very dense work and at a pretty high reading level the book has many scenes of a violent, disturbing, or sexual nature and one violent, disturbing sex scene at the end of the colonel's story (don't say I didn't warn you!)
Hyperion by Dan Simmons
Warning: the review of the sequel will probably contain some sort of spoiler for the first book
Book Talk: The Hyperion pilgrims have made it to the Shrike's Shrine as a group but they must meet the monster as individuals.  As they wait for the appearance of the Lord of Pain each strays from the pack one by one to fight their own, separate battles.  Meanwhile, a new Keats cybrid has been created to advise Menia Gladstone, leader of the Hegemony, on the pilgrims' progress.  His link to the other Keats persona in Brawne allows him to see what the pilgrims are doing while he dreams.  During his waking hours he witnesses the government's response to the war with the Ousters and struggles to understand the underlying force behind it all and his own place in it.

Rocks My Socks:  This book is told from the perspective of John Keats!  Allow me to rephrase: the book is told from the perspective of an early 19th century romantic poet IN SPACE!  What is not to love?  Especially since I've had a huge literary crush on Keats ever since I saw Bright Star. On a more serious note this book also delves deeper into the political machinations behind the war and into more of the ideas and actions that lead society to the point that it has reached.  This book has a lot more concepts to wrestle with, which I always enjoy.

Rocks In My Socks:  As much as I enjoyed this book, I can see why a lot of fans of the first have said that they didn't.  People who loved the first book for its story-telling framework and cross-genre sensibility will be disappointed by this book because it is told entirely from one perspective, and one that didn't even exist in the first book.  There is also less explicit genre exploration though it does continues in a subtler way.  Also, while I love the time this book takes on exploring various concepts, that does take away time from straight action so the pacing of the book is a bit slower.  Lastly while at first I enjoyed the way Simmons would write a lengthy paragraph and then subvert its content with a crisp, sentence-long paragraph following it, he used the technique so often that eventually it really began to get on my nerves.

Every Book Its Reader:  I'd recommend this sequel to those who want to really sink their teeth into the issues raised in the first novel.  I'd also recommend it to fans of John Keats just for the fun of seeing him in space.  Once again this book is pretty difficult to read and can be violent and dark at times, but if you were mature enough to read the first book without being scarred or offended then you should be able to make it through the sequel just fine. 
The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Friday, August 20, 2010

Book Review Format

I'm going to try a new format for my book reviews to make them more uniform and hopefully less rambling.  I'll use this post to explain the new set up:

Book Talk: This is where I'll give the summary of the book and try to pique your interest in the plot.

Rocks My Socks:  This is the where I'll discuss the parts of the book that I really enjoyed--the reasons why I'd recommend it. 

Rocks In My Socks:  This is where I'll discuss the parts of the books that really irritated me, both big and little.  See what I did with the phrasing there, aren't I clever?

Every Book Its Reader: This is comes from Ranganathan's five laws of library science; it is the third law. This is where I'll discuss who I'd recommend the book to based on interests, genre, age range, etc.  The framing of this section in Raganathan's laws is to remind me that even though I might not love a certain book, there's someone out there who will.  My opinion isn't any more important or right than anyone else's.  This is why I'll try to state clearly what I did and didn't like about a book so that it's easier for someone to identify whether those would be pros or corns for them personally instead of just giving a book a star rating of my own personal preference. 

So that's it, the new format.  With work and school starting on Monday and Wednesday, respectively I don't know how much free reading I'll be doing, but I still have quite a few books from these last couple of weeks of summer to review so at least those will be nice and organized, and organization always makes me happy so that's good. 

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Book review catch-up part II

Anything But Typical  is told from the perspective of an introverted, shy, 12-year-old boy who is autistic and going to school and generally living and trying to get by in a world full of nuerotypical (or NT as he calls them) people.  He aspires to be a writer and puts some of his work up at a fiction site online, where he ends up meeting a girl his own age.  As most with most 12-year-olds this makes him excited and nervous and he worries over every sentence he writes her as he strives to seem 'typical' although of course is he, as the title states, anything but.  What I really liked about this book is how easy it was to identify with the lead in many little ways and how it stuck pretty close to reality.  There were no easy answers or miracle cure, just a 12 year old boy struggling with the trials of growing up.  It can be hard to find fiction dealing with issues such as autism for age groups this young, and I think this novel pulls it off very well in a way that is definitely readable and had me turning the pages. 
Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin

This novel reminded me strongly of Nation, but for younger ages.  The story revolves around a shipwrecked girl from colonial-era Britain and an island native of the same age.  About 9 months before the narrative starts all the native men are inexplicably turned into statues.  Lucy's mother is about to give birth to the last baby on the island unless a cure is found and much to her dismay it is a boy, fated to turn to stone as well.  Lucy is tasked with bringing her new brother to the patch of stones with the rest, but somehow she is able to postpone his fate and she runs away with him, determined to save him.  At around the same time the spoiled mayor's daughter, snowcap, runs away to save herself and the fate of both their communities ends up on their shoulders.  I enjoyed reading about their adventures and seeing them both change over the course of the narrative--a definite bildungsroman. 
The Remarkable & Very True Story of Lucy and Snowcap by H. M. Bouwman

Every year in a small town where nothing much else happens an inordinate amount of attention is giving to the local elementary school spelling bee.  This year the hall monitor Chrissie uncovers the seedy underbelly of the whole affair and compiles her evidence through transcripts of interviews with the participants and intercepted memos to present to the school board.  I enjoy the portrayal of some of the students, for example the over-stressed Jennifer, the home-schooled Mutual, and the surprisingly good-natured goths and pranksters.  However, it fell into the classic children's literature trap of writing adults who are entirely good for nothing and incapable of making any sort of a good or rational decision.  This always vaguely concerns me--do we really want our children to be taught that adults are stupid and unreliable and it's best not to go to them with your problems?  I mean I value independence, but it's important for children to feel comfortable and confident in asking adults for advice as well.  The book in general was a bit overly simplistic and silly for my tastes, but I also tend to over-analyze things.  It'd be fine for a quick-read for a young lover of comedy and mystery and it does earn extra points for being epistolary.
I Put a Spell on You by Adam Selzer

I read this on the plane ride to Scotland (maybe I'll do a summary post of the trip if I can be bothered before school and work starts) and I really enjoyed it.  It was pretty wonderful as a plane book because the stories kept changing tone and style so I didn't get bored from reading the same thing for a long time and I was kept pretty well entertained.  I did manage to finish it entirely on the long, long, flight except for the Jodi Picoult story. I tried to be unbiased and give her a chance but then I read the first sentence about how the loudest sound is a child's silence and found that I really couldn't be bothered with her tear-jerker melodrama--especially considering the decidedly un-silent child that was sitting right in front of me at the moment.  That notwithstanding there were only a couple stories I didn't like and several I really loved.  It was a great way to get a taste of a lot of current authors to see if I want to read more of their stuff, and I'm definitely behind the collection's supposed purpose of supporting literature that is less confined by genre.  If the hype is to believed and this collection ends up blazing the trail for the new direction of short stories and literature then that's at least one aspect of the future that I don't have to worry about!
Stories Edited By Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio

While I am a fan of this series, I was not a fan of this book in particular.  Her more recent books have been shorter and coming out with more frequency and I can feel them suffer for the rush.  So much has happened in the series so far and so little actually happens in this book that I felt that almost as much time was spent giving quick summaries of events from past books to contextualize current events as actually describing those current events.  The story arc didn't fare as well on its own and I feel like the previous book in this series and this one should have just been combined-saving us quite a bit of summarizing of the previous book.  There was more that could have been cut as well--for goodness sake it's called the night runner series but they did no night running in the book at all and there was very little political intrigue or even fighting it was mostly just traveling about with a weird baby and tense couple spats.  The set up for the next book seems promising--bringing them back to Rhiminee and their night running.  I hope it's better for it.  I'd still recommend the series, but definitely don't start with this book.
The White Road  by Lynn Flewelling

Fool  is the story of King Lear as told by, oddly enough, his fool.  I loved Moore's wonderful irreverence and the way he turned a classic tragedy into a bawdy farce.  I think old Willy definitely would have approved as an avid stealer of stories and lech himself.  However, the story was mostly one note and eventually that got on my nerves.  There are some great moments in it and I loved the way the story was changed to suit the fool's telling but it felt more like a comedic monologue than a solid narrative.   Still, the pleasure I got from the book outweighs anything else I felt while reading it.  If I was directing Lear I'd make this required reading for the cast. 
Fool by Christopher Moore
The Chaos Walking series takes place in a future where the colonization of space has begun.  On one of these alien planets all the men and animals have been infected with some sort of virus that makes all of their thoughts audible to everyone else around.  For some reason female humans are not affected by this virus so their thoughts are not audible, although they can still hear those of the animals and the men.  This causes the kind of complications you'd expect.  Eventually the series sees the female humans, male humans, and natives of the planet forming separate armies in a fight for dominance.  But this book isn't really about aliens or space travel--it's about lies and truth and all the variations of both, it's about trust and prejudice, the power of love and of hate, it's about growing up in difficult times and doing whatever you can to survive them.  I love so much about this series--its commentary on information overload and its resistance to clear cut lines of good versus evil, the presence of adults who at least try to care for the young protagonists in addition to the adults who really can't be trusted, the complex relationships that develop among the characters and the complexity and layers to the characters themselves, and what really made the book stand out to me--the way it deals with death and killing.  I'm sick of reading books where the young protagonists who are raised with similar values to youth of today are always able to kill when it comes down to it and without much more than a little bit of obligatory guilt afterward that's conveniently forgotten after a chapter or two.  I don't know about you, but I seriously doubt that I (or most of my friends for that matter) would be able to kill someone even if my life did depend on it.  This book is wonderful, although I was left with the nagging feeling at the end that it could have been absolutely spectacular with little extra effort.  There were many points in the series where difficult decisions arise and the characters dither so long that the choices are effectively taken from them so they don't have to make those hard decisions.  While that is in a way a choice it's passive not active and I feel that the series would have been that much more interesting and valuable if the characters engaged in those decisions more actively and then had to deal more directly with the responsibility for their outcomes.  It's funny because in many ways these books are very bold and dark (fair warning: do not get too attached to animal characters--I wish I'd been warned because I am a total sap about that!) but I felt that at a lot of crucial turning points the author wussed out a bit.  Still, this series was wonderful and I recommend it highly for young adults, especially those who like Hunger Games, and if my school is any indicator that's a lot.
The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, and Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

Well that's all the books that I read up until I got back from Scotland with the exception of one book that I'm waiting to talk about along with is sequel.  I'll try to keep up with doing single book reviews from here on out.  Wish me luck.