Sunday, August 19, 2012

Mini Reviews

 After seeing all the fiftieth anniversary hype I finally got around to reading A Wrinkle in Time.  I really enjoyed meeting the character of Meg.  Meg is a character famous for being saved by her faults and they are also what make readers love her.  However, I would have enjoyed seeing more faults in the rest of the cast.  Granted, Charles Wallace does exhibit a bit of hubris, but only when desperation forces him.  Otherwise he is entirely too sweet and perfect for my liking.  Calvin's main fault seems to be his family which isn't really a fault at all. Other than that he's apparently well liked, a good athlete, and rather intelligent.  The mother takes the father's extended absence surprisingly well.  Sure she sometimes lets her emotions show, but only in private and seemingly only sadness at his absence.  If I was her there would be a healthy amount of anger mixed in there as well--justified or not.  In general the characters are too nice for my liking and always seem to do and say exactly the right thing, which annoyed me after a while.  The villains on the other hand are too evil for my tastes.  I like some more shades of grey than the Black Thing or IT could provide being, as they are, pure forces of evil.  I did find the premise of Camazotz wonderfully creepy though.  I enjoyed the ideas that the novel presented and Meg, Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit were delightful. My own personal biases aside, I can see why it won the Newbery.  Most importantly I know I have many students who are passionate about it and books that make kids love reading and also give them something to think about always hold a special place in my heart.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle: buy it or check it out today!

I loved Bitterblue! Bitterblue is perhaps not strong in the same ways that Katsa of Graceling is, but in many ways she is even stronger. Katsa is Graced with strength while Bitterblue is thrown into a crappy situation at a young age and nevertheless refuses to complacently listen to others and instead struggles to find the truth and to do what is right, no matter how painful it may be. At the same time she is realistic and flawed in her struggles and has no special powers, which makes her the most relatable of Cashore's heroines to date. So many stories end with 'and the villain was defeated and they all lived happily ever after' that it was refreshing to read a novel that explored what 'ever after' would really entail and how a villain can negatively affect a society long after his defeat. The road to recovery is long and complicated and messy. This novel is far darker than any of the previous ones. Bitterblue deals with issues such as corruption, uprisings, betrayals, suicides, self-harm, rape, and torture. It is an intense novel but it deals with these issues capably. Of course it's not all doom and gloom. Bitterblue learns the value of true friends (and one dashing noble thief character in particular) and I found all the work with ciphers fascinating. There's a lot of fun world-building elements too. Mostly though I loved this novel for telling the hard truths well while leaving room for optimism and hope. (scroll over for spoiler) I was particularly pleased to see a romantic storyline that acknowledges that sometimes love does not conquer all. Sure I wanted them to get together, and that they couldn't made me sad, but sometimes that's how life works and stories so rarely admit this that I was impressed with and thankful to Cashore. Next time Cashore releases a book I'll clear out my calendar to be sure I'm not compelled to stay up all night finishing it and have to go to work on three hours sleep again!

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore: buy it or check it out today!

I went to London for the first time recently with my friend Laura. While we were there we met with her agent Juliet and several authors for dinner and drinks.  Juliet gave us each books at the start of the evening and this was mine.  It's not the type of book I'd usually pick up but I gave it a chance because I know Juliet has impeccable taste (she did sign Laura after all).  The story is narrated by a woman who ends up working for a quadriplegic man.  She has a deliciously sarcastic sense of humor that drew me in right away and had me laughing on the plane ride back to Laura's home in Scotland and pointing out particularly amusing passages to poor Laura, who was trapped in the seat next to me.  As you might imagine from the plot though, the story isn't all laughs.  By the time I was finishing the book the next day I kept bawling my eyes out while trying not to disturb Laura's husband Craig. The book most reminded me of The Fault In Our Stars, but for adults.  It had the same fearlessness in tackling tough issues and gift for making me laugh even as I cried.  I'd recommend it to anyone looking for an easy yet absorbing summer read who has access to a fresh box of tissues.
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes: buy it or check it out today!

The first time I tried reading this book, I didn't get very far.  It starts by establishing a complex frame-within-a-frame structure detailing how the manuscript that makes up the main part of the narrative was found, lost, and translated.  This was a popular narrative technique in the era that Eco is trying to imitate, but as a modern reader it sounded a bit clunky.  This was followed by a vocabulary list in Latin describing how monks split up their days.  Even for a language-lover like myself this was a bit of a turn-off.  Then when the story did finally start the narrative style was difficult to get into.  It has different rhythms and structures than a typical modern narrative.  This was around where I gave up the first time.  I am very glad that I tried again, though.  The second time I kept reading long enough to get used to the narrative style and I could see why Eco wrote it this way.  It really helped immerse me in a period and world that was not familiar to me at all.  It was far more exciting than I thought the setting of a medieval monastery capable of providing.  The better book titles version of this would be called Monks Gone Wild.  If you want to know how to accuse someone of "breaking wind through the mouth" in Latin then this is the book for you!  The monks on these pages say and do things that would make a frat boy blush.  The plot underlying it all is a medieval Sherlock story of supernatural plots demystified and incredible deductions.  The action mostly takes place in a scriptorium and labyrinthine library where monks lust after books like flesh and are quite literally willing to kill for them.  The portrayal of the librarians was a bit disturbing to me, as well as almost everything the book said about women, but it was all accurate for the time period and so extreme as to be laughable now.  It's not an easy read, but it is well worth the effort and I'd recommend it to anyone with a good chunk of time to read far enough into the story to get used to the narrative and a fondness for thought-provoking arguments woven seamlessly in with scatological humor and action sequences.
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco: Buy it or check it out today!

This quiet, short novel is unlike anything  I've read before.  The story centers around a housekeeper who gets hired to work for a math professor who's been in an accident causing him to have a memory that stops in 1975 and doesn't remember anything short-term for longer than eighty minutes.  This means that every morning the housekeeper introduces herself it is like he is meeting her for the first time.  There isn't much of a plot to speak of and there is a fair amount of time spent in discussing various mathematical principles and eventually baseball (neither of which are my favorite subjects) and yet I found myself gulping the novel down quickly.  I grew attached to the characters so quickly and they seemed so real that even though there weren't any major events happening to them I cared deeply about the everyday things that did occur as if I was hearing an update about a dear friend.  This is a great read for a summer afternoon, especially for teachers on break like myself.
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa: Buy it or check it out today!

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