Friday, December 21, 2012

Mini Reviews: November 2012

I found the chiastic structure of this novel fascinating and I admired Mitchell's ability to switch so seamlessly between genres and eras.  I appreciated that he was willing to make bold choices, like leaving a story off in the middle of a sentence.  Reading the book gave me a pleasure similar to unraveling a puzzle.  My favorite stories were "Letters from Zedelghem" and "An Orison of Sonmi~451" (stories of rakes and android/clone/etc rights are particular weaknesses of mine) but I enjoyed all of them.  What I didn't enjoy were the bits were Mitchell decided to lose his faith in the reader and suddenly explicitly state what he'd been artfully dancing around or tell us what lessons we should be learning.  My least favorite bit was his explanation of the title that came 3/5ths of the way through the novel.  You know, in case the reader had somehow made it that far without knowing what the heck was going on.  The end with its saccharine and explicit call to arms didn't exactly delight me either.  Instead of trusting readers to pick up on the lessons clearly presented by the course of the narrative Mitchell suddenly turns into Aesop and tells the reader what they should have learned from the story.  I'm sure readers capable of puzzling their way through what is not an altogether easy read are more than capable of drawing their own conclusions.  At least Mitchell is also capable of making fun of himself for these same tendencies: at one point a character who is reading a manuscript describing the story of another character says "One or two things will have to go: the insinuation that Luisa Rey is this Robert Frobisher chap reincarnated, for example. Far too hippie-druggy-new age."  It can't be denied that Mitchell has a way with words and is eminently quotable.  Here are a few of my favorites:

"Implausible truth can serve one better than plausible fiction."

"How vulgar, this hankering after immortality, how vain, how false. Composers are merely scribblers of cave paintings. One writes music because winter is eternal and because, if one didn’t the wolves and blizzards would be at one’s throat all the sooner."

"Anger sparked in Timothy Cavendish like forks in microwaves."

"Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms round the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage."

"Humor is the ovum of dissent"

"Prejudice is permafrost"

"All the woe of the words 'I am' seemed dissolved there, painlessly, peacefully" [on first seeing the ocean]

"Rights are susceptible to subversion, as even granite is susceptible to erosion."

"Nothing is as eloquent as nothing."

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: Buy it or check it out today!

At a time when everyone seems up in arms about e-books and corporations versus the physical and local, it is refreshing to see a book that combines the two sides to such charming effect.  On the one hand, the main character works in an independent bookstore that "is the kind of store that makes you want to be a teenage wizard."  There, he discovers a secret society founded in the last publishing revolution that had everyone freaking out, back in Gutenberg's time.  On the other hand, his love interest works for Google and they investigate this society using the power of modern technology.  The conflict between those who revere the traditional way of doing things and those who are obsessed with the latest technology permeates the entire novel.  Sloan refrains from advocating one over the other and seems to value aspects of each, a very middle-of-road approach--which is perhaps why he decided to name the font at the heart of the intrigue Gerritszoon.  (Gerrit Gerritszoon is the birth name of Erasmus, a scholar who was known for his balanced approach.)  Sloan walks the line between opposing sides with the skill and playfulness of a tight-rope walker.  Even the emblem of Aldus Manutius, the historical printer at the center of the fictional secret society, is an illustration of a famous oxymoron: festina lente or 'make haste slowly' and the characters repeat this phrase to each other throughout the novel.  (Incidentally the dolphin and anchor emblem of Manutius has also been adopted by Beta Phi Mu, the library and information studies honor society that I was just inducted into this summer.)  In addition to writing with passion about technologies old and new in a fascinating fashion, Sloan also succeeds in creating quirky characters that instantly won me over.  Sloan is particularly skilled at introducing these characters in a way that made them instantly recognizable and endearing, like "Oliver daydreams about Ionian columns," or "[Matt] works with crazy intensity, feeding hours like dry twigs into the fire." I know I'm more or less the exact demographic Robin Sloan was aiming for, I even read much of this in a teahouse in San Francisco, but I absolutely loved this novel.  I hope that other bibliophiles can stop writing alarmist articles about the death of books long enough to read and enjoy this one and see what can be accomplished if we work together with all the tools, both old and new, at our disposal.  Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan: Buy it or check it out today!

Copper is an absolutely absurd and downright delightful comic collection.  It takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape, but the bleak background just makes copper's optimism shine brighter.  His faithful yet jaded dog Fred is never far behind though, and he balances things out.  The comics have a wide range of themes and tones from absurdly silly to quietly introspective.  You never know what you're going to get, and that's part of the charm. Most of the comics are one-offs but there are a few longer story lines as well that help to establish more of the universe.  Fred is now one of my all time favorite comic characters with his insecurities, worries, and tendency toward existential crises.  The writing is almost poetic in the way it conveys complex  ideas with sparing word use yet it never loses its sense of humour.  The artwork is exquisite as well and I particularly enjoyed Kibuishi's use of color with the different palettes always perfectly matched to the various tones of the comics.  The overall effect of art, color, and words combined to convey the message of each story is an example of how powerful comics can be.  I'm sure my students will also enjoy the interview with the author at the end where he describes his process in detail and with plenty of pictures to inspire and advise children who want to make their own comics.  Copper by Kazu Kibuishi: Buy it or check it out today!

I have been a fan of Orhan Pamuk since high school because he always opens up new worlds to me in an interesting way.  His latest novel was no exception.  The Museum of Innocence is tale of love and obsession.  Kemal is engaged to the rich and beautiful Sibel, but ends up falling for Fusun, a poor shop girl.  When he realizes that he has lost her his love turns into an obsession that completely takes over his life.  He relieves his pain by collecting objects that she has touched or that remind him of her, and it is through these objects that his story is told.  The book is written as if addressing a visitor to the museum that he eventually creates to house all these objects.  The narration has a ruminative quality as it bounces back and forth between describing the moment and what is to follow.  It sounds very natural, like the narrator is having a conversation with the reader.  After all when people set out to tell a story of importance to their lives they rarely do so in a completely linear fashion.    That's what I enjoyed most about this novel: the way Pamuk captured these tricks of memory:  The way it is possible to pass years in seemingly untenable situations because they are lived not in years but in a series of moments, the way our happiest moments can only be recognized in retrospect, the way objects can bring up memoires you might have otherwise forgotten, the way they can seem infused with the presence of a person who once handled them, the way memories of a person can prevent you from seeing someone as they really are.

The novel isn't just a portrait of Kemal and Fusun, but of the time and place they were together.  The novel includes many descriptions of Istanbul and its society from the parties of the elite to quiet nights spent in front of televisions by families barely scraping by.  Because the novel is told from the perspective of someone looking back on past events, the action of the novel always seemed a bit distant. Even when the romance came to its inevitably tragic end, it didn't have a strong emotional impact on me.  Instead the novel had a ruminative quality that left me thinking about the objects in my life, the stories they tell, the people that have left their mark on me, and the times and places that I've lived in. This is a novel to savor, not gulp. If want to travel but can't leave home this novel can make another place come alive for you. The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk: buy it or check it out today!

November is apparently the month I read about failed romance.  First Tiger Lily, then The Museum of Innocence, and now Stag's Leap--even my faculty and staff book club picked Feed for November.  Perhaps there's something about watching leaves slowly change color, fall off branches, and wither up that reminds me of love fading away.  Whatever the reason, this collection fit my mood well as Olds told the story of her marriage floundering, her divorce, and the years that followed.  In painfully honest poems she describes moments when she remembers the good times and moments when she tries to forget them.  Moments when being alone is terrifying and moments when it's freeing.  Every poem is very personal but they're also so honest that anyone who has ever loved and lost will be able to find themselves somewhere in one of them.  I think Tiger Lily would enjoy the collection.  Stag's Leap by Sharon Olds: Buy it or check it out today!

This novel is particularly well-suited to a manga-style adaptation.  It easily seems like it could have been its original format.  In fact, I think I might have enjoyed this adaptation more than the original novel. The source material is very visual with its fantastic creatures and fight scenes and I enjoyed seeing Baek's depictions of the scenes and characters (and their pretty, period costumes!) I like Clare's novels more for their plot than their prose anyway so I didn't mind the clipped version of the text.  If anything it eliminates some of the aspects that annoyed me about the original book.  I enjoyed the excuse to re-live my favorite scenes as well.   I don't think reading the original novel is necessary to enjoy this version (although I think fans of the novel will like it.)  I'd recommend it to fans of other period fantasy manga like The Earl and the Fairy  whether they've read the original or not.  The Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare, art by HyeKyung Baek: buy it or check it out today!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Assassin's Curse review

Book talk:  Ananna did not have a typical childhood.  She grew up on her parents' pirate ship learning how to fight and sail.  Her bedtime stories were the ones swapped by the crew and they were full of murder and mischief.  But the most terrifying of them all were about the assassins: magical, ruthless, and inescapable.  If an assassin came after you, you wouldn't live to tell the tale.  Even to a pirate princess they sounded too terrifying to be real, so she decided they must be nothing more than boogeymen that only exist in stories.  Until the day she ran away from an arranged marriage and an assassin was sent after her.  Now she's inextricably bound to one of these heartless killers and her dreams of the future are dashed on the rocks.   Her only chance is to find an impossible cure for an impossible curse.  And how can she do the impossible?

Rocks my socks:  The story is about a pirate princess who falls in love with an assassin with a scarred face but a surprisingly vulnerable heart.  It's basically beauty and the beast with pirates and that has always been one of my favorite fairy tales.  There's magic and mystery,  sailing and sword fights, and female characters that kick butt and save their would-be protectors instead of constantly waiting around to be saved themselves.  What's not to love?  It isn't a philosophical treatise or full of constant surprises but it's perfect if you want to be swept away on an adventure on a lazy afternoon.  Perhaps too good for that: I picked it up before getting out of bed one Saturday morning and ended up staying in bed until I finished it that afternoon.  When the sequel comes out I'll make sure I have some breakfast in me before allowing myself to be swept away!

Rocks in my socks:  none

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to anyone 6th grade and up looking for a classic fantasy adventure novel with a strong female lead. Fans of pirates will be particularly pleased.


The author has her own website, twitter, and facebook page

The publisher, Strange Chemistry, has a page for the book with an excerpt and reviews

Source: School library

The Assassin's Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke: Buy it or check it out today!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Cheshire Cheese Cat Review

Book talk:  Skilley is a cat with a big secret and Pip is a mouse with a hidden talent.  When they meet under the roof of the Cheshire Cheese Inn, they form an unlikely friendship.  But they're not the only strange characters with close-guarded secrets in the inn.  When they fall in with the inn's in-crowd they find themselves in hot water.  The intrigue at this inn is insanely hilarious, insistently  entertaining, and inspiring.  Don't let this one squeak by--let the cat out of the book and dive in to the cheesy goodness!

Rocks my socks:  This was the purrfect novel to read after I got home from the Dickens Fair (on an outing with the local Forever Young Adult book club.)  Though it is billed as a Dickens of a tale it was a fun and quick read and even children who have no idea who Charles Dickens was will love reading about the unlikely friendship between a word-loving mouse and a cheese-loving cat.  Despite my bias towards cats, I must admit preferring the mouse in this novel. And how could I not when he collects words like trading cards and slips them into his conversations?  The authors clearly have a passion for words as well which leads to such clever observations as "Cat....a small, mean word, one that began harshly and ended crossly."  The plot becomes increasingly absurd as it continues, but this is not a novel meant to be taken seriously.  With its puns and word-play it's clear that the authors had a lot of fun writing it and that sense of enjoyment is infectious and makes it fun to read.  The illustrations throughout are excellent as well.

Rocks in my socks: none

Every book its reader:  I'd give this fans of A Tale of Despereaux, Malcolm at Midnight, or Charlotte's Web.  Students in 3rd grade and up looking for a heart-warming anthropomorphic animal tale will enjoy this novel.  While a knowledge of Charles Dickens isn't necessary to enjoy the novel, adult fans of puns, word-play, and Charles Dickens will love finding the references hidden in this light-hearted story.


The Cheshire Cheese Cat has its own website that is absolutely loaded with extras like a history of the inn and the literary figures who frequented it, word games, facts about the Victorian Era, and more.  It's a great site, definitely worth checking out.

Carmen Agra Deedy also has her own website

Source: copy purchased at #ALA12

The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale by Carmen Agra Deedy & Randall Wright illus. by Barry Moser: Buy it or check it out today!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Cardboard Review

 Book talk:  When Mike brings home a cardboard box for his son's birthday the neighborhood kids tease him, but once they find out what the cardboard can make they'll do anything to get their hands on some.  This isn't just any cardboard--things made out of it come to life and can talk, think, and move on their own.  Which is great, until they start thinking that maybe they don't need the humans who made them...

Rocks my socks:  I love the idea for this comic: that a father who can't afford to buy a present for his son's birthday ends up getting him a cardboard box that they use to make a man who comes to life.  Like most golem stories, things get out of hand and soon there's an impending cardboardpocalypse. The story reminds me of Calvin and his cardboard creations and perhaps this modern comic about the fun to be had from an empty cardboard box will spark some creativity in the children reading it.  I also appreciate that they brush on the issue of free will and whether it's all right to make beings to do your bidding without giving them any choice in the matter.  The original cardboard man, Bill, decides that instead of doing chores he wants to get an education (which he achieves, much to my delight, by reading Plato and Star Trek novels.) The artwork is great as well and I enjoyed looking at the depictions of the fantastic things that were created with the cardboard.

Rocks in my socks:  Unfortunately the flesh-and-bone characters might as well be cardboard for all the depth that they have.  The protagonists, Cam and his father Mike, are hardworking but down on their luck and nice to the point of being pushovers.  The antagonist, Marcus, is rich and spoiled with long black hair and fingernails.  He even has an idiotic yes-man sidekick with a physical deformity to match his twisted mind.  Perhaps most worrying is when Marcus justifies his actions by saying "The doctor says I'm bipolar.  It's a genetic problem so my outbursts aren't really my fault" to get Cam's forgiveness, then uses Cam's pity to take advantage of him.  It's never mentioned again so it's not clear if he really is bipolar or if he was lying to get into Cam's house, but either way it's not a sympathetic portrayal of those with the disorder.  It isn't something that should be thrown about carelessly. If you're going to mention it in a story, you should follow up with it more.

Marcus eventually sees the error of his ways when attacked by his own creations and makes a completely unrealistic hairpin turn in personality.  The portrayal of this new Marcus is just as troubling to me as the old Marcus.  I suppose because comics are so visual they are particularly prone to perpetuating stereotypes, but that doesn't means comic creators shouldn't work to avoid it.  The moment Marcus changes his personality he also trims his hair, takes off the nail polish, and his skin magically gains a healthy tan, even though he was regularly depicted as being outside when he was sickly pale and evil so it's not like he was never exposed to the sun before the change of heart. And as everyone knows, boys with long hair and nail polish are not to be trusted so he had to give that up if he was going to be good.

As long as I'm on my soapbox let me talk about the female presence in this comic, or should I say the lack thereof.  First we have Tina, the neighbor who is inexplicably in love with Mike despite his treating her like a jerk.  She bakes cookies when Mike looks down and is ready to drop everything to watch Cam when Mike has to leave.  Once at their house she says "you men live like complete animals" as she notices the gunk on their burners and is quick to clean and cook for them while she's over because the menfolk clearly can't handle that (at least Bill learns how to bake despite being cardboard)  She then uses her feminine wiles and flowery perfume to try and seduce Mike when he gets back, and yells at him because he's not over his dead wife yet.

That brings us to the second female character: the dead mother who is re-created in cardboard and whose only purpose seems to be to tell Mike to move on and date the lovely Tina because "Cam needs a father--and a mother!"  While I appreciate her message of 'move on with your life' I resent the implication that single fathers are incapable of raising a child properly.  After she nags her husband and yells at him to keep fighting to save their son she literally runs away instead of actually, you know trying to save her son herself.  Bill has proven that cardboard characters are more than capable of saving the day and affecting human lives, after all.  But clearly the only thing dead mothers are good for is nagging their husbands and spouting propaganda for 50's-style nuclear families.

Which brings us to the last female character, the one with the smallest role: Marcus's living mother.  Her purpose is to nag Marcus.  She only has a few lines and she speaks almost exclusively in cliches: "Marcus!  How many times have I asked you not to slam your door?!" and "That's no way to talk to your mother!" and "Look at the dark circles under your eyes! Were you up all night again?" and my personal favorite, as her husband helps pull their son out of their collapsing house,  thereby saving his life, she stands back from the action and cries "My beautiful house!"

I don't know what mothers TenNapel has been hanging around but I can tell you that if some monster was trying to eat me even a cardboard simulacrum of my mom wouldn't run away and leave me to its mercy and if I saw a child, even one with no relation to me, pulled from a collapsing building my first concern would not be property damage.   I doubt TenNapel set out with the intention of writing weak female characters or that he has a low opinion of mothers' strength and love of their children, he probably just didn't think about his portrayal of women at all.   Which is why they ended up so sloppy and unrealistic.  But perhaps if reviewers comment on this type of thing instead of just accepting it authors will start to pay more attention and we'll have better female role models for girls who read comics.  I really did enjoy the idea behind this story and I'll look out for TenNapel's next comic, I just hope next time he puts as much careful attention into his characterization as he puts into his beautiful artwork.

Every book its readers:  I think the idea of cardboard creatures coming to life will appeal to a lot of kids and the pacing and imaginative, action-filled artwork is sure to keep them engaged.  Its characterization isn't as strong as its plot, however.  I'd give it to kids grades 4 and up looking for a quick, action-packed comic.


The author has his own website.

The publisher has a page for the book as well.

Source: school library

Cardboard by Doug TenNapel: Buy it or check it out today!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Tiger Lily Review

Book talk:  Neverland is not the fantasy you know it as.  It's an island in the Atlantic that few know how to visit.  Because of its isolation, there are creatures there that cannot be found anywhere else, creatures like mermaids and fairies.  It's one of those creatures, Tinkerbell, who tells us the story of Tiger Lily as she saw it.  Her story is not one of childhood dreams and happy endings.  Neverland can be a dangerous place, and if you're not careful the island will eat you alive.  But for Tiger Lily the most dangerous things on the island are not the native hazards, but the foreigners who wash-up and make the island their home.  Foreigners like the infamous Peter Pan.

Rocks my socks:  This is one of the best re-tellings of a story that I've read.  All of the familiar characters are there, but what were two dimensional archetypes in the original story have been transformed into layered characters with interesting new histories that inform their every move.  Even Captain Hook gets a new back story that lends him some human interest and sympathy: his hand was not eaten by a crocodile "it came off in an assembly line...I was staying up nights to study. I thought I could study my way into being a gentleman. Well, I fell asleep. My hand went in instead of the leather."  Smee, on the other hand, is transformed from a bumbling idiot into a psychopath who literally gets away with murder because he looks so innocuous.

The story is full of outsiders with Tiger Lily and her best friend described as "both misfits or, as I liked to think of them, strange exotic birds, one too fierce to be hemmed in as a girl, and the other too hesitant to be respected as a boy."  My favorite of the new characters introduced in this book is Tik Tok, the medicine man who adopted Tiger Lily as a child.  He wears dresses, grows his hair long, and engages in women's activities instead of hunting with the men.  Everyone in the island accepts him for who he is without a second-thought--that is until an Englishman washes ashore and begins to convert the islanders.  His story is the most heart-wrenching in a novel that is ultimately about heartbreak.  Tinkerbell loves Peter Pan, but she cannot communicate with him even if the difference in their size could be overcome. Tiger Lily is torn between her love of her father and her tribe and her growing affection for Peter, but knows that she can't have both.  Peter senses these difficulties but ignores all his problems in hopes that they'll go away.

Wendy is one of the few characters that isn't presented as vulnerable and broken:  "She had the blissful confidence of someone who had never been put in a pot of turkey broth to die." I think the quote that best describes her though is "She held her skirts against her legs as they walked, making sure to slowly avoid this tiny briar and that muddy boggy spot, for out of all the things in the forest, she noticed her dress the most."  Perhaps this is why she is so attractive to Peter: in an island of misfits she stubbornly insists on molding her surroundings to suit her so that she always belongs.  For the rest of the characters things do not work out as well.  The emotions of the novel are as raw and wild as the Neverland forest: characters act in haste, they make mistakes, they betray each other.  That is precisely why I loved this novel so much.  There are enough stories about people who can do no wrong and love that conquers all.  But unfortunately we are not all Wendys and life doesn't always work like that.  This is a story is for the misfits, for the failed romances, for the voices that are silenced.  This is Tiger Lily's story so it doesn't take Peter's advice and ignore things that are difficult or unpleasant.  I loved it for that, even if it made bawl harder than I have in a long time.

Rocks in my socks:  The only thing that nagged at me was that despite beginning with a warning that things will not end well, Anderson takes a lot of time at the end of the novel describing the rest of the lives of the characters and tying up loose ends to show that everyone was ultimately more or less happy.  I wish some of that had been edited down.  I'm not a fan of lengthy goodbyes in real life or bloated denouements in fiction.

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to people who like darker retellings of classic stories.  Fans of Wicked Lovely and Tender Morsels should enjoy this modern perspective on Peter Pan.  It's definitely more character than plot-driven though so those looking for action scenes with pirate fights should look elsewhere.  There's plenty for adults to enjoy but because it is so dark I'd save it for at least 7th grade and up.

"Let me tell you something straight off. This is a love story, but not like any you’ve heard. The boy and the girl are far from innocent. Dear lives are lost. And good doesn’t win. In some places, there is something ultimately good about endings. In Neverland, that is not the case."

"Peter gave her a crooked smile. 'The way I see it, ignoring things is important.'”

"Every kind of love, it seems, is the only one. It doesn’t happen twice."

"Sometimes love means not being able to bear seeing the one you love the way they are, when they’re not what you hoped for them."


There's an official trailer, but it's pretty short.

The publisher has a webpage for the book that includes a discussion guide.

Jodi Lynn Anderson has an official facebook page.

Source: school library

Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson: Buy it or check it out today!