Sunday, January 31, 2010

"Fire" by Kristin Cashore

Summary: In this companion to Graceling, the world of the Dells is explored, where animals and people--called monsters--with extraordinary beauty and the ability to control people's minds exist.  Fire is one such monster, and she lives in a secluded area with her childhood friend and lover, Archer.  However, Fire is soon drawn into the oncoming war between the King and rival lords and must decide how she will use her powers.  She must also confront her ambivalence toward her monster father and her feelings for Prince Brigan.

Musings: I really enjoyed Graceling, despite finding the ending unsatisfactorily structured, and had been waiting to read this sort-of prequel for awhile.  Much of what I loved about Fire was also found in Graceling: a strong heroine, a romance filled with pining (and mutual respect), and an interesting fantasy world.  Fire is much like Graceling's Katsa in her independence, her unwillingness to be controlled, and her uncertainty over her power.  Her relationship with Brigan is also much like Katsa's relationship with Po, although the very private development of Katsa and Po's relationship contrasts with the slower and more public relationship of Fire and Brigan.

Fire leans even more toward the "traditional" fantasy side, with emphasis on politics, kingdoms, and large-scale wars, rather than just the magic of the world and characters.  I was a little concerned I wouldn't be interested, but as the novel progressed, I found myself being drawn more toward the characters, even though I cared less about the wars.

Cashore is great at creating a feminist fantasy world, and she does the same in Fire.  There was perhaps more focus on menstruation than another other fantasy book I've read (and I've never seen such debilitating PMS before!), but I like that Cashore focuses on real issues facing women, men, and relationships.

The ending to this novel also felt a little off to me, as did the ending to Graceling, and I didn't quite comprehend the emotion Fire displays through the end.  However, it was a fun read in a world I would love to revisit.

***This book qualifies for the TwentyTen Reading Challenge, completing the "young adult" category.

Friday, January 29, 2010

"The Good Earth" by Pearl S. Buck

Summary: Set in pre-revolutionary China, The Good Earth follows the poor farmer Wang Lung and his dutiful slave wife O-Lan.  From humble beginnings and the brink of starvation and death, Wang Lung brings himself and his family into prosperity and riches.  Wang Lung remains committed to his land and his family above all else, but as he ages, he finds the wealth does not bring him as much satisfaction as he had hoped.

Musings:  The Good Earth is my first book for the Books of the Century Challenge.  The novel was the number one fiction bestseller in 1931, the year of its publication, and it also appears under the "critically acclaimed and historically significant" category for that year.  Although my husband read the novel in high school, I was never exposed to it and picked it up because the title sounded familiar, even though I had no idea what the book was about.  I think I had some vague notion of it being along the lines of a Barbara Kingsolver novel (oops), so I was surprised when it was instead about the rise and fall of a Chinese farmer.

The novel has an interesting place in history.  Buck, a white woman born in West Virginia, spent the majority of her life, including her childhood, in China.  That she wrote a novel from the point of view of a Chinese man caused some controversy at the time, and I tried to keep its authorial origin in mind as I read.  In the '30s this novel was most Americans' only glimpse into life in China, and undoubtedly Buck has only portrayed one view of Chinese life at the time.  Nonetheless, I did not find the characters to be caricatures, although I wonder what effect some of the practices (polygamy, feet binding, the favoring of male children) would have had on the American audience.  In any case, the novel must be more evenhanded than the movie version, made in 1937, which has a white cast playing the Chinese characters.

Wang Lung, the protagonist, is a serious and committed man, and he is largely successful in life through his diligence and luck.  He is to be admired for his dedication and achievements where others have failed, but his greatness weakness is his pride.  Shame over his low-bred country origins cause him to lose sight of what he truly loves, which is his land.  In turn, the pride, but not the love of the soil, is passed on to his sons.  He leaves a legacy behind, but not one that he most wants.

O-Lan is a significantly less-explored character than Wang Lung, primarily because the story is told from Wang-Lung's point of view.  Despite economically managing the household, bearing him three sons, and famously returning to work in the fields hours after giving birth, O-Lan is given little thought by Wang Lung.  Her diligence and thriftiness when they are starving and her quick stealing are largely the reasons for Wang Lung's future success, but he is blinded by social expectations of women at that time and fails to see his wife.  He praises himself for not beating or berating her as others do, but she is never granted a place as a person.  The reader, for the most part, fails to see her as more than an extraordinarily capable, but overlooked, wife.

The deeply rooted and pervasive sexism evidenced by the characters is present throughout the novel, and very little is done by the characters to challenge it, although Buck clearly is sympathetic to the women.  Another teacher I know has a great term for judging texts of a certain era by modern standards--retrojecting--and, truthfully, I had a difficult time balancing recognizing the realities of the time with my personal sense of injustice for the ways in which many women suffered.

The novel is written surprisingly simply.  The book is clearly famous for the story it tells, rather than any particular strength of writing style or depth of meaning.  Although set in China, its themes are largely universal: sexism, inter-generational conflict, class conflict, the effects of pride and shame.  Although I felt little connection to any of the characters, the narrative swept me quickly along.

I know this was a high school classic for many years, but I don't know how regularly it is taught today.  I would imagine there are stronger options now, but it would be interesting to compare the novel to one written by a Chinese author set in the same time period. The Good Earth might also be an interesting way to explore Americans' views of China during the early part of the 20th century.

***This book qualifies for the Books of the Century Challenge, the POC Reading Challenge, and the TwentyTen Reading Challenge ("Older Than You" category).

Monday, January 25, 2010

"Lost in a Good Book" by Jasper Fforde

Summary: SpecOps agent Thursday Next is living the happy married life after successfully saving Jane Eyre in the first novel of this series and discovering she's pregnant.  However, Thursday's happiness does not last for long.  Her husband is eradicated--erased from history--and she is pursued by SpecOps agents, the Goliath Corporation, the Chronoguard, and a mysterious enemy who can manipulate coincidences.  Meanwhile, Thursday begins an apprenticeship with Jurisfiction, a group of people and literary characters able to move between books.

Musings: I had fun with the first novel in this series, The Eyre Affair, and the second book was no different.  Like the first novel, the characters weren't particularly exciting in and of themselves (I didn't care much about Thursday's missing husband or impending pregnancy), but the trove of literary allusions, silly puns, and building coincidences keep the book engaging.  For a reader acquainted with the classics, it's a lot of fun to visit literary persons from high school days (ah, 9th grade Great Expectations, how I loathed you at the time, and how I wished I'd appreciated it more now).  I especially like that Fforde always gives due treatment to Shakespeare and his history, as it's something I feel relatively well-versed in.  Lost in a Good Book even gives a nod to the Odyssey.

Of all the potential "super powers" I've read, I like Thursday's newfound one the most: the ability to move in and out of various books.  What possibilities!  If I had such power, I think I'd have to do all the childhood ones first.  The Secret Garden (although I'd go when the obnoxiously prim children were absent), The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles (I would have to pick just the right thinking hat), Island of the Blue Dolphins (I always wanted a wild dog pet)...  

Fforde always keeps the action brisk and the emotions fairly light.  Thursday's husband may be gone, but she isn't so weighed down with it that she can't go jumping through books.  Many scenes were hilarious.  I especially liked the Kafka trial scene (even though I'm not particularly knowledgeable about Kafka, I knew enough) and the plethora of surnames spelling death and destruction of some kind.

At first the ending seemed to be building up a premise for what I thought would be a terrible third book, but thankfully Fforde makes an abrupt and much welcome change at the end.  Lost in a Good Book is a great humorous adult read for anyone who loves books.

- See my reviews of book one in the series, The Eyre Affair, and book three in the series, The Well of Lost Plots.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

"Ash" by Malinda Lo

Summary: In this retelling of "Cinderella," Ash grew up hearing stories of fairies from her mother.  When her mother dies and her father then dies shortly after remarrying, Ash is forced to move in with her mean stepmother and stepsisters back in the city.  Nevertheless, Ash still finds herself drawn to the Woods and the fairy Sidhean while also feeling connection to the King's Huntress, Kaisa.

Musings: I picked this book up on recommendation from Angela at Bookish Blather, and it was also a good book with which to begin the GLBT Challenge 2010 that I signed up for yesterday.

This Cinderella story is not just a feminist retelling, for it seeks to subvert the traditional role of romance in fairy tales.  In fact, the Prince plays little role in the story, and the relationships are instead centered between Sidhean and Kaisa.  When it comes time for Ash to make her choice, the choice is obvious.  Although there is attraction to Sidhean because of his power and and allure as a fairy, there is not love--just a feeling of being consumed.  With Kaisa there is respect and mutual acknowledgment, and it's great to see Ash take agency for whom she will love at the end of the novel.

I enjoyed the set-up of this story.  It borrowed from Cinderella without feeling weighed down by sticking too closely to the well-known story.  By taking the focus away from the Prince, Lo is able to give attention to the fairy world and the Huntress' world.

Nevertheless, I just couldn't get into the book.  It felt far too short to cover all that happens and to fully go into the world Lo has created.  The novel begins when Ash is twelve, and a hundred pages later, she is already eighteen.  It felt as though I was reading a summary of all that happened rather than an actual book. I wanted more of what Ash was thinking or how she was feeling.  The twelve-year-old Ash didn't seem much different than the eighteen-year-old.

Ash's relationship with Sidhean seemed to come suddenly, and I didn't fully understand the fairy world.  The descriptions of Sidhean also sounded so similar to the current typical descriptions of vampires that I found it hard to think of him otherwise.

The most compelling part of the novel is Ash's relationship with Kaisa, and I wish there had been more time spent on them.  (And by the way, what's with all these similar sounding names?  Hunger Games' Katniss, Graceling's Katsa, Ash's Kaisa)  Ash's ending with Sidhean didn't quite fit together with me, but I loved the way she came to Kaisa.

*** Whew!  This book qualifies for the TwentyTen Reading Challenge (Bad Bloggers category), the GLBT Reading Challenge 2010, and the POC Reading Challenge.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

GLBT Challenge 2010 and Persons of Color Reading Challenge

So I'm already nervous about signing up for more challenges, but these are two I've really wanted to do (they're the last ones, though!). I know I naturally gravitate towards some books and not others, but I don't often consciously think about the choices I'm making in what I read. Hopefully these challenges will help me choose books I might otherwise miss. I'd especially like to think about YA literature that fits these categories.  Most of the books I read last year with authors or protagonists of color were adult books, and up until this year, I don't think I'd read any YA with prominent GLBT characters.  I recommend a lot of books to my students, and I want to be more representative in the suggestions I'm giving.

GLBT Challenge 2010: The basic idea of this challenge is to read books about GLBT topics and/or by GLBT authors.

This is not something I did very well on last year.  I'm signing up at the lambda level (four books), but I'm hoping to go above that.

Books Read:
- Ash by Malinda Lo
- Luna by Julie Anne Peters
- Libyrinth by Pearl North
- Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
- Wildthorn by Jane Eagland
- Room by Emma Donoghue
- A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

Persons of Color Reading Challenge: Commit to reading POC characters and authors.

This challenge came from all the recent cover controversy.  By my quick count, I read about twenty books last year with authors or protagonists of color.  I'm signing up at level four (10-15 POC books), but, again, I think I'll be able to go above.

Books Read:
- Ash by Malinda Lo
- The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
- The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow
- Kindred by Octavia Butler
- Liar by Justine Larbalestier
- Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork
- Libyrinth by Pearl North
- Monique and the Mango Rains by Kris Holloway
- Bloodchild by Octavia Butler
- The Freedom Writers Diary by the Freedom Writers and Erin Gruwell
- Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
- A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar
- Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris
- The Help by Kathryn Stockett
- The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
- Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
- The Color of Water by James McBride
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
- The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
- The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
- Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Friday, January 22, 2010

"The God of Small Things" by Arundhati Roy

Summary: Twins Rahel and Estha have been separated for over twenty years, ever since the tragedy involving their cousin Sophie Mol's death (and the Terror) that occurred when they were young.  Covering various points in time, the novel focuses on the relationships between and histories of a family: the twins Rahel and Estha, their divorced mother Ammu, their uncle Chacko, their grandmother Mamachi, and their greataunt Baby Kochamma.  The relationships are pulled and challenged by personal desires and social customs.  Taking place in a small town in India, the novel focuses on the events leading up to and the aftermath of the tragedy which consumed all their lives.

Musings:  Sometimes I feel a bit intimidated when reading "Good Books" (those books esteemed by major award lists and literary critics).  I feel the need to think about the book differently, or focus on the writing in a way I normally might not, instead of just focusing on the book itself.  Although The God of Small Things doesn't have the literary weight of, say, Shakespeare or Faulkner or something, I felt somewhat overburdened with the need to recognize the "lush, lyrical" (according to back cover) nature of the book.  This was completely my own fault and kept me from enjoying Roy's novel as much as I think I could have.

Nonetheless, when I did let myself get into the book, I was taken away by the rich world and characters Roy has created.  The characters, even the children, have complex emotions and feelings, and the way in which the children connect with the world felt authentic.  The novel is full of sensual description which affects both the characters and the reader.

A significant amount of time is spent building up to and revealing the tragedy that has destroyed the characters' lives.  I thought I would become increasingly annoyed with the repeated portents of doom (much as I did in The Book Thief), but as the novel went on, the references to future and past became more natural.  The tragedy, when it unfolds, is more poignant and less sensational than I had first imagined, which made it all the more potent.

The ending of the novel focuses on two personal relationships, and I found those scenes the most touching and moving of the book.  At its core, the The God of Small Things focuses on the struggles between personal desires and convention and the small choices that forever change lives.

**This book fulfills the first part of the "T.B.R." category of the TwentyTen Reading Challenge.  I picked it up at the NCTE convention in November, and it's been sitting on my shelf ever since.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Books of the Century Challenge

One of my blogging goals for this year was to participate in reading challenges when they would encourage me to read things I normally wouldn't. The first challenge I signed up for, while fun, is pretty achievable without trying. The Books of the Century challenge, however, looks like a great one for me because it really will be a challenge--but it's something I want to do.

Books of the Century Challenge  

(condensed from challenge website): The challenge is based on Daniel Immerwahr's The Books of the Century website. Immerwhar has compiled a list for each year of the 20th Century based on:

1. The top ten bestsellers in fiction, as recorded by Publishers Weekly;
2. The top ten bestsellers in nonfiction, also as recorded by Publishers Weekly;
3. The main selections of the Book-of-the-Month Club, founded in 1926;
4. "Critically acclaimed and historically significant books, as identified by consulting various critics' and historians' lists of important books."
    Although I've been reading a lot of young adult and contemporary stuff recently, I don't want to forgo all the "classics."  While these books only represent a narrow range of literature, they also have affected our current understanding of literature in many important ways.  Besides, I also want to be able to talk "canonical literature parlor talk" with the best of the English teachers!  What's interesting about these lists is that they include both popular books and historically significant books. 

    I'm going to participate at the Popular Literary Culture 401 level, which requires participants to read one book from each decade on the list.  I went ahead and listed some reading possibilities below.  I had to rely mostly on books I'd vaguely heard of or read before, so it will be interesting to see how I like the books once I actually sit down with them.

    1900s: completed!
    E. M. Forster, A Room with a View (1908)

    1910s: completed!
    Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland (1915)

    1920s: completed!
    Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929)  

    1930s: completed!
    Pearl S. Buck, The Good Earth (1931)

    1940s: completed!
    Albert Camus, The Stranger (1942)

    1950s: completed!
    John Steinbeck, East of Eden (1952)
    Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
    David Howarth, We Die Alone (1955)

    1960s: completed!
    Frank Herbert, Dune (1965)

    1970s: completed!
    Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions (1973)

    1980s: completed!
    Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day (1989)

    1990s: completed!
    E. Annie Proulx, The Shipping News (1993)

    Tuesday, January 19, 2010

    "The Ask and the Answer" by Patrick Ness

    Summary: The Ask and the Answer picks up right where The Knife of Never Letting Go ends.  Todd and Viola have finally made it to the town of Haven, only to discover that Mayor Prentiss and his army have already taken over the town and renamed it New Prentisstown.  Once in New Prentisstown, Todd and Viola are separated.  As Mayor Prentiss garners more control of the town, Todd finds himself drawn into the Mayor's activities--whether he wants to or not.  Meanwhile, Viola begins her involvement with The Answer, a women's counter-resistance organization bent on bringing down Prentiss.  Along the way both Todd and Viola must face difficult decisions about what is right.

    Musings: The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first book in the trilogy,  is a non-stop engrossing action book, and The Ask and the Answer is no different.  I had planned to read for an hour or two, but instead I read the entire novel straight through and let out a bit of a shriek when the book ended with a great cliffhanger.

    The first novel follows Todd's thoughts, but The Ask and the Answer alternates between Todd and Viola, which gives the reader a good view of what is happening on both sides. This book also goes even darker than the first novel.  Its use of violence and torture was disturbing, but fortunately was used to make a point rather than just be explicit.  Nevertheless, it probably is the most violent YA book I've read.

    When I teach Lord of the Flies to my 9th graders, we discuss the Stanford prison experiment and Milgram's obedience experiment as a way of considering why "good" people do bad things and why "good" people obey terrible orders.  The Ask and the Answer address both of these issues head on.  I was impressed with the way Ness was able to blur the lines between the hero and the enemy, the right actions and the wrong.  He also skillfully addresses issues like slavery, pointing out that feeling bad about being a slave-owner doesn't make one any less of a slave-owner.

    The complexities of the characters' choices alone make this a worthwhile read, but the novel also has interesting characters and a quickly moving plot.  I may have even enjoyed this more than the first novel, which gives me great hopes for the last book in the series, Monsters of Men, due out later this year.

    **This book fulfills the first part of the "young adult" category of the TwentyTen Reading Challenge.

    Monday, January 18, 2010

    TwentyTen Reading Challenge

    My first ever challenge was the YA Dystopian Challenge hosted by Bart's Bookshelf.  I've been way behind on considering challenges for this year, but I thought I'd make my second challenge another one by Bart.  Although I'd probably meet a lot of the requirements for this challenge on my own, I still thought it was a fun challenge with some categories I might not otherwise actively consider.

    Here are the requirements:

    TwentyTen Reading Challenge
    The aim is to read a total 20 books, over ten categories, in 2010. Full details on categories and rules available at the challenge site.

    The categories and my participation:

    1. Young Adult
    - The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness
    - Fire by Kristin Cashore
    2. T.B.R. (I altered this requirement a bit since I don't own that many books: books must be already residents of your bookshelves as of 1/1/10)
    - The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
    - The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen
      3. Shiny & New (bought new or purchased for you new)
    - Peter & Max by Bill Willingham (won new in a giveaway)
    - Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness (purchased new)
    4. Bad Bloggers (books picked up purely on the recommendation of another blogger)
    - Ash by Malinda Lo (recommended by Angela at Bookish Blather)
    - Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork (recommended by Reading in Color)
    5. Charity (bought or purchased for you from charity shops)

    6. New in 2010 (books published in 2010)
    - The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow (published Jan. 2010)
    - Incarceron by Catherine Fisher (published in the U.S. in Jan. 2010)
    7. Older Than You (books published before you were born)
    - The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (published 1931)
    - Kindred by Octavia Butler (published in 1979)
    8. Win! Win! (books needing to be read for other challenges)
    - The Freedom Writers Diary by the Freedom Writers and Erin Gruwell (completes the POC Reading Challenge)
    - Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan (completes the GLBT Reading Challenge 2010)
    9. Who Are You Again? (books by authors you've never heard of)
    - The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason
    - The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly
    10. Up to You! - (I'm making this category for biographies/autobiographies/memoirs)
    - The Northern Lights by Lucy Jago (biography of Kristian Birkeland)
    - Monique and the Mango Rains by Kris Holloway (memoir of a Peace Corp volunteer in Mali)

      Friday, January 15, 2010

      "The Year of the Flood" by Margaret Atwood

      Summary: Set in the same apocalyptic world as Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood follows Ren and Toby, two women who have also survived Crake’s destruction of humankind.  Toby, who has been living in a spa, and Ren, who has survived inside a high class strip club, recall their time in the religious group God's Gardeners and the events that led up to their present situations.

      Musings: The Year of the Flood is structured the same as Oryx and Crake as events in the present are frequently interrupted with flashbacks of the women’s lives pre-apocalypse.  One of the most intriguing parts of reading this kind of dystopian literature is learning about the society that the author has created.  In this case, the society is the same as the one in Oryx and Crake, so there’s little new to discover there.  Instead, Atwood’s newest novel relies on the strength of the characters’ stories and journeys.

      I was a little distracted by the fact that both women had what I would consider boys’ names (I wasn’t sure why), but both women are interesting characters.  Snowman/Jimmy, the protagonist of Oryx and Crake, is a pitiful and despairing character at the best of times, barely able to maintain his sanity.  Ren and Toby, on the other hand, weather the destruction with an eye toward survival and safety.  They're inherently more optimistic characters, which gives the novel a much more positive tone than its predecessor.

      Much of the narrative concerns the women’s time with God's Gardeners, a strict vegetarian religious group that combines science, environmentalism, and religion.  The group is not particularly unique (undoubtedly similar groups exist or have existed), and Atwood seems to strongly support its teachings.  In fact, I was surprised at how positively the group’s religion was portrayed throughout the book--there's little to criticize about the group's teachings, but I didn't expect Atwood to present it in such a uniformly positive light.

      Although the novel begins with only passing reference to specific things in Oryx and Crake (both God's Gardeners and MaddAddam make early appearances in both), as the novel progresses, more and more connections are made between the characters in both, perhaps to a point of contrivance.  By the end of the novel so many characters been implausibly reunited that the novel loses some of its realistic tone.

      The Year of the Flood is, on the whole, a significantly more hopeful book than Oryx and Crake, and it suggests that humanity is less doomed than perhaps previously imagined.  Although The Year of the Flood could be read as a stand alone novel, the novel would be significantly clearer to those who are familiar with Oryx and Crake.

      Update, 11:49am
       Just came across this at Marelisa's "54 Tips For Writers, From Writers" and loved it:
      “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.” — Margaret Atwood 

      Monday, January 11, 2010

      "Stitches" by David Small

      Summary: Small's memoir, in graphic novel form, concerns his childhood and his distant and silent parents.  At a young age, David is subjected to multiple x-rays by his radiologist father, which later cause him to develop cancer.  When the cancerous growth on his throat is finally removed, David is left with only half his vocal cords and a raspy voice.  David finally finds confidence and release through a kind therapist and his art.

      Musings: Other than reading Maus as part of a freshman college seminar, this is the only graphic novel I've read.  Graphic novels are still something of a mystery genre to me, but I saw Stitches reviewed somewhere (I really wish I could remember where), and I was intrigued.  Last year it was also nominated for the National Book Award under "Young People's Literature" (a somewhat dubious categorization, as others have pointed out).

      One of the first things that struck me was the difficulty I had reading this kind of literature.  I'm naturally a fast reader, but I tried very hard to look at the pictures slowly and carefully.  Some pages were entirely pictures (no text), so I especially had to refrain from racing through them.  Even with that, I finished the book quickly.  Making the switch from text to art was a huge challenge that I wasn't quite able to overcome, despite the detail to Small's drawings.  None of this is to deride Small's work in any way, but rather a commentary on my experience with the book.

      One of the things Small was most successful with was evoking a mood through his smoky black and white drawings.  A feeling of dread accompanied the book, especially throughout David's early childhood.  I was afraid of what would happen next, even though the book is not action-oriented.  The shadows that fall across the characters' faces add an extra sense of something ominous hanging over the page and the reader.

      Small is especially adept at capturing the expressions of a lonely, withdrawn, and angry young boy.  Anyone who works with teenagers knows the amount of negative emotion that can be conveyed simply through a look (the most common expressions being of apathy or disgust), and the range is seen in Stitches.  The ability to communicate through looks is of course a metaphor for the book itself, as David uses his art as a means of expression rather than his voice.

      I'm not sure this is a book that most teenagers would appreciate or like; it lacks a traditional plot line and definable characters.  I wouldn't even classify it as a book I liked, although Small's drawings are provocative and his story interesting.  It's just too different for me to have a firm grasp on, but I'm glad I read it.

      Sunday, January 10, 2010

      "The Maze Runner" by James Dashner

      Summary:  Thomas wakes up in a strange box, with no memories of who he is--other than his first name--and where he is.  The box rises and opens, and Thomas finds himself in a strange place called the Glade with other young boys who all arrived like he did.  For two years the Gladers have been trying to figure out an exit to the giant maze which surrounds the Glade and is home to the deadly creatures the Grievers.  The day after Thomas arrives, a girl comes up the box with an ominous message.  Thomas and the other Gladers must try to solve the Maze and escape--their lives depend on it.

      Musings:  The Maze Runner fits squarely within the YA dystopian genre that is so popular right now and is a favorite of mine.  I worry about getting bored of the genre, but the Maze Runner did not fail in delivering an exciting and different storyline.

      The strength of The Maze Runner is the mystery surrounding the boys and the Maze.  Although the beginning chapters can be frustrating as Thomas (and the reader) struggles to figure out what is happening, Dashner does an excellent job of answering enough questions to keep you hooked while opening up new unexplained doors along the way.  The mystery aspect really drew me in (perhaps even more than the characters who were interesting, but not especially unique) and kept me reading.  The novel is the first in a trilogy, and The Maze Runner ends with enough questions answered to not be aggravating but so many more questions raised that I'm sure the next book will be just as engaging.  I can only hope the answers to the questions are as interesting as the questions themselves.

      Happy 1st Blogging Anniversary! (to me)

      Today marks the one year anniversary of my blogging adventure.  I've been thinking a lot recently about why I blog, so I thought I'd take the chance to lay it out in this post.  It's quite long, and perhaps a post meant mostly for myself, but I thought I'd share anyway.

      Like many of us, I was a voracious reader as a child.  But required reading in high school and college, as well as general busyness, significantly dampened my ability (or motivation) to pleasure read.  By the time I was out of school and had a decent amount of free time, I simply wasn't putting forth the effort to read.  I became a high school English teacher, but still I found myself watching TV after school rather than picking up a book.

      The real impetus for my return to pleasure reading came my second year of teaching.  I take my students to the library for an orientation the first week of school.  I was teaching an honors class for the first time, and after the orientation finished, there were still twenty to thirty minutes left in the block.  I was getting ready to wrangle the students up and take them back to the classroom when I saw that most of them were sitting around, reading.  They'd grabbed books and magazines off the library shelves, and were sprawled around the library, reading on their own accord.  I was thrilled.  When one came up and asked if they'd have an independent reading assignment that year, I said yes without thinking.  I had developed no such project, but I wanted to do whatever I could to encourage their personal reading.

      In the project I created, the students were asked to read one book of their choice a quarter and write a book review.  I told the students I would participate as well, so I read and wrote reviews for Eats Shoots & Leaves and Alex and Me.  As the students read, they frequently came to me for book recommendations or commentary on the novels they were reading.  I'd been out of practice so long that I struggled to recommend good books.  So I began reading myself-- first beginning with the books my students had chosen (nothing is cooler than having a totally voluntary literary chat with a kid about a book he/she is in to) and then broadening into other books.  I borrowed books frequently from my students and shared my thoughts with them.

      I had been bored in the afternoons/evenings, watching TV and lounging around with little to do.  Now I began to read and was so much more interested.  But, as I started to read more and more, I found I was bursting with things to say.  My kids could only read so many books, and not always the kind I was interested in, and my husband tried to listen to me, but without reading the books, there was only so much he could say.  My raging interior monologues about the books needed an outlet.

      I'd enjoyed writing the book reviews for my students, so on January 10, 2009, I wrote my first review, in a notebook.  It wasn't until the end of the month that I decided the ease of a blog would be better than pen and paper for my reviews.  My January 30th post on The Road was my first actual blog post (the earlier posts I typed in later and pre-dated).  So I'm cheating a bit for my anniversary--but only a little.

      I loved writing about what I thought about a book, and the knowledge that I would be writing a review after I finished the book helped me think more deeply about what I was reading while I was reading.  The blog also encouraged me to read frequently, rather than lapse into laziness, even though no one else was reading the blog but me.  Writing regularly was an important skill that I'd neglected since graduating with my English major years before, and blogging gave me the opportunity to practice that skill.

      It wasn't until October that I discovered the book blogging community.  Obviously other people wrote about what they read, but I had never really given it much thought before.  Discovering the community was fabulous, because it helped solve one of my major problems, which was finding new books to read.  I was relying primarily on major papers' reviews and organizations' award lists, which didn't always give me the scope I wanted.

      This discovery also raised a serious question for me.  Until then, no one had read my blog.  My husband knew it existed, but he rarely read it, and I hadn't even told any friends or family that I was writing it.  I was concerned about feeling the need to censor what I said if I knew others were reading it.  I worried, particularly as a public school teacher, about the ramifications of posting personal views on the internet (even though I've kept my identity quiet, albeit not completely secret).  If I wanted to be a part of the community, I would have to take some of those risks.

      I decided to take part in my first reading challenge and see what came of it.  From there, I began subscribing to and regularly reading others' blogs.  I got a good idea of what it meant to be an active member of the book blogging community and what it took, as a writer, to achieve a popular status.

      So, a year after I began, I've decided on a few things:
      1. I want reading to be a pleasure, not an obligation.  If I have other worthwhile things going on in my life, I shouldn't feel the need to push those aside to read.  If that means reading a dozen books one month and two books the next, then that's fine. 
      2. I want my blog to be for my reviews.  Although I've occasionally written about other book-related topics, I like (for myself) the aesthetic cleanliness of only (for the most part) posting reviews.  In the end, I think my blog is a selfish project that I hope others might occasionally find interesting.
      3. Acknowledging #1 and #2 means I know that I'll never be an "active" member of the book blogging community.  I will continue to read and comment upon others' blogs because I enjoy doing so, but I don't think I'm willing, at this point, to change the way I read, write, post, and comment to drive more traffic here.  I'm thrilled when people do read and comment upon my blog, but I'm okay if few do.
      However, there are a couple things I want to do this next year:
      1. Comment upon more blog posts when I'm interested in or excited about the book being discussed.
      2. Find more blogs that discuss the kinds of books I'm interested in, to make #1 easier.  For whatever reason, I've found a lot of YA-based blogs, but fewer blogs that discuss the kind of adult literature (in general, steering away from romance, erotica, chick-lit, beach-read, etc.) that I'm interested in.  So I have tons of YA books that I want to read, but fewer recommendations in the adult arena.  I've found a few blogs that I really like, and I'm looking for more!
      3. Participate in a few challenges when they encourage me to explore something I wouldn't do on my own.
      Here's to another year of successful blogging!

      Friday, January 8, 2010

      "Dead Until Dark" by Charlaine Harris

      Summary: Sookie Stackhouse, a pert waitress in Bon Temps, Louisiana, has a disability: she can read people's minds, which makes intimate relationships difficult.  When a vampire visits the bar where she works, she's immediately intrigued.  Although vampires have only recently "come out of the coffin" and are not welcomed by most humans, Sookie is attracted because she can't read the vampire's mind.  Sookie and the vampire, Bill, begin a relationship, and Sookie soon finds herself in danger from other vampires and from a mysterious murderer who has been killing young women in the area.

      Musings: First of all, a huge thanks to Dominique at Coffee Stained Pages for hosting the contest from which I won this book!  I've heard about the series for awhile and had it recommended by some friends, but somehow I never got around to actually picking up one of the books (I think I'm always nervous about engrossing myself in a new long series). I was naturally thrilled the contest put the book right in my mailbox.

      I found the book a lot of fun.  It does have a lot of content similarities to Twilight (though this book was published several years before, of course), but what sets it apart--positively--is its tone and peppy protagonist.  I liked Sookie from the beginning; she's aware of who she is and where she is in the world, but she's completely willing to stand up for herself and others, defying others' prejudices of what she can do.  She's endearingly concerned with manners and politeness, but this is no chaste novel.  Bill is a possessive vampire, but at least that protectiveness is identified for what it is rather than being presented as an indicator of the ultimate romantic relationship.  Similarly, while Sookie and Bill do fall in love, their love is not all-consuming.  Sookie has no desire to leave all that she is to be with Bill, and she lets him know that.

      The book begins with Sookie rescuing Bill and ends with Sookie saving herself, which I loved.  And I also liked that this was truly an adult novel, with a protagonist and vampire more than willing to have a physical relationship--rather than just sigh over each other.

      I think this series will be a nice treat for me that I'll savor over a period of time.

      Tuesday, January 5, 2010

      "My Most Excellent Year" by Steve Kluger

      Summary: T.C. and Augie have been best friends even since T.C.'s mother died when he was six.  In their 9th grade year, each boy finds his life changing as he falls in love for the first time and develops a friendship with a young deaf child--all while spouting show tunes, arguing about baseball, watching Mary Poppins, and referencing history.

      Musings:  As I've mentioned before, Kluger's Last Days of Summer has been one of my students' summer reading books for quite a few years.  Although I wasn't crazy about the book at first, my students absolutely love it.  I was excited for the opportunity to meet Kluger, however, and pick up his newest book.

      Like Last Days of Summer, My Most Excellent Year is written in epistolary form.  While the letters made sense given the time period of LDOS (early 20th century), the conceit doesn't work quite as well here.  Most of the story is told through diary entries the characters are supposedly keeping for English class.  Considering their content, I find that hard to buy.  But the structure does allow for T.C., Augie, and Ale (pronouned "Allie" and short for Alejandra, but I can't figure out in blogger how to do an accent mark on the e) to each present his/her own view.

      I was surprised how similar the basic plot lines of LDOS and MMEY are: baseball, arguing about presidents' worthiness, the Japanese internment camp Manzanar, Asian best friend, boys and adult men who are clueless about girls, a mentoring relationship between an older and younger boy.  MMEY just felt like a modernized LDOS with the slightly older T.C. replacing the main character from LDOS, Joey.  But, I've come to accept that similarities, in themselves, are not really a criticism.  The story's being repeated, but that doesn't make it bad.

      MMEY has a light and breezy tone with nary a conflict or hindrance in the characters' ways.  Some profuse cursing and the reality of World War I gave LDOS some grit, which MMEY lacks.  Nonetheless, the characters are endearing, and that's what carries the novel.

      I especially loved Augie's developing relationship with Andy.  I think this is the first YA book I've read with a main gay character, and I'm so glad to see it.  Although Augie is stereotypically flamboyant (obsessed with old Broadway-- think Kurt in Glee), his burgeoning relationship with Andy is sweet and given just as much space as T.C. and Ale's relationship.

      The book is written from a very innocent view of love and relationships (first kiss is enough to knock you off your feet for weeks), which I at first found a bit unbelievable, but I can still remember the time when the idea of a real kiss was terrifying and I was barely able to breathe while sitting next to a boy.  I was also surprised at the emotional effusiveness of the teenage boys (do 14-year-olds really sit around talking about being in love?), but then again, maybe I shouldn't be so cynical.

      In the end, MMEY  is a sweet and funny, if not overly problem-free, look at teenage relationships.  It's not reality or real people, but the idealization doesn't make the book any less enjoyable.

      Friday, January 1, 2010

      "American Gods" by Neil Gaiman

      "Would you believe that all the gods that people have ever imagined are still with us today?"
      "And that there are new gods out there, gods of computers and telephones and whatever, and that they all seem to think there isn't room for them both in the world.  And that some kind of war is kind of likely." (308)
      When people of various cultures and origins came to America, they brought their gods, legends, and myths with them.  As time went on, people abandoned their old religions, but the gods did not disappear.  They remained in America, growing weak from lack of prayer, sacrifice, and worship.  In turn, new gods--of technology, of media--grew stronger, although history has shown that no god stays in the people's minds forever.  American Gods follows Shadow, a man due to be released from prison who is eager to return to his wife Laura.  Days before his release, he learns Laura is dead, and he finds himself in the employment of the mysterious Wednesday.  Suddenly he is in the middle of the impending war of the gods.

      Musings: I'm certainly a Neil Gaiman fan, and I think he's actually my most read author of this past year.  American Gods probably would not be the first Gaiman novel I'd recommend to someone else, but I enjoyed reading it.

      Like Gaiman's other works, American Gods does an excellent job combining the real world and fantasy world in a way that makes it seem as though both could occur simultaneously.  And like in Neverwhere, this book has an "ordinary" man exploring this fantasy world, trying to make sense (along with the reader) of the mysteries and strange people encountered on the journey.

      Shadow, the protagonist, is a likable character whose steadfastness and loyalty carry him throughout the book.  He is a foil to his employer, Mr. Wednesday, who uses lies and trickery to get what he wants.  Gaiman is skilled at populating his world with interesting characters, which in this case include the cranky Czernobog, the elderly Hinzelmann (AG gives a lot of time to old characters, something you don't see a lot), and the wife Laura.

      Although I liked the colorful characters, I did find the sheer number of characters somewhat overwhelming and occasionally found myself getting them mixed up.  Since many of the characters rely on cultures' mythologies and legends, I also felt I was sometimes was missing out on plot points because I was not familiar with those mythologies.  I knew Anansi was a trickster, and I was familiar with the names Odin and Loki, but that was about it.

      So many mysterious and deep moments come and go that I don't feel sure of a central theme.  Perhaps a second reading of the book would make it easier to piece together the different moments on Shadow's odyssey.  He goes through so much and is told so little at a time that I gave up trying to follow the meaning of his path.  At the end, Shadow claims he hasn't really learned anything, and maybe that's the truth for us all.

      There is some interesting commentary in the novel on why gods and other figures of worship are created, but it was a bit hidden in all the other craziness of the book.

      My only coherent question upon finishing the book was "Where's Santa Claus?"  I wonder what side he'd be on.