Monday, May 31, 2010

"The Battle of the Labyrinth" by Rick Riordan

Summary: Percy and his friends are aware that the Titan god Kronos, supported by the half-blood Luke, has been gaining power.  When a entrance from the mythical Labyrinth of Daedalus is found into Camp Half-Blood, the friends know Luke will try to use it to gain passage into camp.  Percy, Annabeth, Grover, and Tyson set off on a quest into the Labyrinth themselves to try to find Daedalus and enlist his help in preventing Luke from using the maze to attack camp.

Musings: The Battle of the Labyrinth is the fourth book in the Percy Jackson series.  It's also the first book of the series I listened to on audio book rather than read, so I think my experience with the novel is inextricably tied up to the method by which I took it in.  As I've mentioned earlier, I listen to my audio books in bits and spurts while doing chores or cooking.  For this reason, I've chosen simpler MG/YA books to listen to on audio.  But while the Percy Jackson books are simple enough when reading them, I found it hard to keep track of the monsters and different stops on the quests when I was only listening to short excerpts at a time (and reading other books in between).  For in The Battle of the Labyrinth particularly, there isn't much plot.  Percy and his friends face many stops on their quests and battle many enemies, but little actually happens in terms of the overarching story line.  I was never able to really get into the story.

This doesn't mean that there isn't fun along the way, but not a lot felt new.  Percy and Annabeth's relationship has really reached the "just get it over with!" breaking point and Grover's search for Pan results in an environmental message that, while admirable, has been way overdone.

There is an interesting stop with Calypso, who Riordan has altered from the seductress nymph of the Odyssey to a sweet, innocent, and lonely teenage girl.  But I found Calypso's characterization more interesting than the stop itself, which didn't seem to have much effect on the plot.

Jesse Bernstein narrates the version of the book I listened to, and while he has a boyish tone that seems appropriate for Percy, he also has the annoying habit of making almost all of Percy's (and occasionally Annabeth's) statements into questions?  So that Percy seems perpetually unsure?  And a bit ditzy?  Which can get annoying really quickly?  He also pronounces Hera as "Hee-ra" (I've always pronounced it "Hair-a" and Merriam-Webster says "Hear-a" is also acceptable, but no "Hee-ra"), which kinda annoyed me.

I think this is a series that perhaps was extended into more books than was necessary, but it will be nice to have a final conclusion with the fifth book, The Last Olympian.

- Read my reviews of the first book in the series, The Lightning Thief, the second book in the series, The Sea of Monsters, and the third book in the series, The Titan's Curse.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

"Monsters of Men" by Patrick Ness

Summary: This third book in the Chaos Walking trilogy picks up directly where The Ask and the Answer ends.  Todd is forced to release Mayor Prentiss after discovering an army of Spackle marching on attack to the city.  Viola, meanwhile, attempts to stop the Answer from its simultaneous attack.  Soon all forces are at odds: Prentiss' army, the women-led Answer, the Spackle army, and the new settlers.  Some are calling for war, some for peace, and some for uneasy alliances.  Todd and Viola try to rely on their devotion to one another, but there is no clear right option, and thousands of lives are at stake.

Musings: Truthfully, I think I may be too emotionally fragile to speak articulately about the book right now, but I'll try.  Because if there's anything Ness can do, it's connect the reader so tightly to his characters' emotions that you're not just following a story, you're following individual characters' inner lives, which are so full of anger, sadness, and joy.  And so, like with the two earlier books in the trilogy, I finish Monsters of Men exhausted.  Even now I think my heart is still pounding and my eyes swollen.  I felt so deeply what Todd and Viola were feeling that their pain was my pain (perhaps echoing the Noise the men must live with?).  When the emotion got too unbearable, I would jump off the couch and beg my husband to read the last few pages and tell me it would all be okay (he refused).  But, as the mark of a good writer, Ness created a story and world in which no ending is assumed or inevitable.

Okay, deep breath, try again.

This emotional response is shaped by two factors: the breakneck speed of the story and the book's style.  Monsters of Men starts approximately half a second after The Ask and the Answer, immediately plunging the reader into full-scale war.  There's no opportunity to get casually reacquainted with the characters and the story--you must commit right away.  And Ness' use of alternatively short choppy sentences and long run-on sentences made the characters' feelings all the more urgent and pressing.

Like the first two books in the series, Monsters of Men also raises pertinent ethical questions without presenting a clear moral path.  Although I love the Hunger Games series, it is obvious that the Capitol is evil and the resistance is good.  There is no such clarity within this series.  Specifically, Monsters of Men addresses the relationship between Todd and Viola and the effect of their feelings for one another: if a person would do anything for another individual, is that good or dangerous?

The characters are truly multi-dimensional; no one is good or bad, or with simple motivations.  I especially loved the closer look at the Spackle and their lives.

I have no doubt that Monsters of Men is already a must-read for anyone who's read the first two books in the series.  Because of its unique style and ethical dilemmas, I would highly recommend it and the series to anyone who likes dystopian fiction.

- See my reviews of book one in the series, The Knife of Never Letting Go, and book two in the series, The Ask and the Answer. 

***This book qualifies for the TwentyTen Reading Challenge (Shiny & New Category)

Saturday, May 29, 2010

"Dune" by Frank Herbert

Summary: 15-year-old Paul Atreides has just moved to the planet Arrakis with his father, the Duke Leto Atreides, and his mother, the Lady Jessica, a Bene Gesserit--a woman trained in secret skills.  Arrakis is a desert planet, valuable only for its addictive spice.  Duke Leto has been granted rulership over the planet by the Emperor, but the family is betrayed and the planet overrun by the Atreides' greatest enemy: the Harkonnens.  Paul and his mother must flee and they join a group of Fremen, the blue-eyed natives of Arrakis whose ways are largely a mystery.  But even among the Fremen Paul is special, a man with powers beyond all others as a result of training and careful breeding by the Bene Gesserit, and many believe Paul is the Lisan al-Gaib, an off-world prophet who will lead the Fremen to victory and prosperity.

Musings: Although I'm a fan of science-fiction, I rarely read "high" science-fiction, a category into which Dune clearly belongs.  But I thought I should at least be familiar with what is probably the greatest classic of the category.

Dune does have some of the trappings of high sci-fi (or fantasy) that often turn me off: numerous strange names, a focus on politics over individual stories, and excessive and rigid cultural rituals.  Compared to most of the books I read, I found it slow-moving, and it took me considerably longer to finish than most fiction.  Paul's abilities are so far beyond any human that he is impossible to identify with.  So much time is spent on his (and frequently his mother's) amazing powers (particularly their Bene Gesserit skills of observation) that I just became less impressed.  I did enjoy the stories of side characters such as Gurney Halleck and the Fremen Chani more.

Nonetheless, Herbert has created a fully-fleshed world, and the details of Arrakis are perhaps the most interesting part of the book.  In the desert planet, water is the highest commodity available, and all aspects of life, from death to marriage, revolve around the conservation of water.  The Fremen's adaptation to the harshness of the planet is particularly fascinating. 

The novel was written in 1965, but many of its themes are just as pressing today.  Although the continual politicking was not my thing, it does work to emphasize the tensions and conflicts of this planet and the way in which those who would rule well cannot gain power just by being good, but by playing the game--something that's much more true to life than most sci-fi books.  Dune also discusses the confluence of politics and religion and the way in which one can be exploited by the other; it's another very timely issue and one I found interesting.

Those who enjoy books on an epic, grand-scale nature will most appreciate Dune.  It's certainly similiar in some ways to the Lord of the Rings trilogy although Dune lacks the lovable and fallible Frodo to center the story.  However, Herbert's world building is far above many contemporary works, and I can see why this is such a classic.

***This book qualifies for the Books of the Century Challenge.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

"Will Grayson, Will Grayson" by John Green and David Levithan

Summary: Will Grayson has always lived in the shadow of his friend Tiny, "the world's largest person who is really, really gay, and also the world's gayest person who is really, really large" (3).  Although they've been best friends for years, Will is increasingly annoyed at being dragged along by Tiny, his plans for his musical called Tiny Dancer, and his plans to hook Will up with a girl named Jane.  Meanwhile, across town, will grayson hates his life.  His only solace is his online relationship with a boy named Issac, the only person who knows will is gay.  When Will and will unexpectedly meet, their relationships become tied up together, and both Wills begin to be forced to actually make decisions in their lives.

Musings: Will Grayson, Will Grayson was a fun book that combines humor and adolescent angst in a way that feels real and poignant.  Each Will is a distinct character.  Will has gotten through life by staying in the shadows, and although he doesn't regret writing a letter to the school paper in defense of Tiny, he's determined to avoid any other changes in life by never committing or offering opinions.  will is full of stereotypical "emo" angst, but I mostly found his cynicism funny because I totally know students like that.  Musing on his mom's attempt to engage in morning conversation, will thinks:
i feel bad for her -- i do. a damn shame, really, that i had to have a mother. it can't be easy having me for a son. nothing can prepare someone for that kind of disappointment. (23)
Tiny is the world around which each boy revolves, and the reader can't help but adore Tiny.  He's so full of life and love for everyone, and despite the growth of the Wills in the novel, it's Tiny who's the standout character.

The issues of first love, high school relationships, and coming out are done well.  I liked that we see a range of gay characters with different personalities.  The depths and importance of male friendships are acknowledged in a way that I imagine few teenagers would be willing to admit, but they are very sweet.

***This book qualities for the GLBT Reading Challenge 2010 and the TwentyTen Reading Challenge ("Win! Win!" category).

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"We Were the Mulvaneys" by Joyce Carol Oates

Summary: The Mulvaneys are a well-to-do farm family in a rural community in New York.  The family--husband and wife Michael and Corrine and their four children: Mike Jr., Patrick, Marianne, and Judd--are popular and respected in town.  But on Valentine's Day, 1976, all that is changed when Marianne is raped after a school dance.  Suddenly the family is reeling and torn apart from shame, guilt, and anger; the once-liked family feels scorned and the tight knit clan breaks apart.  We Are the Mulvaneys follows each of the family members as he or she struggles to find acceptance and belonging in the aftermath of tragedy.

Musings: Although I had a disastrous experience with my previous Oates novel, I respected her other writings enough to be willing to give this novel a chance.  I'll admit I was reluctant to begin the book (I read it primarily because I'd read several YA books in a row, and this was the only adult book I had around to switch things up) and nearly stopped part way in, but I did finish--and feel more positively about the novel now that I'm done.

We Were the Mulvaneys is a book that focuses primarily inward on the individual characters and their feelings, thought processes, and past experiences.  The novel is told in the future but spends most of the time alternating between 1976 and earlier years of the family growing up.  In the beginning I found this a bit annoying, as the "tragedy that rips the family apart" (it sounds so cliched I feel the need for quotation marks) is ominously alluded to without the reader directly being informed what had happened.  The reader would be given a glimpse of the truth--only to be taken back to a long chapter about them as kids.  Fortunately the "secret" is revealed soon enough (so I don't feel it's really a spoiler to say in the summary that Marianne is raped), and some of that unnecessary tension goes away.

Much of my problem, particularly in the middle of the novel, came from my absolute hatred of Michael Mulvaney.  He's a weak, selfish, pathetic man who internalizes Marianne's rape as his own personal shame and uses it as an excuse to reject his daughter, and eventually his entire family, business, and life.  I've no problem with villains who are intended as villains, but Michael is portrayed as a sympathetic character.  I personally thought he was the biggest piece of crap I'd ever read about, and I felt only infuriation with the family's, and especially Corrine's, defense of him.  I had a similar difficulty with The Glass Castle, in which I also detested the parents.  When people are self-centered and worthless by their own choice and devices, I don't believe they deserve anyone's pity.

Meanwhile, the completely selfless Marianne is given no support; she too internalizes shame from her rape, and because she is never told is it not her fault, she spends much of her life excusing herself from existence.  Although the brothers are allowed to come to terms with the rape, Marianne herself is not.  I was somewhat bothered by the focus on the way the rape hurt the men. It was done to the woman, and truthfully I could care less if the men's macho protective egos could handle it or not.

I warmed to the novel some by the end, but although I'd certainly recommend this in a heartbeat over The Tattooed Girl, it wasn't a favorite.

Monday, May 10, 2010

"The Mysterious Benedict Society" by Trenton Lee Stewart

Summary: An ad in the newspaper inquires, "Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?"  Reynie, a bright orphan, responds to the ad, taking and passing a series of odd tests.  When he finishes, he is introduced to three other extraordinary young people:  Sticky, a nervous genius, Kate, a brave and resourceful girl, and Constance, a tiny girl most proficient in whining and stubbornness.  These four have been brought together by Mr. Benedict for the purpose of infiltrating an isolated boarding school run by Mr. Curtain.  Forming the "Mysterious Benedict Society," the four friends must try to learn of Mr. Curtain's evil plan and stop it--before Mr. Curtain is able to gain control over the world.

Summary: I was discussing favorite books from childhood with one of my students, and she immediately said this was one of her favorites.  It sounded cute, so she brought it in for me to borrow.

The Mysterious Benedict Society is a fun story with lively characters.  Each character has clear strengths and weaknesses, and though the message is obvious--only by working together can people be successful--the story is no less fun.  My favorite character is Kate, who brings her resourceful bucket with her wherever she goes.  Reynie and Sticky may be the brains and cleverness of the operation, but she is definitely the brawn.  Constance drove me crazy, just as she does the characters, but her gallant actions in the end made it all worthwhile.

The story is part mystery and part action as the characters snoop around the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened.  It's fun to figure out the clues as the characters do.  The tone is light and exciting (it's compared to the Lemony Snicket books, which I think is apt, although this isn't nearly so self-referential and doesn't directly address the reader).

The villian's evil plans are a bit vague, and the happy ending is perhaps too easy, but the book is a lot of fun, and I think it would be great for middle grade readers.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

"A Great and Terrible Beauty" by Libba Bray

Summary: Gemma Doyle is a 16-year-old British girl living in India when her mother is suddenly killed in mysterious circumstances only Gemma is aware of.  Gemma is sent off to boarding school in Victorian England where she befriends three girls: the beautiful Pippa, the conniving Felicity, and the meek Ann.  With her friends, Gemma begins to explore a group known as the Order and realize that she has powers that enable her and her friends to visit the other-worldly realms.  But Gemma learns that there are dangers as well as pleasures to the realms, and that her mother is more wrapped up in it than she had imagined.

Musings: This is my first audiobook review here.  In general, I've not been particularly interested in audiobooks except for when my husband plays them on long car rides.  But, now that I can download a number of audiobooks free from the library (and straight onto my iPhone), it's even easier to listen to them.  I listened to A Great and Terrible Beauty whenever I was doing chores or other monotonous work around the house, so it took me well over a month to finish the book, rather than the few days I'd normally take.

Typically this book would not be on my to-read list.  The cover has a photograph of a girl's back (photographs and disembodied people all equal "ugh" in my mind), and "Victorian boarding school novel" is not something I'd immediately run to.  But, I loved Bray's Going Bovine so much that I was willing to give this book a chance.

I knew going in that Going Bovine and A Great and Terrible Beauty were significantly different, and that's certainly the case.  The zany wackiness, absurdity, and humor I loved in Going Bovine are not present here, and the story--for the most part--is significantly more conventional.  In fact, I was initially turned off by the standard beginning of the novel.  Gemma is a slightly rebellious teenager who spends most of the opening whining about her life.  When she gets to the stuck-up boarding school, she is made roommates with the unpopular dumpy girl Ann and the cool and popular girls--Pippa and Felicity--hate Gemma and try to make her life miserable.  Ho-hum.  Fortunately this set up is done away with quickly, and the book moves into the four girls' tentative friendship and their exploration of the Order and the realms.

The girls are standard archetypes, but they're also shown as multi-faceted people.  Each of the friends is "damaged" in some way, and much of the allure and danger of the realms comes from each girl's desire to change her course in life.  I also loved the way the girls are willing to break the rules, acknowledging that Victorian girls could be just as "bad" as teenagers today.

The supernatural elements of the novel never quite settled with me fully, and perhaps that was because I was listening to the book in bits and pieces.  I couldn't get a full grasp of what it was and the good and evil elements of the place.  Nonetheless, I liked the mystery that the realms provided.

Bray also includes significant feminist commentary throughout the book, particularly related to the social expectations of how women should act and the limited options available to women.  The realms give the girls power they cannot have in the real world, which seeks to control their every action.

The only significant male figure in the book is Kartik, a mysterious Indian man who follows Gemma from England and warns her against the danger of entering the realms.  Bray does a great job of making Kartik hot and dreamy, and the book includes probably the most erotic scene I've read in YA (especially odd considering there really isn't any romance), but I just didn't understand Kartik's presence.  He's around but never does much, and I don't know that the novel would have been any different without him.  I'm assuming he'll play a large role in the following two books of the series.

Josephine Bailey, the narrator of the audiobook, does a nice job distinguishing the girls' voices. As I mentioned, Gemma comes off whiny early on, but I grew to like her.  Unfortunately the second book in the series, Rebel Angels, isn't available in audiobook from my library download, so I'll have to actually read it.  It'll be interesting to compare my experiences with the series in two different mediums.

I'd recommend the book to anyone who likes light fantasy and a twist on the standard boarding school drama.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

"The Lost Symbol" by Dan Brown

Summary: Professor and symbologist Robert Langdon is unexpectedly called to Washington, D.C. by an old friend, Peter Solomon.  When Langdon arrives in D.C., however, he learns that it was not Peter who summoned him to the nation's capital, but instead a madman who has captured Peter in an effort to coerce Langdon into helping him unlock the Ancient Mysteries of the Masons, of which Peter is a member.  On a mad chase through Washington, D.C., avoiding the dangerous CIA Director Sato and assisting Peter's scientist sister Katherine, Langdon must unlock the hidden meanings of old secret codes if he will ever save Peter.

Musings: Obviously Brown is known for his thriller/mystery The Da Vinci Code, and Brown certainly does not seek to break the mold here.  The Lost Symbol is structured almost laughably similarly to The Da Vinci Code: the obsessive madman orchestrating the scheme, the secret society that has existed throughout history, the pretty woman helper, and more.  There's nothing new in the plot line, but that's not really a criticism, as the book doesn't seek to be great literature.  Brown is most talented at cliff-hanger chapter endings and a ever-evolving puzzle, and he delivers that through much of the book.

The chapters are short (in a 500+ page book there were over 130 chapters), which keeps the pace quick.  I also liked the D.C. setting of the book.  It was nice to recognize the buildings and locations they visit and learn more about the classical origins of much of D.C. (something my husband studied in college, in fact).  Although this book also addresses the disconnect (or connection) between science and religion, it wasn't as annoying as Brown's earlier works in insisting that most people are unable to associate the two ("Oh, you are a religious person who believes in SCIENCE?! What is this? It is impossible! Aaah!").

The novel can give way to lots of eye-rolling at times, especially when Brown describes the enraptured students in college classes (has he ever been to a college class?) or the shock! awe! dumbstruck-ness! when a character finally understands what had been a mystery.  One of the major secrets was pretty obvious from early on in the book, and I felt the message of the final mystery was obnoxiously patronizing--and quite a bit of a let down.

Nonetheless, it was a quick read, and most of the time I had fun with it.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

"Jellicoe Road" by Melina Marchetta

Summary:  For years, a "war" has raged between the students at Jellicoe boarding school, the Townies, and the Cadets (in town for only six weeks a year) over property.  This year Taylor Markham, a girl mysteriously brought to the school as a child, is the leader of Jellicoe School and Jonah Griggs, a boy who Taylor ran off with in hopes of finding her mother three years ago, is the leader of the Cadets.  As old tensions rise between the new leaders, Taylor is further hurt when Hannah, a caretaker at the school, disappears.  Through Hannah's writings, which remained behind, Taylor learns about five best friends who lived there many years ago.  As Taylor struggles with her relationships and her desire to know her past, she finds more and more connections between herself and those around her.

Musings: Looking at other blogs, I've found this book tends to inspire extreme reactions: in all the blog posts I saw about it, bloggers either adored the book or couldn't finish it.  And after finishing it myself, I can completely understand both responses.

The first half (perhaps even two-thirds) of the book I found difficult to get through.  In a novel of mysteries there's always a fine line between confusing the reader and keeping up suspense, and I'm not sure the book is always successful.  The novel switches between Taylor's point of view and Hannah's writings about the five friends, and while it was clear there was a connection, I had a hard time remembering sufficient pieces to connect them together.  In fact, I could not remember who was who among the five friends until nearly the end of the novel.

More significantly, I simply could not connect with Taylor.  I had no grasp of who she was and what she wanted.  In fact, throughout the entire book, she never seemed like a real person to me.  She is almost constantly overwhelmed by emotion, and her inability to have any "normal" kind of existence made her feel foreign.  Her relationships were even more inexplicable.  I found her relationships with Hannah and the other students unclear.  Nearly all the relationships in the book are guided by intense undying passion, which has always kind of irked me in books.  Some people do move on, but apparently no one in Jellicoe Road does.

The war between the three sides added extra confusion to the story.  It wasn't clear whether the war was serious or not and what the purpose really was.  I was happy when it became a significantly less important part of the story.

But, I'll admit, I was eventually drawn into the book.  I think it was when the relationships between people were finally acknowledged, even haltingly, and some pieces of the puzzle began to fall together.  There's something about the relationship between Taylor and Jonah that's appealing, even though I still scoffed at the fervor which accompanied it and every other bond between characters.

This is definitely not a book for everyone.  It's furtive, hazy, and emotional with characters who are intense feelings rather than people.  But there's a unique story and mystery here and a romance that will definitely attract some readers.  Overall I prefered Marchetta's Finnikin of the Rock, but I think there's something about the book that will echo with me for awhile.