Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Co-review: Inkheart

Imagine if when you read out loud from a book, something or someone from that book would appear in your room. But in exchange, something or someone from your world would disappear into the story you were reading. This is the premise for Inkheart by Cornelia Funke. It's the story of Meggie, whose father, Mo, keeps moving them around in his profession as a book doctor, repairing and restoring old books. When one night a mysterious man appears, it starts to uncover all the secrets Mo has kept over the years. Meggie is twelve and no longer tolerant of Mo's explanations for their moving patterns, her mother's disappearance and why her father has never read out loud to her.

My summary basically takes you through a big part of the beginning of the book, but it doesn't reveal some of the best parts. The villains of this book are delightfully fiendish and Meggie's great-aunt Elinor is one of my favorite characters. The language feels older, which makes a reference to a cell phone feel bizarre, but it could be that the book was originally written in German and that's how the English translation worked out. The setting is Europe, with most of it being in Italy, and wasn't written for an American audience, but as we see with Harry Potter, that's not stopping this book from becoming a favorite in the States.

As with all of our co-reviews, spoilers abound and if you really do want to read this book, go no further. I hope the previous two paragraphs entice you enough to go read a copy.

Jenny: Every person of novel-reading age at our house has read this book and it's a favorite. It's exciting, the concept is cool and you can't help but root for our girl, Meggie. The thing I wasn't crazy about it how many times they go back and forth to Capricorn's compound. I got kinda bored of it, but there was plot development amidst at the back and forth to the village. I also thought it was silly that Meggie calls her dad, Mo. Where does that happen outside of books and tv? Not terribly important to gripe about, but it annoyed me.

I loved all the quotes from books at the beginning of chapters and the literary references littered throughout. I was tickled when she talks about Shel Silverstein's book of poems, Where the Sidewalk Ends because it was one of my favorite things to read as a child. It's becoming more trendy and cool to be a reader, and this book is an example of the heroes being lovers of books.

Caren: I liked that hero aspect too, but I noticed that she also pointed out some of the drawbacks of being an imbalanced book-lover. Like Elinor (a favorite of mine, too) and her inability to have real meaningful relationships because she only cared about her books. I also agree with you about the tennis-match plot back and forth from the village. I expected more to develop, so when they kept ending up back there it was a little disappointing.

But don't get me wrong, I was never bored. She did a good job of taking a plot that sounds like it wouldn't have a lot of potential (characters from a book coming alive -- that'd be interesting for only a few minutes) and made it very convincing. When Basta kept finding them no matter where they hid, when Capricorn was threatening even to the writer who created him, when super-practical Elinor found herself swallowed up in a story containing mythical creatures and evil villains -- just a few examples of how it was a lot more serious and dark than I would have expected. But not so dark that it was beyond the intended audience. Just enough to keep the pages turning!

The time period was a little jarring for me too. When it first mentioned Meggie wearing jeans I had to go back and reread the beginning to make sure I hadn't imagined her reading by candlelight. And then because so much of it took place in Capricorn's village, it was easy to get lost in the setting and forget that this was the age of the Internet and cell phones. I can't decide if that showed how skillfully Funke created her setting, or if it was a sign of inconsistency in the writing.

The relationship between the reader, the author, and the written word was really interesting, I thought. Especially once she brought Fenoglio into the story and suddenly he was faced with being accountable for these horrible, evil characters that he had created. And for him to end up in his own book at the end....! I didn't see that one coming!

Jenny: I loved it when they brought in Fenoglio and kind of got the hunch that they were going to have him rewrite passages from the book, or write something to get rid of the bad guys, something along those lines. I was a teensy bit disappointed to have figured out the ending, since I like to be surprised, but even though I knew what was going to happen, I was excited to see how it would unfold. But I definitely didn't see Fenoglio ending up in his own book so she surprised me after all!

With Elinor, I thought it was interesting to see her reflect on her relationship with her father as the reason why she is so distant. Since I liked her ornery self so much, I was even happier to see her develop into a more personable, loving, grandmother-figure for Meggie. I have to admit to a little bit of covetous drooling over her collection of books and a horrified despair come over me at the burning of her most precious books. Elinor's furious dash back to Italy to kick Basta's heiny for burning her babies was finally the motivation she needed to get involved and want to save the day. I'm really, really glad they brought Darius back with them too and gave him something to do. Poor guy couldn't help being a quivery mess who couldn't read out loud properly.

The character I felt sorry for was Dustfinger. He obviously wasn't a stalwart fellow and was not suited for Meggie's world. I mean, I'm glad he turned out to be helpful, but he's still really looking out for Number One. I'm kinda sad that Farid is his tag-a-long, since he isn't the best role model, but oh well. Speaking of Farid, future love interest for Meggie? I think so.

My question that might be dumb because, really, who doesn't want more books? is why didn't Basta and The Magpie disappear with the rest? Just to make a sequel? I read the first chapter of the next book and let me tell you, it is enticing. I'm hoping Funke will explain the whole non-disappearing Basta and Magpie business.

Caren: Yeah, them not disappearing was weird. Is she going to explain it eventually or will it just be one of those "who knows why the magic works the way it does?" sort of things? It did seem like sort of a cheap way to set up a sequel, but at least Capricorn died -- I would have been really unhappy if he'd continued into the next one.

I liked some of the unexpected ways that she developed the characters, like you mentioned with Dustfinger and Farid. And I was disappointed that Farid ended up going with Dustfinger after all, since he is young enough that he could really benefit from a better influence. But I'm sure we haven't seen the last of them!

One bittersweet character twist concerned Meggie's mother. I was so happy that they found her, but it was so heartbreaking that she'd lost her voice when Darius clumsily read her out of the story. As if nine years of separation wasn't hard enough! It would have been a bit simplistic, but I was sort of hoping that it would be fixed with Fenoglio's new ending.

My 5-year-old has recently started reading the Magic Tree House series about a brother and sister who go visit the locations in their books, but their visits are always short and they return safely at the end of their adventures (it's for young kids, after all). The thought of someone being stuck in a story forever put a more malevolent twist on that universal reader's wish, which prompted some discussion in our family on if there were any books that we'd ever want to stay in permanently. I soon realized that all of my favorite stories included so much fear and good vs. evil that I would never want to live in them! I couldn't even handle something safe like a Jane Austen novel because I wouldn't want to give up modern luxuries like indoor plumbing and disposable contacts. The only one I could consider is a Harry Potter novel, where I could enjoy an awesome world but without losing the conveniences of the one I live in. So apparently I was born into the right story!

Jenny: That's funny because I had the same conversation with my husband and seven-year-old, who have both read the book, and my daughter brought up the Harry Potter books! But I agree, too many stories have aspects that would seriously cramp my cushy lifestyle. Those Magic Treehouse kids have it good, popping back and forth.

I wonder if in the second book Basta steps up as the villain, or if Funke pursues the Inkworld story more and introduces some characters there. I've read just a few pages into it, but it looks like Inkspell has quite a bit that takes place in the world that is the book Inkheart. My husband took it with him when he left the country for work, so I'll just have to wait.

By the way, have you seen a trailer for Inkheart the movie coming out in January? Looks like a pretty big departure from the book, but lots of fun. I might just have to see it someday.

Caren: Oh, that would be really fun if the next book develops the Inkheart world. That was one thing that was very tantalizing about this story, that the original Inkheart world and story remained such a mystery. I actually liked that aspect -- that she didn't feel like she had to reveal all of the story behind the story, but just gave us enough teasers to keep us wondering.

I haven't seen the trailer for the movie, but this would be a fun movie if they do it well. I wonder if it would be too much for my kids. They don't handle scary very well, and I could easily see it going either way with this story!

Jenny: Unfortunately, my kids cannot handle any scary. Maybe a teensy bit, but not much at all. Someday, perhaps.

What a fun read for December! Worth your reading time.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

An Odd Holiday

And no, I don't mean a close encounter with a nefarious fruitcake. I'm referring to Odd Thomas, Dean Koontz's delightful character from his novel of the same name. Jenny and I co-reviewed the first Odd installment back in October. Since then, I've been continuing to follow his story with whatever snippets of time I can sneak in between decking the halls and trolling the ancient yuletide carol. And because said snippets of time are few and far between, I will lump all three follow-up books together into one review.

Koontz has published four Odd Thomas novels thus far, and has even jumped on the graphic novel bandwagon with In Odd We Trust (a graphic novel that apparently takes place in the pre-Odd Thomas days). Of the four novels, Odd Thomas continues to be my favorite. But the next three are still worth reading. (I haven't read the graphic novel, so someone else will have to chime in about that one.)

Forever Odd follows the style of Odd Thomas in that Koontz immediately jumps into the action with only a little bit of exposition. The whole novel again takes place within one day, but instead of trying to save hundreds of people from an unknown catastrophe, Odd is trying to find his crippled friend who has been kidnapped by unknown villains. Odd continues to be delightful in his unassuming wit and guileless integrity; worming his way further into the reader's heart. At the same time, the villains are even darker and more disturbing than we've seen before. This time the leader is a woman who is as evil as she is beautiful. She's assisted by two henchmen who are similarly disturbing, but for reasons that you don't fully understand until the end of the book. Her satanic obsessions are pretty gruesome, but fortunately Koontz goes in a different direction with the villain in the next book so we get a reprieve from that theme.

At the end of Forever Odd, Odd decides that he needs to get away from it all and goes to stay as a guest in a monastery in the high Sierras. This is where Brother Odd picks up. Odd is enjoying the quiet monastic life (with only one resident ghost to cause the occasional incident) until bodachs start prowling the monastery and nearby convent school for disabled children. We meet some memorable new characters, like Brother Knuckles (a repentant former mob thug), a grisley Russian who serves as a great foil and together with Odd provides the best banter in the book, and a very special dog named Boo. Elvis tags along as he did in the first two books, but he plays a more interesting role and, for me, earns more of an attachment. This time Odd faces evil forces of a less tangible nature, and Koontz employs a lot of sci fi elements that left me shaking my head and saying, "Okay, if you say so...." But even though I didn't get all the quantum physics mumbo jumbo, there were some great thrills and chills and heart-warming characters to carry me through.

Odd Hours is Koontz's latest book in the series, but is clearly not meant to be the last. The stakes are the highest yet, involving coordinated nuclear attacks on major US cities. Once again, Odd has only one day to try to thwart the evil plan, and meets some characters along the way who are so mysterious they make Odd seem less.....well.....odd. This had the makings to be Odd's most intense adventure yet, but I was disappointed when it was over and the adventure had barely started. Koontz clearly has more up his sleeve because very little was resolved, and even less was explained. It's as if he said, "Why sell one story when I can chop it in half and get twice the mileage out of it!" Odd joins forces with a young pregnant woman who is supposed to be incredibly significant, but I couldn't have cared less about her. It does include some of the best pithy dialogue of all four books, and there's a funny running comparison between Odd and Matt Damon à la Jason Bourne. I just wish that Koontz had taken the time to finish the story before publishing it. (It's not like any of these stories are very long to begin with.) There are some very strong implications that this is going to be the biggest and baddest conflict of all -- even the culmination of Odd's unique life. But we'll just have to wait and see if that's the case when he publishes the next one. And it had better be worth it, because he's got some making up to do after that unsatisfactory ending!

And yes, I'll be getting on the list for the next one when it comes out. Odd has become one of my favorite characters and I'll definitely be seeing his adventure through to the end! But for now, I think I'll go dig into some figgy pudding....

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Best of 2008

I don't want you to get all excited thinking I've compiled some sort of list of the best books to come out in 2008, when really, I'm just directing you to websites that are much better at compiling "best of" lists than me. Authorities, shall we say. I was cruising the lists and was tickled with myself that I have reviewed a handful of the books, and some I read but haven't gotten around to reviewing yet. This proves that I know how to use the internet and read other people's blogs who say that certain books are awesome. Good for me!

If you're curious, go check out the School Library Journal's list, the American Library Association's list, and The Horn Book's list. These are for young adult and children's books, by the way, which I've said once and I'll say again is some of the best writing being done out there right now. If you're looking for a great read or to direct a younger reader in the right direction, this is a fabulous resource. The best part is that there's not a whole lot of overlap, which means you get way more suggestions and also proves that not all librarian committees think alike. They do, however, go to the same hair stylist, which you'll see if you scroll way down to the bottom of the ALA's best children's books list. It's making me giggle.

Well, I know I'm going to be filling up my holds list at the library tonight! A weird idea of fun, but go ahead and mock, I can take it.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Family Read-Aloud Christmas Treasury

Oh, the aspirations I had! The lofty and apparently unattainable aspirations! I was going to read all sorts of new Christmas books, look through our plentiful collection and pick out our favorites, research and paw through piles of books, finding new treasures. Well, that didn't happen. I forgot that my non-blogging life goes berserk as soon as December arrives. I'm lucky to get anything read at all, much less blog about it.

I did pull out all of our Christmas books so that I could be sure to read them all with my kids over the month. As we read, I realized that we don't have nearly enough good Christmas books. Some mediocre, some dull, but only a few truly great books. One is Jan Brett's The Night Before Christmas. If you've ever looked at a Jan Brett book, it is so richly illustrated and full of detail that you can get caught up in a single spread and stay there, lingering. Her books are ones I can read several times every Christmas season and not get tired of them.

If you've ever read the Arthur books by Marc Brown, you're familiar with his sweet illustrations. I like Arthur just fine, love D.W. even more, but his animal characters are pretty nebulous. Aardvark? Dog? Groundhog? What is that thing? But when he draws people, they make me happy. The Family Read-Aloud Christmas Treasury was compiled by Alice Low and illustrated by Marc Brown. This is such a great compilation, I wish everybody had a copy. It has the standard poems, stories and songs from Christmas, but some extras stories from books and folk tales that I had never heard or had forgotten I knew. It has the story of Ramona and the three wise persons, from Ramona and Her Father, the story of the Christmas whale, "The More is Snows" from The House at Pooh Corner and many more. It has poems by e. e. cummings, John Updike, Edgar Allen Poe (not the morbid Poe) and Jack Prelutsky. With over one hundred pages, there is plenty to read for many nights leading up to Christmas. It even has the text from Luke 2, for reading on Christmas Eve. If you only owned one Christmas book, this would be a good one to have.

Perhaps next year I'll start looking into Christmas books before Halloween. That seems to be the prime time to get anything done before my schedule gets wacky. Maybe if I start on Easter books on December 26th, there's a hope I'll get it done in time, if I don't procrastinate once again. In any case, Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Ender in Exile

There is something to be said about waiting for a book to come out. You read the buzz on the internet or hear someone say something, then the anticipation builds until you finally get your hands on the book and crack it open. I love the build-up for a much anticipated book almost as much as I love reading it. Yes, I was one of those people who pre-ordered the last Harry Potter book on Amazon, then kicked myself when I could have gone to the supermarket down the street at midnight and picked up a copy after waiting in line for an hour (which my hubby did with our brother-in-law). Waiting is half the fun, which is why it was such a treat when Ender in Exile finally made it into my greedy hands.

Orson Scott Card's Ender universe (Enderverse?) is one of my most favorite, most re-read series of books. Ender's Game is considered a staple of science fiction/political intrigue/psychological drama and if you haven't read it yet, you are missing out. It's one of my family's favorite books and mentioning a passage from it can spark a three-hour discussion. My sister even bought my brother a t-shirt that said, "The Enemy's Gate is Down" which is only cool if you've read the book. Hint: read the book. I don't care if you say you hate science fiction because this book is for everyone. Like excitement? Love clever dialog and intrigue? Have kids? Ever been a kid? This book is for you. No romance, however. Ender is only six at the beginning and twelve at the end. Look for romance in Speaker for the Dead, the sequel, and it's minimal at best. In fact, for romance, read the Ender's Shadow series. There's a smidgen there. I digress.

I'm writing this review mostly for those who have read Ender's Game (i.e. my family) and haven't read Ender in Exile or even heard it had been published, so I won't be going into detail describing events in Ender's Game. I assume you've read it. Ender in Exile picks up minutes after Ender's Game ends. In Speaker for the Dead, you get a much older, more experienced, more at peace with himself Ender. Exile is Ender right after the defeat of the Formics and before he heads off to his first colony. You learn what Valentine and Peter do to make sure Ender never returns to Earth and the maneuvering Ender's parents do to ensure his safety. This book covers the voyage through space, with a lovely little romance between Ender and a colonist girl from Italy. Don't worry, they are fifteen years old by then, so it's not the awkward twelve-year-old kid kind of romance. And let's face it, Ender isn't an ordinary kid, so even romance isn't ordinary for him. On the space voyage, he also deals with scheming military officers and hysterical passengers. On the planet, he's got a whole group of people who've been there for forty years to work with, but surprisingly, Card spends hardly any time there. It's a pit stop for the ending of the story, which is very cool and has to do with Bean. Non-Ender readers, have I lost you? Good. Go read Ender's Game.

What I loved so much about this book is that it explained how Ender became the man that you read about in Speaker. He is so calm, so at one with who he is and what he is meant to be that you wonder what it took to reach that point. Frankly, his childhood should have damaged him beyond repair and at the beginning of Exile, you see that damage. You see the broken young man and the obsession over his sins. You see the disconnect with people around him, the way he distances himself from the kids that he loves and trusts and guided to victory. You see what should have happened after what he went through. It feels very true, very right. Then Card leads you through Ender's process in dealing with everything and how he uses his superior intellect and superior capability to love and understand to then heal. Again, it feels honest and true. You heal along with him as you read.

This book was exactly what the doctor ordered. I found no flaw in it. A second reading might do it, and when Caren reads it she'll probably find ten, but she's just better at that then me. I'm just basking in the awesomeness of it all. It has Card's lightening fast verbal exchanges between characters, which are abundant in his books, and the characters' motivations are stacked with more layers than baklava. Just as Ender comes to truly love those that surround him, you come to truly love Card's characters. You love them because you understand them completely, which is the whole point of this entire series. All nine books of it. I might just start over again over Christmas, as a present to myself.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The True Meaning of Smekday and The Willoughbys

Leftover from my pre-Thanksgiving high stress-level days, I have two more books from the Young Adult and Junior book bin. These books were ones I had really looked forward to reading because the premises for both appealed to me, but are polar opposites from each other. Lois Lowry, prolific author over many decades of award-winning writing wrote The Willoughbys and Adam Rex, writer of such bizarre books like Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich and Frankenstein Takes the Cake, wrote The True Meaning of Smekday. Lowry is a standard in the world of children's and young adult novels. Who hasn't read The Giver? Adam Rex is, frankly, weird and has a crazy sense of humor, which you'll notice if you ever read the poetry in his Frankenstein books. The poems are about monsters from the old monster movies many a decade ago. You know, Dracula, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Mummy, all the gang. I thoroughly enjoy the poems because I've watched so many of those movies and had a bit of a fascination with the monsters when I was young, but my children were baffled and unamused by them. Even though I liked the Frankenstein books, I thought The True Meaning of Smekday was far and above better than anything Rex had done previously. I loved both of these books, but let's start with Rex's.

The True Meaning of Smekday is about the end of the world as we know it and the apocolypse couldn't be any funnier. The narrator is 11-year-old Gratuity Tucci, whose mother was abducted by aliens mere moments before the aliens arrived and took over the world. The Boov are octopus-like creatures who good-naturedly have the entire population of the United States relocate to Florida. Until they realize how much they like oranges and send everybody to Arizona instead. Gratuity befriends one of the aliens, who calls himself J.Lo, and travels in a Boov-sooped-up car across the country to try and find her mom in Arizona. In the meantime, you find out that J.Lo is wanted by his people because of a small mistake he made that brought to Earth another race of aliens called The Takers who are not as good-natured as the Boov. This book made me laugh over and over again. Gratuity (called Tip by her friends) is funny, witty, sometimes a weensy bit crass, and very inventive. J.Lo becomes more and more human as the book progresses and by the end you can't help but love him. It is the perfect book to read this month, but I won't tell you why. I'll just remind you that Smekday is fast approaching. Go check out the website for the book and come back and tell me you didn't laugh when you watched the educational puppet show video.

The Willoughbys is a parody of every book about a winsome and lovable orphan that pulls themselves up by their bootstraps and charms everyone's heart. In fact, the literary references are spattered all over the place and there's a list of books referred to at the end. The Willoughby children, Tim, twins Barnaby A and Barnaby B, and Jane are disliked by their parents and the feeling is mutual. Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby decide to go on vacation and sell the house while they're gone, getting rid of the children in the process. The children are more than happy about that arrangement and find that the nanny hired to care for them is a good substitution. There's also a depressed billionaire who comes into the story, a tiny village in the Alps and a little boy who pretends to speak German. For example, he greets the postman with "Helloschlimhofen, neisch day, isn't itzenschlitz?" He too is despised by his parents and crosses paths with the Willoughbys. I laughed out loud over and over again while reading this book and half of those laughs were in the glossary at the end. Lowry uses words like acquisition, diabolical, ignominious, and obfuscate in the book and then explains what they mean, in her own words, in the glossary. I was wiping the tears of laughter away at that point. After reading this book, I wondered how long Lowry has wanted to mock the likes of Anne of Green Gables, Pollyanna and Heidi. I'm sure glad she did.

Believe it or not, but my December is looking much less crazy than my November was, so I'm looking forward to diving into some great reading. If it will be anything like Smekday and The Willoughbys, it will be a jolly holiday indeed.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Breaking up with The Magicians and Mrs. Quent

We need to talk. You know, things started out great. You were so fascinating, with the whole Jane Austen-style language and social context, but with magic as a major aspect of the story. I couldn't put you down! Things were so new, so different than anything I had read before that I couldn't believe how lucky I was to find you. There was so much chemistry between us, with my great love of Jane Austen's books and of the fantasy genre, and you with your beautifully formed language and exciting story. It was such a wonderful time. I was so glad Galen Beckett wrote you so that we crossed paths.

Then things started to get confusing. I thought I knew you, but the characters started to behave in ways that I completely didn't understand. You tried to convince me of one character's love for another, but I couldn't buy it. My trust in you was flailing. It really was the beginning of the end there. After that, I was just going through the motions. Frankly, I just wanted our relationship to end. You weren't the book I fell in love with. It was drudgery to make it through to the end. Then, when I realized that you were just the beginning of a series, I got angry. Where was my closure? You denied me the chance to see it through to the end and wash my hands of your story. Now I will forever remember you as the book that gave me such hope, only to snatch it away and taunt me with it's confusing and frustrating ending that wasn't really an ending.

I want to say that it's not you, it's me, but really, it's you. It's over. I'm just not that into you.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Co-review: Iodine

There might have been a few times that I have written on this particular blog about how much I like Haven Kimmel's books. Summary: a lot. When I saw that another of her books was coming out, I wrote to Caren, "Oooh ooh ooh! Let's review it!" She's a good sport, so here it is. The co-review of Iodine by Haven Kimmel.

Here's the lowdown. It's the story of a troubled, homeless college student named Trace Pennington, who is using the fake name of Ianthe to her fellow students and co-workers. I know what you're thinking. You wish you had picked that name as your superhero/literary genius code name. Trace partially narrates this book through her dream journals, which obscures reality with flashbacks and present events that make you wonder how much is dream and how much is her actual life. It's a tale of the psychologically troubled, overflowing with more erudite vocabulary and baffling intellectual factoids than a normal Kimmel book, and that's saying something. Notice all those big words I just used in that last sentence? Yeah, I can write like Kimmel too.

Trace seems to be barely holding herself together and has huge lapses of time that she cannot account for. She lives in a deserted farmhouse with her dog and starts to semi-stalk a professor that she feels a connection to. She has a very disturbing past that you're not entirely sure the truth of, and now latches on to this professor, who falls for her as well. Trace is determined to discover the fate of the professor's first wife and seems a bit obsessed with it. Boy, really, that girl has problems, but that's the point. As always, we spoil endings like crazy, so if you'd like to read this book before you read what we think of it, go no further!

Jenny: I have to admit, that the departure from Kimmel's usual writing style (humor amidst the tragedy) was sad for me. This book was incredibly suspenseful and intense to read, but I miss the humor. And honestly, I didn't think she could write any more confusingly, but she topped herself in this book. Does that mean it'll get harder and harder to read her books the further along she gets?

Another problem I had with this book is that I pitied Trace/Ianthe, but I didn't like her. At least in her other books, I liked, and in some cases loved, some of the characters. I didn't like anybody in this book. Maybe her dog.

Caren: I didn't feel very attached to these characters either. I wanted Trace to be successful, but I really couldn't understand her. And I was really suspicious of her professor/boyfriend/husband because he didn't seem very balanced either. Of course, seeing things through her perspective it was hard to know how much was just typical quirkiness and how much was him trying to control and manipulate her. Oh, and the dog? I am so NOT a dog person, so I couldn't believe it when I was mourning for the darn thing!

The story drew me in, though, and I thought I was following it fine until the very end. The dream journal was a little hard to follow because she'd cut off mid-sentence just when she was starting to reveal something tantalizing and then go off in a different direction. And she'd change tenses from first to third person, but the tone stayed enough the same that it wasn't too jarring. So overall I thought I knew what was going on. That is, until her husband tells the doctor that they've been married four years and she thinks it's only been four months. I thought, "Did I miss something?" But then I realized that I didn't even know they'd gotten married -- so yeah, she was definitely holding back crucial information. Then the final revealing at the end of how her dad and brother died made me realize that I really didn't have a clue!

As disturbing as much of it was (especially the abuse and the sexual obsession with her father), I was intrigued that Kimmel was able to explore mental illness in such a way. It sort of reminded me of the movie A Beautiful Mind where you naturally believe the story you're given, but once things are turned upside down then you have no idea what is real and what isn't. I think that manipulation of the narrative was very effective in order to get a sense of how tenuous reality was for this woman. On the one hand, I wished I could be getting the story from a different perspective so I could know if these other characters were all as screwy as the seemed. But on the other hand, it would have lost a lot of it's potency as an exposition on mental illness that way.

I am curious what I would have gotten with a second reading. Now that I know how it ends, are there clues in the narrative that would help me sort out what was real and what was the product of her mental illness? Are there additional layers of meaning that I missed the first time around? But the emotional toll made it so hard to get through in the first place that I really don't want to do that again! So I'm afraid I'll just have to stay unenlightened on this one!

Jenny: I think that's what made the book so suspenseful for me, knowing that something was going on that we didn't know about and waiting for all this tension to finally get released. The ending flattened me completely. I was so clueless about what she was leading up to, but like you said, could I have figured it out on my own anyway? I don't think I'll be reading it again to catch any clues. It was exhausting enough the first time around.

I love your comparison to A Beautiful Mind. What I wish Kimmel had done was to make me love Trace like I loved John Nash or his wife in A Beautiful Mind, or at least feel some compassion. Even though we were getting some of her narrative through her dream journal, I still didn't feel a connection to her. Mostly I felt pity and dread. The losses of time, the disturbing flashbacks, the disconnect with reality built up a whole lot of nervous tension on my part and I just wanted to get to the end as fast as possible.

The husband was an interesting character too, because I really didn't like him and thought he was a jerk at the beginning, then by the end I felt better about him because of how he was trying to help Trace. Maybe we could have loved him and Trace better if we had gotten more of his perspective on things. Or maybe that would be beside the point of the whole book, which is to examine/experience? mental illness.

I thought about going to Haven Kimmel's blog and reading through her discussion page for Iodine, but her blog is usually such a crowd of admirers that I didn't think I'd read much that didn't say how brilliant the book was. That's not to say the book isn't brilliant, I just don't think I liked it all that much.

Caren: Yeah, I really didn't like it either. It would have made for an interesting discussion in a college class (and maybe if I knew more about psychology I would have gotten more out of it). I just felt like I was missing significant things. Like the coyote and the whole alien abduction theme. She put a heavy emphasis on archetypal images so I know they must have been important, but I felt like it was all over my head.

The description on the jacket talked about how it was ultimately hopeful, but I didn't find the ending all that hopeful or redemptive. I suppose maybe the fact that she finally faced her most traumatic memory (or was it? it seemed like the things that her mom did to her were pretty traumatic) might have signaled that healing was on the way. But it sure didn't leave me feeling very optimistic that things would somehow get better. Unless you have a strong interest and understanding of psychology, I would suggest passing on this one.

Jenny: Amen to that. Pick a different Kimmel book to enjoy.

Friday, November 14, 2008

A Tribute to Michael Crichton

For all you readers out there, you've probably heard by now that Michael Crichton passed away on November 4th after a battle with cancer. He was most famous for his novel, Jurassic Park, which was made into a movie with the same name, and the tv show he created, ER, which I watched with crack addiction-like fervor all the way up until they killed off Dr. Green. It went downhill after that, if you ask me. He also wrote The Lost World as a sequel to Jurassic Park and also as a demonstration of his ability to rake in money for a really lame book and movie, but let's not speak ill of the dead.

My first encounter with Crichton was in the form of a cute boy in my Spanish 2 class in the eighth grade. He was reading Jurassic Park during his free moments, and since I spent a lot of time staring at him while he was reading (or at any other time), I became curious about this book with the dinosaur on the front. Plus, I thought if I read it, I might have something to talk to him about. I had no idea that the book would be so completely over my head in vocabulary and content and that it would captivate me from beginning to end. I had never read anything like it, especially since I was in this Mary Higgins Clark stage and nothing could be more different from her books than Crichton's. I read all of his books I could get a hold of after that and even though some of them I liked less than others, I always looked forward to his next book.

I considered going through each of his books and writing about what I thought about each one, but I decided not to. The short version is that he wrote about topics that were current and controversial and on uncertain ground and most of the time, I had no opinion on the subject until I read his book. I didn't always agree with his opinion, but he forced me into thinking about it and coming up with my own. I loved how he would take ideas from the actual world and blow them up into awesome science fiction adventures. You knew there was some actual science being applied, but the rest was pure imagination.

When he wrote State of Fear, he was publicly condemned for claiming that there was no scientific basis for global warming. If it had been a hundred years earlier, he would have been tarred and feathered. "How dare he! Kill the beast!" was the common response. He didn't say there was no Holocaust, people. He pointed out how religious evironmentalism has become, with the young being indoctrinated early. This will point out how naive I am, but before I read this book, I had no idea that there was an argument against the validity of global warming. Like I wrote before, I don't always agree with what he writes, but he brought up a point of view I didn't even know existed. I admire how brave he was to write it, knowing what reaction it would cause. Kudos.

It was a sad day when I read that he had passed away. His books were always something I looked forward to and I'm sure if had been given more time, he could have kept me entertained for many years to come. He was a man of great talents and he will be missed.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Underneath

When I'm stressed out, but still need to read books to stay sane, I find that I tend to pick books geared towards younger readers. You know, the ones with "junior" or "YA" on the spine. I think it's because reading helps me relax, yet my brain is so far into overdrive that I cannot possibly handle something that would make me think too much. I've had two very excellent novels on my nightstand for the last 6 weeks and haven't cracked either one open. Instead, I have plowed my way through several YA and junior books and they have provided that necessary release of tension. Maybe I'm juvenile at heart. I'm okay with that.

When I kept seeing this book on different blogs that I read and heard the many whispers of "Newberry", I knew I had to check it out for myself. The Underneath by Kathi Appelt was completely different from what I expected and anticipated. This book fit my requirement for no-thinking-required, but still kept me riveted. The cover didn't tell me much more than it would have a dog and some cats in it. It is about an abandoned, pregnant calico cat who wanders into the yard of a cruel, disfigured man named Gar Face who has tied up his wounded hound dog as punishment for getting in the way on a hunt. The cat gets under the house before she's seen by the man and befriends the dog, who is desperately lonely and in need of love. When her kittens are born, he acts as adoptive father and protector to them, though when Gar Face discovers the cats' existence, the dog is powerless against him.

In the midst of all this, the story keeps cutting to a strange creature buried under an ancient loblolly pine tree in the forest. The creature knows it will be released soon and wants revenge from a loss it experienced a thousand years ago. You get flashback scenes from the creatures pre-buried existence and the foreboding builds. Oh my, the foreboding. It's very thick stuff, that foreboding. You know that these animals' paths will intersect with the creature, along with that of Gar Face and you start to dread it. Did I mention there is a 100 foot long alligator too? Gar Face is hunting him as the ultimate prize to win him respect and notoriety amongst the other hunters. The creature is friends with the alligator too. Wow, I'm having a hard time keeping this straight to explain it. In case you're wondering about the alligator, the story takes place in southeast Texas, a place in which alligators tend to reside.

The writing is kind of meandering, kind of poetic, kind of beautiful and kind of suspenseful. Too many kind of's, really. I kind of wish she had made it a bit easier to understand, since this book is geared toward kids in fourth to eighth grades. The cruelty and harshness of Gar Face is too much for a fourth grader to handle, in my opinion, but it also makes the love between the dog and cats that much more wonderful. I wouldn't introduce it to my tender-hearted kids until they were big enough to understand better the need for a character like Gar Face to exist.

Whatever else I could say about this book, the ending was perfect. I could not have been happier with the ending. So many books are great up until the ending, so to have this book be pretty darn good, some meandering, but then, WHAMMO! perfect ending has earned major points for me. David Small did the drawings and, as always, was a perfect accompaniment to the story, so that's more going for it.

Is it Newberry material? I have no idea, since I don't know what they take into account when they give out those awards, but at least if Appelt's book receives even an honor, if not the actual award, I'll know what all the fuss was about.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Mistborn: The Well of Ascension

In case you missed it, Jenny and I both really liked Brandon Sanderson's first Mistborn book. I'm not a big fantasy geek, but the story and characters were so compelling that I couldn't wait to get my hands on the next one in the trilogy. Having finished The Well of Ascension, I want to get some thoughts down about it before I delve into the last one (which was published just a few weeks ago). Because this isn't a co-review, I won't give away any spoilers for The Well of Ascension, but the nature of the story is such that I can't help but give away some spoilers for The Final Empire (the first Misborn book that preceded it), so be forewarned!

Much of what was said in our co-review for The Final Empire is true for The Well of Ascension. The story is very interesting and there's so much intrigue going on that I didn't want to put it down until I knew how things were going to turn out. But it's really the characters that I fell in love with. The Well of Ascension features most of the same characters from the first book, picking up a year after the first one left off. In the aftermath of the downfall of the Lord Ruler, Elend Venture has been made king and is trying desperately to institute his ideals for democracy and parliamentary rule. But he's surrounded by greedy men who don't share his vision and are trying to take advantage of him for their own gain. In the meantime, three armies (including one led by his own father) prepare to attack the city of Luthadel, and the people are quickly losing their nerve.

Vin is facing her own set of troubles as personal bodyguard for Elend as she tries to protect him from enemy assassins. She meets another Mistborn who appears to be her enemy, but over time they develop a certain amount of trust. She begins to face an inner battle over her love for Elend and her doubts that she is good enough for him or that he truly understands her. This gets harder as her connection with this new Mistborn grows and he invites her to run away with him, leaving the mess of lesser mortals behind them. At the same time, the mists are behaving in very strange and threatening ways and Vin has to face the possibility that she may be the Hero of Ages and will have to destroy the Deepness all over again.

This is barely scratching the surface of the plot, of course, but the book mostly revolves around Elend and Vin and how they come to terms with who they really are and what that means for the rest of the world. Of course there's lots of action and excitement at the same time, so there's never a dull moment even with the periods of introspection. I enjoyed it as much as the first book until the ending. The first book had a very satisfying resolution, so I was counting on that for The Well of Ascension and was so disappointed! It was still very intense and full of unexpected twists like the first one, but some really sad and scary things happen and then it ends with a big cliffhanger! Mostly I'm just a wimp and was looking for a "happily ever after," so I don't do well with cliffhangers. But it sure makes me desperate to finish the rest of the story!

I'm more and more impressed with Sanderson's skill. I really enjoyed the development of Elend's character and the fact that there was this great guy who had didn't have to rely on Allomancy to distinguish him. I liked how Sanderson depicted Elend's relationship with Vin and the complexity of being in love with someone who is perfect for you in a thousand ways but at the same time you can't help but wonder if you really belong together. Vin's relationship with her kandra was another fascinating part of the story, along with the introduction of a potential romantic interest for Sazed. And......well, I could go on, but really, you just need to read it yourself! And now, if you'll excuse me, I've got the last Mistborn book to get started on!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey

Most of you have either never read or have no recollection of when I wrote about The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart over a year ago. Take a minute, go read what I wrote. Then what I write now will make much more sense.

Oh my holy cow! I thought the first book was awesome but this one took the cake! I compared the first book to Lemony Snicket, but the second book leaves the comparisons behind and strikes out on its own. Stewart took this likable and heroic group of kids and showed that they had more depth and charisma than before. The quartet of brilliant children, Reynie, Kate, Sticky and Constance are forced on a journey across the ocean in search of their beloved Mr. Benedict who has been abducted by the evil Mr. Curtain. They have riddles and puzzles to solve along the way, which makes my brain hum with pleasure, and dastardly fiends to avoid. I especially loved the Ten Men, but you've probably figured out by now that I love a good villain. The Ten Men are dressed as dashing business men, but their briefcases carry deadly weapons of their trade. Ooh, they're nasty and I loved it. Kate is even more reckless and amazing as she thinks fast on her feet and makes use of her trusty bucket. Reynie re-examines what he thinks of people he once thought were trustworthy, Sticky becomes less frightened of the world around him, and Constance is more than her crabby exterior shows.

I seriously hope that Stewart either has more in store for these kids or tries his hand at more books. I can't get enough!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Cooking with Kids

Thanks to my friend, Christina, I'm completely devoted to Family Fun magazine. I started subscribing to it back when my oldest child was too little to enjoy any of the crafty/cooking/game ideas in the magazine. Now that my kids are big and perfect for the articles in there, I find that I can retrieve some of what I've read over the many years of subscribing and not feel completely inept. I use the website on a regular basis and read the magazine cover to cover when it comes. I have a standing present from my husband to re-subscribe it for me so I don't even have to worry about it. You complete me, Family Fun.

A couple of years ago, the magazine came out with their latest cookbook, Family Fun's Cooking with Kids. Christina and I speculated together on if we thought it might be the same as the Let's Cook section and one of my most favorite things to read in the whole magazine. I've been cutting out that section and putting it in a binder for years. It shows parents how to teach their kids to cook different foods, and we're not talking about hot dogs and macaroni or English muffin pizzas. Some of the recipes they've had since I've been a subscriber have been apple pie, carrot cake, omelets, turkey pot pie, bagels, pineapple upside-down cake, potato pierogi, brownies, chili and foccacia bread. They have step by step instructions and pictures with suggestions for what the kids can do themselves. I love this because most of the time I need that much detail to try a new recipe and knowing that I can teach it to my kids while I cook is a big incentive to try something new. I find that it is approachable enough for my almost-four-year-old to help out and interesting enough for my older kids.

I put the cookbook on my Amazon wishlist and promptly forgot about it. Fast forward a few years and I found myself staring at it on the discount book rack at Borders when I was hunting for something entirely different. At $8, I couldn't resist and bought it with barely opening it. I knew it would be a winner and you know what? It was. It doesn't have the detailed instructions for every recipe, but it does have it for some. So far we've tried the black bean soup (delicious and even my pickiest eater loves it) and the lemon squares (oh my!) and my five-year-old pulls it out and reads it like a novel. She's dying to try out every recipe in the dessert section, but she's five so that's no surprise.

I'm proud of myself for having gotten it for such a deal, but I still would have been happy paying full price and gotten use out of it for the last few years. Now, if you'll excuse me, the Thanksgiving issue is waiting for me and I'm positive there are ideas that involve pumpkins.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Co-review: Odd Thomas

Halloween is just around the corner, and in keeping with that spirit of the spine-tinglingly macabre, our co-review for this month is Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas. This is a hair-raising story of ghosts and demons, with the added treat of including characters of such goodness and compassion that make it more than just a dark tale of sordid evil. But before we get into specifics, just remember that in these co-reviews we don't hold back. So if you haven't read it and want to avoid spoilers, read no further!

Odd Thomas is aptly named. He has an unusual ability to see ghosts and therefore acts as an advocate for the dead -- including taking on the dangerous work of trying to bring their murderers to justice. He doesn't enjoy it particularly, but he sees it as his duty. Think Sixth Sense all grown up. Odd also sees shadowy demons that he calls bodachs for lack of a better word, and which seem to indicate a pending disaster. Only a handful of people know of his special gift -- Terri (his boss and mother figure), Chief Porter (the local police chief), Little Ozzie (a morbidly obese fiction writer), and Stormy (his one true love and destiny).

Most of Odd Thomas's plot takes place in about two days. When a stranger comes to town who attracts an unusual amount of attention from the bodachs, Odd takes notice and begins to uncover a plot of mass murder and destruction. Since it's planned to take place the following day, Odd has very little time to try to figure out the details and stop it from happening. Things only get more complicated when his main suspect ends up dead in Odd's own apartment, his police chief friend is shot, and he is forced to face his own personal demons (namely, his psychotic mother) all while trying to figure out how to spare countless innocent lives from an unknown horror. There are many tense, scary moments that keep the pages turning, but also enough humanity and gentle moments to invite the reader's compassion for Odd and the people he loves.

Caren: There are so many things that I loved about this book that it's hard to know where to begin. First, I absolutely loved Odd Thomas! He is so quirky yet completely sincere and guileless. I don't know that I've ever met a character quite like him. He's very intelligent, but has no ambition in life because his sanity is so tenuous he has to keep everything else in his life as simple as possible. His wardrobe consists entirely of jeans and plain white t-shirts. He lives in a simple studio apartment and works as a short-order cook. And other than his hope to marry Stormy and a casual interest in selling tires someday, he is perfectly at peace with his simple life. But this doesn't make him less interesting. Instead, it's one of the many things that makes him so delightful and unexpected.

Jenny: I thought how amazing it was that he grew up with completely screwed up parents, had this supernatural gift that prevented him from living a normal life, and yet, was a compassionate and selfless person. I cannot imagine going through what he had and be the person that he is. Talk about strength of character! Stormy was the perfect match for him because of her personal traumas and also her goodness despite it, which made the ending all the more heart-breaking.

I love that Odd surrounds himself with good people. His landlord, his friends, his co-workers, his family-figures, his girlfriend. If you're going to see dead people who can't talk and tell you what to do, you might as well have a force of good behind you.

I have to say I could have done without all the Satanism in the bad guys. That gave me the serious heebie jeebies. I understand that it solidifies how completely evil they were, but I didn't particularly enjoy reading about it. One thing I did appreciate is that the book wasn't graphic. I mean, you had your share of violence since what Odd encounters is rife with it, but not like what it could have been. Another was how chaste his relationship with Stormy was. It made you love Odd even more, that he respected her and also racked up some points for Koontz in my book. Not everybody has to sleep together to be in love.

Caren: Yeah, the Satanism stuff was way messed up and I found myself wondering how Koontz could stand researching that kind of stuff! I couldn't read the book at night by myself or I'd get too freaked out! (Daylight and noisy kids made for a much less creepy environment.) I don't like horror movies or graphic violence, so this was about my limit. But one thing I liked was that Koontz would build up these tense, scary scenes and then diffuse them before they got to be too much to handle. And I liked that he interspersed them with calmer, more hopeful scenes of the good things in Odd's life.

I loved the chaste aspect of his and Stormy's relationship too, and it broke my heart that she died at the end. I read back through those final chapters and he threw in little clues that it was her ghost at the end, but I didn't pick up on them the first time. What especially kills me is knowing that Koontz has written several more books about Odd Thomas so he's going to have to keep living without her! Which brings up the the beginning of the book he mentions that he would only allow it to be published after he's dead, so does that mean he'll die at the end of Koontz's series? I'm not entirely sure how I feel about that.

Jenny: Oh my gosh, I totally didn't read this book at night too! I did it once and then just laid there in the dark, thinking and being creeped out. Bad, bad book to read by yourself at night.

I didn't pick up on Stormy being dead until they were knocking on the door. I was so relieved that she wasn't hurt in the shooting that my heart was light during the reunion section. When the knocking on the door happened, I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach. I forgot about how in the beginning of the book he mentions that the book is only to be published after his death so now I'm bummed even more. I've debated about whether to read any more of the books, but that might burn my bridge right there. I like Odd too much! I don't think I can stand to watch him suffer any more! No Stormy, saving dead people and bringing about justice while being paralyzed in his own progression and having a probable death at the end of the series is not a big incentive to keep reading.

The scene with his mom made me so sad. He explained over and over again that he was afraid of guns and didn't want anything to do with them, then Koontz shows you why he's afraid of them. But I guess then it just goes to show how brave Odd is when he takes up a gun at the end to save people's lives.

Kudos to Koontz for making such a likable character. Plus, I loved his narration-style, though it's a bit heavy on the metaphors. Here's one of my favorites:

"Hard luck seemed to seep out of the ground itself, as though the devil's room in Hades were directly beneath these streets, his sleeping loft so near the surface that his fetid breath, expelled with every snore percolated through the soil. "

I loved that image. Well, I didn't love the idea of the devil and his stinky breath, but I loved how he created the image. Very cool.

Caren: I am so bad about skipping over things when I'm nervous about a story, and then I have to go back again and reread what I missed. And I was so anxious during so much of this book that I missed some of that imagery, so thanks for pointing that out! I really enjoyed Odd's voice throughout. He had such a matter-of-fact way of talking about the supernatural and an unassuming dry wit. I think if it hadn't been in the first person it would have lost a lot of its appeal for me. For that reason alone I want to read the other books. I hate the thought of Odd Thomas having more to say and me missing out on it!

But because it was given in his voice, I often found myself wondering what an outsider's perspective would have been. So I was just tickled by his exchange with the nurse at the hospital where he was so clueless about the message she was sending. And then at the end, when he's hunting down the last killer and he mentions what a sight he must be to the crowds of people ducking out of his way -- crying and talking to himself incoherently -- I thought, "Hmm, your grip on sanity must be more tenuous than I thought!"

Overall I thought it was a fun read. Scary and disturbing sometimes, but kept light with great additions like Elvis and Little Ozzie. I'll be glad to see Odd's adventures continue into the next books!

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Solace of Leaving Early

After reading Jenny's review on Haven Kimmel's The Used World, I decided I'd better give her a shot. We'll be reviewing her newest book, Iodine, next month and I wanted to try something else of hers before taking that one on, so I started with The Solace of Leaving Early. This was Kimmel's first novel and while I haven't yet read the acclaimed A Girl Named Zippy, I can see what all the buzz is about. Kimmel's writing is so intellectual that at first it was almost a barrier to getting into the story. I wanted to tell the characters, "Stop thinking so much and start living your lives already!" But it wasn't long before I had a hard time putting it down.

Langston Braverman is a PhD dropout who comes home to her small Indiana town to hide from the world in her parents' attic. She is disgusted by the simple lives, lack of ambition, and undeveloped intellect that characterizes small town life, but at the same time, she struggles with her own insecurities at her failures and her need to prove herself. She is overly critical of everyone, including her loving parents, and especially the new nondenominational preacher, Amos Townsend. Both Amos and Langston are highly intelligent with strong backgrounds in philosophy and the arts, and their ruminations and debates are not for the reader looking for a light popcorn read!

When a childhood friend is killed by her estranged husband, Langston ends up helping to care for her young children who witnessed the traumatic event. This becomes a watershed time in all of the main characters' lives in one form or another; as they try to help the girls heal from the tragedy, they all end up finding healing themselves. Ultimately it's a hopeful book with redemption and happy endings (and I'm all about happy endings). Even if you don't follow all of the theological philosophizing going on (as I didn't), you can't help but feel deeply for the characters.

One of the things that I loved was how Kimmel played with perspective so that you couldn't get completely comfortable with a character and think you had them all figured out. You could really only get a full sense of who they were by seeing them from multiple perspectives, both inside and out, and even then they would do things to surprise you. They were so much more complex than typical fiction characters are allowed to be, that by the time the story was over it was easy to believe that they were still off living their lives somewhere. I loved that aspect, and I also loved her imagery and use of language. By the way, there is an event at the end that has become seared into my mind as one of my favorite images in all of literature. I won't mention it here because it will give too much away, but if you read it and can't figure it out, ask me later! To anyone looking for something thought-provoking with rich characters, I'd definitely recommend it. It's a bit heavy reading, but it's not very long so that compensates. Now I'm excited to try some more Haven Kimmel and see how her other work compares!

Friday, October 10, 2008

A Year in Elisha Cooper's Life

I'm a bit obsessed with documentaries. When a new red Netflix envelope arrives in the mail, my husband will ask, "Which documentary is it this time? Please tell me it's in English." Really, he's a good sport and I have watched an awful lot of action flicks over the years for him. My recent newest favorite? "King of King: A Fistful of Quarters" So, so awesome. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll wish that you could strangle the big cheater face that undermines the hero.

Elisha Cooper, who is actually best known as a children's book author and illustrator, wrote a couple of books that take on that documentary-feel. His first book was Crawling: A Father's First Year and the second is ridiculous/hilarious/terrible/cool: a year in an american high school and I much preferred the second. Now, if I had to examine a time of my own life, high school would not be preferred over the first year of my first child's life. I've never gone to a high school reunion and never will and much of that time I've repressed. It wasn't really that bad, I mean, it wasn't junior high. That's a black hole that has disappeared from my consciousness altogether. But it was high school. Yick. My first year as a mother was much more joyful and I have much better memories and more tender feelings about that time. There was a whole lot less crying during that time than there was in high school, that's for sure.

I think the difference in how I liked these books was how the stories were told. In Crawling, Cooper is narrating his experiences as a father, his bewilderment, frustrations, joys, and general overwhelming love for his baby girl. In ridiculous/hilarious/terrible/cool he is an observer, with no comments or opinions on his part. I found that in Crawling, I didn't really care what he thought. Sure, parenthood is hard, babies are cute, they spit up a lot and all their milestones are amazing, but I didn't really emotionally invest in his experience. Maybe I couldn't relate to him? Maybe I didn't really like his voice? I can't pinpoint it. Maybe it's because parenthood is my own well-traveled and documented experience over these last eight years and nothing he had to say was new or interesting to me. I'm not sure.

Even though I'd much rather not remember most of high school, I loved Cooper's high school that he observed over the course of a year. He also did sketches of the kids that were so simple and yet very descriptive. Maybe if there had been more sketches in Crawling... Who knows, moving on. Cooper followed and interviewed several students whose ambitions, quirks, goals and problems were all vastly different and all relatable to some extent. Daniel, the class president who is trying to get into Harvard and someday wants to go into politics. Emily, captain of the soccer team, perfectionist, and a much deeper thinker than those around her. Maya, the actress who has a lot of tics and fidgety habits that disappear when she's on stage. Diana, the swimmer and good student who is the first of her family to do well in school or even think about college. Aisha, the loner, has lived all over the world and this is the first time she's ever been the only Muslim in her school. Zef, the musician and caffeine addict who can't seem to show up on time for anything and finds school to be a far second to his art. Anais, the beautiful and talented dancer can't seem to see the point to school when all she wants to do is join a ballet company and get going with her life. Anthony, the drug dealer who has zero ambition even with dealing and knows something has to change in his life.

We've all known or been these kids and while I read this book, I desperately wanted each of them to figure out their messes and make good in their lives. I was emotionally invested in these kids. Cooper so beautifully depicts their body language and voices that I felt like I knew each of them. I loved that they were real kids and not some fictional construction. It made me realize that this will be my own children a decade from now, trying to figure out what to do with their future selves and how to achieve the goals they make for themselves.

I hope that if Cooper decides to dedicate another year of his life to a book project, he goes the observer route instead of the narrator route. It appeals to me so much more, and it gives me a documentary fix. Mmm, I love the documentaries.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Princess Bride

I finally took the time recently to read The Princess Bride novel by William Goldman. Yes, this is the same The Princess Bride that the movie of the same name is based on. Oh my, what a delight! The movie stayed very close to the original story, even matching much of the same dialogue word for word. Princess Buttercup, Westley, Inigo, Fezzik, the Cliffs of Insanity, even the priest's speech impediment during the wedding......everything you love about the movie is in the book.

I actually preferred a lot of things about the movie over the book. Some of the scenes I liked better from the movie -- definitely the ending -- and the characters are portrayed so well on screen that in the novel it feels like something is missing. So, why bother reading it if you already know the story and if the characters suffer a little in print? Because the comic genius in the book comes not from the story (which is still funny), but from the narrative.

Goldman claims to be abridging the story from one S. Morgenstern who wrote and published the original tale in his native Florin. Goldman himself was introduced to it as a child by his father (whom he claims was a Florinese immigrant). He insists that Morgenstern and Florin really exist and goes to great lengths to convince the reader of this, until you're not sure how much of anything to believe (including the details about Goldman's own wife and son). It reminds me of the creation of Lemony Snicket, except that in this instance he continues to use his real name and details from his real life as a novelist and screenwriter.

The story itself has the same good-humored, light-hearted feel that the movie does, employing silly, ridiculous scenarios that are navigated seriously by the characters. But what makes it even more fun to read is that S. Morgenstern's narrative is riddled with unexpected comments, absurd justifications, and intentional contradictions. Goldman also interjects his own comments -- some clever and others just plain silly -- that are as much a part of the reading experience as the story itself. And over-arching it all is the fact that he's telling this story under false pretenses anyway, which adds to the absurdity of it. There are some great lines that made me chuckle out loud -- and that's saying something! (I am not a reading-chuckler by nature.) I would share them here, but I don't want to take anything away from the experience of discovering them on your own, so you'll just have to trust me!

If you're a fan of the movie, I would recommend taking the time to read the book. There's no great literary value, but it's a funny read that will brighten your day!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Mistborn: The Final Empire

A note from Caren to non-fantasy readers wondering about Mistborn:
Since I'm not a hard-core fantasy fan, I was hesitant about trying a new fantasy author (and the cover art did nothing to reassure me -- yikes!). So I was surprised and delighted to be so engaged by this book. Part of it's appeal was an Ocean's 11 type of plot with some fantastic twists and a great ending, but it was the depth of the characters and the nuances of their relationships that really carried the story. And there was enough nitty-gritty reality to prevent the fantasy from getting carried away, which also gave it broader appeal. If you are willing to give fantasy a chance -- e.g. if you've ever read J.K. Rowling or Orson Scott Card -- by all means take a chance on Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn. You won't be disappointed!

Jenny: I know we are barely getting this review done for September, but keep your shirt on, it's here! Beware of massive spoilers and the giving away of most of the plot. If you're thinking to yourself, "Whatever, I'm never going to read this book," then re-read Caren's comments above and give it a good hard think before you go on.

What's funny is that we are reviewing the first of a trilogy, yet the third book will be coming out any second now. Why are we so behind? Well, I was totally enthralled by Brandon Sanderson's first novel, Elantris, and then I got to meet him and pick his brain, so it seemed perfect to review the first novel of his Mistborn trilogy and get all of you lovely readers hooked too. And since I love to hear what Caren has to say about books, we decided to do a co-review. So excuse me while I burn some tin to help me see things clearly and burn some copper to keep you non-fantasy readers from reading the spoilers that abound.

There's a whole heapin' load of characters in these books, but we'll just cover a few. The book takes place in a land where ash falls constantly from the sky, coating everything it touches and where the ruler of the land is considered a god, since he, like, doesn't die and stuff. The Lord Ruler has been around for 1,000 years and manipulates the aristocracy while beating down the "skaa", a serf-like people. The aristocracy is identified by money, power and the ability to practice some form of allomancy, the consumption and burning of certain metals to exhibit supernatural abilities. Yep, they drink flakes of metals and get magical powers. It's cool. The ultimate of these people are the Mistborn, who can manipulate all of the allomantic metals, not just one. They are above law and feared by all.

Our two main characters are Kelsier, charismatic leader of the thieves and rebels of the city and survivor of the Lord Ruler's most horrific prison, and Vin, a teenage girl to whom Kelsier teaches how to use her allomantic powers. Both are Mistborn and have great powers. Kelsier has plans to overthrow the government and the Lord Ruler and doesn't mind if all the aristocracy dies in the process. Vin becomes an undercover agent amidst the aristocracy and manages to fall for the one of the enemies, a prince and philosopher. Kelsier has his band of cronies (kind of like the A-Team) who all have allomantic powers in some shape or form, and are all united in the purpose of bringing the Great Houses down a notch.

Jenny: Hands down, my favorite passages are when Vin is amongst the aristocracy, becoming a lady and using her wiles to get information out of them. She starts out so pathetic and miserable, trying to stay out of sight and mixed up with some seriously bad people, then Kelsier turns her whole world upside down and she realizes how much power she possesses and what she could do with that. I love Kelsier too, but his kind of scary non-discriminatory butchering of the aristocracy wasn't my favorite. He can drum up a crowd and git 'er done, but yikes, he's got some anger issues going on. I guess if I was imprisoned, watched my spouse be killed and then beaten cruelly until I snapped, I might have some psychological issues as well.

Another thing I love is a good villain. The Steel Inquisitors with the metal spikes through their eyes? Serious cool factor there. And the few times the Lord Ruler showed up gave me the jeebs. That counts for a lot with me, that the villains are just as much fun to read about as the heroes.

Caren: I loved the ball sequences too! It was fun to have such a girly thing to get excited about in the midst of all the special ops kind of stuff going on! And the special ops stuff was fun, don't get me wrong. But so was the budding romance and watching Vin undergo her rags-to-riches type of transformation.

One of the things I loved about Kelsier's character was that the good/bad line was sometimes blurred. He had so many virtues but almost just as many flaws, and some of them were really serious -- like his vanity and the way that he fed the skaa's admiration of him to the point of reverence. I really liked him, especially how completely he trusted other people. But I was also so nervous about what was going on beneath the surface that I just really wanted to see him succeed and become the hero he was trying to be. So even though I didn't want him to die, I loved that he deliberately sacrificed himself because that act cemented Kelsier firmly on the side of the heroic good!

And speaking of the Steel awesome was the ending with Marsh?! Even though we didn't know him very well, I was so disturbed by his death. So to see him emerge at the very end as a Steel Inquisitor helping in the final defeat of the Lord, that was cool!

Jenny: Ooh, yes! I loved Marsh's transformation into a Steel Inquisitor and killing off the other ones. That was very cool. The Steel Inquisitors are very cool in a very bad way and I can't wait to see more of them show up in the other books. They give me the shivers and I like it.

Blurry. That is a perfect way of putting Kelsier's role in the book. I think he knew that he liked the worshipful attention a little too much, but figured it was the only way to succeed. He stepped into his role as savior to the skaa and bought into it himself. I'm glad he made a real difference in the end, but think of what Vin is even more capable of. I think that's what makes Vin a better hero (heroine?) because she is strong where Kelsier was weak. She can see the aristocracy as real people yet feels more a part of the skaa, so she can cross those lines and be comfortable on either side. She is humble and aware of her weaknesses, not full of herself and her abilities. I loved that she was surprised at herself for enjoying her role as spy and party girl, since she was so used to being tough and staying in the shadows. I think this is what will make her the gal for the job.

Something I thought was interesting is that Elend and his cronies didn't even see the skaa as being thinking people. It reminds me of the way people use blanket statements for ethnicities or cultures. Enough people say the same thing and then it becomes truth, making it nearly impossible for someone to break out of a mold and when they do, it's to general surprise. Is that getting too deep for this book?

How creepy were the mistwraiths and the Kandra?

Caren: Yeah, WAY creepy! And they are another good example of how Kelsier strayed into questionable territory. I loved the dichotomy of Kelsier as savior considering how shifty some of his alliances and motivations seemed to be. Along the same lines, I was really intrigued by the role religion played in this book. At first it seemed pretty negative; the evil Lord Ruler is worshipped as a god, but the people fear and hate him and his horrible Steel Inquisitors. Then you add a Christ-figure who is a vain, proud thief whose methods and motives are sometimes questionable. But all of that was balanced by Sazed whose great respect for religion and faith served as a nice counterpoint to the corruption of the reigning theocracy. The story easily could have worked without the religious threads, but I'm glad he included them.

I'm really curious as to why Vin's potential seems to be so much greater than anyone else's. Why did her abilities come so easily to her? Why did she learn so quickly and sense things that even Kelsier was oblivious to? I'm glad he didn't reveal everything in this first book, because I look forward to seeing how her character develops in the next one.

So, did you suspect the Lord Ruler's true identity? I sure didn't! Sanderson did a nice bit of sleight of hand with that one!

Jenny: No, the secret of the Lord Ruler's identity totally caught me by surprise. I love surprises, so that just tickled me. It totally explained how the Terrismen has been treated over the history of the Lord Ruler's reign. Speaking of Sazed, I loved his addition to the rebel entourage. He was so even-keel, so full of faith and knowledge. He was a very soothing presence in the book.

If you compare Kelsier to Rand from the Wheel of Time series, you can definitely see some parallels, which would make sense since Sanderson was so heavily influenced by Jordan's books. Rand is the Christ-figure of those books and he is anything but perfect. Kind of a womanizer, full of self-doubt, violent and mentally unstable, yet he's the only hope of the world. Kelsier was set up as the savior of the first book, so does that mean Vin is for the other books?

You know, I have the second book at home. I should get off my lazy bum and read it already, quit asking all these questions. Save 'em up for after the I read the second book.

I just read on Sanderson's blog that he has no intention of writing a prequel for the Mistborn books. I thought that was hilarious. What is it about fantasy readers that they want every single iota of detail out of a fictional world? Maybe we want enough information to fully envelop ourselves into it? I say "we" because I love the fantasy genre, but I'm not really one to beg for prequels. I must be a quasi-fantasy reader.

Caren: Ah, thanks for making the parallel with Jordan's Wheel of Time series. I haven't read any of his books, so I wouldn't have noticed his influence on Sanderson's writings. In fact, reading Mistborn has made me examine my feelings towards the genre and I've decided that I'm a casual fantasy reader. I loved the Lord of the Rings movies, but the novels were a bit overkill. I own all the Harry Potter series, but I have no desire to read any Robert Jordan. See what I'm saying?

One of the things I really enjoyed about Mistborn was that the fantasy wasn't so heavy-handed that you could barely navigate the story. I think part of the problem with the fantasy/sci-fi genre is that many writers think if they just load it up with imaginative settings and weird creatures and made up languages that it's enough to carry the story. They focus so much on their fantasy/sci-fi ideas that the meat of the story is neglected. But if you strip the amulets and elves and cloaks away, you're just left with shallow characters acting out a dead plot. So I loved that the story of Mistborn could have lived and breathed on its own independent of the fantasy elements. Allomancy was cool, but the depth of the characters wouldn't have suffered without it.

Jenny: I agree whole-heartedly about the constant regurgitation of plots and characters in the fantasy genre. It gets sooo old to read about magical swords and a perilous journey, and blah blah blah. Please. I think I'm probably a small step up from your status as casual fantasy reader, but I have no patience for repetition and I hate having to practically learn a new vocabulary to enjoy a book, which is unfortunately one of the defining features of the genre. What makes Sanderson's books so interesting to me is that it's completely different from any other fantasy novel I've read before. It makes you sit up and pay attention. At first I thought it was because he doesn't write like a typical fantasy writer and creates ideas and situations that are unique, but I think, like you said, it's because he writes these amazing characters that you get wrapped up in. Those are the kind of stories that stick.

How fun was this to review a book that we both liked? It made for a shorter review, which I think our readers will like. Thanks for playing, Caren!