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.