Friday, May 29, 2009

Co-Review: The Eyre Affair

Do you like a good detective story? How about one with a clever and emotionally tormented hero, a perfectly despicable villain, and a cast of bizarre characters that keep everything fun and interesting? The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde is set in an alternate universe where beloved literature and the arts are the things most holy. A place where you can get jailed for your bad interpretations of Shakespeare, where warring gangs of surrealists and impressionists start fights in the streets of London, where a branch of the police force is dedicated solely to investigating crimes against literature.

Thursday Next is a LiteraTec, a Literary Detective in the Special Operations police force. At the start of the book, she's investigating the disappearance of Charles Dickens' original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewitz. As she gets further into her investigation, she becomes embroiled in the hunt for the villain most foul, Acheron Hades. He has committed numerous murders and is known for his cunning and seeming indestructibility. She also happens to know him from college, when he tried to seduce her but was impervious to his charms.

Acheron's plans are not just to steal manuscripts and other valuable artifacts, but to change them. His ultimate plot involves Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and what he has planned would be considered a heinous crime indeed, especially in this alternate world where Jane Eyre is held so sacred. Toss in some family drama that includes Thursday's genius uncle and rogue father and a rekindled romance with her former fiance, and you've got some great reading here.

Jenny: This book was such a fun read. Female detectives tend to fall into the same stereotypes: tough, tortured, trying to make it in a man's world, an inky past that tends to catch up with them, and so on. Thursday is made even better than that stereotype by this amazing world she inhabits. There's so many literary references and jokes played on knowledge of the classics that I started to wonder if I was even catching them all, with my limited knowledge.

There were definitely some great fantastical elements to this book that I liked. Time travel, Acheron's uncanny abilities, and that random section with the vampire? It seemed out of place, but I like vampires so I forgave it. The way the SpecOps is set up cracked me up, that nobody knew what anybody else did and it was all so very hush hush. Made me excited to read more of the books to see what else Fforde has up his sleeves.

Caren: I had a lot of fun reading it too. Definitely imaginative! Any roughness in writing was made up for by the unexpected and delightfully fanciful world he created. Parts of it felt like a cross between Odd Thomas and Harry Potter. I loved the literary references too, and kept thinking I needed to brush up on my classics! My favorite parts were the references to the bookworms who lived off of prepositions and created apostrophes as waste products. I laughed out loud at how it affected the text!

I was disappointed in some of the bad language, and I'm not convinced that the story needed to continue into another novel, but when I am looking for another light and fun read I think I'll have to try out the next one.

Jenny: I think the key description for this book is, like you wrote, light and fun. No heavy thinking here. It's one you can pick up when you're not up for any serious contemplation.

I loved loved loved how Thursday helped change the ending of Jane Eyre from the "original" where Jane and Mr. Rochester never see each other again, to where she battles Acheron in Thornfield, Bertha dies, and all those other details that make the story so much more satisfying. Especially when she sneaks off to where Jane is living and yells her name outside her window. It tickled me pink. I've read Jane Eyre a dozen times or so and seeing it from this different angle was a hoot.

In all, it was a fun, easy read that made me laugh. It would be a good pick for some summer reading at the pool or on vacation.

Caren: Oh yes! It was so clever how Thursday's involvement becomes responsible for the Jane Eyre we know and love. And I loved that Rochester wasn't as cranky in "real" life (can you say that?) as he is in the novel. Another favorite -- the uncle's invention that allowed the person wearing this special hat to turn their brain off and watch soothing images of flying toasters. Silly, imaginative, and a whole lot of fun!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Hunger Games

For those you who read Uglies by Scott Westerfeld or The Road by Cormac McCarthy or I Am Legend by Richard Matheson and enjoy good post-apocalyptic fiction can add The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins to your to-read list. Unlike Uglies, it doesn't have a morality lesson to teach. Unlike The Road, it isn't depicting the most depraved aspects of humanity and yet makes you unable to tear your eyes away. Unlike I Am Legend, it doesn't have any vampires. In fact, there's nothing supernatural about the book, just really advanced technology and some seriously sick people who like to watch human suffering for mass entertainment.

In The Hunger Games, once again we are in a post-war United States, now called Panem, run by a corrupt and cruel government based in the Rocky Mountains. The remaining country that hasn't been destroyed by the war is divided into twelve districts. Each district has a main focus of industry. There used to be thirteen districts, but the thirteenth one was annihilated after it attempted to revolt against the government. Now the government holds the Hunger Games every year as a reminder that they are all powerful and the people are utterly and powerlessly under its control.

A lottery is held each year in each district to select one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the games. They are shipped off the the capitol to garner a fan base and find sponsors to help them along their way during the games. And what are the games, you ask? A fight to the death. The winner gets fame, glory and unlimited food for them and their families for the rest of their lives. Our hero, Katniss Everdeen, is selected as one of the tributes--as they are called--along with a boy from her village in District 12. She has spent her life illegally hunting and gathering food for her family to keep them from starving, so she has many skills that will help her during the game. She is distrustful of everybody so any kind gesture made by Peeta, the boy who came with her, is seen by her as manipulation to win the game. She has a soft spot for her little sister, Prim, whose place she took as a tribute, but not for many others.

Imagine Survivor or Big Brother or any of those mind-numbingly stupid "reality" shows and then change it so that everybody is supposed to kill each other off. The entire nation watches as Katniss and the other tributes fight and plot and form alliances. This form of repression by the government is masked as entertainment. It's disturbing, but since it's geared towards Young Adult readers, not graphic. It was an incredibly suspenseful book and I kept flipping pages in anticipation of what could possibly happen next. My only complaint is that it's the first book in a series when I thought it was a stand-alone novel and according to my searches, the second book doesn't come out until September 1st. That just makes me crabby. If I'm going to start a series, I want to be able to move from one book to the next, without having to set some sort of reminder for myself to remember to look for the second book when it comes out. I'm totally going to do it, but it makes me grouchy like an old man.

As another endorsement for this book, it won a Cybil award last year for the best Fantasy and Science Fiction novel. These awards are given by bloggers who read children and young adult books either as parents, librarians, authors, teachers or others. If you don't care about awards, it's still a good read. Put your mind in the world disaster/post-apocalyptic zone and take it for a spin.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Haikus and an inside joke

Haikus are pretty cool, if you can understand what they mean. My favorite t-shirt of all time says:

Haikus are easy
But sometimes they don't make sense.

I love the idea of writing haikus and being really, really good at it. Unfortunately, I'm more of a limerick kind of girl. I appreciate the skill that would take to write a whole book of haikus, specifically one just about birds, but it's never something I would undertake. Michael J. Rosen, bird-watcher and poet, wrote The Cuckoo's Haiku and Other Birding Poems as a poetry book for children. I will admit to you right now, I lacked the capacity to truly appreciate it. I thought I could rise above my plebian love of Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky and Roald Dahl, but I can't. I barely skimmed this book, as beautifully illustrated and written as it was. Seriously, the watercolor was astounding. I could rip pages out of this book and frame them for my walls. Maybe years of staring at the haikus would make me appreciate them more.

This next book will only be funny and clever to people who have played in orchestras. So, let's see, that'll be one or two of you readers out there. If you're familiar with music you might still get it. But you might not laugh so hard that you use your big ole belly laugh you reserve for people who know you well and it makes your sides ache and you make a fool of yourself while you sit in front of school waiting for your kindergartner. Not that I know from experience or anything.

Lemony Snicket is once again back writing in his dismally funny way with The Composer is Dead. Snicket is taking another crack at a picture book and once again, I'm happy with the result. What made this book even more fun is the CD included that has his narration along with an orchestral score. The music was so fun and interesting and smart but not so smart that your kids wouldn't enjoy it. The story is that a composer is found dead and the Inspector is sent to question each section of the composer to find the culprit. Snicket perfectly nails the idiosyncracies of an orchestra, down to the second violin section being more fun at parties, the put-upon bitterness of the violas, the arrogance of the brass, the barely concealed need for attention from the conductor, and on and on. I laughed on each page spread and by the end, I was rolling. Even if you're completely non-musical, I think you can enjoy the deadpan humor of Lemony Snicket.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Comfort books

Sometimes a new book is just too much to tackle, so I revert back to ones I already know I like and use them as a security blanket. These last few months I've been slowing consuming some audiobooks. Very slowly because I have limited time for listening and audiobooks just take a really long time to get through, unless you have some huge road trip and hours to burn. Garth Nix's trilogy, Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen were a total of 33 CDs and I'm just now finising up the last of them. My kids gripe if I listen to it in the car, even if I turn the sound to come out only at the speaker by my feet and nowhere else. I think they know it means they won't get to listen to their own music and stories. I've had to limit my listening to when I'm at the computer or working in the kitchen, but it has made many a chore go by faster.

Tim Curry reads the books and I have decided that some law needs to get passed so he is the only one allowed to record audiobooks. His reading is absolutely riveting. You ever been to a storytime where the person reading the books has the children's absolute attention? Where not a sound can be heard in a room full of two- and three-year-olds? That's how I feel when I listen to these CDs. I read these books ages ago and hardly remembered any detail about them, but now that I've heard Tim Curry read them, I doubt I'll forget again.

I haven't ventured much into Nix's other book series, but if this is the only one I ever read, it will be worth it. The story is epic, original and sweeps you up into this fantastical world like none other. The characters are immensely likeable and the villains truly evil. The magic is very cool and the system of organizing it fascinating. All around great books, is what I'm saying here. If you haven't indulged yet, give it a whirl. And if you have the hours to spend listening to them, you're in for a treat.

My other comfort books of choice lately have been the Women of Genesis series by Orson Scott Card. He took the biblical account of Sarah, wife of Abraham and Rebekah, wife of Isaac, and Rachel and Leah, wives of Jacob, and turned it into some interesting fiction. He did a lot of research for these novels, but I don't really care too much about how accurate they are. I enjoy his portrayal of these women, their strength and intelligence and their desire to follow God. Card's book are always full of witty and intelligent banter and lots of political manuevering. He makes connections that I would never see without his characters explaining it, which makes me wonder if his characters are too smart for me to be friends with them. Like, they wouldn't want to come over to my house for a barbecue and talk about the latest episode of "Lost".

All of these books are old familiars, but something about an old familiar book feels great to read. Like an old friend that you haven't talked to for years, but when you do, it's like no time ever passed. When I can't find something new to read, I love having comfort books to keep my mind occupied. I have a very long list of comfort books, but I'd like to ask the question of you, dear readers: what are your comfort books?

Monday, May 4, 2009

Red-faced parents and uncomfortable conversations

My oldest daughter has been asking some pointed questions about the nature of babies and how boys and girls are different, so my husband and I figured it wouldn't hurt for us to read up on how to teach the facts of life to her without scarring her and causing us to die from embarrassment. After asking knowledgeable friends, I checked out the book How to Talk to Your Child About Sex by Richard and Linda Eyre. We read up on what was age appropriate and discovered that she was at that perfect age to be curious about things that so far we've glibly answered without really answering. She already knows the truth about Santa and the Easter Bunny, so it's only natural that our non-distinct answers about babies and bodies would make her slanty-eyed with disbelief. Also, she's at the perfect age to get the truth because she's old enough to understand, but not so old that she would be horrified and embarrassed.

Friday was the day of truth. We got the book that the Eyres recommend you have your child read and then answered her questions and explained more. She was fine until she realized that meant her parents were participants in this business and then she was embarrassed. But she got over it and we got over being embarrassed and it all went well. She's had questions since then like, "Why do you need the man to make a baby again?" Yikes, that was kind of a crucial part, but it shows how you can't just talk about it once. One thing that the Eyres reiterate over and over again in their book is that that conversation is the first of many and if you can keep an open dialog with your child, you'll be able to help them navigate through their teenage years with good communication. I sure hope so, because it's got to get easier from here on out. Those of you readers who are years away from this conversation, enjoy the time you have left.