Monday, November 23, 2009

Benedict, Catching Fire and Alcatraz

Series books are a tricky business. The first book in a series will often feel fresh and interesting and new, but that kind of momentum is hard to maintain through the rest of the series. The typical trilogy formula has the second book in the series be the least interesting. Plot lines have to be displayed, characters have to go through conflict and those books never end happily. The second book is like a holding place for the third book, which you know will be interesting and suspenseful and, ultimately, satisfying, but you got to slug through the second book to get to the third.

I read a bundle of series installments recently and they fell differently on the scale of series success. The first was The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner's Dilemma by Trenton Lee Stewart. I've blogged about the first and second books and I stand by my opinion that these are some of the best books I've ever read. The writing is amazing and the plot lines intricate, but not so much that my eight- and six-year-old can't enjoy it. The third book has more of the adventures of Reynie, Sticky, Kate and Constance, but it takes longer to get into the meat of the book. The first part of the book spends quite some time giving you Constance's mysterious background which we've been left in the dark about so far. It was interesting and I was excited to read it, but I grew anxious about when the action would really start. When it did, it was great. This book had more closure than any of the others, which is saying something since I was convinced the first book was the only one. Stewart doesn't leave you hanging at the end of each book which makes it easier to wait for the next one. I'm almost positive this is the last book of that series that Stewart will do, but I would love for him to create another universe for us readers to enjoy.

Next, I read Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, the second book after The Hunger Games. I thought that The Hunger Games was fascinating and a great read, but I was disappointed in Catching Fire. It seemed to suffer from second book-itis. Katniss, our heroine, spins her wheels in her hometown, trying to rebel, dealing with her love triangle, waiting for doom to descend--which it does, of course--and the reader has to wait for the action to start. It does start, but only long enough to lead us into a cliffhanger. This book is an example of the frustration of middle books in a series. That said, it's still exciting and the series as a whole will probably be awesome. If I could go back in time and tell myself to wait for all three books to come out, that's what I would do. I would never listen to such advice, but I'd try anyway.

Lastly, I read Alcatraz and the Knights of Crystallia by Brandon Sanderson. It still has snarky, nonsense-filled narration and action-packed chapters, but it lacked something that I'm going to blame on being the middle book of a series. It's the third installment out of what I suspect will be five books, so it's definitely the middle and lacks some of the momentum and excitement of the first two books. You get a peek into the Freelands of this imaginary world and has some fun moments with the villainous Librarians, but it just wasn't as much fun as the first two. Like Catching Fire, the series as a whole will be great, but we have to wait for it all to come together in the mean time. Not good for instant gratification.

While I'm thinking about it, I would qualify each of these series like this:
  • Mysterious Benedict Society: good for any age either as a read-aloud or for an independent reader with high enough reading skills.
  • Hunger Games/Catching Fire: definitely middle school and up. Lots of kissing and teen angst along with a smattering of substance abuse. Oh, and people killing each other in brutal, but not R-rated ways.
  • Alcatraz: I let my eight-year-old read it, but it has potty humor and some crass words like butt and fart. Nothing over the top, but enough to make me roll my eyes.
My husband and I were just chatting about what makes middle books of series good and we've come to the conclusion that it has to do with the intent of the author. Did they intend for it to be something broken into segments, hinged with cliffhangers and unfinished stories or rather independent stories that are all linked? I wish I could get a heads-up when it's the first type of story so I could be mentally prepared to be unsatisfied. Ah well, I'll still read them and still grump about them and probably still enjoy them.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Richard Peck's down home goodness

Richard Peck has been around for a long time. He's been writing contemporary teen novels for most of his career, but around the turn of the millennium (that sounds weird), he aimed his craft at writing for younger readers and changed his settings to rural towns around the turn of the century. This was a good move for him because his books A Long Way From Chicago and A Year Down Yonder won him a Newberry Honor and Newberry Medal. For good reason because these books are examples of storytelling at its finest.

Peck's writing makes you feel like he's channeling Mark Twain. Using the characters' midwestern vernacular, you get a feeling of sitting on a porch swing, listening to someone of an older generation spin tales. You're not sure how much of it is true since the ridiculousness of some of it seems too big to swallow, yet you're willing to believe because the story is just that good. Peck has written some of his books with one family as the central characters, but then he also has other books with the same setting (turn of the century, rural Indiana) and all new characters. They're all good.

The book I read most recently was Here Lies the Librarian and has Peck's usual assortment of quirky characters, unexpected heroes, and a story that keeps you riveted to your chair until you finish. Eleanor and her brother run a small auto shop in a tiny town that has fierce competition from a bigger outfit that pulls stunts like pouring sugar in gas tanks to get business. When a quartet of young co-eds from the university in Indianapolis show up in town and pour their family money into renovating the town's neglected library, everything is shaken up. There's also car racing, stunt-pulling, a colonel who can't seem to remember he's not in the middle of the Civil War anymore and a tornado that digs up local graves. This book is a fun ride.

The very best aspect of Peck's books is that you could read them out loud to your entire family and not a single one of them would get bored. Well, maybe your two and under crowd would lose interest, but these are books for parents and children and any extended family that might be hanging around. The language is nearly tangible with how real and beautifully crafted it is and the characters are such fun to read. I can't vouch for anything Peck has written outside of his thread of books like Here Lies the Librarian, but I can say that if you make time for these books, you will not regret it.

The Help

Not all bestsellers are worth all the hype. Anything written by Dan Brown, for instance. When I see stacks of a book piled up at Costco, I narrow my eyes and wonder. The Help by Kathryn Stockett is an exception to that rule and after it was recommended to me by several reliable sources (thanks, Mom!) I finally got a hold of it from the grips of other patrons at the library. What, did they only have one copy and a librarian on a mule was delivering it personally to each person's home? Sheesh.

The Help tells the story from there different women's perspectives in 1960's Jackson, Mississippi. If you know anything about the Civil Rights movement, you'll know what a hotbed that particular area was during that time. Two of the women are black maids in white homes and their viewpoints are similar, but how they react and deal with their situations differ. Aibilene is a black maid working for a middle class family with one little girl. The mother cannot seem to bond with her child and Aibilene steps in as a mother figure to her. Aibilene lost her own son in a tragic accident and tending people's children has always brought her joy, up until they get big enough to turn into their parents. Minny is a maid who has gotten fired from more jobs than she can count on two hands due to her smart mouth. There is no tolerance for a smart-mouthed black woman employed by white women during that time. She ends up as a maid for a young woman who came from extremely humble roots and doesn't seem to know where the line between black and white is supposed to be. Skeeter is white and the daughter of a predominant family in Jackson, fresh out of college and ready to become a famous writer. She decides to pursue a book project exposing how white women treat their black maids and nannies, but her initial motivation is to get published. Only later does she come to realize how little she knows about these women's lives.

There were aspects of this book that were deeply disturbing. Hilly, one of Skeeter's old friends who is a woman of great influence in Jackson, has it out for black women. She is the instigator of getting other families to install outdoor bathrooms for their maids so they don't have to share with the family. Her initiative hypes up the prevention of diseases being spread between the races, with the emphasis on black to white. Hilly is so wrapped up in making sure the black maids know their place that she becomes more and more irrational and terrifying. It was terrifying to me to think that women like her made life in Mississippi that much harder for black women during that time. Hilly is a horrible human being and I started to wonder if she was being portrayed too one-sided, but Stockett does make sure we know that Hilly loves her children and takes good care of them. Also, I started to realize that even though I don't personally know someone this vindictive, manipulative and self-righteous doesn't mean they don't exist.

Watching Skeeter evolve through the book was fascinating. Her maid, Constantine, who was like a mother to her growing up, mysteriously disappeared right before she came home from college. No one will tell her where she went or what happened and part of why she wants to collect stories from the maids in the community is to find out what happened to her. Other than that reason, Skeeter has no interest in changing the laws or seeing things done differently, she just wants to point out what is going on between the maids and their employers. As she learns more and hears more of their stories, personally witnesses their tragedies, and then is singled out by the angry white women of her community, she starts to empathize and desire change.

I felt a bit like Skeeter as I read The Help. I'm lucky enough to live in a day and age where racism is intolerable and how often have I ever encountered it? Or persecution of any type? As I read, I felt like there was a world out there that I have never had to experience, much like Skeeter had never experienced. It was eye-opening to me. The book is written in such a way to draw you into these women's lives without pitying them. I became frustrated, righteously indignant, and then admiring of their strength and ability to keep going despite the cards stacked so heavily against them.

Stockett grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and comes from the background of having had a black maid growing up, a woman who nursed and cared and cleaned up after her and her family. She didn't begin to question the roles of her family and her maid's until she was much older. At the time she was growing up, it was completely normal. Her small appendix at the end of the book explains her history and the fact that she wrote this book for that beloved maid. In my opinion, she did her a great honor. Stockett's storytelling was phenomenal and since this is her first book, I hope to see many more in the future.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A midnight book release party

Last week I went to my first ever midnight book release party. Ironically, I didn't even care about the book. It was the final book in the Robert Jordan Wheel of Time series. I have not read any of Robert Jordan, and have no desire to. But because this book was written by Brandon Sanderson and he was attending the book release, my sister convinced me to go and get some books signed by him.

It was fun, though the activities meant nothing to me since I haven't read the Jordan books. People kept handing out stickers that would make the other fans laugh, but meant nothing to me. But for the sake of any Jordan fans reading this, one said, "Bela is a Darkfriend," and the other said, "I killed Asmodean." No idea what they meant, but I still think the Wheel of Time logo looks like Mickey Mouse. And after looking at the cover art for those books, I have a new appreciation for the cover art of Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy. I'm not a big fan of the Mistborn cover art, but by comparison the childish illustrations used for the Wheel of Time series make Mistborn look like fine art!

It was fun to meet Brandon Sanderson. He was very gracious and flattered that we would have stood in line just for him. I had a chance to thank him for answering our questions for the blog a little while back. Overall he seemed like a very nice guy who is not too full of himself, which impresses me even more than his amazing talent. I wish him all the best success, especially with the publication of this most recent monumental work. That's a huge responsibility to finish the work of another author and try to be true to what came before while still exercising your own creativity. And with such potential of alienating die-hard fans, it's not a risk to be taken lightly! So I hope for his sake that it's well-received. Because knowing his other work, I'm pretty sure that it'll be the best of the series!

But having said that, I just have to ask, what is the deal with fantasy fans?? Do they not realize that they are perpetuating a horrible stereotype that keeps them marginalized and less respected than the genre deserves? Standing in line for two hours with all these hard core fantasy fans just about did me in. Holy lack of personal hygiene! I don't know when the last time was I've been so entrenched in B.O. Come on, do you really think that voluminous cloak is going to mask the fact that you forgot to put on deodorant for the day? For goodness sake, take a shower, brush your teeth, get a haircut, and if you're a girl put on a little make-up, and then maybe there would be less of a "freak" stigma! I just don't get it. I enjoy a good fantasy, but never to the point that I would sacrifice my personal dignity for it. Ewwww.

Overall it was a fun night, even though I didn't care a snitch for the book that all the hullabaloo was about. It did make me sad that I never made it to a release party for a book I cared about, like the last Harry Potter book. Now, that would have been an event I could have gotten into! But don't worry, I would have brushed my teeth before I left the house.