Wednesday, December 29, 2010

It's here!

The new website for Red Hot Eyebrows is up and running like a well-oiled machine.  Caren's husband, Andrew, is a graphic designer and he got the site all prettied up and easy to use.  I added some content, like what it's all about, who Caren and I are, and how to contact us.  All the posts on this blog are also on the new site, so you won't have a need to come back to here unless you're feeling nostalgic or something.  I've been adding some new reviews on the site and we've got our very first ever video co-review at the top!  I've been trying to think of a clever name for it, like a co-view.  Or a co-review-you-can-view.  Hmm, that still needs work.

In case you didn't see the link above, the new site address is  You can also find us on Facebook by searching for Red Hot Eyebrows and hitting "like" to get more frequent updates on books and stuff.  I might be bringing my twitter feed back to life one of these days, but don't get your hopes up.  Anyway, come on over!  Catch up on what we've been reading!  We've got our Best and Worst of 2010 List in the works!  Soon we'll have prizes and whatnot!  I couldn't be more excited!  I'm using lots of exclamation points!!!  That should be reason enough, right there.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Big Move

Hey readers, we've got some news.  RHE will soon be moving to a new site!  There will be more bells, some whistles and possibly a firecracker or two.  For now, I'm tweaking it and getting it ready for the Grand Unveiling and writing a review or two to stay caught up.  My reading is far out-pacing my writing right now, but I should be all caught up for the Big Day.  Notice lots of capital letters?  That's because RHE is going to be one amazing site when we're done with it.  One might say it'll be Turbo Awesome.  I might be exaggerating a bit, but I'm prone to enthusiastic exaggeration when I'm excited.  Thanks for your patience while Caren and I shine up the doorknobs and put out the fancy linen.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


I miss Michael Crichton.  I miss seeing his newest book come out and wondering what current science topic he was going to tackle.  I miss reading it and being sucked into a world where dinosaurs, aliens or nanomachines exist.  And threaten to take over the world, naturally.  I miss chuckling over the fact that his books were marketed as thrillers when they were really science fiction, which meant that people who scorn sci-fi were inadvertently reading it.  Hee hee.  Any time an author I like stops writing, I feel sorry for myself that I don't get to read anything new by them ever again.  Selfish, I know.

Imagine my delight when a review I read compared Laurence Gonzales to Crichton.  It's an accurate comparison.  Gonzales' book Lucy was really similar to Crichton's book Next, which both have to do with transgenic species.  Next is about two animals with human genes, but Lucy is about a girl who is half human, half bonobo ape.  Bonobos look like chimpanzees and are endangered animals found only in the Congo.  Lucy's father is a scientist who lived in the Congo for years and decided it was his mission to bring the human race to its next level of evolution.  In other words, he was kinda crazy.  Lucy is found after another scientist, Jenny Lowe, comes to rescue Lucy's father when violence breaks out in the jungle.  Her father was killed, unfortunately, but Jenny takes Lucy back to England with her to find Lucy's remaining family.  Guess what?  None are found.  You know, 'cause Lucy's mom is an ape.  Nobody knows that, other than Lucy, until Jenny reads the journals that Lucy's dad meticulously kept over the years.

Lucy is an articulate, intelligent and well-educated young woman.  Her father spent her childhood filling her brain with more education than most of us get in a lifetime.  When Lucy and Jenny end up back in the U.S., where Jenny is from, Lucy tests out of all her high school classes, but Jenny decides to stick her in for a senior year anyway.  Now that Jenny is in on the secret, they are very intent on keeping Lucy out of the public eye and getting her adjusted to the real world.  This is hard to do, what with Lucy's social awkwardness, sensitivity to sound, super high intelligence and inhuman strength.  How do you keep those kinds of characteristics out of spotlight?

You know it's going to all fall apart and Lucy will be exposed for what she is, and sure enough, it happens.   But when it does, it's interesting how Lucy and her best friend, Amanda, spin it their own way.  They make a video on YouTube, create a MySpace page, blog incessantly about it and basically protect Lucy through public exposure.  She becomes a celebrity and by it, the government doesn't easily nap her for the proverbial tests in a laboratory.  You know that's going to happen too, but for a while she is protected by her celebrity.

The creepy parts are when the government decrees that Lucy isn't human, even going as far as to pass a law defining her existence as animal, not human.  Her treatment when she is captured is horrible and upsetting and would be cruel if she was truly just an animal.  Even the letters she gets from fans are creepy.  From marriage proposals to death threats, it was unnerving to read people's reactions.  Yet, Lucy handles it all so well.  So well, in fact, that I started to get a little annoyed that Lucy never gets mad.  She's just a little too perfect.  It's like Gonzales is trying to drive the point home that Lucy is better than the rest of us, that being who she is makes her more human.  But being human means getting mad or frustrated or acting badly sometimes.  And Lucy never does that.

Even though this book is science fiction and therefore filled with improbable situations, I kept wondering what would happen if scientists were able to create transgenic people.  This isn't a new topic.  The Isle of Dr. Moreau is an old book, after all.  And I mentioned Next.  And any book where people hate someone or something that's different.  Oh man, I'm not going to even start on a list of books on that topic.  This isn't a new idea, is what I'm saying, and probably Lucy isn't even the best book on that theme, but I still liked it.  It keep me riveted and by the time I reached the climax of Lucy's escape, I couldn't stop turning pages.  I love Crichton's books, but I never felt compassion for his characters like I did for Lucy.  It's got flaws, but overall, I still liked it.  How human of me.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


The best way for me to get the heebie-jeebies is to watch the news.  I consciously avoid knowing what is going on in the world.  My husband's job is to bring to my attention anything I need to know as a concerned citizen.  There is way too much horribleness out there and my brain gets too full with it and makes me sick.  For instance, I can't handle any news stories about abductions.  It's my worst nightmare so I avoid reading about it at all costs.  With that in mind, I have no idea why I read Room by Emma Donoghue.  The premise was fascinating which is all I can say to explain myself.

Room is told from the perspective of five-year-old Jack who seems like a perfectly normal little boy.  He loves Dora the Explorer and spaceships made out of cardboard, hates green beans, and plays imagination games with his Ma.  The difference is that he and his mother are prisoners inside a tiny room built into the shed belonging to their abductor.  Ma, whose name we never learn, was kidnapped as a young college student and has spent seven years in the room.  She has created as normal a life for Jack as possible, telling him stories, teaching him reading and math, having a routine to their day.  When the creepy night time visits from Old Nick, her abductor, happen, Jack is tucked away into a closet where Nick cannot see or touch him.  Ma wants to protect Jack from him at all costs.

Jack has never left the room and as far as he knows, there's nothing out there.  His whole world is the room and the sun that comes in from the skylight.  It's obvious that Ma has worked on escaping over the years.  She has a bad wrist from one attempt and she and Jack play the screaming game once a week.  Old Nick is too thorough, however, and they are stuck.  But shortly after Jack's fifth birthday, Ma comes up with an escape plan and Jack is the key.

If you're going to read the book, I don't want to spoil how they successfully escape.  Their time spent in the room is only the first half of the book and in some ways, their recovery and celebrity after they escape is more gut-wrenching.  Jack has many developmental problems from having spent his entire life inside such a small space.  He has no long-range vision and his spatial reasoning is seriously messed up.  His skin is extremely sensitive to sunlight and just being outside is overwhelming to him, with all the wind and noise and environmental newness.  But he is bright, an avid reader and quick to catch on to his new surroundings.  Part of his problems with being out in the world is that the room was his home and he wishes that Ma would take them back there.  Ma is repulsed by his insistence that they go back and I couldn't help sharing her feelings, but I could understand why Jack wanted to go back.  It's the only home he's ever known and he was happy there.

In part of their celebrity status, Ma agrees to a tv interview.  She has worked hard to protect Jack from the media, but realizes that an interview could help save some money for his education.  The exchange between her and the interviewer was fascinating, especially what questions she is asked and how she reacts to them. I found myself cheering Ma on, internally defending her actions during what must have been horrific conditions.  When Ma loses her temper and stops the interview, I don't blame her one bit.

I found Room to be simultaneously fascinating and awful.  It wasn't graphic, probably because it's told from Jack's perspective, but the whole basis of the story is like something out of a nightmare.  As Jack finds more out and learns more about his mother, you can't help but mourn his innocence that is ripped away from him.  The way that Donoghue ends the book was perfect and I'm glad she didn't do it any differently because it felt like natural closure.  I'll never read this book again because my heart can't take it, but I'm not sad I edged out of my comfort zone a few feet to give it a try.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Picture Bride

Several years ago my husband and I made a trip to San Francisco.  We had a fabulous time, especially eating all the sourdough bread and dungeness crab we could, but also sight-seeing and enjoying the beautiful weather in August.  We toured Alcatraz and then Angel Island, which is like the Ellis Island of the West Coast.  It was fascinating and shocking.  There I learned that during WWII, Japanese Americans were put in detainment camps for fear of their association with their mother country.  The conditions were horrible and they were imprisoned even when they had their citizenship.  I couldn't believe it.  How had I never heard of this before?  It completely opened my eyes.

A few months ago, my book group read Picture Bride by Yoshiko Uchida.  It's the story of Hana Omiya, a young woman whose family arranged for her to marry a man in San Francisco.  Hana is one of hundreds of picture brides who came to the United States during that time.  She travels from Japan in 1917 and there meets her fiance, Taro Takeda, an Oakland shopkeeper.  Hana was lead to believe that Taro was a prosperous man, but in fact, his shop barely makes enough to get by. Taro is a kind-hearted person, though, a very devout Christian and a conscientious student of English.  Instead of joining the ranks of houseboys and laborers, he worked hard to acquire his shop and make a life for himself.  Their life is far different than what Hana was expecting, especially since she came from a formerly wealthy family in Japan, but Hana is clever and resourceful and quickly adapts.

Unfortunately, racism against Asians in that area was normal at the time and Hana and Taro and their church community deal with it constantly.  Hana, an educated woman who could have been a teacher in Japan, ends up doing housework.  Taro's shop flourishes with Hana's influence, but Taro resents that she's better at his job than he is.  Everything Hana does for Taro is done with a light touch, partly due to his pride, but also because Taro doubts Hana's love for him.  Hana once loved his best friend, back when they were first married, but nothing ever came of it.  I don't want to paint these people in a bad light, though.  They love their daughter, Mary, serve selflessly at church, use their money carefully and find a form on happiness in a land that doesn't want them.

Mary, their daughter, is much more American than Hana and Taro are.  She worked hard at school, had friends and immersed herself into American culture.  Her relationship with Taro is good because he speaks English well, but Hana never really learned to speak as well as Taro and Mary and that put up a wall between mother and daughter.  When Mary leaves home, it isn't a surprise when she pulls away from her parents and disconnects from their lives, but it's heart-breaking.

Whew, I'm only half-way through the book here!  When World War II began and the bombing of Pearl Harbor occurred, suspicion towards Japanese-Americans escalated.  When the government starts rounding up and interning the Japanese, Hana and Taro are included.  Their experiences in the internment camps are painful, mostly because they really happened.  The author based this entire book on her family's experiences.  Yoshiko Uchida was the daughter of Japanese immigrants who were interned at the same locations in the book. Uchida was given permission to be released and return to graduate school, but her parents were kept in the camps.  The conditions at the camp near Delta, Utah were awful and I was astonished over and over again how the government treated people who were citizens.  The people are able to find small joys, like the wedding of a young couple or reuniting families, but in general, they are stuck in horrible conditions with no end in sight.

This book was exquisite and painful, showing how people can be utterly debased and still prevail.  There were beautifully tender moments that filled my heart.  I'm so glad that Uchida told her story, that she was able to share an important part of history, and that my book group picked to read it.  It's through stories like these that we are able to understand history and become better people through it.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Co-review: I Am Not a Serial Killer

It's fitting that this review comes so soon after Jenny recently reviewed Brandon Sanderson's newest book, since Dan Wells credits Sanderson with pushing him to write I Am Not a Serial Killer in the first place. Having Sanderson's support wasn't enough to make it very easy to get a hold of, though. Initially it was only published in the UK, then was released in the US last spring. But I still had to wait for an InterLibrary Loan (from out-of-state, no less!) to finally get my hands on it.

I Am Not a Serial Killer is a first-person narrative by an intriguing, yet disturbing, 15-year-old boy. John Wayne Cleaver is a morbid teenager who has been raised in a mortuary and has a keen fascination with death. He is obsessed with serial killers and makes a hobby out of studying them. The more he learns, the more convinced he is that he is destined to become a serial killer himself. But he doesn't want that, so he desperately follows a set of self-imposed rules to try to counteract his sociopathic tendencies.

Things change for John when a series of gruesome murders begin haunting the small town. John's unique perspective allows him to discover the murderer long before the police even get close, and he becomes convinced that he is the only one who can stop the killer. But to do so, he feels he must surrender to the monster within, and risk losing himself (or fulfilling his destiny, he's not sure which) forever.

As usual, we like to discuss these co-reviews openly, so consider yourself forewarned!

Caren: After a run of somewhat blah books lately, I Am Not a Serial Killer really made me sit up and take notice. I don't like guts and gore, so I felt pretty squeamish at the beginning when he was describing the process of embalming and the details of the first violent murder. Fortunately, he didn't go into a lot of graphic detail with every murder, or else I might not have been able to get much farther than the first few chapters! But I have to admit that I have a new appreciation for morticians now. I'm so grateful that there are people who make death so sanitary for the rest of us!

Jenny:  I made the mistake of sitting down to eat my lunch while I read this book the first time.  I made a note to myself never to do that again.  It did make me grateful that there are people, non-psychotic people, out there in the world who are willing and able to do the work of preparing the dead for burial.  'Cause it's gross.

I thought it was fascinating that our protagonist and potential hero is a mentally-disturbed teenage boy with his own monster waiting to strike and kill.  Very cool and original.  Freaky too, but it made the angle of the story different than what I was expecting.  Two things that took me by surprise was that we found out who the killer was fairly early in the story and that the killer wasn't human.  I thought for sure this would be a murder mystery that put John into suspicion as the killer and then he used his knowledge of serial killers to find the real killer.  Nope, nothing like that.  When I realized that the story was more about John using his inner demon to destroy the actual demon, it was all symbolic and stuff.

Caren: I was surprised by the supernatural element too.  John talks about himself and his disturbing tendencies in such a gritty matter-of-fact way that I expected the villain to be someone straight out of the news, not out of a comic book.  And it sure surprised me when the killer turned out to be his harmless neighbor!  (It's been a while since I've been genuinely surprised in a novel, so that was kind of fun.)  In some ways it was probably better to have the killer be this weird demon masquerading as a nice old man.  It was easier to read it late at night with the distance of "this could never happen in real life."

The demon was scary, but the creepiest and most disturbing thing to me was watching John struggle with his own unnatural inhumanity.  It makes me wonder how accurate Wells' portrayal is from a psychological standpoint.  I liked that John's therapist didn't think he was beyond hope, and I was glad that he shows himself capable of genuine feeling at the end when he and his mother defeat the demon.  That gives me hope that he's not a true sociopath destined to become a serial killer like he fears.  Even the fact that he doesn't want to become one should count for something, right?

Jenny:  I have a really hard time with books or movies that are about horrific things that can actually happen in real life.  Sci-fi doesn't scare me, just gives me the fun heebie jeebies.  If the killer had been a real person, it would have been way harder to read and I definitely would have avoided reading it at night.  For that I'm glad it was just a super creepy killer monster with a soft side for his wife.

What was really scary to me was when John let his inner monster out.  When he bashed Mrs. Crowley's head with the alarm clock and barely stopped himself from killing her, I was in agony.  I begged Wells not to let John become the monster that he was threatening to become.  Like you said, I also like that his therapist was a good person who truly thought John was a good person with a strong moral code.  He needed Neblin at that critical point and Neblin didn't fail him.  It cost him his life, but it kept John under control.

At that point in the book, my heart was pounding in my chest and I could barely breathe.  As soon as John saw on his GPS that the demon was heading back to the house, I thought I was going to jump out of my skin.  It's been a while since a book had me in such suspense.

Caren: Oh man, me too! It's a good thing it didn't get any more suspenseful because I could barely stand it as it was.  Which made it perfect for Halloween!  And yet, for as creepy and violent as it was, it was surprisingly clean.  I can't remember any bad language or anything sexual, which I would have expected for an edgy novel about a would-be serial killer.

I thought Wells did a really good job with the suspense and developing John's character.  In the acknowledgments, he insists that it's not autobiographical, but I wasn't convinced.  That's how believable John's character was!  (That, and I can't help but wonder about how well-balanced an author can be who writes about such psychosis so convincingly.)  But I admired Wells' restraint.  He showed us just enough of John's dysfunctional relationships with family and friends and his obsession with serial killers to give us a clear picture of his psyche without overdoing it.  It would have been really easy to go over-the-top with a character like John, but Wells didn't, and his reserve made for a stronger novel.

I am both intrigued and nervous that Wells intends this to be the first of a trilogy (I think the second was just recently published).  Intrigued because I am a little curious about what happens to John now.  He's made a breakthrough with his mother.  He has let loose his own monster with it's major issues.  And there were enough references to his father that make me wonder if there is more to come with that story.  But I am nervous that for the story to continue, it will only be because John has greater demons -- both within and without -- that he has to face.  I'm not sure I can handle that!  And I definitely don't like what more novels might mean for the sweet and innocent Brooke that he's stalking at the end.  It makes me shudder just thinking about it!

At least he ends this first novel well enough that I don't feel like I have to read the next one to finish the story.  I always appreciate that in an author!

Jenny:  Yeah, I just read online that it was going to be a trilogy.  It didn't have the feel of a trilogy at the end of the book, so I was surprised.  I'm kinda excited to see where Wells takes John and his tortured self.  There was some seriously scary and upsetting parts in this book, but nothing that wouldn't stop me from reading the next two books.  I have enough faith in Wells' plans for John that I think it could turn out okay in the end.

I just remembered that we read Odd Thomas a few years ago for our October co-review and how scary that was.  Comparing Odd and John to each other, they are polar opposites.  Odd is peace-loving and non-violent except when he's forced to while having a strange ability thrust upon him, while John is tormented by desires to do great violence and constantly keeps it in check.  Yet, I think I like John just as much as I liked Odd.  Not because John is inherently likable, but because he works so hard to be good.  You've read more Odd Thomas than me, what do you think?

Caren: You know, it's funny that you mention Odd Thomas, because I thought of it too.  Partly because that was probably the last time I read something this suspenseful, and partly because of the supernatural element.  You're right that whereas Odd is so good and innocent, John is just plain scary.  But at the same time I can't help feeling compassion for him and wanting everything to work out.  I liked him, even though he freaked me out.

One thing I liked about the story is that as disturbing as it was, there was no such thing as violence without consequences.  So often in the action/thriller genres the good guys commit necessary acts of violence without it affecting their characters.  But the violence John committed changed him, just as it would in real life.  I liked that Wells forced us to face that when a good guy does bad things he can't walk away unscathed.

Okay, I looked up the next one and it looks to be even darker and more intense than the first.  It's called Mr. Monster and picks up right where I Am Not a Serial Killer ends.  The reviews look compelling; people seem to like it even more than the first.  Tell you what, you read it and then let me know what you think.  Maybe I can muster up enough courage if I know it's worth it.

Jenny:  Deal.  I will totally take care of that for you.  I'm excited to see where Wells will take the story.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Slumdog Millionaire and The Wednesday Letters

I started out reviewing Slumdog Millionaire with Crispin: The Cross of Lead, because I read them at the same time, and they both came from my sister-in-law's library cleansing.  But I quickly realized that that would be a really unsettling combination, so Slumdog gets lumped with another strange companion, but one that is at least still geared toward adults.

Slumdog Millionaire, by Vikas Swarup, is a gripping story, but horrible in a way so that I had mixed feelings about it the whole time I was reading it.  Two weeks after finishing it, I still have mixed feelings, but they are settling more and more in the negative.  It is a fascinating story about an illiterate young man in Mumbai who is arrested for cheating after becoming the first winner of the game show, Who Will Win a Billion?  Similar to the format of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? game show that inspired it, Ram Mohammed Thomas had to answer a series of increasingly difficult trivia questions, all of which he happens to know the answer to because of his unique past.  As he explains how he knew the answer to each question, his poignant, funny, and heart-breaking life history unfolds.

It was well-written, fast-paced, and with a clever premise that kept me interested.  But the language was really bad, and the first few chapters were so full of sexual abuse that I started to think that all Indian men were either gay, incestuous, or pedophiles (or two out of three).  Ugh.  It got better after that, and it was remarkable how Ram's purity of character continued to shine in the filth around him, but there were so many horrible things portrayed that I understood why my sister-in-law said she wouldn't read it again.  (As a sidenote, I don't know how a person could stomach watching the feature film.  As horrible as it was to read, I think it would be way worse to watch on screen.)  The ending was ultimately positive and there were some wonderful moments where evil got its just reward and good won out.  But I felt like I needed to scour the creepy crawlies out of my mind when I was done.  So while Swarup had definite talent, I won't be reading any of his work again.

Again from that same batch of disparate books, I recently just finished the New York Times Bestseller (so says the cover) The Wednesday Letters, by Jason F. Wright.  A complete reversal from Slumdog Millionaire, The Wednesday Letters overpowered me with it's over-the-top sentimentality and shoddy writing.  Again I felt like I needed a mental scrubbing, but from an overdose of intellectual cotton candy instead.  How do books like this get published, let alone become bestsellers?  The basic plot wasn't so bad.  While getting ready for their elderly parents' double funeral, three adult children discover boxes of letters written from their father to their mother; one on each Wednesday throughout their marriage.  They uncover troubling secrets about their parents' and their own histories that cause crisis, resolution, and eventual healing for each of them.  It's full of emotion, moralizing, and ultimately a good message about forgiveness and cherishing those we love.

My problem with it?  The writing was mediocre at best.  There were times when the perspective would shift mid-sentence to a different character, leaving me with vertigo wondering where I was in the scene.  And every character had to be introduced with a whole pedigree and history instead of just allowing us to discover their essence as the story unfolded.  The dialogue was flat and insincere.  The plot was predictable.  I have no problem with emotional novels that celebrate relationships and family values.  But not when they are an embarrassment to decent writing.  I don't want to invest any more effort than it's worth into saying more about what was wrong with it (like how the resolution of the love triangle was shallow and contradictory), but if I'd had anything else nearby to tempt me, I wouldn't have finished reading it.  Was it a total waste of time?  Not completely, but nearly.  Very nearly.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Crispin: The Cross of Lead

Like Jenny, I too have a growing pile of books I've read that are now waiting for me to review. But unlike Jenny, one of them isn't a 1000-page behemoth that at least gives her a good excuse for why she hasn't been able to get to the computer! As it is, I've only got time to do a couple of them here, but I will try to get to the others soon.  The books I've read lately are very different from each other, but have several things in common: Short, require minimal investment, and given to me by my sister-in-law when she was cleaning out her personal library.

(Note to self: When a fellow reader with good taste gives you books from her personal library, remember there's probably a good reason she is getting rid of them.)

The first one I picked up was Crispin: The Cross of Lead, by Avi.  As a Newberry Award winner it most piqued my interest.  And of these recent reads I also enjoyed it the most.  The story takes place in the 14th century, featuring a poor nameless boy who is cast out from his village after his mother dies.  This isn't the fanciful setting most medieval authors portray in their fiction.  It's a more realistic version with feudal lords, serfs, the black plague, and crippling poverty.  Which also made it more interesting, I thought.  Eventually the main character learns that his true name is Crispin and that there is more to his history than he would first suspect.  But it is a history full of sorrow that threatens his life and the life of his one friend and protector, the traveling entertainer called Bear.

That's not really doing the story justice, but you don't really need much more than that.  Once you get started, the book has enough momentum to keep you going.  Like I said, the story, subject, and setting were all really interesting.  But not as gripping as I would normally expect from a Newberry winner.  I've heard that there is a whole series about Crispin, but I haven't decided on whether I'm invested enough in his story to continue it.  However, I would definitely recommend it to it's older children / early teen audience.

I was going to write more about some of the other books I've read, but I realized that none of them really belong paired with a children's novel like Crispin.  So I'll save those for another time.  In the meantime, if you have read the series I would love to hear if you think it's worth continuing or not.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Way of Kings

One of these days I need to stop reading so much and actually write something down.  My pile of finished books keeps growing larger and the blog grows dustier by the minute.  The bigger the pile gets, the more intimidated I get by how far behind I'm getting, which makes me hesitate even more.  It's a vicious cycle.  I should just take notes from Brandon Sanderson who seems to write about a hundred pages a day.  That guy is producing huge amounts of writing per year and has tons more books lined up for publication.  His latest book is The Way of Kings, a whopper at 1,000 pages and the first in what it planned to be a massive epic series.  I'm glad I'm getting in at the beginning of this because if I were to look at ten or so books with 1,000 pages on average twenty years from now, I'd throw my hands up and say forget it.  I don't seek out epic, lengthy fantasy series in general, but for Sanderson, I'll dive in quite happily.

Brandon Sanderson has a gift for world building in his writing.  Well, he also has a gift for witty banter, clever plot developments, believable characters, engaging stories, and fascinating magic systems, but let's focus on the world building for now.  I've had my fill of elves and goblins and apparently so has he because I've yet to read a book of his that has any of the traditional fantastic characters.  In The Way of Kings, it's a world populated by different races of people, some more colorful than others.  By colorful, I mean some have blue skin, some have super long white eyebrows and some have marbled black and red skin.  In the country of Alethkar, the nobility is determined by eye color, the lighter the better.  Dark-eyed people make up the working class.  The nobility have swords and armor that are remnants of an ancient warrior group called The Radiants, and all of their major wars and even minor skirmishes are in pursuit of these swords and plates.  Men who possess Shardplates and swords are called Shardbearers and are very hard to defeat, though it is possible and the swords and plate have passed hands many times over the centuries.  The ancient Radiants used the weapons to defeat the evil Voidbringers and protect mankind, but they are no longer used for such noble purposes.

The world is afflicted with regular hurricanes, called great storms, that occur every few weeks.  The seasons are very short and unpredictable.  Because of this constant barrage, the flora and fauna have both had to adapt.  The animal life is made up of animals with hard shells, like giant crawfish and clams.  Being able to draw into their shells keeps them safe during the worst of the storms.  Even the trees and plants are able to draw within a shell to stay safe, which is kinda bizarre.  The ground is scoured and barren due to the fact that no soil can stay put with winds like that constantly blowing.  There are other parts of the world that are more like the world we live in, but the residents of Alethkar think it's mythical and have a hard time believing anything could be different from what they know.

Our cast of characters includes Kaladin, a dark-eyed slave who was once an apprentice surgeon and then soldier.  He is now a bridge carrier for a lord's army, a ranking that means certain death and reserved for the most disposable men.  Kaladin has a sad past and the unnerving ability to stay alive even in the most dangerous situations.  His past is slowly revealed and we get to watch him change his bridge crew into more than just disposable workers.  His dealings with the nobility and his superiors in the army were so frustrating though, since the way their aristocracy is set up is so stupid.  Sanderson is good at making me frustrated on behalf of his characters.

Another character I loved was Shallan, a minor noble from a small nation whose family has fallen on hard times.  Her only hope is to become a ward of the princess Jasnah Kholin, sister to the king.  She's a famous scholar and heretic and becoming her ward would put her in a position to save her family from destitution.  Shallan is an amazing artist with a photographic memory and many of the illustrations in the book are from Shallan's notebooks.  Shallan is fascinating because you think you know what is motivating her and then Sanderson surprises you.  What happens with Shallan towards the end of the book knocked me for a loop.  If I had written this book, I would have been giggling with glee at my deviousness, so I like to imagine Sanderson chuckling as he typed on his laptop, delighted with his own cleverness.  Chuckle away, Brandon.

Instead of describing each character, which is what I'm tempted to do because I like them all so much, I'll just tell you that Sanderson creates a colorful cast and keeps the stories moving for each of them.  When their paths collide, it's awesome.  My only complaints about this book is that Sanderson takes his sweet time setting everything up.  It wasn't until halfway through the book that it started to move faster.  I know he's planning on making this a ten book series and that the details he's laboring over in the first hundred pages or so are important to the series as a whole and not just this book, but it doesn't make it any less slow to slog through.  My other complaint is that there's not a whole lot that is concluded in this book.  Some, but not much.  Again, ten book series, yadda yadda.  It makes me tired to think I'll have to somehow retain a bunch of this information and detail until the next book comes out.  I don't know if I have room in my brain.

Oh well.  Knowing Sanderson, the next book will be just as awesome and I'll read it happily and if I can't remember details, it won't matter all that much anyway because it'll be so fun to read.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Co-review: Stargirl

Back in May, I wrote a post about the Top 100 Children's Novels poll that was done by the School Library Journal blog.  Going through the list is fascinating and I've often gone back to look for books for my children.  Caren suggested we pick a book from the list for a co-review, so we narrowed it down to #61, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli.  We tried to find a book that was closer to the top of the list that neither of us had read, but these are classics that most people have read, including us.  It wasn't as easy as it looked.

Jerry Spinelli is probably more known for Maniac Magee, #17 on the list and a Newberry winner.  Spinelli shows that he isn't shy about tackling sticky subjects when he writes about racism in Magee, and Stargirl is his platform for examining conformity.  It takes place in a smallish town in Arizona and told from the point of view of high school student Leo Borlock.  High school is typically a homogeneous place with everybody fitting into their allotted cliques.  Once you fit into a spot, it's hard to move out of it, if my memory of high school serves right.  Mica Area High School is no different.

The entire school is thrown for a loop when Stargirl Caraway shows up.  She wears bizarre clothes, plays a ukulele during lunch and serenades kids on their birthdays, has a pet rat named Cinnamon that rides around in her purse, and seems completely at ease with her uniqueness.  Most of the other students find her unnerving, but eventually they start to love her, especially after she brings school spirit back to the sports teams by her antics during football.  Some of the other students hate her, especially Hillari Kimble, head cheerleader and queen of the school.  Hillari doesn't enjoy her spotlight being occupied by Stargirl.

When Stargirl becomes a cheerleader, the basketball team suddenly begins to have enormous success.  The whole school and community becomes obsessed with their winning streak, but when Stargirl cheers for both teams at the games, everyone turns against her.  Where she was once loved, she is now universally reviled.  Leo, who fell in love with her quirkiness and was fascinated with her generosity and love for people, is conflicted as soon as all the negative attention starts.  He wishes that Stargirl would just be like everyone else, but not for her sake but his own.

Not that there's much to spoil in this book, but as always, we talk about everything.

Jenny:  One of the hardest things about high school for me was that demand to blend in, to find a group of like-minded people and stay put.  It wasn't until I left for college that I felt like I finally was able to become the person I always wanted to be.  There just wasn't any room or tolerance for it in high school, but I was also too afraid to step outside my comfort zone.  I related to Leo so much because he loved Stargirl's individuality, but he was also afraid of it.

Caren: I don't think I was self-aware enough in high school to know what I wanted to be, but I definitely felt like my peers' perceptions barely scratched the surface of who I really was. Like you said, college was a refreshing opportunity to reinvent myself away from the stifling confines of high school.  Reading Stargirl, I found myself wishing Leo would stop worrying about what everyone thought and just enjoy their friendship.  But then I would have to remind myself that I can't apply adult perspective to a teenager who literally cannot envision life after high school.  When that's all you have and you can't imagine it ever changing, the risks for not conforming are a lot higher!

I was intrigued by the character of Stargirl.  Not at first.  At first she seemed to try to hard to be weird.  But eventually she won me over and I believed that her uniqueness was genuine and not just an act.  I think her believability was crucial to the success of the story, and Spinelli did a good job pulling it off when all was said and done.

Jenny:  I think what made her genuine to me was when we found out all the nice things she did for people.  Someone who is weird just to get a reaction out of people or draw attention to herself wouldn't be so generous and kind, I don't think.  The bit with going into the desert and meditating wasn't as believable to me as taking pictures of the neighbor boy or a future scrapbook.  That was sweet.

It really bothered me how the group of kids reacted when Stargirl was the guest for The Hot Seat.  It was a prime example of mob mentality and how dangerous that can be.  At first I thought it was an outrageous example, except that I remember from high school that if someone fell out of favor, their lives would become truly miserable.  It was like the whole school turned against them.  There wasn't necessarily screaming mobs in public places, the shunning was definitely common.  What happened to Stargirl was awful, but not unrealistic.

One of my favorite characters was the old professor across the street from the school, Archie Brubaker.  I thought it was a cool idea, but it made me sad to think that in real life, there wouldn't be someone like that.  It's too easy for people to assume horrible things of an old man who has kids over at his house all the time.  It's a nice idea, though.

Caren: I was actually relieved when the Hot Seat was over that it wasn't any worse than that.  Having seen what the teenage mob mentality can do, I was expecting worse!

The whole time I read Stargirl, I couldn't help but think of As Simple As Snow that we reviewed back in March.  There were a lot of similarities, but while Galloway seemed to be intent on forcing a dark edginess to his story, Spinelli kept his lighter and therefore more realistic.  Spinelli really seemed to be speaking to teenagers, whereas I'm not really sure who Galloway's audience was supposed to be.  Contrasting the two, I marvel that Spinelli's climax revolves around something so mundane as the bunny hop, and yet he relates it so skillfully that you really feel like those kids were changed when it was over.

Jenny:  That's true.  I loved that scene, with everybody happy and exultant after bunny hopping way out yonder and back.  It was a good way for Stargirl to disappear into the sunset.  I'm glad it ended that way instead of Stargirl just evaporating and everybody realizing after the fact that she only did good things for them.

Apparently there's one book after this one, Love, Stargirl.  I haven't heard great things about it, but it's written in Stargirl's point of view, which might be interesting.  Also, according to Jerry Spinelli's website, you can start your own Stargirl society.  Maybe it's because I'm not a teenager, but I didn't feel so moved by the book that I felt like I should start my own Stargirl society.  Then again, I suppose promoting individuality in teenage girls isn't a bad idea.  Most girls that age need a boost to break out of the mold.

Caren: I had mixed feelings about the ending.  While I was glad that Leo had come to realize what a treasure Stargirl was, I was kind of bothered that he still hadn't gotten over her fifteen years later.  I mean, she was great and all, but that seemed a little much.

I liked that the things that endured were the kindnesses to others.  Individuality for its own sake can be just as forced and fake as conformity with the masses, so I don't think that's the most important thing that Stargirl brought.  But the sensitivity to others and getting outside oneself -- that really was a gift.

I felt the same way about being moved by the novel.  It was good, but I wouldn't read it again, and I'm kind of surprised that people love it so much that it would have made it on the top 100 list.  I'm curious if I would have felt differently if I'd read it when I was a teenager, but we'll never know!

Jenny:  Yeah, I was kind of surprised to see it on the list lumped in the same group as The BFG, Henry Huggins, A Long Way From Chicago.  Good, but not Top 100 of All Time good.  Maybe we're missing out on something because our teens are too far behind us.  I'd love it of one the RHE readers read it as a teen and could give us feedback.  Or if anybody has a teenager handy to read it and report back.  Anyone?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Forest Born

Forest Born is Shannon Hale's most recent addition to what is now being called her Books of Bayern series.  What started out as a complex and imaginative retelling of the lesser known fairy tale, The Goose Girl, has spread to four novels featuring selected characters from the original story and their supernatural gifts.  Forest Born is different from the other stories in that it features a young girl who wasn't part of the original tale.  Rin is the younger sister of Razo (who received his own story in River Secrets, the third Bayern book), and as with the other forest born characters we've met so far, she finds herself leaving the forest and moving to the city where she experiences some defining coming-of-age moments.

The reader quickly discovers that Rin has a special gift -- that of tree-speaking -- which is expected in these tales of people-speaking, wind-speaking, fire-speaking, and so on.  It takes Rin a little while to realize this, and causes her some grief because for some reason the trees have seemed to turn against her.  Anytime she tries to communicate with them she is filled with such loathing and rejection that she decides to flee the forest and see what the future will hold for her in Bayern's capital.

There she becomes a lady-in-waiting to the queen, Ani/Isi from The Goose Girl.  Rin helps care for Isi's young son, and develops a great amount of respect for Isi and her friends, Enna and Dasha.  When the three "Fire Sisters" leave to investigate some mysterious burnings near the border, Rin secretly follows.  As she grows to know these women better, and as they band together to face a secret enemy, she also begins to face her own self-doubt and desire to know who she really is.  That means solving the mystery of her personal conflict with the trees, and coming to terms with another gift she possesses -- a dangerous one that can destroy her and all she loves.

It was a good story, and well-written as all of Hale's work is, but it wasn't my favorite of the four by any means. It was hard to really connect with Rin, since she spends most of her time observing rather than participating in many of the interactions with the Fire Sisters.  But there's a reason for that, and Hale does do justice to the psychological and interpersonal issues she explores.  It was fun to see so many characters from the earlier books and continue to follow their stories.  There is action and suspense and drama, though it didn't feel quite as fresh and intense as in the first two books, The Goose Girl and Enna Burning (my two personal favorites).  So worth reading if you've enjoyed the others, though not necessarily worth raving about.  I do have to mention that reading it right after finishing Avalon High gave me an intellectual sigh of relief.  I'll pick up a Hale over a Cabot any day!

Okay, and one more thing that bugs.  I loved the stylized artwork they used for the cover art of the first three books.  But when they printed them in paperback, they switched to some cheesy model photos (my mom aptly described them as "seductive American Girl").  Bad enough to do that to the paperbacks, but whatever.  Until they also used that style for the hardback printing of Forest Born, and now it sticks out like a sore thumb against the other three books in my collection.  I much prefer the classy style of the first three and wish they had kept it up for continuity.  Lame.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


If you haven't heard of The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins then you are spending your days either living in a cave or being way more productive than I am.  The third and final installment in the series, Mockingjay, just came out this last month and I keep seeing them everywhere.  I picked up a copy at Costco, for cryin' out loud, that's how big of a deal these books are.  I've got some conflicting feelings about the conclusion of the series and I'm going to try very hard to write about it without revealing spoilers.  It's gonna be hard.

I loved the first book, The Hunger Games, but the second, Catching Fire, didn't capture me nearly as well as the first did.  The concept wasn't new and it felt a bit recycled as far as plot and tension went.  I was reading over the posts I did for both the books and while I gave The Hunger Games it's own post and couldn't say enough good things, Catching Fire was lumped in with two other books in a post about series books.  Not a good sign.  If I had been smart, and had the ability to wait that long, I should have waited until all three books are out and then read them back to back to retain more details.  I couldn't remember half of what happened in the previous books which made me keeping saying, "Huh?  What?  Who was that again?".  It could also be that my brain is full of holes.  I wouldn't rule out that possibility.

Mockingjay jumps right in where Catching Fire leaves off with Katniss in District 13 and reluctantly part of the rebellion effort.  Peeta is in the custody of President Snow and presumably being tortured for information.  Ends up, District 13 isn't some idyllic place to live, though it is out from under the Capitol's thumb.  The leaders of the rebellion have their own agenda for Katniss, including to be mascot to stir up rebellion efforts in other districts.  She just wants to be left alone.  Ah, Katniss, you just always want to be left alone.  You've got pouting and agonizing down to a science.  Get over it.  Be helpful or get outta Dodge, I wanted to tell her.  Grow up!  That was another one.  I felt impatient with her pretty much the entire book.  Granted, it's not like she's got some kind of ideal existence but she's so bent on revenge and nobody understands her and everybody just wants to use her.  Whatever.  At least her love for her family felt sincere or I'd worry that her character was intolerable.

One of the big draws of this book is the action and boy howdy, there's plenty.  But not until more than halfway through the book, which was kind of irritating.  There isn't a whole lot of plot before that point either, just lots of worrying by Katniss.  Then, it feels like Collins was trying to make up for the lack of action by making it totally gruesome.  I can't remember how violent the previous books where, but there's no way this wouldn't end up rated R if they made a move out of it.  That's not to say it wasn't exciting and totally intense, but I wouldn't recommend it to my grandmother or anyone younger than fifteen years old.

The other big draw is the Katniss/Gale/Peeta love triangle.  Future writers take note: to sell lots of books make sure you include a love triangle.  For me, it became obvious fairly quickly who Katniss was going to end up with, but it seemed like Collins changed what we knew of the guy she didn't go with so that it would make sense for her not to be with him.  It's hard not to give out details.  What I'm trying to say is the guy that was eliminated had to take a pretty big dive to be taken out of the running and it didn't seem in character.  I'd have to go back and read the first two books again to catch what was implied, but instead I'll let you fans of the series correct me.

In all, it was exciting but gory, satisfying but annoying.  I expected to like it more than I did and that was disappointing.  The only thing I really like was what Collins did with Peeta's character.  That was fresh, brilliant and interesting.  The ending took me by complete surprise, but I didn't really understand what had happened so I had to go back and read it again.  I kept thinking, "What now?  Huh?" during the last couple of chapters.  The very last chapter was very satisfying, though, with what Collins did with Katniss and her future family.  It felt right.  I'd re-read the first book for sure, but it wouldn't make sense to not re-read the other books so then I wouldn't re-read the first one after all because then I'd feel obligated to read the next two.  Meh, forget it.

Since young adult novels based on bleak and dystopian futures are all the rage these days, I decided to write my own and pay for my kids' college funds with the piles of money I'll eventually make.  It takes place in the not-so-distant future when the human race has become so fearful of dairy products, due to the careful plotting of the poultry industry, that all cows have been eradicated and harsh fines and prison sentences imposed on those who dare to raise them.  The human race has become universally lactose intolerant and plagued with illnesses related to calcium deficiencies.  High cholesterol has plummeted, though.  The book starts out with a young girl on her family's ranch in Montana where they raise llamas and donkeys and, of course, the government-approved flock of chickens.  Our hero, a girl named Dogla, and her family are hiding a big secret, though.  They are secretly raising a few dairy cows in an underground bunker.  A really smelly underground bunker.  Dogla has to hide her strong bones and teeth from the other kids at school lest the traitorous nature of her family's work be revealed.  When the secret is discovered  by government agents ('cause you know it will be) Dogla and her family are shipped off to the poultry work farms in Alabama as punishment.  Dogla has to plan her escape and bring down the government's evil plot against cows (and goats too, now that I think of it) over the course of at least three books.  Four if I can get a good enough deal with a publisher.  What do you think?  Newberry material?  Not that I care.  I'm in it for the money and you know these babies are gonna sell like vampire novels!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Pulling two dusty classics off the shelf

Recently, my 7-year-old asked if she could read Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  It had been some years since I had read it, and aside from stylistic elements that wouldn't interest a child, I was curious if there was anything objectionable for young readers.  As I started glancing through it before giving the okay, I soon became caught up in the story and spent the rest of the day reading it, while my daughter got tired of waiting and found something else to read!

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is actually a relatively short story.  It has been romanticized on screen and stage so much that it was surprising how very little the original story contains.  The basic story is the familiar one that has been retold so often; a curious scientist develops a potion that allows him to change into a being who houses all of his base passions and selfish desires -- those that he normally keeps in check to allow him to live a successful and upstanding life.  The more that he indulges in his other darker self, the stronger the person of Mr. Hyde becomes until he begins to transform even without the potion and finds himself struggling to remain the respectable Dr. Jekyll.

I thought it was interesting that it is all told from the perspective of a Mr. Utterson; a friend of Dr. Jekyll who is concerned for his welfare and inexplicable involvements with the criminal Mr. Hyde.  Having that distance allows the mystery to be revealed slowly to the reader.  Of course, we know that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are one and the same, but it would have been interesting to have read it for the first time when it was published over 120 years ago; back when it was still a surprise ending.  Even without the romance and graphic nature of some of it's popular retellings, I was still carried along in the psychological thriller and wished with all my heart for a better ending for poor, misguided Dr. Jekyll!

Not long afterward, I found myself without a fresh book to read, and no plans to go to the library, so I once again turned to my personal library for inspiration. This time I landed on Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, a thrift store find that I had failed to finish in the past.  But gritting my teeth, I determined to plow my way through it!  And sometimes it really did feel like plowing!  The early chapters were dark and gloomy and so full of mistreatment and abuse that I soon remembered why I didn't make it very far the time before.  My interest picked up after Oliver escaped the workhouse and ran away to London, but it was such a long and wordy tale that it still took me a couple of weeks to make it through.

Oliver Twist is a morality tale about an orphan boy whose inherent goodness helps him escape the clutches of society's lowest criminals, leading him to eventually find happiness and security while his enemies' dark deeds earn them humiliation, imprisonment, and even death.  But getting to that point is a long and painful process full of nightmarish desperation and fear.  This popular novel is a tale of character extremes, social protest, and hypocrisy.  It's also in part a mystery as we uncover the truth of Oliver's parentage and how that affects his future and that of other characters within the story.

There were some very interesting characters; most notably Nancy, the prostitute, whose efforts to help Oliver in the end cost her her life.  She is treated very sympathetically by the narrator, and her unbreakable attachment to the vicious and cruel Bill Sikes adds a complex sense of reality that is lost on some of the other characters who are either all good or all bad with nothing in between.  Indeed, many of the story's main players have a feeling more of caricature than character.  Dickens uses a good deal of tongue-in-cheek humor which helps prevent the narrative from getting too heavy and difficult.  But he also goes off on tangents occasionally that could have benefited from a good editor.

Here's a good example of the narrative indulging in humor at the expense of brevity.  After introducing a new character who asserts, "I've been lamed with orange-peel once, and I know orange-peel will be my death at last.  It will, sir, orange-peel will be my death, or I'll be content to eat my own head, sir!" the narrator offers this commentary:

This was the handsome offer with which Mr. Grimwig backed and confirmed nearly every assertion he made; and it was the more singular in his case, because, even admitting for the sake of argument, the possibility of scientific improvements being ever brought to that pass which will enable a gentleman to eat his own head in the event of his being so disposed, Mr. Grimwig's head was such a particularly large one that the most sanguine man alive could hardly entertain a hope of being able to get through it at a sitting -- to put entirely out of the question a very thick coating of powder. (p. 134)

Notice that the preceding quote is all one sentence; and by far not the longest run-on sentence in the novel!  Despite it's length, by the time I finished it I was glad I did.  I enjoyed it more towards the end, and was rewarded with a neat and tidy conclusion.  But I have to admit that I was a little put off by the preachiness, especially since Dickens himself wasn't nearly as morally irreproachable as he would have you believe.  But even if some of his personal moral ground was a little shaky, I can understand why this would have been such a notable work in his day, and why it continues to be considered a classic in ours.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

You're just going to have to trust me that I had a beautifully eloquent post written about The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen because this one isn't going to be nearly as good as the one I wrote before Blogger chewed it up and swallowed it.  I'm too tired and frustrated to remember everything I wrote when it was fresher on my mind and I was waxing more philosophical.  Maybe someday I'll get smart and figure out how to write posts in Windows Live Writer or something, but today is not that day.

I've been avoiding writing about this book because I don't want to use trite or over-used phrases and that was all I could come up with.  Blame it on being busy, which is my favorite excuse, but I put off writing anything until I could fully wrap my head around what I wanted to say.  The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is unlike anything I've read before.  The story, the characters, and the way it was told was so unique.  Let me back up and give you a rundown.

T.S. Spivet is a twelve-year-old genius cartographer who lives on a ranch in Montana with his cowboy father and scientist mother.  He has a fairly normal older sister, one who is prone to fits of drama but normal despite having an odd family.  T.S. also had a younger brother, Layton, who was killed in a tragic accident and the family is still reeling from it.  T.S. is short for Tecumseh Sparrow, Tecumseh being a name given to the men in his family for several generations after his first Finnish ancestor changed his name in honor of the Native American chief.  His mother gave him the name Sparrow because a sparrow hit the window the moment of his birth.  She had the sparrow's skeleton mounted for him and it became one of T.S.'s most valued possessions.

The story starts out a few months after Layton's death.  T.S. has a mentor at a nearby college who has been submitting his work for him to scientific journals, since nobody would believe the maps and diagrams he creates could be from a kid who hadn't even hit puberty.  Much to his surprise, T.S. gets a phone call from the Smithsonian awarding him the Baird fellowship for his work.  He is invited to come to D.C. and accept his award and move into the rooms reserved for the fellowship.  T.S. neglects to inform them that he is actually twelve years old and instead decides he's going to get himself to Washington and accept it.

The one bump in this plan is how he's going to travel two thousand miles in just a few days.  After having done a unit study in school about railroad transportation, T.S. decides to ride the rails like a hobo and get himself there.  The journey is absolutely crazy, starting with T.S. discovering a Winnebago being transported that conveniently has an open door.  T.S. gets to ride in comfort, that is until he reaches Chicago and hits some bumps.  This journey takes up a large portion of the story and the reader learns more about T.S. and his dis-functional family.  I began to see more and more that though T.S. may be a genius, but he's still just a kid.  He copes with the disappointment of his father and the mystery of his mother's life through his drawings.  I spent most of the book wishing I could grab and hug him until his ribs squeaked.

This description so far doesn't sound all that cheery, but this book is actually really funny and tender and quirky.  I laughed out loud many times.  The characters are so well written that they became three-dimensional for me.  There's a mystery to Dr. Clair, T.S.'s mother that you don't find out about until the end and even then, it's not totally clear what motivates her, but she's fascinating.  T.S.'s dad is such a gruff person, but he's also funny and complex and surprising.  In fact, the ending of the book nearly took my breath away.  The characters surprised me many times, sometimes for good and sometimes for bad, but they were always enjoyable to read.

What makes this book so unique is that the margins this over-sized book are filled with drawings, side stories, notes and pictures.  This book wouldn't be the same without them and though it makes the story even longer to read, it was worth it.  I haven't even described the whole tangential section in the middle about what Dr. Clair was up to all the years she was supposed to be studying beetles, which fit perfectly into T.S.'s journey.  Oh man, there's so much to this book and I don't want to write a post that would rival the length of the book.  I'd rather you read the book!

It's a pretty clean book, though there is a foul-mouthed racist trucker who gives T.S. a ride the rest of his way to D.C.  But that trucker is also the most compassionate person he encounters on his journey, making sure he has enough to eat and gets some rest.  I guess Larsen wanted to make every person in this book not what they seem.  There are some scary moments, like when T.S. encounters a deranged homeless man in Chicago, and some intense ones like when he finally arrives at the Smithsonian.  If you can get over the trucker's language, then this book is worth it, a hundred times over.

I wish there was some way to erase my memory and read this again fresh!  Reif Larsen is a young guy so there's plenty of time for him to write lots more books.  I look forward to future books, but it would be awesome to read this one all over again and experience it for the first time again.  I guess I'll have to be satisfied with just re-reading it and knowingly chuckling to myself and anticipating what I already know to be an amazing book.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Chalice and Avalon High

One advantage to having a nursing infant is the opportunity to sneak in a chapter here and there throughout the day (and night).  One disadvantage is finding the time to write about what I've read when I can think in coherent thoughts and type with both hands!

A while back, I read several quick YA fantasies, but haven't had the time to write about them until now.  The first was Chalice, by Robin McKinley.  McKinley's Newberry award-winning Hero and the Crown was my first introduction to fantasy when I was young, and I've enjoyed the handful of other novels I've read by her.  I was actually looking for one that had been recommended to me, Spindle's End, which is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty (I think).  But it wasn't in, so I had to settle for ChaliceChalice is the story of Marisol, a common beekeeper in the Willowlands who is chosen to be Chalice (a ceremonial position that is part political and part religious).  She assumes the position in the midst of great turmoil after a disastrous accident claims the life of the former Chalice, as well as many of the local leaders, including the Master himself.  The Master's younger brother had been sent away seven years before to become a priest of Fire, but he is called back to fill the role of Master upon his brother's death.  Not quite human any longer, however, he has difficulty fulfilling his responsibilities and gaining the people's trust.  Marisol believes in him, however, and does what she can to save her people, her Master, and the very land itself from outside forces that would try to destroy it.

It was an interesting plot, but fell far short of it's potential.  Part of the problem is that Marisol is so isolated in her role as Chalice that we spend pretty much the whole novel in her head.  There is very little dialogue and even less action.  One scene that could have been a moment of high drama and tension feels shallow because Marisol misses it and has to be told about it later.  I know from her other books that McKinley can do action, so I'm not sure why she shies away from it in this novel.  There is a hint of romance, but it doesn't develop into anything worth getting worked up about.  The political intrigue was interesting, but I felt so trapped in Marisol's thoughts that it too fell flat.  Next time, I'll stick with Spindle's End.

After seeing her novels on my teenage sisters' bedside tables for years, I finally read my very first Meg Cabot story.  Cabot is probably most famous for her Princess Diaries series.  My introduction to her work was through Avalon High, an Arthurian story set in a contemporary setting.  Ellie has moved to Maryland because her parents (who are professors with specialties in Medieval times) are on sabbatical for a year.  Ellie isn't thrilled about the idea of starting a new school, but things look up immensely when she meets Will; the gorgeous quarterback who also happens to be smart, honest, upstanding, and idolized by everyone in the school.  What's surprising is that he takes notice of her, and even begins to prefer her to his beautiful cheerleader girlfriend, Jennifer.  Soon Ellie discovers that Jennifer is cheating on Will with his best friend, Lance.  Over time, more and more parallels can be seen between this little high school drama and that of Arthur's Camelot, and Ellie begins to wonder how she fits in and what she can do to stop the evil events that are destined to follow.

It was a cute little story that didn't take itself too seriously, with plenty of humor to make it light and easy to read.  But the teenage-speak got pretty old after a while, and the characters felt like they had just walked off a teen movie set.  The plot was predictable and the whole thing was really lacking in substance.  I did think the historical aspect looking at Arthurian legend was interesting, but if all of Cabot's work is like this, I'll leave it to the teenagers.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Feeding my Mary Russell obsession

Yes, I'll admit it.  I'm addicted. You're going to get tired of hearing me talk about Laurie R. King's Mary Russell series long before I get tired of reading them. It's hard to resist the allure of intelligent, complex characters in what promises to be an entertaining mystery. So while I do try to read other things, every so often I have to indulge and pick up the next few installments.

Recently I read King's The Moor.  Honestly, I didn't enjoy it as much as I have enjoyed her other Mary Russell stories.  The moor itself played such a strong role in the story that it really deserved to be the title character.  But once the intrigue of this mysterious geographic phenomenon wore off, it just left a depressing air over the whole story.  The mystery wasn't very engaging either, despite early suggestions that seemed promising.  Unlike her other novels that have little or no relation to Conan Doyle's work, The Moor visits the site of one of Sherlock Holmes' original adventures, The Hound of the Baskervilles.  Russell and Holmes are initially there to help a friend who has been disturbed recently with accounts that the infamous Hound has returned.  Their interest deepens when a man is found murdered on this same friend's property.  Eventually they discover who is responsible, and uncover a much larger deception in the process.  But I had to trudge through so much grimness in Russell's time on the moor itself that I was kind of relieved when it was over!

O Jerusalem was the next Russell novel King published, despite the story actually chronologically falling somewhere towards the end of the first Russell novel, The Beekeeper's Apprentice.  Toward the end of that story, Russell and Holmes flee to Palestine for a few months to escape an unknown enemy in England who wants both of them dead.  Their experiences there are only briefly touched on as they don't hold any real importance to that particular story.  But those few months serve as the meat for the novel, O Jerusalem.  In disguise, they join up with two dangerous Arabs -- Mahmoud and Ali -- and spend the next few months living a nomadic life as they try to uncover a terrorist plot aimed at starting another war.

As boring as I found The Moor, I found O Jerusalem, on the other hand, incredibly fascinating.  King does such a good job bringing her settings to life that I felt like I should be scratching the lice in my own hair.  The setting, the culture, the people, the history; it was full of such flavor that I was completely engulfed in the story.  Amidst the very rough lifestyle, there are moments of humor and lightness.  For instance, after suffering as a filthy nomad, and being treated with scorn and mistrust for being a woman, Russell has the opportunity to bathe and attend a dinner party where she shines as the center of all the young officers' attention, much to Holmes' irritation.  There were some delightful moments like that, and even the more painful and uncomfortable ones (of which the novel was mostly full) were still so interesting that I simply devoured it.

So naturally, I was very interested when I started reading her next novel, Justice Hall, and found that it dealt with the same characters from O Jerusalem.  Mahmoud and Ali, it turns out, aren't native Arabs.  (Holmes indicates that briefly in O Jerusalem, but it never becomes significant to that particular story.)  They are actually English noblemen who entered the service of the king decades earlier as spies in that troubled part of the world.  This story picks up almost immediately after The Moor left off, when Mary Russell is surprised to find a very different -- and more civilized -- Ali on their doorstep asking for help.  It turns out that Mahmoud -- now called Marsh -- has unexpectedly inherited his family's fortune, title, estate, etc, and has reluctantly left his Arabic life behind to do his duty.  Russell and Holmes are shocked to find their friend so changed -- and unhappily so -- and set about doing their part to uncover the mystery surrounding a supposed heir who would challenge Marsh's position, all while wrestling with the fact that doing what is best for Marsh-the-heir may be the worst possible thing for Mahmoud-the-man.  Even more intriguing, though, is the mystery surrounding the scandalous wartime execution of the original heir, Marsh's nephew Gabriel Hughenfort.  As they dig further into the past, they uncover deep family secrets dealing with the horrors of war, and the courageous and tragic end of a good and honest young man.

I felt so much compassion for the characters, even Gabriel who had already died long before this story takes place.  It was a hard, yet empathetic look at life for a soldier during WWI, full of humanity tinged with horror.  It was also an interesting twist to see the metamorphosis of Mahmoud and Ali into Marsh and Alistair.  And there were enough plot twists and action to keep things moving toward a very satisfying conclusion.  One of the best stories in the series that I've read yet, which just makes me itch to get my hands on the next one!

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Scarlet Pimpernel

When I told a friend of mine that I was reading The Scarlet Pimpernel, she clasped her hands to her face, gasped and exclaimed, "That's my most favorite book ever!  It's so romantic!"  Then she swooned.  It's a good thing I had my smelling salts handy so I could revive her.  You never know when you'll need smelling salts, by george. 

Do you remember reading about the French Revolution and Reign of Terror?  When the people rose up and starting lopping of heads of the aristocracy?  Gruesome stuff.  The Scarlet Pimpernel takes place during the Reign of Terror, around 1792, with the French aristocracy in fear of their lives.  But there is a hero who manages to smuggle families to England and save them from the guillotine's blade.  He is clever and devious and evades the authorities over and over again.  He is Batman.  I mean, he is The Scarlet Pimpernel.  The name comes from a small flower insignia he uses in his correspondence.  His identity is a mystery to all but his most trusted circle of fellow heroes.  His reputation is all the rage in England and women wear the pimpernel in their hair or sewn into their clothes in support of his actions against the brutal killings in France. 

Sir Percy Blakeney and his wife, Marguerite St. Just Blakeney are the toast of the town in England. They have the prince's ear, lead in all the latest fashions, have wealth beyond imagining, and Marguerite is considered the cleverest woman in England.  Sir Percy is dashing and handsome, but considered a bit of an idiot, no thanks to his lazy and ridiculous remarks he often makes.  He is still universally loved, but scorned by his wife.  Marguerite is frustrated with his attitude and wonders where the man she married went.  They've only been married a year, but Sir Percy's affections have waned and Marguerite lashes back by making condescending remarks.  Her only source of happiness is her brother, Armand.  He helped to raise her after their parents died and she worries about his welfare in France, their home country.  Their family was a humble one, but Marguerite married up thanks to her exquisite beauty and charm. 

Here enters the bad guy: Chauvelin, ambassador from France, fervent follower of the Republic, lopper-off-of-heads supporter.  He would do anything to find and capture the Scarlet Pimpernel.  He uses some condemning evidence against Armand to force Marguerite into helping him discover the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel.  Marguerite has no idea who it is, but wants to save her brother's life.  Her guilt over inadvertently playing a part in the murdering of a noble family in France torments her when she has to send a great hero into Chauvelin's cluthes.  She does what she can to send information on to Chauvelin in the desperate hope of preserving her brother. 

Where's the romance? you might be wondering.  Marguerite desperately wants her husband to love her like she still loves him.  Soon after they were married, Marguerite confessed the story of what happened with that noble family that was sent to the guillotine.  Soon after, Sir Percy wants nothing to do with her.  As the story unfolds, she becomes more desperate to be united with her husband and would even die to be by his side.  It's very old-fashioned romance, but still sweet and passionate.  Like, she doesn't dream of playing a part to save her husband, just to throw her lot in with him and perhaps die in the process.  Both Marguerite and Percy's pride prevents them from resolving their problems much earlier, but if they had, it wouldn't be as fun to read!

The tales about the Scarlet Pimpernel are fun, but it's definitely the best when we can see him in action.  The opening scene of the book shows him dressed as an old woman driving a cart, deceiving the guards at the gates of Paris.  We don't see him again until later in the book when he is in disguise once again.  Those were my favorite parts.  I wish there had been more daring-do in the book all together, but I suppose I could check out one of the many sequels Baroness Emmuska Orczy wrote.  Interesting fact: this story was originally a play, then written as a novel.  I could totally see that as I read the book.  Each chapter is set up like scenes in a play.  Marguerite hiding behind a curtain while the evil Chauvelin plots, unknowingly revealing everything; Sir Percy rebuffing Marguerite's pleas for forgiveness; the ending scene where the Scarlet Pimpernel's men are in a shack, surrounded by Chauvelin's soldiers.  It would be a great play to watch.

My only complaint is that the ending is very anti-climactic.  I expected more.  Is that my more modern sensibilities at work?  Maybe.  But there is something to be said about old fashioned romance and adventure.  Batman and Zorro should take notes. 

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Co-review: Beatrice and Virgil

It has been seven years since Yann Martel's unforgettable first novel was published. (And if you haven't read Life of Pi, stop what you're doing right now and request it from your local library.)  His second novel, Beatrice and Virgil, is much shorter in length and thinner in plot and character development.  Any reader of Life of Pi will be on the lookout for allegory and symbolism, and Martel recognizes that and addresses his central theme right up front, basically giving the reader a little essay about both the limitations and necessity of depicting the Holocaust through fiction.

So with a little heads up from the author about what to expect, we are equipped to forge ahead.  But of course Martel doesn't keep it quite that simple.  The story itself is brief and uncomplicated, but its layers of meaning offer plenty of fodder for any book group discussion.  It begins with an air of autobiography surrounding the main character.  Henry is an author who experienced explosive success with his first published novel, an allegorical work featuring animals.  After five years of intense personal investment, Henry finishes his next work that is both a fictional and non-fictional treatment of the Holocaust.  It is rejected for publication so forcefully that it sends Henry into such a funk that he decides to give up writing.

Looking for a change of scenery, he and his wife move to a foreign city and he enjoys a measure of anonymity in pursuing varied interests.  When he receives an unusual package from a reader in the same city, containing an unfamiliar yet intriguing short story by Gustave Flaubert, a scene from a play, and a plea for help, Henry decides to investigate further.  The sender turns out to be an old taxidermist who is writing a play featuring Beatrice and Virgil, a donkey and monkey long preserved in his shop.  As Henry gets increasingly involved in the story of Beatrice and Virgil, he is increasingly frustrated at the taxidermist's either refusal or inability to connect with him on a human level.  But he continues to return as he realizes that there is more to Beatrice and Virgil's story than he first suspects.  What he discovers leads him back to his own attempts to grapple with the Holocaust in his fiction, and with a surprising conclusion, changes his life forever.

As with other co-reviews, be aware that we may give more away than you want to know if you haven't read it.

Caren: I had serious mixed feelings about reading Beatrice and Virgil. I enjoyed Life of Pi so much that I was excited to see what Yann Martel would come up with for his second novel, but I was also worried that after such high expectations I couldn't help but be disappointed.  And I wasn't sure I wanted to read something with the intensity of Life of Pi and just be let down.  Fortunately, some of those fears were complete non-issues.  First, Beatrice and Virgil is pretty short.  No more than a couple hundred pages, so even if you don't like it you don't have to invest huge amounts of time.

Second, it has what my marketing husband would call a "low barrier to entry."  It was very easy to begin a harmless story about a successful writer facing rejection, to get involved without having to invest very much.  By the time it started turning more dark and serious, it was too late.  I had to know what Martel had up his sleeve, even though I knew it had to do with the Holocaust and wouldn't be pleasant.  But I think that was part of what made it so powerful.  When the violence comes at the end -- the violence in the play and the violence against Henry -- it was all the more intense because it was such a contrast to the safe narrative we'd enjoyed all along.

Jenny:  I had a hard time getting into the story.  The blurb in the front inside cover gave almost no hints about the story so I didn't know what to expect.  All the blathering on about getting his flip book about the Holocaust published seemed autobiographical, like you said, and I couldn't really understand what this had to do with a donkey and a monkey.  I kept reminding myself that Life of Pi had all the information about zoos at the beginning and how that tied into that story, so I should just keep going.  I'm dense, but I didn't catch on that the part about the Holocaust in the beginning tied into the play that the taxidermist wrote until it was getting creepy.  By the time I realized what the taxidermist was writing, it was like watching a car accident take place.  You know it's going to be horrific and terrifying but you can't look away.  I couldn't look away and now it's seared in my mind.

I seriously misjudged this story, which is just stupid.  I mean, Life of Pi is not just a story about a boy and a tiger stranded on a boat, but for some reason I thought this was a story about a monkey and a donkey.  I thought that the taxidermist was disturbing with a capital D, but didn't realize that he was telling his own story through the play.  I mean, Beatrice and Virgil don't really talk about anything.  Half of what they did talk about I didn't understand.  Maybe a second reading will help me see all the clues that Martel gives, but I don't know if I want to read it again.

That sounds like I didn't like it, but I did.  It was just kinda horrible reading.  But really, really amazing horrible reading.  After I finished the book, I was paralyzed on my bed.  I couldn't hardly breathe from the shock of the ending.  And then I spent the rest of the day thinking about the Holocaust and thinking about how I never think about the Holocaust.

Caren: I can see how the beginning would put you off.  There is a lot of philosophizing about art -- particularly fiction -- and not very much advancing the plot.  And I did the same thing at the end.  I was just going to read a little more before bed one night, but then things rapidly grew intense and I had to stay up late and finish it.  Then I had a hard time unwinding for sleep because I just wanted to talk to someone about it!

I felt like I didn't understand a lot of details about the play too.  Like, what was the deal with the setting being a shirt?  And the sewing kit?  I felt like I basically got the overall point about stuff (the Holocaust victims who don't have a voice finding other ways to express the Horrors they suffered), but that I missed some of the deeper levels of meaning by not understanding everything.  What was the significance of both the writer and the taxidermist having the same first name?  And why does the taxidermist stab Henry at the end?  Was it because he felt like he was being denied redemption when Henry wouldn't take his play?  Was it because -- like St. Julian -- he longed for violence and this was an easy outlet?

Jenny:  I am so glad you didn't understand details of the play.  I felt stupid because it seemed like symbolism I should be getting, but I just didn't.  Does it seem really obvious to other people besides Martel?  I'd love to know that.

When I realized who the taxidermist was and what he had done, I felt overwhelmed with disgust, like Henry.  Then, when he stabbed Henry, I wondered why he bothered to seek redemption if his plan was to kill Henry if he didn't like his play.  Then again, maybe he didn't have that plan, it was just a reaction to Henry's loathing.  This is a guy accustomed to violence, after all.  He's pretty handy with a knife due to his choice of profession and his past.  Maybe his calm, stony exterior was masking rage and violence.  Super creepy any way you look at it.

So here I finish the story and then Martel adds the Games for Gustav at the end.  I don't even know what to write about that.  I'm sitting here at the computer, trying to find words and failing.  What keeps coming back to me is that my generation and future generations must be reminded of the Holocaust because it isn't part of our personal history.  Like, 9/11 won't mean much to my kids who didn't watch the planes crash into the towers on television.  That's not a perfect comparison, but it's the closest thing I can think of.  The Holocaust will mean even less to my children who will be nearly a century removed from it by the time they are adults.  This is a little of what the sewing kit means to me, that we need to write what happened into ourselves so we don't forget.

Caren: I agree.  I like what you said earlier about how you were left "thinking about the Holocaust and thinking about how I never think about the Holocaust."  How do you avoid relegating the Holocaust to just a footnote in history?  How do you depict it in a way that makes it fresh and impressionable, without stripping it of meaning with overuse?  I think Martel did just that.  And for me, Games for Gustav was the most powerful part.  A handful of sentences and questions.  That's it.  But so vivid that I felt almost a physical recoil against trying to make my mind accept them.  I know that was only the briefest glimpse into the horrors that went on for millions of victims, but it was strong enough that I felt like any more and I would have started shutting it out instead of being open to it like I was.

I have a hard time talking about the book in an objective way, because those final pages evoked such a strong emotional response.  I can't separate that response no matter how hard I try.  I would be willing to read it again, and would be interested to see what more I could get out of it.  (Which is interesting since I can only handle one reading of other novels which portray horrible things, like The Kite Runner).  But with this one being so simple and allegorical for most of the story, I think I could handle a second reading.  I guess some readers and reviewers have hated it, but I feel like it is well worth reading and especially discussing.

Jenny:  Absolutely.  I think I need to wait about a year and then read it again to see if I can understand it better knowing from the start how it will end.  But I need to give it some time because it was emotionally wrenching.  I thought I knew what people in concentration camps went through and then I read Games for Gustav.  That's when I realized that I have no idea of their suffering.  No idea.  It felt like a punch in the gut.

Reviewers have hated it?  How interesting that Henry's editors and publishers hated his fictional work on the Holocaust.  What foresight.

Caren: Pretty ironic, huh? That's what I've heard, but I haven't looked into it further.  One complaint I've heard is that using animals somehow trivialized the Jews' suffering and some people were offended by it.  But I think those people totally missed the point.  I think the Flaubert story was a great explanation for the human/animal connection, and how redemption did (or didn't, in my opinion) play into it.

So many aspects of this story deserve to be fleshed out more fully.  This is definitely one I'll be thinking about for a while.