Monday, June 16, 2008

Fairest by Gail Carson Levine

by Gail Carson Levine

Another enjoyable fairy-tale adaptation from Levine, this time, Snow White with a twist. The twist is an interesting idea: Aza (the Snow White character) is not a beautiful girl, but a very ugly one by the standards of her people: her pale coloring and dark hair make her seem quite hideous. Yet she has a marvelous singing voice (which is prized by her people). Twist one.

Aza ends up in the king's castle by a string of lucky events, where she meets the woman engaged to the king—Ivi, a beautiful girl not much older than herself. Ivi takes a liking to her, and they become friends. (Twist two: Snow White is friends and a lady-in-waiting to the wicked stepmother.)

There is a prince, of course, and a magic mirror, and plenty of smallish men (though they are gnomes in this story and not dwarves), and even a poisoned apple, but the story is very unique in its ideas and adaptation.

I can't say that I liked it a great deal, though. It was a bit heavy-handed and moralistic to me (the point that beauty doesn't matter as much as we think, and that there is more than one way to be beautiful is hammered in again and again without much subtlety), and the ending a bit...well, disappointing. It's been awhile since I read it now, so I can't even remember it well enough to be able to describe what disappointed me without giving away the I'll just leave it at that, "disappointing."

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice
by Jane Austen

This is one of those books that, when I am between books and don't have any immediate plans to read anything else, I pick up with delight and read again. I have no idea how many times I've read it; I can't even recall the first time that I picked it up, but I love this book.

(And as a sidenote, my cover didn't look like this <—. I have a complete collection of Austen in one huge book, and the cover isn't especially exciting. I picked this cover because it didn't have Keira Knightley OR Colin Firth on it.) I love this book especially, I think, because I love Elizabeth and her "high spirits." She is a very likeable character. And I love this book because of Austen's wit. There are passages in here that no matter how many times I read them, I am still get a kick out of them. For example, this passage is from a expository scene that has Mr. Bennet teasing his wife and daughters:
"What say you, Mary? for you are a young lady of deep reflection I know, and read great books, and make extracts.''

Mary wished to say something very sensible, but knew not how.

There are so many brilliantly witty things all throughout.

And, of course, there is the romance, the satisfaction of a very happy ending, the misfortunes of the foolish, emotion and changes of heart...what else can I say? I love this book.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Hush by Donna Jo Napoli

by Donna Jo Napoli

Again, a beautiful story by a wonderful author. This one deals with an Irish princess and her sister who are captured by slave traders and shipped off to the mainland in the west. They keep their identities a secret for safety, and the princess Melkorka learns that there is power and protection in choosing not to speak...

It's a touching and terrible story, heart-breaking, and ultimately of survival and the will to live.

The one difficulty I had with the story is the ending. I am not still in grade school where I expect a story to happily and all loose ends neatly tied up with ribbon, but there are limits to what I can take from an open ending! When the story ends, Melkorka remains a slave, having lost all family, freedom, and innocence, and she has no idea what has happened to her family (when she was abducted, the family were on the edge of a pivotal struggle for survival). It ends very realistically, if not satisfactorily (though, if the story were completely true to life, I suppose it would have followed Melkorka's story all the way to her death—which most likely would have brought no resolutions, but still—).

Beautiful and haunting.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man by Fannie Flagg

Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man
by Fannie Flagg

I love this book.

I first read it—well, I really can't remember. I think it may have been a gift from an aunt, but after I read it, I wondered if she knew what was in it? Who knows? Who cares? The point is, I've read it and re-read it since, and I really can't imagine my life without this book.

It's funny. Very. And not in a silly way, but in a truly witty and fun way. The book is composed entirely of journal entries written by Miss Daisy Fay Harper (stop yawning—yes, journal-entry books can be dull, but this is anything but, I promise), beginning when she is age 11 until she is age 18. Set in the 50s in Mississippi, Daisy Fay is brutally honest about the people around her (and sometimes naive), but always, always funny. Her family is a bit of a mess, and her life is a bit of a mess, but there isn't a dull sentence in this book. Frequently it is touching and sad, but always true.

I can't even give a specific example, because I don't want to spoil anything in this book. I wish I could. I wish I could say something about...I can't. I can't! I won't spoil it! But it always makes me feel much better after I've read it, and the ending is fantastic (which, of course, doesn't mean that all the stuff in the middle isn't, it's just that after everything that has happened to her, the ending is very satisfying).

Monday, April 28, 2008

Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver

Animal Dreams
by Barbara Kingsolver

I've read several of Kingsolver's books (who hasn't read The Poisonwood Bible?) and enjoyed them very much, but of all her books, this one is my favorite.

If you've ever read Kingsolver you'll know what a great writer she is: poignant, powerful, graceful, with marvelous characters and insight into human nature. She writes with strong overtones of the natural world, of community, and frequently, the effects of modern life on the natural world (in this book, pollution—and I know that sounds horrid, but it really isn't, let me finish).

This story is the story of Codi, a woman who feels as if she fits in nowhere, and her return to the town she grew up in. And it is a story of how she got pregnant as a teenager and lost the baby, and how that loss affected the rest of her life.

I love the story because it is a love story, and it is a story about healing, reconciliation, and learning what belonging really means. (Really. Pollution is a side-plot, really it is.)

I don't know how many times I've read this now, but I love reading it every time. I always forget just how good it is. (So why don't I own this one yet?)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Beast by Donna Jo Napoli

by Donna Jo Napoli

A retelling of Beauty and the Beast, from the Beast's point of view: who he was when he was a prince, how he got cursed in the first place, and what happened thereafter.

It is a very interesting idea (the Beast is actually a Persian prince who is changed into a lion by a vindictive spirit, and what happens to him after), but I have to confess I didn't enjoy it as much as some of her other stories. Mostly, I think, because there is so much time the prince spends in solitude, out in the wild, learning that he can't live as a lion, and he can't live as a man, so what is he to do? There is a great deal of narrative simply describing his travels and the learning process as he tries to figure out how to do lion-like things, like hunt. I can tell that Napoli loves nature and wildlife, and her accuracy in capturing the harsh reality of life in the wild is exact—but boring if, like myself, the reader is expecting a fairy tale and narration from the nature channel. (And don't get me wrong; I LOVE that kind of stuff. I drive my husband nuts every time he flips past the Discovery channel and I make him stop.)

Nevertheless, the story is written extremely well, and does get much more interesting (at least, from my point of view) when he runs into Beauty's father and strikes the deal to buy a girl for a rose. After that, I admit, I really enjoyed it.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bound by Donna Jo Napoli

by Donna Jo Napoli

This is about as good as Napoli gets.

Bound is a retelling of the Cinderella story, set in China in the Ming dynasty (the earliest versions of the Cinderella story do come from China, but from a different dynasty, FYI).

The story is gracefully and beautifully written, touching, and grounded in Chinese history and tradition. It has one of my favorite elements: a strong female character who learns that destiny is in her own hands, and she need not be a victim to culture, tradition, or other people. (There isn't exactly a fairy godmother in this telling of the tale.)

Now I just have to go buy a copy of my very own...

Monday, April 21, 2008

Peeps by Scott Westerfeld

by Scott Westerfeld

Westerfeld is awesome.

Again, vampires aren't really my thing, but this book is pretty cool. Westerfeld takes the idea of vampires from an evolutional standpoint: if vampires were truly real, how would evolution have created them? For what purpose? How would they be possible?

He starts with questions like these and comes up with a brilliant and exciting story, and typical Westerfeld edge-or-your-seat kind of story. It reminds me a bit of an X-files episode: there is mystery, conspiracy, and heavy in funky biology and parasitology. (And there's a warning for you: if you don't like learning a bit about parasites, this may not be the book for you. The book is stiff with them because they are essential to the story and background of the story. Me, I love biology and the freaky little bugs that surround us in this world.)

Anyway, it's an incredibly fun book, wonderfully original, and a great read. And I just found out that there is a sequel to this that came out not too long ago, so now I have to go look for it...

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

by Robin McKinley

I'm not really big on vampires. I'm really not. Even though plenty of them seem to be cropping up in recent reads—and books that I have really, really liked—I'm really not into the dark blood-and-gore type of novel. Sigh. And this one had blood, and gore, and vampires, and I still liked it, very much. Oh well.

The first time I picked this book up, I only picked it up because it was a new book from Robin McKinley. I had no idea what it was about. I figured it was another fairy tale (I mean, c'mon, that what she does, right?). And then I found out it was a vampire story. Really? From McKinley? Fairy tale queen? WITH CHEESE?!?*

So, this book was a departure from her into new territory. At least, as far as genre is concerned (this book really isn't YA, as most of her stuff usually is: there is more violence, more sex, more swearing, and, er, stuff; and the main character isn't a teenager *gasp of shock.* Also, it has a far different setting than what she usually writes. It isn't the world of fairy tale and princesses and that sort of thing. It's actually a modern-day world in which magic is a reality). But it still has the general McKinley feel of characterization, themes, and magic. Of course.

The basic rundown of the story is what happens when Sunshine, a young baker who works at a family coffee shop, tangles with some vampires and discovers some of her own latent powers that have been lying dormant since her childhood, and the internal conflict the discovery causes her.

One of the themes McKinley revisits in this one is duality: Sunshine is caught between forces within herself of light and dark, and she worries that she is some kind of monster—though the solution to her worries is simply to accept who and what she is. (There is some of this in The Hero and The Crown, and it reminds me a bit of Ged's acceptance of his own shadow at the end of A Wizard of Earthsea by Le Guin.)

There are many things in the story that are left completely unresolved. It screams for a sequel, though I don't know if McKinley will ever bother. That doesn't seem to be her style. And yet—there are so many things left open, and so many plot points seem as if they are being set up for a much larger conflict. But will there be another book?

Anyway. Interesting book, and an enjoyable read.

*If "with cheese" makes no sense, that's okay. It is an expression of shocked disbelief, carrying nearly the same connotation as "WTF," and yet, is G-rated.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Breath by Donna Jo Napoli

by Donna Jo Napoli

Beautifully researched as always (I'm always learning something new every time I pick up a book by Napoli; in this case, a lot about cystic fibrosis, medieval customs and beliefs in Germany, the Crusades, and early accidental experimentation with LSD (ergot poisoning)), and wonderfully adapted, as always. (Meaning, of course, that this is yet another adaptation from a fairy tale: this is not the story of the Pied Piper, but the story of the crippled boy who got left behind when he led the children away.)

And the emotional atmosphere she sets: the struggle for life, love, sanity for individual characters—I can't think of a word strong enough to describe the bright emotional pain she captures so well.... This one is painful, though. The ending is open: at the end, the reader only knows that Salz has been left behind, and what he is planning to do next, but not what actually happens to him, and imagination can't help but to take the reader to the next plausible step for him—which may be very bleak if you tend toward realistic endings—or mildly hopeful if you are optimistic. But no matter what, it's a sad story. And a beautiful one. And well worth the read.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Midnighters Series by Scott Westerfeld

The Secret Hour
Touching Darkness
Blue Noon
by Scott Westerfeld

Because I recently read a book by him, and they reminded me how much I liked him, I re-read this series again. I LOVE this series.

Like all Westerfeld books I've read so far, they have great tension, are fast-paced, and highly original. They are also peppered with random interesting factoids (he researches his stuff very well, and I love random factoids). I guess the best way to describe his books is with the word "cool." What other word fits them so well?

Like a lot of his other stuff, this one is YA (the main characters are all teenagers). One of the reasons I love this series especially is because it's all about things that go bump in the night. Quite literally. Great spooky read! (Three of the teenagers in the book outcasts, if that means anything to anyone. And there are all sorts of monsters in it.)

The characterization in this series is wonderful, as well. The characters are well-developed and constantly evolving...but I don't want to say anything about any of them—I don't want to spoil the twists of the plot—but...well, it's just cool. Wow, that was vague. Here's one specific: I don't particularly care for math. It was never my best subject, and I always found it a bit boring. Somehow Westerfeld takes math and makes it, not only interesting, but basically into a superpower, and I loved every minute of it. That takes talent.

One more thing I have to say about this series and Westerfeld's ability to create tension: at the close of the first book, I was left believing the second book would HAVE to be a letdown. After all, where could he go from the tension of the first? How could he create something more exciting and interesting than The Secret Hour? And then I read the second, and was amazed. And then picked up the third book thinking, there's no way he could do that again. No way this one has as much suspense as the last...yet, the third was just as good as the others, if not better.

I hope he does another book for this series sometime. I really want to know what happens next...

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Carry On, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

Carry On, Jeeves
by P.G. Wodehouse

I had heard of Wodehouse before, but never read anything that he wrote, and never had an idea of what he wrote. If I'd known, I would've picked him up much sooner.

This is the first book I've read of the Bertie Wooster series, and I have to say I enjoyed it. The book is basically a series of short stories about the disasters Bertie and some of his gentlemen friends find themselves in, and how Jeeves, Wooster's brilliant valet, manages to extricate them from their messes. Wooster himself if a pleasant fellow, if not a tad stupid and shallow, which may be why I like him so much.

Light-hearted and humorous, and some of the scenes are just funny—and I'm not sure if it's me taking my time getting used to the author's style and slowly picking up his sense of humor—but they seem to get progressively funnier as you progress through the book, and end with a story finally told from Jeeves' point of view, so you know what's going through that wonderful man's head. I'm glad Wooster somehow managed to get himself in such capable hands.