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.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

So Yesterday by Scott Westerfeld

So Yesterday
by Scott Westerfeld

I've really enjoyed plenty of Westerfeld's books, and I like this one, too. Can't say it was my absolute favorite of his, but it's still a decent read. His books are always adventurous, quick-paced, and suspenseful, fun YA books.

This one deals with what is "cool" and how it gets that way, and how the whole thing is a scam to get you to spend money. Interesting idea, and maybe not too far from the truth (except the truth isn't nearly so cool as the story he spins here).

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles

The French Lieutenant's Woman
by John Fowles

I've never read anything by Fowles. I have to admit until I saw this book on a friend's page at goodreads, I'm not even sure that I'd heard of it. But I picked it up and read it.

It is unusual: a book set in the Victorian era, but written in our time; a book that proposes to be about that time, and yet is more about our own than anything: it is about religion (or more accurately, agnosticism), madness, evolution, society, self, and sex. (A great deal about sex.) Part historical commentary, a great deal of well-written narrative, and some surprising abandonment on the part of the author of the "suspension of disbelief" (he abandons the traditional narrative voice in several places to tell the reader what he thinks as an author of writing, of the story itself, of what is about to happen to the characters. He even writes himself into the story in two places). Um—it's about a lot of stuff, but mainly a fellow named Charles Smithson. And I really ought to read it again before I attempt any real analysis of it—after all, quite a bit of it, especially the intellectual bits and theories in it went quite over my head (for example, there is a quote from Marx on the first page, as a kind of prelude to what is to follow:
Every emancipation is a restoration of the human world and of human relationships to man himself.
I've turned it over and over in my head, and I still can't decide what I think it means, and what it means in relationship to the book, and as I read it again now, almost all meaning seems to fly away from it, and I am left with nothing but some strange-sounding syllables with no meaning attached. Perfect word disassociation).

The only thing that I can really think about this first reading of this incredible book is what I learned about the anima and animus in college*, and how Charles' infatuation with the namesake of the novel, Sarah Woodruff, or the "French Lieutenant's Woman" is actually a story about Charles (or possibly the narrator) falling for his anima, his true inner self embodied in a woman. By the time I was finished with the story, I was pretty well convinced that Sarah wasn't an actual woman at all, but Charles' (or the author's) anima: how he wanted, above all, to break free of the constraints of society, to be honest, to be true to himself, just as she was, regardless of the consequences.

I have to sit back, though, and wonder if the author thinks the same, or if he really thinks of her as a real character? It must be subconscious...

Anyway, I really need to re-read this one again and see what I can get from it the next time through.

*I am not about to go into all that I learned about the anima and animus and what really is going on when we fall in lovenot here. But I find the theory that Jung suggests about the anima to coincide with my own views about romantic love—that when we fall in love with a person without really knowing them at all, it is really in response to love for self and seeing ourselves reflected in them; and that true love is about loving another, not being infatuated with oneself. Yeah. Not going to go into it here. But there are more things to read if you're interested in that idea, such as We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love by Robert A. Johnson, or Human Intimacy by Victor Brown or what was that article on Romance Addiction? Sheesh. I've looked for it, but I can't find it or the woman who wrote it...oh well. Another post, maybe.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine

The Two Princesses of Bamarre
by Gail Carson Levine

I picked up this one mostly because I enjoyed Ella Enchanted and I wondered what Levine's other stuff was like. This one was more of the same (which isn't a bad thing).

It's a fantasy, and YA, and it has everything you would expect a YA fantasy novel with a female lead to have: a bit of magic, of romance, adventure, monsters (even a dragon), enchanted objects, and none of this hero-rescuing-maiden nonsense—heavens, no. She manages just fine by herself, thank you.

I have to say that I preferred Ella, but this one is nice, too. I can't say that it is an extraordinarily deep, life-changing experience to read or anything, but it's nice.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
by Jonathan Safran Foer


When I first picked it up and read the description on the dust jacket, I wasn't so sure. Post-9/11 story? Do I really want to read this? Is it a bit soon, even seven years later?

But I picked it up, and am glad I did. The main character is a 9-year-old boy who is precocious, obnoxious, inventive, and vulnerable. Of course I loved him. But it turns out it's not just his story—it's the story of his family and what he finds as he searches for the father that he lost. And like any story about family, this one begins to span more than just one tragic incident, and the relationships of just one boy with his father.

Now that I wrote that, it may seem stupid, but I promise, it's a beautiful book.

It's a little on the experimental side, but not in any way that detracts from the story, and definitely not in a way that's obnoxious (I HATE Pynchon. There, I said it). This book is perfectly natural.

The only thing that irks me about the story at all is that it is so brilliant, and it's written by a kid who's younger than me. (I may be a little jealous.) This is one I think I might be buying sometime soon (and for me, that means I really, really liked it).

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Only Alien on the Planet by Kristine D. Randle

The Only Alien on the Planet
by Kristine D. Randle

I really, really liked this book. At first it didn't seem like anything all that special—just another well-written young adult book about life and times in high school. And then you meet Smitty, who, at first, I assumed was going to be a Boo Radley or something similar.


So cool. I won't talk any more about plot, or what happens, but I can say that by the ending, I really, really liked this one. I love books that give characters a chance for redemption, for hope, for healing past impossible things. They make me feel like I can fly.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Tales of Alvin Maker by Orson Scott Card

Seventh Son
Red Prophet
Prentice Alvin

Alvin Journeyman

by Orson Scott Card

(additional books in the series that I haven't read yet or are still forthcoming:)
The Crystal City

Master Alvin

What I like best about Card is his ability to create suspense. He's very good at it. He writes a story that, once I start, it is nearly impossible to put the book down because I need to know what happens to the characters.

This particular series is an alternate reality-type thing—in this case, what would colonial America have been like if folk magic actually worked, and altered some important events in history? (Normally, I get pretty annoyed with alternate reality books, books where a story is set in the world we know, but not... how do I explain this? A novel that is based in fact and history, and yet changes history and the world we live in...I can't put my finger on it, exactly, and I don't want to try because it will detract me from the review I'm trying to do. All I can say is that sometimes an alternate-reality fiction can irritate me to death, e.g., anything by Piers Anthony. I can also try and describe it like this: One person I know says she hated The Last Unicorn for precisely the reason I'm trying to describe: that Beagle warped the rules—not of the real world, but those of the fantastic, canonical world of fantasy—by whimsically mentioning tacos, and it irked her to no end. Anyway. These books didn't bother me like that. Enough digression.)

This series has Card's usual amount of tension, so I couldn't put the books down. And he does so well writing about people—about their motivations, their fears, the hidden things that make them a menace or a blessing to those around them. He's very good at that.

In this series particularly, Card's Mormonism leaks out. (How can it not? He's writing a story about a young boy in a young America who has a strange and wonderful can he resist putting in all sorts of parallels and tributes to Joseph Smith?) Sometimes that sort of thing bothers me. Sometimes when an author does something like that, they end up getting sidetracked from their story and can lose momentum and all of a sudden they're no longer telling a story, they're preaching. Yick. Card, fortunately, doesn't do this. Good for him.

The books each explore vital themes that are historically appropriate: the second book has a great deal to do with the fate of the Native American in the hands of the white man. The third book has an awful lot to do with the evils of slavery. And none of this is done in (at least, what I consider to be) a heavy-handed manner. Card handles ideas with grace and truth. They were a pleasure to read.

At least they were, right up to the last bit of the third book. There was a scene that just smacked me in the face with the overt symbolism. Of COURSE there were going to be parallels, allegories, symbolism, whatever with the Gospel and Joseph Smith—but I wasn't looking for them. I was reading for the story (and he does do suspense well) but when I got to a particular scene—the climax of the third book—what happened was so obviously a BAPTISM, that I...I don't know. (One main character was trying to save another character from having to return to slavery, and in order to save him, he had to change him just the tiniest bit so that the...well, trackers (for the sake of abbreviated descriptions) wouldn't be able to find him. And as he changes him, he immerses himself and the other in the water of the river and his hands are described as being just so... I mean, C'MON! Was that really necessary? I felt like I had been smacked in the face with a dead fish. I felt so disappointed.

And after that, I've sort of lost interest in Alvin Smith (for heaven's sake! SMITH!) and his annoyingly good-humored character. And then, other things that were slightly annoying—but that I was willing to overlook as long as I cared so deeply for what happened next—suddenly were too obnoxious to ignore: his entirely STUPID romance with Peggy, other symbolic parallels, the golden plow (sigh)...

I guess what happened is that the story lost its credibility for me, just in that one scene. I no longer trusted what the storyteller had to say. And suddenly—poof!—the magic was gone, and I had lost interest. Too bad. I almost would've liked to see what happened next. I only read the fourth book because I had checked it out with the third, but I don't think I'll be continuing with the rest of the series.

I still really like Card, and I still think he's a great storyteller, but...oof. That stupid scene just killed me!

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray
by Oscar Wilde

I think that I, moved too much by things. I get too much inside a book, and so, when I read one like this, the ick in it clings to me and transforms the way I see the Oh well.

It was an interesting read, and the ideas in it are very different. (Meaning, very different from the ones I hold, and therefore, pretty interesting to read.)

The story of the moral degradation of a man; the hypocrisy of people and society; the stress and importance that is put on appearance, and the way we are led to trust people only by appearance; the havoc a little bit of selfishness can do; how the
ideal of the age (the Victorian age, anyway: the ideal of a true gentleman) was embodied by a hypocritical, devious, evil, debauched angel of light who was all about deception, and completely, utterly soulless...

A main theme of Wilde's was beauty, and beauty worship. Is beauty a blessing? A curse? How does it affect people and what does it lead them to do? To feel? (And I think he's got that part absolutely right: people are led with their eyes, and fooled by appearances.)

Anyhoo, the more I read of Wilde, the more I am intrigued by his brain. (But when it comes time to re-read his works, I think I'll choose The Importance of Being Earnest over this one!)

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Twilight/New Moon/Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer

Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse
by Stephenie Meyer

As I've said on a post on my main blog, once I read Eclipse, I had to go back through and read the others again, and then re-read Eclipse again, too. And this last re-reading of the whole series brought new perspective for me—on the whole series.

There is a lot to be said about these books, and right now, all over the Internet, people are saying it. I have read complaints about inaccuracy (Forks isn't really like that, in New Moon Alice gave a guard a thousand dollar bill, and those don't exist, etc.), that the books aren't written very well, people debating about the characters: who they like, who they dislike, and why (and of course, "like" and "dislike" are completely mild—love passionately and loathe fit the bill a little better), some who claim that Stephenie is "dangerous" because the books depict an abusive relationship—there have been some really strange things coming out of the woodwork from these books.

To me, though, it's all the discussion about the books that is intriguing: why is a silly romantic YA fantasy getting so much attention? Stirring so much feeling? When you look at the plain fact that it's a teenage romance in which there is NO SEX—really, what's the big deal? A YA romance novel—eliciting controversy!

I have a theory about this kind of thing, but was having trouble articulating it. Then I happened to read the preface of the next book on my list, and found Oscar Wilde already described it perfectly:
"All art is at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not like, that are really mirrors.
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.
When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.
We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless."
from the Preface of A Picture of Dorian Gray

When people read a book, the thing that reaches them, moves them, makes them think is the thing in the book that reflects themselves: their fears, their hopes, their ideologies... I think that, generally, people see the world as a reflection of themselves. And so, the reviews of these books have been revealing much more about the reviewers than they do the art or the artist. (Thank you, Oscar Wilde.)

Yet, the question remains—are these, then, "good" books?

What makes a good book? How do you define it?

Is it flawless writing? The communication of new ideas? Or of old ideas in a new way? Something that stands the test of time (whatever that means)—a work with enough universal truth in it that it captures public attention for decades, centuries? Or is it a work that touches, moves, and causes you to feel? Or is it one that merely stimulates your intellect? A work that is moral, or educational, or that exists simply for its own sake? How is it defined?

I've struggled with this question forever, and have pestered countless literature teachers and professors to share their views on the subject, and then debated it with them. because, as far as I could see, there is no easy way to define a "good" work or a "great" work. For all of the above criteria, I can think of several books that defy part (if not all) of them, and yet are still considered "classics." What is good? What is great?

If I take one of Wilde's statements again, and apply it to these books:
"Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital."

...well, by this measurement, Meyer has been extremely successful.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer

by Stephenie Meyer

I already reviewed Twilight, the first book in the series, and I mentioned in that review that I had a problem with a character, and a problem with a theme. If you're interested in more of the problems I had with the first book (along with all the things I liked), click here to read the Twilight review. Matter of fact, if any of the following review is going to make sense, you'd better read it, since this review is a continuation of the first. (I never did review New Moon, because I wasn't keeping this blog the first time I read it. Maybe when I re-read it sometime?)

Again, this book was completely suspenseful, completely romantic, and once I picked the dumb thing up, I couldn't put it down again until I was done (and even then, I had to pick it back up and read a few passages again).

I am very pleased that one of the problems I had with Edward in Twilight was starting to resolve itself in this book (hooray!), namely, that he was so overprotective of Bella he wouldn't let her do a thing for herself. It made me want to scream. But he finally backed off a bit when he found that if he really loved her, he was going to have to let her make her own choices. That was really, really nice—that's a characteristic of a more mature love.

(And thank heaven! That really was driving me crazy...)

The other bone I had to pick—about the confusion of love and infatuation—that was addressed, if not resolved. At least, in my head it was. The author had Bella in love with two people by the end of the book—one a love that was more human and healthy, more ordinary (as close as Bella could get, anyway: he was still a werewolf), but not less passionate; and the other, her love for Edward, which really is a bit obsessive (Jacob even tells Bella "he's like a drug for you"), unusual, and otherwordly: the very essence of what pop culture considers love and romance to be...

My most practical and issue-prone part of me was disappointed that she chose the impossible love over the possible; but that's not what fiction is for, is it? Of course she was going to choose Edward in the end. And if she had chosen Jacob, I suppose the more fantastic and unrealistic part of me would be way to win, I guess.

I can't help wondering what will happen in the future, though. There were plenty of things left open, questions unanswered (my most pressing was what will it be like for Bella as a vampire? And what will her special ability be, if she has any?). And what will become of Jacob and the rest of the pack? (I rather think that Meyer is going to be writing a novel from Jacob's perspective next, just a hunch.) And I wonder, too, how my perspective and views about this book will change when I read it again?

Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley

by Robin McKinley

I've mentioned it before, but I'm a huge fan of McKinley. She always tells a story with—what? honesty? Is that it? Yeah, a bare-to-the-bone honesty, and I think any writer who is a GREAT writer has to do that—and, boy, did I mention I like her stuff? (I really ought to do a compound review of her stuff when I feel like a re-reading spurt—I really want to tackle things like Sunshine and Deerskin again—whereas The Hero and the Crown is one of my all-time favorite books and I've re-read that one countless times.)

This one, Dragonhaven, came out not too long ago (September?) and it took me this long to get my hands on a copy.

If you like dragons (and I grew up reading Dickinson's A Flight of Dragons, which is a flippin' reference book on dragons with great illustrations and the like—and when I was wee, I remember watching the cheesy cartoon movie of the same title on television, and I sooooo loved it—I wanted to live in that movie because I was five and didn't notice it was cheesy at the time), this is a great read. It's a great read anyway, but if you always wished dragons were real, it won't hurt.

McKinley is as honest with her portrayal of her characters as always, and the lead in this book, Jake, is brutally honest, a compulsive worrier, and—since it is written in first person—sometimes pretty annoying! But I loved the guy anyway, enjoyed the story greatly, etc., etc.

Since McKinley is married to Dickinson nowadays, and since I had Dickinson's book memorized, it was fun to see the influence he'd had on her, and the different turns she took with it, and some of the stuff she came up with that was different from some of the stuff he came up with...but I doubt anyone else would care about that, the theme of How One of My Favorite Authors Influenced Another of My Favorite Authors by Marrying One Another and Doubtlessly Talking of Book Ideas to Each Other. Yeah, only I'm freak enough for that.

The best thing about this particular book (for me, I mean) was the way it accurately captured the feeling of being a mom—especially the claustrophobia, worry, and exhaustion that goes along with it—helped me feel a little more human. (McKinley always does. Thanks, Robin.) I have to get a quote...let's see...*rummaging for several minutes through said book, occasionally getting distracted by re-reading some good passages, until finally, 40 minutes later*...Ah! Here:
"giving up your life to keep someone else alive is kind of hard"
Well, okay, it doesn't seem like much, but the first time I read it the truth of it resonated in me like I was a bell that had just been struck. Kind of a big "duh" moment for wynne. I love it when authors can do that for me. The thing is, the narrator of the story, Jake, had a baby dragon imprint on him, and he became its mother, without having an idea of how to take care of it. And he was like any mom with a newborn: constant feedings, constant care, and like he said, he had to give up his life as he knew it, and he was just a 14-year-old kid.

Here are two more examples of the kind of stuff that she was writing that resonated with me:
"Proud Mom. Obsessed Mom. Silly with relief for even a few feet and a few minutes of semi-freedom Mom."
"But those first few months, the stronger the panicky sense of being trapped by this little live thing that was utterly dependent on me and only me got, the stronger the dreams got..."
(dreams that comforted him, thankfully)

I don't think I made my point very well, but, really, that was the best part of the book for me. But that's only because I have weird personal problems and really bad postpartum depression with my first, only (and very likely, last) child, right? Does everyone feel that way? Jake did, and that helped me. Yeah, I'm so not getting the point across. Oh well—on to the next book!

Friday, January 4, 2008

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson

Hattie Big Sky
by Kirby Larson

I've read a few books about homesteading in America—My Antonia, Our Only May Amelia, Little House in the Big Woods—and most have been pretty good.

This one was excellent.

I didn't start reading it expecting much, not even a few chapters in, but the farther in I got...well. The first thing I began to think was how spoiled I was pressed up against a baseboard heater reading it while it is a mere 39 degrees outside, while Hattie was living through a frozen Montana winter with little else between her and the harsh world was a shack, a cat, and a wood stove. (I so would've died. I'd make a lousy pioneer.)

Also, it seems that most books these days leave religion entirely out of the equation, or dance around it, or if it is put in, it seems so...forced, sappy, and sentimental (not to mention self-conscious). But Hattie, who is a religious person of sorts—her conversations with God were so natural and beautiful, as was her faith. It was refreshing to read that. (And because she was so honest, it was assuming or forceful—just there and peaceful.)

Also, the ending wasn't neat and tidy, wrapped with a bow, as happens in some stories (and of course, there's nothing wrong with that, unless it is a story where the author is really trying for authenticity and reality). There was heartache, and mess, and the story sometimes came to a place I wasn't expecting. More like life, if you know what I mean.

And that's all I'll say about it, because I don't want to spoil it for anyone else. (It's only lousy books that I'll blow parts of the plot out into the open, like that incredibly stupid book I read before this one.)

Pemberly by Emma Tennant

by Emma Tennant

What a load of horse manure. Really. I didn't start reading this book with much in the way of expectations (at least, I didn't think so). Since this is a sequel to a classic novel, I was by no means expecting it to live up to Austen's work, and I was prepared for some stupidity and dishonesty to Austen's characters and themes—after all, that's what happens when someone tries to write a sequel to a work they didn't write. (Hello, Scarlett, anyone?)

And yet, I still picked it up hopefully, since I had had some good experiences with similar Austen-esque material of late (such as this and this). And I was willing to forgive the book's shortcomings. I really WAS! But I must admit, I was unprepared for how bad this novel was. Really and truly, utterly baaaaaad.

So there was no witty dialogue—not too surprising. Who can imitate Austen's dialogue? And there were bits and pieces of lines stolen from the original book, also to be expected (it's like the author thinks this is cute or something to put in a bit of the original book's language—why? To prove that they have indeed read the novel they are attempting a sequel to?) The plot twists and the things that Tennant did with Austen's characters was at first entertaining and amusing—she killed off Mr. Bennett with a flick of the pen; gave Jane a child and another on the way; made it so Elizabeth and Darcy could not conceive a child of their own; and gave Lydia four under the age of four. All reasonable and interesting (except for the last—the math doesn't add up in Lydia's case, unless she had two sets of twins, which she hadn't). And then there was the idea of all the Bennett sisters and their families, widowed mother, Bingley and his sisters, Darcy and his sister, AND his aunt Lady Catherine all under the roof of Pemberly for Christmas. Intriguing...

However, it soon fell apart and proved to be far beyond the author's grasp and skill. For example, more and more logical errors cropped up throughout the text that just didn't make sense (Lydia's too-many children being one of these): a character knowing something they couldn't possibly have known; people carelessly misplaced and showing up where they couldn't possibly have been, etc. Just bad editing.

And yet, more: It is not possible for me to believe that the estate of Pemberly would be entailed should Darcy be unable to produce an heir. Unbelievable AND shows a sad lack of imagination on the part of the author (by borrowing yet another idea from the original novel and applying it nonsensically).

And then she begins to slaughter my favorite characters: some dialougue that is meant to pass off as Elizabeth's wit is actually just rude and crass insults; Elizabeth's independence and spirit is reduced to mere pigheadedness and selfishness; she allows Darcy's reserve and delicacy to lead him, after getting into an argument with his wife, to simply walk out on her without a word, and leave her alone for an entire season; after this episode, Elizabeth does not attempt to communicate with her estranged husband but begins to pursue a life as a governess. Apparently she does not understand the characters she is writing AT ALL.

And the crowning glory of stupidity, the most horrid thing of all, was to solve all the problems in the Darcys' marriage by a crass deux ex machina: it wasn't Darcy who had had a mistress and fathered an illegitimate child off her, oh no! It was Bingley—honest, open, kind, moral BINGLEY—and Jane, fresh from the sickbed from delivering a son for him, was perfectly fine with it—!

It was gross and ridiculous, awkward and preposterous, full of errors as I stated before, and ... and ... heavens, I don't believe in burning books, but if I ever needed to start a fire and was short on kindling, this book would be the first to go in. And I would probably enjoy ripping the pages from the spine and tossing them in. Blech.

The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper

The Last of the Mohicans
by James Fenimore Cooper

I've always wondered how some books become "classics." It is truly quality and originality that transcend time? Or is it, sometimes, luck that makes a book popular (it's more of a fad then a "classic"), but the luck holds and even manages to grant the book longevity?

For example, I've read several books that I can't believe are classics—has anyone read any of the Tarzan books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, for example? Or even things like Uncle Tom's Cabin—completely racist (while trying to be propaganda for anti-slavery), political, and flat, that had a definite purpose at the time, but why are we still reading it now? And I've always thought Wuthering Heights a bit of...well, a gothic flop, if you must know. And yet, they are still classics.

I think this may very well be one of these books. It's an exciting* adventure story with plenty of violence and action. The characters are static and exaggerated (Cora is set up as the epitome of all lovely womanliness and virtue; Uncas as a paragon of masculine and Native American virtue and strength; Magua a representation of the Native American cruelty, cunning, and selfishness; Hawk-Eye the symbol of American resilience, cunning, strength, and the attempt to blend the Old World and the New). So, all characters are larger-than-life, not particularly believable, and occasionally annoying (especially Hawk-Eye and his long-winded ramblings about his world view—which never changes, just gets repeated over and over and over...blech).

And all these cardboard cut-outs go and have a big, hairy adventure that has a tragic ending. Fine for a stock fiction novel, I suppose, but for a classic? I must say, if it was just adventure and action I wanted, I much prefer the movie (especially after the interesting things they did to the original plot—a much more riveting story, I think).

Though I shouldn't be so hard on the book. There are some things about it that are of worth, such as taking a look at frontier life through the eyes of Cooper. Some historians give him a great deal of credit for accuracy, especially to the extent that he understood the Native American cultures.

Also, the thematic undercurrents of race were interesting: each race seemed to consider itself superior to the others, and everyone considered themselves as superior to the blacks (even though there was only one character who had a trace of black ancestry in her, which was carefully hidden). It was a time in history steeped in prejudice. Of course it was.

The great thing is that Cooper himself was not racist in the sense that he thought one race was better to another (which idea I got through Hawk-Eye and his incessant monologues), but he did feel that the different races were fundamentally different—had different world views, talents, and abilities more as a result of differing cultures. After all, Cora, who I've mentioned before set up as the epitome of womanliness, was the person whose mother was partially black. (But before I can argue that Cooper wasn't racist, it was, after all, Cora whom he sacrificed at the end, and her white sister he let live on.)

But, hey, even after an interesting dip into a the literary theory of "race," I'm not likely to read this book again.

*Exciting for the time it was written, I mean. I found the action a little dull, used to things like, oh, television and movies, you know.

Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron

The Higher Power of Lucky
by Susan Patron

Enjoyable, quirky, funny, even touching—is there a better way to do Young Adult Literature? What I like best about it, though, is the sense of place that Patron develops—the overly-small town, the oddities of the characters that would live in such a place—even her focusing on desert wildlife (such as it is—mostly insects and arachnids)—through all that, the LIFE of a tiny desert town really rang true.

Other things that I liked: when she wrote about Lucky and used imagery like "brain crevices" and "meanness glands;" the way she had Lucky eavesdropping on an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting to try to figure out more about a "higher power;" the way she wrote Lucky period; the sense of pathos of small lives affected by things bigger than themselves and how they deal with it (on all sorts of levels, from the desert critters, to the children in the town, to the entire town itself).

One trouble I had with the book was a personal one: the setting was so strong it left the aftertaste of the desert in my mouth, which I found unpleasant. (The story is set in the Mojave Desert, where I just happened to grow up—though in a different part than Lucky did—however, it hit a little too close to home in some areas for me.)

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Turn of the Screw
by Henry James

I've read Henry James before, and greatly enjoyed, psychology, I guess you could say. And I had heard this particular work mentioned many times—I know it was adapted for the stage as well—but somehow, in all that, I somehow missed this was a ghost story. (If I'd known, I probably would have read it in October.)

The most terrible thing (meaning the scariest element of the work, not how terrible the work is, of course) about the story is the way the characters of the two children use passive-aggressiveness. Or, rather, the way they play head games with the narrator, their governess. That, and the way he uses euphemisms to frighten ("horrible" things that the children have done and that were done to them were hinted at constantly, but the only thing he lets us know for sure is that a Mr. Quint (now deceased and haunting the house) had an affair with Miss Jessel (also currently deceased and haunting the house) and that the two ghosts spent a great deal of time in the company of the children while living, were "bad" people, and are now haunting the children, who enjoy the haunting). Every bit of evil and past sin is only hinted at, which allows the reader's imagination to fill in the gaps with just as much horror as they can imagine. I suppose that James, like Hitchcock, understood that the truly scary stuff is the stuff you can't see/know.

I did enjoy it, but I admit that living in a time where everything is tell-all, and people are given the facts of every gory detail, the story was...well, not very scary, and a little frustrating with all the information it did withhold. But there you have it. Maybe James intended to frustrate me personally. (Yeah, not likely.)

Borgel by Daniel Pinkwater

by Daniel Pinkwater

Pinkwater puzzles me. By all accounts, I should love this guy's writing: he's silly, and random, and odd. Normally I really like silly, I love random (isn't that the charm behind things like Monty Python and Douglas Adam's novels?), and I AM odd.

Buuut...somehow, I really haven't gotten IN to Pinkwater. This isn't the first one of his books that I've tried, but this is the first that I liked. And I'm still baffled that I'm not in love with him. Oh well. Maybe in some other decade?

I guess if you want a synopsis, the book is about a kid who has an Uncle Borgel show up one day to live with his family. They have no idea who he is, but they take him in. Turns out that he is actually from another planet and he lets the kid and the family dog go with him on his interstellar travels in an old car. And they get to see, among many different things, a magical, cosmic Popsicle.

See? I should love this! But I don't. I'm puzzled. I mean, why not?