Book Review: The Mark of Athena, by Rick Riordan

October 10, 2012 at 10:25 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , , , )

Note: this is the third book in the Heroes of Olympus series, the sequel series to Percy Jackson and the Olympians. If you have not read the previous seven books, there will be not only confusion but abundant spoilers below

Percy and Annabeth have been reunited, Percy and Jason have their memories back, and the Greek and Roman demigods seem like they might be able to work out an alliance to face the Great Prophecy and the continuing struggle against Gaea and her children. Great, right? Except…well, Leo’s not sure how it happened, but let’s just say a lot when wrong really fast, and now Leo, Percy, Annabeth, Jason, Piper, Hazel, and Frank are on the run on the Argo II with several desperate missions and not a lot of time in which to accomplish them. With trademark humor, sympathy, and action, Riordan takes us on a whirlwind ride.

I make no secret of the fact that I love Riordan’s books. They’re smart, they’re interesting, they’re funny as anything, they’re exciting, and yet we also get an amazing blend of personal obstacles, sorrow, and growth, something that makes them uncommon and wonderful. These stories have a bit of everything, but they’re brought together so neatly that it doesn’t feel overcrowded- quite a feat for a story that started in single-narrator first person and now has an entire stable of narrators in third.

Our narrators for this leg of the journey are Annabeth, Percy, Piper, and Leo, each claiming four chapters at a time. It’s a big book, which make worry some of the younger readers who haven’t hit Harry Potter yet, but the pace snaps so well that you’re pretty far in before you look up to remember there’s a mundane world around you. This is the first time we’ve been inside Annabeth’s head, and though I already really liked her as a character, this time she wins ALL THE LOVE. Well, most of the love; I still have some for the others, too. But Annabeth! We get to see so many different facets of a wonderfully complicated character. We see her as Percy’s Wise Girl, someone intelligent and resourceful, someone willing to dig down and do research, someone ready with the history of a thing to understand how to work with it or beat it down, as the situation calls for. We see her as someone who’s been an important aspect of leadership and influence in Camp Half-Blood since well before Percy got there, a leader in her own right who’s able to make use of widely varying skill sets and personalities- even when two of those personalities are rather used to being the leaders themselves. We see her as a girlfriend, which is painfully sweet and funny (judo flip, anyone?). Perhaps my favorite aspect? We see Annabeth as daughter. She’s loyal, rebellious, proud, aware of faults, frustrated, loving…in short, all the contradictions that perfectly make up most mother-daughter relationships. And I’m sorry, but her wanting to find her mother’s sacred owl and punch it in the face wins her EVERYTHING EVER. She’s an amazing character and I’m so glad we get to see more of the world inside her head.

Another very fun, and compelling, aspect of this book is the fact that both Percy and Jason are accustomed to leadership. We see the struggle of them working together, of having to acknowledge someone as an equal in experience and strength and talents. We also see two cocky teenage boys butting heads, which is hysterical. More than that, though, something we see both of them struggle with again and again, is the helplessness that comes with not being the ones to save the day. They’re not always the ones with the great ideas, they’re not always the ones with the needed talent. Sometimes, they’re the ones that need to be rescued. That’s a humbling and terrifying moment for people like them, and we get to see that, both in the struggles they deal with personally and in what they’re willing to confide to the girls they love. There’s also a rather striking difference between the two in leadership. Jason was expected to be a leader. He’s a son of Jupiter, so great things and leadership skills were always expected of him. He was placed in a position of authority because it was expected that was where he should be. Percy earned his leadership. He wasn’t a driving force within the camp at first, but through years of quests and obstacles, through strong leadership through the war, he earned his place. He doesn’t expect anyone to kowtow to him, but he leads with the steady confidence of someone who’s walked through every level of the ranks. He has a knack for other people’s skills, for how to use other people to the best advantage- even if that means he’s not The Hero. Jason still tends to focus on what he can do.

I love that in this book we get to see more of the reality of the schism between the Greek and Roman Aspects. We’ve been told about, and we see it in bits and pieces through the first two books, but we see it in a serious way here through two gods. The transition from Athena to Minerva is heartbreaking at best, frequently infuriating, and somewhat painfully appropriate for a lot of the struggles going on in our culture today. What makes it agony is the fact that she’s aware, in some sense, of what’s been lost, of what’s been taken from her. She knows she’s not complete and that she’s missing something vital and immense. And then there’s Mister D- or, er, Mister B. Bacchus and Dionysus share many qualities, but like the other gods, they reflect the differences in their cultures, as well as the varying attitudes those cultures espouse. Mister D is all snarl and bark, but the only time we actually see him bite is at the enemy. Mister B, while seeming laid-back, also comes off as a lot more dangerous. While D’s maenads are terrifying, it’s B’s full embrace of the bread-and-circuses way of life that makes your skin crawl.

Although, Coke and Pepsi? Brilliant.

As much as I loved this book, it left me with two worries. Well, one worry and one wish. The worry is that, while it’s great to be aging the kids up, and aging up the things they’re dealing with on an appropriate parallel, this book is very, very couple-centered. There’s Percy and Annabeth and all of their relationship stuff, there’s Jason and Piper and all their relationship stuff, and there’s Hazel and Frank and Leo and any number of obstacles and concerns tying the three of them together. For the older readers, yay! A lot of us really LIKE the couple-y things. I saw an absolutely phenomenal fan-poster that said “Keep Calm and Shut Up, Seaweed Brain”, which is just fantastic. But. A lot of the kids coming to this series are younger readers who are swallowing the first set in a gulp, and may not be ready for all the internal angst that comes with hormones. And there’s a second part to that- I hate the notion of boy books and girl books, hate the fact that there are parents and booksellers and teachers who are actively promoting that kind of label and telling children they can’t read a book because “it’s for the other gender”. Hate it. The fact, however, remains that there are many adults who believe this, and many children whose reading habits are limited by it. For those boys who are told by adults or friends that it’s not okay to read romance books, this may lose some of them for the series. The wish has to do with the narration. My friend Margaret and I were bouncing theories back and forth as to who we’ll see as narrators in the next one, and it made me realize that all four of our narrators in this one were Greek. The first two books were balanced, The Lost Hero with two Greeks and a confused Roman adopted by the Greeks, Son of Neptune with two Romans and a confused Greek adopted by the Romans. Or, as my brother put it, Jason and Percy are the Praetor Traitor Twins (say that three times fast). I would have wished for more of a balance in the narrative duties of this book, that the narrative duties balanced the very real need for balance among the seven demigods on the task. It’s a hard wish, though, because I really did love the narratives we got.

This is a fantastic new installment in the series, keeping the action and adventure and truly-snort-worthy one-liners flying so fast you don’t even notice how many pages you’re turning, but it also gives some fantastic depth to characters we come to love even more and an ending that will make you curse the year’s wait to The House of Hades. Definitely not to be missed. It’s smart with mythology, with history, with the innate struggles that come with the cusp of greatness, and all the trials and triumphs that come with simply being a teenager.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Book Review: Amy’s Eyes, by Richard Kennedy

August 15, 2012 at 7:07 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

This is less of a book review than it is talking about a book re-view.

When I was in fourth grade, I pretty much lived down in my school library. I finished my assignments so far ahead of my classmates that my teacher sent me off to the library so I wouldn’t get bored and cause trouble. (Not that I was a troublesome kid, but if I was bored, I would try to entertain myself- sometimes caused unintentional problems.) I read through great swathes of that room in my years at that school, and one of the books on the shelf was this great fat thing with selveged pages called Amy’s Eyes, by Richard Kennedy.

I fell in love with that book. It was an epic thing of sailors and pirates, the search for treasure, family lost and found, secrets, dolls coming to life and even little girls becoming dolls out of loneliness and sorrow. It had orphanage hi-jinks and adventure on the high seas, it had mutiny and religion and nursery rhymes, and what made me truly fall in love with the book- and this may or may not say something significant about me- was that it taught me the song Greensleeves. I checked that book out several times that year and next, and when I found that my middle school library didn’t have it, I checked it out from the public library. I read that book at least twelve times through the next three years.

But then Things Happened, and real life intruded, and with how insane my schedule was, the public library became rather hard to get to, and while I still thought fondly of the book, there wasn’t really a chance to catch up with it.

Fast forward to senior year of college, as I’m sitting down with my honors thesis advisor and talking about the influence of books in my life, and he tells me to track down a handful of books with significant influence and re-read them. Some were things I still read again and again- David Eddings’ Elenium trilogy, for example, which is largely responsible for my sense of humor- but I immediately thought of Amy’s Eyes. I remembered it as being a great adventure full of sweetness and laughter. It was out of print and a little tough to track down- none of the libraries I had access to had it, not even the trusty library back home; it had been stolen and they hadn’t replaced it. I finally found a used copy online that a former library copy, and not too dinged up (I’m a little OCD about my books), and when it came, I settled down to immerse myself in childhood nostalgia.

HOLY CRAP.

Somehow in reread after reread after reread when I was younger, I had managed to completely miss how CREEPY large portions of that book was! There were some sections, even some characters, who absolutely made my skin crawl coming back to it almost ten years later. This went far beyond merely unsettling- this was sit up awake in bed clutching the baseball bat against the moving shadows terrifying. As a child, I’d categorized the characters into three groups: Good, Bad, and Surprise. As an adult, the characters were much more difficult to dismiss into those simple corners. I understood a lot more of the nuances in their personalities, got a lot more out of the shifting loyalties and the plaintive confusion at their existence. The nature of identity, the simple fact of existence, weaves through this story in ways I never could have grasped when I was nine years old.

As a child, I thought parts of the book were sad. As an adult, I found some parts downright tragic- and not always the same parts. I learned about disguise as a part of truth and how far some people would go for love- and for greed. There were a few stray elements that I remembered as being the same, but in so many ways, it was like I was reading a completely different book.

For the next two weeks, before my next advisor meeting, I tried to wrap my brain around just how different this was from what I’d remembered, and therefore expected. The book, of course, hadn’t changed. I was two years old when it came out, and the text hasn’t altered a bit since the date of publication.

What had changed was me.

Another decade of life, another decade’s worth of experiences, had changed my perspective on things. As a child, I didn’t understand anything about betrayal or greed or black-hearted villains except for what I read in books. As an adult, I’d learned, and if I’d sometimes mourned the knowledge, I still had the deeper experience. Limitless devotion wasn’t something I took for granted anymore, so seeing just how far some of these characters would go to protect and reunite with the ones they loved wasn’t something I took for granted anymore either. Because of those life experiences, everyone reads the same book in different ways.

What I learned from re-reading Amy’s Eyes proved invaluable when I wrote the novel for my thesis, and for each novel after that. The character who was most deeply unsettling was also the one for whom we feel the deepest sympathies. Good and evil were not nearly as separate as I’d previously imagined, and just because a person is Good, it doesn’t mean they don’t have deep flaws within them. And perhaps the deepest lesson- the one that wove its way through again and again in what became Elsinore Drowning: sometimes we injure those we love the best, even when- or perhaps especially when- we’re trying to do what’s best or right.

Have you ever had a book that seemed drastically different upon a re-read?

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Mini-Vacation and GIVEAWAY

May 20, 2012 at 12:24 pm (Giveaway) (, , , , )

So I’m actually away from my computer this entire weekend because one of my big brothers is graduating with a Very Important Degree and we’re going up to see him be all important and stuff. (Don’t let the sleepy grammar fool you- I’m ridiculously proud of him)

To make up for my absence, I’m giving away an AMAZING book!

I got an ARC for Christopher Healy’s fabulous The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom and just about hurt myself laughing. Despite having the ARC, I had to go ahead and buy the finished book anyway, for two reasons: one, I love to support the authors of books I love; and two: because I had to have the interior illustrations. They’re wonderful! They’re funny and pitch-perfect and only add to the atmosphere of this fantastic story.

So now I’m passing on that ARC! You too can laugh yourself into pained incoherence with the adventures and misadventures of Princes Gustav, Frederick, Liam, and Duncan! Trust me, you WANT this book.

And all you have to do is answer a question: who do you think got the shortest end of the stick in fairy tales?

For my part, I always felt bad for the Little Mermaid (the real one, not the Disney one). She tries so hard and gives up so much, every step hurts like knives underfoot, but in the end she still can’t get the guy she’s risked everything to be with. In her case, you really can die from a broken heart, and it’s not that there’s anything wrong with her, it’s not the prince hated her, it just…didn’t work. Her story brings tears to my eyes every time.

So who do you think got the short end of the stick? Tell me below and you’ll be entered to win- that’s all you have to do. You don’t have to follow me here or on twitter, you don’t have to like my facebook page, just comment. (Of course, if you WANTED to do those things, I’d love you and give you virtual cookies, but it’s optional). Open to US residents only, and you can comment through Saturday, 2 June 2012.

Can’t wait to hear what you come up with!

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Book Review: Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

May 9, 2012 at 9:30 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , )

Catherine, commonly called Birdy or Little Bird, is in a bit of a fix. The daughter of a knight and a minor lady must marry, it seems, but each suitor is more unsuitable than the last? What’s a girl to do? Well, if she’s Birdy, the answer is to raise a ruckus in inimitable fashion, and along the way learn some valuable lessons about people, life, and just what it means to spread your wings.

It’s been years since I read this book, so long I’d almost forgotten why I loved it so much. But I remember!

Catherine is an amazing character, one who frankly reminds me of myself. Even when she isn’t causing trouble, she’s…well..causing trouble. There are just some occasions in which it’s an accident. She’s resourceful, defiant, imaginative, curious, strong-willed, rarely chastened, and never broken. She’s genuine and compassionate and kind, and if she whines about the sacrifices she makes for others, the impulse behind the sacrifices in sincere. She’ll consign herself to a dreadful fate to save a starving, beaten bear from being baited to death- just don’t ask her to share her blankets. She already shares them with the fleas.

Catherine’s story is laid out in a diary, written at the behest of her scholarly monk brother Edward. At first it’s a chore she hates as much as embroidery, hemming, or any of the other many ladies tasks to which she’s assigned, but then it becomes something wonderful- a way to get out of all the other hateful things for a little while each day. We follow the course of a year, each day with its patron saint (and why they’re a saint). This book is like a window into the 13th century. For some bizarre reason we frequently romanticize the medieval times, but there is nothing ideal about Catherine’s world, where the remedies are appalling, the bigotry institutionalized by Crown and Church, and bathing is something you do once or twice a year if you’re brave. It’s sweltering in summer and freezing in winter, clothing is a finite resource, and beds are packed tighter than sardine cans.

But there’s joy there too, a million tricks and jokes and mummer’s games, with festivities timed to the calendar of saints. Catherine, of course, provides a great deal of amusement (even if the privy fire really was an accident). There are weddings and gifts and plays, and if they’re twined through death and loss and cracks on the head, well, that’s all a part of life as well.

Catherine’s wish for flight isn’t a literal one, but it’s a very real one. Her story underscores how powerless most women- especially most upper class women- were during that time period, something that becomes a rather frightening parallel in the here and now. A woman must marry (or become a nun, and nuns have as many rules and chores as the daughter of a knight), and she’ll likely have no say in who her husband will be. She’s expected to obey meekly, first her father then her husband, and do all that could be asked of her. A girl cannot go on adventures or do dangerous things (excepting, of course, giving birth, which is as deadly as it is dangerous), she cannot be a great scholar or live in the woods. Catherine struggles against it, flailing against the bars of her cage, but still she progresses on a slow, inexorable march to the altar and a husband of her father’s choosing.

But there’s a very wise woman who gives her a key piece of advice, and when she finally understands what the woman means, her outlook changes. Her circumstances don’t- well, they do, in a rather too-neat ending, but she doesn’t know that when her outlook changes- but she comes to understand that whatever her circumstances, whatever her lot in life, the one thing that cannot be taken from her is who she is. She can be forced to be someone’s wife or someone’s mother, a lady of a manor, but the one thing she can always be, the one thing she can control, is being Catherine.

This is an amazing historical view, full of every range of emotion, and quite frankly, a lot of fun to read.

God’s Thumbs!

Until next time~
Cheers~

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Book Review: The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, by Christopher Healy

May 2, 2012 at 6:10 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Ever wondered what comes after the happily-ever-after? For the four Princes Charming (or is it Prince Charmings?), it’s the realization that no one knows your name because they’re much more interested in the lady. But when one of those ladies goes off in search of adventure, what begins as a missing bard quickly grows into a heroic (and not-so-heroic) quest involving bandits, bounty hunters, giants, dragons, and a grumpy witch with serious issues. Buckle up, lovelies! It’s one crazy ride.

This book should come with a warning printed on it: do not attempt to eat or drink while reading. My keyboard will never be the same.

This book has such a fantastic sense of fun, a humor that infuses every sentence. Its pitch-perfect tongue-in-cheek narration (think Lemony Snicket without the bite) has a levity that keeps the story floating along effortlessly. You will hurt yourself laughing with this one, whether it’s sniggers over Sir Bertram the Dainty, giggles over well-meaning but rather inept Frederic, or full-on belly shakers over the Bandit King. This could be a dangerous book to read in public- depends on how you feel about people staring at you, or if you feel uncomfortable losing all composure in front of people. It’s a fantastic story to read aloud with kids. Honestly, I think my friends and I would get a kick of out reading it out loud together if we were in the same area code.

The four princes are all distinct, fitting certain stereotypes but embodying them so fully that they step beyond them. They have varying degrees of frustration with the Prince Charming label (and the lack of publicity for their exploits that comes with it), and all four of them grow and learn along the way. But initially? These four princes couldn’t be more different. There’s prissy Frederic, who’s never been on an adventure in his life and considers his greatest talent to be his ability to coordinate his stylish clothing. He’s never ridden a horse (too dangerous!), slept outdoors (too messy!), or even lifted a sword (too risky!). There’s Prince Gustav, unlucky in most of what he attempts. He’s very brave but he’s uh…well, let’s call him impulsive. He’s huge and prickly and never stops to think before he runs into danger- or gets run over by danger. Then there’s Prince Liam, a real hero with a number of great deeds to his credit- who possibly woke up the wrong princess and needs to get away. Their fourth compatriot is Prince Duncan, who names all the animals and trusts to his luck to see him through. Together, these four function about as well as if you’d hog-tied all of them.

But they each bring something valuable to the table, even if it takes them a while to realize it. Much of the story is caught up in them bumbling around, getting in each other’s (and their own) way, but every step is also building towards that moment when they finally understand what it is to be an actual team.

Of course, there’s also the four ladies. Only half of them are princesses as of yet. There’s Ella, of Cinderella fame, now freed from her life of servitude to her step-family by virtue of being Frederic’s fiancee. It took a lot of guts to go the ball against orders, to seize opportunity when it arose, and that kind of girl doesn’t do well taking picnics day after day after day. So what’s a brave, curious, resourceful girl to do? Well, if you’re Ella, the answer is to run off in search of a missing bard. There’s also Rapunzel, whose rescue was somewhat compromised by her needing to rescue her rescuer. It’s in her nature to help people, which doesn’t much help prickly Gustav. There’s Snow White, sweet and a little odd, well-equipped for her wacky husband but just needing a few hours of peace and quiet. And then there’s Briar Rose, who probably should have been left asleep for another prince to deal with. She’s mean and spoiled and arrogant, hateful and cruel, and determined to get her own way no matter how much misery she causes. Actually, the more misery she causes the happier she is. While the focus is on the four princes, the four ladies are hardly by-standers. Each of them has a place in the story as well, some as rescue and some as…well, distraction is probably for the best for some.

But these are by no means the only characters. We meet the evil witch (who didn’t start out that way, you know), the giant in her service (who could really use a good pair of shoes), a dragon, a Bandit King with a temper (who’s a bit of a psychopath), three grumpy dwarves (are dwarves ever anything else?), a very clever little sister (because little sisters just rock), a morose bounty hunter, sixteen older brothers, five missing bards, a tavern of dangerous men, and a motley assortment of parents as idiosyncratic as their children.

It’s a fast-paced story, taking us back and forth across the lands while never letting us feel bored or battered by repetition. The foreshadowing is done in beautiful sarcasm (the prologue gives you a long description of where you’ll find the princes in Chapter 20), and sometimes the things we’re told in asides are at least as interesting as what we’re told that’s to the point.

This is a book you set aside time for, after you’ve eaten, when you’ve no thirst, with your kids or friends around you to share in it with you. Just make sure you avoid anyone you don’t want to see you laughing hysterically.

The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, by Christopher Healy, out in stores now. Don’t miss this!

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Book Review: The Adventures of Sir Balin the Ill-Fated, by Gerald Morris

April 11, 2012 at 5:15 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , , )

At his christening, Balin is proclaimed as the victim of a heavy prophecy: he shall be known as the noblest knight in England! But- he’ll bring misfortune wherever he goes, bring down two kingdoms in a single day, strike the Dolorous Stroke, and in the end, destroy the knight he loves most in the world. His mother just hopes he’ll marry a nice northern girl. As he gets older and starts his adventures, he seems doomed to fulfill this prophecy, but is there a way to escape his fate?

I love Gerald Morris. I have been reading his books since I can’t even remember when. I checked them out almost every time I was at the library and read them again and again and again. They made the Arthurian tales come alive for me, and more than that, they made the idea of retellings stick in my head and lodge there in a very satisfactory way. I was incredibly saddened when the Squire’s Tale series started drawing to a close- sad, but also content, because everything was as it needed to be. So when I head rumor of a series of Arthurian retellings for a younger audience, I was intrigued.

And they’re just as wonderful.

Like the other installments (none of which have to be read in the order in which they’re written) this book is laugh out loud funny, with a keen sense of absurdity and a Shakespearean delight in highlighting the ridiculous. And the humor isn’t just for kids- adults can fully appreciate the sly, understated wit in the repartee, even as kids giggle over the accidental happenings. They’re easy stories but they’re not dumbed down, perfect for any child who’s ever loved knights and damsels-not-in-any-distress-thank-you-very-much.

The illustrations are perfectly pitched, a little cartoony but not distracting. They help to break up the page for newer or reluctant readers, but there aren’t so many that they overshadow the text and the story in any way. This is a perfect book to read aloud with kids. What’s more, they’ll learn scads of fun words without even realizing they’re improving their vocabulary.

There are fabulous lessons in each of the Knights’ Tales books, but they’re not presented as morals. There isn’t a big block of bold print somewhere near the end saying “HEY LOOK AT THIS THING I AM TEACHING YOU”. They’re presented with the same tongue-in-cheek widsom as all the other accolades and foibles the characters present. Everything Sir Balin does seems to fit perfectly within the bounds of the prophecy, so that even when he deliberately sets out to obfusticate it, he still seems to be fulfilling it. But as his mother, his brother, and the adventurous Lady Annalise remind him, prophecies are just words. Ultimately, his life and his choices are his own, to do with as he will. It’s foolish to let a few words by a raving old woman make you scared to live your life. But, as with any wisdom that’s granted rather than earned, it takes time for him to appreciate the truth of their sentiments.

These books are a fabulous addition to any home or classroom library, and for more advanced readers, be sure to check out The Squire’s Tale, the first book of his older readers series.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Book Review: The Humming Room, by Ellen Potter

March 28, 2012 at 9:17 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Roo Fanshaw knows about hiding. She finds the small places, the forgotten places, and listens to the sounds of the earth. After her parents’ deaths, she’s sent to Cough Rock to live with an uncle she’s never met, or even heard of. At first sight it’s nothing to inspire- a former children’s sanitorium, Cough Rock is a cold, forbidding place full of secrets. Like the humming Roo hears through the halls. Like the uncle who vanishes for long periods of time. Like the river boy who isn’t tied to anything. But there are other kinds of secrets too, secrets that might be able to reach a lost little girl and give her something she’s never known before: a home.

I’ll admit, this is a book I first noticed for its cover. It’s beautiful and intriguing and it successfully made me want to know more. I read the description and thought: huh, this sounds a lot like The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Then I read about it in the system at work and went okay, that would be why.

And it’s gorgeous.

This hovers somewhere between retelling and homage, taking all the best parts of the source material and adding things new and beautiful and just a little bit mysterious. It steps away from the foundation and becomes something wholly its own.

Roo is an amazing character. Mary Lennox eventually becomes a sympathetic figure, but Roo is someone we root for right from the beginning, as she hides under a porch and listens to the earth as police tramp through the house above her. It’s hard not to feel sorry for her- her life has seriously sucked- but we also admire her strength and her resilience. Even when she’s determined not to care, when she’s trying to be as cold and unaffected as she can possibly be, she has this deep love for living, growing things. She doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone, but slowly, carefully, she opens herself up to the many possibilities her new life has to offer.

This is a story that combines the original elements of a hidden away cousin, a dying garden, and a half-wild boy with the beautiful superstitions of a river people. Violet, a native of nearby Donkey Island, combines a no-nonsense good humor with the mysticism of old beliefs. I’ve never been to the St. Lawrence but after reading this book I feel like I have. It comes alive in the pages, in the many moods of the river, in the patterns of the terns and the mink, even in the neighbor mentality we see in bits and pieces. We see Roo and Jack (the half-wild river boy) and their connection with living things, see Roo’s deep yearning for the living things before she even knows how to name it as such.

This isn’t a story about a garden- it’s a story about a life and lives, about growth and hope and change. Every page is a treasure, a well-written gem that wraps around you and lingers like the deepening song of the earth.

Read this book for yourself, and if you have children- in your home or in your classroom- read it with them. This is not one to be missed.

The Humming Room, by Ellen Potter.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Book Review: Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine

February 8, 2012 at 6:08 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , , , )

If I really like a book, chances are fairly high that I will reread it at least once a year. If I really love a book, chances are extremely high that I will reread it several times in a year. These are the books that I can pick up at any time, from any point in the book, and simply lose myself in the familiar pages.

I was super-stressed this past week. There was a lot that was up in the air and I’m not necessarily the best with up-in-the-airness. I like to have all my ducks in a row, to have things settled, and to know exactly where things (and people) stand. I’m fine with the fact that all these things will change with circumstances, but I still like knowing that things are settled. This was not a week of being settled or knowing where things stood. This was a week of high stress, scattered thoughts, highs and lows, and just a ton of things going on from a variety of fronts. So, lacking the focus to do anything productive, equally lacking the mental ability to tackle a new book, I turned to one of my stand-bys.

This weekend, I reread Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, and loved just as much as I do every other time. For anyone who’s never heard of this Newbery Honor Winner:

A gift given by a demented fairy never amounts to much good, to which Ella can atest. When she cried through her first hour of life, the fairy Lucinda gave her the “gift” of obedience; Ella has to obey a direct order, no matter what it is. But Ella isn’t about to let that run her life. This spirited girl throws herself head-first into a world of mercenary fathers, finishing school tyrants, dangers of the road, horrid step-familys, dear friends, and a chance for true love that might come at a terrible cost, all with an indefagitable spirit and charm that no curse can ever break.

I honestly can’t remember the first time I read this book, just that I fell in love with it then. It was probably the beginning of my deep and abiding love for fairy tale retellings and I remember thinking that is was so clever! It actually answered one of my long-term issues with the story of Cinderella: why does the she stay and slave for the step-family? If she’s simply accepting that this is her lot in life, it makes me think she’s passive and boring and why would I bother with that? And if she’s spunky and feisty, why doesn’t she just go off and do her own thing? This book actually gives answers to that question, and does so ingeniously.

Ella is an amazing character. She’s self-aware, honest about her faults but also of her virtues, and she looks at the world through open eyes. She’s practical, sometimes a little petty, wonderfully imaginative, and genuinely good hearted. Most of all, she’s strong-spirited. Her life has been shaped by the curse but she doesn’t let it define her. Or rather, she doesn’t let it run her. In everything she does, every person she encounters, the curse is a danger and a risk, but she works around that. She plays games with its limitations, testing it for loopholes or managing to frustrate the true intentions of the person giving the order. She constantly seeks for a way to break it. But she lives her life. She makes friends, she learns languages, and when forced to do something, she grimly gets through it and uses that experience down the road. She’s funny, a little silly, and painfully brave. And sometimes holds grudges. In other words, she’s very real, the kind of character who steps off the page and when I finish the book I’m always a little surprised that there isn’t a living breathing Ella sitting right next to me.

Most of the additional characters are well-rounded and dynamic, full of shades that make it difficult to say (for most) that they’re either good or evil. The charming prince can be stiff, formal, and unforgiving. But he also slides down stair rails, delights in someone who can make him laugh, and does unthinking kind deeds. Hattie, the elder step-sister, is a miserable little shrew and her mother, Dame Olga, a fatter and shriller version obsessed with money and clothing, but Olive, the younger step-sister, is charmingly simple. Stupid, yes, undeniably so, but there’s actually something a little sweet in her vapidity. She may be greedy but unlike her mother and sister, she isn’t cruel, either; she just lacks the mental capacity (and environment) to encourage her to better herself. Mandy, Ella’s cook and fairy-godmother, both delights and frustrates Ella. Mandy is bossy, straight-forward, protective, bold, loving, and refuses to practice Big Magics, leaving that sort of thing to the foolish Lucinda. She’s also intensely loyal and maybe a little vindictive. Even Ella’s father, Sir Peter, has flashes of promise within his stony parts. He’s greedy, manipulative, stubborn, with a large potential for violence, and doesn’t hesitate to cheat, swindle, or downright steal, nor does he think twice about auctioning his daughter off to the highest bidder, but there are times- tiny moments, just a spark gone before you can really see it too clearly- where you see the man Ella’s mother fell in love with. When he actually shows pride in his daughter, or delight in her company, without an ulterior motive.

This book is also just plain fun to read. Ella narrates, with the same spirit with which she approaches everything else. There are points where you’re actually laughing out loud at her wit and humor, but her pared down honesty also translates the griefs and disappointments. When she’s hungry, there’s a sharp climb in the amount of food-related descriptions. Then there are the languages. In addition to her native Kyrrian, Ella also has samplings of Gnomish, Ogrese, Giant(ese?), and Ayorthan, each of which has distinct rules and appearances and some of which are so bizarre you can’t help but laugh when you see them on the page.

This is a book that has gotten me through house-fires, first heartaches, school stresses, horrid co-workers or roommates, ill health, crap paychecks, sick cats, and so much. It is a delight to read and a joy to reread, and remains the foundation of my rereading library.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Moms and Types + Giveaway!

January 22, 2012 at 1:32 pm (General, Giveaway) (, , , , )

From time to time, my friends and I go back to visit a topic near and dear to our curiosity: Disney movies and the family structure. Even just looking at the animated summer blockbusters, there’s something a little strange there when you actually look at the families. For example:
Belle, from Beauty and the Beast? Dead mom.
Beast, from Beauty and the Beast? Both parents dead.
Snow White? Dead mom.
Quasimodo, from Hunchback of Notre Dame? Dead mom. We assume dead dad as well, but he could have just been imprisoned.
Aladdin? Both parents dead.
Jasmine? Dead mom.
Simba, from Lion King? Dad dies. Rather horribly.
Ariel, from Little Mermaid? Dead mom.
Hercules? At the least the really screwed up Disney version anyway? Two sets of parents.
Nemo, from Finding Nemo? Dead mom.
Tiana, from The Princess and the Frog? Dead dad.
Tarzan? Both parents dead.
Cinderella? Both parents dead.
Even frickin’ Bambi’s mother dies.

Aurora from Sleeping Beauty and Mulan seem to stand out as significant exceptions when you list them with their friends, because they actually have happy, whole family units. Where our debates usually centered was whether or not Disney had this trend on purpose, to either reach out to the broken family homes and say it’s okay you still get your happy ending someday, or if Disney studios just really had a thing against intact families, like it’s some kind of personal affront to their broken, battered, bitter hearts.

But Disney being the springboard for many improbably conversations, it got me to thinking about families in fiction. For this week, specifically the mothers.

In Young Adult and Middle Grade fiction, adult family members have a sometimes precarious position. The story isn’t about them, usually, so sometimes it’s like the parents don’t even exist. We’re aware the characters have them, we even see them peripherally from time to time, but they just don’t have much an impact. Then, other times, they’re a HUGE impact. While each mother should always be distinct from others, as every character is hopefully distinct, they do tend to fall into types.

The Departed Saint
Lily Potter. Throughout all seven books of the Harry Potter series, we’re given only the best things to hear of Lily. Even Petunia, who hates her sister, still talks about how wonderful Lily was, how pretty, how clever, etc. You never hear a bad word about her. Then, the information that overreaches everything else: she laid down her life to save her son, and her love temporarily killed the Dark Lord. Let’s face it, that kind of action doesn’t create a mother; it creates a martyred saint. There’s no flaw, no detracting deficiency, so we (and Harry) are led to see her as part of a marble pantheon of saints. Do we ever doubt her goodness? No. Do we ever doubt her love for Harry? No. But do we ever get to see her as a real person? Not really. We come a little bit closer with Slughorn’s reminiscence, with Snape’s memories, but Lily Potter is like the Dead Mommy of all Dead Mommies.

The All-Mother
This is the one who takes in strays, adopts adopts adopts, mothers everyone more or less impartially regardless of age, gender, race, or creed, the one who exists as a sort of monument to the institution of motherhood. In other words? Molly Weasley. She’s plump and a little disheveled, goes without to make sure her kids have what they need for school, and exists to mother other people. It’s not just about pampering and gushing, though, because she also lays down the hard discipline. No matter what else is going on, she can be counted on to predictable and steady, a rock who will probably make a cup of tea as soon as she can get half a hand free during the crisis.

The All-Consumed Mother
This is the type of mother for whom the entire world revolves around her son. There is absolutely nothing she wouldn’t do for her son, no matter what it was, and depending on the rest of her personality the rest of the world may or may not be invited to piss off. Narcissa Malfoy is one example of this; she’s vain and arrogant, prejudiced, perhaps bigoted, thinks herself far superior to others in terms of purity of blood, wealth, social status, and beauty, but perhaps the strongest single trait of Narcissa Malfoy is that she’s Draco’s mother. Politics? Allegiances? Screw them. She’ll forsake anything if it means keeping her son safe. You know the saying that there’s nothing more dangerous than standing between a lioness and her cub? (though if you watch enough nature documentaries you know that’s not precisely true anyway) Well, forget that: standing between Narcissa and her son is far, far worse. But there’s a less Oedipal, gentler side to the all-consumed coin. For example, the mother from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. (Forgive me for not knowing her name; I borrowed a copy and already gave it back so I can’t check it) Her entire world revolves around caring for her daughter. That is her life. BUT, she also had flashes of a life outside of it. We see glimpses of the past, but also of the future. For the present, she will do everything she can to make her daughter comfortable, to keep her as healthy as possible for as long as possible, but unlike Narcissa she knows when to let go. Her world revolves around her daughter, but she also has other stationary points to keep her focused, like a husband and something good she can do.

The What Kid? Mother
Perhaps it’s partially that teens are angsty with Mommy and Daddy Issues anyway, or it’s a reflection of the tiems, but this is one that we see a fair amount. The mother who’s so wrapped up in whatever that the fact that she has a kid or kids is an afterthought at best. The other side to that is the mother who’s so consumed with something else- work, a purpose- that the kid doesn’t always (maybe ever) get to come first. Jeanine Hathaway from Vampire Academy fills that second part. She’s a Guardian and Guardians protect, so she has only intermittent contact with her daughter, and when they do meet, neither really knows how they stand. It’s not that she doesn’t love her daughter- because she does- but that she doesn’t really know how to treat her like a daughter. Then there’s the mother from Kody Keplinger’s The DUFF, driven by a need and an emptiness that keeps her running away. She loves her children but doesn’t have it in her to be there for them. Or how about Rena Malik, from Every Other Day by Jennifer Lynn Barnes? Now this is a woman who will never be nominated for Mother of the Year award, but I’ll leave it to you to learn the reason why (spoilers). Final example for now, the Queen from Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl. Cold and driven, ruthlessly pragmatic, she feels no compunction in shoving her daughter and heir to a distant marriage so she can get rid of a disappointment and name a new heir more in line with what she expects. We never particularly hear of Isi going back to Kildenree for a visit- is it any wonder why?

The Zen Mother
This is the type of mother who is ready for anything, who can be shocked only momentarily, who is supportive and loving and can usually surprise the hell out of you. Like Sally Jackson, of the Percy Jackson books. Sally has this awe-inspiring and somewhat frightening ability to wade through trouble. Smelly Gabe? It’s keeping her son safe. Minotaur? Well, she’s rescued later, so at least she got her son to camp. No matter what hurdles come her way, she clears them and adapts to the aftermath, never blaming her son, never discouraging him, and instead supporting both him and his friends. The mother from Veronica Roth’s Divergent also fits this mold. She has this beautifully (and bafflingly) serene reaction to the world, but she does what she can for her daughter and ultimately pays a high price to try to keep Tris safe. In this case, still waters run very deep. Same with the mother from Ally Condie’s Matched. Would she agree with everything Cassia’s doing? No. But she would understand the reason for it, and even without knowing the reasons she support her daughter.

The “Oh My God My Mother is Ruining My Life” Mother
Prime example of this is Jacinda’s mother, from Firelight. Is she doing what she thinks is best? Yes. Is she being extremely selfish and more than a little cruel? Yes. Is she favoring one daughter at the expense of the other? Yes, though she probably doesn’t think so. Her shortcomings, her needs, her fears, mean that she puts Jacinda through hell simply so she and Tamra can feel like they belong somewhere. It still springs from love, but a lot of terrible things do. Mabis, from Lena Coakley’s Witchlanders does a great deal to burden her son. It isn’t just that she’s pretty much insane, but the insistence and force of her fractured beliefs batter at him, place him in a position outside of both belief and disbelief, and that place can be very, very lonely. All his life she’s taught him one thing, now she’s shattering him by insisting he believe another, even though she’s railed against that course for years. Rather than caring for her children, she’s put them in a position where they either have to care for her or walk away; either way, she’s forced them to grow up far too quickly.

The “When Did My Mother Become a Real Person?” Mother
We have a tendency to think of our parents as just…you know…our parents. Their lives began when they had us, right? Eventually we learn that no, they had a full life before us and most will have a full life after we leave the nest, and some even maintain it while we’re there. It’s always a shock, that moment of realizing your parents are real people too. Especially if they’re *gulp* kind of cool. Cammie Morgan, from Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series, has to come up against this more than once. Her mother is her mother, and also her headmistress, but she’s also *gasp* someone men might find desirable! And while she knows her mother was a spy, there’s something different about knowing that and actually seeing it in action. Clary Fray, from Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series, also comes up against the enigma of a mother with a past. In this case, it’s a mother with a hell of a whopper for a secret, but as she’s learning these pieces and trying to fit them together, she doesn’t even have the benefit of having her mother there to help. It can’t do anything but change their relationship, and they both have to come to grips with how the other is changing/has changed before they can really mend things.

This is only a sampling of types- there are so many patterns that people fit into, and some mothers that fit more than one category. Plus, there a ton of mothers in YA and MG that I haven’t gone anywhere near. BUT- if you help me fill in some holes, you could win a book that demonstrates some of the more screwed-up parent/child relationships I’ve seen recently. Comment below with either a Type and example, or an example that fits into one of the above Types, and you’ll be entered to win an ARC of Harbinger, by Sara Wilson Etienne. The giveaway is going to stretch across next week’s post about fathers, too, and you can comment on both to be entered twice. Giveaway will be up through Saturday, 4 February. Just comment below!

Until next time~
Cheers~

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Top Ten of 2011 + Giveaway

December 18, 2011 at 2:54 pm (Giveaway) (, , , , , )

I’ve read a loooooooot of books this year. Some were re-reads, a healthy amount were non-YA/MG, but I still had a lot of books left on my list when the narrowing was done. So, thought I’d share with you some of my favorite discoveries of this year.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. You’ve heard me gush about this a LOT in the past few months but I still can’t get over how much I love this book. It’s gorgeous in every way- in story, in character, in scope…especially in language. This is a book that makes you fall in love with words all over again, a book that makes you close your eyes to savor the image painted across the back of your lids. It’s about the price of wishes, the importance of small things, about all the many, many types of love. This is a book that makes you want to tear through it, devour it whole, except you can’t- sometimes you just have to stop to absorb. This is a book that absolutely took my breath away.

Divergent by Veronica Roth. The Hunger Games changed the landscape of teen writing in much the same way the Twilight did, in creating a thirst for more within a specific genre. Where Divergent steps apart, though, is that isn’t merely a dystopian- it goes beyond its world to ask the more basic- and more important- question of who we are. Perhaps even more than that, it asks us who we choose to be. It’s a simple question but, as we learn through Tris, it’s a far from simple answer. It’s a brutal story, but in that brutality we’re forced to confront some painful truths, accept some painful facts. We- and Tris- are the better for it. This was one I read straight in one sitting, minus some necessary pauses where my managers expected me to actually work, and I can’t wait for the next one in May.

Entwined, by Heather Dixon. I love fairy tales and fairy tale retellings and this is a fantastic example of why. This is a beautiful blend of the base fairy tale (in this case, the Twelve Dancing Princesses), a mildly fantasy version of our world, a historical setting, a story of manners, and a thread of superb voice that ties them all together. There’s never any question of what the foundation story is, it’s never buried beneath everything else, but it still makes the story its own. The characters are distinct and rounded, full of surprises while remaining consistent, and it’s a light frolic through an enchanting atmosphere. I actually re-read this one a couple of times through the year simply because it makes me feel better.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns, by Rae Carson. This book is squarely fantasy and yet it manages to feel historical. Its borrowed influences are so strong and so well built that we open the pages and feel transported to what could be Alhambra in Moorish Spain. The details are amazing. Things don’t just happen around us, we’re fully immersed in them. We don’t just watch the story happen; we hear it, smell it, taste it. Both the good and bad of the full sensory range. Elisa isn’t your typical heroine- she has a strong degree of self-loathing and an overwhelming conviction of her own uselessness in the face of a grand destiny imbedded in her navel. Yes, her navel. Elisa’s journey through a rich, vibrantly crafted world echoes through her internal journey for a story that’s riveting and enveloping.

Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver. This is a story that starts cold and painful and terribly alone and grows into something heart-warming and cozy and ineffably beautiful. It’s about losing things and sometimes finding them- and sometimes finding something better. This is a story that made me melt over and over and over while reading it and I can’t even put into words just how much I loved it. It’s a Middle Grade but it’s one that should be read by everyone, regardless of age. At its heart this is a story about belonging to a family, no matter how unusual, and that’s something everyone should have a part of.

The Mortal Instruments and Infernal Devices series by Cassandra Clare. Yes, I’m cheating and saying a full series instead of a single book, but I just discovered the series this year and absolutely fell in love. I read the first four (City of Bones, City of Ashes, City of Glass, and Clockwork Angel) straight in a row, had to wait about two weeks for City of Fallen Angels, and then promptly reread all of them to do reviews. Yes, that translates to reading all five of them twice in two and a half weeks. I’ve even read them again since. I am all about characters and I love how incredibly complex and well-rounded the inhabitants of the Shadowhunters’ world are. I also love that Clare is rather brutal to them- what she puts them through forces them to continue changing, pushes them against things they think they can never encompass, and then makes things even worse. It’s built off of amazing combinations of mythologies and no matter what, there’s always a thread of humor both bizarre and macabre (cannibal ducks, anyone?)

The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson. This was my first foray into the insanity that is Maureen Johnson’s everyday life, inspired largely by how crazy and entertaining she is on Twitter and partly from the fact that I went through a Jack the Ripper obsession in late middle school. I should have guessed, from the Twitter feed, that this was not a safe book to read in front of the computer- fortunately, I was able to clean all the soda from my keyboard and other than the N key being a little sticky, it’s still fully functional. Rory is hysterically earnest as a narrator but there’s a dark thread woven through the story that gives us both gravity and danger. There are times when this is edge-of-your-seat riveting. And there’s page 161. This was a fantastic entree into Johnsonland, a story that turns ghost stories on its ear with an inimitable style.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. This is an exceptional example of how characters can be defined by their environs. Puck and Sean as they are couldn’t exist anywhere other than the Isle of Thisby. Everything in this book ties back into what it means to be part of the island. You don’t belong to the island simply because you grew up there- most who live there all their lives are never so much a part of it as Sean and Puck. Between them, they are the island and the ocean and the capaill uisce that straddle the bloody foam of the surf. Absolutely gorgeous.

Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan. I adore Rick Riordan, not just because I love the stories but because he’s inspired millions and millions of kids to read. But the stories are amazing too. Son of Neptune continues the grand story of Percy Jackson but also allows it to keep expanding in a world that had a lot to offer. The Roman world, for all it’s borrowed from the Greeks, is very different in execution. We’re definitely not in Camp Half-Blood, with its cozy campfires and Capture the Flag. Then again, at Half-Blood you never see what happens after they’re old enough to leave camp. I love the differences, the way we sink into this larger world, and I love how we get such a mix of emotions through the story. Riordan isn’t afraid to allow hard things to happen to his characters and from that they grow.

The Space Between by Brenna Yovanoff. I have a love of broken things, especially broken things that rework themselves into something lovely while still retaining all their broken history. This book is a love song to broken things, lost things, things that careen about in a constant state of half-destruction. It’s a love song, yes, but it’s also a quest and an endless journey into self-discovery and maybe, in a very hard-won sort of way, to self-love. Or at least to loving someone who loves you in spite of all your brokenness. It’s framed by religion yet is never constrained by that. It’s a frame, but not a cage. It’s beautiful and sharp-edged, full of shattered glass and shattered dreams, and clings to that tenuous, dangerous promise of hope.

What are your favorites from this year? Share below and get entered for an ARC of Under the Never Sky, by Veronica Rossi. I’ll draw the winner on the 25th as a special Christmas surprise. (not international, sorry- that kind of shipping is expensive)

Until next time~
Cheers!

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