Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Reading Challenge 2010: Read YA Through the Decades

The Youth Services Corner is hosting a YA Through the Decades Reading Challenge. Though I'm not a teen librarian myself, I love reading teen/YA books. I thought this would be a fun challenge to see if writing for teens has changed over the decades, and if so, how.

I'll be reading a book from each of the following decades:
  • 1930s or before
  • 1940s
  • 1950s
  • 1960s
  • 1970s
  • 1980s
  • 1990s
  • 2000s
And just for fun, I'll throw in another book published in 2010 - this decade. I haven't decided yet what I'll be reading for any given decade. Feel free to make suggestions!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Another Fine Classic

A Room with a View
by E.M. Forster

Lucy Honeychurch is visiting Italy with her cousin, Charlotte, who as an older single female has come along as a chaperone. While on the trip, she meets an "original" older woman, Miss Lavish, who is writing a novel; the stuck-up clergyman Mr. Eager; and the Emersons, a father and son duo whose forthrightness and political leanings rather shock some of the more orthodox crowd. Her time in Italy affects Lucy greatly: she sees a man murdered and experiences her first kiss. Upon returning home, she must decide between living up to the expectations of tradition, as embodied by her cousin Charlotte, or following the desires of her heart.

Perhaps it's because I read A Passage to India as an English major, or maybe it's the many layers to E.M. Forster's classic story that made me feel, when reading it, that I could write a paper about his use of inside and outside, of old and new. Class distinctions are still important, particularly to the older characters and city dwellers, while less so to the younger and country folk. Lucy's fiance says at one point that Lucy pictures him inside a room, which seems connected with his repression of her spirit and independent thought, hugely in contrast with George Emerson and Frank Honeychurch's behavior outdoors in the Sacred Lake. The layering of metaphors and brilliant characterizations made this a real pleasure to read, and I would not hesitate to read it again knowing that I would get just as much - if not more - out of it with multiple readings. At the same time, the story is accessible and compelling, with witty commentary by the narrator and a dash of romance.

Just have to add - I really have to thank the LibraryThing Monthly Author Reads Group for prompting me to read Forster's work and introducing me to Elizabeth von Arnim this year. This and The Enchanted April were among my top books of 2009, and I never would have discovered them had I not been pushed outside of my reading comfort zone a bit.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Neglected Children's Classic

The Wind in the Willows
by Kenneth Grahame

Somewhere alongside a river lives a Water Rat and a Mole, two friends who take pleasure in the simple things, like taking a ride in Ratty's boat and having a picnic. Their friends Toad, Otter and Badger, living near the river and in the Wide Wood, join them in various adventures throughout the seasons.

Somehow, when I was young and reading The Chronicles Narnia and all the Thornton W. Burgess tales, I missed this children's classic featuring Mole and the Water Rat, pompous old Toad and the sturdy Badger. I would have loved it as a child, but I still enjoyed it as an adult. I especially loved Toad, his faddish delights and mood swings from deepest despair to puffed up self-display. This was a truly charming read, by turns familiar (due to a movie I saw as a child) and new. The episodic chapters and long, meandering sentences lend themselves to a read-aloud.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Wives of Henry Oades

by Johanna Moran

*This review refers to the uncorrected proof that I received through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. I receive no compensation for reviews other than the opportunity to receive more free books in the future, and a positive or negative review has no affect on this.*

This book is due to for publication in February 2010.

In 1890, Henry Oades sets sail from England with his wife Margaret and their young family to New Zealand. His post should only last a few years, and they will return home. But tragedy strikes: Maori Indians set fire to his homestead, killing Margaret's friend Mim, and abducting his wife and children. Henry believes them to be dead. He mourns them deeply, but leaves for America and the start of a new life.

Based on a true story of a man brought up on charges of bigamy (I'm giving no spoilers beyond the title, mind), the book's foundational premise intrigues me. Especially in a time when divorce and illegitimacy carried much more of a stigma than perhaps today, what would a decent man do if, remarried after believing his first wife dead, she and his children turn up on his doorstep? I felt compassion for all involved, especially since the third-person narration is primarily conveyed through the point of view of the Mrs. Oades, Margaret and Nancy. I did sometimes wish that the family dynamics were explored more completely, perhaps telling me more about the first three weeks after Margaret shows up or fleshing out aspects of their relationship that seemed rather quickly and neatly summarized. That and the lack of details about New Zealand or California at the turn of the century made me wonder if even at 347 pages the book was a little too short. Still, Johanna Moran exhibits quite a bit of talent in her debut, particularly in making her characters feel like real people and drawing a reader's sympathy for each of them.

Monday, December 14, 2009

First Lord's Fury

by Jim Butcher

This is the sixth in the Codex Alera series, so this review necessarily has ***spoilers*** for the preceding five titles.
See my review of the first book, Furies of Calderon.

Gaius Sextus is dead, killed in a final act of defiance against the vord Queen at the battle for Alera Imperia. The Citizens and refugees of Alera are banding together to make a final stand. Octavian is on his way home with the Canim and Kitai. The final battle for all of Alera is about to begin.

This book is the climax of the entire series, building tension until the last sixty pages are a perfectly placed hold-your-breath conclusion to the series. And Jim Butcher is an absolute master of pace. You almost don't realize in the midst of it that such themes as sacrifice and love and the fact that some things are worth killing -- and dying -- for are finely struck throughout the story. A fitting conclusion to a fabulous series that I recommend to anyone who enjoys epic fantasy.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Now I Want to Work for a Dictionary

The Broken Teaglass
by Emily Arsenault

Just out of college, Billy gets a job as a definer for the Samuelson dictionary in sleepy Claxton, Massachusetts. When looking through the citations files (commonly shortened to "cits") in answer to a letter, he and his co-worker Mona stumble upon a rather unusual citation. Taken from The Broken Teaglass, the cit is longer than normal and seems to be a story that takes place at Samuelson. What's going on?

This is a rather unusual mystery, not merely because of its setting but also because it doesn't have the building pace that mysteries generally have until you reach the denouement. Being dialogue-heavy, the book read fast even when the pace wasn't flying along. I was often a step ahead of Mona or Billy, and figured out the ending early.

My favorite parts, though, were the premise and the setting. I loved the details of lexicography and the eccentric nerds/geeks that populated the dictionary staff. It made me want to work on a dictionary! I want to find cits and put them together and, and, and. Yeah, this book definitely brought out my inner word geek. I was a little disappointed to read in the acknowledgments that the author had taken some liberties with the lexicographical process but didn't explain which parts. I wanted to know! For those like me that liked the dictionary and lexicographical information, I'd also recommend The Meaning of Everything and The Professor and the Madman, the books Simon Winchester wrote on the making of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Friday, December 4, 2009

My first "sensation fiction"

The Woman in White
by Wilkie Collins

Walter Hartright is a drawing teacher whose friend suggests a position for him out in Cumberland, teaching two young ladies. On the road home one night, he suddenly encounters a young woman who is dressed all in white. She asks him the way to London, and he points it out to her. After she leaves, he discovers that she was escaping from an insane asylum. Soon afterward, he meets his pupils, Miss Halcombe and Miss Fairlie. But the mystery surrounding the "woman in white" are numerous. Who was she? Is she really insane? Why was she so afraid that Walter might know a certain man of property?

This story is complicated and impossible to summarize fully without giving away numerous spoilers. One of the disappointments for me reading was that the particular edition I read had footnotes that did so with regularity, so I've tried to avoid spoilers here. The format of the book is interesting: several people's accounts tell the events in a semi-chronological order. I enjoyed it at times, but was often frustrated with how very long the narrator (particularly when it was Hartright) took to tell me something very simple. Identity is a major theme in the novel: Who is the woman in white? Who is Sir Percival or Count Fosco? And once someone's identity is stolen, how can it be restored? I liked Marian Halcombe, but Hartright struck me as very like young David Copperfield and less aware of his own melodramatic tendencies. Laura Fairlie was very childlike and never seemed very real to me. The Moonstone was more to my taste, though I'm happy to have read this as being the first in a long line of "sensation fiction."

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Demon King

by Cinda Williams Chima

Han, former streetlord, spends much time with the clans of the mountains, and his friends Dancer and Bird. He and Dancer encounter wizard boys on the mountain, which is forbidden, and he takes a strange amulet from the leader, Micah Bayar, son of the High Wizard.

Princess Raissa chafes under expectations. Do this, don't do this. Learn manners but not diplomacy. Marry for political reasons. She will one day be queen, but knows little of the true state of the queendom.

Moving effortlessly between both characters points of view, Cinda Williams Chima creates a complex world completely independent of The Warrior Heir series. The Seven Realms are governed by the Naeming, an ancient agreement that brought peace and a separation of power, particularly between the clans and the wizards. This place is rich with its own history and legends, full of well-realized secondary characters, and the writing generally self-assured and smooth. I stayed up late finishing this one, and can't wait for the next in the series.