Saturday, January 30, 2010

Shades of Grey

by Jasper Fforde

Imagine a world where everyone behaved well: there are no prisons, no wars or uprisings, everyone follows the Rules. A utopia? Maybe not. As twenty-year-old Eddie Russett is about to find out, a world in which everyone unquestioningly follows Rules that cover everything from the most mundane ("Flowers are not to be picked. They are to be enjoyed by everyone.") to absurd (spoons may no longer be manufactured), a world that follows a strict color hierarchy based on which color(s) the inhabitants can see from Purple at the best to Grey at the worst, holds some secrets. And having curiosity about such secrets may just get him killed - as he tells us from the first page, the activities of the past four days flash before his eyes while he is being digested by a carnivorous yataveo tree.

Having read all of the Thursday Next books by Jasper Fforde, I put a hold on this book as soon as I knew that it was coming out. Fforde's writing can't be easily categorized: it's part science fiction, part dystopia, and all humorous even while making a serious point about unquestioning obedience. The details of the dystopia overwhelmed me at first, as there are so many details that I had to keep a handle on, such as the meanings of merits, positive feedback, and trying to grasp how people who only saw one or two colors saw the world. Fforde creates a good sense of tension at the beginning, hinting that all was not right in the death of Robin Ochre, a "swatchman" (essentially a doctor) out on the Outer Fringes whom Eddie's father is replacing. The middle dragged a bit, however, as naive Eddie muddles about trying to figure out what the reader already has - that all is not right in his world - and deciding whether or not to trust Jane. Though Eddie is the narrator, Jane really steals the show with her adamant refusal to treat people with respect merely because of the color they see. I look forward to seeing what happens to these characters in subsequent titles.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Some Changes on YALSA Book Lists and Awards

The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) is making some changes to their books lists, such as the Best Books for Young Adults, and the Alex Awards. YALSA has provided more information on the updated FAQ page.

I'm looking forward to seeing an extended list of the Alex Awards and will be interested in how they look for/receive teen feedback on the awards.

(Found via Youth Services Corner.)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Best YA Books You Haven't Read

Kelly over at wanted some of us bloggers who also LibraryThing to blog about some of our favorite YA books that just don't get a lot of notice. So here's my list of some of my favorite under-the-radar teen reads:
  • Red Kayak by Priscilla Cummings
    When a few boys play a "harmless" prank that turns deadly, thirteen-year-old Brady has to decide if he's going to stay silent or have the courage to tell the truth. This is a great recommendation for boys looking for a fairly short and fast-paced story, which also has enough meat to it for a book group or school assignment.
  • Fall of a Kingdom by Hilari Bell
    Farsala is in danger of attack. High Commander Merahb sends his daughter Soraya into hiding when the priests tell him that only his daughter's sacrifice will save their country. Jiaan, the commander's peasant-born son and Soraya's half-brother, thirsts to prove himself. And Kavi, peasant and thief, just wants to get by when he's roped into service he never asked for. Interspersed between the points of view of Soraya, Jiaan, and Kavi are mysterious writings about Sorahb, apparently a brilliant leader who aided his country in a time of need. A wonderful retelling of a Persian myth with adventure and magic and thoughts on how legends are made, if you like this you'll want to read the rest of the story in Rise of a Hero and Forging the Sword.
  • Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer by Laini Taylor
    Do you like fantasy, but want something different than the same-old? Look no further than the Dreamdark series - of which Blackbringer is the first - featuring faeries and crows. Magpie Windwitch is not a sweet faerie - she's a hunter finding demons that stupid humans let out of their bottles thinking they'd get three wishes. Then she comes across one that doesn't leave death and destruction in its wake. It leaves...nothing, which is completely unsettling. Can Magpie and her band of crow brothers defeat the "snag" that has been let loose?
  • Dramacon by Svetlana Chmakova
    Christie and her friends go to a manga and anime convention, hoping to get exposure for a work she's co-created with a friend, as well as meet some of the authors and illustrators that have inspired them. This is Christie's first con, and she's unprepared for the wild ride - especially when a really cute but standoffish guy turns up. This was my first introduction to manga, and it might be a good one for folks that are interested but intimidated by trying to read right-to-left, as this was originally English (the author lives in Canada) and reads left-to-right.
  • The Singer of All Songs by Kate Constable
    In the world of Tremaris, people work magic by singing "chantments" - iron workers sing low, ice workers in a high pitch, for example. Most people only have ability in one, sometimes two. Calwyn in an ice chanter, and she lives with the women who reinforce a wall of ice every year. Then Darrow shows up, on the run from a mysterious man who wants to master every chantment and become the Singer of All Songs. I love Calwyn and Darrow's characters, and had fun discovering the world and fantasy Constable creates. The Waterless Sea and The Tenth Power round off the trilogy.
  • The Hollow Kingdom by Clare Dunkle
    If you're looking for an original fantasy that doesn't have the same old magic and vampires and quasi-Middle Ages feel, look no further than The Hollow Kingdom. In Victorian England, Kate and her sister Emily move to Hollow Hill, a place that has a bit of a sinister history of women disappearing. Marak, the goblin king, shows up and tells Kate that she must become his bride. Though part of a trilogy, each story stands separately. This is Kate and Marak's story, while Close Kin focuses on Emily and In the Coils of the Snake takes place a generation later.
  • Born to Rock by Gordon Korman
    Leo Caraway is as strait-laced as they come: senior, Young Republicans member, straight-A student and Harvard bound, he figures his life is set. Then he meets his biological father, King Maggot, a rock star and about as anti-Leo as you can get. Add one hilarious summer road trip with father and son, and you've got a rocking good read.
  • Princess Ben by Catherine Murdock
    She had me at the first sentence: "Having for many decades been forced to endure ever more ridiculous tales of the circumstances surrounding my coming of age, holding my tongue through each long-winded narrative for fear that my cautious interjections would only prolong the blather, I now in the solitude of my dotage at last permit myself the indulgence of correcting the erroneous legends and embroidered falsehoods that to this day expand, heady as yeast, across the land." Princess Benevolence has lost her parents, become heir to the throne, and is going to be forced into a marriage she doesn't want, but she's not going to take it lying down. I absolutely loved her as a main character and narrator.
  • Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
    As the winner of the 2009 Printz Award, it's a shame that Jellicoe Road isn't better known. Taylor Markham is the school leader in the "territory wars" between the school, the Townies, and the Cadets. Taylor's present-tense narration is interspersed with writings of events that happened about 20 years before, a story that seems completely unrelated but slowly begins to reveal more information about people Taylor knows, as well as the history of the territory wars. Taylor has a lot more than the war to worry about however, when Hannah, her foster mother for the last six years, suddenly disappears. Holding two story lines straight is complicated for both author and reader, but if you're willing to press on, it's worth it to see everything come together. This is one of those teen books that might only appeal to some teens, but that I could easily recommend to adults who think that "YA" means "simple." The story line is intricate, and left me thinking about the characters long after I finished the book.
If you're looking for more recommendations, be sure to check out Kelly's list and her round-up of all the "best books" highlighted by LibraryThing YA readers and bloggers.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Men or Wolves

Wolf Hall
by Hilary Mantel

In England in the 1530s, politics and religion are inextricable, and King Henry is attempting to divorce his first wife, Katherine, in order to marry the woman he loves, Anne Boleyn, with or without the permission of the Pope. Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith, becomes Henry VIII's chief adviser through his own cunning and ingenuity in tumultuous times. We see most of the story through Cromwell's point of view, though the writing is in third person. There are so many characters, especially men, that it is easy to get confused with the Thomases and Henrys, but the list of characters at the beginning is extremely helpful for sorting everyone out, and I managed to get on better once I discovered that any "he" with no clear antecedent generally refers to Cromwell.

The story is extremely well-crafted, written in present tense, repeating certain phrases and highlighting the metaphor of wolves with the title. Besides being the actual home of the Seymours, Wolf Hall aptly describes King Henry VIII's court and his counselors vying for power: "The saying comes to him, homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man" (468) sums up the constant political machinations, infighting and backbiting that's going on throughout the story. Indeed, I found most of the characters, except perhaps Gregory Cromwell, unlikeable and felt that Cromwell was - purposely but frustratingly - a bit of an enigma. As the best historical fiction does, Wolf Hall gave me more detailed information than a mere high school textbook about a particular period and interested me in learning more. I only wish that the author's note gave more detail about background sources that I could go to next, and where she either reinterpreted or took liberties with the historical record. The present-tense narration takes some getting used to. I found it distracting, particularly in one chapter that covered about nine years in such away that left me a little confused about the chronological order of events. But at the same time, I cannot fault the author for her choice, because it gives the reader with a sense of immediacy - all this may have happened 400 years ago, but you are there with the characters, traveling as they do through their choices and compelled to read on to find out what happens next. Recommended for fans of historical fiction and Tudor England from a political point of view.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

My Completely Subjective "Best Books" List

The start of a new year means it's time to reflect on last year's reading! I finished a total of 156 books, plus 78 volumes of manga, graphic novels, and comics.

Here are my top five books read in 2009 (with links to my reviews, when I have them):

Those that were in my top ten were pretty much impossible to narrow down. Here's a list of "honorable mention" contenders that could have been even longer:

It's fascinating that as I look back on my top reads of the year, the books that stand out aren't always the ones that I rated the highest right after finishing. Instead, they're books that for whatever reason made an impact on me, that I kept thinking about long after I'd finished them and would be reads that I would willingly revisit. I've updated my list in the widget to the right to reflect a "top 20," so there are a few titles there that I didn't include there.

What are some of your favorite books discovered in 2009? What makes them stand out to you?

Saturday, January 2, 2010

One and the Same

One and the Same: My Life as an Identical Twin and What I Learned About Everyone's Struggle to be Singular
by Abigail Pogrebin

What is it about twins that fascinate? I used to wish I was a twin myself, imagining a perfect playing partner who would have more in common with me than a mere sibling. In this book, Abigail Pogrebin interviews many twins, from football stars Tiki and Ronde Barber to acquaintances of her own, as well as psychologists and doctors specializing in twin studies, presenting a broad spectrum of the relationships between adult twins and theories regarding raising twins and helping them become fully realized individual adults. Pogrebin investigates a wide range of topics related to twins, from the idealized relationship to the struggle for individuality to medical studies of identical twins with different medical issues (which I found a fascinating and informative regarding the nature/nurture discussion). What fascinated me the most - the world of being a twin - was also the most frustrating in reading. As a twin herself, the author refers to "the Twin Thing" and makes much of the special relationship that twins have. I've known many twins, either together or separately, but having not been a twin myself or having a set of twins in my immediately family, I felt rather thrown into the world of twins in the early part of the book, and it was only in the latter chapters that I felt I had gained my footing somewhat.

Throughout it all, Abigail's relationship with her identical twin sister, Robin, informs her understanding of these interviews, but at the same time seems to come to a better understanding of her relationship because of her investigation. She discusses their relationship often, including snippets of her interview with Robin, with their brother David, and with family friends. I was impressed with her ability to describe the loss she feels of the close relationship she once had with Robin without falling into the blame game or becoming a whiny victim. She paints a very honest family portrait without making out anyone as "the bad guy." A fascinating blend of reporting and interviews, psychology and personal experience.