Saturday, February 27, 2010

YA Through the Decades: 2000s

by Polly Shulman (2006)

Ashleigh is an Enthusiast, the personality type that jumps into an interest wholeheartedly, much to her best friend Julie's embarrassment. Now, Ash is into Jane Austen. She's not just reading the books, which would suit Julie just fine as Pride and Prejudice is her favorite book. No, Ashleigh wants to dance a quadrille, wearing dresses only, and - most importantly - finding True Love. Ashleigh's plan: to infiltrate the upcoming boys' school dance to meet their very own Mr. Darcys. And of course, she's going to drag Julie along.

This was a fun teen romance that could appeal to teen lovers of Austen as well as those who have never read the books (or seen the movies). While there were some nods to Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice that I picked up on, Julie and Ashleigh's story stands well on its own and doesn't need any prior familiarity with either to be enjoyed. I liked Julie as the narrator, and could relate to her love and loyalty towards Ashleigh as well as her exasperation with some of Ash's more drastic schemes. Julie's romantic troubles were believable, if somewhat predictable and quickly wrapped up, but it was a nice, quick light read that I would easily recommend.

Enthusiasm fits into the 2000s for my Read YA Through the Decades challenge. For the main challenge page and links to others participating, check out the original post at Youth Services Corner.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Wintry Read - Exploring the Polar Regions

The Ends of the Earth: An Anthology of the Finest Writing on the Arctic and the Antarctic]

Edited by Elizabeth Kolbert (the Arctic) and Francis Spufford (the Antarctic), this collection of fiction and nonfiction selections was published in 2007 to commemorate the fourth International Polar Year, which occurred from 2007 to March 2009. Knowing very little about Polar exploration myself, I found this a wonderful introduction to some well-known explorers as well as some perhaps less familiar scientists, writers, and explorers. Each half of the book was approximately 200 pages long, containing twenty selections on the Arctic and nineteen on the Antarctic, each including one selection by the editors themselves.

The selections covered a variety of subject matter, from wife-swapping to scientific exploration to reaching the Poles for the first time. The writings of the explorers interested me most, from Peary's description of his expedition to the North Pole to Scott's diary on his doomed return trip from the South Pole. As with any collection, the selections were a mixed bag with some that appealed to me more than others. My favorite Arctic selection was from Farthest North by Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian who tried to get to the North Pole by drifting in his ship - his descriptions were lovely and evocative, almost making me want to travel to the Arctic myself, especially to see the Northern Lights. In the Antarctic, I loved the selection about penguins, taken from The Moon by Whale Light written by Diane Ackerman. While I read the selections, I took note of those books I wanted to seek out in full, as well as keeping my computer nearby to look up what crampons and sastrugi look like. The infrequent typo distracted me from time to time, but overall this is a fascinating glimpse into the Polar regions that whet my appetite for more.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Old Favorite / New Read

by Jane Austen

Emma Woodhouse is a rich young lady living in a small community. She is practically the head of her household, independent, lively, and a little spoiled. She becomes friends with another young woman, Harriet Smith, the illegitimate daughter of no one knows whom, but Emma is certain that no gentleman farmer is good enough for Harriet. She is determined to make a better match for her friend. At the same time, the stepson of her old governess, Mrs. Weston, comes for a visit and shows Emma every attention.

I always find it hardest to convey what I think and feel about books that are so beloved they have become old friends. Emma is one such book, having read and reread it since I was a teenager. When I was younger, it was my favorite of the three Austen novels I had read (at the time - the fourth is Mansfield Park, which I first read as an adult). My relationship to the characters and the story has changed with time, however, and having shortly reread Pride and Prejudice (my current favorite, in case you were wondering), I couldn't help but compare the two in my mind's eye. Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet are nearly the same age, but Emma seems to me much the younger of the two characters. Indeed, I think one of the reasons I loved Emma as a teenager was because I could related to her youth and naivete when it came to individuals and their relationships to one another. Elizabeth is in some ways much more a woman of the world, while Emma is a little insulated from such things as class, being as she is the richest woman in her set.

In fact, the treatment of class in Emma struck me more than ever before, as one distinction between characters that governs how much intimacy one can have with another, something that cannot be ignored, perhaps for Harriet especially, though for other characters as well. While still present in Pride and Prejudice, class distinctions are not quite the same hurdle, or at least not so clearly affecting the heroines in their choice of friends. But one of the greatest joys of rereading is rediscovering elements of an old favorite to which I had paid little attention. Though no longer my favorite Austen, Emma still evokes a great deal of affection from me, and I'm sure I will reread it again with pleasure.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Seeing the Future Ain't All it's Cracked Up to Be

by Robert J. Sawyer

Lloyd Simcoe and Theo Procopides, two physicists working for CERN, have prepared their whole lives for this moment: trying to capture the Higgs boson with a Large Hadron Collider by recreating energy levels that haven't been seen in the universe since directly after the Big Bang. But when they start the experiment, their consciousnesses move forward twenty-one years into the future for a brief minute or two before returning to the present. The loss of consciousness has dire consequences, as people who were driving crash and people who saw a future they dislike lose hope. In the aftermath, the scientists at CERN realize that everyone in the universe experienced something similar, and no one - including them - are quite sure why.

Flashforward takes a common question of humanity and literature, "What would you do if you could see your future?" and investigates it from a science-y point of view. Can the future be changed, or is it as immutable as the past? Does free will exist? Since the characters are physicists, you know their answer is going to be pretty heady, and I was grateful for the science nonfiction I'd read last year or their discussions would have been even further over my head. Lest this sounds like a slog, let me assure you that the reading is generally fast-paced, a good blend of mystery and very human characters that kept me reading even if I didn't always understand things like the Minkowski principle and what not. (Actually, that sounds a good bit like watching Lost...) The book is set in 2009, which I had to remember was ten years in the future when the book was originally written, but I had fun "spotting the differences" between last year and how Sawyer imagined things might be. An entertaining read, and recommended if you don't mind (or can comprehend) the physics theories and discussions.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Historical Fiction with a twist

by Connie Willis

After his trip to the Black Death five years ago, Colin wants to time travel again, but Mr. Dunworthy won't hear of it. And right now Mr. Dunworthy has his hands full, anyways: going to St. Paul's in 1950 for some unknown reason and to London to speak with someone who raises troubling questions about time travel. Not to mention, many of his operatives' schedules change last minute, throwing wrenches in the works for people like Michael Davies, who was given an implant to have an American accent in Pearl Harbor only to be told he's going to Dunkirk instead. Because of the schedule changes, Michael, Merope ("Eileen" while on assignment), and Polly Churchill are all observing various aspects of World War 2: ordinary heroes, evacuated children, and Londoners in bomb shelters, respectively. But their assignments seem to be getting out of control, starting with the substantial slippage that Mike and Polly experience, and continuing downhill from there.

Though easily accessible as a standalone, Blackout may also appeal to readers who would recognize returning characters from Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog. Once you get into the meat of the book you're experiencing historical fiction with a twist: the characters you're following are from 2060, not 1940. Following their stories can be a little confusing at first, because though they all left within days of each other in 2060, they're in different whens from 1939-1940, and the story is told not chronologically but by following Mike, Eileen, or Polly for a chapter or two each. But the extra effort is worth it in the end. The characters are wonderful, and I really found myself caring not just about the main characters but also the "contemps" like Marjorie the shop girl and the terrible Hodbins. I really got lost in the story as I just had to find out what happens next, reading the last half of the book or so nearly in one sitting. If you're adverse to cliffhangers, I suggest waiting to read this one until All Clear comes out in the fall.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Steampunk and Zombies - what's not to love?

by Cherie Priest

In this alternate history set in 19th century Seattle, Leviticus Blue created a massive machine called the Boneshaker, which dug below the city banks and released a cloud of gas that turned those who breathed it into "rotters." Fifteen years after the incident, Levi's wife Briar and her son, Ezekiel, deal with the censure of their neighbors for being related to Levi and to Maynard Wilkes, Briar's father who infamously let inmates free to get them away from the gas. When Ezekiel sneaks into the now walled-off Seattle, filled with the poisonous gas and the rotters, determined to clear his grandfather's and father's names, an earthquake leaves him stranded on the inside. Briar is determined to find him and enters the city after him.

After years of reading fantasy, I've gotten pretty good at suspending disbelief, which you really need to do to get into this steampunk/zombie story. If you can, it's a fun premise and I enjoyed the re-imagining of Seattle and American history. The world-building was well done and the writing moves along quickly. I wanted a little more to happen in terms of the story as some revelations were not all that surprising, but overall it was a fun ride and I'd be willing to read more by this author.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Better than My Expectations

Crime and Punishment
by Fyodor Dostoevsky

What I thought: When my friend recommended this book I thought about it briefly, but was intimidated by reading a long, Russian classic that I was utterly unfamiliar with. And indeed, the length of this novel (my library copy came in at 629 pages) is intimidating. So when I decided to read it this year, I joined another group read and was a little nervous, expecting some long, dense passages like those I had come up against in The Brothers Karamazov.

What I found: This is an incredibly readable, compelling story of a man, Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov, who considers committing a terrible deed that has been haunting his dreams for some time. "Rodya" is a very flawed yet sympathetic character, and the reader is drawn into his life as well as meeting many other memorable characters along the way. There are philosophical passages, yes, but they're thoughtful without being too dense, and Dostoevsky knows how to write fast-paced passages when the situation calls for it. A few times I was practically holding my breath reading as fast as I could to find out what happens next, other times I was slowing myself down to think about what he was saying and whether I agreed that a certain class of people was above the law and thus above guilt. All the while, I had the sense that the author knew exactly what he was doing in crafting the story and looked forward to seeing how he brought it all together. If I had to briefly summarize Crime and Punishment, I would say that it is a psychological investigation of motives, guilt, and choices that humans make. All in all, I'm very glad that I listened to my friend instead of my misgivings.