Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Egypt Game

by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
New York: Yearling Book, 2004 (c. 1967).

When April moves in with her grandmother, she meets Melanie and Marshall Ross. April and Melanie become fast friends, discovering a shared delight in reading and imaginative games, and both become fascinated with Ancient Egypt. In a neighbor's abandoned yard, they begin playing the Egypt Game, using their knowledge of Ancient Egypt and imagination to create altars and rituals in an elaborate game. But their play is threatened when a local child is murdered, and there's a possibility that the guilty person is someone they know.

I chose this as my read for Banned Books Week, curious to see what sorts of rituals and descriptions might make someone react so strongly as to challenge this book just in the past year. I'd expected a fantasy where the gods came to life, and ancient rituals were described in detail. I'm still somewhat baffled, because what I found was a book steeped in imaginative play that reminded me of the games I used to play with my friends, cousins, and neighbors. In fact, reading the book became more of an experience of walking down memory lane, remembering how we played games based on movies or TV shows that we would stop to discuss who was getting eaten by dinosaurs, or if which dinosaur we were calling on for super powers. The descriptions of the kids' imagination, discussions, and power plays for making game decisions, were quite realistic. I was also surprised that a book written in the 60s has aged extremely well. Though I laughed at some of the kids' expressions ("Sheesh!" reminded me of another friend from my childhood...), for the most part their story could have been one that happened in almost any small town neighborhood. Also, the main characters are white, African American, Asian American, and more, quite a varied cast for its time. I seriously wonder what book the challenger was reading, because it doesn't appear to be at all like the one I read.

And while it may be a little on the young side, as four of the characters are 12, it just barely squeaks in to count towards the YA Through the Decades challenge for my 1960s read.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Touch Blue

by Cynthia Lord
New York : Scholastic Press, 2010.

Tess lives on an island off the coast of Maine, and she can't imagine any other life than hers, going to the one room schoolhouse where her mother teacher and fishing lobster with her father. But year-round islanders have been moving to the mainland, leaving fewer and fewer kids on the island. To keep their school from closing, a few families decide to take in foster kids, keeping the numbers up enough to satisfy the state. Aaron comes to live with Tess, her sister Libby, and their parents. Tess and Libby imagine what it might be like to have Aaron live with him, but neither of them expect what actually happens that summer.

I read Newbery Honor-winning Rules by the same author a few years ago, so I was really excited to see a new book out by Cynthia Lord. This is the sort of story that I enjoyed reading as a child when, much like Tess, I was reading The Great Gilly Hopkins and Anne of Green Gables. Tess narrates the story, sharing her fears about moving to the mainland, her nervousness about friends, and her attempts at finding good luck. When she misunderstood some of Aaron's actions, I cringed with sympathy for both, understanding (as an adult, especially) where they were coming from. A sweet story I would recommend to readers who enjoy character-driven realistic fiction.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Red Pyramid

by Rick Riordan
New York: Disney/Hyperion, 2010.

Carter and Sadie Kane are brother and sister, but they've been apart for the last several years. After their mother died, Sadie went to live with her grandparents in England, while Carter traveled along with his Egyptologist father. Now it's Christmas Eve, one of the two days Sadie gets to spend with her father and Carter, and he takes them to the British Museum. But when a magical spell goes completely wrong, Sadie and Carter have to find a way to save their father, defeat Set, and keep chaos from breaking loose.

In a similar vein to the Percy Jackson books,The Red Pyramid re-imagines Egyptian mythology as true and present tense. In this case, the gods have been banished for ages and are starting to be released. Instead of focusing on one character's perspective, we see both Carter and Sadie's as they switch back and forth every couple of chapters in a "recording" that we are privy to. This starts of rather cryptically with a reference to the reader, telling you to go to a particular locker and find an object that they have stashed away. Otherwise, the pace was a little slow building (again, I'm comparing this to Percy Jackson, which often started off with an explosion), slowly revealing details, often laying out mythological explanations a bit bluntly instead of expecting the reader to catch on. To be honest, I probably would not have caught on without these explanations in the same way I did with the Greek mythology that is much more present in literary and cultural references. Carter and Sadie were believable characters, and their sibling relationship was realistic and fun to see develop. I'll be looking for the next book in the series.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Lord Sunday

by Garth Nix, narrated by Allan Corduner
New York : Random House/Listening Library, 2010.

The final book in the Keys to the Kingdom series starts where Superior Saturday left off - Arthur, having just wrested the sixth key from Saturday, is falling, while Leaf is still in East Area Hospital after a nuclear strike. Not fully a denizen nor mortal any longer, Arthur must battle only one more trustee to complete the Will of the Architect.

As exciting as the rest of the series, Lord Sunday wraps up everything in a fitting way that still took me completely by surprise. The ending in particular is staying in my head as I think through the implications. I think I'm going to have to go back and read the last few chapters to make sure I understood, and didn't miss anything (odd, isn't it, to be saying all along I prefer the series in audio and then finding I need to read the ending again?). I'm starting to think of the entire story arc a little differently in retrospect.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Clockwork Angel

by Cassandra Clare
New York : Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2010.

London, 1878. Two Shadowhunters, Will and Jem, find a girl dead on the street, apparently attacked by a demon. Tessa, an American girl travels to London to meet her brother after their aunt dies, is taken prisoner and forced to Change. She thought she was just an ordinary girl, but she learns that she has the ability, once she has held the possession of a person, living or dead, to Change into that person in appearance and thought. Though this ability scares her, the women holding her threaten her with her brother Nate's safety if she does not do what she's told - marry the Magister.

This is the first in a new series by the author of The Mortal Instruments, and a prequel of sorts to the same. The Clockwork Angel could be read first, but the explanation of the existence and purpose of Shadowhunters - or Nephilim - may be a little confusing as an introduction rather than a reminder, and the names of characters will not resonate quite so much with readers who are unfamiliar with their (apparent) descendants. This fast-paced story blends urban fantasy, vampires and werewolves, and just a touch of steampunk. The characters are compelling, and I had a much harder time figuring out some plot points than I did with The Mortal Instruments. I loved the references to literature and poetry of the Victorian era as well, and am now eagerly awaiting the next installment.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Shades of Milk and Honey

by Mary Robinette Kowal
New York : Tor, 2010.

Jane and Melody are sisters in need of husbands in a time when propriety was everything and estates were entailed away. Lovely Melody seems to have an interest in either Mr. Dunkirk or Captain Livingston, the nephew of Lady FitzCameron. Jane hopes to attract the notice of Mr. Dunkirk herself; she may be plain, but she is quite an accomplished lady, not least in the ability to work glamour.

Yes, you read right. In this Austenesque fantasy, working magic - known as "glamour" - is an art much like painting or music that could be added to a woman's (or man's) repertoire. For example, when Mr. Vincent and Jane discuss the use and appreciation of glamour, the basic tenets could also apply to art or literature. Mr. Vincent claims, "Illusions should be entrancing without someone looking behind the scenes to see how they are made. Would you enjoy a play if you saw the mechanicals exposed? For me it is much the same. I want the illusion to remain whole. If someone thinks about how it is done, I have failed in my art" (92). Jane, on the other hand, disagrees: "I have always thought that an educated audience would more fully appreciate the effort which went into creating a piece of art" (92).

These principles are especially interesting to consider when one realizes that the author often cleverly nods to Jane Austen while creating an original story that succeeds even when you are not familiar with Austen's work. Would I have enjoyed it had I never read Pride and Prejudice or Northanger Abbey? Yes. Would I have fully appreciated it with no knowledge of Austen? Probably not. While I could see Austen's influence, I never felt that I was reading a copycat. But Mr. Vincent has a point - when I'm writing a paper in my head (one never stops being an English major), it generally means that the story hasn't captured me entirely. I often find experimental stories frustrating because they force me to focus on the mechanics. When I'm really enjoying a story, I'm not worrying about mechanics or analysis, "I want the illusion to remain whole."

Do you think the arts succeed most when you're not thinking about the mechanics, or do you get more out of a book or painting or what have you by analyzing and appreciating? Or is it somewhere in between?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Superior Saturday

by Garth Nix, narrated by Allan Corduner
New York: Random House / Listening Library, 2008.

In the sixth book of the Keys to the Kingdom series, Arthur is finally matched up against the Trustee who has been the most trouble for him - Superior Saturday, whose goal all along has been to reach the Incomparable Gardens which are (in her opinion, unfairly) Lord Sunday's domain. Arthur is on Earth returning Lady Friday's sleepers, when he receives a call from his brother that the hospital is going to be nuked. He manages to at least delay the attack, but knows he has to return to the House to have any hope of making things right on his own world.

The symbolism hinted in the previous stories comes to the fore in this one. Superior Saturday's attempt at reaching the Incomparable Gardens reminds me of Lucifer in some ways, the gardens themselves very like Eden. Also, while Saturday has been the most trouble for Arthur all along (Dusk coming to the Pit in [Grim Tuesday], for example), we see that Arthur also has issues with pride, struggling with the rage that wells up when he feels he is not given his due by a lesser being. I had not previously listened to or read this Keys to the Kingdom book, so being slightly distracted on a few car trips meant that I kind of missed some parts. Even so, it was a good story and (perhaps in part because of my distraction) I would definitely revisit it.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


by Gail Carriger
New York: Orbit, 2010.

The third highly-anticipated book (for me, at least!) in the Alexia Tarabotti series begins with Lady Maccon once again living with her appalling family because her husband, Earl of Woolsey and werewolf Alpha, has kicked her out. Alexia is pregnant, you see, a state that scientists agree would be impossible as her husband is not exactly living, and she herself as a preternatural never expected what she has dubbed the infant-inconvenience. The vampires seem to know more about it than she does, however, because they want her dead.

While I enjoyed reading more adventures of Alexia, Lord Maccon, Professor Lyall, Ivy Tunstell (nee Hisselpenny), and the rest, I did not enjoy Blameless quite as much as the previous titles in the series. Perhaps this has more to do with my expectations than the story itself. I expected certain plot threads to take more time than they did to resolve, and was taken aback by how much time is spent figuring out why Alexia is pregnant and what that means for the supernatural community. Personally, since the fact that she is pregnant is a given, I was less interested in the how. I enjoyed the over-the-top humor as always, and was intrigued by the hints that Ivy is not quite as harebrained as we may have been led to believe. I will be looking forward to the publication of Heartless, the next book in the series, due out in July of next year.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Library at Night

by Alberto Manguel
New Haven : Yale University Press, 2008.

You know those books that you finish, and you liked it so well that you can hardly say why? This was one of those books for me, but here's my best attempt:

I so enjoyed this book, an homage to libraries of all sorts - personal, public, national, and even imaginary. Each chapter is almost an essay in its own right, though Manguel often builds on thoughts from one to the next. This book was as much over my head when it came to literature as Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time was over my head in science (and I was an English major!). Manguel's erudition often intimidated me, yet he is never stuffy. His musings become an interesting mix of philosophy, history, and literary criticism that made me wish my mental library was a little closer to his so that I could follow more of his thoughts. I most loved the book when he was meandering, talking about personal libraries or love of books, and I wish the book was my own so I could underline passages or revisit it whenever I like.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Lady Friday

by Garth Nix, narrated by Allan Corduner
New York: Listening Library, 2007.

As the fifth in the Keys to the Kingdom series, there are necessarily **spoilers** for the earlier titles.

Arthur Penhaligon is fresh from his triumph in the Great Maze, taking control of the fourth Key and fighting the Piper and his band of New Niths. He received a missive from Lady Friday saying that she has abdicated, leaving the Will and the fifth Key for Superior Saturday, the Piper, and Arthur to duke it out. Arthur must continue on his journey to take control of the keys, all the while trying to use as little sorcery as possible so that he can stay human, and trying to figure out if he can trust his old friend, Suzy Turquoise Blue, since the Piper could potentially control her actions.

Looking back on my reading log, I realized that I had only read the book before and had never listened to the audio. So this was a reread but a first-time listen for me, though I had forgotten most of the story since. Allan Corduner narrates these stories pitch perfectly, and I was initially surprised that I had remembered not liking the book as much as the others. The story moves along at a steady clip, Arthur's struggle to do the right thing while avoiding becoming a Denizen is compelling, and then I got to the end and realized why I had liked it less than the others. For the most part, this is an excellent book but the ending fell rather flat for me. Still, I have Superior Saturday at the ready, and I'm looking forward to finishing the series with the two books that I have never read.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Montana 1948

by Larry Watson
Minneapolis, MN : Milkweed Editions, 1993.

Now a middle-aged man, David Hayden recounts the summer of 1948, when he was twelve years old, and the events that affect him and his family deeply, even into his adulthood.

This short (175 pages) but powerful book has everything: complex characters, a sense of place, moral ambiguity, coming of age. The prose flows so you don't want to stop and lose its thread. I can't summarize it and I'm having trouble describing it. I'm not sure I liked it, but it's compelling. I'm not sure I liked the characters, but they were so real. I have no knowledge of the time and place depicted, but while I was reading I felt like I was there. Though I may not consider it a "favorite," it's definitely one of the most memorable books I've read so far this year.