Monday, February 28, 2011

The Seeing Stone

by Arthur Crossley-Holland
New York : Scholastic, 2002.

The year is 1199. Thirteen-year-old Arthur de Caldicot longs to be a knight, but his father, Lord John, frustratingly will not tell Arthur his plans for his son's future. Arthur has carved out a little space for himself to write a bit each day as the year winds down towards the new century - a crossing-place, as Lord John's friend Merlin calls it. Merlin seems to take a special interest in Arthur, giving him an obsidian stone but not telling him what it is for. Arthur must discover its purpose for himself.

The small detail that 1301 rather than 1300 would really be the new century was a bit irritating for me, but I liked the theme of change, newness, and renewal that is made clear by the time frame. This is seen in Arthur himself, as well, reaching an age of endings and beginnings as he enters his teen years and discovers a lot about himself. There are definite parallels that those even a little familiar with Arthurian legend will put together much more quickly than our protagonist, but clearly divergent points as well. I'm intrigued enough to pursue the story to the next volume in the trilogy.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Little Princes

by Conor Grennan
New York: William Morrow, 2010.

*NOTE: This review refers to the ARC I received through LibraryThing Early Reviewers. As per the rules, I receive a free book in return for a review, and whether it's positive or negative has no affect on my receiving books in the future.*

In 2004, Conor Grennan decided he was going to take a break from the workaday grind and travel the world. To make this sound a little less self-serving (and yes, perhaps impress women at bars), he chose to begin his travel stint with three months of volunteering at a Nepalese orphanage, Little Princes. He didn't realize that what started as a lark would be a transformative experience in his life, especially when he discovered that many of these children were not orphans at all, but had been sold to child traffickers in hopes of giving them a safe place to live during the Maoist revolution.

When I was a little kid, I used to imagine I could be one of those missionaries like Amy Carmichael who would go to another country and rescue kids from awful situations. So maybe it was natural that this title would stand out to me when I saw it as an Early Reviewer offering. I was really impressed with this book. I loved that Grennan is upfront about his foibles and his less-than-altruistic motives. So often I'll read books that make the altruistic worker look so great, the type I can't measure up to because I'm in a different situation and unable to do in such a concrete manner, but I never felt that way while reading this book. No, every time I picked it up I had a smile on my face. While the stories about child trafficking and the situations these kids had to go through were absolutely heartbreaking, Grennan always balanced these sobering stories with a funny anecdote about the kids' antics. I appreciated the upbeat and optimistic tone, the focus on the good instead of depressing me with the need and loss that still went hand in hand with the good moments, but never completely overshadows them. Enthusiastically recommended.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


by Edith Pattou
Orlando : Magic Carpet Books, 2005.

Ebba Rose was the youngest in a large family. Her brother, Neddy, looks after her and she drives her mother, Eugenia, to distraction because, like a north-born child, Rose can't help wandering. Then her sister Sara becomes sick, and a strange, sentient white bear offers to make her well if Rose comes with him.

This is a retelling of the Norwegian fairy tale, "East of the Sun, West of the Moon," a tale with which I was completely unfamiliar before reading Pattou's re-imagination of it. The locations such as Njord and Fransk, sounding familiar yet strange, and the existence of a White Bear and Troll Queen as narrators along with Rose, Neddy, and their father, blend reality and fantasy giving the story a surreal atmosphere. Somewhere in the reading, I stopped worrying about it so much and the narrative began to click for me. I wish that Rose's and the White Bear's relationship was explored a bit more; their camaraderie seems suddenly strong to me. Now, however, I have to go look up the original tale.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


by Jennifer Donnelly
New York : Delacorte Press, c2010.

Andi just wants to dull the pain, so she's been cutting classes and prescribing herself a little extra of the drugs that her psychiatrist has her taking. Her mother is wrapped up in her own pain, painting portraits of Truman, Andi's brother, who is dead. Her father never takes much of an interest in her life, but when Andi is in danger of getting expelled from her super-expensive prep school, he takes her to Paris while he performs DNA research on a heart from the time of the French Revolution.

I'm glad I'd been warned ahead of time that Andi is a tough character to like, or I probably would have given up on this book even before my regular 50-page rule. She is pricklier than Mary Lennox and definitely has a rougher mouth, but once she goes to Paris the plot really takes off. The second storyline told through a girl's diary from during the Revolution was compelling, and I did start to warm up to Andi once I understood a little more about why she was so sad and angry. I was fascinated by the historical and musical references throughout the book, and was really glad to see a thorough list of information and books to go to next in the back. Though one decision towards the end of the book threw me for a loop, I would readily recommend it to teens and adults, whether they think they'd be interested in the French Revolution or not.

Friday, February 18, 2011

24 Hours of Brain Power

The Scienctific American Day in the Life of Your Brain
by Judith Horstman
San Francisco : Jossey-Bass, c2009.

Ever wondered why you're quicker to anger in the morning, drowsy right after lunch, or what's going on in your brain while you sleep? All these subjects and more are covered in The Scientific American Day in the Life of Your Brain, essentially a compilation of many of the findings in brain research that have been published in articles in The Scientific American and The Scientific American Mind.

Organized by hour of the day, from 5AM to 4AM, each chapter covers one aspect of your brain - including diverse subjects such as humor, music, emotion, stress, sex, sleep, and dreaming. Some chapters are more loosely organized than others depending on the subject being covered, and are given an hour in which it's fairly likely that someone with an average circadian rhythm would be experiencing what's being discussed. Each section of the chapter refers to one or more articles, which are listed in the back. None of the subjects can really be explored in depth, but this eminently readable collection of facts may spark interest in a particular element of neuroscience.

Monday, February 14, 2011

These Three Remain

by Pamela Aidan
New York : Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 2007.

**Spoiler warning** for the first two books in the trilogy, and Pride and Prejudice.

The final book in the Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman series wraps up the re-imagining of Pride and Prejudice from Darcy's point of view. Lately returned from his visit to an old friend's, Darcy and his cousin prepare for their yearly trip to Aunt Catherine de Bourgh's.

Ah yes...back on familiar ground. Knowing Pride and Prejudice as well as I do, I was not surprised by the main events in the plot. I loved that the change in perspective meant that I felt bad for Darcy when Elizabeth initially rejected him. My familiarity with the storyline increased my anticipation for familiar scenes revisited rather than taking away from my interest. Secondary characters like Fletcher and Dy Brougham really come into their own, sometimes in unexpected ways. It was one of those books that I was so busy enjoying reading that now I'm at a loss to explain what I loved about it. All in all, I thought this was a fabulous series with a believable take on Darcy's perspective. Aidan purposely left some subplots loose, and I really hope she continues them in further books.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

When Does Storytelling Overwhelm the Message?

My first graphic novel of the year was a biography:
I see the Promised Land: A Life of Martin Luther King written by Arthur Flowers and illustrated by Manu Chitrakar and Guglielmo Rossi
[Chennai], India : Tara Books c2010.

First, the good: The story blends oral storytelling tradition with the Patua scroll painting of India. If that sounds strange, I will say that the format takes some getting used to but is really an excellent use of the graphic novel format. I have little enough of an art background to comment on the illustrations, but the colors chosen and the use of white-on-black to quote from King's speeches or highlight a point is extremely well done.

The Questionable: The author, in using the African oral tradition, references "the Gods" and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Fa" (a word I could not find a definition for, but given the context would call it "fate" or "destiny").

At first, I admit, I rather overlooked this. It bothered me, yes, but the narrator was also clear about King's Christian background and his family's long tradition of life in the Baptist ministry. I will also be the first to admit lack of knowledge about the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr. himself, and African storytelling tradition, so at first I felt unqualified to comment on this storytelling device. After a few people commented on my initial review on my LibraryThing talk thread, I started to think about this some more.

How much does a format give or take from a story? This is a question in any story in terms of first- or third-person narration, the inclusion of illustrations, or even the font. Is it readable? How wide are the margins? If there are multiple narrators, do each of these get a different font? When you're talking about a graphic novel, format is doubly important because you're including illustrations on every page and if done well, should blend and be as much a part of the story as the words. While I was reading I See the Promised Land, I really liked the inclusion and choice to highlight quotes from Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous speeches, and I thought it was an overall good introductory story to the topic. This overrode some of my reservations about the storytelling device of the (fictional) narrator's references to Gods, plural, and a "Fa," something I agree that Martin Luther King, Jr. would be appalled by. Now that's another thing - this narrator is fictional, is telling us the story of King's life, and could conceivably have a different point of view from King himself. I want to read more widely about King and the Civil Rights movement now to see if my initial impression stands.

I'm not sure I have an easy answer for "how much is too much." I do think that this element was an unnecessary layer that did not fit the topic - that is, a biography of a Christian man. Where would you draw the line?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Goblin Gate

by Hilari Bell

At the end of The Goblin Wood, Makenna opens a gate into the Otherworld and goes into it with her goblins and Tobin to avoid capture by the priest who is after her because it's illegal for anyone who is not a priest of the Bright Gods to use magic. Left behind, Tobin's brother Jeriah is frantic to get his brother back when this same priest, Master Lazur, tells him that Tobin will die soon if he does not leave the Otherworld. But Jeriah is no hero, and he knows he can't do it alone, which means some dangerous scheming that may hurt his family even more than losing the oldest son and heir.

Instead of focusing on Makenna, Tobin, and the goblins in the Otherworld, the main focus of the story is Jeriah and the politics of the court of the Hierarch. Despite this shift in focus, I was happy to learn more about Jeriah, who was a secondary character from The Goblin Wood, the ne'er-do-well and conspirator that Tobin loves enough to lie for and take his punishment. I think the only element of this book that disappointed me was the lack of urgency that I felt in reading it. Jeriah's stakes are high, but between plot points being clearly forecast and knowing there was another book to come, I never really believed that these characters were in any real - or, at least, immediate - danger. Still, I enjoyed this story and look forward to reading the final book in the trilogy when it comes out in the fall.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Monsters of Men

by Patrick Ness
Somerville, Mass. : Candlewick Press, c2010.

**Spoiler warnings for The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and the Answer.**

"War makes monsters of men," Ben warns Todd in The Knife of Never Letting Go. Right from the start, we see this play out in the war between the Mayor's people and the Spackle, the indigenous population of New World. Meanwhile, Mistress Coyle tries to get the upper hand by meeting with the newly arrived ship carrying Viola's people to resettle the land. All Todd and Viola want is peace, but at what price will it come?

Carrying on from the questions of motives, choice, and character that The Ask and the Answer put forth, Monsters of Men focuses more exclusively on war and what kind of people desire war over peace. I struggled more with the story because the themes appear to me to have more of an agenda than in the earlier books. While I hesitate to take universals out of a particular story, in science fiction and fantasy especially its hard not to see these as more "universal" ideas and ideals that can be - and sometimes are meant to be - applied to the real world. I don't mean that the author specifically had an agenda in writing this story, just that it was hard for me not to read it that way, and I wasn't sure I always agreed with the conclusions. Once again, the plot generally hums along, keeping you caught up in events and wondering what's going to happen next even while causing you to grapple with the larger themes. A few times, I wasn't sure if I would end up mad with the author's designs for his characters, but all in all I was happy with the way the series wraps up.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Moon Over Manifest

by Claire Vanderpool
New York : Delacorte Press, 2010.

Abilene Tucker rode the rails with her father, Gideon, until the day she got hurt and he sent her to Manifest. She knows Manifest because of her father's stories; she knows from his stories that this small town holds a significant place in her father's heart. During the summer of 1936 while she stays with Shady, the fourteen-year interim pastor of the Baptist church, Abilene hopes she can learn more about Gideon Tucker.

Where do I start with my thoughts on this book? I suppose to start at the beginning, I should say that before it won the Newbery Medal, I hadn't even known the book existed. Ever since 2007, I've tried to read the current Newbery Medal winner and at least one honor book, so as soon as the award was announced, I requested it from the library. When I first started reading it, not all that sure what sort of story I was in for, I first noticed the wonderful descriptions. Here's how Abilene describes her father and his stories about Manifest: "His words drew pictures of brightly painted storefronts and bustling townsfolk. Hearing Gideon tell about it was like sucking on butterscotch. Smooth and sweet. And when he'd go back to not saying much, I'd try recalling what it tasted like. Maybe that was how I found comfort just then, even with him being so far away. By remembering the flavor of his words. But mostly, I could taste the sadness in his voice when he told me I couldn't stay with him for the summer while he worked a railroad job back in Iowa. Something had changed in him" (2). Then before I knew it I was hooked not only by Abilene's story but the story from 1917 about Jinx and Ned. I grew truly attached to these characters and the many who populate Manifest in both time periods. This was a truly delightful book that I would recommend to children and adults who enjoy good but not overly long description and memorable characters.