Fabulous Fantasy: The Lost Gate by Orson Scott Card

16 09 2011

Self-Imposed Summer Reading Book #6: The Lost Gate by Orson Scott Card

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know one thing is for certain: I am a slow blogger.  But I intend to write this post faster than Orson Scott Card completed the absolutely wonderful book I’m reviewing.  Over 20 years in the making (though certainly not all active time) I believe helped Card to define the world that Danny North is born into.  The mythology involves legendary gods now living in isolated clusters on Earth–the Norths are poor, living in Virginia like backwater hicks with a lot of power at their fingertips.  Also, the family functions somewhat like the mafia especially when it comes to gate mages, a kind of mage that has been outlawed and will be killed once discovered.  Somehow, when Card describes all of this through Danny’s eyes, it works a lot better than when I describe it.  (That’s why he writes the books, I just write the reviews.)

Danny starts out with no powers at all–he’s the outcast in his family.  Can this really be a book about a powerless kid?  *mild spoiler* Of course not.  The ones who start out powerless usually wind up being the most powerful and Danny North is no exception.  Then he has to learn to use his powers, always entertaining and here it really helps to move the plot along.  It moves Danny along on his quest to *this would be really spilery, I am not including his purpose.*  Rest assured, the quest is intriguing and seems impossible–making it even more intriguing.  But despite these predictable elements, the story as a whole is not predictable.  It feels new.  To me, that’s the mark of a great novel.

In between the chapters about Danny, there is a completely different story involving a guy named Wad and a castle and all the usual political intrigue involved in castle stories.   Ignore the name Wad (it’s terrible but you’ll understand if you read the book).  Even if you aren’t a big fan of castle fantasy stories and political intrigue, I can promise you this feels different.  It feels classic.  Lots of good feelings about this book!  Even now, as I blog about it about a month since I turned the last page.

Bottom line: Really fabulous fantasy with a classic feel.  I hope it doesn’t take Card another 20 years to write the next book in the series.


Pendragon, Or Why I Read Books I Dislike

13 09 2011

Self-Imposed Summer Reading Book #5: The Merchant of Death (Pendragon #1) by DJ MacHale

Before I read this book this summer, I had probably recommended it to 10 kids, if not more.  Some of these kids were young enough that reading a book with the title The Merchant of Death was still shocking.  I told them not to be worried–I knew from the teens that I work with that it is not a scary book (particularly) and that the series is well-loved for a reason.  Two high school students recommended this book to me and by proxy, to all the kids who walk through the doors of my library. My question while reading this book: why do kids love it?

Answer: It’s non-threatening fantasy with a lot of action and the usual moral quandaries thrown in.  One of the often lauded qualities of fantasy, especially high fantasy, is that it makes the reader work.  This work is often deciphering the way the fantastical world of the book works.  What is different about the Pendragon books is that Bobby Pendragon and his friends do most of the deciphering for you.  It is certainly not the first book to have a naive narrator help explain what is going on.   However, something about the combination of Bobby’s journal and the reading of Bobby’s journal by his friends left on Earth really overexplains the fantasy world if you’re an adult or an experienced fantasy reader.  It drove me a little insane, but I could see how inexperienced fantasy readers might really be drawn to the writing style.

The fantasy world itself is fun!  Even though I wanted to strangle Bobby Pendragon by the time I hit the last page, I very nearly found myself reading the “sneak preview” of the next book which is set in a world with some giant killer sharks.   Who doesn’t love books about giant killer sharks?  And yet…Bobby Pendragon is not my kind of narrator.

Bottom line: I will still recommend this book to kids–in fact, I will probably be able to hand sell it to even more kids now that I know the whole story.  But I cannot spend another 300 pages with Bobby Pendragon.

Time for a Memoir!

29 08 2011

Self-Imposed Summer Reading Book #4: Stitches by David Small

Welcome to a very candid look at David Small’s not-so-uplifting childhood.  It is illustrated and written in a manner that makes it incredibly easy to read, but not so easy to digest.  The washed out grays and the soft lines contrast harshly with Small’s childhood, which was not full of love or happiness.  The text here is not quite sparsely written–there’s more of it than would qualify as “sparse”–but there isn’t tons of text.  There is just enough to tell the story.  This is where the power of what happened to Small comes in.  Even though I was not totally taken by the book, weeks after I read it I can remember the emotion that Small brings to the table.  The dream sequences he draws pull you in rather than pushing you away.  I have very little patience for dream sequences mostly, although since these are “true,” I might have upped my tolerance.  They also move the story along in a way that isn’t gimmicky.

Probably the best thing I can say about this book is that it will stay with you.  I read it quickly and am actually astonished at how much of the feeling that Small puts into his text and his pictures has stayed with me.  It only took me an hour to read but it took much more than an hour to work through the book.   No matter what indignities Small suffered as a child, growing up the way he did, his story will be noticed and remembered by others.  (Many besides me, not least the National Book Award committee.  Even the love on Goodreads is amazing!)

Bottom line: Well-written, beautifully drawn and a National Book Award finalist means this book is definitely worth a read.  Maybe it will resonate with you more than it did with me.

Newbery Winner is a Winner!

12 08 2011

Summer Reading Book #3: Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool, 2011 Newbery winner.

Abilene is sent to live in Manifest, Kansas during the Great Depression.  She’s grown up on the road with her father butshe’s turning into a young lady.  So he sends her back to his home town to live with Pastor Shady, who isn’t much of a Pastor at all.  In fact, he’s a bit of a bootlegger with a good heart. Everyone in town seems to have a good heart, even the creepy fortuneteller who Abilene grows to love.  The reader grows to love everyone, but especially Abilene who is a perfect tween heroine: smart, a little quirky and very independent.  I am totally a sucker for those characters.

I was warned by some librarians (who shall not be named) that the switching between time periods was confusing and that the character list at the beginning of the book is totally necessary.  While I will never turn down a good character list (and they can really help younger readers), I had little trouble keeping track of everyone.   This could be because I had a chance to read this book in large chunks.  Moon Over Manifest is not the kind of book that can be read in short snatches, 2 minutes at the grocery store, 5 minutes before bed, etc.  The time period switches were denoted by different fonts, which always helps.  Mostly, I was as interested as Abilene in hearing the stories from her father’s childhood.  That’s what made it easy to follow.

Having read 2 out of 4 Newbery Honor book–One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia and Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm–I have a lot of good, award-winning historical fiction starring tween girls to compare Moon Over Manifest to.  While One Crazy Summer is my favorite of the 3, Moon Over Manifest comes in an easy second.  The top 2 on my list are deeper, exploring issues and themes that sometimes don’t get a lot of attention in books for this age group, from mothers that really just don’t want to be moms to a father’s real motivations.  Turtle in Paradise, while it takes place during the Great Depression, has been recommended lately as a “beach read for the younger set” with great, snappy writing to keep kids engaged, especially reluctant readers.

Bottom line: Watching Abilene grow over the summer, the reader is treated to a mystery AND a history lesson as part of a coherent storyline.  I already know which middle school kids I’ll be recommending this one to!

Kids on Deserted Islands

9 08 2011

Summer Reading Book #2: Lord of the Flies by William Golding
In which a bunch of boys find themselves stranded on a deserted island and turn into savages and things go badly until they get rescued.

Book #2.5 (i.e. not on my summer reading list): Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
In which a plane full of teen pageant contestants crashes on an island and the girls pull together to make huts, desalinate their water and become responsible women, unshackled from the eyes of the world and things go mostly okay until they get rescued (and then things basically turn into a James Bond movie).

Which deserted island book did I like better?  Good question.  Hard question.   I know which cover I like better:

I have seen many covers for Lord of the Flies and none of them have the”take me off the shelf” quality that Beauty Queens has.  Fortunately, I don’t judge books solely by their covers.  However, inside the books, you find something similar to the cover.  Lord of the Flies is thin on description and girls.  When I say thin on description, I don’t mean to imply that the book is mostly dialogue.  It’s more the feeling that Flies is about any boys that land on an island–one fat, one smart, one combative + the little ones.  This is an “every boy” story.  The Queens are more specific–part of that is Libba Bray’s writing style–and each girl helps to debunk a stereotype.

The last difference is a little bit spoiler-y: the boys kill each other and then get rescued, while the girls band together, kick butt and rescue themselves.  Although admittedly, Beauty Queens is satire.  It’s not meant to be realistic or possible (especially once you get to the insanity at the end) but I wished it was.  I want it to be possible because I want everything Bray is saying about girls to be true.  Any way you slice it, Beauty Queens is a feminist read.  Lord of the Flies is not feminist, nor is it uplifting in any way.  It is an unflinching look at human nature, which I appreciate even though it causes far more grimaces while reading.  Now I understand why high school teachers continue to use this book–I still wonder why mine didn’t include it.

Bottom line: Summer is always a good time to read about plane crashes and survival–either of these books do the trick, they just do it differently.

Book #1 is a Mystery

20 07 2011

Seriously!  I just  completed my first book on the list and it was The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley, a lovely mystery I would have loved in high school.  I mean, I loved it now but I read far fewer mysteries marketed towards adults now (as an adult) than I ever did as a teenager.  Odd but true.

So, why does my adult book star an 11 year old girl?  Good question!  I asked it myself.  I think it’s the style of book, a truly classic feeling British mystery written by a man who had never even been to England.  Nor had he ever been an 11 year old girl.  Therein lies the strength of the book.  It’s not really about a young girl, (though Flavia is a fun, smart, snappy character) nor is it s whodunnit in the traditional sense–though a man is found dead in the garden quite early on.  And Flavia, being both curious and the finder of the body, must solve the mystery.  She doesn’t really fancy herself a detective but rather a chemist.  I loved this touch.  I am tired of every armchair detective believing they were truly meant to be a detective.  Maybe that’s why I quit those adult mysteries.

The other emphasis in this book is on stamps.  I’m not sure I have ever read a book where the word “philatelist” was used so often.  Flavia’s father is one, and the mystery involves stamps.  Therefore the reader learns much about the stamp printing process in England.  Not so much as to be boring but enough to perhaps fancy oneself an amateur philatelist for the day.  This may be why it is not a book marketed towards young adults.  This doesn’t mean they won’t read it and enjoy it.  I, for one, intend to recommend it to some teens in my library who come in searching for mysteries.

Perhaps the best part of this book is that as an adult, you are sure you know what caused the dead man to die almost from the moment he keels over.  Totally and absolutely sure.  Unfortunately, like in all well-written mysteries, you are totally wrong.  There are a thousand other things that Flavia and the reader must find out to solve this case.

Bottom line: Delicious!  Smart, classic with enough mystery to keep readers turning the pages.