Sunday, June 1, 2014
Friday, May 2, 2014
Title: The Real Boy
Author: Anne Ursu
Rating: 4 Stars
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy
Length: 352 pages
I didn’t want Oscar to triumph in the end despite his autism or because of his autism; I wanted him to triumph because of who he is-- an exceptionally brave, loving boy. I wanted him to know that he had the power to survive and triumph no matter what the world throws at him. I want every kid to know that. -Anne UrsuWhile I caught the allusions to autism, I'm ashamed that I completely missed the numerous allusions to fairy tales throughout the book--specifically The Sorcerer's Apprentice and Pinocchio. I didn't realize how much Ursu was weaving in older, familiar stories until I read another review that pointed this out. The allusions are everywhere, so now I really want to reread with this in mind!
The book is also really well-written and beautifully illustrated. Also of note is that the main characters are all people of color, but like the autism element, it's quietly part of their characters without being a defining characteristic or an afterthought.
Ursu is also the author of Breadcrumbs, which has been on my to-read list for awhile now, and The Real Boy was nominated for a Minnesota Book Award this year. If you enjoy middle grade fiction or classic fantasy, I'd definitely recommend this book. And if you know a kid who enjoys fantasy, definitely hand this one to them.
Tuesday, April 29, 2014
Title: The Eyre Affair
Author: Jasper Fforde
Genre: Science Fiction
Length: 374 pgs.
Synopsis: It's 1985 in an alternate reality version of England and Thursday Next is a LiteraTec, a detective who investigates literary mysteries. In this world, literature is a *big* deal. There's also time travel and vampire sand seemingly invincible villains. Thursday's uncle has managed to create a machine that uses bookworms (actual worms. who eat books) to transport people into works of literature. For example, right now his wife is lost in a Wordsworth poem. Enter Acheron Hades, whose villainy knows no bounds. He's learned that if you enter the manuscript of a book and make changes, those changes go out to every copy of the book ever created. Hades kidnaps Thursday's uncle and uses his machine to hold Dicken's Martin Chuzzlewit hostage. After that plot fails, he decides to go after one of the most beloved books in all of literature, Jane Eyre.
Review: It had so much promise! Who wouldn't want to read a book with literary detectives, time travel, and the ability to travel into books?! But oh my god, it was bad. Let's start with the setting: Thursday Next's world is weird and not in a god way. It's England, but alternate history, but set in the modern day, but not really, with vampires and genetic splicing, but everything else is normal, but the Crimean war has been going on for 100 years...you get where I'm going with this, it's just too much. It reminded me of Terry Pratchett, but on a really off day.
The characters left much to be desired as well. Thursday was one of the few fully fleshed out characters, yet her whole focus was on things that happened 10 years ago. Get over it, girl. She has the potential of being a really strong female character, but she ends up being just a stereotype. The other characters were just as bad. Acheron Hades (because of course you'd name your villain after 2 gods of hell) doesn't have any motivation other than being a pain in the side of the police. He doesn't seem evil, just bored. Everyone else, including the man Thursday left behind and yet can't stop think about, were instantly forgettable.
I was all for giving this book 1.5 stars until the point that Thursday went into Jane Eyre. Then the book really picked up and the plot got interesting, it's just a shame that it waited until the last 50 pages to do so. This book was a waste of my time. Skip it.
Just like Nox 's name suggests, when it comes reading, the darker the book the better. Nox roosts in North Dakota, where she tries to eek out time to read between working at a library and attending grad school.
Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Author: Katherine Boo
Genre: Narrative Non-fiction
Length: 262 pages
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Synopsis:Katherine Boo chronicles the lives of an undercity (or slum) in Mumbai, India and the complexities and effects of inequality in her first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.
While the lives and dreams of many Annawadi residents weave in and out of Boo’s narrative, Behind the Beautiful Forevers focuses on three individuals who are all striving to make it New India: Manju, aiming to become the slum’s first female college graduate; her mother, Asha, with the less principled goal of becoming the slumlord; and Abdul, who through focus, hard work, and a keen business sense tries to generate enough money from his family’s garbage business to buy a plot of land.
Review:Behind the Beautiful Forevers is both a very easy and a very challenging book to read. Everything in the book is real (Boo lived in this community for three years), but the book reads like fiction. You get pulled in and engaged in these individual's stories. This is why Behind the Beautiful Forevers is also hard to read. It hurts. It's distressing. It pushes you to face the consequences of global inequalities and poverty.
Abdul’s story was the most challenging to read—when a family feud spins out of control, Abdul is (wrongly) accused of murder alongside his father and sister, and their journey through the legal system has serious ramifications for Abdul’s successful garbage business. Asha’s story is perhaps the least sympathetic, but Boo manages not to demonize this character. Asha’s hard work and scheming allow her daughter, Manju, to attend college, which Asha hopes will help raise the entire family out of poverty.
The stories Boo captures give us a humanizing portrait of life in an undercity. “Do you ever think when you look at someone, when you listen to someone, does that person really have a life?” Abdul asks at one point. Behind the Beautiful Forevers gives all the people depicted a life. They may not be glamorous or particularly good lives, but gives Abdul, Manju, Asha, and everyone else an identity separate from their poverty.
I appreciated that Behind the Beautiful Forevers doesn’t offer any easy solutions. If anything, it highlights the complexities of anti-poverty work. Charitable efforts to promote education, microfinance, and health conditions are almost completed stymied by corruption. Government officials, elections, police, and local slumlord all support themselves through bribery.
In short, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is an excellent, engaging piece of narrative non-fiction that thoroughly deserves the National Book Award it earned. 4.5 Stars.
Editorial note: This review was drafted as a sample post in January 2013 when this blog was still an idea. I recently found the review and decided to edit, reformat, and publish it.
Sunday, April 20, 2014
Rating: 3 stars
Genre: Magical Realism
Length: 390 pgs.
Synopsis: The last time Towner read lace, a form of psychic reading, her twin sister drowned and Towner ended up in a mental institution. Now after 20 years(?) Towner's great-aunt/adopted mother has gone missing and Towner is called back to Salem. After finding out what happened to her aunt, sort of, Towner and a local police detective end up investigating another missing woman and a local cult leader, who just happens to be Towner's uncle. The plot of this story isn't linear and is very hard to explain.
Review: I have a problem with unreliable narrators. I'm an incredibly gullible person who tends to take things at face value when I read, especially when the story is told in first person. How could you lie to me when I'm inside your head?! Well...
I liked Towner from the beginning. Towner is in recovery from surgery when she first gets the news about her auntand having just undergone surgery myself, I was very concerned about the amount of traveling and exercise she was undertaking so soon during her recovery. I absolutely loved the secondary characters. Towner's hermit mother living on Yellow Dog Island infested by packs of wild golden retrievers (Take a minute and picture that. Remote Island. Adorableness running rampant. Ok, back to the story). Having been fascinated with the Salem witch trials since middle school earlier, I'm surprised I didn't read this book when it first came out.
Until the last 50 pages or so, I would have given this book four stars and then the twist happened. I'm not going to say what it is, just that I did not see it coming. And now I kind of want to re-read the entire book to see if there were any clues and I'm just ambivalent, or if it was just an oddly written book. In any case, the twist changes the entire feeling of the book and it made me doubt everything I had just read. That being said, if you like family drama, the Northeast, and sort-of-witchy witchiness I would actually highly recommend this book even though I only gave it 3 stars.
Monday, April 14, 2014
Rating: 3.75 stars
Length: 402 pgs
Synopsis: While on a bus traveling through Alabama on his way home from WWII, decorated officer Joe Howard Wilson is ordered, along with the other blacks on the bus, to give up their seats for German POWs. Upset that having fought for the United States in the war hasn't changed attitudes in the American South coupled with disdain for the Nazis he was asked to move for, Wilson refused. The bus continued on its way, but arrived at its destination minus one black soldier. Wilson's body turns up two weeks later.
A few months or a year later (the timeline isn't perfectly clear) a letter shows up at Thurgood Marshall's office with the NAACP. One of the young lawyers, Regina Robichard, is surprised when she recognizes the sender of the letter as the author of one of her favorite books from childhood, The Secret of Magic. The letter urges someone from their office to come down to help with an investigation of Joe Howard's death and Regina convinces Marshall that she should be the one to do it. Thus Regina, a young black woman lawyer from New York City, travels to the Jim Crow South to find a murderer.
Review: There's no magic! Often I'll request books months before their release after seeing them on GoodReads or in BookPage or somewhere and then by the time they come in for me, I've completely forgotten what they were about. That happened in this case. I got this book from the library and it's called The Secret of Magic and there are fairy lights in the trees on the cover, so I assume something fantasy-ish, but instead I got murder. Which is fine - I like murder, but it's a bit like thinking you're going to eat ice cream and then it turns out to be frozen yogurt. Both are good, but my brain wasn't quite ready. So here's your warning: there is no magic in this book.
Other than the whole "no-magic" thing, I actually really enjoyed this book. I loved the character of Regina! She was such an interesting character. Her father had been lynched when she was very young and her mother had turned into kind of a crusader for civil rights, but Regina had never been outside of New York City. When she made her way to a small town in Mississippi, she was completely overwhelmed with the differences between the way the races were treated and how they interacted with each other. She had heard second hand about segregation, but what she didn't expect was how there were black and white people everywhere. In New York City, people of different races stayed in their own neighborhoods and she had never really talked to a white person before. I think my favorite character, however, was Mary Pickett Calhoun. Regina was surprised to get the letter from this famous white author, especially when she reaches Mississippi and find that the lead suspect is the son of a former flame. The murdered man and his father had worked for and Mary Pickett's family for generations, in fact, since before slavery was abolished, so she felt she had to do something to avenge the death, but was also just starting to come to terms with the town's inherent bigotry. All in all, the murder mystery serves as a backdrop to a character study of small town Southern life in the late 1940s and its themes definitely stuck with me after finishing it.
Sunday, March 9, 2014
Sonya: After loving the film version of this historical novel, I never thought that the book could be as good. Having finished Gone with the Wind, I can honestly say that it has become one of my all-time favorite books. Margaret Mitchell’s narrative is so easy to read and yet so beautiful.
Madeleine: I have never seen the film version! I’m actually glad I hadn’t seen the movie before reading the book. Besides knowing a few things (it’s about the Civil War and it’s aftermath, the main couple is Scarlett/Rhett, and there are a lot of fancy dresses), it was all completely new to me.
I also loved the book, but I don’t know if it would make it into my all-time favorites. I need some more time to think about it. There were some bits that I really struggled with in this book (more on this later). What really made the book for me was the characters.
Sonya: I think that is what she does best! We get to see Scarlett journey from naïve, selfish Southern belle to a destitute woman who is willing to do anything to keep food in her stomach and Tara under her feet, and then finally in the end to a person that finally understands herself and what is really important to her.
Madeleine: Margaret Mitchell took a really big risk making her main character a dislikable character. I loved and hated Scarlett. I was cheering for her throughout the whole book, except for the stage of life that you skipped: her selfish, malicious, ignorant behavior after earning back her fortune. She annoyed me enough that I stopped cheering for her for awhile.
I like Scarlett best when she’s at Tara. She needs Tara to keep her grounded.
My other favorite character is Melanie. She’s an easy character to love, but I love the unexpected strength she shows throughout the novel and her unflinching loyalty to Scarlett, who doesn’t deserve it. She’s wonderful.
Sonya: I also liked Melanie, and thought that Ashley did not deserve her. Rhett is the other character that I find so enthralling and mysterious. (BTW, Clark Gable could not have portrayed him better in the movie.)
Madeleine: Obviously. :)
Sonya: Even after finishing the novel, I still don’t really have a sense of who he really is. Even though he is a scoundrel, I can’t help but cheer for him and hope that Scarlett can realize how wonderful he is.
Madeleine: I was actually more impressed by Rhett’s character development through the novel. He changes and becomes a better person a lot more than Scarlett does. I’m not totally convinced that Scarlett has changed by the end. But I absolutely loved them together. Whenever Rhett walked onto the page, I always got very excited. The dialogue! The wit!
Sonya: Every scene with Scarlett and Rhett was just bursting with well-wrought dialogue, and consequently I could practically feel the sparks between these two coming off the pages. I so hoped that this story would be happy in the end (even though I know from the movie that it’s not), and I always think that somehow Scarlett does get him back. I sure hope that she does.
Madeleine: When I first finished the book, I felt the same. Having had some time to digest the book a bit, I like the open ending. I don’t know if Rhett will ever let Scarlett back into his life. He was burned pretty badly. I hope Scarlett stays at Tara. Tara makes Scarlett a better person; I don’t know if Rhett does.
Sonya: The other aspect of Gone with the Wind is its insight into Southern life before the Civil War, during the war, and the war’s aftermath. Naturally, as a child I learned how the South consisted of inhumane bad guys keeping slaves in bondage, and then the North swept in and saved the slaves from their awful plight.
I absolutely do not condone slavery, but I will say that it was interesting to see this time in American history from the point of view of a Southerner. Even if Mitchell is biased, this fictional account gives us another perspective to ponder, and I found it fascinating. Mitchell really shows that war is war, and there are going to be bad and good people on both sides of the conflict.
Madeleine: Ah, here we are, the parts I really struggled with in the book, and that I have to separate from the book when making my judgements. I agree that the Southern point-of-view is very interesting, and I know that contextually Margaret Mitchell is just reflecting the period she’s writing from, but I really struggled with the racism in the book. In fact, I might’ve given up on it if I weren’t reading for a group.
The book romanticizes slavery, and does so very subtly. If you aren’t paying attention, it is easy to buy into this romanticization. In our book club, we had someone argue that it wasn’t that bad because the slaves were treated well by their masters who saw them as part of the family. This point-of-view takes something horrible and completely unjust, owning people and forcing them to work for you, and turns it into something kind and paternalistic.
Again, I understand that we have to take context into consideration, but I really struggled with how to respond to it. Book Riot ran an interesting series of posts on this exact issue last year. I’ll leave you with those: “I Couldn’t Finish GONE WITH THE WIND Because it Was So Racist” and the response “Let’s Talk About Racism in the Classics.”
Stepping off my soap box, I still enjoyed Gone with the Wind and give it 5 stars. Aside from it’s size, the book is very accessible and wonderfully written. Margaret Mitchell made me love a rather unpleasant character and wrote interesting enough stories that I didn’t complain about the 1000 page love triangle. Read it.
Sonya: Overall, Gone with the Wind fabulous read that I will recommend to pretty much everybody. It’s a commitment to read as it's so long but it is definitely worth it. I was hooked from the beginning and never wanted it to end. A solid 5 stars.
Saturday, March 8, 2014
Sonya reads and writes about books from her nest in North Dakota. She can often be found working at the library, reading, watching way too many different TV shows, or cuddling with her ridiculously adorable and badly behaved cat, Leroy.