Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

book 12 of 12 for the Young Adult 2008 Challenge
book 4 of 6 for the Classics Challenge

rating: 5/5
genre: children's literature/young adult/graphic novel??

I had no idea of what to expect with this book - just that people whose opinions I valued LOVED it. I have joined their camp.

What can I call it? An illustrated mystery novel? A graphic novel with many full pages of text? Whatever you want to call it, Selznick's story takes us back to Paris in the 1930s and we meet Hugo, an mechanically inclined 12 year old who lives in a train station. After several pages of only text, we'll suddenly be learning all we need to know about Hugo by looking at pencil drawn pictures: the important friends he makes and the adventures he has. I love how as soon as the pictures were over, the text took off right where the illustrations ended.

The story is full of secrets. Who is the toyseller, really? What is the mechanical man hiding within his gears? Where did Hugo's bookish friend Isabelle get that key? The mysteries truly caught my attention and I wanted to know the answers. Beyond the mystery, woven throughout the book is the mystical atmosphere of early French films and their impact on the world's imagination.

Hugo is a conflicted and lonely character. I loved watching him learn to trust and come into his own talents. In his own words:

I like to imagine that the world is one big machine. You know, machines never have any extra parts. They have the exact number and type of parts they need. So I figure if the entire world is a big machine, I have to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason too.

The pacing was great for a mystery - new details were constantly being revealed and I just really enjoyed that I had no experience with the world where this book took me. I was learning and seeing completely new things that were wound into a complex and interesting story. The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a truly unique literary experience that shouldn't be missed.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

rating : 4/5
genre: adult fiction/world literature

book 4 of 10 for the Book Awards Challenge ii

The blurb on the back of my book says this book is "enchanting." That word doesn't fit for me. "Enchanting" seems to give me the impression that there are charming and cheerful things happening, and this story takes place in the mountains of China during the Cultural Revolution. There is very little in their peasant village to enchant our nameless narrator as he and his best friend Luo are forcibly relocated there to be "re-educated" by doing peasant work alongside those who live there.

One word that does work for me is "affecting" or maybe "passionate." Soon after beginning their backbreaking re-education, our narrator and Luo get a copy of a translated Western novel, written by Balzac. Despite the fact that Western works are strictly forbidden by Chairman Mao, they read anyway and a new world of beauty and purpose is laid before them. Suddenly life has so much to offer beyond buckets of sewage and coal mines; the words of Balzac stir such passion in the friends that it leads them to share the book with a beautiful seamstress in a nearby village. Their relationship with her makes life even more worth living and soon the three are reading together often - with unintended consequences both good and bad.

What I loved about this book is its portrayal of the worth of a book - how words and literature can raise a life above its circumstances and create connections between people. I'm also a sucker for a book about finding beauty in the midst of dire circumstances. Sijie has a precise and comfortable style of writing - and the way we never know our narrator's name and that our seamstress is ever only called "the Little Seamstress" gives the book a fable-like quality. The narration flagged in the middle for me a bit - going off on a tangent that felt out of place with the rest of the book - but when I finished, I could see what the purpose was. I liked that this story took me to a different (albeit sad and horrible) place and helped me find a glimmer of beauty and hope.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Hans Chrisitian Anderson Challenge Wrap Up

This challenge was a bit of a bummer. It never really got off the ground, in terms of participation, so there weren't really any reviews to read. I didn't do as many book as I'd signed up for (8) but I did read 5 which met the requirements. The Maurice Sendak one and The King's Equal were standouts. Pippi, of course, is great. At least I read all five with my kids, so it certainly wasn't a waste of time :)

R.I.P. Challenge

I've heard of this challenge before, but never tried it. Horror/Suspense/Thriller books are not so much my thing, but Carl over at Stainless Steel Droppings does a fantastic job so I am going to just get my feet we this time.

I will be doing:Which means that between now and Halloween I will:

Read One book of any length from one of the subgenres listed above.

I know. One book - Evernight by Claudia Gray, but hey, it's out of my comfort zone, right? Here's the book I am going to try, which my library tagged as "vampire stories-fiction, horror":
Here's to some gory, Halloween-type fun :)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult

book 3 of 10 for the Book Awards Challenge II

Rating: 3/5

I've been hearing about this book for years. My sister even told me the entire plot at some point in time, although I didn't remember how it ended (thank goodness). Even though I knew the idea of the book before I read it, I wasn't prepared for what an emotional and intellectual battle it would be.

For the two people who haven't yet read it, the story is thus: Kate has a rare form of cancer. In an effort to save her life, her parents use IVF technology to create a baby that is a perfect genetic match, so that the baby's cord blood could, theoretically, save Kate's life. Turns out, the cord blood bought Kate time, but in the end, wasn't enough. That baby, now a 13 year old named Anna, has been used as a "donor" her entire life - taking her blood, her bone marrow and now - her parents want her to donate a kidney. And Anna's had enough.

She files a lawsuit against her parents - suing for the right to make her own medical decisions. You can see how this book is full of ethical, nearly impossible to answer, questions. And Picoult uses one of my favorite narrative tactics and writes each chapter telling the story from a different character's point of view - the dad's, the mom's, Anna's, her brother Jesse's, her lawyer's. Most noticeably, though, is the lack of Kate's point of view. We learn what we need to know about her from her family's eyes and experiences. Picoult paints a well-rounded picture of this family and these characters. They are fleshed out, flawed and entirely human. People make bad choices, they doubt and they struggle. My opinion on how to solve everyone's problems changed every time I read someone else's view on the issue - everyone has valid concerns that can't be discounted.

The only flaws in the book, for me, were the sarcastic humor (which fell flat and didn't appeal to me) and the foul mouths of several of the characters, including the 13 year old, which just grated on me. There were also a few things in the end that stretched my ability to "suspend my disbelief," considering the realistic nature of the story. You'll probably know it when you read it - it has to do with the father's job and his son.

Despite those couple things, this book made me think and it made me cry. I can't say it ever made me laugh or feel warm and fuzzy, necessarily, but the ending surprised me and pulled everything together in a way that I didn't quite expect. For the emotional punch and the ethical issues, this book is worth reading.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Incantation by Alice Hoffman

Rating: 4/5
Genre: Young Adult historical fiction

Rural Spain during the Spanish Inquisition is the setting for this story of betrayal, faith and hope. As tensions in her town begin to mount over the Jews in their midst, Estrella's relationship with her best friend becomes complicated, even hostile. Soon, secrets kept for generations crash into Estrella's comfortable world and suddenly nothing is as it seems.

This book deals with racism and violence in a sensitive and approachable way while not dumbing down the plot for a teenage audience. The history of Jews living in hiding is fascinating and I liked that both the grandfather and the mom are powerful forces in the community. While solidly historical fiction, the beliefs and rituals of the family give the book a magical feel that I liked.

My only complaint was that the action seemed to happen too fast and be over too soon. I'd have liked the love story to be developed a little more - we don't really get much of a sense of the love interest's character until the last ten pages of the book. For a young adult historical fiction novel, though, this one is a winner.

Friday, August 15, 2008

So Big by Edna Ferber

2 of 10 for the Book Awards Challenge II
10 of 11 for the Summer Reaching Challenge
3 of 6 for the Classics Challenge
3 of 3 for the td;lr challenge

Rating: 5/5
genre: adult fiction

I regret that I have waited so long to read this magnificent book.

Selina's unusual upbringing by a roving gambler in the late 19th century imbues her with a love of life and adventure. Her heart's desire to truly live leads her to say farewell to Chicago for the "High Prairie" where she takes a job as a teacher in a school full of farm children. As different as it is from the city, Selina finds beauty and a certain strength in the landscapes and the Dutch farmers she interacts with. Despite her longing to see the world, circumstances dictate that she stay put in that farm country and Selina's story plays out from there.

As much as this is Selina's story - her gritty, wide-eyed determination and her ability to find the beauty underneath the grime and toil - it's also the story of her son. Dirk, nicknamed So Big as a baby, is Selina's delight. Her wishes for him and the life she watches him choose for himself are at the crux of this novel. We, as readers, live through both of them, basking in their successes and mourning their heartache.

Selina is one of the most powerful and memorable characters I've ever read. Her love of what is real, her stubborn nature and fierce loyalty make her story a compelling one. Just as compelling is the backdrop of Chicago at the turn of the century and the lifestyle of both high society and the farmers who make sure they're fed.

Edna Ferber has written a truly American novel, full of pride and real people, whose dreams and realities rarely walk hand in hand. Read this for Selina. Read it for Chicago. Read it for an appreciation of the soil and those who till it. Read it for Ferber's deft hand and careful language, capturing characters and places you won't soon forget.

Monday, August 11, 2008

My Name is Number 4 by Ting-Xing Ye

Rating: 4
genre: Young Adult Memoir

Ting-Xing grew up during a particularly bleak time of China's modern history: the Cultural Revolution. Despite her family's incredibly poor circumstances (with both of her parents dead and five children to feed), in middle school she is labeled "bourgeoisie" is tormented and ridiculed because her father had owned a factory before the communist take over. As the political climate gets more and more fevered, Ting-Xing is soon exiled to a prison camp as a laborer, to help "ease overpopulation in the city" and life in the camp is, if possible, even less pleasant than in the city.

One of Ting-Xing's strengths as a writer is her ability to really capture her teenage self. I think teenager readers will relate to her experiences because beyond the horrific and disturbing experiences, she includes details that still concern teens today (relationships with siblings, the horrors of menstruation, guilt and loss). Not only that, it also makes plain that often during the cultural revolution it was teens and very young adults who turned against their friends and classmates (this is consistent with other memoirs I have read of the time). And while she paints herself as a victim, I think again, she is describing her teenage feelings - so it never felt as though she is begging for our sympathy for her experience, more so she can show others that she was just a normal teenage girl going through a horrendous experience that could've happened to anybody.

As Ting-Xing survives ordeal after ordeal in the prison camp, she slowly comes into her own and finds, somehow, a seed of hope that her life won't have to end in the rice patties. Her perseverance and strength are evident and a great example for teens and adults alike.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent

rating: 4.5/5
genre: adult historical fiction

This beautifully told and heartbreaking book is the story of Sarah Carrier, a ten year old girl living near Salem, Massachusetts in 1690. With near poetic prose, we witness a community harassed with Indian raids and smallpox plagues let fear and uncertainty turn into passion and terror. Neighbor turns against neighbor as old resentments and petty arguments lead to dire consequences - and Sarah and her family are sunk in the middle of it. Despite Sarah's previously course and unfriendly relationship with her mother, Goody Carrier, she's devastated when Goody Carrier is arrested for witchcraft.

Before we even get to the infamous witch trials, we read a portrait of Puritan life and come to truly care for Sarah and understand the harshness of colonial life and law. While not a gripping page turner at first, Kent's use of metaphor and her ability to find beauty in what must have been a truly bleak existence makes this book a joy to read. A few favorite quotes:

A needle is such a small, brittle thing. It is easily broken. It can hold but one fragile thread. But if the needle is sharp, it can pierce the coarsest cloth. Ply the needle in and out of a canvas and with a great length of thread one can make a sail to move a ship across the ocean. In such a way can a sharp gossipy tongue, with the thinnest thread of rumor, stitch together a story to flap in the breeze. Hoist that story upon the pillar of superstitious belief and a whole town can be pulled along with the wind of fear.

Being with Margaret was like standing inside the casing of a lantern, one that kept the warmth in and the stinging insects out.

The scenes during the trials and in the jail were so emotionally charged that I was brought to tears more than once. The story of The Heretic's Daughter is told with passion and grace and leaves one with a sense that there are things in life with struggling for and that there is more than one good way to selflessly love a parent or child. I look forward to reading more from this first time author.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer


In this fourth book of the Twilight series, Edward and Bella take the nuptial leap - with some very bizarre and far- reaching consequences. Alliances are made, families expand and the end of life as Bella knows it creeps ever closer.

I wasn't waiting as breathlessly for this book as some of my friends. I'm glad my expectations weren't too high, otherwise I would've been disappointed. As it is, I was surprised by how bored I was through the first 2/3 of the book. I felt like Meyer was taking way to long to tell the story: a twist would come up and we'd harp on it for fifty pages. Entire sections felt completely irrelevant to the plot. The humor and constant badgering between vampire and werewolf got old. Certain scenes, especially on the honeymoon, made me feel uncomfortable knowing that preteens I know have read this book - which isn't necessarily Meyer's fault, but a fact nonetheless. I'd definitely label it as adult fiction, not young adult.

One good thing I did notice is that Bella came into her own a bit - she didn't bother me half as much in this book as in the two previous books. The whiny-ness that annoyed me so much abated and she began to think outside of herself and Edward more. I finally really got into the story about 100 pages before it ended - the climax felt authentic and I liked how it was set up. The world she created came into a nice focus that I appreciated.

Can I recommend this book to everyone? Not likely. If you loved the first three, chances are you'll love this one.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

book 9 of 11 for the Summer Reading Challenge
book 1 of 10 for the Book Awards Reading Challenge II

RATING: 3/5 stars

In The Glass Castle, we meet Jeannette, the second child of an emotionally detached and "creative" mother and an alcoholic dreamer of a father. As they move (or "skeedaddle") from one trailer park or hovel to the next, Jeannette learns quickly that she can't depend on her parents for much of anything besides "sound" advice and a sink or swim education.

Growing up in the Wall family was like no other upbringing I've read about. While Walls tells her story without pity or judgment, which I really appreciated, it's clear that nearly everything in life Jannette ever scraped up for herself was her own doing. In vignette after vignette, she is failed by her parents. It rips your heart to read about their living conditions and interactions with neighbors -to follow along as a father drinks his family into an unfit-for-human-life house and a mother creates her life away. I kept waiting for some amazing role model or person to come into her life to "rescue" her but no one does. With grace and tenacity she plunges into the adult world on her own far too early and the only savior in this story is Jannette herself. She is even able to find moments of beauty from her childhood, before she's old enough to understand what she's missing, and those are lovingly written.

She isn't perfect, of course, and when she does something we would all see as incredibly unwise, she doesn't pretend that we're not right and she never makes excuses for her behavior. The writing is tight and never rambled or lost my attention. It certainly puts my own upbringing into perspective - if you are looking to read a pleasant coming of age story, you'd best look elsewhere. But it is, in a sense, fulfilling - since you know from the start that she makes it out somehow and the journey there is certainly a unique one.
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