Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Children's Book Review: Chloe and the Lion, by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Adam Rex

Q4 & A3

This book about mistakes and giving up and perseverance and bravery and cunning and collaboration is kind of adorable. Mac Barnett wrote himself and illustrator Adam Rex into the book; Chloe just wants to ride the Merry-go-Round, but Mac fires Adam over an artistic disagreement, then realizes that if he can't work with Adam, Chloe's story will never get completed. The writing and dialogue are casual and realistic. Chloe is a cheeky, clever, brave little girl sharing her story with her creators, who are believably absurd, self-involved adults.

The multimedia art was a little strange for me, because I kept trying to figure out what was drawn and what was three-dimensional, and in what order they had drawn and photographed things. It wasn't exactly conducive to following the story.

Overall, it was a unique story, and the multimedia aspect would be a good way to introduce kids to new types of art.

I recommend Chloe and the Lion for discussions about perseverance and working together, and also for readers looking for a unique experience and those interested in introducing their children to new artistic mediums.

Recommended ages 4 - 8. New York: Disney Hyperion Books, 2012. Print. 48 pages. ISBN: 978-1423113348.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Short Story Saturday: Seeking Boarder..., by Rahul Kanakia

This short story by Rahul Kanakia is another from Clarkesworld Magazine, and you can read it for free here. The full title of this short story is "Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)," and that title tells you pretty much everything I can say about the plot without telling you the whole thing. The story is told in the form of several listings for a boarder, and the poster may or may not be a reliable narrator. That's for the reader to decide. :)

I love stories with unreliable narrators, where I spend half of my time reading it trying to figure out if I'm the narrator is telling the truth, lying, or just delusional. I always think about "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a short story I read in college that is, in my opinion, one of the best examples of an unreliable narrator.

"Seeking Boarder..." is extremely well-written. The voice of the narrator was consistent and believable, and the story had a strange, uneasy mood that stayed with me for a while after reading. The story is more a study of the narrator's character than it is a plot-driven tale.

I would recommend this short story to people who enjoy unreliable narrators, stories told in non-standard formats, character-driven stories, and modern supernatural tales. It's extremely short, only 3762 words long, so I would also recommend it to someone who wants to spend no more than ten minutes reading something thought-provoking.

Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Book Review: A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness

To be honest, I'm not sure how to classify this book. There are monsters, but it's not really horror. There is magic and dreaming, but it's not really fantasy. It's in that strange place between children's and YA fiction, but it is also mature enough for adult readers to get something out of reading it. I do know that I loved it unreservedly and will definitely read it again.

Conor's mother is receiving treatment for cancer, he's being bullied at school, and he feels like he's been betrayed by his best friend. Patrick Ness writes a beautiful, poignant, heartbreaking, honest story about how Conor confronts his own personal monsters, aided by the help of the monster that was the yew tree growing in the church yard across the street.

I can't think of anyone I wouldn't recommend this book to. I let it sit on my shelf for almost a year before reading it, and I regret that immensely. Read this book immediately. You'll be glad you did.

Rating: 5 stars

Monday, September 29, 2014

Book Review: Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Jane Ellsworth is a 28-year-old single woman in an alternative Regency-era England where magic is commonplace, and viewed as another "womanly art," similar to drawing or music. She and her younger sister Melody, as most of the young women of the time period are portrayed, are very preoccupied by their marital status and the interest of the eligible bachelors.

I was disappointed in this book. I've really come to appreciate good chick lit, and the entire time I was reading Shades of Milk and Honey, I kept thinking that it was so similar to Pride and Prejudice, except that it was a pale imitation. The characters really missed the mark for me. Jane Ellsworth and her younger sister Melody (and pretty much everyone else) are simple, flat characters that the author seems to have pulled out of a book of basic character types. Jane is the plain but talented one who's resigned to spinsterhood, and Melody is the pretty but vapid one, and each of them are envious of the other's blessings. Their mother is sickly and obsessed with marrying them off, their father is beneficent but distant, etc., etc. I did identify with Jane a little bit. I'm the older daughter in my family, and I used to be jealous of my sister's model-worthy good looks while she envied my singing voice and artistic abilities. Except that we got over that when we were teenagers. I'll remind you that Jane is 28 years old, and her sister is in her early 20s. I'm just not sure if I believe their behavior was realistic. Beyond that, Jane's romantic story line was completely confusing. The love interest didn't have much screen time, and I only remember one extremely ambiguous and extremely brief description of what he even looked like. There was no tension between the two, just ambivalence and a mild quizzical feeling, so when they were suddenly in love, I felt like I should be flipping back through the chapters looking for when that happened.

All of that said, I did finish the book in one day, so it wasn't all bad. I liked the world that Kowal created, and her magic system was interesting, albeit without depth or purpose. Magic has so many possible useful applications, other than decoration, that could have been (but were not) explored. I feel like this whole book was like that. Enjoyable and mildly interesting, but without the real depth and social commentary that was present in Austen's books.

With some reservation, I would recommend this book to someone looking for very light reading set in a Regency-era England with magic.

Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Short Story Saturday: Fade to White, by Catherynne M. Valente

I read "Fade to White" when it was nominated for a Hugo last year, and it stuck with me all that night and through the next week. It was just one of those sticky kinds of stories. It had so much to say, and it did it in such a unique (to me) way.

It's a sort of alternate history of the post-WWII era. Something went entirely wrong with the war, and California was completely obliterated, in what sounds like some kind of nuclear bomb or disaster. It left most American men completely sterile, and many American women as well. In a sort of reversal of The Handmaid's Tale, the few men who are still potent become Husbands who have four or more wives. The story is told in three ways: first, there's advertising copy with the editors changes included. It's upbeat government-funded advertising that's meant to reassure Americans that as little as possible has changed. The second aspect of the story is in the point of view of Sylvie, a 15-year-old half-Japanese girl who is about to go to her Presentation, the ceremony where she submits to dozens of tests and finds out whether she's fertile and what careers she's eligible for. The third aspect of the story is told by Martin, a 15-year-old boy who daydreams about nothing but becoming a Father and is preparing for his Announcement, the corresponding ceremony and test for boys. These three views alternate, telling a tale that is extremely chilling, in part because of its believability.

I pretty much adore everything Catherynne Valente has ever written. She's amazing with words, writing things like, "she could cut glass with the diamond of her mind," and she always has a fascinating and beautiful story to tell, or a new observation to make about the world.

I would recommend that pretty much everyone click on that link above and go check out this story. It was published in Clarkesworld Magazine, and it's available for free online. It was nominated for a Nebula and a Hugo, and it was a Sidewise Award finalist. I would especially recommend it to alternate-history fans and people interested in the 40s, WWII, and the changes the war made by bringing women into the workplace.

Rating: 5 stars

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Book Review: Underland Chronicles, by Suzanne Collins

I realize that this is not so much a book review as a series review. I read all five volumes of this series in three days. It's safe to say I enjoyed it immensely.

Gregor is an 11-year-old who falls into a New York kid's version of Wonderland. Instead of talking rabbits, caterpillars, and cards, he finds himself in a world populated by six-foot tall talking rats, bats big enough to ride on, and enormous cockroaches, as well as a race of humans with translucent white skin and violet eyes. The Underland is on the verge of war, and according to the Underlanders' prophecies, Gregor is the warrior who will save them all.

Each book follows a formula: Gregor and his sister Boots (and sometimes one or two other members of their family) go to the Underland, Gregor finds out about a prophesy concerning him, he goes on an adventure, the prophesy is unraveled, and Gregor and Boots go back home.

Within this format, the books explore what it means to belong somewhere, when (and if) war and violence are legitimate, and whether you can have any power over your own life when someone else is telling you what you have to do (even when the person telling you is doing so through a centuries-old prophesy). Collins does not hesitate to kill her characters when it's necessary, which makes the story more believable, and I think that death and grief are important things for children to read about. This series is full of darkness and pain, but also humor, love, and excitement. I also loved Luxa, the princess of the human Underlanders. She's young, but she's a strong-minded warrior, and I've always been a fan of strong female characters.

This series, with its prophesies and wonderful young characters, was a really fun read. Gregor's 2-year-old sister, Boots, comes with him on all of his adventures, and she brings an element of lightheartedness to the books, while grounding Gregor in reality. He can't get too lost in being a hero when he needs to change his baby sister's diaper.

I would highly recommend these books to readers who thought Wonderland wasn't gritty enough, and readers who like exciting adventure stories.

Rating: 4 stars

Monday, September 22, 2014

Book Review: The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

I loved this book. It's been on my to-read list for a very long time, but for some reason, I never managed to pick it up. Actually, I know the reason. The cover is uninspiring, and I have always been a girl who judges a book by its cover. If you're not supposed to do that, what's the cover for, anyway?! After having read the book, I'm rather unclear on exactly what the crooked, badly "pruned," yellow-leaved tree on the cover has to do with the story whatsoever. But I don't make those decisions, so...

As I said, I loved this book. The Magicians is divided into four parts. In the beginning of the first part, Quentin Coldwater, a brilliant high school senior obsessed with a series of fantasy books set in the magical world Fillory (a sort of Narnia-like place of clear-cut good and evil, talking animals, and ram gods, accessed at random through clocks, closets, etc., and in which children always seem to go on exciting quests), has one of his closest-held dreams come true. He is told that magic is real, and he's offered a position in the only American university that teaches it. The first part of the book is reminiscent of Harry Potter, if only because it is a bunch of young(ish) wizards learning how to do magic. But instead of seeming like a pale imitation of something else, Lev Grossman acknowledges the inevitable similarities and creates something entirely his own.

One deliberate reference to the similarities was when Quentin went to look for a member of his welters team (welters is a sort of magical man-sized chess game in which teams try to capture squares on a giant board using magic). Josh is talking to a dealer in magical items when Quentin finds him, half an hour after the game started. Josh looks at the dealer and asks, "Got anything for time travel? Time-turner or something?" When the dealer says he'll look into it, Josh says, "Awesome. Send me an owl." Later in that same scene, he says, "Gotta get my quiddich costume. I mean uniform. I mean welters."

But instead of being a book about becoming a wizard, The Magicians is a book about becoming a man. Quentin has everything. He's incredibly smart, he's probably headed to Princeton, his parents are still married and live well enough in Brooklyn...but he's unhappy. When he is told magic is real and offered the chance to learn it, his dreams come true. But he's still unhappy, feeling like his real life hasn't really started yet. At its core, The Magicians is an exploration into the follies of living for some more desirable future, rather than being happy with an already amazing present. Lev Grossman does this by writing about what it would be like for someone to get everything he ever wanted, only to realize that bringing his fantasies into the real world changes them, or changes his perception of them, and once he gets everything he wants, he has to find something new to desire, or feel directionless.

I think Lev Grossman's use of Harry Potter and Narnia references is incredibly smart, because those are the worlds that today's young people fantasize about. He hands those dreams to Quentin with no strings attached. And then he asks the question: Now what?

I would recommend this book to anyone who's ever fantasized about being spun into another, more beautiful, magical world.

Rating: 5 stars!