I've been hooked on books since childhood, and still am. I usually have at least three books going at any given time. After nearly two decades teaching middle school, I've developed strong opinions about YA fiction. A married mother of many adult children, and a practicing Catholic, my moral paradigms do play into my reviews.
The story of Pride and Prejudice, but seen through the eyes of the hidden class, the servants in the Bennett household. If you are a dyed-in-the-wool P&P fanatic, this might just turn you off, because the characters in P&P are mere backstory here. In addition, it is a somewhat moody novel, even bleak or grim in places, without the cherry-on-top happy ending that we often crave, so bear that in mind. That said, I liked it a lot (and I am a Jane Austen reader, but not a fanatic) and am glad to have read it, and would recommend it.
Our hero is the Bennett's downstairs maid, Sarah, an orphan who chafes at her restricted life, and whose concerns are far more pressing than when the next ball might be. The servants have a whole world of their own "under the stairs". There is a hierarchy of servants, and they have their own spats, and secrets, as well as kindness and hope, and perhaps a bit of romance as well. But their days are long, unbearably long, and their labors are far more burdensome than the upper-crust Bennetts might realize. It was interesting to me, from a historical point of view, to see the amount of dirt and mess and muck and manure (lots of that) they had to deal with, while always appearing pristine, polite, and well-coiffed. The reader unfamiliar with what it takes to maintain an "aristocratic" home (though the Bennetts barely make the cut, as country gentry) will be surprised by the long and arduous daily tasks the servants must do, and always do invisibly, to keep the household running. There was a reason maids often died before age 30.
Our main character, Sarah, spends a lot of time complaining about her chilblains (blisters that arise when skin is exposed to extreme cold or heat). She is in charge of laundry, so her hands are constantly subjected to hot water and cold water, and hot irons and and cold air, and yet she must take care not to get any fluids from her chilblains onto the laundry. Then there's the wood to cut, the water to boil, the uniforms to starch and iron, the food to store and cook and serve and clean up after... This disconnect between the leisurely life of the Bennett sisters, who chat and read, visit with others, and play the piano, while changing clothes three or four times a day, and the stupefying struggle of their maids to just get through the workload of another day really highlights the difference in the classes. In some places I found Sarah to be a bit TOO modern in her thinking. By that I mean that most house servants in the Regency era knew they were servants and were, quite early on I imagine, disabused of any ideas of moving up in society. Sarah has a more modern outlook: she KNOWS she can be more. That said, the truth of the matter is, she probably cannot.
The main housekeeper, Mrs. Hill, (I loved this character) is stern but kind hearted, and (SPOILER ALERT) towards the end when Mr. Hill dies we discover just how kind-hearted she really was. She sees in Sarah the yearnings for a larger world, and tries to help her find some peace with her lot in life, as she herself has done. But in Sarah's eyes, Mrs. Hill has merely "settled" for less than she could have had, and Sarah refuses to do so. The reality was, in those Regency days, crossing "up" into higher levels of society was virtually impossible. Mrs. Hill found her love and her peace where she could.
There's a love interest for Sarah, who seems like a good hearted fellow, but he leaves, and while he is gone, there is an exotic footman she meets as well, who pursue her a bit. So, SORT of a romantic love triangle, but not really, because good guy comes back and footman graciously yields. (Through the footman's eyes we see how narrow Sarah's life experience really is.) Honestly the romance was far less interesting to me than the feeling of peeking behind the kitchen door to see what was REALLY going on in the gentry homes of that era, all across Europe.
Recommended. Conservative parents should be aware of the presence in the novel of a brief mention of a loving, committed homosexual relationship, and an out of wedlock pregnancy. Makes for great conversations with your teens!
How did I not notice this novel until now? Shame on me! Go buy it, all of you! Go now and get the whole set! I'm in process of getting the rest of them into my hot little hands.
The book opens with a marvelous "Note on the text", explaining that these folk tales from the Annaren society have not ever been translated into English before. The legends of the Edil-Amarandh people are therefore being here presented for the first time by the author. This intro lends a bit of historicity to the book. It is of course utterly fictional, but still, a delightful device.
Maerad, our heroine, is a lowly slave in her mid-teens, living in a pretty depressing mountain stronghold at the beginning of the book. She's considered a bit of a witch, and has only a few memories of her mother to console her in her lonely life. An accidental encounter in a barn changes everything: or was it accidental at all? Escaping her life of sorrow and drudgery with a strange man named Cadvan puts her on a road filled with danger and surprises, but also many delights.
They must first escape the evil that holds her in her mountainous prison. Along the way, Cadvan begins to suspect there is far more to Maerad than even she knows. He is a Bard, a musician and teacher. All Bards in the land of Annar are teachers of some kind, or makers, of everything from music and writing to swordplay and carpentry. The Barding schools, scattered across the country, have traditionally been places of learning, hope, and service.... but a darkness is spreading through the land, and Cadvan is out to find out where it comes from. As he begins to know more about Maered, he begins to suspect that she is of an ancient and important line, and may in fact be the Foretold, who will save the world from being engulfed in evil. The two must travel across the land (well, not all of it yet, but I suspect that will come in the other books) to get assistance in getting Maerad instated as a Bard and to find out what is causing the growing Darkness.
SO much to like here. The author is a gifted writer who bothers to craft marvelous sentences and meaningful dialogue. The battle of Light against Darkness, obviously, The stunning poetry of the lyrics. Vast and sweeping in scale like Tolkien (it even has an awesome hand drawn map at the front, so cool!,) I found it easier to read overall. There's considerable backstory added at the end, an explanation of the "Ages" of Annar. The charmingly imperfect female lead character of Maerad is easy to love, and she visibly grows in her maturity, self-knowledge, and confidence as the book progresses, and her slightly mysterious but likable male guide, Cadvan, has a back story that is only just getting revealed as the first novel ends. The good guys are complex, not flat, and just like in real life, often disagree about thing and even aggravate one another-- but they are connected and they know it, simply because they all love the good. The bad guys are not written as flat characters either. In some cases, they even appear to be good: "demons appearing as angels of light", if you are Scriptural. But the evil they do is centered on selfishness, and the darkness that grows from that is threatening the entire land.
I was utterly charmed by the beautiful lyrics to the songs in this book, and am dying to hear them sung aloud. (I had the same feeling about the songs from Anne McCaffrey's glorious Pern series, and finally managed to get my hands on a CD called MasterHarper of Pern.) If anyone knows whether or not the songs from this series have been scored and/or recorded, I would be eternally grateful.
I loved this. LOVED it. Read it in two days flat. Have already ordered the rest of the series. Ms. Croggon avoids cliches and heavy-handed foreshadowing, and (rare for me) I did not often know ahead of time what was going to happen. The bit with Hem was a great twist to the story and I hope we get to find out what develops with him as the series progresses. The characterizations are so wonderful, I feel like I know some of the people in this book as real persons.
Regarding this book for children: I highly recommend it. The book contains no sex and the only romance present is shown between married couples, with the exception of one poignant kiss for Maerad. Scary monsters/ evil creatures like weyrs and wights, do appear, and there are several instances which refer to bad guys doing terrible things to innocent people, especially towards the end as Maerad's memories return. But I would say, nothing a 6th grader (say age 11?) cannot handle, especially if they have already read anything by Tolkien, or The Hunger Games.
Put it in every school library and push it at your children. Make them listen to the audio CD in the car. This is a great book for young adults ... and for us regular ones, too.
Book review for Strikers, by Ann Christy
What a joyous find, when I discovered this author quite accidentally via a free Kindle book. Ann Christy is a recently retired Naval officer and this book of her has me hunting down the rest of her work avidly. Strikers is the best kind of dystopian novel: strong central character, interesting ethical dilemmas, hints but not giveaways about the nature of the world and its collapse, thoughtful details, NO LOVE TRIANGLE (Thank you Ms. Christy for that), and an ending that, while satisfying, leaves me ready for book two. It is both a novel exploring the right role of government, a journey tale, and a coming of age story, all wrapped together.
Karras, 16, is our heroine, who lives alone with her abusive alcoholic mother, in a small Texas town in the Republic of Texas. Her father disappeared years ago across the border. The United States is apparently long gone, and several nations are now spread across the continent. They do not apparently get along very well at all. The state of things beyond the boundaries of the nation is reported to be quite terrible: but is that true? The event(s) leading to this state of affairs are not discussed in this first novel, but I wonder if they will come further in. Within Texas, society is pretty orderly, and the law is quite clear and firm: you are allowed four 'strikes" or crimes, and for each you are given a stripe tattoo on the neck, or a "strike". Earn five, and you are labeled a "habitual criminal" and executed, with alarming efficiency. Karras has two strikes already, for destruction of a neighbor's property (even though it was accidental). In Texas you have total freedom: but you also have to take total responsibility for all actions.
When Karras and her friend Connor attend the mandatory "parade of prisoners" in town, they make two startling discoveries: first they discover that Conner's brother, Maddix, who ran off a few years before to cross the border into the Wildlands, has been captured and returned, and will surely be killed for his crime of leaving. But they also discover that one of the other prisoners is Karras' father. He too is certain to be marked for execution: and Karras and Connor quickly decide they have to take action to rescue them. Things go badly: a clean get away becomes impossible.
Thus begins a headlong flight out of Texas, along with her friend Cassi, who is blessed with natural physical beauty and a cheerful, kind heart, and an old acquaintance, Jovan, who despite his wealth and family's elevated position turns out to have his own reasons for wanting out of Texas. Unfortunately, Jovan's father does not wish to let him go. The group is pursued with relentless intent by evil henchmen who were hired by Jovan's father, to return him, at all costs. As they travel, they must find food, shelter, and water, and learn the different cultural norms in each area they approach, but they also have to avoid the bad men chasing them.
There are so many things I appreciated about this novel. First off, strong female character who does not fall apart or cry all the freaking time, and does not need or pursue a romance. Second, relatedly, NO LOVE TRIANGLE. This is a HUGE plus for me, as it seems all dystopian novels lately must have this absurd gimmick, and she avoids it entirely, thank you Ms. Christy!! Third, realistic world: we are never really told entirely what happened to lead to the separation of the states into competing and often hostile nations with tightly closed borders, but hints are given, and the regional differences have, over time, developed into cultures that are different and have different concerns and priorities. Karras thinks Texas has the best of all things, but she begins to discover that perhaps what she has been told about life outside Texas is just propaganda after all. The reader gets to learn about things as the characters learn about things: slowly, bit by bit. I very much enjoyed watching Karras and her friends encounter and struggle to understand new things, like squirrels and the Gulf of Mexico.
I also got a real kick out of figuring out the map as she travels. Names have changed and some towns are gone while others remain, such as Houston. As a North Texan, I really enjoyed this: Wicha, for example, is surely Wichita Falls. Benton is most likely Denton. The sunken city of Nola must be New Orleans, and its plight a hint at what may have occurred to change he world so drastically. The Mighty Miss, clearly, is the Mississippi River, and so on.
The novels asks some pretty serious questions: What is freedom worth? Is total order and peace possible, and if so, what is the price we pay for that? Where should the balance between social order and personal liberty be drawn? In Karras' hometown, things are orderly, but not really fair: yet the people have agreed to live this way and now it has become institutionalized. Some families hold the vast majority of water and land: the rest make do. Wealthier families are far less likely to earn a strike for the same exact action that would earn a poor family a strike. This is known and simply accepted, with some frustration but no real sense that it can be changed. On the way they encounter places with a different set of balances.
There is romance in the book, but it is handled so softly that I will have no trouble putting this novel into my 8th grade classroom. (basically two kisses, and a clear sense of attraction between two characters.) I am EAGER for the sequels to be released and in the meantime and buying other Ann Christy novels to read. I finished this one in two days.
Book Review: Naughts and Crosses, by Malorie Blackman
Powerful and thought provoking book about prejudice. I found it disconcerting -- in the best possible way.
"Crosses" rule the country and are the only ones holding jobs in government and other higher-up well-educated careers, both economically and status-wise. Sephy, our heroine, is a Cross, and her father is powerfully high up. Her mother, however, is a pretty miserable soul. Their money and social status cannot make her happy. (Lesson there!)
Her love interest, Callum, is a Naught. Romance between a Naught and a Cross is utterly unthinkable and unacceptable to everyone. Naughts are not permitted higher education, but Callum really wants it: and suffers greatly when he gets a chance to go to school. A few "Naughts" have gotten educated, but at great personal cost -- and with little to show for it, as Crosses simply won't hire them for jobs requiring educationed skills. Callum's family is struggling, both financially and emotionally, from the opening scene in the novel, despite being hard working and fairly loving individuals. His sister is.... well, mentally unstable as a result of an "incident" which is never really fully revealed, but implications are clear. His parents are exhausted, grief stricken, and worried. His brother is just pissed off.
For the first third or so of the book, it is unclear to the reader what exactly separates the Naughts from the Crosses.....and when you discover it, you will be startled and hopefully uncomfortable. The book raises some powerful questions. For example, what if we are prejudiced and we do not even know it or see it in ourselves? How do you change the mind of a prejudiced person? And a burning issue: what are the ethical limits of revolt when you are being grossly oppressed? Is militant violence acceptable? Necessary? Even noble and understandable?
As both Sephy and Callum wrestle with this situation, the tension seeps into their own relationship. Things become messay and complicated, just like in real life, and they struggle to discern what is the right thing to do in the face of rising violence and opposition to their relationship.
This may be the best novel for youth on racism that I have ever read.
Not appropriate for younger students, say beneath high school age, as there is considerable adult drunkenness, some very nasty racially motivated bullying, a handful of kidnappings and beatings, one instance of premarital sex and an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. But a powerful read for older students, say 15 and up, or those concerned with racism and other social justice issues.
Kudos to the author, I look forward to reading her other novels.
Book Review: Shamer's Daughter, by Lene Kaaberbol
How did this book get past me when it was first published? The premise is described in the trailer for the novel: Dina is the daughter of the Village Shamer, a woman who can read the truth in people through looking at their eyes, and the daughter has inherited the gift herself, though at the beginning of the novel it sure does not FEEL like a gift to her.
This book has many things I liked: a realistic setting (medieval-ish, and maybe somewhere rather like northern England or Scotland in, say, the 1100s or so?) and a likable heroine who is NOT perfect. Then there's mystery, and people striving for power, and real dragons who are nasty and relentlessly awful, and a hero boy (Nico) who is also likable and flawed and who (for once) does NOT save the day for the girl. A little politics, some nasty fighting, a close-to-dying experience or two, and a bit of female friendship, and this book has everything a middle school kid, (male or female) might want.
Loved that this did not end on a rosey happy syrupy sweet note. Was amazed to find that this was originally written in Danish, and translated into English: nicely done! It flows beautifully. Note to parents: there are a handful of words that some might find offensive, such as slut and whore. They are used by nasty people behaving in mean ways, and are clearly not encouraged to be used by the readers. But they are in there. Also, the villain is a true sociopath and his mother, Lady Death, creeped me out. But their motivation for what they do in the book is utterly realistic and believable.
I found the mother to be a character truly worth emulating: honest even when it may cost not only her own life but her child's as well, and truly not interested in what other people think of her. Dina begins to see this as the book progresses, and also finds that the burdonsome gift she has inherited might also be a blessing as well. The Widow Petri is much the same way: good to the core, and mature.
I'm just amazed I did not brush up against this series before now, as it was published in 2002. Looking forward to finding the sequels.
Review of Boys Adrift, by Dr. Leonard Sax
This is a fairly long and detailed review of a book I read and studied for my professional development as a teacher. I was seeking some insight into why young men in my 8th grade classroom are so wiggly and unimpressed with deadlines. I got some answers. I may or may not agree with everything I read there, but here is my review of this fascinating book.
The book opens with a chapter titled “The Riddle”, discussing the various ways that boys in general, and throughout history(American history, at least) have struggled with, disdained, or outright rebelled against school. He walks through several very disturbing statistics to back up his concerns about boys really not succeeding scholastically, not engaging in the “system” or in real life very much, and what is perhaps worse, really not caring either. It is this apathy that is the author’s main concern.He does also have a book about girls and their issues, so calm down gender activists!
He lists five concerns that may account for the growing number of boys (and men) who seem to be falling away from education: (1) changes in the way we teach and structure classrooms now, (2) an addiction to video games and the results of that, (3) the overuse of certain prescription medication (especially for ADHD), (4) environmental toxins, especially endocrine disruptors in the environment (think plastics), and (5) the devaluation of masculinity overall in our culture, resulting in, among other things, insufficient or inappropriate role models.
A look at the changes in educational theory and practice in the last 40-50 years gives us some insight into this disengagement of the male half of the youth population we serve. First, it is poppycock that girls and boys can “learn the same way”. And we need to acknowledge that. the physical difference in boys and girls goes well beyond their external and internal reproductive organs. One suggestion, based on the speed and pattern of brain development in both boys and girls, is that we simply start school later in life, especially for boys, waiting until their brains are sufficiently developed, and ready to handle learning to read and write. This speaks in favor of holding kids (mostly boys) back a year or two early on, especially from Kindergarten. He also argues in favor or a more hands-on style of learning, with longer breaks and more “play” or “free” time. Think longer recesses, and more outdoor and experiential learning. More “kenntnis” and less “wissenschaft” (see p. 29) In addition, he speaks at length on how treating children like little computers who can be programmed leaves out a huge portion of the complexity that is a human being. You don’t have to motivate your computer.
The feminization of education was perhaps what interested me the most. Boys no longer “fit well” into what is considered ‘acceptable” in school. Boys like to move around, they like to compete, they like hero stories, war stories, manly things like sports and being the protector: but they are being told to sit down, be quiet, and write essays about “how they feel.” The author cited as a great example a short story he wrote 30 years ago in middle school about breaking out of a German Prisoner Of War Camp, which today would get him sent to a psychiatrist for evaluation for “violence.” He also argues that every child who wants to play on a team sport should be allowed to play, since competition in appropriate arenas is vital to the male psyche. Boys respond best to any challenge where there is a clear winner and loser, and there is a chance that anyone could win if they try hard enough. The author also makes a striking argument in favor of team competition in the classroom as being very motivating for boys. And a compelling argument for gender specific schools, as well. A girl who thinks she's smart will perform better; conversely a boy who thinks he's smart will usually not try as hard and thus will perform worse. "Build the girls up, break the boys down" captures the essence of research. I am sorting through my thoughts on this topic. But my 20+ years of experience in middle school classrooms backs up most of what he says anecdotally, and he has research galore in this book, citation after citation.
The video game conversation confirms what we have known for some time: a child whose early life consists predominantly of being entertained by a computer screen simply will not develop in the same way that a child who has been sent outside to play will develop. Video games have replaced, not other leisure activities, but outdoor activities, primarily. One of the reasons boys are so drawn to video games is that there, in virtual reality, he is rewarded for being competitive, and physical --even violent. At school, he is “punished” for both. In a video game, you also get to control your environment: what Nietzche calls the “will to power.” The author cites how, throughout history, men with a strong “will to power” became great leaders, explorers, soldiers, and innovators. But today, they would likely become video game addicts instead. In addition, many video games teach a distorted view of what ”masculine” is.
There’s an overwhelming preponderance of evidence which correlates time spent playing video games to lower academic performance. Now correlation is not causation, but the evidence is clear that balancing both the time you spend playing, and choosing the game you play, can make a difference. There’s mounting evidence that spending too much time playing video games can make a boy literally less intelligent, and less able to deal with and solve real-life problems. In earlier generations, the real life leisure activities of men were likely to teach the very skills needed to solve real world problems: patience, ingenuity, virtue, compromise. Video games teach none of these. In addition, some video games teach extreme anti-social behaviors. Dr. Sax provides some excellent recommendations not only for choosing which games to allow, but for limiting their use, and prioritizing your family’s choices in leisure activities.
The third problem Dr. Sax discusses is the overuse of prescription medication, especially for ADHD. He does not argue that ADHD is a recently made-up diagnosis, but he does argue that we expect too-compliant behavior from boys, too early, without taking into account their physicality. He also states that parents can sometimes feel that they are “off the hook” if the problem is a medical diagnosis, rather than a behavioral one, so medicine is appealing to them. One concern is the use of outcome being applied as proof of diagnosis, when in fact even children without ADHD perform better in school while on these drugs. Another concern is the proven changes in personality, over time, of boys using these medications. It seems to blunt their drive to achieve, permanently. The medications appear to damage the part of the brain responsible for turning motivation to action. I am concerned about this and want to do more research myself. I have seen great changes in children who do seem to need these medications in my own school, but was largely unaware of the long term consequences research is turning up.
His fourth concern is environmental toxins and pollutants. This is an area I am growing more concerned about personally, but have not done extensive research into as of yet, so I found this interesting as well. Various environmental pollutants can disrupt the production of endocrines, and come from a variety of sources, including phthalates found in plastics such as plastic water and soda bottles, pacifiers and baby bottles. These “endocrine disruptors” have been shown to cause early onset of puberty in girls, while having the opposite effect -- a delay of puberty or even onset of feminine traits-- on boys. They have also been linked with the disruption of brain function in the area of memory and motivation, as well as ADHD, again, affecting girls differently than boys. He also refers to these chemicals as “environmental estrogen,” as they mimic those female hormones. There may also be a connection to the increase in childhood obesity and these environmental estrogens.
His final concern was the overall feminization of our culture and the severe lack of role models for “true manhood” available to boys. (He half-jokingly calls this the Revenge of the Forsaken Gods.) He stresses the importance of having multiple male role models for boys as they make the transition to adulthood, and the importance of bonds between generations of males. An interesting thought expressed by email to the author: "You mentioned 'the engine that runs the world.' As for me, I think that the engine is the love of a good woman and the ambitions we have together for the family we are raising and for the world we want them to inherit... Has our intellectual elite and our popular culture tinkered with 'the engine that runs the world'? Have we violated something that the ancients knew intuitively but which we have arrogantly ignored?" --Kent Robertson. Another thing he discusses is the lack of transitional moments for boys. Manhood isn't something that simply happens to boys as they get older. It's an achievement-- something a boy accomplishes, something that can easily go awry. If we ignore the importance of this transition, and fail in our duty as parents to guide boys through it, then we will learn the hard way why traditional cultures invest this transition with so much importance. What does it mean to be a "man"—it means using your strength in the service of others. LOVE that.
I appreciated the well-documented research, and the author’s tendency to question even his own sources. I also appreciated his recommendations. I will be making some changes to my classroom as a result, including allowing more physical movement, perhaps chairs that permit wiggling like yoga balls and rolling office chairs, more team activities and making more things into competitions, and presenting/ emphasizing real male role models for the boys in our history and literature studies.
Matched, first in the Matched trilogy by Ally Condie
In Cassia's world, everything you need is already decided for you by Society, in order to give you the safest, longest, healthiest, most peaceful life you can possibly have. No need for you to make any choices at all. Society will choose for you. Your mate, your job, your home, what art to view, what poems to read, what free time activities to participate in, what foods to eat, even what questions to ask, it's all taken care of for you. Any attempt to step outside of the boundaries placed on you (for your own good, of course) results in serious reprisals.
Sort of a grown up version of the classic children's novel, The Giver by Lois Lowry, this book asks many of the same questions. At the start of the book, our heroine Cassia is a willing and happy participant in this Society. But as she gradually wakes up from her acceptance of this choice-less life, things get complicated. Are her parents truly happy? Does Society really know what is best for her? Why has she begun to develop feelings for a young man who is NOT going to be her mate in life?
Way better than a lot of what passes for YA fiction, largely due to two factors: realistically gradual paradigm shifts, and solidly strong writing. I love dystopian fiction in general because it allows us to ask hard questions: the one this book asks is an age-old one, well worth discussing late into the night over brandy or beers: Is safety and security worth giving up your freedom for? And if so, how much freedom, for how much security? It's the story of human history, the attempt to balance personal freedom against the common good. Sometimes we err on the side of freedom, sometimes we err on the side of order: but the balancing act goes on.
I appreciated the methodical (in the best sense, not in the sense of plodding) development of Cassia's very gradual intellectual awakening. From the start of the book to the end, she changes utterly, but none of it happens overnight. Often in YA fiction, the hero or heroine sees or hears one thing and suddenly their whole personality is altered, and EVERYTHING changes..... which irritates the bejezus out of me. People don't behave that way in real life.
This novel handles her transformation FAR more deftly and realistically. Cassia is given one piece of information, which causes her to question some things, but her behavior does NOT change, and her allegiance to her Society and its methods don't instantly crumble. She then learns another thing, and thinks of more questions, but again, continues to exist as she has before, while her internal monologue slowly alters. THIS is how things really usually happen, and the author captured that gradual life-shift so very very well. This is true both in the way Cassia views her Society and in the romantic love interest department.
Speaking of love interest, wouldn't it be wonderful to have just one popular YA novel WITHOUT a freaking love triangle? Sigh. That said, at least this one is not your normal absurd love triangle. There's Xander, the boy she grew up with and loves like a BFF, and with whom she is "Matched" by Society. Then there's Ky, the Aberrant boy who can never be matched with anyone, but with whom she gradually (there's that lovely word again) develops a relationship, which in turns gradually grows into a romance. The boys do not get into some ridiculous show down over who "gets" to get the girl, and she does not pit them against each other: in fact, she shows a tender concern for the feelings of both young men, and struggles to discern what she ought to do. She shows honesty and she wants to treat them both as real human beings, with dignity and value, and she wants to be true. How can you not like that?
Several other things I liked very much about this book:
1. The forbidden poetry. In this dystopia, to "eliminate clutter", only 100 poems, "the very best", have been allowed to survive. (Also only 100 paintings and 100 pieces of music.... my heart is broken just pondering this) All copies of others have been destroyed... but Cassia accidentally finds a lost poem....and it tugs at her heart. Her relationship with Ky begins to grow around their sharing of forbidden poetry. The way that poetry in this world is literally a commodity, worth trading on an actual black market, delighted me. That said, I should reveal that I am a literature teacher, so of course I would find the idea of Dylan Thomas' masterpiece "Do not go gentle into that good night" being more valuable than, say, gold, very very appealing.
2. Grandpa. I love the scenes with Grandpa before he dies. His way of saying more than he is saying. His refusal to play on Society's terms. I love the wayCassia remembers him after, and the effect he has on her choices. I love the compact, with its beautiful secret. I love the way his memory drives her. I love his fieriness.
3. Subtlety. This book is rife with it. I know some reviewers have said that makes it slow or boring: I think it makes it delicious and far more fun to read than more obvious, vulgar YA fiction that gives you all the secrets and answers right up front. You get hints here.... but not the full picture. As the book develops, it becomes clear that Society might not be as stable as they proclaim.... but you are not told that up front in chapter one, or in fact ever told it overtly anywhere. It comes in delicate bits of information, gleaned as you go. I deeply appreciate this more mature kind of writing. I can hardly wait to read the sequel.
4. Its lack of violence. I know, I know, some people found this book "boring". But I am relieved to find a dystopian fiction novel for youth that does not feature wholesale human slaughter. While I enjoyed the Hunger Games immensely and like the book Divergent, I was often distressed by the bloody mess going on almost constantly. This book is calmer, quieter, and in some ways made far more sinister by the very lack of violence.
I liked Matched well enough that upon finishing it, I immediately went online and ordered the complete trilogy for my classroom. But I will read the sequels first.:>)
One complaint: the cover. I hate it. No boy in my classroom would be caught dead with a book with this cover on it.
Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi
Bacigalupi has written a complex, violent novel in a grimly plausible near-future, where our rape of the planet has altered not just the physical plane, but also the way we live. The coastlines are altered beyond recognition as the seas rise, and resources worldwide have failed. Massive destructive storms ("city killers") are now normal events. The gap between rich and poor is so enormous now that they hardly know about one another anymore. Our hero, Nailer, is a wiry youth living on the beaches of the southern coastline, on the fringes of becoming a member of a ruthless recycling gang. Day to day survival is iffy, and the chances of a better life to come are nearly zero. They live (barely) by stripping useable bits from wrecked oil tankers, sleeping at night in shanty huts on the sand, and noshing on roasted rats and bits of fruit.
I liked the first half of the novel better than the second. In the first half, we meet Nailer's "tribe": his fellow crew mates (who would all gladly kill him if it meant another meal for themselves), and his one friend Pima and her mother Sadna (my favorite person in the book), as well as his tormented and abusive father. I was intrigued with how well the author wrote about Nailer's attempts to sidetrack his vicious father (repeatedly described as feral: we need a synonym for that word) as he begins to get worked up into a kid-beating frenzy. It gave me some insight into abused children.
I was intrigued by the half-human "dog man" character Tool, a genetically engineered bodyguard, and would gladly read a whole book explaining where he came from and how he became what he is, which defies logic. And I want to know how Sadna managed to retain such humanity in the inhumane world in which she must live.
Bacigalupi is a talented writer, in places completely suspending my reality. When Nailer nearly dies by drowning alone in the dark in an oil tank, for instance, I was engulfed in fear. I also loved the scene in the city, when Nailer, seeing his father with some henchmen, hides under the floating sidewalk and follows them, trying to listen from beneath without being seen. I have actually experienced being hidden in the water, underneath people on a dock like that, low to the water, and I felt he really captured the experience.
I was frustrated by the "pretty" girl Nailer rescues, both because she is not well-fleshed out, even by the end of the novel, and because he had to make her pretty. Why pretty? Why not smart, or interesting, or even just exotic looking to Nailer? I was glad the romance between the two is kept to a minimum. I wish more details had emerged about (a) why so many people with means and money are so loyal to her, and (b) what her motivations are. Maybe in the sequel? I also wished there had been a bit less philosophizing by the young people. For example, just SHOW me that Nailer is beginning to develop compassion: don't tell me what he is thinking about whether or not he should show compassion.
On the whole I really liked the novel. His world building is detailed and wonderful. The fusion of religions, the harvesting of organs for profit, the lack of choices and mobility, the failure of resources, the bits of the old reality that survive (the name Lucky Strike, for instance, or the idea of calendar pictures hung on the wall, inspiring dreams) all rang true to me.
It's quite brutal to read: Nailer must kill several people, in one case by slashing a woman's throat as she lies sleeping, and (spoiler alert) he eventually must kill his own father. Several people die throughout the novel, others get maimed and cast away to be exiled and likely die, and suffer other horrors. Early on, for instance, we are told the tragic tale of a younger, smaller child who got lost in the bowels of the oil tankers while seeking cooper wire to scavenge, and he dies there, alone, his body eaten by rats. Such imagery makes this book for more suitable for older young adults, over 12 at least.
The Knife of Never Letting Go: Book one in the trilogy called Chaos Walking, by Patrick Ness.
Todd Hewitt, a teenager on the cusp of manhood, appears to live in a small town dominated by angry male religious nutcases. He's had an unusual upbringing, since all the women have died. All of them. In fact, he has never seen a woman at all. He's being raised by Ben and Cillian, life partners. And the men in town have all caught a germ that renders their thoughts-- all thoughts, all the time-- audible to others.
Now stop and think for a moment what your life would be life if every single thing you ever thought could be picked up by everyone around you, and vice versa. (Hence the title of the series, CHAOS WALKING.)
The constant barrage of thoughts is called The Noise, and learning to control your noise is problematic. Lying is of course virtually impossible. Yet everyone in his town is in fact lying to him. (I struggled a bit with how such a huge lie would be possible, but accepted it as part of the plot line.) As he and his faithful dog Manchee begin to discover, things in Prentisstown are not at all what they seem. The reader soon learns that Prentisstown is on an alien world, and was a colony-based settlement that has been cut off from all other settlements for decades now.
Why? What made them be cut off? That question is central to the novel. What great and horrible secret are the men of Prentisstown hiding?
Todd discovers a new something in the swamp near the edge of town, a lack of noise, an empty silence, and sees his first ever female human person. Females apparently do not project their Noise like males do, Todd learns. But they do still HEAR the Noise of men. --- Now stop and think about THAT for a moment: men can hear all other men, and women can hear all men, but women get to keep their thoughts to themselves and choose what to share and say. Fascinating premise. Society would totally change, indeed. Kudos to the author for this highly original premise.
In very short order, Todd and Manchee must flee Prentisstown, and the female (Viola) comes with them, literally running through the woods across this alien world to the next settlement, then the next, trying to find safety and answers. Todd is carrying a big ole knife from his father figure, and it is a large part of his story, hence the title of the novel. But they are being pursued. Relentlessly, in fact. Some of the long flight across the planet was dull, and some of it felt manipulative, but along the way facts are gained and things are --at least partially --explained.The ostacles they encountered felt realistic, as did the reactions of various townspeople to discovering "Prentisstowners" in their settlements. Todd begins to learn that whathe was raised to believe was mostly a lie, or at best a spin on the truth.
I found the book hard to put down, and filled with things to ponder. I liked Todd and wanted him to do well, wanted him to find what he was seeking and make good choices. Liking the hero/heroine is rather central to enjoying the story at hand. I liked Viola too but did not really connect with her in the first book.
I was broken-hearted at the choice Todd has to make in the river regarding Manchee, (Shades of "Where The Red Fern Grows", and "Old Yeller") and felt exploited by the return and then almost immediate disappearance of his mother-substitute, Ben. I was also irritated that The Book he carries did not get read along the way: Seems to me he would have been DYING to get it read.
However, I liked the way Todd was growing up: he is forced to make difficult choices when right and wrong are not so clear cut and clean. I liked the way the author avoided romance between Todd and Viola for the most part. No sex in this book, just a growing trust and friendship that may or may not blossom into more in book two. I personally really liked the vernacular way of speaking, though some reviewers found it annoying, and the interesting font changes, especially early on when it represents The Noise. Todd has a great male voice/ presence. I did get quite sick of the word "effing" and wanted the kid to just go ahead and cuss already. Say the fucking word. Quit pretending not to cuss.
The novel appealed to me on many levels. It addresses some BIG questions, especially to those of us who grew up near repressive religious figures, controlling southern men who preach one thing and do another. Mayor Prentiss is a terrifyingly real figure to me. I knew men like him: I still do. But how do we respond to people like him without hurting others? Also the whole alien race question, which is brought up but not resolved in this first installment. Who are the Spackle? Not quite humanoid, but not terribly alien either, they seem to be sentient -- but since we cannot communicate with them, what DO we do? Leave the planet? Force them off of it? Live side by side without communicating? What if they attack us first?
However, The book is pretty brutal and will sadly not be going into my 8th grade classroom, nor onto on my recommend-for-under-16-years-old list. LOTS of killing. People being slaughtered left and right. Tough choices to be made by young people who should not yet be forced to make such terrible decisions. Manchee's final scene, where Todd makes the right choice but at a terrible cost. Repressive controlling authority figures who lie, cheat, steal, murder, and beat up children. A disturbing scene when Todd unnecessarily murders a Spackle, one of the alien natives. An entire town is wiped out and more are likely to be destroyed. There's relentless violence. But, like The Hunger Games, the violence serves a purpose.
By and large, I loved this novel and am eagerly devouring Book Two right now, The Ask and The Answer. This is book one of a series of three, and I am glad I did not find it until all three books were published, because (warning) book one ends on a HUGE cliffhanger that would have driven me nuts.
Looking forward to the rest of the series.
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs
This novel is built around a collection of very strange vintage photographs. Jacob, age 16, had an interesting Grandfather who filled his head with odd tales of monsters and powers, and showed him these remarkably creepy photos. As a child, Jacob believed them to be true, but as he grows he begins to discount them. Then his grandfather is brutally murdered (this scene is pretty scary) by what appears to be a monster, and suddenly some of those tales don't seem so impossible anymore. Eventually he convinces his wealthy but largely distracted parents to take him go to Cairnholm island near Wales, where his grandfather was raised, to find answers. What he finds there is in fact Miss Peregrine's Home for (Peculiar) Children. Still standing on an abandoned end of the barely-inhabited island. Still filled with children. In fact, the exact SAME children in his grandfather's photos from 60 years or more ago. And then we meet the monsters.
I do not think I am alone in stating that the photographs might be the best part of the book, and am intrigued by their very existence, from the dog-headed boy to the girl with the mouth on the back of her head. However, some of the pictures are never used in the story (the clown twins?) and I am wondering why. Perhaps a sequel?
Sadly, I am less thrilled with the story. The lead character, Jacob, is hard to like, and for me he seemed at times either way older than 16 or way younger. His attitude towards his parents and psychiatrist -- and most adults, in fact-- are annoyingly self centered. (Of course, he is a teen, and the adults in this book are pretty useless to him, but still.... this kid is a pain.) I also did not feel he behaved consistently, and found it hard to believe that a boy that age would use the flowery language he does.
Additionally, unanswered questions leave me feeling tricked: like why does the town keep experiencing the same day over and over? How does the Loop work, exactly? When did it start? Why don't the children act more like adults, given that most of them are well over 75?
I am also passionately violently uncomfortable with the romance, given the 80+ year age difference and the whole I loved your grandpa too thing. Kinda creepy. That said, I DID enjoy the writing itself, and the very creative ideas, even if they were not all as fully developed as I would have liked, so I found this an easy to finish book. I hope the author keeps writing. I would give the story a one star, and the writing a three point five: I am settling for the midmark, a 2.
While advertised as a young teen / older children's book, I would not let anyone under 16 read this. While not really all that scary, it has some very adult things going on, including a deliberate killing.
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman.
I'll start by saying that I am a new fan of Gaiman. I came into Gaiman land via "The Graveyard Book", which I loved. Then I swallowed "Coraline" in an afternoon and had trouble sleeping for days. Buttons now freak me out. In both of these novels, which were written for children, love conquers, but it may not look like love the way we think love should be. So I picked up American Gods hoping for more of that twisted but righteous way of seeing things. I'm still not sure whether or not i found it there.
On the surface, this is a tale of the conflict between older gods-- from the Nordic pantheon to Egyptian goddesses like Bast, and several others I humbly admit to not recognizing-- and the newer American gods of media, commerce, and consumption. On another level it is a story of a single person, the man we know only as Shadow, a recent prison parolee with a basically decent heart despite his criminal tendencies, as he struggles to make sense of his rather unhappy life. Shadow is hard to like because he is so enormously passive (those who have read the book will get my pun there), and never questions the exceedingly bizarre things that happen. But he is hard to dislike too, because he has been so abused and yet he does not abuse others. I never really felt an emotional connection with him, yet I did feel a need to know what happens to him.
But underneath these two stories, there is a set of vaguely-formed philosophical questions: about what makes up the truth of reality, and what beliefs are, and whether or not they matter, and if so, how. Are there gods? Did humanity invent them? Do they affect our daily lives? Can they die? If there are gods, is that a good thing, or a bad one? Can we even control our own lives? So many metaphors abound, and the "backstage" part of the book really had me wondering. But in true Gaiman fashion, he never answers the reader's questions about "backstage". You have to decide for yourself what really happens there.
Gaiman has marvelous vision: he sees the world ( and other worlds) through a twisted lens which I find fascinating. he;s also a skilled writer, with a generous gift of using words well. I enjoy reading his descriptions, which are never quite what one would expect, but always leave you feeling like you saw more than he told. Perhaps my favorite part of this book were the short little vignettes when he traverses back in time, to when the "old gods" were carried here to America, by various immigrants, from a modern New York Taxi cab driver all the way back to a prehistoric tribe walking across the Bering Strait.
I also enjoyed how he threads throughout the novel the ravenous need that the various gods and goddesses have for us, their worshipers, in order to survive. I've never really considered that kind of reciprocal relationship between divine beings and their followers. I was however quite disappointed that he did not include the Big Three Religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Those gods never appear in the book. I'm wondering why he chose to leave them all out. Here's what he says about religion in the book:
"Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you--even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers, and triumphs over all opposition."
Reading Gaiman, I think, requires a careful and patient attention to small details, and a willingness to wait for understanding, and to accept things that seem completely unrelated to the main plot line, but later are revealed as vital. Not unlike watching a movie, where you start with four or five unrelated scenes and then they move towards a union. Don't expect big battles and massive action scenes in here: you'll be disappointed. Expect a quiet, almost brutally methodical pace that, if you take the time, reveals many treasures of thought, and some truly beautiful phrasing.
Some of the surprises at the end I saw coming. Some I certainly did not. Most --but not all --of the loose ends are tied up: I especially liked the way Laura was wrapped up at the finale.
On the whole I am glad I read it. It was dark: lots of murders and some rather nasty behaviors, creepy dreams, dead people roaming about as they slowly rot, and so forth. But I like a book that asks the reader to ask questions. So I am giving this one a thumbs up.
Plus how can you not like a book in which a character says this:
"What I say is, a town isn't a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it's got a bookstore it knows it's not fooling a soul."
Powers: The Annals of The Western Shore #3 by Ursula LeGuin
Gav was raised as a slave and cannot imagine a world without slavery. It seems the only way the world works, indeed almost reasonable to him. Gav and his sister Sallo are not native to their city state, Etra, but were captured as very small children and raised as slaves. He is proud that his owners, the House Arcamand, are "honorable" and that he is treated well, unlike in other Houses, where slaves are not well-fed, or given fine clothing, educated. In fact, he is being raised to become the House Teacher. His older sister Sallo is being raised to become a Gift Girl... and it quickly becomes clear that in his innocence, young Gav does not realize the dire implications of this status. Gift girls are given as gifts to those the House wishes to bond. They have no say in the matter and are little more than prostitutes.
Sallo warns Gab that he must hide from his owners (indeed from everyone but her) his "power", a sort of future seer-sight. His visions come at inopportune times, but they come true, ro were once true long ago. They disturb him and unnerve others. He is content with his life of learning and service at first. But then the underside of slavery begins to become apparent to him, through a series of events over which he is not permitted any voice or control......and his world is disrupted beyond repair. He spends the second half of the book wrestling to understand a world in which such evil exists, and seeking a reason to even just keep living.
This is the third in the Annals of The Western Shore trilogy by one of my favorite YA writers, Ursula Le Guin. Like book two, it is a separate story of a separate person not found in the first book, yet there are connections that become clearer as you read on. Orrec Caspro appears again, much older, and we meet Memer again, briefly, beautifully, sweetly. This book is darker than the first two by far. It asks a terrible question: why should we keep going when life is so unfair and brutal?
Book one in the series wrestled with questions of personal power and "might makes right." Book two wrestled with illiteracy and war, and the power of the written word. Book three wrestles rather brutally with slavery and freedom, and the different KINDS of slavery. Gav is an outright slave at the beginning, but in many ways he is no less a slave after he escapes into the Denedan forest. Of course I am grossly simplifying this: all three books wrestle with many more things.....but this is what I love about Ursula le Guin's work: the wrestling with BIG QUESTIONS.
I adored the Earthsea Trilogy. This one is wonderful as well. I;d give this to any strong reader ages 11 or so and up. I'd insist that my own kids read it, if they were that age. still.If I had the power, this is one of a short list of 20 books that I would recommend all adults to read and study.
Voices: The Annals of The Western Shore #2, by Ursula leGuin
Memer was born after the invasion of Ansul, her city state, so she does not personally recall a time when her people were free... but those of her House, Galvan, do, and they have taught her the old ways. Outwardly, publicly, Memer complies with the rules of the invaders.....But Memer has a secret.
This is a beautiful tale of a half-breed semi-orphaned girl born into a captive city state, held rather fiercely by illiterate warriors from the east who worship a fire god. To the invaders, books are evil, demonic even, and thus forbidden in this once-cultured and educated place. To Memer, however, books are escape, travel, freedom, hope. Then two unusual visitors come to town, and suddenly the balance of power in Ansul is shifting.... dangerously.
In this second of the three novels of the Annals of The Western Shore, we will again meet with some of the characters from book one, but this is clearly Memer's story, not theirs. I fell in love with her, and with her teacher and guardian, the wounded and wise man who raised her once her parents were gone. It was fascinating to see the small ways the people of Ansul used to rebel, the carefully guarded activities they performed to keep their captors off their backs. You also see things, briefly, through the eyes of the captors, and discover that they are not, after all, completely bad people, and may even have honor. This is typical of Le Guin, forcing you to shift paradigms and see things through the other guys' eyes. Love it.
And you get to see a new side to Caspro Orrec and Gry, from book one.
Enough action to keep you engaged, but lots of wonderful questions as well, in true Ursula Le Guin fashion. Highly recommended, especially to those who love books.
Gifts: (The Annals of The Western Shore, book #1) by Ursula Le Guin
What if you have the power to kill with your mind? Kill trees, kill animals, kill people? But what others also had powers, powers to curse someone you love with a slow death, powers to call or send away animals, or to make or unmake fire? How would people live together, bearing such "gifts"? How would you ever feel safe? This is the world LeGuin invites us to explore.
The Lowlanders have no " gifts", and lead what appears to be simple, nearly medieval, agrarian lives. But in the Upland area, each family has a "gift". Some families are more powerful than others, but all of them are dangerous as enemies and, perhaps, even more dangerous as allies. Lowlanders, naturally, distrust and dislike Uplanders, who in turn disdain the Lowlanders for their normalcy.
Orrec Caspro is our narrator. Like most young teens, the adult world sometimes confuses him. Parental expectations weigh heavily on him. His best friend Gry baffles him. But, truly, his biggest concern is that he has not yet shown his Gift. This novel follows his growth as he struggles to understand the politics in his Uplander community, where they are regarded as witches for their "gifts", and the delicate balances in his own family as well. And to understand his own terrible and terrifying gift, when it arrives. Gry must wrangle with concerns of her own, regarding the use of her personal gift.
While not as exciting or action packed/ powerful as her amazing Earthsea trilogy, this is nonetheless a beautiful, introspective novel, and features both the philosophical depth and poetic lyricism of her other works. The plot is slowish, but the character definition is profound, and I for one could hardly put it down.
If you are an Ursula LeGuin fan, you will like this very much. If her finely crafted and layered style annoys you, walk away. Just know that I will pity you as you go.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Alfred Kropp, by Rick Yancy
Hmmmm. Not sure how I feel about this book. Parts of it I loved. Parts of it left me frustrated. The main character (title character) is likable, and I felt great sympathy for him as he struggled to find a purpose and a way to feel good about himself. I personally loved the overlay of deep Catholic prayer hinted at in the book, and I always like a good versus evil scenario, especially when the hero reluctantly discovers that he is more courageous than he himself thought.
I think my male students will be drawn to this book. Who can resist sword fights and mystical societies and secrets and the chance to drive four or five of the worlds coolest most expensive cars?
That said, parts of it felt gimmicky: "Oh, time to ditch the Porsche and find a Lamborghini, so I better write a wreck or some sort of problem into the story so the characters can get a new cool car....." This was distracting to me. In addition, I am getting weary with YA fiction that allows the hero or heroine to suddenly discover that they are unique and chosen and special in some out of this world way. Think Harry Potter, and the whole Percy Jackson series, and about half of the books being written for teens right now. Why can't they be heroic and special just the way they are? I know, I know, this thrills young people, so of course it keeps getting written.
The author is great at characterization: I could SEE the gum-smacking Mike Arnold, I could HEAR the patient and unruffled voice of Benaccio. The only character who developed and changed at all was our title character, but since it is written in first person, that was OK.
On the whole I will give this a thumbs up. It's rollicking fun, if not fine classic literature. And it is going in my 8th grade class library
Stung, by Bethany Wiggins
This story of what happens when the bees die off was mildly interesting at first, but became tedious rather quickly. Genetic engineering gone wrong is the premise that sets up this dystopian world. butalmost nothing is said about it until halfway through the book, and even then the explanation is..... thin. Our heroine, sadly, is annoying as heck and difficult to care about. And this is more about a really shallow romance than it is about the world they are living in. That made this book almost impossible to finish. I had to force myself.
Fiona wakes up from what appears to be a coma, a nearly fully grown woman of 17 who last remembers being only 13. Things had started to fall apart in the world she remembers, but the world she wakes up to is pretty far gone. There's a few isolated fortress-like cities left. Inside the walls, people have plenty to eat and live fairly comfortably. Outside the walls, you chew leather to stay alive and must constantly hide to avoid both rape gangs and monstrously powerful zombie-like humans who have been 'stung". These creatures all bear "the mark" Anyone who bears "the mark" will eventually turn into something resembling a terrible zombie. And Fiona wakes up with the mark, alone, unable to remember the last four years, in a deserted house.... outside the walls.
I got pretty tired of Fiona, frankly, and the bleak landscape she travels through. The romance was a bit obvious, and the violence pretty graphic, very constant, and too overly described for my tastes. "Her left hand swung around to connect with his cheek" sort of thing.
Women in this book sit and worry and flap their hands helplessly for the most part, while the men run about rampaging and raping and being generally ape like butt heads.Ah stereotypes, so good to see you being reinforced yet again.
I wish more time had been paid to the whole bee thing, but it is dismissed early on.
A few things I am tired of in this genre:
Why do all dystopian novels have to get sidetracked by an annoying unlikely romance?
Why does youth fiction always have to have rape mentioned?
Why do the writers of dystopian youth fiction so rarely use the collapse of society to examine an issue, such as racism, sexism, issues of governmental control or SOMETHING??? Instead they so often just create this frenetic background and then throw their characters in to it.
Also why does the heroine always have to have a twin brother?