Friday, December 16, 2011

Books of 2011, part 3, & giveaway #3!

For this installment I'll be giving away a hardcover copy of Angel Burn by L. A. Weatherly, a YA paranormal romance that pubbed in May about, you guessed it, angels & love & some kind of intergalactic war I think. This isn't my kinda book, but I've heard it's really good. I bet it is because Candlewick publishes fantastic books. So comment away!

Books of 2011, Nos. 11-15

11. Word After Word After Word by Patricia MacLachlan (2010)

I think Sarah, Plain & Tall is one of the most perfect books ever written. I remember just thinking it was okay as a kid, but rereading it for grad school I was blown away. There is not a wasted word in it, just 60-something pages of beautiful, seemingly effortless prose, a simple story that's concise & complex at once. Needless to say, I was expecting a lot from Word After Word After Word. But... insert sad trombone sound here. I read this book in March & remember literally nothing about it. I remember that there is a creative lady who visits a classroom of students & inspires them to... do something. Write? I think they write stories? There was nothing impressive or inspiring about this little book; it was completely unremarkable. I was going to take a few minutes & look up the plot to give you a better idea of what it's about, but ya know, it's not even worth the time. Just read or reread Sarah instead.

Rating: 2/5 stars
Recommended for: Someone looking for a simple story they can get through in about an hour

12. The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau (2003)

Unlike with MacLachlan's book, I wasn't expecting a lot from this one. I thought it would be a pretty run-of-the-mill middle-grade fantasy, but to my pleasant surprise, it was much more original. Ember is a city - a sort of last resort of the human race - surrounded by total darkness, whose only light comes from huge lamps that are starting to flicker. Lina & her friend Doon discover a garbled message that they decide holds the key to saving the city, & try to unravel the mystery before the city is plunged into darkness forever. The scenes are so vividly imagined that even now, months later, I can picture exactly the layout of Ember, the architecture, the key characters, & some of the integral scenes. There are some logical fallacies where you can't help but ask, "Why didn't the people of Ember ____?" or "But how did they go all these years without ____ happening?" but eh, I'm willing to suspend my disbelief for a good story. & it is a very good story, almost like a Plato's Allegory of the Cave for kids. I went right out & bought the sequel, The People of Sparks, though I haven't read it yet.

Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended for: Readers (young or old - this book is classified as YA but I'd recommend it to a third or fourth grader, no problem) of fantasy, suspenseful stories, dystopian lit

13. The Small Adventure of Popeye & Elvis by Barbara O'Connor (2009)

I am a sucker for a charming, Southern story (as long as they're authentic), & this little book is full of Southern charm. I fell in love with the cover instantly: "That was me as a kid!" Popeye is perpetually bored in his little town in South Carolina, so when a motor home breaks down belonging to the rambunctious Jewell family & Popeye meets Elvis, who rocks a "so what?" attitude, life gets a little more interesting. Their small adventure begins when they start finding paper boats sailing down the creek with secret messages in them. This isn't a groundbreaking or life-changing story, but a sweet, solid, Southern read.

Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended for: Kids (as young as maybe second grade) who like safe adventures, humor, & mystery, & any kid (or former kid) who gets a thrill out of playing in a creek

14. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne (2006)

God, this book. It broke my heart & didn't even care. The matter-of-fact style Boyne uses to tell this story makes it feel like a centuries-old fairy tale, but give it a Holocaust setting & you end up with something much darker than fantasy. I hesitate to pigeon-hole books into "for children" or "for adults," but that this book was marketed so hard as a kids' book really confuses me. Even the cover I think you'd have to be at least an older teen to understand the nuances of Boyne's story - as the narrator is clearly an adult voice commenting on childhood innocence, but perhaps as a group read, a teacher could use this in a younger classroom. I'm not sure about that, though. People generally think of fairy tales as being "for kids," & I don't think they are, so do with that what you will. 

What I can say for sure is that you read the book with a sense of impending dread & then the end hits you like a bus, & you feel pretty dead inside. In the story, Bruno, the son of a Nazi officer, makes friends with a boy in striped pajamas who lives on the other side of the fence beside Bruno's house. That's about all I'm going to say. If you read this book hoping for a realistic Holocaust story, it's not. A lot of the things the characters do/say/believe fly in the face of reason, so you really have to take it with a grain of salt. It's not realistic; it's not fantastic; it's a bizarre story. But definitely worth reading, & not one you're likely to forget.

Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended for: If you need a good punch in the heart, or if you're on a Holocaust kick like I was (The Book Thief, followed by this, followed by The Diary of Anne Frank). I hesitate to recommend this book for kids.

15. Bossypants by Tina Fey (2011)

First, I have a major girl crush on Tina Fey. I love everything she glorifies: the woman who's not smooth, who's trying to have it all but who doesn't want to settle, who celebrates nerdiness & being smart, who gets to date Jon Hamm but would really rather stay at home watching Bravo & eat cheese than go out with a dude. Not to mention that she is freakin' hilarious. From her thoughts to physical beauty to unrequited love to career success, this book is a wonderful trip into her head. I should note that for me it was very important to look at this as a book of essays; it is not a memoir. If you go into it expecting her life story, as I did, you're going to be disappointed. But about halfway though (I read it in one sitting) I realized this is not supposed to be her life story, just a bunch of snippets of her life - none too specific - that have brought her to this point in her life. This was really my first "celebrity read," & not a genre I plan on frequenting, but hey, Tina Fey got to where she is by being an awesome writer, & this is an awesome book. I cried a lot - mostly from laughing so hard, but also when she sneaks in really beautiful, yet still silly thoughts, like this poem for her daughter. If you love her as much as I do, & if you too had a rough patch from 12 to 17, you will absolutely love Bossypants, this celebration of all her neuroses. 

Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended for: Everyone who loves Tina Fey or humor writing

Come back soon for reviews 16-20, & you guessed it, another giveaway! & in case you're wondering, I'll "draw names" for the winners at the end of the list, not as I go along. Patience.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Books of 2011, Part 2 - & another giveaway!

The giveaway for this post will be... the wonderful 2008 Newbery winner, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz, with illustrations by Robert Byrd. Just comment for a chance to win. & yes, you can leave comments on more than one post. Comment on all 11, if you like!

Books of 2011, Nos. 6-10

6. The Wheel on the School, written by Meindert DeJong and illustrated by Maurice Sendak (1954)

Two of my book quests overlapped with the acquisition of The Wheel on the School: to own all of the Newbery winners & to own all books Maurice Sendak wrote &/or illustrated. & I'm glad they did, otherwise I might never have come across this gem. This is an incredibly delightful, unique story about a girl named Lina who wonders why the storks no longer come to Shora, her village in Holland, to nest. Her curiosity sends waves through the village, & soon everyone has joined together in an attempt to get the storks to come back. There are numerous great messages woven though this timeless story: cooperation, friendship, the value of asking questions, the idea that everyone has something to contribute - young, old, rich, poor, tall, short, regardless of physical ability. The longer I think about this book, the more I find to appreciate about it.

Rating: 5/5 stars
Recommended for: Anyone who appreciates a really good story

7. The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson (1994)

I picked up this book after hearing more than once that J. K. Rowling plagiarized from it; it was published three years before Sorcerer's Stone. This claim comes mostly from the fact that both books are about magical portals on train station platforms in London. After that, the theory pretty much falls apart. & what children's fantasy novels don't resemble each other in at least one way? In Platform 13, the portal in the station - which opens onto an Island filled with all manner of fantastical creatures - is only open nine days every nine years. The baby prince of the Island was kidnapped nine years earlier, & now it's up to a wizard, a fairy, an ogre, & a hag to go to London & try to save him. The humor is a little cheesy, the surprises are pretty predictable, the "bad guys" are pretty tame & the suspenseful situations pretty low-risk - but this book is fun, completely enjoyable.

Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended for: Young fantasy readers, adults who'd like to jump back into a Harry Potter-esque world for a minute

8. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1929)

Oh boy. I'm going to catch some flak for this one. Confession (I think I confessed this last year): I just don't get the fuss about Hemingway. I can't say I haven't tried. I've read The Old Man & the Sea, The Sun Also Rises, & this year, A Farewell to Arms. I found some of his writing really sharp & poignant, but only in spurts. Thoughts of "What a lovely passage" would follow with "Do I seriously have to spend a hundred more pages with these insufferable characters?" I guess that's what my frustration with Hemingway boils down to: the characters. I know he's known for his misogynistic "man's man" protagonists who describe women by nothing more than how they look in a skirt, but I can't get behind that. It's not that I'm offended by it; it just isn't interesting. A guy like that gets old after about a page, & the ditzy child-women he chases get old after less than a page.

In A Farewell to Arms, Frederic Henry is only interesting & dynamic when he's talking about war. In all matters of love - enter sexy nurse Catherine - he is an asshole, & she is a needy, confusing, not-very-intelligent doormat. Neither are thinking, feeling beings. Neither enjoys the other; they are both so damaged that they just need something. & the end? (SPOILER ALERT!) Good god. I saw it coming from 20 miles away, but was hoping against hope that he wouldn't go there. Why, Hemingway? Did you think, "Well, I haven't managed to dredge up any sympathy for these characters yet. I guess I should kill one of them." Or maybe you were just particularly drunk & morose that day. Or maybe you just hate women that much. What a cheap move. That is a Nicholas Sparks move, Hemingway, or as I sometimes like to refer to it, an Upton Sinclair in The Jungle move. When enough awful things happen to miserable people, I stop caring.

I'm just ranting now. I really didn't like this book. I'm starting to wonder why I keep reading his books; suppose I just keep hoping I'll "get it," but I think I've about come to the conclusion that I just don't like Hemingway. Yeah. I said it. & I'll say it again next year when I inevitably will read another of his books.

Rating: 2/5 stars
Recommended for: Manly men? I don't know. Appreciators of flat characters & overrated American lit? I'm just being mean. Some people really love Hemingway & that is just fine with me.

9. On Writing by Stephen King (2000)

How you feel about Stephen King's fiction has literally nothing to do with the usefulness of this book. I've had to say this a number of times to people to whom I've recommended this book, who told me "Stephen King's writing sucks. Why would I take writing advice from him?" It doesn't matter how good or bad you think his writing is (I've only read The Shining, & I loved it), this memoir/writing guide is immensely beneficial for any aspiring writer who needs to learn how to get the job done. It is frank & true. He pulls no punches. In a nutshell, he says: "You want to write a book? Then stop talking about it, get off your ass, & write. & don't stop writing until it's done." Further, don't expect any of it to be easy. It will be tough, you will want to quit, you will encounter a thousand distractions, you might never get published, but keep doing it because you love it, & because you want it that badly. He does include technical advice as well, & it's good stuff. All fairly basic (e.g. cut out useless adverbs), but great advice.

I will never forget his assertion that you can't turn a good writer into a great writer, but you can turn a competent writer into a good writer. Some starry-eyed wannabe writers out there might disagree, but as a cynical person who knows she will never be the next Eudora Welty, it is incredibly helpful for me to keep that statement in mind anytime I write. Always strive to be better, but don't get discouraged by comparing yourself to the greats. & speaking of Eudora Welty, for writing inspiration of a different kind, read her One Writer's Beginnings. It's brilliant.

Rating: 5/5 stars
Recommended for: Any aspiring writer who needs some honest writing advice, & any fan of King's who's curious about his writing process

10. The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo (2001)

Oh, this book... I was kind of hoping it would disappear so I wouldn't have to badmouth Kate DiCamillo, beloved children's book writer by virtually everyone in the industry. I've read three books by her to date:  The Tale of Despereaux (fine, but not Newbery-worthy), The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (fine also, but elevated to good by the beautiful illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline), & this one.

The Tiger Rising is one of the most obvious books I've ever read. Twelve-year-old Rob (who has some strange leg disease) & his dad have moved into a run-down motel after the recent death of Rob's mom. Rob befriends a fiesty girl named Sistine. (Yes, as in the chapel.) Both kids are fairly unpopular & angry. There's a big woman named Willie May who's a cleaning lady/prophet, & a tiger in a cage in the woods that the hotel manager gets Rob to feed. Does it sound like too much? Because it is. The symbolism is so blatant & heavy-handed I just kept groaning under the weight of this miniscule, 128-page book. I know I was supposed to feel shock & sadness & perhaps a kind of vindication at the end of the book, but I didn't. I was just glad it was over.  

I know how mean this sounds & I honestly do feel bad for saying it, but this book reads like some overachieving writing exercise out of a very self-important MFA student. & yet, it won a Newbery Honor? I can only guess it's because of DiCamillo's name, though I don't know why any of her books have received the accolades they did. Any big DiCamillo fans out there? If so, I'd really love to hear why you love her work. Like Hemingway, I will keep reading her books, hoping to get it.

Rating: 2/5 stars
Recommended for: Perhaps children coping with grief? Or creative writing students who need a really obvious example of how symbolism works. "So what does the caged tiger represent, class?"

Next time, books 11-15, & another giveaway!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Books of 2011, Part 1 (& WIN A BUNCH OF BOOKS!)

Am I the worst blogger ever or what? It's been almost two months since I last posted. I'm not proud. I've been hard at work on my master's thesis though, so while I haven't been writing here, I have been writing somewhere! Can I make it up to you with some free books and 50-something brief book reviews?

This year I've read 53 books so far (plus countless picture books I read and forgot to log on Goodreads). I hope to make it to 55 by the end of '11 - I have to finish The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks & then A Clash of Kings is up. Between now & the end of the year, I'll post 11 installments of five book reviews each & tell you a little about all the books I read this year. & for each installment, I'll be giving away a book! I think that will assuage my guilt.

I'm starting this thing off with a bang by offering up my FAVORITE picture book of 2011. It's one of my favorite books of '11, picture or not. I've already blogged about my adoration for it here.

Just leave a comment on this post for a chance to win. Trust me, you want this book. Unless you don't have a sense of humor, in which case, go away. & now, the first installment of my book review list.

Books of 2011, Nos. 1-5

1. Amy's Eyes, written by Richard Kennedy and illustrated by Richard Egielski (1985)

I read this book at the recommendation of a Goodreads friend, & had really high hopes, since many of the Goodreads reviews begin with something like "I read this book as a child & it's still my favorite book of all time." This charming story is about a girl who's left on the steps of an orphanage with a sailor doll. Through a series of events that's surprisingly unmagical, Amy turns into a doll, and her sailor turns into a human - albeit a tiny one. There's sailing, swashbuckling, talking animals, battles, lost treasure, a stuffed animal who's weirdly obsessed with Biblical prophecies, & a fair balance of humor & sadness. The story was well written, but at 437 pages, it really dragged, & this is coming from someone who loves long books. (Why do I always assume massive children's fantasy books will be good? I should've learned my lesson with Inkheart.) While I read this book almost a year ago, I remember thinking over & over again, "This is a lovely book, but I wish it was over." So in the end, it was only okay. Maybe I would've been more captivated if I'd read it when I was little, or if 150 pages or so had been edited out.

Rating: 3/5 stars
Recommended for: Readers who like their fantasy pretty tame, children, readers with a lot of patience
2. The House with a Clock in Its Walls, written by John Bellairs and illustrated by Edward Gorey (1973)

I know a lot of people grew up reading the gothic mysteries starring Lewis Barnavelt, Anthony Monday, or Johnny Dixon, but this was my first experience with a John Bellairs book. Unlike my Amy's Eyes experience, this book made me feel like a kid again. It was funny, a little dark, had some really well thought-out supernatural elements - & of course, Gorey's illustrations are fantastic. In the story, the newly orphaned Lewis Barnavelt moves in with his uncle, a mediocre wizard. Their house was previously inhabited by some evil wizards who plotted to end the world by sticking a doomsday clock in the house's walls. There are ghosts, spells to raise the dead, cemeteries, Halloween - all elements of a really fun scary story, that's surprisingly offbeat & challenging for essentially being a series chapter book. It prompted me to go pick up more books by Bellairs.

Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended for: Children who enjoy books with a dark or supernatural twist, Halloween reads, readers who fall in between chapter books & middle grade

3. My Lobotomy by Howard Dully (2007)

Howard Dully was pretty much your average boy - rambunctious & prone to acting out. To fix the child she deemed uncontrollable & dangerous, Dully's stepmother arranged for him to be lobotomized. His father went along without asking questions. So, Dully writes, at age 12 in 1960, "I was given a transorbital, or ‘ice pick’ lobotomy. ...Dr. Walter Freeman, the father of the American lobotomy, told me he was going to do some ‘tests.’ It took ten minutes and cost two hundred dollars." Most of Dully's life thereafter was spent in halfway houses, prison, & mental institutions, dealing with drug & alcohol addictions. In his 50s, he decided to ask why.

This might be the most heartbreaking book I've ever read, but also one of the most remarkable. I'm really into medical literature (see: anything by this guy) but you don't have to be to appreciate this book. "Enjoy" would be the wrong word. I can't say I enjoyed this book, because it is unbelievably tragic. It is incomprehensible what Dully went through, & so horrifying that by the end of the book you will wish you could personally, violently murder Dully's stepmother, father, & Dr. Freeman, even though a couple of them are already dead. ...Too much? The most incredible aspect of this book is Dully's ability to forgive those who ruined his life, & who couldn't look him in the eye & admit their wrongdoing. A painful read, but completely worth it. I'll never forget this book.

Rating: 5/5 stars
Recommended for: Fans of medical literature & memoirs

4. The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit (1907)

Reviewed earlier this year here. Sad to say, six months later I barely remember the book. Even after finding this & The Railway Children pretty lackluster, though, I've bought at least three other books by her, so there's something that keeps me coming back. I love her writing style, but her plots leave something to be desired.

Rating: 3/5 stars
Recommended for: Adults readers of antiquated British lit, child readers who appreciate dry humor & tame fantasy

5. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (2006)

I have a love/hate relationship with this book. The title made me want to read it; it's a really good title. The fact that it's written by Nicole Krauss made me not want to read it; I imagine she & her husband (Jonathan Safran Foer) to be really snooty, pretentious jerks. Probably because I met him & he was indeed snooty & pretentious. The History of Love is essentially a diet version of Foer's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. I picture them in a Brooklyn brownstone, facing each other across flea-market desks, clicking away at vintage typewriters & bouncing ideas off each other while their vegetarian children run circles around the room. "How 'bout we throw some old Jewish folks in here?" "Great, I'll use that, too!" "I'm getting a little bored with this format. I think I'll throw in some blank pages for fun." "It's like you're reading my mind! Precocious child narrator?" "Well, duh! Of course there's a precocious child narrator!" "I'm so glad we're married! We practically finish each other's -" "Sandwiches?"
But dammit. I adore Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. I've read it four or five times. & dammit if I didn't fall for The History of Love as well. I fell for all of its silly postmodern tricks & old Jewish folks & precocious kids & multiple narrators & bizarre string of circumstances that brings everyone together in just the right way at just the right time & brings a tear to your eye at the very end. It feels cleverly formulaic but it works. So, whatever. I resolve to continue reading & begrudgingly loving their books while bitterly hating their attractive brunette selves for no real reason.

Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended for: Fans of Jonathan Safran Foer, postmodern tricks, offbeat love stories, & convoluted family histories

Part 2, coming soon!