It's hard to comprehend the magnitude of Stalin's crimes against humanity. So many millions dead, so many more imprisoned for years in labor camps, an...moreIt's hard to comprehend the magnitude of Stalin's crimes against humanity. So many millions dead, so many more imprisoned for years in labor camps, and very little of it known to the outside world. Ruta Sepetys's book tries to put a human face on that brutality through the eyes of Lina Vilkas and her family, separated from her father and shipped to Siberia where they're forced to work themselves nearly to death (and some of them do) just to stay alive. Lina is sixteen when they come for her family, a talented artist who draws pictures in the hope that they will reach her father, wherever he is. Her artwork, and her memories of a time before their imprisonment, tie the story to the unthinkable present and to its resolution.
The thing that struck me, the thing I can never comprehend, is how anyone can possibly dehumanize others to the point of being able to treat them like animals. Stalin made sure that his men thought of the Lithuanians as enemies of Russia and deserving of punishment, but some of those soldiers were capable of true brutality. Sepetys doesn't shrink from showing the consequences of that, from a young woman shot in the head and left to die to bodies thrown out into the Siberian winter to be eaten by animals. This is not an easy book to read, even if you're aware that Sepetys could have been far, far more graphic in her depiction of Lina's nightmarish existence. She's also unflinching in her characterizations of both Lina's fellow captives and their captors; there are good and bad people, brave and cowardly, on both sides. I was particularly moved by the plight of Mrs. Arvydas, who's forced to prostitute herself to the Russian soldiers to save the life of her son and is shunned by the rest of the captives for it. The book constantly raises the question--what would I do if it were me, what would I be willing to sacrifice for someone else? And the book is full of examples of sacrifice and selfishness for all sorts of reasons.
Lina's relationship with Andrius Arvydas is beautiful because it's so simple and so natural--two young people who would probably never have spoken to one another under normal circumstances are thrown together in this horror and discover common ground that links them together even when they are, inevitably, torn apart. For me, the most moving part of the book is when Lina, struggling to learn Russian by reading a Dickens novel Andrius has given her, finds that he's written notes to her in the margins so he's still with her though she has no idea where he is. Beautiful and terribly sad and full of hope all at once.
I don't know how I feel about the ending. Much as I was happy that it was not all unrelenting horror and that Lina survives, it was so abrupt and so counter to the hopelessness that Lina was feeling just pages before that I felt jerked out of the story. But I think it's an important ending because it's a reminder that not even Stalin could destroy these people's souls just because he could torment their bodies. Especially important was the afterword, because I'm not sure if young people are really aware of what happened in the Soviet Union back then and why it mattered that Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia regained their independence back in 1991. I'm not sure if many adults do either; I know I didn't back then.
Sepetys's prose is so simple and so perfect for this book that I hope she made a conscious choice not to clutter up the story with an over-elaborate style. With few words she clearly depicts the horror of an overcrowded train car and a deadly Siberian winter, and the people who managed to survive both. Beautiful and heart-wrenching, and I highly recommend it.(less)
An excellent ending to an excellent series. This final volume turns the action up, with Cammie and friends leaping from one tension-filled moment to t...moreAn excellent ending to an excellent series. This final volume turns the action up, with Cammie and friends leaping from one tension-filled moment to the next. All the loose ends are tied up, and we get glimpses enough of the Gallagher Girls' post-graduation lives to feel satisfied that each of them is going to do great things. I had trouble putting this one down, not only because of the intensity but also because I didn't want it to end--and yet I think this is a perfect ending for everyone, including the bad guys.(less)
It's always such a joy to read a new Sammy Keyes novel. In this one, Sammy's finally met her father and they're going on a cruise together (without he...moreIt's always such a joy to read a new Sammy Keyes novel. In this one, Sammy's finally met her father and they're going on a cruise together (without her mother, whom I still don't care for). Naturally, Sammy stumbles into a mystery, in this case one surrounding a very wealthy family who are all after their dead father's money. The mystery is strong, and Sammy's growing relationship with her father is so satisfying I wanted to see more of it. I still say Sammy and Marissa don't stand much chance of staying friends, even if Marissa weren't moving far away, but it was nice to see Sammy's dad Darren and his best friend Marko interact. Darren and Sammy are a lot alike, and despite my distaste for Lady Lana, I would like to see how the three of them get along together.(less)
I love prequels. I love the self-consciousness of them, how they play with reader knowledge and expectations. I didn't expect to like this one so much...moreI love prequels. I love the self-consciousness of them, how they play with reader knowledge and expectations. I didn't expect to like this one so much, and honestly, in itself it was really only a four. It was McKay's brilliant handling of this as a prequel to the Casson novels that bumped it to a five, that and how she made me finally like Caddy.
I've never cared for Caddy. She's sort of airheaded, in some ways like her mother Eve, but unlike Eve, I get the sense that Caddy is doing it on purpose. Caddy Ever After didn't do anything to change my impression, but then, how could it, since Caddy was practically Sir Not Appearing In This Book. Caddy's World is set six years before Saffy's Angel, the year that Rose is born and Caddy is twelve. It was strange to see Caddy, who previously seemed so free of connections, to be part of a tightly-knit gaggle of girls who've been friends since they were four and five. Unlike the other girls, who all have their own identities (i.e. Alison who hates everyone) Caddy's title "bravest of the brave" is in Caddy's mind an honorary title, since she isn't brave about anything but spiders, which to her aren't scary at all.
Caddy's braveness becomes evident, though, as she turns out to be the one who has to face reality for everyone else. Whether it's being the first of the friends to admit that their lives are changing, or telling her friends that they've all been dumped by their communal boyfriend, or facing the fact that her new baby sister may not survive, Caddy's bravery is something that's only obvious to everyone but herself. The most interesting example of this is when Caddy risks her own life to pull her friend Ruby out of the path of a speeding truck, because the true act of bravery is that she immediately pushes Ruby into the path of a metaphorical truck Ruby's avoided throughout the book, namely Ruby's admission to an elite school that will take her away from her friends. Caddy more than once risks her friends hating her when she makes them face up to the fears they've been avoiding, and that's real bravery.
I loved Caddy's friends, too; they're all different and all seem so very twelve years old. Beth's obsession with her size and consequent descent into anorexia and bulimia seem particularly well characterized. There's never a sense of this becoming a "problem novel," because Beth's mental state makes all her choices seem obvious, if wrong. Ruby's decision to fail rather than be accepted to her elite school--something it's clear she would like if she didn't have to leave her friends behind--also makes a certain twelve-year-old sense, but what's beautiful is the hints that all the adults in her life understand perfectly what she's doing and are willing to give her space to work out her problems. And Alison, she of the brilliant hair and exotic makeup, has a wonderful internal life that even her friends don't suspect.
Which leads me to another thing I love about this book and about the Casson stories in general: adults are not bumbling idiots, but just grown-up versions of the children who are the protagonists. Alison's greatest rebellion is met by the head of school telling her outright that she knows the real Alison is the opposite of the Alison who dyes her hair magenta, that illusory Alison, and Alison is stunned to realize it's true. She's even more stunned when the head, rather than ordering her home until she's dyed it a normal color, just tells her to tie it back and keep it out of the way. How much better a reaction than yelling and tears, and again, perfectly believable.
Finally, I think it's amazing that even though this is a prequel and we know that Permanent Rose comes through just fine, Caddy's tension and fear about the fate of the firework baby, lying there in the hospital pierced with tubes, feels very real. And Rose's final line, in the epilogue that happens six years later, makes for a perfect ending.(less)
I had my first literary criticism class when I was twelve. Children's Literature, taught by Mrs. Simone, who loved children's books and loved to teach...moreI had my first literary criticism class when I was twelve. Children's Literature, taught by Mrs. Simone, who loved children's books and loved to teach children how to read critically. Our great reward, twice that year, was to be allowed into the library's discarded book room to choose a lost book of our very own. For someone who until that point had a library composed mostly of books from the Scholastic catalog, this was such a thrill: old books--you know the smell--that had been read and loved until they almost fell apart. Web of Traitors was one of the books I chose. (The other was A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, which is a whole 'nother review.) I still own it, tattered, spine coming away from the pages, a souvenir from those faraway days.
As I read the book again for the first time in, I think, twenty-five years, I'm astonished at how much of history it introduced me to. This is where I read about Socrates for the first time, learned the Athenian love of theater for the first time, even the first time I read about code making and breaking. It gave me the most romantic notions about Athens that were never fully dispelled even when I learned that its famed democracy only applied to men.
Alexis, fighting against his father's expectations for him, wants not to challenge Athenian tradition but to follow a different path. Of course, he does end up challenging both tradition and morals in listening to that gadfly Socrates, let alone by associating with a common girl like Corinna. And, also of course, he and he friends thwart the planned invasion and Alexis succeeds at writing a play which is performed at the Theater Festival. This is, after all, a suspense novel for young adults. But it's a thrill to think of being able to write a play that competes successfully with those written not just by adults, but by experienced adults.
Corinna, unexpectedly cultured for a girl whose mother keeps an inn, was one of my first feminist examples from literature. Not only is she clever, she also performs a daring act of espionage that puts her body on the line AND rescues Alexis when he's caught by the traitors. I admired her daring, even as I now as an older reader recognize that Trease was cheating a little by making her so unnaturally cultured despite her upbringing. He engages in a little classism by suggesting that (view spoiler)[her being born to an upper class family made her innately superior, and that superiority wasn't damaged by being raised the daughter of a coarse innkeeper (hide spoiler)]. Her friendship with Alexis isn't spoiled by any romantic notions, though I imagine you could extend the story by suggesting that Corinna, at the end, is someone Alexis's hidebound father might at some point find acceptable for his middle son. But that's not important to this story.
I re-read this because I was looking for fiction about Athens that wasn't about its wars with Sparta. There is remarkably little in that vein, which makes this book even more unique. I have no idea what I saw in it that made me pick it--a book that hadn't been checked on since 1967, a book that had sat abandoned on the shelf for another 17 years--but I am certainly glad that I did.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
The good stuff: Martha Wells has always excelled at worldbuilding, and the alternate reality of this book is no exception. It's strongly reminiscent o...moreThe good stuff: Martha Wells has always excelled at worldbuilding, and the alternate reality of this book is no exception. It's strongly reminiscent of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne's stories--obviously, since it's about a world that exists at the center of ours--and I think it's not a stretch to tag it as steampunk, though the substance powering the devices of that reality is aether, not steam. The story's sustained action keeps things moving; it reads very much like a Victorian adventure novel. And I like the "alien" races Wells creates, villainous and not.
The less good stuff: This is supposed to be a young adult novel, and in terms of content, it is, but stylistically, this is closer to being a juvenile novel. I had the hardest time remembering that Emilie was supposed to be 16; she acted and was treated as if she were closer to 12. I normally won't dismiss a book for being something other than what I wanted, but in this case, I think all the signs point to this being supposed to be a true YA title, so I think this is a valid criticism. A novel in this tradition (the Victorian action-adventure novel) is supposed to be light, but this is maybe too light. I enjoyed it well enough, but frankly, I expect more from Martha Wells.(less)
In this YA thriller, five people go as a church group to rebuild an orphanage in a fictional South American country and are caught up in that country'...moreIn this YA thriller, five people go as a church group to rebuild an orphanage in a fictional South American country and are caught up in that country's civil war. It's an exciting and well-paced novel with plenty of action, and I think it hits its mark exactly. The main character, Will, is a realistic 16-year-old: full of uncertainty yet driven with a desire to do the right thing. Palmer, the group's pilot, ends up being their reluctant guide and protector as they try to escape the country, and he treats Will as the competent person he wants to be, with the result that that's exactly who Will becomes.
What I like most about this book is its even-handed treatment of Christian faith. Religious characters are far too often dupes or hypocrites or villains, but Klavan portrays his characters' religious faith as natural and fitting for them, without being preachy. That Will and his friends turn to prayer when facing challenges is charming and believable.
There's also an interesting dynamic between the adults of the group, the cynical Palmer and the saintly Meredith. Again, Meredith (who is seen through Will's infatuated eyes) could have been as perfectly perfect and composed in the face of danger as Will thinks she is. And it's true that one of the quibbles that I have with the book is that the reason Meredith has such rock-solid faith didn't seem powerful enough to have turned her into someone who can face death without flinching. Despite this, she doesn't seem perfect and makes an excellent foil for Palmer, who came very close to leaving them all behind (though it's impossible to believe he would have, because the story would have ended right there). Overall, it's an enjoyable and exciting story.(less)
Sammy gets braver and more daring with every book. This time she gets on a plane for Las Vegas without a plan and without a place to stay, in pursuit...moreSammy gets braver and more daring with every book. This time she gets on a plane for Las Vegas without a plan and without a place to stay, in pursuit of her mother, who may be about to marry Sammy's boyfriend's father. (Sammy and her boyfriend happened WAY before the whole parents-dating thing, which is icky and uncomfortable, but at least not pseudo-incestuous.) She actually joins forces with her evil nemesis Heather Acosta, daughter of the putative groom, as they track their respective parents with the help of an army of Elvises, and the story ends with a showdown backstage at a rock concert at the House of Blues. It doesn't get more intense than that.
...the thing I really cared about was that Sammy finally, FINALLY had it out with her mother about how irresponsible, selfish, and flaky she's been all these years. This is a showdown that was a long time coming and it was extremely satisfying. And we finally find out who Sammy's dad is and why Lady Lana never told her anything about him. (The reasoning is typical of Sammy's mother, i.e. flaky and indecisive.) I'm looking forward to the next book, where Sammy and her mom and dad start learning how to relate to each other as a family.(less)
Jasper Fforde's first young adult novel has all the hallmarks of his books for adults while still being aimed at a younger audience; the story is shor...moreJasper Fforde's first young adult novel has all the hallmarks of his books for adults while still being aimed at a younger audience; the story is shorter and more focused, the main characters are teens, and you will find no Jack Schitts here. 15-year-old Jennifer Strange runs a magicians' employment agency called Kazam in a time when magic is at the ebb and people are turning more to technology to solve their problems. Jennifer's problems are more complex; her boss has disappeared, her employees are at each others' throats, and a prophecy that the last dragon will die at the hands of the Last Dragonslayer in just a few days has dumped that problem in her lap as well. Because it turns out she's the Last Dragonslayer.
I never felt Jennifer was really 15 years old. Granted, she's had a great deal of responsibility in her young life, but she talks and acts like...well, like Thursday Next. I think if I cared about the distinction between YA and adult novels, this would have bothered me more. As it is, I point it out because it's one of only a few flaws in the story. The plot is well-paced and the repercussions of Jennifer assuming her new role all make sense. Fforde is good at pointing out human flaws, especially greed, and putting Jennifer at odds with her king makes for good conflict.
One tiny thing that cracked me up was the marzipan. Fforde always has one element in his novels that is totally bizarre and totally taken for granted by the characters. In Thursday Next, it's illegal cheese; here, marzipan is a dangerous drug that might as well be angel dust. Things like "Police broke up a dangerous marzipan smuggling ring" just amuse me all out of proportion. But then, I already don't like marzipan.
I'm looking forward to the next books in the series, though I resent them a tiny wee bit for not being sequels to Shades of Grey. Any new Jasper Fforde novel is a lovely surprise.(less)
I went straight from Only the Good Spy Young to this one and was pleasantly surprised by how it began. Instead of starting where the other left off, w...moreI went straight from Only the Good Spy Young to this one and was pleasantly surprised by how it began. Instead of starting where the other left off, with Cammie's journey to discover why the Circle of Cavan is after her, it begins several months later, as Cam wakes up in an Alpine convent with no memory of those months, half-starved, bruised and battered. All the adults in her life want her to continue to forget, as they fear she was captured and tortured, but Cam can't stand not knowing and proceeds to backtrack her "Summer Me" journey, with the help of her friends.
I like the balance between Cam's friends being justifiably angry at her and Cam's feeling betrayed by their anger. This book is a lot darker than the others, a lot more serious, and definitely could not have been anticipated by the first books in the series. The ending is a little weak, mainly because the villain's power over Cam is too powerful in what he's capable of making her do, but Carter kept his identity well-concealed until the Big Reveal, so I still enjoyed it. Lots of good character interactions, and the plot ties back to what happened in Don't Judge a Girl by Her Cover, so I'm looking forward to the next book (if there is a next book, as Carter seems pretty committed to her new series).(less)
In the fourth book, Carter finally gets to the real story she's been angling toward in the last two--the mysterious cabal that's been the Gallagher Ac...moreIn the fourth book, Carter finally gets to the real story she's been angling toward in the last two--the mysterious cabal that's been the Gallagher Academy's dark twin for well over a century becomes the true villain, and it turns out they're after Cammie for something she doesn't know she knows. I liked it, it was good, Zach and Cammie finally stop dancing around the fact that they like each other, but I was frustrated by the number of times adults (and even Zach) refused to tell Cammie some secret on the grounds that they were protecting her. Not telling her the truth led her into some dangerous situations in which she *couldn't* protect herself. It also meant that Cammie's decision at the end of the book, while not very smart, made perfect sense in light of everything else that had happened to her, and I'd like to see what results from it.(less)
I've been enjoying this series with my son, and I like it much more than I did the first series. I think Riordan's inclusion of Roman gods with the Gr...moreI've been enjoying this series with my son, and I like it much more than I did the first series. I think Riordan's inclusion of Roman gods with the Greek, and setting them at odds with each other, makes for an interesting story. In the first two volumes, The Lost Hero and The Son of Neptune, we meet a new group of heroes and re-encounter old friends, and by the end of the second book, everyone's reunited and ready to take off on a new quest.
The story of The Mark of Athena picks up moments after the end of The Son of Neptune, but from Annabeth's point of view. Given the title and Annabeth being the daughter of Athena, it's not hard to guess that a good chunk of the story is going to be from her perspective. But it's not as big a chunk as you might think, and the other major plot is about Leo and how he fits into the group--the odd man out when everyone else is paired off. Even though I was interested in that story, I really would have liked Annabeth's story to get more space. The image of crazy, homeless-person Athena wandering through the subway, driven nearly mad by the Romans' warping her identity to create their own goddess Minerva, really caught my imagination. At the end, though, it's all Annabeth's quest, and I like that the novel ends with the setup for the next one.
I just can't love Riordan's writing style. It's sort of detached, like he's the one telling the story instead of his narrators. It makes me wonder what his adult novels sound like. More importantly, the series is starting to chafe at the restrictions of the middle grade genre. As I mentioned, six of the seven heroes are paired off romantically, and that's okay, because they're all maybe 15 to 17 years old. And I'm not asking for them to start sleeping together or anything. Their interactions just don't sound like those of older teens, as if Riordan sanitized the boyfriend/girlfriend relationship for the benefit of tween readers. It's just unsettling, especially since Percy has started thinking about his relationship with Annabeth in a long-term permanent way. I would like to see Riordan do with this series what J.K. Rowling did in transitioning the Harry Potter books from middle grade to YA fiction, but if his audience really is made up of the 8-14 aged crowd, that might not be a good idea for his writing career. (less)
Near the end of 13 Little Blue Envelopes, Ginny's backpack, containing the last of her aunt's letters to her, is stolen before Ginny can read it. Thou...moreNear the end of 13 Little Blue Envelopes, Ginny's backpack, containing the last of her aunt's letters to her, is stolen before Ginny can read it. Though she manages to work out what her aunt's final message is, she still wishes she'd read the letter herself. Months later, she's contacted out of nowhere by someone who says he has her letter and wants to meet her. In England.
This is the point where Maureen Johnson starts to prove that she is some kind of evil genius. Oliver (the letter-holder), rather than handing over Ginny's property, proceeds to blackmail her heartlessly. He's read about how much money Aunt Peg's paintings made at auction, and he wants a cut. I absolutely hated him. He's selfish, cruel, refuses to even let Ginny see the letter, and in general treats her like crap--as if he had any right to demand any of the potential money from the potential sale of the artwork Aunt Peg's last letter leads to. As if Ginny, who doesn't care about the money, wouldn't have given him just about anything out of gratitude for returning the letter.
But by the end of the book, after all the traveling back and forth, after Ginny's heart is broken by Keith and his new girlfriend that he couldn't be bothered to tell her about (This is not a spoiler. It's obvious that Keith started to distance himself in the first chapter.), Maureen "Evil Genius" Johnson managed to make me feel sympathy for Oliver, and then to like him, and then to like him a lot. There's a moment in the final pages of the novel that simply broke my heart at how vulnerable and not-evil he really was. That's pretty impressive.
I like this book as a conclusion to 13 Little Blue Envelopes, or maybe an extension of it. I recommend reading the two back-to-back, if possible. Excellent duology.(less)
Definitely my least favorite of the three (the first books being Five Children and It and The Phoenix and the Carpet). By the internal chronology, the...moreDefinitely my least favorite of the three (the first books being Five Children and It and The Phoenix and the Carpet). By the internal chronology, the kids are maybe a year and a half older than when the trilogy started, but they haven't matured even a little bit, and Jane, the youngest, seems to have regressed. Or maybe she really is eight and Nesbit finally figured out how eight-year-olds talk and act. (Hint: They're just learning to be rational.) Her fear of going into strange and potentially dangerous societies seems extreme not because she exaggerates the dangers, but because she's handled other crises far more calmly. What I like about this book is the subplot with the learned gentleman, Jimmy, whose association with the children saves him from his isolation and reminds him of what it was like to be a child. Unlike the other adults in the series, Jimmy has no problem playing their "games" and envies their imagination rather than telling them to grow up, even though his belief that it's all a strange dream nearly gets everyone killed when he insists on staying to see the drowning of Atlantis. If I were making a movie of this book, I'd beef up his role to provide more of a connection between the actual time-travel the Amulet allows and the belief in the miraculous that is the heritage of any human being who chooses to take it.(less)
I don't like this one as much as Five Children and It, probably because where the Psammead is only grouchy and annoying, the Phoenix is self-centered...moreI don't like this one as much as Five Children and It, probably because where the Psammead is only grouchy and annoying, the Phoenix is self-centered to the point of getting the kids into trouble. The theme is the same as the first book: the children get three wishes a day from the magic carpet, and as usual their wishes go awry. My favorite of their adventures is where they're flying along, see a tower whose top is the same size as the carpet, and set down only to find that there's no actual roof and they're descending into what might as well be an elevator shaft. Unlike their other stupid choices, that seems like a natural and embarrassing mistake to make.(less)
I knew this was going to be a good book. I didn't realize it was an amazing book.
It begins as a kind of treasure hunt orchestrated by seventeen-year-o...moreI knew this was going to be a good book. I didn't realize it was an amazing book.
It begins as a kind of treasure hunt orchestrated by seventeen-year-old Ginny's Aunt Peg, a free-spirited wanderer who recently died of brain cancer. Ginny is surprised to receive her aunt's first envelope, which contains $1000 and a set of instructions that lead her to the next little blue envelope. Each letter gives Ginny a new challenge, leading her all over Europe and into some very strange adventures. It's a journey that Ginny, who isn't adventurous, would never have taken on her own, and each little blue envelope makes her stretch a little further, so that when she reaches the last of them, she's ready for her aunt's final message.
There's a lot to be said about this book, but I'll stick with the thing that impressed me most: Ginny is a typical girl. Why is that impressive? Because Maureen Johnson managed to tell a story that wasn't about the shy wallflower gaining confidence OR about the cocky, assertive girl who learns humility. Ginny's just normal. She's uncertain about some things and confident about others. She's brave enough to take on her aunt's more bizarre instructions (find a random Italian boy and ask him out?) even when they make her nervous. She hasn't dated much and isn't sexually active, and that doesn't make her weird or frigid. She felt like a real person, not a representative of one type of teenage girl or another.
I also loved Ginny's friend Keith, the odd playwright/director/actor she meets in England. I often feel like these artsy, quirky, countercultural characters are meant to be super-cool just to prove that being artsy and quirky and countercultural is inherently better than being normal and non-tattooed. But Keith is just a guy. He dresses in a kilt and does weird things, but not because Johnson wanted a character who would draw Ginny out of her (nonexistent) repressed life and make her super-cool as well. He and Ginny make a good pair because her flaws are countered by his virtues and vice versa. I especially liked the part where we learn something of Keith's background, which is a little shady, and none of it is played up as excusable or a misunderstanding. Even when he and Ginny were in conflict, I liked his character.
This was a fast read, because everything is a fast read when you don't stop until you're done. There are a few moments in the middle where Aunt Peg's instructions don't seem to lead anywhere, but overall it's fast-paced and I didn't want to stop. So I didn't. It was well worth the time.(less)