Aidan is a novice in a tenth century Irish Abbey whose only goal in life is to work as a scribe and illuminator in the scripto...moreActual rating: 2.5 stars
Aidan is a novice in a tenth century Irish Abbey whose only goal in life is to work as a scribe and illuminator in the scriptorium. Three things stand in his way: his ability to hear the hum of numbers, the mysterious Lana who hums of the number 11, and Viking Raiders.
My thoughts after reading The Humming of Numbers are much like the book itself, a confusion of contradictions. It is like a large, sturdy foundation with no house ever built, tons of promise never fulfilled. It is obvious that a lot of effort went into period research; Sensel really knows her stuff. I just wish that as much effort has been spent of character development.
Neither Aidan nor Lana ever feel like fully developed characters. Aidan is never a unified individual but rather amalgamations of different caricatures of the time. He is at times the intellectual driven to the abbey in search of education - the bastion of academia in the period. At other times, he is the ignorantly disproving holy man. Lana is even worse. She is never a character at all, merely a device to move the plot forward. Together they have absolutely no chemistry - as written I can hardly believe they would even like each other. Here is where Sensel's history gets in the way of her story - she maintains historical accuracy in Aidan's attitudes towards rape and education of women, which makes him an ass toward Lana. The secondary characters were all so cardboard they hardly merit mentioning - a week later and I can't even recall any names.
There were so many intriguing details in Sensel's descriptions of both Aidain's number synesthesia and Lana's knoledge of spiritual and medicinal uses of plants. Yet the information was scattered about haphazardly and never really played as big a role in the story as I had expected. It left me feeling disappointed. There were also a lot of questions that never really got answered. What wood was Lana selling? Was is Lana's traditional Celtic beliefs that made her an 11, unique compared to the Christians with which he was familiar? If so, why were the Viking's numbers familiar?
Overall, it was just an okay book, but it also had the promise of something better. I will definitely give other books by Joni Sensel a chance. If she can create characters as colorful and rich in texture as her backgrounds, her books could be amazing.
When I downloaded the free copy of Blackwelder's The Day the Flowers Died , I was in no way prepared for the book I got. Yes, like many free download...moreWhen I downloaded the free copy of Blackwelder's The Day the Flowers Died , I was in no way prepared for the book I got. Yes, like many free downloads, it is in need of some good editing. There are times when the descriptions go on forever, and at times the narration or dialog feels stilted. However, Blackwelder's story is so powerful that is rises above these problems. I find myself, a month later, still thinking about the story, about the characters, as if they were people who truly lived - perhaps in my family, or a friend's family.
I studied Political Geography and German, and my husband's emphasis for his History degree was WWII. Between the books from his senior level classes and my German-Jewish writers class, I felt that I had a pretty decent handle on the events leading up to the Holocaust. I've been to numerous museums, both in the US and Germany, read memoirs and spoken to Holocaust survivors, so I thought that I had an (albeit sheltered and incomplete) empathy if not understanding of some of the emotional aspects of living in Germany during those years. But nothing has ever quite impacted me on an emotional level in the same way as Eli and Rebecca's story.
Throughout my reading I found myself stopping and looking things up in books such as Hitler's Thirty Days to Power: January 1933 or The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, only to find that Blackwelder's history was achingly accurate. Things that I had intellectually understood now resonated on an emotional level. I had seen and understood the horror of the ghettos, but not the suffocating fear and uncertainty of the middle class street suddenly devoid of children, the park without strollers. I think it is easier to separate ourselves from things that are extremely horrible, absolutely outside the bounds of our experience. However, we have all felt the odd chill of an unusually quiet street, a silent park, an empty building. To imagine the streets of Munich thus, and to see it so through Eli and Rebecca's experience - the added fear, shame, confusion - left me deeply unsettled. They became real to me, and, despite knowing the few possible outcomes for them, I couldn't help but wish that I could unknown history for a little while. Or that Blackwelder might fudge the historical accuracy, but she does not, nor should she.
I don't think this book will be for everyone, nor do I think it is perfectly constructed. However, I think that Ami Blackwelder brought history to life for me in a way that, though I may not have liked, I certainly needed. I feel privileged to have know Eli and Rebecca, and find that, though they were fictional, they were also real. (less)
I should first and foremost make clear that I am a purist where Jane Austen is concerned, and that Mansfield Park and Persuasion alternate as my favor...moreI should first and foremost make clear that I am a purist where Jane Austen is concerned, and that Mansfield Park and Persuasion alternate as my favorite Austen novel.
Amanda Grange has many good things going for her. The language is mostly convincing and the characters have continuity with Austen's own. When dialog or events coincide with something already portrayed in Mansfield Park, Grange is pretty faithful in her own portrayal. Most importantly, Edmund Bertram's Diary is a light, funny, enjoyable read.
Perhaps this sounds strange coming from a purist, but if one is going to take on Jane Austen, it should be done with confidence. Be big. Be bold. Add something new to the conversation! (For example, love it or hate it, Patricia Rozema's 1999 film adaptation of Mansfield Park brought something new to the table.) The idea of retelling Austen's works from the men's perspectives has so much potential. There are many things that ladies of that time would not or could not have known that the men would have. What an opportunity to add new depth to beloved stories from perspective unavailable to the author! In practice, on the other hand, this was just a safe retelling. I understand that much of Fanny and Edmund's story occurs when they are together leaving little opportunity for invention. That is what made me look forward to the early years when the boys were at school, Edmund's time with the Owens Family, and Fanny's stay in Portsmouth. (Especially Fanny's stay in Portsmouth.) In the original novel so much occurs offstage for Fanny during these periods that Grange could have expanded on Edmund's perspective in so many ways! Sadly, these are some of the skimpiest areas of Edmund's "diary."
It is Jane Austen's wit, humor, and keen observations that make her books more than just love stories. In the end, Edmund Bertram's Diary just becomes an enjoyable but eminently forgettable copy of someone else's masterpiece. Maybe I just started with the wrong Austen hero? I enjoyed Grange's style - and it is clear that we share a love of Austen - so I will be giving her other books a chance. (less)
I am having a hard time collecting my thoughts for this review, so to the lists it is:
- Something just feels off when the highest praise for the book...moreI am having a hard time collecting my thoughts for this review, so to the lists it is:
- Something just feels off when the highest praise for the book is from Anne Rice, then we find out Borchardt is her sister.
- I love historical fiction, because I love it when history is enlivened. I think it takes as much artistry to create new and believable characters when they live within a preordained world, and certain events are absolutely set to occur, as it does to create something entirely new. I felt like Borhardt used historical events as catalysts to further her plot, but her setting never felt convincing. It may as well have been a fantasy world for all that it felt like medieval Rome - like many high fantasy novels it sticks with or departs from reality as suits the story.
- Regeane is supposed to be seen as a strong feminist character. I see the seed of that in her (she is a teenager, after all, for all that this is NOT YA). She is definitely strong, independent, and smart a different times, but it never felt convincing. Events felt contrived to make her look that way, and she was REALLY lucky in the people she fell in with, as they were often the ones who kept her safe. So, even though she never really was TSTL or TNTL, she still came off that way to me.
- In spite of all her supposed strenght, and that (in Anne Rice's words) Borchardt is "a daring and vibrant new voice on the female literary frontier," we still end up in a novel where the heroine must repeatedly and ultimately be saved by her love-at-first-sight man or her friends. It angers me that Borchardt is compared to Marion Zimmer Bradley. MZB's heroines rescue themselves.
- I feel like Borchardt maybe felt like she had something to prove in being Anne Rice's sister? There were multiple scenes that seemed like they had been put in more for shock value than for any real value in moving the plot along. It was as if she said to herself, "Now would be an excellent time to have her cousin fuck a whore right next to her" or "some gratuitous lesbian sex would just make this scene!" They felt jarringly out of place in the story as a whole.
- all that said, it was still a good story, and an interesting and more mature approach to shape-shifters than I have read in a good while. However, the further I get from it (and the more time I have to think about it) the less I like it If the plot had been a little less meandering, if the characters had been a bit more convincing, the setting a bit more vibrant, if she (and everyone around her) had been a tad less aware that she was "Anne Rice's Sister!!!" it would have been a much better book.
If given only one word to describe Franny Billingsley's Chime, I would say 'beautiful'; given two words I would say 'hauntingly beautiful'. Given the full scope of the English language and I suddenly feel incapable of capturing the reading experience in words - which is a bit like the book itself. Please bear with me through some almost-right comparisons. Your understanding of the story is like the circular waves made on a smooth pond when a stone is dropped in. Gentle, slowly widening waves moving outward from the center. OR, perhaps like waiting to find the color of an early spring bulb at the end of winter. First the green shoots, the slow stretch upward, the formation of the still colorless bud, before the final opening - the glorious reveal. Sure, you have hints, you have guesses, but much of the beauty is in the waiting.
Chime is also like a song, or a poem. It was almost funny to me how often Briony says she hates poetry or poems; I have never read prose that felt more lyrical, more rhythmic, more poetic before. I will be vague to avoid a spoiler, but something very terrible happens, or almost-happens, and though I was horrified, the thought still crossed my mind that it had to be the most stunning description of such an event I had ever read. Furthermore, songs, poems, oral tradition - they all feature prominently not only in the plot but also in Briony's narrative voice. After a house-that-jack-built style build up, she finishes:
"This is the girl called Briony; who lived in a swamp that was being drained; which angered the Boggy Mun; who sent the swamp cough; which Briony found out through the ghost-children; whom Briony was able to hear because she has the second sight; which Briony has because she's a witch; which the Swampfolk found out when she had to explain how she knew; which meant she was hanged by the neck until dead.
That was the girl called Briony."
"This is the girl called Briony; who wanted to hurry to the Alehouse; which would distract her from the memory of the ghost-children; which kept coming back to her until she wanted to scream; which she felt like doing anyway, because Rose doesn't know how to hurry; which goes to show that Briony's always waiting for Rose, and if Briony ends up on the gallows, it will be for murder.
That is the girl called Briony."
Chime is gloomy; it is haunting; but the darkest part is the way Briony sees herself. It is uncomfortable to be privy to such deeply seeded self-hatred. It is like being stuck in molasses (or perhaps swamp mud?) trying to find your way out of Briony's thoughts, her version of things, to the truth. She is such an unreliable narrator! As the reader, you start suspecting sooner than Briony, but it is a real struggle at times to get there. And this, I think, is Billingsley's most masterful accomplishment. Briony's thoughts are as big an impediment to the reader as they are to her - we can understand why it took her so long to reach the truth, we can empathize. Chime also quite frankly left me feeling a bit dazed, stunned. It took me a while to get past, 'it's just so beautiful!' - which felt so very appropriate once all the parts of the story had been revealed. I imagine I felt a bit like Eldric, Mad Tom, Mr. Larkin, or Briony had each felt at one point.
Chime does such an excellent job revealing itself that it would be a shame to ruin it, to continue the almost comparison, to force the bulb. And to talk about it without giving anything away is to talk around it and useless. The best I can say is that if you love folk lore, gorgeously haunting prose, subtle mystery and magic - read it. Read it now.
Had I been forced to review 13 Hangmen after the first third of the book, it would have been terrible. Corriveau tells the reader EVERYTHING. Nothing...moreHad I been forced to review 13 Hangmen after the first third of the book, it would have been terrible. Corriveau tells the reader EVERYTHING. Nothing is shown, nothing is left up to the reader, the characters, setting, and plot all feel stilted, and it was just boring. The most exciting thing going on was the continuous (and often unbelievable) fight between Tony and his mom about his weight loss. However, when it picks up it really picks up.
Corriveau has a fascinating idea of history, and I love what he has done with it. Through a chain of thirteen year old boys who know each other - each meeting the one before him when he is thirteen and the one after him when he is an older man - Corriveau manages to tell the ethnically and culturally rich history of the United States. He does so in snapshots of great events while still showing that, though we mostly remember special dates, history is continuous. We are not isolated from history but a part of it. I won't lie, I had some serious problems with the way he mixed fact and fiction (and science and pseudoscience, for that matter) so seamlessly that they were at times indistinguishable. But, wow, he made history exciting! Once we got rolling on the mystery, I really couldn't wait to find out who the next boy would be or what he would contribute to the, well, history lesson, for lack of a better word. And, much to my peace of mind, Corriveau cleans up the fact/fiction melding at the end. (Not that I wouldn't trust middle grade readers to immediately fact check. Ahem.) Also, I just really wish he wouldn't have perpetuated some persistent myths. Corriveau adds his voice to that of Longfellow in muddying Revere's place in history. Obviously, the exciting exaggerations are a lot easier to remember - we have adults, who really ought to know better, still thinking Revere rode up and down the street ringing a bell!
There were some moments in 13 Hangmen that were really trite such as a villainous tell-all monologue a la Murder She Wrote. By the time we got there I was really hoping for better. Also, Sarah has violet eyes, really? (Can we just clear this one up now? Unless your character is albino, it is biologically impossible for her to have violet eyes. Elizabeth Taylor didn't even have violet eyes - she had deep blue eyes that she played up with cosmetics, lighting, and wardrobe. Okay, now we've all got this, stop with the violet eyes already!) I also felt that Angey's assistance to and subsequent friendship with Tony later in the book felt very contrived; it just didn't fit with his character, and I was shown no character growth to account for this change. Plus, a conveniently left behind Ouija board? Again, a plot device that kept the story moving but required suspension of disbelief on my part. Also, the mystery itself was a little predictable - but I'm a twenty-eight year old woman who enjoys reading mysteries. I imagine a middle grade reader new to the genre might not find these things quite as implausible, transparent, or predictable as I do.
Overall, 13 Hangmen was fun, interesting, and made me think about some things I know in a new way. (As a student of Geography, I have learned about the rotation of ethnic groups within a neighborhood throughout generations, but I have never really thought about the neighborhood itself as a sort of time capsule as Corriveau does.) I also love the way the boys are linked by objects that they pass on to each other. (I do feel most connected to my grandmother-the-young-mother when wearing her apron, canning or cooking for my children. It is a time travel of sorts that connects us - doing the same thing at the same 'time' of live with the same object.) Corriveau was absolutely at his best when recounting history, or placing the boys within historical settings and events. His handling of Jack as a boy and "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald were some of the most convincing bits of writing in the book. He manages to write about American history in a compellingly patriotic voice without finding the need to white-wash it - in any sense of the word. He holds no punches when describing the realities that a young African American, Jewish, Italian, Irish, Hispanic, etc., etc., etc. 13 year old boy would face at different points in history; and he acknowledges the very great contributions that each of these communities made to America. Plus, he pulls all that off without appearing nationalistic or nostalgic - a pretty impressive feat. (Truthfully, I would really like to see Corriveau turn his hand to some non-fiction histories or biographies for middle graders.)
13 Hangmen didn't wow me, but I enjoyed it - and I think that nine or ten year old me (she who hid under her blanket with a flashlight and Nancy Drew or Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators) would have enjoyed it even more - if she made it past the first third of the book, that is.
The only way for me to really talk about The Technologists is to pull it apart into its different layers. At its most basic, Pearl's The Technologists...moreThe only way for me to really talk about The Technologists is to pull it apart into its different layers. At its most basic, Pearl's The Technologists is a mystery, a thriller. It is also a novel with a profound sense of place - not only of the where but also when. Pearl takes his setting very seriously, and in it is entirely convincing - in fact, it is primarily in the steampunkish technology that we wander outside of historical fiction into alternative history. Finally, The Technologists reads almost as an Ode to Science and Technology, as well as an exploration of their place and purpose in the world. It explores the morals and ethics of innovation, the value of technology and scientific discovery, and even attempts to distill to its simplest form what science and technology really are.
It is only in that first, most basic layer of the book - they mystery/thriller - that I feel Pearl has failed. His writing style, while beautiful and absolutely perfect for his other aims, hampers the sense of urgency he is attempting to create. I recently read a very interesting blog post from Query Shark in which she talked about word count in sentences, and sentence count in paragraphs, as part of what increases tension in mystery/thrillers. Pearl's writing can at best be called languid. It is the type of prose you wallow in, not speed through. Additionally, I get that it is a convention of the genre to introduce the reader, at a rapid rate in the first of the books, to numerous people who will be among primary characters, secondary characters, as well as mere victims of whatever disaster is imminent. This lack of characterization is okay because it is rapid. Unfortunately, according to my Goodreads status updates, I had read a fifth of the book before I really started getting to know the main characters of The Technologists. I knew that the mystery would eventually unfold; I knew that the Tech boys (and girl) would eventually be my focus; I didn't particularly care. But, here's the thing: I did care enough to keep reading because of all the other layers that Pearl did really, really well.
As a reader, I have to attach myself to someone to continue to invest in a book. Pearl's constant introduction of new characters left me with little other option but to attach to Boston, the city, as its own character. (In fact, I would be quite surprised to find that it was not at least partially Pearl's intent to make Boston so present in the novel that it appeared a character.) Likewise, Pearl's writing is at times so evocative of the mid to late 1800s, that I was surprised when I get to something 'alternative'. Everything from sentence structure to word phrasing to chosen vocabulary firmly places the book in the 19th century, while simultaneously being approachable by the modern reader. Pearl does this with such balance and grace that it is truly beautiful to behold. I was shown 19th century Boston in all its full-bodied glory.
However, where The Technologists really shines is in its handling of science and technology. It is the story of the pioneers of science education. This book is firmly about the time in history when MIT had to fight for its very existence in a world that mistrusted it. Yet, it would require an almost ostrich-like approach to current events to not realize that this is a battle still playing out today. The thing I think I most appreciated about Pearl was his ambiguity. His characters were not always fully formed because they were often embodiments of the different views people take in this fight. Marcus IS MIT, and MIT is Marcus. Agassiz is Intelligent Design, and Intelligent Design is Agassiz. And, in allowing each of these approaches to be embodied by a person, Pearl allows more nuance and ambiguity into the discussion. It is easy to ask MIT to have a protectionist stance, as an institution, within the city of Boston for its own self preservation. However, to think of Marcus sitting idly by feels morally wrong. This duality in the characters allows the reader to see the hypocrisy in thinking something is a safe decision from an institution, but morally repugnant from an individual. They are the same. So often in this fight between science educators and moral objectionists, all the decisions seem to come from cold, faceless institutions; but really they are made by people with fear, hubris, conviction, excitement, etc. - people who are anything but cold or faceless. Pearl is also perpetually defining and redefining science and technology, and the definitions rarely feel wrong. I found myself nodding along with Agassiz at first, until his rants slowly slipped into something that, at first I only could not follow, until finally they reached something I abhor.
The Technologist asks of us, where is the line between protecting ourselves with innovation and from innovation? When have we gone too far? Where does religion fit into a new, more scientific world? Where does science fit into a religious worldview? What about ethics and morality? Where is the moral line between theory and practice? (For example, was it morally acceptable for these scientists to theorize about the construction of this new virus, but wrong to actually create it? Or was it wrong to even theorize? Or should they have been allowed to create it and publish it anyway, for the sake of learning?) Does technology improve society or destroy it? Are we naturally innovators, or do we defy nature by our innovation? Were we already set apart as better than the world around us, or do we set ourselves apart by our attempts to better ourselves? Do great minds arise because of education, or in spite of it? There is not always a set right or wrong in these questions, but dynamic shades of grey that change as often as the faces of science and technology themselves change. Other times there are clear rights and wrongs, and they require action - and Pearl shows that as well. I love how deftly and beautifully Pearl deals with these issues, how he often forces the questions without providing the answers, and so I don't really care that I felt no urgency for his mystery - that wasn't really the most important question he asked anyway.
What a refreshingly wonderful book! When I finished reading Candlewax I was happy. There weren't any niggling complaints about the book teasing at the...moreWhat a refreshingly wonderful book! When I finished reading Candlewax I was happy. There weren't any niggling complaints about the book teasing at the happiness, nor unsatisfied expectations from an abrupt cliffhanger. Candlewax is quite simply a tight, well-written, interesting, fun fantasy novel for young adults.
Sims' world building is just fabulous; at once I was transported into her world, and there were no frayed edges to trip me up. Even the most fantastic elements had been incorporated in such a way that they fit seamlessly with the others. I completely believed in Lackanay, Cinna, and Candlewax. Yes, there was quite a bit of exposition in the dialog at times, but it rarely felt like info-dumping. Sims' dialog was both plausable and interesting, and the history and adventure unfolded together in a beautifully harmonious sort of way.
The characters were also just so well done! In Catherine we have a believably flawed, beautiful, strong protagonist. Her alternating strength and vulnerability never feel forced, and the fact that she is a girl never factors in either; they are the strengths and weaknesses of any person, not a specific sex. (I think a young male reader could get wrapped up in her adventure just as easily as a female reader.) Pokos is delightful in the way only a talking cat can be, and Cyril is a strong, smart, and nice hero. He is a partner for Catherine, not just a love interest. As I read I truly felt a part of the adventure; the relationships between the characters developed in such as way that it felt like we were all getting to know each other at the same time. I learned to trust and like the characters just as they learned to trust and like each other.
And what an adventure it is! Girl running from an arranged marriage. Girl masquerading as boy. Servant masquerading as Princess. Enchanted jewelry and daggers. Enigmatic cat. Prophesies. Kingdoms to be saved. Destinies to be met. Magical beasts. Secret rooms and hidden passages. Traitors. Archery contests. Evil Kings. Thieves. Campfire cooking. Everything one could possibly love about fantasy is in Candlewax (except maybe dragons. But you won't miss them, promise!)
The novel has a nicely plotted story arc and, even with the cliffhanger set up for the next books in the series, Candlewax has that now-rare satisfying feeling of conclusion when it ends. I won't lie: I really wish it had a more inspiring cover, some of the made up words and names made me giggle - even when they were supposed to be menacing - and the Trodliks never became more than this in my head, but none of that really detracted from my enjoyment of the novel in any way. Hardcore fans of fantasy may find Candlewax to be simple (but not, I think, derivative). There is danger, sadness, loss, fear - but things never get too dark. Therefore, I think it is an excellent introduction to the genre for younger readers while still being a good read for older teens. Sims didn't do anything earth shattering here, but it is a good, strong, fun, readable fantasy that I would easily recommend to any young reader who shows the slightest interest in the genre.
Thanks to Terabyte Press and NetGalley for the ARC.
Actual Rating: 3.5 It has taken me a while to review The Last Song because I have struggled with how to approach it. You see, I am precisely the type o...moreActual Rating: 3.5 It has taken me a while to review The Last Song because I have struggled with how to approach it. You see, I am precisely the type of person who would be inherently interested in it, but not at all Wiseman's intended audience. I am well read in both the middle ages and Jewish history and culture. In short, I know too much. That is not to say that Wiseman is in any way ignorant, or that she is wrong; merely that I wanted more detail, more nuance, and more depth from this story than she provided. The fault, therefore, lies in my expectations and not The Last Song.
First and foremost I want to applaud Wiseman for even tackling the Alhambra Decree and the Spanish Inquisition. I cannot even begin to count the number of times I have tried - in vain - to put the Holocaust into its proper prospective. When people ask, 'How could that have happened?' the answer for any student of Jewish history would be, 'Easily!' European countries have a long and sordid history of treating Jewish people abysmally - everything from laws which classified them as second or third class citizens to expulsions. It is nice to see something about Jewish history for young readers which is not about the Holocaust. It saddens me sometimes to see how popular perception had ossified Jewish history and the Holocaust into one and the same thing.
So few people know that the Spanish Inquisition started primarily because conversos (or Jewish people who had recently, ahem - as in within the past few generations, converted to Christianity were enjoying very high levels of financial, political, occupational, and intellectual success. Never mind that this was a period of fierce intellectualism within the Jewish community - in stark contrast to the rather ostrich-like approach Christians were taking to the world at the time. Wiseman does a very good job of highlighting most of these issues within The Last Song without ever getting too dark. So many things about this time period were made softer, toned down, simplified. Nobody important dies. Spaniards who are really close to Isobel never really betray her. Her family makes it out of Spain safely, as do her friends, and she has her happily ever after with the boy she loves.
The Last Song is a gentle introduction to Jewish history, but it is still a true one. There are no easy lies, perhaps only careful omissions. So, while I may have expected the quintessential (and completely un-PC) medieval insult slinging; the dirt and poverty and despair in the Juderia; the families and friends ripped apart by betrayals and arrests - they weren't necessary. The Last Song was safe enough that it was fun to read, and real enough to make kids think. And that, to me, makes this a very good book indeed.
I suppose I should start off with the fact that this is fiction based VERY loosely on historical figures and events; the story is made up, but the nam...moreI suppose I should start off with the fact that this is fiction based VERY loosely on historical figures and events; the story is made up, but the names are real. Considering how frequently I air my (occasionally annoying) thoughts pertaining to accuracy in details as they apply to persons, places, and events that were real, it will probably come as a surprise that - though Dunlap played fast and loose with her fiction and fact - it didn't really bother me. (Are you shocked? I was.) Maybe it is because her primary characters were people that I knew of but little about. She keeps the external historical details fairly accurate while making the events most intimate to the characters primarily fiction. That seemed to make it somehow okay. I was able to read the entire novel without feeling the need to flip to the back of the book or pull up google to fact-check, which is a testament to just how engrossing I found The Académie.
Dunlap's characters captured me and wouldn't let me go. The four young women central to the plot were all very honest, believable portrayals of young ladies of their time and in their positions. They were exceptionally well developed - vibrant and vital - and capable of creating strong emotions. Sadly, my primary emotions were dislike, disdain, and less frequently sympathy. I think it another testament to Dunlap's talent that the latter was even possible. Every time I would start to like a character, or think perhaps I had been too hard on them, they would do something so self-serving or cruel that I was right back at square one.
The Académie is written in a very intimate first person style that feels almost like diary entries, and alternates perspective between three of the four main characters. While reading their alternating views of events, I was constantly reminded of something a teacher once said, 'rarely does someone think they are the villain in their own story.' We switch between seeing the excuses for and the effects of each girl's actions, and it is enlightening in a horrifying sort of way. To see how cruelly something can be felt by someone, followed by what the other actually intended to happen was fascinating. Which is why, even though I really didn't like these girls, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about them. This pulling closer to and pushing away from each of the characters with the change of narration also gave the girls' characters added depth that I didn't at first suspect. I don't think they would feel so terrible if they were not so real. Each time I was with a character, I sympathized with them, and could understand their actions if not condone them. (And to be truthful, Madeleine and Hortense weren't actually that bad until later in the book. I am also thankful that Dunlap never gave Caroline control of the narration - that is one head I do not want to be in.)
Overall I actually really liked The Académie, and thought it was very well done. I will definitely read other books by Dunlap, and think she is a skilled author. However, I do have one problem with The Académie - and it is a rather large one. Dunlap (per her Author's Note) purposely attempted to explore 18th century racism and the issue of slavery. She attempted to display it in all its ugliness, and then show how circumstances could change people's opinions, allowing 'shaded feelings' on the issues. She particularly tried to show this in the character of Eliza. While I greatly appreciate the attempt, I think she was unfortunately so successful in the first part of her aim that she utterly failed in the second. I did not get 'shaded feelings' from Eliza. Her behavior to the French servants early in the book was so cruel (and her thoughts about both the servants in France and the slaves at home so dismissive) that her turnabout toward African-American slaves at the end felt contrived and inauthentic to her character. Eliza's behavior with Madeleine felt believable insofar as she had already invested in Madeleine's humanity, and could not take it back. It has been repeatedly documented throughout history that exceptionally racist people can be adept at compartmentalizing those feelings - suspending them when confronted with a single individual they come to know while still maintaining them against a race as a whole. Nothing ever makes me think this is not the case with Eliza and Madeleine. (Nor does the actual life story of Eliza Monroe - as seen in a few hours of googling - ever betray hints of these conflicted feelings.)
Perhaps it is only a product of my own privilege (that of having education and experiences which allow me to not be racist) but I find the book's implications to be both insulting and patronizing. I strongly resent the idea that it takes being thrown into close proximity to or intimacy with an individual of another race (or sexual orientation, or sex, or gender, or (dis)ability, or religion, etc.) to recognize their humanity. (Or, conversely, that racism, sexism, etc. arise from a lack of experience with people who are different.) I call BS. Over and over again we see people who were 'products' of the very same times, situations and circumstances as racist individuals who, unlike their less open-minded peers, were instead quite aware of the inherent humanity of people different from themselves. (In counterpoint to Eliza - white, southern, and/or wealthy people who were abolitionists and members of the Underground Railroad.) There are people out there who can recognize the basic common humanity of us all - no matter in which society, time, or income class they lived. I think it sells humanity as a whole short to say that we must all be taught or forced to recognize this. Yes, a person who is merely self-absorbed may be made to see that they have been unintentionally or unknowingly cruel or racist, and will then change. (Oskar Schindler as he was portrayed in Schindler's List comes to mind.) However, people who are truly racist (sexist, homophobic, etc.) are rarely going to shed those beliefs that simply. I willingly admit I could be wrong, and would welcome thoughts on the topic.(less)
To be completely truthful, I would probably never have reviewed Zusak's The Book Thief if I had not considered giving it away for World Book Night. It...moreTo be completely truthful, I would probably never have reviewed Zusak's The Book Thief if I had not considered giving it away for World Book Night. It is the kind of book that can affect you deeply if you let it, but the reaction is just as deeply personal. And, at this point, its awards and accolades allow it to speak for itself. It is clearly a beautifully written, well constructed book. There are two things, though, that Zusak does so incredibly well that I feel I have to mention them: his use of language and foreshadowing.
As Death began his narration, the very first thing that struck me was the words. In a book that is all about the power and importance of words, that shouldn't come as a surprise, but it did. Zusak talks about things--familiar things--in a completely different way than I am accustomed, and it changed the way I saw them. I have heard of people 'carrying' a memory of someone. However, when Death described Liesel's mother carrying the memory of her brother like a Werner-shaped bag slung over her shoulder, and that she occasionally had to drop him limbs flinging to the platform of the Bahnhof before slinging him back over the other shoulder, Zusak made the cliche so much more visceral--he made it something new. We can feel the weight of that memory, how unwieldy a burden it must be, the sheer exhaustion her mother must feel while carrying it, but she cannot put it down or leave it behind. One has baggage for a reason. Just like when Liesel's crying for her brother is described as "a gang of tears;" or a draft is described as the breeze of the Third Reich gaining strength, or Europe breathing; or perhaps when two grey-eyed men, father and son, disagreeing across a dinner table are described as "metallic eyes" clashing "like tin cans in the kitchen;" each of these instances pack so much more into the words than what is on the surface. The words are like tightly folded little notes that you must open before you get the full message. We can see the violence and the multitude of Liesel's tears in the word "gang." We feel the coolness of the air, the fear in the room, the smallness and helplessness that the people feel as the draft whips by. And we feel the sharpness, the uncomfortably loud emotional clanging of two like things meeting in discord. In someone else's hands this 552 page book could have been so much longer, and still not have said everything Zusak was able to communicate. His words burn, even in their multitude.
I was also greatly struck by something Death says about half way through the book:
I have given you two events in advance, because I don't have much interest in building mystery. Mystery bores me. It chores me. I know what happens and so do you. It's the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me. (p 243)
Here Death is being very disingenuous, because he is actually quite good at creating a mystery. Sure, we are given a few very big pieces of the story; we know how some things are going to end. History tells us how many things are going to end! But, as Death says himself at the end of that quote, the ending isn't really what is important. It reminded me a lot of Margaret Atwood's "Happy Endings":
The only authentic ending is the one provided here: John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.
So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it's the hardest to do anything with.
That's about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.
Now try How and Why.
The mystery, the beauty, of The Book Thief lies in the how and why. Even knowing some of the really big pieces, and picking up on the increasingly obvious foreshadowing, I was still left completely emotionally unprepared for how and why certain things occurred. Zusak is a true connoisseur.
The thing I think I most love about The Book Thief, though, comes back to language. Only this time it is Deutsch. It is almost impossible to get more than a couple of pages without a new German word or phrase being used or defined. Zusak never lets the reader forget that the characters about whom they are reading, for whom they now care, are Germans in Nazi Germany. He gives Germans back their voice, and, in doing so, fights a propaganda machine that has been chugging away continuously for over 100 years now with the same message: All Germans are bad. All Germans are bad. All Germans are bad. That is not to say that we don't occasionally get movies or books about the everyday Germans who were doing good things, being heroes in both little and big ways, but they are often Anglicized. Aside from character or place names, all Deutsch is removed from the text. And, unless they are Nazis or Evil Geniuses (or in the case of Indiana Jones movies, both) their accents are crisply British or smoothly American. (Hence the reason that an atrocity such as Tom Cruise playing Claus von Stauffenberg can occur!!! Breath, just breath.) We sometimes get so caught up in what the Nazis did, thought, were, etc., that we forget that to be German and to be a Nazi were vastly different things. Not all Nazis wore uniforms; and not everyone who wore a uniform was a Nazi--compulsory military service will do that. (And we get to see that with some of the characters.) I also love that Zusak says this of Max:
[H]e had walked out of that building a new man. In fact, he walked out German. Hang on a second, he was German. Or more to the point, he had been. (p 159)
Taking his lead from famous Jews who would have been contemporaries of Max such as Gertrud Kolmar, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein or Katja Behrens, he shows that, at least for them, it was never a choice: They were German and Jewish.
Despite its Literary bent or all of the Big Things, Important Topics, or Issues addressed within, at the end of the day The Book Thief is really just a beautifully written story. A story about a young girl who learns the power of words in a difficult time; that "books and words...mean not just something, but everything." And it can make you believe that, too, if you let it.(less)
It has been very interesting to see the reviews for Code Name Verity stack up. Most have been either positively glowing, or the I did not finish/forc...more It has been very interesting to see the reviews for Code Name Verity stack up. Most have been either positively glowing, or the I did not finish/forced myself to finish this abysmally boring book type review; there isn't really much middle ground. As a long-time fan of Elizabeth Wein I cannot say I am surprised. I have long loved her books, but then I love historical fiction with an emphasis on the historical and a light touch on the fiction. I like it Dragnet style -- you know, the names have been changed but the stories are real. Tim O'Brien style real stories -- any of them could have happened, some of them did, and good luck figuring out which ones are which. I have long since given up on accurately predicting who else will love Wein's books.
All of the hallmarks I have come to expect from a Wein book are present in Code Name Verity. Relentless attention to detail (both historical and otherwise). Subtly laid clues that you only pick up on in retrospect ("How did I miss that?!"). An unflinching acceptance of the fact that even the most evil of human characteristics are still human, (the result of which has been some of the most interesting and nuanced "bad guys" I have ever read). And, of course, the amazing heroines. Women who are cunning and fierce and brave and do unthinkably difficult things because they must be done. The women in Code Name Verity are, I think, her best yet. Sometimes her heroines are a little too...much for me -- I admire them but don't always relate to them. I had no such problem here. ( In fact, I can't help but think that if I ever met Elizabeth Wein face to face I would be a bit in awe of her. Is she as formidable and dignified and smart as her characters?)
Here are the reasons I love Code Name Verity. First, it is epistolary with the action-y current parts told in first person (making it much more pressing) and the more pleasant history told in third person. I think that was an absolutely brilliant idea on Wein's part for separating the past narration from the present. It is about real things that real women were doing in the World War II. (Yes, we did more than grow victory gardens). Her history is spot on -- I know even Homer nods and all that, but I defy the casual reader to spot an inaccuracy that Wein herself doesn't point out in her notes. It is a story told from an Allied perspective that still shows the Germans to be capable of the full range of human emotions and behaviours, not just the bad ones. On a related note, Wein acknowledges all the different aspects of what was going on at the time, but she doesn't really play the sympathy card. "Just the facts, Ma'am." (Of course, the different ways that her crafty and unreliable narrator will present those facts can get awfully twisty!) It is about air planes and flying and female pilots! (I became obsessed with female pilots after Ezra Idlet gave me a copy of Beryl Markham's West With the Night one evening after a long discussion about great female characters in books.) Finally, it's also a wonderfully written story of a beautiful friendship; they love each other so much that you can't help but love them for it. Code Name Verity reminds me of nothing so much as Rick Yancey's Mostrumologist books. It is not for everyone, and many of the things that make it so exceptional to its fans are what will turn everyone else off. But, if any of those things sound appealing, this could end up being one of your favorite books ever.
One of my favorite uncles growing up was my Uncle Joe. He was big, larger than life even. He could sing like Hank Williams. He was a gifted...moreRating: 3.5
One of my favorite uncles growing up was my Uncle Joe. He was big, larger than life even. He could sing like Hank Williams. He was a gifted storyteller who usually focused more on the quality of the story than the truth. He had that quintessential southern accent -- smooth and warm, it would roll through you like good whiskey. He could make a mean boiling pot -- with Uncle Joe, food went beyond nourishment and became an event. He was an amazing and skilled hunter and fisherman. And (as odd as it may sound coming from this nearly life-long vegetarian) it was partly his love of nature and animals that helped inspire my own. He was a drifter by nature, unlike Nolay (see! I didn't forget the book!), because his roots were not a place but people. Like a boomerang he always circled back to us. Of all the stopping places he found, the one that lasted the longest in my memory was Alabama. He fell equally in love with the swamp and the Gulf; and, for a man who seldom did such things, he could wax poetically about both. Uncle Joe was also a lot like Nolay in that he always seemed to have something to prove -- to himself and everyone else. He was fiercely protective of us, his family, both as people and ideas. Somehow, after he died, we became a little less a unit and more a collection of people. He had a temper, and he didn't always make the best choices. But, like Bones, I didn't see that when I was a child. All I saw was this amazingly smart man who could do anything except wrong.
These similarities, of course, made my immersion into Precious Bones both quick and thorough. But, despite my personal parallels that made this book particularly compelling, I think many readers will find it equally compelling without them. Ashley-Hollinger writes with such evocative, eloquent beauty that it just sucks you in and won't let go. The mystery is fabulous, but the biggest reveals aren't necessarily related to the mystery. Precious Bones is also a luscious coming of age story, a story about seeing people as they really are and still accepting them.
Oddly enough, my biggest complaints about Precious Bones are also some of the things I loved most. I love that Ashley-Hollinger includes regional dialect. I also love the sweeping descriptions of her surroundings. There is such a sense of place in Precious Bones. However, upon closer examination, her descriptions don't make sense in the context of Bone's first person narration. Bones has neither the education and experience for the similes and metaphors used, nor the vocabulary to have described many things as she did. As an adult I found the descriptions poignant and apt, but many would have flown right over my son's head without further clarification and definition. Also, despite the fact that I agree with all of Ashley-Hollinger's "messages" within the book, they were not exactly subtle. I would hate for that to be what turned kids away from an otherwise beautiful and interesting book.