If I had to define "The Time Traveler's Wife" by Audrey Niffenegger in two words they would be: poignant and excessive—two words that also illustrate...moreIf I had to define "The Time Traveler's Wife" by Audrey Niffenegger in two words they would be: poignant and excessive—two words that also illustrate my mixed feelings about Niffenegger’s first novel.
“The Time Traveler’s Wife” is about many things. Obviously time travel is an important feature, but this novel is also about librarians, artists, punk rock, and alcoholics. It’s also about love.
Henry meets his wife, Clare, for the first time when he is 28 and Clare is 20. Clare met Henry for the first time when she was six and Henry was 36. Henry is, literally, a time traveler. Henry has a disease: a cellular disorder that leaves him unglued in time, traveling at random to various points in the past and future of his own life and, inexplicably, to Clare’s childhood. Henry cannot hold onto any of his possessions when he time travels—no clothes, no food, no money—a fact that often has a disastrous effect on Henry’s life.
Throughout it all, Clare is at Henry’s side faithfully waiting for him to return to her and their life together.
Niffenegger alternates viewpoints, narrating the story in both Henry’s and Clare’s voice. Despite giving the characters equal narration time, Clare remains painfully one-dimensional. She is defined by her love for Henry, her artistic career and, unfortunately, little else.
Thankfully, Henry is written much more fully. Working as a librarian at the Newberry in his present, Henry also has a complex life “out of time." He is also well-versed in the culture of drugs and drinking. Really, Henry is a mess in every sense of the word. Despite all of his problems, though, Henry remains redeemable. Throughout the novel he clings to a certain charm, a quality that makes it plausible to believe that Clare really did love him long before Henry first met her.
The novel jumps from past to present and back again as Niffenegger aptly looks at how Henry’s past intersects with his present and his future, and his evolving relationship with Clare. These examinations are a particular strength of the novel. Niffenegger manages to discuss events multiple times without being redundant. At the same time she creates a complex storyline without making it impossible to follow.
Unfortunately, she does also falter. Most of the novel’s shortcomings stem from some kind of excess. First and foremost, it’s too long. (The hardcover edition runs 600 pages.) Particularly in the second half of the novel, it feels like Niffenegger takes on too much. There are too many characters to remember, too many events only tangentially relevant to the core plot. All things considered, the novel could easily have been at least a hundred pages shorter.
For this reason, the premise of the plot has some fundamental flaws—points that make no sense in relation to the rest of the narrative. On the whole, these blips are annoying but not damning (especially given the fact that the novel is marketed as general fiction as opposed to science fiction).
“The Time Traveler’s Wife” also veers dangerously close to melodrama, raining biblically disastrous situations on both Henry and Clare. Given the ending of the novel, one would think that merely being a time traveler would be enough bad luck to last both of their lifetimes. Aside from being plain old mean, this focus on events makes it difficult to develop the characters. Many interesting people walk in and out of Henry’s life, but few of them are adequately utilized in the book.
The scope of the narrative is vast and strongly cinematic, which leads me to two conclusions: One is that this story might have been better had someone else written it. The other is that the upcoming film adaptation will be better than the novel. Given the fascinating story and characters here, hopefully that will be the case.(less)
Chuck Palahniuk is the hugely popular author of modern, edgy books like Fight Club (also a movie with Brad Pitt--go ahead, act surprised) and Choke. F...moreChuck Palahniuk is the hugely popular author of modern, edgy books like Fight Club (also a movie with Brad Pitt--go ahead, act surprised) and Choke. For this reason I did not expect to like Invisible Monsters, originally published in 1999.
The story is told by a nameless narrator: a young woman who used to be beautiful. After a series of bizarre, haunting events involving a freeway, birds and a few other things those days are gone forever. Her face disfigured, her voice gone, the narrator is invisible. And a monster in the eyes of most. Desperate for someone to save her, the narrator meets Brandy Alexander at just the right time. Brandy embodies the life that the narrator used to have--except for an important operation that Brandy still needs to have.
Riding off with Brandy, the narrator starts fresh. Life is a story. If you don't like the story you have, make up a new one. As the lives Brandy offers up as truth continue to change and the lies threaten to fall apart, it becomes clear that no matter where you run eventually you have to face the facts and really decide what story you want to tell.
That's the story. But it's really not even half the story.
Stylistically, this novel has a lot going on. It's written in the first person, present tense setting up a tone that is both conspiratorial and conversational. Despite that, the narrator remains aloof, unreliable. Talking to the reader like an old friend, the narrator reveals the smallest details of her past while leaving key plot points to herself until the right moment. There are few male novelists who can write as convincingly in the voice of a woman as Palahniuk. The narration is amazingly authentic even when the story becomes more and more over-the-top.
Palahniuk also brings a high level of complexity to the narrative, writing the story in a non-linear format. The novel opens with the final scene as the narrator tries to explain how she got to that point. Along the way flashbacks are interwoven with "the present" and other points in the time line of character's lives.
This is the kind of book that requires a lot of attention. Like the modeling world that the narrator comes from, nothing in this novel is exactly what it seems. Characters lie, information given as fact turns out to be false. Palahniuk manages all of these elements impressively well, making it all work despite the bizarreness and absurdity inherent to certain parts of the plot.
More than anything, though, this book is really a character study. Palahniuk creates a lot of unique characters whose lives intertwine unexpectedly. As might be expected from the plot description given above, many ofthe relationships between characters in Invisible Monsters are dysfunctional. But it is the dysfunction that allows Palahniuk to look at how people interact and what it really means to love someone. So, while it is utterly strange, this novel definitely puts the "fun" in dysfunctional. (less)
Jews, Alaska, chess, and murder: usually these subjects don’t have much in common. That's until you read Michael Chabon’s new novel “The Yiddish Polic...moreJews, Alaska, chess, and murder: usually these subjects don’t have much in common. That's until you read Michael Chabon’s new novel “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” where these elements come together to create the core of this quirky noir story.
Chabon’s novel is based on an interesting conceit: What if Jews had not been able to settle in Israel after World War II and, instead, were granted temporary residency on the Alaskan panhandle?
The original plan was set into motion around 1939 by Harold Ickes (Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior), in response to a plea from a Jewish community in the town of Neustadt. The settlement was proposed in the Alaska Territory as a way to work around the United States’ existing immigration quotas, but fell through due to a lack of political support and backlash from Alaskans who feared the prospect of foreign settlers for reasons ranging from racism to increased competition for jobs.
In the novel, Ickes was successful in bringing his plan to fruition and Jewish refugees were given the Federal District of Sitka as a temporary settlement. That was sixty years before the start of Chabon’s novel when Sitka is getting ready to revert to the United States leaving the fate of the Alaskan Jews largely unknown.
Amazingly, all of these events are just a backdrop for Chabon’s actual story: an edgy murder mystery.
When Meyer Landsman moved into a local flophouse nine months ago he wasn’t looking to do much more than spend some quality time with his bottle of slivovitz and “the shot glass that he is currently dating” until Sitka finally reverts. Landsman’s plans change abruptly when the body of a local chess prodigy turns up in the hotel.
For reasons that elude even him, Landsman feels obligated to investigate the murder despite pressure from his new boss/ex-wife and other higher ups to drop the case. As the investigation continues, Landsman and Berko Shemets, his half-Tlingit partner, find themselves sucked into the underworld of the black hat community of the Verbover Jews and their nefarious undertakings.
Chabon also throws in several conspiracies, a cover-up scheme, a pseudo-terrorist plot, and lots of Yiddish phrases just to keep things interesting. This last touch is because the novel has the unique characteristic of being a novel written in English about characters who do not speak English: they all speak Yiddish instead.
So “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” does require a bit of energy to read. At first, nothing is going to make sense. But Chabon eventually pulls it all together. The Yiddish phrases slowly start to become comprehensible, as do the various subplots Chabon incorporates into this very unique story.
Chabon’s prose has a strange charm, which might be expected from an author who won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” a novel whose plot largely centers around a comic book hero. The narration is hard-edged, often gritty, but always with a smile threatening to form. (Jews from south of Sitka are referred to as “Mexicans.”) From the first line, this story will grab a reader’s attention. Written in the present tense, it has an immediacy fitting for a book that tries to recreate the style of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective stories in a Jewish community.
Chabon starts off strong with a vision that he vividly crafts on the page. This vision begins to falter in the second half of the novel as Chabon becomes wrapped up in the complicated conventions common to noir stories. The explanations for several conspiracies come off as convoluted, if not entirely out of nowhere. The novel’s ending, too, is not as strong as its opening.
Shortcomings aside, Chabon has done a great service to the genre of speculative (or “what if?”) fiction by showing that it is possible to write a serious S. F. novel.(less)
Zen Shorts is a picture book written and illustrated by Jon J. Muth. But it’s also a short story collection. And it’s also a philosophy book. And it h...moreZen Shorts is a picture book written and illustrated by Jon J. Muth. But it’s also a short story collection. And it’s also a philosophy book. And it has a giant panda. Oh, and it is a Caldecott Honor book too.
The story starts when siblings Addy, Michael, and Karl meet Stillwater, a large Panda who wanders into their backyard to retrieve his umbrella. I love the opening scenes of the story. Karl, the youngest sibling, is looking out a window and telling Michael he sees a huge bear. Eventually all of the kids go out and say hello to Stillwater. Addy introduces Karl, who is “shy around bears he doesn’t know.” I find that phrase so enchanting. This kind of charm continues throughout the book.
The next day Addy meets Stillwater for tea. Then Michael and Stillwater hang out. Then Karl goes swimming with Stillwater.
Each outing is accompanied by an appropriate short story. The first is about a man (panda) who gives a gift to a robber. Another is about a man who knows that luck is a many-faceted thing. The final story is about a monk carrying an unnecessary burden. I’ll never explain the stories as well as Muth tells them, so you should just read the book.
The illustrations of Stillwater and the children are beautifully rendered watercolors. The coloring is subtle with quite intricate line work for the drawings. The stories between the “real” story are printed on pastel backgrounds and illustrated with silhouettes so that they have a clearly different look from the rest of the book.
When you’re finished you should also check out the afterward which explains the underlying philosophy for each story. (Muth has a lot of Buddhist/Taoist influences.)
This is a great book to read with older children because even if they don’t get the philosophy, the stories are approachable and they’ll get something from it. (Even youngsters will enjoy the pictures.) It’s a great introduction to philosophy, a fact that becomes clear after reading the afterward, for “students” of any age. Muth does an admirable job creating a picture book that children and grownups can enjoy together.(less)
If you have any knowledge of art/art history, this book is basically useless. The information is painfully redundant and presented as if the author we...moreIf you have any knowledge of art/art history, this book is basically useless. The information is painfully redundant and presented as if the author were writing for young children. (less)
J.J. Liddy, the main character of Kate Thompson’s novel The New Policeman, has a problem: there never seems to be enough time in the day. In fact, the...moreJ.J. Liddy, the main character of Kate Thompson’s novel The New Policeman, has a problem: there never seems to be enough time in the day. In fact, there seems to be decidedly less time. With barely enough hours in the day for school and his music, J.J. has no time left over to contemplate the shocking revelation that his grandfather may have been a murderer. To make matters worse, this time problem seems to affect everyone in Kinvara.
When J.J.’s mother reveals that she wants more time for her birthday, J.J. decides to go and find some. A task, at first, that seems like an impossible undertaking for a fifteen-year-old. That is until a neighbor shows J.J. an unlikely place to look for everyone’s lost time.
Even though he doesn’t believe in fairies, J.J. finds himself in Tir na n’Og, the land of eternal youth, and the home of Irish fairies. So begins J.J.’s search of Tir na n’Og to figure out where the time has gone and, more importantly, how to get it back. Along the way J.J. meets a variety of memorable characters including Aengus Og (a personal favorite after finishing the novel).
The narration shifts throughout the book alternating between J.J. in his search for the county’s lost time and the wanderings of the new policeman in Kinvara, Garda Larry O’Dwyer. Like J.J. (and most of Kinvara it seems), the new policeman has a love for music. The new policeman is also almost certain he used to have a good reason for becoming a policeman—if only he could remember what it was.
Thompson expertly entwines these two seemingly disconnected narratives throughout the novel. The common thread between them remains the music that literally runs through the novel. Chapter breaks are denoted by sheet music for traditional Irish songs whose titles relate to the story in addition to the strong affinity all of the characters have for music. By the end of the novel, Thompson ties together both stories creating a sensational end to a truly enjoyable book.
At the same time, The New Policeman is irresistibly Irish, as if you can hear an Irish accent in the narration (or hear a jig or two in the background). The book’s “Irish-ness” is enhanced by Thompson’s integration of Irish mythology and folklore; a glossary in the back explains the pronunciation and origin of especially Irish words like ceili (a dance) or craic (fun).
Thompson’s novel has already received a variety of critical acclaim on the other side of the Atlantic. In addition it is the winner of the Whitbread Children’s Book Award and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. Even better, though, is the fact that this book is a great choice for readers of any age. Thompson takes her time arriving at the crux of the plot, but the richness or her writing more than makes up for that. A good book is one that can transport the reader to the place within its pages: The New Policeman does that and more.
Originally published in Great Britain in 2005, this is the first year that The New Policeman was published in the United States. All this reviewer can say to that is it’s better late than never. (less)
Most everyone calls The Last Days a sequel to Westerfeld's novel Peeps. I suppose that, loosely, this is true. For my part, I think of this novel as m...moreMost everyone calls The Last Days a sequel to Westerfeld's novel Peeps. I suppose that, loosely, this is true. For my part, I think of this novel as more of a companion to Peeps because the main characters are completely different (don't worry though, characters from Peeps do turn up), the structure of then novel is different, and because the only way to get the most out of either book is to read the two of them together, back-to-back. So, this is a sequel in the same way that The Two Towers was (trick statement! Tolkien meant the Lord of the Rings trilogy to be one book but it was too long and written before the days of ginormous novels).
Suffice it to say, The Last Days is a very different book from its predecessor despite continuing the same story. Most of these differences are structural. Westerfeld again employs first person narration, but this time he has five narrators. Each chapter is labeled with a character's name and told from his or her point of view. Writing a novel in this way is incredibly difficult because you have to take into account continuity while also making sure you don't get redundant and trying to make each character sound unique. Westerfeld does all of that. Perfectly.
In this novel, Westerfeld's narrators are in the interesting position that they know less than the readers (this is why reading Peeps first is so important). The whole vampire thing is an unknown for everyone. As is the issue of a pending apocalypse.
But that doesn't tell you much about the story.
It all starts with a girl who wants to make a band. Pearl sees the weird things going on in the city. The sanitation crisis. The increasing number of stray cats. Then there are the rats that are slowly taking over the subway system. And Brooklyn. Then there's Pearl's friend, Minerva, who's been acting pretty weird herself. Pearl decides that the best way to help her friend, and maybe get through the craziness, is to start a band.
Soon Pearl finds the perfect band members. And they're a great band. But strange things happen when Minerva starts to sing. Making everyone wonder if the band's music is the one thing that can stop the apocalypse. Or start it.
There are very few male writers who can convincingly narrate from a female point of view. Scott Westerfeld is one of the few. Instead of making the novel seem choppy, or the characters under-developed, Westerfeld's split narration makes every character much more dimensional.
The story is about vampires, of course. And music. But it's also about friendship and relationships. Westerfeld artfully describes the vicious cycle some friendships have when one friend is always taking whatever the other has to give. He also shows how, sometimes, you have to keep those friends even when it's the last thing you want to do.
Like Peeps, parts of this book are a little gross. Raw meat does turn up on several plates. Some narrators are more "unique" than others. But taken as a whole it all kind of works to make a really fun, really exciting book.
At its basic level this is a story about a band trying to make it big when everything else is falling apart. Along the path to fame, they just might save the world. (less)
You probably already know the story of Rumpelstiltskin. Just in case you don't quite remember it, here are the details: A poor miller tells the king t...moreYou probably already know the story of Rumpelstiltskin. Just in case you don't quite remember it, here are the details: A poor miller tells the king that his daughter can spin straw into gold. But she can't. The king then brings the daughter to the castle to spin some straw into gold. She is very highly motivated to do so since the king will kill her if she doesn't. So, the girl is in a bit of trouble, right? Luckily, a little man drops by and offers to spin the straw into gold for the girl. First in exchange for a (gold) ring, then a (gold) necklace. Then, the girl has to spin straw one last time--if she does the king will marry her--but she's out of gold (because Rumpelstiltskin obviously needs gold). So the little man asks for the daughter's first born child. She says okay. Time passes and Rumpelstiltskin comes to collect but the daughter balks, so Rumpelstiltskin gives her an out--guess his name and she can keep the child. Eventually she does and the little man is royally upset and stamps a crack in the castle and explodes.
Weird story, right?
Vivian Vande Velde certainly thought so. In an attempt to better justify some of the weird bits of Rumpelstiltskin, Vande Velde came up with her short story collection called, appropriately enough, The Rumpelstiltskin Problem. The book features six stories. Questions answered include: Why would Rumpelstiltskin spin gold in exchange for less gold? Why would he want a baby? Why is the miller telling people his daughter can spin straw into gold? Why can't anyone guess such a bizarre name? And more.
These retellings have the tone of modern fairy tales. Each story begins something like this: "Once upon a time, before pizzerias or Taco Bells . . . " creating a nice contrast between our time and that elusive time that all of the good stories happened upon. The stories run, on average, ten pages. And every one is different--Vande Velde never covers the same ground twice.
In some versions the miller and his daughter save themselves, in others Rumpelstiltskin (yes! the bad guy!) does. Sometimes the king is a creep, sometimes he isn't. Each story offers a slightly different take on the story by asking "what if?"
The stories feature Vande Velde's usual ingenuity, in this case taking one of the oldest fairy tales in the book and making it her own (six times). My person favorites in the collection are "Straw into Gold," "The Domovoi," and "Papa Rumpelstiltskin" because Vande Velde takes the framework of the Rumpelstiltskin story and just runs with it bringing each of these stories into completely new territory. At times heartwarming, at times sad, this collection is a must read for anyone who likes a good fairy tale (with a twist) and, of course, for anyone who is already a fan of Vivian Vande Velde.
The only difference between this collection and Vande Velde's novels, I'm thinking particularly of A Well-Timed Enchantment which also turns the whole fairy tale tradition on its head, is that the short stories don't have the same depth--because they're short. This isn't a bad thing, just if you're new to Vande Velde's work I'd recommend starting with one of her novels instead because they are more illustrative of her all-around awesomeness. (less)
Decided that Jonah Eastman and I have outgrown each other. Turns out you can only read so much about a self-professed wholly unlikable character. Sorr...moreDecided that Jonah Eastman and I have outgrown each other. Turns out you can only read so much about a self-professed wholly unlikable character. Sorry, Jonah.(less)
Fourteen-year-old Miri wants a lot of things. She wants to be useful to her family. She wants to be taller and stronger. She wants desperately to work...moreFourteen-year-old Miri wants a lot of things. She wants to be useful to her family. She wants to be taller and stronger. She wants desperately to work in the quarry and understand quarry speak the way everyone else on Mount Eskel does.
What Miri doesn't want is to be a princess. At least, she doesn't think she does.
There isn't much room on Mount Eskel for princesses anyway. The mountain landscape is as beautiful as the linder stone the villagers mine for their livelihood but life there is hard. Lowland traders come to buy the mined linder, but it's barely enough to secure food for the winter.
Be that as it may, the lowlander priests of the creator god read the omens and divined that Mount Eskel is the home of the Danland Prince's future bride.
An academy is quickly established for the eligible girls to learn to be proper princesses. At the academy the girls will learn the finer points of commerce, politics, negotiation and the art of conversation. Poise, dancing, and etiquette will also be on the table among other things.
None of which interests Miri one bit. She doesn't want to be a princess. She wants to stay on Mount Eskel with her family. Except . . . Wouldn't she prove how valuable she really is if she becomes princess?
It doesn't take long for the other girls to have similar thoughts and competition soon becomes fierce. Miri is determined to prove herself but it might not take a tiara and a fine gown to do that, it might take a little thing called pluck in Princess Academy (2005) by Shannon Hale--a Newbery Honor book in 2006.
Despite what the title might suggest, Princess Academy is anything but girly. Miri and her friends are some of the toughest, most resilient characters around. The academy itself is also more than comportment and pretty dresses. There are arguments, bandits, and a very scary and very dark closet. No one said it would be easy becoming a princess.
Princess Academy is an honest, often funny book about learning that it takes more than physical strength to make a person strong. Miri is a real girl struggling to make sense of what it means to be a young woman instead of a girl while trying to make sense of what it might mean to be a princess. It is delightful to watch Miri's world open up as she realizes there can be more to her life than Mount Eskel and see what this smart, brave character does with that knowledge.
Hale's writing is snappy and engaging. Miri's internal struggle with her desire to be a princess and her ties to Mount Eskel feel so real that most readers will not be able to guess Miri's true desires until the very end (let alone which girl will become the princess!).
Possible Pairings: Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Kiki Strike by Kirsen Miller, Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde, Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede(less)
I have been meaning to read Hitty: Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field (illustrated wonderfully in what I assume is pen and ink by Dorothy P. Lath...moreI have been meaning to read Hitty: Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field (illustrated wonderfully in what I assume is pen and ink by Dorothy P. Lathrop) for a rather long time. Several years ago my mother bought me a reproduction Hitty doll by Robert Raikes (big deal carver of dolls and bears though he no longer seems to be making Hitty dolls).
After buying the doll, and doing a bit of research, we found an edition of Field's novel with the original 1929 text and illustrations. There is another, newer, edition with updated text by Rosemary Wells and illustrations by Susan Jeffers. The newer book came out, I believe, to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of Field's original novel. I never read this version, actually sending it back upon realizing it was an adaptation, but other reviewers' outrage at the changes suggest I was right to do so. If you haven't guessed already, Hitty fans are numerous and loyal.
Hitty, amazingly, was real. Hitty.org is but one site dedicated to chronicling the life and history of this amazing doll. The site includes the picture of a Daguerreotype actually mentioned in the novel as well as a variety of other interesting photos and well-researched facts.
As the subtitle suggests, Hitty is already a centenarian at the start of Field's fictionalized account of her adventures. Safely ensconced in a New York antique store equipped with quill and paper, Hitty decides it is high time to begin setting her story down for posterity. What follows is a children's novel that truly deserves the Newberry Medal it received in 1930 for "the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children."
Hitty begins her life as a lucky piece of mountain-ash wood carried by an old peddler. In exchange for lodging during a particularly bad Maine winter, the Old Peddler decides to carve his piece of wood into a doll for the family's seven-year-old child, Phoebe Preble. Hitty and Phoebe have their share of adventures during their time together. More, it might be argued, than one doll could manage (including a section that reads very much like part of Moby Dick geared to a much younger audience). But, as readers realize soon enough, Hitty is no ordinary doll. As the story progresses, Hitty passes through many hands and a variety of owners. Like most things, some owners prove better than others in the same way that certain events of Hitty's life are more worthy of space in her memoirs than others.
When you realize that this book is from 1929, well before any other doll novels were published, it becomes clear that Hitty is something special because Field did it first. At first, I thought the novel might come off as dated since it was written so long ago. But I was happily proven wrong and found that the text stood up to my modern standards as well as Hitty's chemise survives her first century. Many of the insights that Hitty expresses throughout the book remain very accurate to this day. Hitty's calm demeanor and buoyant spirit also help to make this doll downright lovable.
Field's prose is wonderful. Even though I knew Hitty was safe in the antique shop, each new peril left me fearing for Hitty and in a state of suspense until I found out if she had survived. The people that Hitty passes during the course of her first century are equally well-realized in the text. In terms of classic children's literature (especially for a younger child), I can't think of many better examples.
If, you want still more Hitty, you can check out Gail Wilson's website. This very talented (and expensive) doll makers features her own version of Hitty available both ready-made and as a kit. (less)
When was the last time you read a book where you could literally say, "This book has changed my life." Eat, Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss is one suc...moreWhen was the last time you read a book where you could literally say, "This book has changed my life." Eat, Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss is one such book.
At first I thought a zero tolerance approach to punctuation sounded a bit extreme. That is until Truss mentioned one of my favorite movies ("Two Weeks Notice"), pointing out that the title should be "Two Weeks' Notice". I was shocked. I had always assumed an apostrophe was there. Then I started listening to The Plain White T's, a band whose name makes no sense with an apostrophe, and I knew things were getting serious.
Nonetheless I will admit that it was a challenge reading the chapters about the apostrophe and the comma (although I have learned a few knew tricks for commas). Then I came to a chapter entitled "Airs and Graces." From there onward, the book was a revelation.
I learned my punctuation from my mom and copious reading. I still have a hard time explaining dependent clauses and why it is appropriate to use "well" instead of "good" even though I can tell when a sentence is complete/written correctly if I can read it. I am sharing this background so that when I say Truss explains all of the punctuation rules presented in her book you will know I mean really clear.
Truss has illustrated that there is a time and place for the dash and double-dash in all good literature. She has also shown that, to avoid over-using the dash, a colon can easily replace a dash in certain situations. I never knew that!
What's nice about Eats, Shoots and Leaves is that it's not a dry read. Yes, Truss is talking about punctuation. Yes, she is deadly serious about it. But she maintains a sense of humor throughout: including witty examples and poking fun at punctuation (and punctuation sticklers) as much as she explains it. In addition, Truss includes abundant historical information about the punctuation marks she discusses ranging from the first names for parentheses to the first appearance of an apostrophe in printed documents.
I would recommend this book highly to anyone with an interest in writing. Even if you know the basics, Truss has a few tricks up her sleeve that are sure to give your writing a little extra flair. (less)
Seven-year-old Bean does not want to be friends with Ivy. Her mother keeps telling her that Ivy seems like a very nice girl, but Bean knows what that...moreSeven-year-old Bean does not want to be friends with Ivy. Her mother keeps telling her that Ivy seems like a very nice girl, but Bean knows what that means. Nice means prim and proper and sitting quietly reading big books. Nice means boring.
At least, Bean thought Ivy was boring. When she plays a trick on her big sister and Ivy offers a quick hiding place, Bean isn't so sure. Nice is supposed to be boring. And Ivy does seem nice. But she's also training to be a witch. Besides, how nice can anyone be who has a vast supply of face paint, her own wand, and a spell that involves lots of worms?
Bean and Ivy didn't plan to be friends, but they might be a perfect match in Ivy and Bean (2006) by Annie Barrows and Sophie Blackall (illustrator).
Ivy and Bean is the first book in the series which is very popular with younger readers. The text is not as advanced as the Clementine or Ramona books but the characters all have similar qualities that will appeal to readers looking for girls with spunk. This story was not as compelling, for me, as the Clementine series but it was a fun fast read that will work for young readers and reluctant readers. Blackall's illustrations add a lot of appeal with her delightfully horrifying pictures of Bean's horrible older sister and Ivy's wonderfully scary witch attire.
There are some surprisingly vocal negative reviews (seen on Amazon) accusing the book of promoting everything from bad behavior to witchcraft. To such concerns all I can say is books don't make ill-behaved children anymore than guns kill people all on their own. At its core Ivy and Bean is nothing more and nothing less than a sharp book about two singularly creative girls who are ready and willing to make their own fun be it with pranks or a new friendship.
Possible Pairings: Clementine by Sarah Pennypacker and Marla Frazee, Dessert First by Hallie Durand and Christine Davenier, Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary (less)
Jan (pronounced "Yahn" as in Jan van Eyck) Miller's life is anything but glamorous, especially compared to the life of Rebecca, her bonafide "It Girl"...moreJan (pronounced "Yahn" as in Jan van Eyck) Miller's life is anything but glamorous, especially compared to the life of Rebecca, her bonafide "It Girl" best friend. "Confessions of a Not It Girl," Melissa Kantor's debut novel, follows Jan as she tries to make her mark despite her very non-it-girl life.
That isn't to say Jan's life is rough. A senior at Lawrence Academy in Brooklyn, Jan lives with her parents in their private brownstone and spends weekends gallivanting about town with Rebecca. Jan and her friends have the privilege of the Gossip Girl characters without the catty, soap opera narratives (I imagine, I haven't read any of the Gossip Girl series yet).
Privilege aside, Jan's life is pretty normal for a teenage girl. She's studiously avoiding French class, and college applications while trying to avoid looking like an idiot in front of her newest (possibly biggest) crush, a classmate/neighbor named Josh.
Kantor contrasts Jan's romantic misadventures with Rebecca's new relationship with an older man showing that, no matter what age, guys are confusing and relationships are hard. Rebecca's life serves a similar purpose, counterpointing Jan's to further emphasize that the grass isn't always greener on the other side.
Written from Jan's perspective, Kantor writes in a snappy, youthful voice creating a convincing and usually likable teen narrator. Sometimes, particularly in the latter half of the novel, Jan comes off as whiny and somewhat self-centered, but if readers are honest I suspect most people feel like that now and then. The important thing here is that, by the end of the novel, Jan redeems herself, finding the self-assurance and perspective that she lacked at the beginning of the novel.
The novel always seems authentic without going overboard in its efforts to portray "real" teens. Yes, there is underage drinking here and talk about sex, but Kantor never gives either a stamp of approval. Instead she often looks at them from a unique perspective as with when Jan compares the difference between a high school party and a grown up one (the climax of a high school party obviously comes right before the cops come to shut it down). Kantor's writing about Rebecca's relationship is similarly direct without being risque. Unlike other novels about teens ("The New Rules of High School" or "Rx"), "Confessions of a Not It Girl" is not concerned with being edgy or showing everyone how different things are for modern teenagers. Instead she focuses on the characters and their stories, not on placing them in dramatic or shocking situations.
"Confessions of a Not It Girl" falls into the conventional romantic comedy "Chick Lit" mold. There isn't that much action beyond the scope of Jan's interactions with Rebecca and Josh, but in this case that works. To be fair, the ending might be a bit rushed or cliched, but on some level that's also par for the course with romantic comedies and that works for this novel too.The writing here might not be life-altering, but the novel is a character study of sorts giving what I consider a fairly accurate depiction of a teenage girl (except for the whole brownstone thing perhaps) while creating a fun, light read. (less)
Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson is a sequel/companion to Speak. It's set one year after the events of Speak. This novel is narrated by Kate Malone:...moreCatalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson is a sequel/companion to Speak. It's set one year after the events of Speak. This novel is narrated by Kate Malone: straight-A senior, science and math whiz, and daughter of the local reverend. Kate's also a great runner, which is good because Kate's been running from a lot of things:
Kate has been the family caretaker since her mother died. She hasn't been sleeping as she waits to hear from her dream college (she runs instead). And now Teri Litch, Kate's nemesis, and Terry's little brother are living with the Malones. Kate tries to ignore all of these problems by running and keeping her head in the sand. Besides, things couldn't get any worse. Until they do.
You'll have to read the book to figure out what happens next because I don't do spoiler reviews.
So now we can talk about the book in technical terms: The book is broken up into elements (solid, liquid, gas) and features quotes from an AP Chem prep book. Most of them are straightforward enough to be understandable and relate to the story. Kate also makes use of scientific elements for her narration without being overly scientific (AKA confusing/boring).
I greatly admire Laurie Halse Anderson. She's a great writer and she never comes off as smug or pompous in her interviews at the back of her books. Even better, Anderson is a fresh voice.
That said, the voice here was not as fresh as it was in Speak. In other words, Kate's narration sounds a lot like Melinda even though they are completely different characters. That bothered me. I like that Anderson's prose is so snappy and often sarcastic, but it was weird having two disparate characters narrate in almost the same voice. Given the connection between these two books, I suppose comparisons are inevitable so I'll finish the thought: Melinda is a more likable narrator than Kate. That makes a difference.
Ironically, the increased dialogue in this book (Melinda does not talk throughout most of hers) doesn't make the characters more developed. The minor characters, particularly Sara and Travis, remain flat: developed enough to be quirky but not present enough to be memorable. This might be because Kate's social circle is larger, giving Anderson more characters to fit into the narrative.
The other thing to bear in mind about Catalyst is that it is not the same kind of book as Speak. Kate's path throughout the narrative, and her way through her problems, is very different than Melinda's. (If you haven't guessed yet, Kate's path involves a lot of running.) This book also has a different appeal. Speak seemed more universal, the scope for Catalyst is more narrow. Anderson does a great job of capturing the anxiety and drama that surrounds the college application/acceptance process. She also creates a compelling study of the silent, overachiever that seems to be at every high school. More importantly, Anderson shows that those achievements don't always come without a cost.
Overall, Catalyst is a good book. I enjoyed it and I would recommend it. But Speak was a great book that was, overall, more powerful than its sequel. (less)