The Amulet of Samarkand (2003) is the first book in Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy. This trilogy has the unique honor of having been banned in i...moreThe Amulet of Samarkand (2003) is the first book in Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy. This trilogy has the unique honor of having been banned in its entirety for the books' presentations of the occult. They also feature magnificent cover art by Melvyn Grant (who also has a ridiculously clever website). For many readers, that would be enticement enough. I didn't know about the book banning, but the cover art and blurb pushed it onto my ever-increasing "to read" list. A recommendation from a trusted YA librarian pushed it over the top.
Nathaniel, one of the novel's main characters, lives in London. Like most large cities, many of London's movers and shakers are to be found in government positions of influence. What most people don't know is that these powerful men and women get up to more than politicking when behind closed doors. They all have power, certainly, but very little (none depending on who you ask) belongs to them. Not permanently at least. Working in obscurity, under strict rules of engagement (with stricter punishments should something go awry), demons are the real power behind London's elite.
Nathaniel is six when he is torn away from his birth parents and sent to live with his new master, another magician.
As in many fantasy novels, the power of naming plays an important role here. Demons are summoned with the knowledge of their real names. If you know the demon's real name, you can control them. Similarly, if a demon learns the true name of a magician (in this case their given name) the demon has the same level of control. No magician knows their true name in order to avoid just that kind of problem.
By the age of eleven, Nathaniel has adjusted to his life as an apprentice and eagerly anticipates two events: the day when he will pick his name as a magician, and the day he will become a great magician, like his idol William Gladstone, remembered by all. Nathaniel does choose his name in due time, but his dream of greatness, is put into serious question when Simon Lovelace, a prestigious magician, publicly humiliates Nathaniel.
Enraged, Nathaniel bides his time learning spells and waiting until the day he will be ready to exact revenge. Enter Bartimaeus, the novel's other main character, and a djinni with a fondness for footnotes in his first-person narration. Initially summoned as an instrument of revenge, Nathaniel soon learns that Bartimaeus is not easily contained.
When Nathaniel's brilliant revenge becomes murder, espionage and conspiracy djinni and boy strike an uneasy detente to see if both of them can survive the machinations Bartimaeus has set in motion under Nathaniel's orders.
The Amulet of Samarkand alternates viewpoints, sometimes being told in witty first-person by Bartimaeus (filled with references to his 5000 year career as a brilliant djinni), other times following Nathaniel in a third-person voice. Combined, the narrations make for an original fantasy that is witty and sharp.
More interesting, especially as the trilogy continues, is the dynamic between Nathaniel and Bartimaeus. While the djinni is more entertaining of the two, Nathaniel is often more compelling. Watching him mature from an innocent boy to a calculating magician in his own right, Stroud creates tension as readers are forced to wonder will Nathaniel be a villain or a hero by the end of the story?(less)
There are six things very wrong with fourteen-year-old Georgia Nicolson's life at the beginning of her first diary volume (Angus, Thongs and Full-Fron...moreThere are six things very wrong with fourteen-year-old Georgia Nicolson's life at the beginning of her first diary volume (Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging):
(1) I have one of those under-the-skin spots that will never come to a head but lurk in a red way for the next two years.
(2) It is on my nose.
(3) I have a three-year-old sister who may have peed somewhere in my room.
(4) In fourteen days the summer hols will be over and then it will be back to Stalag 14 and Oberfuhrer Frau Simpson and her bunch of sadistic "teachers."
(5) I am very ugly and need to go into an ugly home.
(6) I went to a party dressed as a stuffed olive.
My friend "Barbie" is insanely fond of Louise Rennison's Georgia Nicolson series, starting with Rennison's debut novel Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging which was selected as a Michael L. Printz Honor Book in 2001. Having some free time after graduation, I decided to give the series a try. I read the first two books in as many days. Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging is quite funny and I did like it, but the more I read the more I felt like I shouldn't like it.
Georgia is not always the nicest person. She can be self-centered and rude. But she is so funny that it's hard to be angry about it. As Georgia tries to figure out exactly what growing up means (aside from landing the Sex God), she often finds herself in some awkward situations (see the mention of a stuffed olive above). Although a lot of the book is outlandish in its humor, Rennison's anecdotes are generally spot on in terms of authenticity. I have the old pictures with uneven eyebrows to prove it.
Part of my problem with this novel is that I couldn't gauge if the voice was accurate. To me, Georgia's diary reads more like that of a sixteen-year-old but after consulting with "Julie" it seems that Georgia's misadventures could be accurate. Not having been the same kind of fourteen-year-old as Georgia, I needed some outside confirmation.
It also bothered me (though not enough to stop reading the series) that Georgia largely seemed exactly the same at the end of the novel as she did at the beginning. It doesn't make the book better or worse, but it was something I noticed. If you want to see a similar book with more character evolution, check out Alice, I Think by Susan Juby another laugh-out-loud funny diary book with a teen narrator albeit a Canadian one this time.
All that aside, this book is hilarious. I'm usually hesitant of diary-style books but it works well here. Rennison uses the technique to amusing effect by including the time of certain entries to illustrate Georgia's often rash temperament. Part of me wants to take Georgia under my wing and save her from herself, but the rest of me knows that if I did that I wouldn't be able to enjoy the rest of Georgia's books. Oh the moral dilemma . . .
For some added fun, be sure to check out Georgia's glossary of English terms at the end of the book.(less)
I don’t make a habit of rereading books. And yet I have wanted to reread not one, but two books in the past month almost as soon as I completed my fir...moreI don’t make a habit of rereading books. And yet I have wanted to reread not one, but two books in the past month almost as soon as I completed my first reading. They were that good.
The first of these two extraordinary books was Dreamhunter by New Zealand author Elizabeth Knox (alternately known as The Rainbow Opera in the UK). The second, and perhaps this isn’t a great surprise, was Dreamquake also by Elizabeth Knox. Together, these titles create The Dreamhunter Duet.
Dreamquake (which I believe is more appropriately called The Dream Quake in England) is the second book of Knox’s Dreamhunter Duet and was a 2008 Printz Award Honor Book and an ALA Best Book for Young Adults in 2008.
There is a lot I want to say about this book, but first I have to say a bit about how the duet actually works. Some readers feel strongly, and fairly, that the Duet cannot be read in isolation (that is the two books cannot stand alone). Other readers, also fairly, feel that the books can and do work well as individual pieces of prose. I actually agree with both viewpoints.
Personally, I think both books stand alone. Knox is a good enough writer that either book feels like a complete read. The opening of Dreamquake adequately explains the events of the first book so that readers won’t be lost or bored. At the same time, having seen both parts of the Duet in person, I have to say they really are one book. Just looking at the book design–the first book has a prologue while the second includes the epilogue and a glossary–I realized that Dreamhunter and Dreamquake are more like two parts of one story (what I often call companion books in this blog) than two stories directly following each other (what I would call sequel books).
Just a bit about the basic plot of Dreamhunter: I’m not all that familiar with New Zealand but a review from the New Zealand Listener tells me that Knox’s novels are set in “something like the New Zealand of a century ago, but with a twist, in that social life revolves around a traffic in dreams.” The rare people who can catch dreams (dreamhunters) perform them for the social elite at dream palaces like the Rainbow Opera. Dreams are also often used for the public good in hospitals around Southland.
Some dreamhunters also capture nightmares which readers learn in Dreamhunter are used for the public good, but in a much more sinister way. Laura, our protagonist, discovers this fact when she begins investigating the disappearance of her father, one of the greatest dreamhunters Southland has ever seen. Outraged by what she has seen, Laura sets out to inform the public of the governments use of nightmares. Dreamhunter ends with the disastrous results of this attempt.
It is therefore no surprise that Dreamquake opens with the chaos following the execution of Laura’s plan as Southland and Laura’s family are thrown into a state of disarray. Adrift with only her creation Nown and a nightmare, Laura has to find a way to earn back her family’s trust while negotiating an entanglement with a fellow young dreamhunter. All this while continuing to investigate the corruption of the sinister Dream Regulatory Body created to control the Place and its invaluable resources.
I could actually talk for hours about the nuances of this novel’s plot and how Knox ties everything together at the end, but if you read the book you’ll probably see what I mean for yourself.
Dreamquake is every bit as good as Dreamhunter while also being even better because it expands on characters who don’t get as much time to shine in the first novel. Sandy and Rose (and to some extent Nown) are back and much more engaged in the central plot than they were in Dreamhunter to great effect.
Knox’s prose is unique in that it is well-paced while also being high action. Knox takes her time to explain terms like “Soporif” and “Novelists” but never to the detriment of the story. The action here is so intense and gripping that, at several points in the novel, I found myself skimming ahead just to make sure that everything would turn out all right in the end.
The Dreamhunter Duet is a rare thing in contemporary literature. Both books are rich enough that, were the main characters not teenagers, no one would question its place as an adult book–but I’ve made that argument about other books on this site. More to the point, Knox is an amazing writer. Dreamhunter and Dreamquake are populated by a wide variety of characters, each unique and fully realized on the page.
Instead of creating a world and characters and even this story, it feels instead like Knox is introducing readers to old friends, reciting a familiar tale–everything within these novels seems so real, the details are so concrete, that it feels like folly to consider it fantastic or even fiction. And that is why Dreamquake (and Dreamhunter) will surely take their rightful places among the canon of great fantasy novels.(less)
A bit of background before we begin: Dreamhunter first came to my attention when I was talking to "Amy" the YA librarian at my place of employ. As a f...moreA bit of background before we begin: Dreamhunter first came to my attention when I was talking to "Amy" the YA librarian at my place of employ. As a fellow fantasy fanatic she also thought I would admire the writing. I, however, did not remember to write down the title. A bit later, upon hearing about writing troubles I had been having, Amy once again recommended Dreamhunter. This time I immediately put the book on hold. And looking back now I am ashamed that I waited so very long to read it.
Dreamhunter is Elizabeth Knox's first novel for a young adult audience, although I feel obligated to point out that the genre label here applies more to the fact that her main characters are teens than anything to do with the novel's subject or prose. She is also the author of several novels for adults.
Like so many great fantasy novels, Dreamhunter is set in a world not that different from our own. The one reminder that this novel is not like any other period book set in 1906 has to do with dreams.
For a very few people, perhaps one in every three hundred, dreams really are tangible in the Place: a mysterious other-world far larger than the few acres of woodland that in encompasses in the real world. The Place hold dreams. Of the few that can enter the Place, fewer still are able to sleep there and bring the dreams back to the general public where the dreams can be performed in private residences or in a dream palace like the Rainbow Opera--a sort of theater for dreams--for the public good. Dreamhunters, when they have enough skill and talent, can make their fortunes by catching the right dreams.
No one knows this better than the novel's fifteen-year-old protagonist, Laura Hame, and her cousin, Rose Tiebold. Laura's father, perhaps one of the best dreamhunters ever, discovered the Place and Rose's mother is another very skilled dreamhunter.
But, as Laura and Rose are about to learn, all is not right in their world. When Laura's father disappears under mysterious circumstances she and her cousin set out to find the secret behind not only his disappearance but also, perhaps, the very secret of the Place itself.
Aside from its thrilling plot, Dreamhunter is a wonderful novel because of Knox's background work. As soon as I opened this book, I felt like I was immersed in Laura and Rose's world. It didn't matter that I had never heard of dreamhunters, or Tricksie Bend, or the Grand Patriarch because Knox incorporated all of these new ideas effortlessly into her plot. I was hooked, almost literally, for the entire 365 pages of this novel.
The writing here is rich without being overdone and beautiful without being conspicuous about it.
This story opens in the year 1906. The choice of time period, as well as Knox's writing style bring to mind Garth Nix's powerhouse fantasy novel Sabriel. I loved Sabriel (as I love all of Garth Nix's books), but I might have loved Dreamhunter slightly more if for nothing save its ending--one of the best I have read of late.
Laura and Rose's story continues in Dreamquake the conclusion of Elizabeth Knox's Dreamhunter Duet.(less)
Before Hayao Miyazaki made "Howl's Moving Castle" into a feature length animated film in 2006 (2004 if you saw it in Japan), it was a book written by...moreBefore Hayao Miyazaki made "Howl's Moving Castle" into a feature length animated film in 2006 (2004 if you saw it in Japan), it was a book written by Diana Wynne Jones in 1986. Due to the inherent difficulties of creating an animated film, Miyazaki greatly abridged and adjusted the plot of the novel for his movie. I happened to enjoy both film and novel but after reading the book I realized that the plot is extremely different in the novel--enough that the book and movie become completely different viewing experiences.
Anyway, that's all I'm going to say about the movie. On to the discussion of the book:
Sophie lives "in the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility exist." In other words, all of the traditional fairy tale stories are real. Not so bad, except that Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three sisters, which everyone knows means Sophie is doomed to failure should she ever set out to seek her fortunes. Sophie is resigned to her fate--living obscurely, and less than successfully, working in the family hat shop. Except that this is not a traditional fairy tale and events soon intervene to set Sophie on a very unexpected course indeed for an eldest daughter.
It all starts in the hat shop after some interesting things begin to happen when Sophie talks to the hats she trims. Interesting enough to attract the attention of the dangerous Witch of the Waste. When her encounter with the Witch of the Waste leaves Sophie cursed in the body of an old woman, she has no choice but to go out and seek her fortune in hopes of breaking the curse (even if she is an eldest daughter).
Along the way, Sophie comes upon a mysterious moving castle that has taken up in the hill's of Ingary. The castle belongs to Wizard Howl "who was known to amuse himselv by collection young girls and sucking the souls from them. Or some people said he ate their hearts." Either way, he was not anyone Sophie expected to ever meet let alone move in with. Until she does. Adventure ensues as Sophie tries to break the curse and help Howl with his own uniquely magical problems.
In terms of fantasy novels, "Howl's Moving Castle" is one of my favorites. The world Jones creates is fully realized without ever getting boring or limiting the reader's imagination. The tone of her narrative is also spot on. Readers of Jane Austen's novels or the "Sorcery and Cecelia" series will notice a similar narrative voice. Although this novel is largely timeless, the prose has a charmingly Victorian tone--taking its time to arrive at the action, the better to familiarize readers with the characters involved and show the readers just how fantastic they (and the story) really are.
I also adore this story because it is romantic, thrilling, and completely absorbing. Even at 329 pages, the novel is far too short. Happily, Diana Wynne Jones follows up "Howl's Moving Castle" with "Castle in the Air" (1990) and a brand new book featuring Sophie and Howl ("House of Many Ways") is due out in May of 2008. (less)
Julie Andrews, it is safe to say, is very cool. She told us that the hills were alive in The Sound of Music. James Garner was attracted to her in Vict...moreJulie Andrews, it is safe to say, is very cool. She told us that the hills were alive in The Sound of Music. James Garner was attracted to her in Victor/Victoria (even when he thought she was a man). More recently, Andrews has held her own next to the Plaza's favorite resident in Eloise at the Plaza and Eloise at Christmastime. Oh, and she was Mary Poppins (and Millie) before Mary Poppins (and Thoroughly Modern Millie) got all trendy with Broadway show(s).
In between all of her amazing film credits, Julie Andrews wrote a book under her pen name Julie Andrews Edwards in 1974 called The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles. I have been meaning to read it for close to a decade, but things always got in the way. After starting the book (again) last month I made a promise that I would finish it this time even if it killed me. Clearly, I lived to tell the tale.
The story starts when Ben, Tom and Lindy Potter are sent to the zoo by their parents. Initially resistant to the idea, the trip proves quite enjoyable. When the children begin to discuss truly unusual animals, a stranger butts in with a straightforward question: "If you're looking for something really unusual, have you considered a Whangdoodle?"
The Potter children, of course, have not. Tom goes as far as to say that the Whangdoodle could not possible exist. This assertion is thrown into question when a dictionary provides a rather accurate definition of the word. The Potter's initial interest turns into an alliance with their new friend Professor Savant to try to reach Whangdoodleland and meet the fanciful creature for themselves.
The road to Whangdoodleland is not straightforward. Along the way the children have much to learn, including relearning the very ways in which they look at the world. The journey is filled with wondrous creatures both friendly and dangerous, but the children are now committed to finishing the journey one way or another regardless of the challenges thrown in their path. When the quest reaches its final climax none of the characters' lives will ever be the same.
I liked this book, but not really as much as I had hoped. As I mentioned it took me a long time to actually start the book and, once it was started, it took a long time for me to finish it. Unfortunately, I think part of that has to do with my coming to this book at the age of 22 when I was unwilling to accept certain aspects of the story. (The feminist in me made it very difficult to appreciate parts of the end of the story.)
At the same time, the book was originally written in 1974. The text is not dated in the usual way, with references to old technology, rather it all feels very different from a 2008 novel. The children befriend a strange man in the zoo. All of the Potters seem younger and more innocent than I would have expected (from children of the same age in the present). I was able to get more into the story once I accepted those things, but it also made me sad because I started to think about what I had lost and, also, what our culture had lost in terms of faith and trust. I wish I had been able to read the book without so many questions and doubts because I do want to see things the way the Potters and Professor Savant do--I'm just not sure that way of thinking is always possible in the twenty-first century. (less)
I have a very high opinion of Diana Wynne Jones because of her self-evident awesomeness as a writer. Most of the books I have read by her also feature...moreI have a very high opinion of Diana Wynne Jones because of her self-evident awesomeness as a writer. Most of the books I have read by her also feature awesome heroines in the role of protagonist and/or narrator. The Homeward Bounders does not. However, in the spirit of promoting well-rounded reading and since Jones is already a perennial CLW favorite, I present my first Chick Lit Wednesday review with a hero instead of a heroine as the main character.
"Have you ever heard of the Flying Dutchman? No? Nor of the Wandering Jew? Well, it doesn't matter. I'll tell you about them in the right place; and about Helen and Joris, Adam and Konstam, and Vanessa, the sister Adam wanted to sell as a slave. They were all Homeward Bounders like me. And I'll tell you about Them too, who made us that way."
The Homeward Bounders is the rare type of book where the first paragraph shown above tells readers everything they can expect from it. For those who would like further elaboration, though, I offer my own summary.
The first twelve years of Jamie's life were pretty great. Unfortunately it goes downhill after some badly timed exploring when Jamie finds himself in a mysterious garden that seems to have passed notice by his entire city. Inside the garden, in a building hidden from prying eyes, mysterious hooded figures lurk playing a strange game with the entire world as their game board.
Seeing Them at play, Jamie is discarded as a random factor left to wander the Bounds lest he corrupt the games' integrity. His only hope is to find his own world at which time Jamie can "reenter play" and get back to the life and family he left behind.
Unfortunately, getting Home isn't quite as easy as Jamie as thought. Drifting from world to world, it seems impossible to find the right one. (If this premise sounds at all like the 1990s TV show Sliders that's because it is. Written in 1981, I have a strong suspicion that the show's creators were familiar with this title.) Eventually, despite his literal detachment from any world he lands on, Jamie does find some allies. Along with Helen and Joris, children lost like him yet at the same time, nothing like children from Jamie's Home, Jamie sets out to stop Them once and for all so that perhaps, he and the rest of the Homeward Bounders can finally rest.
The premise of The Homeward Bounders was interesting to read. It was impressive when I realized the the opening so neatly outlined the ensuing plot. That said, the book never grabbed my full attention the way other books so often do. While Jamie is extremely likable and clever, his first-person narration always felt like it was at a distance, which in a way is fair since the entire story is set up as a dictation. Toward the halfway point, my interest began to lag in direct proportion to the diminished action.
It's a strange comparison, but this novel reads very similarly to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, like that Old English classics The Homeward Bounders is fundamentally an exercise in story telling. Jamie is telling readers his story, when he meets new allies he shares his story, they in turn explain their own path to becoming Homeward Bounders. While the story is dramatic, it is not action packed. The ending is also not all rosy greetings and victory parades.
On the other hand, Jones presents here a strong, literary fantasy novel with a great boy as the main character. An excellent choice for any students looking for suitable independent reading books in school.(less)
Charles de Lint is one of my favorite authors although my constantly writing Derek de Lint instead of Charles de Lint might lead you to think otherwis...moreCharles de Lint is one of my favorite authors although my constantly writing Derek de Lint instead of Charles de Lint might lead you to think otherwise. He has been one of my top authors for a few years already based solely on the awesomeness that is "The Blue Girl."
I want to read everything he's written, no easy task because he's written a lot, but so far have only polished off two books from his oeuvre (this one and "Little (Grrl) Lost"). Both, coincidentally, have been exceptional enough that they rate as Chick Lit Wednesday books.
Like many of De Lint's books, this novel is set in Newford and firmly grounded in the urban fantasy genre with which he is so often associated. The story opens with the heading "Now" as Imogen describes a nightly ritual, perhaps dream or perhaps reality, that occurs in her bedroom:
It starts with this faint sound that pulls me out of sleep: a sort of calliope music played on an ensemble of toy instruments. You know, as though there's a raggedy orchestra playing quietly in some hidden corner of my bedroom, like the echo of a Tom Waits song heard through the walls from the apartment next door. Rinky-dink piano, tinny horns and kazoos, miniature guitars with plastic strings, weird percussion.
It ends with the appearance of creepy characters parading out of Imogen's closet, "patchwork creatures made out of words and rags and twigs, of bits of wool and fur, skin and bone", followed by Pell-mell the imaginary friend Imogen gave up on years ago now made scary by the intevening years. When Pelly reaches for Imogen's comforter saying, "I've missed you sideways," is it something sinister or an endearment? Only time will tell.
In order to explain how Imogen's now got so weird, De Lint works backward looking at Imogen's past. Specifically, the next section of the book is called "Then" and begins right after Imogen moves to Newford with her mother and Jared, her brother. (The book alternates between "Now" and "Then" segments of varying length until the two points in time converge about a third of the way in.)
I could actually spend even more time talking about the prose and structure of this novel, because both are rich with detail. But, on the other hand, I feel like if I keep doing that, I'll just end up quoting the whole book in this review. It's that amazing.
So instead of getting into a lot of the minute details, here's some basic information on the three characters who share narration of the book (that's right, three first-person narrators, crazy!)
As astute readers may have guessed, Imogen is the star of the novel and the "blue girl" mentioned in the title. The fantastic cover art by Cliff Nielsen, incidentally, is exactly how I would have imagined Imogen myself. Anyway, before moving to Newford, Imogen was not the quirky character readers will come to know and love. She has a past that she's trying to leave behind, except for the being tough part--that stays. Imogen, in a Stargirl-esque manner, likes to reinvent herself. As part of her reinvention, Imogen decides she needs a new friend who turns out to be Maxine, whether she likes it or not. Maxine is everything Imogen is not--geeky, bookish, and meek--she is also everything Imogen needs in a friend (and vice versa).
Add to the equation: Adrian, a lonely ghost who spends his time avoiding angels; the aforementioned imaginary friend, and a group of nasty fairies and you have all the makings of a plot rife with action and suspense.
At the same time, De Lint's text here is rich. Sometimes "rich" is a euphemism for "dense" but not in this case. The prose is evocative, creating not only a strong sense of place within the story but also helping readers to actually know each of the characters. The writing never seems excessively long, rather De Lint manages to make each bit of information or description feel vital to the story as a whole--the writing is that tight. Aside from that the plot, which admirably manages a broad scope of time, is excellent from the first sentence to the last.(less)
After reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian last summer, I decided to work my way through Alexie's oeuvre since I had already also r...moreAfter reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian last summer, I decided to work my way through Alexie's oeuvre since I had already also read and enjoyed Reservation Blues. Two short story collections and one novel later, I was done. Not in that my task was completed but in that I couldn't take anymore. Then The Business of Fancydancing came into my possession after waiting about six months for it. Unwilling to let the book go after waiting so long for it, I decided to see what the first page was like. Ten hours later I had finished it.
The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Poems is Alexie's first published work (from 1991). As the subtitle suggests, the book is considered a collection of stories and poems. However, since most of the stories are less than five pages I think a fair argument could be made that the five stories are actually prose poems instead of stories. That might just be me though.
Like any of Alexie's other writing, this collection includes instances of beauty as well as sadness. In the opening story "Travels" a hungry youth is told to make a jam sandwich by taking two slices of bread and jamming them together (unless a wish sandwich is more to his liking). This image recurs often in the collection.
After reading The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and The Toughest Indian in the World, I must admit I had my doubts about Alexie's short stories--they never seemed as engaging as his novels. That isn't a problem here even though all of the stories are much shorter than anything found in his later collections. Very like the poems, Alexie's stories here are bare bones. Instead of full stories (in the sense of having a conventional plot) most are vignettes painting brief, eloquent pictures of what life can mean for a Spokane Indian on and off the reservation.
The bulk of The Business of Fancydancing is comprised of poems. The English major in my wants to make some kind of comparison to illustrate what these poems are like, but no quick comparisons come to mind. Suffice it say, the lines are long and the poems deeply grounded in the concrete. One of my favorites in the collection is "Distances" which is literally a series of vignettes along with aphorisms like "Remember this: 'Electricity is lightning pretending to be permanent.'"
Familiar characters who turn up in one of Alexie's later story collections as well as Reservation Blues also make their first appearances here. Thomas Builds-The-Fire, a personal favorite, even has a story all to himself.
I don't know how illustrative this book is of Alexie's current style since his latest work has been novels, but that detail aside The Business of Fancydancing is a superb collection of poetry and serves as a good introduction to Sherman Alexie and his unique style/themes without the visceral, harsh details so often found in his newer writing.(less)
"The Toughest Indian in the World" is one of Sherman Alexie's collections of short stories. It comes before his most recent collection ("Ten Little In...more"The Toughest Indian in the World" is one of Sherman Alexie's collections of short stories. It comes before his most recent collection ("Ten Little Indians") but before "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" (which features many of the characters who would later appear in Alexie's novel "Reservation Blues"). It is also the first one I read. Unfortunately, I feel like it may not have been the best first choice.
Alexie is a wonderful writer, of whom I am a huge fan. His writings usually revolve around the lives of various Indian ("bow and arrow not dot on the head") characters and their complicated feelings about the reservation they love while being desperate to get away from it. This collection of stories follows a similar theme.
The thing about short stories is they're short. Writers only have a limited amount of time to explain everything and to develop characters. I don't know how other readers feel, but I'm of a mind that I like Alexie better as a novelist because there is more time to get to know his unique characters and understand his (at times) complex plots. I found "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" to be more engaging because different stories clearly refer to the same characters--making them more dimensional.
Back to this collection:
As is true with any talented writer, Alexie does have some gems here. "Saint Junior," "One Good Man," and "South by Southwest" are especial favorites of this reviewer possibly because these stories most resemble the combination of acerbic humor and gravity common to Alexie's novels. To take "Saint Junior" as an example: Alexie examines the relationship between a married couple who met at "Saint Junior" university and continue to choose each other every day. In the story, the husband goes to take his SAT's wearing a traditional dance costume while, later in the story, his wife preserves the tribal tradition of making Salmon mush.
These stories are not passive. If anything, they are visceral. This collection combines elements of magical realism with painfully real moments of sadness and hardship in the lives of Alexie's modern Indian characters.
The main problem I saw with this collection is that it remained distractingly distant. Most protagonists go unnamed, sometimes barely described, which makes it difficult to connect with either the characters or their stories. Worse, the stories alternate between nearly absorbing to disturbingly jarring. "The Sin Eaters" hauntingly presents an apocalyptic world where Indians are put through their own kind of Holocaust. This story is angry and, no doubt, important. But by the end it is too angry and too horrific, so that it became a chore to read the remainder of the book for fear of what other catastrophes it might describe.
Any fan of Sherman Alexie's writing will want to read through "The Toughest Indian in the World" to get a better sense of Alexie's work on the whole. That said, readers unfamiliar with Alexie would be better off beginning with one of his novels or perhaps a different story collection. (less)
I have a great story about this book: When I was in grade school my class would venture to the public library to get books. On one of those trips, I f...moreI have a great story about this book: When I was in grade school my class would venture to the public library to get books. On one of those trips, I found The View from Saturday (1996) by E. L. Konigsburg. I loved the cover, read the book, loved it as well. And promptly forgot about it for ten some odd years. Although I distinctly remembered the cover with a house and four cups of tea in the window, I could not for the life of me remember any other information about the book. I gave up all hope of ever finding it again.
Then, when I was shelving books in the children's room, what should I stumble upon but a copy of the very book I had been sure I would never see again?
Upon our reunion, I realized even with the book in hand I did not know a lot about it. The fact that The View from Saturday won the Newbery Award in 1997 completely escaped me (I might have read it before it won, definitely before I knew anything about the Newbery's). I also did not remember Mrs. Olinski being a paraplegic. And, perhaps most embarrassing, I did not realize that E. L. Konigsburg was a woman until I was reading about her online and discovered that in addition to winning the 1997 Newbery, Konigsburg also won the award in 1968 for From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler--the same year that Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth was selected as an honor book. That never happens with the Newbery. Anyway, I still look back on this book with fond memories even though recent examinations suggest that I might have missed some nuances on my first reading.
Mrs. Olinski has several good answers about how she chose the four sixth graders for her Academic Bowl team, partly because she always has good answers. But, truth be told, Mrs. Olinski is not entirely sure how she chose her team.
The fact was that Mrs. Olinski did not know how she had chosen her team, and the further fact was that she didn't know that she didn't know until she did know.
Another mystery is how these unlikely sixth graders became first friends calling themselves "The Souls" and, later, an Academic Bowl team by the same name that beat the seventh grade team, the eighth grade team, and so on right to the Bowl Day championship where The Souls from Epiphany would face off against the older Maxwell bowl team.
This story takes place on the day of that championship. As the teams compete, short stories are interspersed--one for each of The Souls--to explain how they answer each question and, also, how they became friends.
I feel safe in saying, without equivocation, that The View from Saturday is a classic in the realm of children's literature. The writing is delicate and complex much like a piece of lace held up to a light. At the same time, this story is a timeless one aboutfriendship and journeys big and small. I read somewhere that the stories within this book were "jewel like" which I think is a good adjective to end this review with because, really, what more could I add?(less)
You've heard this story before. Junot Diaz, Julia Alvarez, Anzia Yezierska, and Edwidge Danticat are just a few of the authors who have told their own...moreYou've heard this story before. Junot Diaz, Julia Alvarez, Anzia Yezierska, and Edwidge Danticat are just a few of the authors who have told their own versions. The story they all have in common: The immigrant experience in the United States. Each of the above authors tackles this subject from a different enthnographic perspective, but the pull between the old (native) culture and the new (immigrant) one is always present.
Pulitzer prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri adds to this conversation with "The Namesake" (her first novel which was a follow up to her short story collection "Interpreter of Maladies" which won the Pulitzer): the epic story of the Ganguli family's arrival and assimilation into the world of the United States.
The story begins when Ashoke and his wife (of an arranged marriage), Ashima, come to Massachusetts where Ashoke is a graduate student at MIT. The year is 1968. At the beginning of the novel Ashima is pregnant with her first child, a son.
In Bengali culture, it is common for people to have a formal name and a pet name (nickname). Ashoke has no problem coming up with a nickname for their son: Gogol. Unfortunately, due to a variety of mishaps and misunderstandings, the formal name proves harder to settle on and even harder to enforce. So Gogol Ganguli grows up with only a pet name--one that is not American, or Indian, or a first name.
No one really cares that Gogol's name is so unique, except Gogol whose anxiety over his name is bothersome enough that no external taunts are necessary. Gogol eventually resolves to rename himself, but not after learning the life-changing story that inspired his father give Gogol his name in the first place.
Despite the vast period Lahiri writes about, the novel's focus remains narrowly focused on the characters, especially Ashima and her son. Despite the authenticity that Lahiri brings to her main characters, certain scenes remain naggingly artificial--feeling simultaneously improbable and contrived.
Lahiri's writing here (I've yet to read her short stories) is beautiful without being pretentious or overly self-aware. The story feels authentic and compelling despite the fact that so many of the cultural references remain worlds away.
Even more interesting is the fact that I enjoyed almost the entire novel despite having a strong dislike of Gogol and several of the secondary characters. (I'd say more about what this means in terms of the writing style/skill but I still haven't figured out how that happened.) Despite my misgivings throughout the novel, Gogol does work toward redeeming himself by the end of the story.
Regardless of my nitpicks, "The Namesake" remains a must for anyone interested in the immigrant experience in America. Lahiri's narrative hearkens back to Jeffrey Eugenides' "Middlesex" which has a similar scope, tracing three generation's relationship with Detroit.
"The Namesake" deals with common themes but, as any good book should, Lahiri makes these subjects new and original with her unique characters and wonderful writing. (less)
I just finished Love, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli. And I have not been able to pick up another book because I don't want to lose the feeling of satisfa...moreI just finished Love, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli. And I have not been able to pick up another book because I don't want to lose the feeling of satisfaction that came from finishing it. At first, I didn't think that this book could be as good as it's "prequel" Stargirl, but not I'm hard-pressed to say which was better.
Love, Stargirl picks up where Stargirl left off. She has left Mica High in Arizona and, more importantly, her boyfriend Leo. The story reads as a year-long letter to Leo as Stargirl lives life as only she can and tries to understand how things went wrong with Leo and what her feelings are for him now.
Spinelli brings in a lot of memorable characters. My favorites are Charlie and Betty Lou. Betty Lou, particularly, has a special place in my heart because she gives some of the best advice I have ever heard when she tells Stargirl to live in the now and make the most of each today that she finds. Which, being Stargirl, she does. As the story progresses, Stargirl changes from a stranger to an integral part of her new hometown. Through small kindnesses, unexpected friendships, and leaving behind lots of oranges, Stargirl makes as much of an impression here in Pennsylvania as she did at Mica High-maybe even more.
The entire novel, especially the ending, is magical. I am as enchanted with Stargirl now as I was when I read Spinelli's first novel about her. It was refreshing to see this amazing girl's thoughts and hear things from her point of view (the first book is told in Leo's POV). If you aren't touched by Stargirl and her little kindnesses and the beauty of this book, then you are beyond all help. These books are fairly quick reads with straightforward prose, but both are the rare books that I feel strongly everyone should read (definitely read Stargirl before picking up this one since they are basically two parts of one, larger story). I think that if everyone tried to be a little more like Stargirl the world would be a better place. (less)