Tag Archives: Reviews

“A Corner of White,” by Jaclyn Moriarty

Last post I mentioned my intention to tackle Jaclyn Moriarty’s recently released (well, recently released in the U.S.) novel, A Corner of White. I actually finished it up the day after writing that. While I wish I could make my books last, I usually gulp them down in one or two sittings. I’d categorize myself as member of species Biblio devourus rather than Biblio savorus. Can you tell I just finished a term paper on evolution and biological classification?

Australian cover for A Corner of White

Back to A Corner of White. The story utilizes two braided strands. One takes place in modern day Cambridge, England. It mainly follows Madeleine Tully, a fourteen-year-old girl who has trouble adjusting to life after she and her mother run away from their luxurious life with Madeleine’s father. Madeleine’s mother took only a sewing machine with her when she left, leaving her struggling to make ends meet through mending clothes. As the novel is narrated in omniscient third-person, this strand of the narrative also includes some scenes between the two other students with whom Madeleine is homeschooled, Jack and Belle. Through Jack’s perspective, Madeleine is initially characterized as mysterious and ethereal, causing readers to wonder if she might be connected to the magical world of the other narrative.

This magical world of the second narrative strand is called “the Kingdom of Cello.” It does have many similarities to our world – televisions and trains and high school physics. However, it also has some notable differences. While Cello does have much of the same technology, they still rely heavily on fax machines. The organized sport of choice, deftball, revolves around some sort of supercharged, skyrocketing root vegetable. The biggest difference, however, is the Colors in their world. Rather than simply a visual phenomenon, they’re natural disasters:  Violent Purples, fatal Yellows, waves of Red that send everything haywire. The protagonist of this strand of the novel is fifteen-year-old Elliot Baranski. He’s nearly single-minded in his determination to rescue his father, Abel. Elliot believes his dad has been abducted by Purples (although most of the town believes  Mischa, the fetching high school science teacher who disappeared simultaneously, to be a far more likely cause of Abel’s disappearance).

U.S. Cover for A Corner of White

It wasn’t until probably a third of the way through this 400-page novel that I felt myself becoming fully engaged. I always have trouble switching between narrative strands. As soon as I found myself beginning to understand Madeleine, I was yanked back to Elliot, and vice versa. The story really took off for me once Madeleine and Elliot started communicating – writing letters to each other via a Crack between Cello and the World. In Madeleine’s world, the Crack is located in a parking meter. This leads her to believe that her penpal is some fantasy-enthusiast who takes role-playing a little too seriously. Through Elliot’s letters to Madeleine, Moriarty is able to explain some of the idiosyncrasies of Cello to readers. I also greatly enjoyed Madeleine’s letters to Elliot. In them, she critiques Elliot’s description of his life and kingdom as though it’s entirely made-up, the humor being that of course it is completely made up, but to the readers, not the characters. Through events in both worlds, Madeleine and Elliot come to rely upon each other.

I would give this book a solid four stars. I thought it did a great job setting up the worlds, plot, and characters for the next book in the trilogy. I also thought it did a great job showing character growth. Both Madeleine and Elliot start the novel as somewhat unsympathetic characters, but gradually become more aware of themselves and others. Although A Corner of White got off to a slow start due to two very disparate narrative strands, it eventually picked up the pace and became a compelling read in a world I can’t wait to revisit.

Which book cover do you like best, the U.S. or the Australian? Let me know in comments!

Jaclyn Moriarty’s Website
A Corner of White on GoodReads

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Summer Reading

I’m not entirely sure it’s spring yet here in Oswego. Although we’ve had our share of nice days in the past week or two, in mid-April there’s still the possibility of some more snow sneaking in. Yet with graduation only four weeks away, I can’t help jumping ahead to my favorite season: Summer. Although I appreciate autumn for its vibrant oranges and reds and spring for its balmy breezes, they can’t compare to summer’s constant atmosphere of celebration. And whether I’m going on an impromptu trip to Bennett Beach or going to see a free performance of Shakespeare in the Park, I like to have a book along.

A picture from last year's performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream in Delaware Park.

A picture from last year’s performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Delaware Park. This year they’re doing Hamlet and Measure for Measure.

Finding good summer reading material isn’t a simple task. For me, a beach book needs to be easy to read – hold the dense sentences and experimental structure, please. And I don’t mind if it tackles darker topics as long as it has a mostly happy ending. One young adult author really fits the bill for my summer reading choices – Sarah Dessen. Although Dessen, who’s now published ten young adult novels, has written some books that deal with topics like abusive relationships and sexual assault, most of her novels are a little bit lighter, but still substantive fare. I’ll highlight a few of my favorite books of hers that I think also make great summer reading.

Keeping the Moon: Fifteen-year-old Colie visits beach-town Colby to stay with her Aunt Mira for the summer while her mom, fitness guru Kiki Sparks, tours Europe. Colie expects the worst from her summer with her strange, artsy Aunt Mira. Instead, she finds herself waitressing at the Last Chance Bar & Grill and making friends with her slightly older coworkers; sharp-tongued Isabel, friendly Morgan, and easy-going, artistic Norman. Colie slowly stops judging her Aunt Mira, and appreciates her for who she is – not the town weirdo, but a woman completely sure of who she is. Through her time there, Colie starts to stop expecting the worst from Colby, and the rest of the world, and take both herself and others as they are.

The Truth About Forever: After her father’s sudden death a year ago, Macy has focused on being the perfect daughter. She’s become a stellar student and started dating Jason, a highly-motivated student and considerate guy. She even helps out from time to time with events for her mom’s real estate business. Her summer is carefully planned out, full of SAT preparation and logging hours at the library help desk, filling in for Jason while he spends the summer at a camp for gifted students. But when Macy spontaneously accepts an offer to work at disorganized, chaotic Wish Catering and starts getting to know the crew there, she starts thinking about whether perfect is all it’s cracked up to be.

Along for the Ride: As the child of two intelligent, competitive professors, Auden has been an adult since about the age of five. While her older brother, Hollis, has always been able to get away with most anything, Auden’s met her parents’ expectations, academic and otherwise. Auden continues to excel in school, even though she finds herself unable to fall asleep during and after her parents’ rather nasty divorce. About to leave for college in September, Auden makes the impulsive decision to leave her mother’s and  spend her summer at her father’s new house in Colby – along with his new wife, Heidi, and newborn baby, Thisbe. When Auden gets to know some of the locals, including fellow insomniac, Eli, she starts to wonder if it’s ever really too late to learn to be a kid.

These books are set over the course of the summer, and, yes, there is usually a love interest. But I think it would be a mistake to write off Dessen’s work, even her more beach-appropriate books, as romantic fluff. While romantic relationships are a staple of Dessen’s books, most are just as focused on the characters’ other relationships – with their parents, siblings, friends, and themselves. Aside from enjoying summer’s festive mood, I also usually find summer to be a time of individual growth and healing. In the “Note from the Author” section on her website’s page for Keeping the Moon, Dessen writes, “If you read my novels, you’ll see that I love a book set in the summer: it’s such a good, concise time period, and there’s endless potential for what can happen.” In the summer, anything seems possible. Her books capture the potential for a person to change course completely, fix relationships, form friendships. A lot can change in a summer.

Sarah Dessen also has a new novel coming out on June 4th. This one’s called The Moon and More, and also looks like a Summer Book. Check out this article for a description and the first chapter!

Sarah Dessen’s Website
Sarah Dessen’s Tumblr
GoodReads Pages for Keeping the Moon, The Truth About Forever, and Along for the Ride.

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“The Key to the Golden Firebird,” by Maureen Johnson

Last week, I wrote an entry about a trip to a book event in Syracuse. I’m currently on another, much further trip – Philadelphia! I came to the city for an honors conference, not a literary endeavor. Nevertheless, as we chugged along on the highway in our extremely large, rented black van, passing skyscrapers and buildings so ornate they must be Historical, I was reminded of one of my favorite young adult novels: Maureen Johnson’s The Key to the Golden Firebird.

Maureen Johnson’s twitter profile… and a sample of her kind of humor.

In the world of young adult literature, Maureen Johnson’s name is more or less synonymous with “superstar.” Aside from having published ten novels, she has an abundant online presence. She’s particularly well-known for her offbeat tweets. I first discovered her work, however, long before she became an Internet sensation, probably before she had a twitter account. When I was fifteen or sixteen, I pulled The Key to the Golden Firebird off the shelf of my local library. I didn’t know that a Firebird was a car, or that the novel was set in Philadelphia. I picked it up because of its bright yellow and pink cover.

The Key to the Golden Firebird mainly follows May Gold, the sixteen-year-old middle child in the family of three girls. May’s father dies of a sudden heart attack at the beginning of the novel. The story then jumps to a year later, and explores the different ways the Gold sisters cope with the loss. May’s mom works over-time at the hospital to help pay the bills, leaving May and her two sisters to fend for themselves. Brooks, the oldest of the family, quits softball and starts hanging out with a different, more booze-fueled crowd. Palmer, the baby of the family, tries to distract herself with softball practice and television. May – the bookish, unathletic sister – to try to hold things together.

And then there’s Pete Camp. A long-time family friend, he and May have always been… well, less than friendly. Good-natured – and perhaps less well-natured – pranks once drove the relationship between the two. When May fails her driving test – an experience to which I personally relate – Pete ends up being the only one around to teach her. The two attempt to put aside their differences for the sake of May’s driver license. In one notable scene, Pete tries to take May driving on one of Philadelphia’s highway. It was this scene that reminded me today, as our professor wove through the mess of last-minute lane-changing cars, that reminded me of the novel.

Photo of Philadelphia as seen from the highway in our enormous black rental van. Photo taken by Paige Belisle.

I think what really made this book was the characterization. Although the book focused around May, the narration sometimes shifted to her sisters, Brooks and Palmer. Each girl had their own individual ways of dealing with their father’s death. And for a book about death, it stays remarkably, refreshingly free of clichés and cheesiness. The bonding between the sisters didn’t take place in the form of hugs and shared cups of coffee; instead, their connection shone through in a road-trip convenience store stop and a wild dash off the field at Camden Yards.

To address the YA elephant in the room – yes, there is some romance in the novel. I think Johnson does an excellent job of balancing the love interest aspect of the story with the sisters’ relationships and development. For May, her growing interest in a guy feels natural; instead of distracting from the other themes of the story, it reinforces the idea that May needs to learn to live her own life; as much as she loves her sisters, it’s not up to her to be responsible for them.

This book came out quite awhile ago, but it’s one I still like revisit quite often. What rereads do you still enjoy years later? Any books you stumbled upon a bit by accident and ended up loving? Let me know in comments.

Maureen Johnson’s Website
Maureen Johnson’s Twitter
The Key to the Golden Firebird on GoodReads

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The Mortal Instruments

I’ve been hearing people rave about Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series for awhile now. Part of this is probably because I follow Cassandra Clare on tumblr. Even aside from her posts, though, fan art and references to Clary and Jace, two of the main characters, have been ubiquitous. Despite all the hype, I still wasn’t sure it would be my cup of tea. After all, the first book is called City of Bones. While I love fantasy novels, I tend to shy away from grittier, creepier fantasy and paranormal books. And how can book with a title like City of Bones be anything except creepy? Reservations aside, I decided to go out on a limb and try it. After all, I hadn’t thought The Hunger Games was “my thing” either, and I loved those books.

Trailer for the Upcoming City of Bones Movie:

City of Bones revolves around Clary, a fifteen-year-old girl prone to arguing with her horribly overprotective mother. One night at an all-ages club, Clary happens to be the only witness to a murder… except that the body vanished in a puff of smoke, and Clary seems to be the only one who can see the murderers, a group of three teenagers with strange weapons. The next day, Clary’s mother is abducted and her home ransacked, leaving Clary to navigate the dangerous world of demons, vampires, and werewolves on her own. Well, not completely on her own. Though her mother is gone, Clary finds she has plenty of friends, both old and new, ready to fight on her side.

My self-control is not what it should be when it comes to books. I did not just ready City of Bones last week. I also read the next two books in the series, City of Ashes and City of Glass. I won’t give plot synopses for the latter two books, as each would contain spoilers. I was surprised, however, at the ending of City of Glass. Two other books have been published in the series, and the sixth and final book hasn’t been released yet. However, City of Glass resolves pretty much all of the ongoing plotlines, making the first three novels in the series seem like their own separate trilogy.

I think what I enjoyed most about this book was the characters. Clary’s best friend, Simon, may have no connection with the shadowy demons and creatures that have come into Clary’s life, but he doesn’t let that stop him from being there for her. My other personal favorite character is Alec, one of the teens staying at the Institute where the Shadowhunters, or demon-hunters, of New York City stay. Alec does not take well to Clary, someone uneducated in demons, magic, and fighting, barging in on all their missions. To complicate matters, Alec and Clary are both interested in the same guy, the arrogant Jace Wayland. I always enjoy characters who manage antagonize the main character without actually being antagonists.

On the downside for the novel, while the books had very fast-paced plots (leading to the series’ somewhat addictive, can’t-put-it-down nature), some of the plot twists were predictable, particularly in City of Glass. I also was frustrated by Clary’s love interest and the male main lead, Jace. Jace certainly had a troubled enough childhood and adolescence to cause some behavioral problems, I still don’t think it excuses the way he treats other people. I found him overwhelmingly self-absorbed and hypocritically overprotective of Clary. While he often urges her to stay out of danger – to the point of lying to and about her, at one point – he shows little regard for his own life. To me, Jace seemed like your stereotypical alpha male. This really escalates throughout the series.

Overall, I’m on the fence about whether or not I’d recommend the series. I’d probably give the first three books a 3.5/5 rating. The novels are packed with action and interesting characters. However, I find Jace’s character problematic, and think Clare should’ve foreshadowed some of the plot-twists a bit more subtly. I also found the writing level to be slightly disappointing. I would have preferred if Clare left more to subtext, rather than directly telling readers what every character was feeling. While the omniscient third-person narration with many POV-shifts contributed to the dramatic tension, by creating a gap between what the reader knows (everything) and what the characters know (bits and pieces), it sometimes left me knowing too much too soon, making it occasionally predictable. On the whole, I nevertheless found the series engaging and compelling. I would probably recommend the books with the stipulation that one is looking for a gripping, fast-paced action novel, rather than a more meditative, expertly crafted book.

Are there any books you’ve read just to see what all the hype was about? Did they live up to your expectations? Let me know in comments.

City of Bones on GoodReads
Cassandra Clare’s Website

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Mr. Pudgins

I’m sure everyone has those burning questions keeping them awake at night. The things about themselves that they just don’t understand, no matter how many rainy days they spend mulling them over. Secrets that, when revealed, turn animated conversation to shocked silence. But I think the time has come for me to confess my most shameful secret: I don’t like Mary Poppins.

“What?” I hear you gasp. “Not like Mary Poppins? Everybody likes Mary Poppins!”

I don’t dislike it, per se, but the most I’ve ever been able to conjure up for the movie is a bland indifference. And while perhaps not my most haunting question, I have spent a substantial amount of time wondering why this is. Mary Poppins seems like something I should like. Whimsical, magical nanny? Check. Ordinary life becoming infused with magical events? Check. Dancing penguins? Check. Only recently did I solve the mysterious case of Mary Poppins and the Missing Affection. The answer is actually quite simple; my heart was already stolen by another magical babysitter.

Ruth Christoffer Carlsen’s Mr. Pudgins is one of those childhood books I grew up on. Even as an adult, I remember it with that magical aura reserved for childhood favorites. It recalls those fuzzy early years, my sisters and I curled up on my parents’ waterbed, listening as Mom would read aloud a chapter before bed. She was an expert at doing Voices, using a high-pitched squeal for one character, a lisp for another, capturing the gruff-but-pleasant cadence of Mr. Pudgins himself. It was almost always only one chapter, no matter the amount of begging or pleading glances we employed.

It’s not just my childhood memories that endear the book to me, though. The stories themselves are engaging. The  book revolves around three children: John, Jane, and Petey. Unlike the Banks of Mary Poppins, their parents are rather affectionate.  However, like all parents, their mother and father need to go out every now and then. That’s when their babysitter, an older-but-not-elderly man, comes over and the stories truly take off.

Each chapter contains a new adventure, a feature employed by many of my other childhood favorites.* Some of their adventures include a flying bathtub;  playing with the “mirror children” (the children’s reflections who escape from the mirror); encounters with a dodo bird; and my personal favorite, when all the faucets start running different kinds of pop instead of water. While each new development delights the children at first, each chapter has some dramatic tension as the children struggle to put everything back to normal before their parents return.

I think perhaps that was my main problem with Mary Poppins; while there is plenty of conflict in the Banks children’s reality – namely with their parents – their magical adventures with Mary act as escapist reprieves rather than character-building conflicts. It is the adults in the story that change, more than the children themselves, whereas in Mr. Pudgins, all of the magical adventures are infused with problems for John, Jane, and Petey to overcome.

I highly recommend Mr. Pudgins to everyone. If you don’t want to take my word for it, check out its thirty-three reviews on Amazon, all five-stars; or its 4.51 GoodReads rating. Unfortunately, the book is currently out of print. This may have something to do with the fact that Mr. Pudgins’ pipe-smoking serves as the catalyst for all of the magical events in the book. The story was first published in 1951, long before the dangers of smoking were widely-known. Maybe they are reluctant to reprint lest they are accused of encouraging pipe-smoking in children? Just speculating why such a wonderful book is no longer widely available. At any rate, although the book is out of print, there are several used copies available on Amazon** for decent prices.

Have a passionate defense of Mary Poppins? Or favorite childhood books or reading memories? Feel free to share in the comments.

*Similar childhood favorites  include Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and Pippi Longstocking.
**I swear I am not trying to plug Amazon so much. If you know any other sites where Mr. Pudgins might be affordable and available, please let me know.

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A Beginner’s Guide to Tamora Pierce

Tamora Pierce’s novels have been a cornerstone of my book collection since I was fifteen. I was in a bit of a reading slump at the time, and her YA fantasy novels offered me culturally diverse worlds to discover; nuanced villains to denounce; and, best of all, three-dimensional, kick-ass heroines to emulate. Tamora Pierce is one of the first authors I discovered who allowed her female characters to be both warriors and women. Their ability to fight didn’t negate their ability to fall in love with princes, or wear dresses; conversely, having pierced ears or love interests didn’t detract from their fighting abilities.

By this point Tamora Pierce has created two universes and published five quartets, one trilogy, one duology*, two stand-alones and one short story collection. If you’re considering reading her books, figuring out where to start might seem a bit daunting. I thought it’d be helpful to outline some of her different series and give some insight about who might enjoy which ones. Pierce’s novels all fall into two major universes: Tortall and Emelan. I’ll only cover the Tortall series in this post, as those books tend to be more popular.

Song of the LionessThe Song of the Lioness Quartet
(Alanna: The First AdventureIn the Hand of the GoddessThe Woman Who Rides Like A ManLioness Rampant)

Start with this series if you hate spoilers. It’s the first series chronologically, and almost all the other Tortall novels contain major spoilers for it. The books follow Alanna, a noblewoman who disguises herself as a boy in order to pursue knighthood. Alanna is for those who favor feisty, outspoken protagonists and epic heroes. The downside of the series is that it was originally written as a single adult novel, but published as four separate YA books. As a result, the pacing throughout the series is a bit erratic and the first book resolves very abruptly. Although the series generally embraces atypical gender roles, there are a few lines that seem dismissive of non-cisgendered identities. It really is only one or two lines, though, and the series was published in the 1980s.

The Immortals

The Immortals Quartet
(Wild Magic; Wolf-Speaker; Emperor Mage; The Realms of the Gods)

Start with this series if you love animals. While the other novels contain some great animal characters, this series overflows with a wide variety of different animals – both real and mythical. The series focuses on the struggle of its protagonist, Daine, to develop and control her magical connection with animals. While Alanna’s story revolves around her quest for self-acceptance, Daine’s centers upon her search for a sense of belonging and home. Daine is a heroine for those who prefer somewhat shyer, but nonetheless opinionated protagonists. Her connection with animals helps give her a unique perspective on the world.

Protector of the SmallProtector of the Small Quartet
(First Test; Page; Squire; Lady Knight)

Start with this series if you have a taste for protagonists with strong ideals, sometimes to the point of impracticality. Set several years after the Song of the Lioness quartet, the king has changed the law so female nobles can become knights. Keladry of Mindelan, or Kel, is the first girl to openly go for her knighthood. Despite the change in law, plenty of people still believe girls don’t belong in combat, and do their best to discourage her. While Alanna is very much the typical lone hero, Kel is a natural leader and more of a team-player. Kel is also Alanna’s opposite in temperament; Alanna is very vocal whereas Kel tends to keep her feelings to herself. This series happens to be my personal favorite. Squire also marked the beginning of Tamora Pierce’s reign at the top of my reading list.

Trickster's

Trickster’s Duology
(Trickster’s Choice; Trickster’s Queen)

Start with this series if you’ve always wanted to be a spy. These two books follow Aly, Alanna’s sixteen-year-old daughter, as she tries to escape the shadow of her ambitious mother and protective father. Aly gets taken captive by pirates and sold into slavery in the Copper Isles, far from her home in Tortall. Trained in spycraft from a young age, Aly finds herself drawn into a wager with a god, and caught in a foreign country with both an unstable government and strained race relations. While many of Tamora Pierce’s heroines tend to rely on physical training, Aly’s survival depends upon her out-thinking her opponents.

Beka CooperBeka Cooper Trilogy
(Terrier; Bloodhound; Mastiff)

Start with this series if you like crime novels. This series is set two-hundred years before the Song of the Lioness quartet, so it is free of spoilers for the other novels. Beka, the protagonist,  works for the city police force, which is colloquially known as the city’s “Dogs.” The first book starts when Beka is a trainee, or “Puppy,” and the series follows her as she doggedly pursues criminals, be they friends or enemies. This series is very different from many of Pierce’s other Tortall novels. For one, unlike Alanna, Kel, and Aly, Beka is a commoner. Secondly, Pierce wrote this trilogy entirely in the form of Beka’s diary entries. All of the other series are narrated in third-person. The books in this series also work better as stand-alones, as each book opens and resolves a separate mystery; there’s no plotline uniting all three books.

That covers Pierce’s Tortall novels. Which series sounds interesting to you? Which authors do you look to for great female characters? Let me know in the comments.

Tamora Pierce’s Website
Tamora Pierce’s LiveJournal

*As far as I can tell, duology, a neologism, is the best word for a two-book series. I sometimes use “duet” or “set” though.

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February 10, 2013 · 5:31 am