Friday, March 30, 2012

To Kill a Mockingbird - 10/35

How do you find the words to do justice to a classic like To Kill a Mockingbird? Harper Lee's masterpiece is one of the first classics I was exposed to. My mom had borrowed the book on tape from the library and was listening to it in the car. I was in maybe the fourth grade or so, not that much older than Scout. I guess my sister would have been in kindergarten. Anyway, we would be in the car sometimes when Mom listened to the book, which was read by a female narrator with a soothing, mellow voice, and before long we began to get invested in the story. I remember scolding my mom for listening to it when we weren't in the car and bugging her for updates about what we'd missed. It's not so surprising. The story's told from Scout's point of view, and she is not quite six years old when the novel begins. Even though it's the recollection of an older Scout, the events are still related in a simple, understandable style. As a kid, I could follow the events of life in Maycomb County: Scout, Jem, and Dill making up games and trying to get Boo Radley to come out of the house, the puzzling rituals of school, having to deal with adults who have forgotten what it's like to be a kid. I know that I obviously didn't get everything the first time I heard the story, but when we got to reading it in eighth grade English, I was over the moon because I loved this book. There's something about how it's written. Scout tells us the pace of life in Maycomb is slow, and so is the pacing of the book, but it's artful, done for effect, and thus accentuates the sense of setting instead of detracting from the book at all. The characters are wonderful. Atticus Finch is perhaps the most lauded figure in modern fiction; he's a quiet paragon of morality, but he's still a real person, not a cardboard saint. Scout is an engaging narrator and a cute kid. I never really liked Jem much, but mainly because of how realistic a portrayal of a boy that age he is. The whole town of Maycomb is populated by real characters. Miss Maudie, Mrs. Dubose, Misses Tutti and Frutti Barber, Mr. Underwood, Aunt Alexandra, Miss Stephanie Crawford, Boo Radley, and the list could go on. They all bring life to the lovingly detailed town. This is a book that's definitely character-driven over plot driven. The pivotal courtroom scenes don't actually take up all that much of the book, though the trial's impact on the story is pervasive. Because of the gifted, human storytelling, this is a book that I have continued to come back to and read again and again. And I always pull something different from it.

Are You There Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea

Although it falls oh-so-terribly far outside my usual choice of reading, I found myself in stitches while reading Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea. Chelsea Handler presents us with a hilarious collection of short essays about a variety of topics, including her first babysitting job, taking her father on vacation, a disturbing massage experience, and a birthday party for someone no one attending actually liked. Some essays feature comedic comeuppances, others give Chelsea the last laugh. They're all quite short, extended anecdotes, really, and the book is a fast read. Nonetheless I couldn't put it down and plan to check out more of Ms. Handler's writing when I'm looking for something light and entertaining.

A Swiftly Tilting Planet - 11/35

A Swiftly Tilting Planet is another L'Engle book, but this time Charles Wallace is the main character, not Meg. It's Thanksgiving, and the Murry family is gathered for the dinner. Calvin, now Meg's husband, is at a conference in England, but his mother, a harsh, crude woman, has joined them. When news comes for Mr. Murry that a mad South American dictator is threatening nuclear war, the joyful celebration is overshadowed by fear. Calvin's mother has something to say on the matter, however, speaking an ancient rune and charging Charles Wallace with doing something about the situation. And because he's a Murry, the family to whom weird things happen which must be taken in stride, he does indeed do something. He partners up with a unicorn and travels through time in order to change an ancient feud, using the rune and his ability to go Within.

Although I miss Meg in this book, she's still around, staying connected with Charles Wallace through a special kind of telepathy. And I really enjoyed the theme of the past repeating itself and being changed; that's a favorite of mine. Also enjoyed were the different stories unfolding in each of the different eras, and some of the side trips Charles Wallace and Gaudior embarked on.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Mr. Popper's Penguins - 9/35

There's not really much to say about Mr. Popper's Penguins. I know they recently made a movie adaptation, but from the little I saw of it on television, one's better to steer clear of it and just read the charming novel upon which the film was based. The premise is this: Mr. Popper, a house painter, has a great love of learning about the world, especially Antarctica. He reads all about it and follows Admiral Drake's Antarctic expedition's progress over the radio. And then a funny thing happens. The Admiral responds to one of Mr. Popper's fan letters and sends him a present, a penguin of his own. The Popper household is turned upside down adjusting to the new family member, and soon the penguin is joined by others. What follows are a series of wacky but sweet adventures as the Popper family takes their performing penguins on tour. This is definitely a book for young readers, but if you want a whimsical diversion, it's worth checking out.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - 8/35

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was mildly disappointing. I was expecting this classic sci-fi novel to be... more. The idea of live animals as a status symbol in a dying world was interesting, and I was intrigued by the idea of artificial intelligence so real that it's indistinguishable from humans. But the execution of the story felt sloppy. Maybe that was intentional, a style thing. I'm finding it hard to articulate how or why it made me feel this way. There was a lot of rushing around, a lot of suspense that got dropped. Some concepts, like Mercerism, were mentioned but not really explained. It's just some new religious thing. The androids and the Mission Street Hall of Justice, that whole bit was just plain confusing. It was an interesting enough read, and I'll check out Blade Runner eventually too, but this novel won't become a favorite.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Tam Lin

If you know the story of Tam Lin, then you may be puzzled when you first dive into Pamela Dean's daunting volume of the same name. The life of college student Janet Carter during the 1970s seems a far cry from any sort of fairy tale (though the source material is actually a Scottish ballad, anyway). Dean takes her time bringing the main plot to bear, instead establishing and developing her characters, their relationships, and the setting of Blackstock College. She also gives free rein to an obvious love of literature and language; if anything threatens to shatter suspension of disbelief it's how amazingly well-read in the most arcane of literature these kids are. Still, Janet is the daughter of an English professor and the rest of her crew all have equally valid reasons for being walking literary anthologies. And if you love such subjects, it's a joy to read about new and familiar pieces and see how they fit into the story. Even though the book is based off the ballad "Tam Lin," that's hardly the only story that finds itself woven into the novel. Shakespeare, Stoppard, Fry, and Keats are all names tossed around casually while maintaining high significance to the plot.

And, yes, there is a plot, even if it takes its time becoming evident. The ending is quite satisfying, and it's worth the four hundred pages it takes to get to that point. Janet reminds me a fair bit of Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time, that same flawed yet likeable, somewhat stubborn personality. Same slightly unbelievable smarts, too. Books like these always spur me to read more classics and tough stuff, just to prove my book nerd cred. Anyway, this one's highly recommended. It can be a bit daunting and confusing, but if you just give the book the benefit of the doubt, you'll be glad you did.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Super Mario

Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America by Jeff Ryan. We're getting all non-fiction up in here with a history of Nintendo. Now, if there's a type of non-fiction of which I'm particularly enamoured, it's corporate and industry histories. And video games and nerd culture are very much of interested to me. So this was an obvious fit. Super Mario is a history of Nintendo with a heavy focus on the Mario franchise. It's pretty well researched. The writing style was a lot more casual than I'm used to in this sort of book; my benchmark for this type of book is the studiously end-noted The Emperors of Chocolate. Still, it's readable, mostly a fast read (the final chapter bogged down a good bit), and very entertaining. Well worth pairing this with the recently reviewed Ready Player One.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Thirteenth Child

I've greatly enjoyed Patricia Wrede's other forays into historical fantasy, so when I saw that she'd written such a book in the setting of the American West, I was all over it. The frontier setting is a favorite of mine when I can find books that handle daily life out west rather than cowboys and gunfighters. And Thirteenth Child has that in spades. It's the tale of Eff Rothmer, the thirteenth child in a family of magicians. Everyone knows that a thirteenth child is terrible bad luck, and so Eff and her family are relieved when Eff's father gets a position teaching magic at a university out west, just east of the Great Barrier, a magical barrier that keeps dangerous magical wildlife out of civilized settlements. As Eff grows up, she learns more about magic, the skills that make her special, and her place in the world around her.

This book interests me in how much time it covers. We meet Eff when she's five and her family moves out west, and the book details the years until she's eighteen. It's got a rambling pace and is very slice of life. Eff's a good narrator and an interesting character, and the supporting cast is likewise. This alternate America fascinated me, with its differently derived names and altered flow of historical events. The integration of magic is done well; it's treated realistically, as a skill anyone might learn and which is used practically for little things like housekeeping. Overall, I highly recommend this for anyone with an interest in either fantasy or historical fiction. You'll find yourself pleased on both accounts.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A Wind in the Door

A Wind in the Door is even weirder than A Wrinkle in Time. I mean, we can dig space travel and other planets, sure, that's sci-fi, even if how it's framed is rather unconventional. But A Wind in the Door is an even more fantastic Fantastic Voyage. Young Charles Wallace, beloved younger brother of Meg Murry, is sick, a strange disease afflicting him on a cellular level. But that doesn't concern him as much as the dragons he saw in the vegetable garden. When he, Meg, and their friend Calvin go to investigate, they find that the dragons are actually a cherubim, and with his help and the help of a Teacher, they must travel inside Charles Wallace's mitochondria and use a form of telepathy to defeat the Echthroi, the force of nothingness who want to wipe out all goodness and existence in the universe.


For all that, it's an enjoyable follow-up to A Wrinkle in Time, returning to the same beloved characters, especially stubborn and dramatic Meg. There are some weird concepts, but the writing eases you into them, and you never feel like L'Engle is condescending to you. The book makes sense, but it's really something you experience, just letting yourself be wrapped along in the joy of the triumph of good and love.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Forest Born

Forest Born is a satisfactory wrap-up to the Books of Bayern. Once again we have a protagonist related to those who have come before, although, unlike Razo and Enna, Rin didn't make an appearance in any of the previous books. As her own character, I don't quite like her as much as the other three, but I really enjoy seeing her perspective, almost an outsider's perspective, on Isi, Enna, Dasha, and the others. Plus, Rin's inner conflict makes a lot more sense once you get to the last third or so of the book. I like that this book wraps up both the Tiran conflicts and comes full circle to plot threads from the first book. Also, showing that no gift is black and white, only evil or only good, is a nice, balanced touch. And Rin doesn't get a love interest, which I like, because we already have three couples, and, anyway, some folks aren't ready for love, whether because of their age or because they've got personal issues to sort out. Once again we see Shannon Hale at her most descriptive and evocative, and there's plenty of danger and action. I stayed hooked because at a couple points I had no idea how Rin and the others could possibly get out of their predicament. Anyway, this was a satisfying read and good closure for the series.