Sunday, July 31, 2011

Cleaning House and the Books that Help Me Do It

As I was crawling on the carpet to dust the legs and undersides of the end tables yesterday, I couldn't help remembering one of the scenes from a childhood book I read so many times that the cover fell off and has been lost for good. The inscription on the frontispiece (which I just now rediscovered) is from my 5th birthday and says 'Happy birthday, Emily! May all your life be filled with joy and fun! Love, K-- W---"

I'm not in touch with the wonderful woman who gave me the book anymore, but I think she'd be happy with how deeply it's ingrained itself on my psyche.

The book I'm referring to is All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor. Set in pre-WWI Lower East Side New York, the story follows a family of five always dressed alike sisters through a year in their lives. Over the course of the book, the sisters experience quarantine from scarlet fever, losing a library book, the amazement of going to the beach: the simple joys of a family without much money but a lot of love. Reading it was the first time I'd ever been introduced to Jewish holidays: Purim, the Sabbath, Sukkot. In the second chapter (called, prophetically, 'Dusting is Fun'), Mama realises her girls not only are doing a terrible job dusting the front room but also that they hate doing it. So she comes up with a game where she hides buttons in the nooks and crannies of all that Victorian furniture. Each girl gets to prove she's done a good job dusting by finding all the hidden buttons - and sometimes, thrillingly, a new shiny penny.

Oh, how I wished I could play that game! That my mom would hide buttons (and maybe even a penny - or a quarter) for me to find as I completed the boring chores set for me. It's a thought that's stuck with me every time I've dusted even when I have my own apartment and no one to hide buttons except for me (or my cats). But every time, I get to remember Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie and how much I've always loved this book.

As I continued cleaning house, I thought of other childhood books that made a mark on my cleaning ways. "Draw the broom, Laura; don't flip it, that raises the dust," says Ma in On the Shores of Silver Lake (one of my early favourites in the Little House books because of the pony on the cover), and I always make sure to follow Ma's instructions. The sad fact that the middle of house cleaning always makes the house look dirtier than when you started that Laura learns when she and Carrie, with the "help" of Grace, do the fall housecleaning for Ma while Ma and Pa are off taking Mary to college. The even sadder fact that sometimes when you're working so hard to impress someone, you forget the most basic parts like Anne Shirley using salt instead of sugar in the cream or, horrors of horrors, forgetting to put a lid on the hard sauce thereby allowing a mouse to drown in the dessert.

Do we all have these type of literary associations? What are some of the mundane chores that always sparks a book memory for you?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Review: Pathfinder by Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card
November 23, 2010
Borrowed from Library
Amazon Page
Goodreads Page
Grade: B

Synopsis (from publisher): Only his father knew that Rigg possessed the power to see deep down the paths of people's pasts. But it was only after his father died that Rigg discovers that he has another special gift: the power to change the past. Unfortunately, with that knowledge, all certainty and safety began to melt away. Thinking of it as a coming-of-age novel at triple speed.

Review: Did you know Orson Scott Card could still write a good book? Apparently he can. Along with my brother and dad, I read and enjoyed OSC as a child and teenager - Ender’s Game, the Alvin Maker books, that sadly unfinished Homecoming series, but more recently I’d stopped reading him almost completely, turned off by the quality of his more recent books.

Pathfinder, however, is a pleasant return to old form. I don’t really know why I picked it up off the library’s shelf, but from page one, following Rigg and his childhood friend Umbo on their way to fulfill the last wish of Rigg’s father - that he meet his sister - is an interesting and well-written story.

The journey of a talented and well-educated young boy isn’t exactly new territory for Card, and while Rigg is a worthwhile and interesting protagonist, he starts the story almost fully formed by the education his father provided. As we get to know Rigg, we see different facets of his personality, but the book’s character development takes place mostly in the secondary characters. These friends and companions of Rigg grow and change as they learn about themselves, their society, and the odd talents many of them seem to possess.

Spanning from the backwoods of ‘upriver’ to the capital of their world, Card takes his time to look at the subtle changes of culture and language as Rigg, Umbo, and Loaf, their self-appointed guardian, travel towards the city and the discovery of Rigg’s true identity. Very quickly we learn that he may be the scion of a recently deposed Imperial family, and while his ‘father’ has subtly trained Rigg for this, stumbling blindly into a wasp’s nest of politics and rebellion never leads to good times for our characters. As is this author’s wont, sometimes Card’s plot takes a turn into discussing his own feelings on politics, but this proselytizing is easily overlooked and not terribly distracting.

My absolute favourite part of this book is the time travel aspects. As I described it to a friend, the book is time travel without paradox. The characters cross and recross their own timestreams, making changes as they go. The chapter prologues also play into part of the time travel story though in a subtle way that reveals itself as the book continues. It’s an intriguing way to look at time travel and one quite different from the ones we usually see in science fiction and fantasy.

I didn’t realise Pathfinder was the first in a proposed trilogy until after I finished. I look forward to reading the remaining books, but Pathfinder ends in a way that could easily make it read as a standalone novel. This book is an intriguing combination of high fantasy and science fiction and may be especially enjoyed by preteen and teenage boys.

Review: Entwined by Heather Dixon

Heather Dixon
March 29, 2011
Purchased for Kindle
Amazon Page
Goodreads Page
Grade: A (And I'm thinking of rebuying the hardcover for the gorgeousness of the cover)

Synopsis (from publisher): Azalea is trapped. Just when she should feel that everything is before her . . . beautiful gowns, dashing suitors, balls filled with dancing . . . it's taken away. All of it.

The Keeper understands. He's trapped, too, held for centuries within the walls of the palace. And so he extends an invitation.

Every night, Azalea and her eleven sisters may step through the enchanted passage in their room to dance in his silver forest.

But there is a cost.

The Keeper likes to keep things.

Azalea may not realize how tangled she is in his web until it is too late.

Review: I actually pre-ordered Entwined for my Kindle (and was completely startled when it magically downloaded at 4am on a Wednesday morning), but then for some odd reason, I read the first few pages, wasn’t impressed, and moved on to another book, regarding Entwined as a disappointment and reminder not to pre-order just because retold fairy tales are cool.

As it happens, retold fairy tales ARE cool, and not reading this one in March meant that while my Kindle was out at Glacier National Park with my mom a week ago, I was checking yet again through the library’s new YA arrivals and was seduced by the gorgeous cover of this book.

I started reading it this time while sitting on the porch, drinking coffee and hoping I wouldn’t have to move before I finished another few chapters.

This is a delightful retelling of Twelve Dancing Princesses from the point of view of the oldest princess and heir to the country, Azalea who’s trying to fulfill her promise to her dying mother to take care of her sisters even with the interference and apparent uncaring of their father the King. The sisters’ only happiness during their year of mourning is dancing, and when their father forbids it, Azalea finds a magical passage leading to a garden and its Keeper who invites the girls to dance every night. At nearly seventeen, she’s also struggling with growing up as the future Queen, knowing that Parliament will probably choose her husband instead of allowing her to fall in love, and managing the poverty of her family while still presenting the proper front as royalty.

Dixon’s writing throughout the book is lyrical and enchanting as befits the fairy tale atmosphere, but it never becomes too Disneyified. Her turns of phrase are both lovely and sometimes hilarious. I’m not someone who laughs aloud while reading very much, but Entwined had me giggling delightedly throughout.

Somehow each of the twelve sisters (all named alphabetically, each after a flower) has her own a personality and part to play in the story. In a lesser author’s hands, given the number of princesses, they easily could have turned into a sloppy conglomerate of names and character traits, but the relationship of the girls is one of the best parts of the book. They’re very close, especially while dealing with the shock of losing their beloved mother, but the closeness never becomes saccharine. All twelve are sisters who tease and mock, argue and throw potatoes at each other but above all are a (mostly) united force who want the best for their family and their country but especially want to be able to dance.

I found the action at the climax slightly confusing, but it wasn’t enough to make the conclusion difficult to follow or unenjoyable. On the contrary, the conclusion felt like the perfect end (as much as I’d like more about Azalea, Bramble, Clover, and the rest) to this book that I now consider one of my favourite of the past year.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Review: The Magnolia League by Katie Crouch

The Magnolia League
by Katie Crouch
May 3, 2011
Borrowed from Library
Grade: D

Synopsis (from publisher): After the death of her free-spirited mother, sixteen-year-old Alex Lee must leave her home in northern California to live with her wealthy grandmother in Savannah, Georgia. By birth, Alex is a rightful, if unwilling, member of the Magnolia League, Savannah's long-standing debutante society. She quickly discovers that the Magnolias have made a pact with a legendary hoodoo family, the Buzzards. The Magnolias enjoy youth, beauty and power. But at what price?

As in her popular adult novels, Crouch's poignant and humorous voice shines in this seductively atmospheric story about girls growing up in a magical Southern city.

Review: I should have loved this book. There’s a Southern Gothic mood, a secret society, magical history, high school hijinx - so many books I’ve loved have fallen under one or more of those categories, but I was especially excited about a new ‘Southern Gothic’ type book. Beautiful Creatures, Splendor Falls, and even (the first few) Sookie Stackhouse books have caught my attention, and as someone who grew up visiting family in the bayous in Mississippi, I have a soft spot for run down plantation houses, voodoo magic, and Spanish moss hanging heavily from the trees.

So The Magnolia League had potential, and I was excited enough to almost buy a copy several times before finding it at the library. I’m really glad I didn’t. Nothing in the book lived up to my expectations. The plot is nearly nonsensical with the characters acting wildly out of their sketchily drawn characters to somehow force the plot along. I understand that a good part of the first book in a series is setting up the world and background for the action to come, but setting up the world doesn’t forgive plot holes and cardboard characters.

The main character, Alex Lee, - who has a far too stereotypical teenage voice - could have been so very interesting. Forced back into the gilded society her mother had run away from as a teenager, expected to fulfill her family’s expectations and make her debut, oh, and learn about the hoodoo her grandmother and their friends have been using for years to stay young - how could this possibly not be rich grounds for fun and challenging character development and richly drawn scenes?

Apparently for this book, it is not. I’m nearly impossible to keep away from sequels, but I very much doubt I’ll be picking up White Glove War when it appears. Disappointing. Very, very disappointing.

** I've sat on this review for a few days because I worry that it's unnecessarily harsh, but I don't think it is. I do think that my disappointment has made me more upset about the fact the book wasn't great than I normally would be so I post the review with that bit of information attached.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Review: Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey
Mary Robinette Kowal
August 3, 2010
Borrowed from Library
Grade: B+

Synopsis (from publisher): Shades of Milk and Honey is exactly what we could expect from Jane Austen if she had been a fantasy writer: Pride and Prejudice meets Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It is an intimate portrait of a woman, Jane, and her quest for love in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality.

Review: This was a lovely if perhaps a tad slight book. The Regency-with-magic setting was delicately handled, and I particularly enjoyed the characterization of our main character, Jane, the plain yet artistic Ellsworth sister and the positioning of magic as one of the arts that a well-brought up lady should know instead of something outside the bounds of propriety. The homages to Austen were well done, drawing smiles from this reader more than once.

Some parts of the plot - including the romance but also the relationship between the sisters and the fate of one of the supporting characters - seemed overly rushed, but I still quite enjoyed the book and very much hope the author writes more in this universe. The worldbuilding around the magic was detailed, and I enjoyed how glamour was a quite different type of magic than one would normally expect in a fantasy book.

There’s a lot more that could be done in this universe, and I hope to be able to read more intricate works surrounding how exactly magic has affected the Ellsworths’ world compared to our own and deepening our understanding of the current characters and their abilities.

As a side note, the author is one of my favorite voice actors and if you ever come across an audiobook she performs, I wholeheartedly encourage you to take a listen!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Review: Deadline by Mira Grant

by Mira Grant
June 1, 2011
Purchased my Copy
Goodreads Page
Amazon Page
Grade: A

Deadline is the second in the Newsflesh trilogy. Don't read Deadline without reading Feed, the first book! My review of Feed, if you're interested can be found here.

Synopsis (from Publisher): Shaun Mason is a man without a mission. Not even running the news organization he built with his sister has the same urgency as it used to. Playing with dead things just doesn't seem as fun when you've lost as much as he has.

But when a CDC researcher fakes her own death and appears on his doorstep with a ravenous pack of zombies in tow, Shaun has a newfound interest in life. Because she brings news-he may have put down the monster who attacked them, but the conspiracy is far from dead.

Now, Shaun hits the road to find what truth can be found at the end of a shotgun.

Review: I waited for Deadline breathlessly, but also I was the tiniest bit wary. How could any book live up to Feed's excellence? Add that to the fact that second installments in any trilogy are difficult, and there was definitely a bit to be wary of.

Deadline, however, managed to fulfill all my expectations and even hopes. Things have changed for the Masons and for After the End Times, but our heroes adapt, deal, and go more than a little bit crazy while doing so. Deadline is less of a political thriller - no following the campaign trail this time - and more of a conspiracy story, but the tension, the danger, and yes, the zombies remain the same.

I seriously loved Deadline. My major concern while reading it was after a blow-you-away opening sequence, the story seemed to stall out, but trust in Ms. Grant's writing, after a few chapters, it's less stalling out then slowly, slowly building to an insane climax.

Excellent book. I need Blackout RIGHT NOW...but I'll be reading Deadline again while I'm waiting.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Review: Where the Streets Had a Name by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Where the Streets Had a Name
~Randa Abdel-Fattah
October 1, 2008
Borrowed from Library
Goodreads Page
Amazon Page
Grade: A

Synopsis (from publisher): Thirteen-year-old Hayaat is on a mission. She believes a handful of soil from her grandmother's ancestral home in Jerusalem will save her beloved Sitti Zeynab's life. The only problem is the impenetrable wall that divides the West Bank, as well as the checkpoints, the curfews, and Hayaat's best friend Samy, who is always a troublemaker. But luck is on their side. Hayaat and Samy have a curfew-free day to travel to Jerusalem. However, while their journey is only a few kilometres long, it may take a lifetime to complete.

Review: This book gave me the chills many times as I read it. The middle of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict isn’t the obvious choice for a young adult setting, but through the eyes of her thirteen-year-old protagonist Hayaat, Abdel-Fattah brings a segment of Palestinian culture - the Muslims and Christians of Bethlehem - to life in a tragic, humorous and altogether engaging story.

The mission referred to in the synopsis is a major part of the book but more important is the depiction of Hayaat’s family as they deal with losing their land to a highway, the irregularly announced Israeli curfews and patrols, Sitti Zeynab’s (their grandmother) ill health and longing for her home in Jerusalem, and preparing for their daughter Jihan’s wedding.

All this is dealt with a sensitivity that’s almost heart-breaking. Each family member and outside friend - including the fantastic character of Hayaat’s friend Samy, a Christian boy whose father has been imprisoned by the Israelis for speaking out against the occupation - struggles with the difficulties of day-to-day living during an occupation while staying compassionate, joyful, and ready to carry on.

The nature of writing anything about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict means that politics are unavoidable, but Abdel-Fattah is not interested in black and white or an overly simplified story of victims and heroes. Instead she writes in the shades of grey of everyday human life, showing the non-violent on both sides as they struggle to peer through the blinds of fear and misunderstanding to see a common human face.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Review: Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner by Lauren Shockey

Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Parisby Lauren Shockey
Received ARC from NetGalley

Grade: B-

Summary: At the French Culinary Institute, Lauren Shockey learned to salt food properly, cook fearlessly over high heat, and knock back beers like a pro. But she also discovered that her real culinary education wouldn't begin until she actually worked in a restaurant. After a somewhat disappointing apprenticeship in the French provinces, Shockey hatched a plan for her dream year: to apprentice in four high-end restaurants around the world. She started in her hometown of New York City under the famed chef Wylie Dufresne at the molecular gastronomy hotspot wd-50, then traveled to Vietnam, Israel, and back to France. From the ribald kitchen humor to fiery-tempered workers to tasks ranging from the mundane (mincing cases of shallots) to the extraordinary (cooking seafood on the line), Shockey shows us what really happens behind the scenes in haute cuisine, and includes original recipes integrating the techniques and flavors she learned along the way. With the dramatic backdrop of restaurant life, readers will be delighted by the adventures of a bright and restless young woman looking for her place in the world.

Review: A well-written and engaging book, but unfortunately, the writing doesn’t do much to make the writer terribly likable. Ms. Shockey portrays herself as nearly faultless - every restaurant seems to think her the best stage ever to work there, all offer her a job - or comment that she’s obviously going far better places than staying in the kitchen with them. The book would have benefited greatly from a degree of humility about things more than inexperience and a dimming down of the self-satisfaction that fills the writing. It seems apparent that the author is used to writing blog posts and articles - what can pass in a short piece grows grating over the length of a memoir.

However the different cultures - restaurant and country - portrayed are very interesting. I definitely enjoyed seeing how the different kitchens were run and how the different chefs approached their work. As a Top Chef fan, I especially enjoyed the look into Wylie Dufresne’s restaurant.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Long Absence!

I'm sorry for the radio silence over the past few weeks! I spent a gorgeous few weeks reading and swimming and sailing at my family cottage in Canada and wasn't online at all - the horror!

But I did read a ton so I should have a bunch of reviews up for your enjoyment shortly!


Saturday, July 2, 2011

Review: Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Dairy Queen
Catherine Gilbert Murdock
May 22, 2006
Borrowed from Library
Goodreads Page
Amazon Page
Grade: A

Summary (from Publisher): When you don't talk, there's a lot of stuff that ends up not getting said. Harsh words indeed, from Brian Nelson of all people. But, D.J. can't help admitting, maybe he's right. When you don't talk, there's a lot of stuff that ends up not getting said. Stuff like why her best friend, Amber, isn't so friendly anymore. Or why her little brother, Curtis, never opens his mouth. Why her mom has two jobs and a big secret. Why her college-football-star brothers won't even call home. Why her dad would go ballistic if she tried out for the high school football team herself. And why Brian is so, so out of her league. When you don't talk, there's a lot of stuff that ends up not getting said. Welcome to the summer that fifteen-year-old D.J. Schwenk of Red Bend, Wisconsin, learns to talk, and ends up having an awful lot of stuff to say.

Review: Can I call this book adorable? Because it is in every positive sense of the word.

The responsibility for the family farm has been dumped upon 15 year old D.J. Schwenk's shoulders after her father's injury and her older brothers went off to play D1 football. She had to quit basketball and track and failed sophomore English due to the heavy load, and like any 15 year old non-saint, she resents every bit of it. However D.J.'s absolute commitment to her mostly silent family, the cows, and her grandfather's memory keeps her at it - with the unexpected help of the rival high school’s spoiled quarterback, Brian Nelson.

I love the fact that D.J. takes every opportunity at first to prove to this interloper that he doesn’t have what it takes to work a farm, let alone be a quarterback, and I love that she’s called on it, not by Brian who barely notices but by his coach, an old family friend. She and Brian settle into an uncomfortable football training regimen, and the disdain slowly turns to something different. This part is actually handled really well. There are no insta-friends, but as they run together and practice plays together, a mutual respect grows up and expands into friendship.

Which is when two things happen - D.J. realises she wants to go out for football too and she realises she has a crush on the new non-whiny Brian. Like everywhere else, football’s not a girls’ game in Red Bend, Wisconsin, and up to now, she’s been happy watching and cheering on her brothers, but the girl who’s sacrificed everything for her family suddenly needs something of her own, and football becomes that escape.

From there, the book really picks up steam with D.J. heading to tryouts without confiding in Brian, handling a sudden (to her) truth from her best friend, and trying, finally, to make some changes in the way her family works. The line that’s walked between sappy, obvious, and too easy is a fine one, but it’s done perfectly and in the spirit of a classic sports tale.

Don’t be fooled though, this isn’t just a story about football - like Friday Night Lights is a story of a town in Texas, Dairy Queen is the story of a girl and her family...and football.