This is a list of the books I read in 2009, with a few of my thoughts on each.
Hopefully I will not be spoiling people's reading experience when I say that the thing I liked most about this book was the normal treatment of a lesbian relationship. For once, everything awkward and heart-stopping and forbidden about a relationship came from the characters' life situations and normal hesitance, NOT from the fact that "omg but we're both girls." (There's not even a discernible negative reaction from anyone else in the story based on the homosexuality!) The heterosexual relationship is also just as weird and just as compelling and just as mismatched (being as it is between a human and a fairy). I liked the story's natural magic, and I of course liked the reinvention of the Cinderella tale, but as for the storytelling and the characterization, I felt it could have been much smoother and much more convincing. There wasn't anything too outwardly wrong with either aspect, but it didn't take great pains to draw me in either--and the parts that got me excited were few and far between. I felt like this Ash character WAS her situation a little too much to be a person in and of herself, though there were little glimmerings of it. She was manipulated a little too often and got a little too lucky for me to particularly admire her or feel attached to her.
Of Mice and Men
I was surprised how short this book was, and how even the incidental characters had an obvious LIFE of livin' in 'em so to speak, though strangely enough I didn't connect that strongly to anyone even though I did care about what happened to them. I thought it was a well-told story, and I thought Steinbeck did a wonderful job with the dialogue (everyone had his/her own way of speaking so you didn't get confused but didn't have gimmicky catch phrases thrown in your face or anything), and it was very easy to root for the two misfits who go through the world needing each other. George, stuck with mentally-challenged Lennie, has the burden of choosing a life for the both of them and trying to keep Lennie from causing trouble when he doesn't know his own strength. And Lennie just wants to tend the rabbits and please George. There's an awful lot of neediness and wanting and heartfelt emotion packed into this thin little book, and the only criticism I have is that I wasn't too into it when many of the chapters set the scene with a physical description of the surroundings. I almost felt like I was reading stage direction for a play when I hit those bits.
Smiles to Go
I was disappointed in probably the first half or two thirds of this book, though mainly it was because I expect more character realism from Spinelli due to his amazing success in other books at portraying teenagers as they really are. But some of this character's thoughts and actions seemed a bit canned at first. I thought I might have just not related to the protagonist well; Will Tuppence was kind of a moody kid, and after hearing that protons die, he was really bothered by the impermanence of the universe. I thought the attempt at romance was only partially realistic, and I was kind of annoyed at the idea that Will got his hopes up about asking the girl he liked to a dance only to find out she was going with someone else "because no one else had asked me yet. . . . " Hey, couldn't she have asked him if she really wanted to go with him? C'mon. But one thing I DID end up liking a lot about this book was the unresolved issues. Too many books for teens wrap everything up with a bow--wow, the freshman in high school has figured out love, solved his life issues, and won the chess championship! Well, Will didn't get everything he wanted, so much as he realized there were some things he'd been taking for granted and/or misunderstanding that he ended up appreciating (specifically, his little sister). I thought the pestering that Will's sister inflicted on him was pretty realistic, and I liked the characterization of Will's friend BT, and I also liked the typical teenager moodiness that got a good hold on Will sometimes. I ended up liking it all right, but it isn't Spinelli's best book.
Book of a Thousand Days
First off, as always, Hale has that indescribably smooth, accessible writing style that is such a pleasure to read. Secondly, in this novel she made a very likeable main character: Dashti, the lady's maid. Even before Dashti did anything amazing (which, just you wait, she does!), I kept thinking, wow, what an honest and loyal and straightforward girl she is. And, of course, she's talented without knowing how talented she is; she can heal by singing songs that are popular in her culture, but doesn't seem to realize this isn't a talent that can be wielded by anyone who bothers to learn the songs. I of course saw both the romance and the revelation about the villain coming about six and a half miles away, but that didn't make it less enjoyable; it just seemed like Dashti was sitting there with her head in the sand not realizing the obvious sometimes, and the author wasn't taking great pains to hide these things from the reader. (I always hate that, when authors try to red herring their way to a climax. Even if you have figured out what's going to happen, Shannon Hale can make you enjoy watching the characters figure it out!) One thing I also really loved about this was the beginning premise: A teenage noble girl, Saren, is shut in a tower because she refuses to wed the bad guy, and her maid, Dashti, goes with her into the prison. In situations like this, there is ample opportunity to launch a character study, because there just isn't much else going on. I love a self-contained world with little complication and an open opportunity to let human nature have the stage. Of course, the post-tower half of the book completely opened that world up, but we'd gotten to really know Dashti through her words and sketches, and we can admire her purity of heart as well as her loyalty and sort of sweet na´vetÚ. Oh and . . . finally, I just want to add that I love when Shannon Hale does dialogue. She's so very good at it. I stayed up past 3 AM two nights in a row to read this.
Feeling Sorry For Celia
I very much enjoyed main character Elizabeth and her pen-pal friendship with Christina. Despite the fact that Elizabeth believes herself to be failing at being a teenager, her self-doubt, uncertainty, and awkwardness are in fact very typical for this stage of life, and Ms. Moriarty did a great job conveying that. I was also impressed with her ability to draw me into the world of Elizabeth and her heart-wrenching discoveries about her friendship with Celia, who's not exactly the model best friend. Most of all, I like that both Elizabeth and Christina can realize through their friendship that people do grow and change, and that it isn't the end of the world to grow apart from someone you love--nor is it betrayal to realize what's important to you (and embrace it!). Though of course it is this author's "thing" to tell her stories entirely in letters, memos, and other written documents, I actually found that aspect of this book to be the least realistic. Being that every letter (written by teenagers, mostly) was flawless in spelling and also there were letters conveying Elizabeth's thoughts in diary-type format WHILE she was running a marathon, I had to wonder if these written documents actually would exist and HOW. Regardless, I related to Elizabeth quite a bit despite not being very much like her myself, and that's one sign of good writing.
God Is Not Great
I wasn't a huge fan of Christopher Hitchens's writing style, because to be completely truthful it was a little dry and a little thick, but he was after all carrying a rather heavy and nasty message. The point of this book is that people often make excuses for religion's having spawned terrorism, war, and child abuse while impeding scientific progress, the spread of knowledge, and free thinking . . . and the defenses they put forth in favor of religion are often either a) not actually assets or b) don't actually belong to religion. Hitchens goes around the whole buffet of theism, not just focusing on the big three (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) but also on smaller religions and even Eastern spiritualism. He gives tight, undeniable examples of how religion has influenced (for the worse) politics and held mankind back, claiming lives and riches and power in the name of . . . er, whatever god happened to be in power at that time and place. He did a very good job showing how human nature came through regardless of religion in the past and exactly how "poisonous" religion can be and has been, and while it is in-your-face enough that it will offend believers to the point that they won't read it, he does make some very good points.
This was an honest and irreverant tale of an agnostic kid who decides to start his own religion for kicks. What I really liked about it was that the followers he recruits are all in the joke cult for different reasons (just like real religion) and all practice differently (just like real religion) and some would rather split into their own sect than follow rules the founder sets (just like . . . well, you know). What's also WONDERFUL about this book is that the cult members--"Chutengodians," who worship the town's water tower as a god--do some stupid and dangerous things as a show of their faith, and in most books a preachy author would use this pattern of "kid doubts faith, kid gets in HUGE trouble or gets hurt due to events following directly from his lack of faith, kid returns to established faith and finds happiness." But in THIS book, that does not happen (thank the Ten-legged One). Despite not having any actual belief that the water tower is God, the main character, Jason Bock, manages to have "religious experiences" in association with his Chutengodian adventures, and admits that they were wonderful and will be remembered his whole life. Some of his followers, he finds, are doing it to prove they're rebels. Some are doing it because everyone's doing it. Some are doing it to impress someone else. And some . . . as Jason finds out all too bizarrely . . . actually believe the craziness, even with full evidence in front of them that they made it up themselves. The narration is borderline blasphemous at times without being nasty (like when Jason tells his dad that Catholicism is just as made up as Chutengodianism, or his suggestion that transsubstantiation can be described thus: "the host the priest places on your tongue is actually a sliver of Jesus meat"). I'd also like to say Mr. Hautman gets brownie points for making his main character decidedly overweight without making it this big point or sticking in dumb self-improvement messages where he loses weight as a symbol of bettering himself. It always annoys me when the fat kid is either the comic relief, the obvious target of bullying, or a symbol of something to get past. It's nice to just see a fat kid once in a while and have nothing made of it except he's a fat kid.
A Lion Among Men
In this book, I appreciated Maguire's worldbuilding, his literary narrative style, and the characterization of Brrr, the Cowardly Lion. Some of the ideas he presented us with were quite profound, most notably the concept of folks thrust into situations and expected to take a stand before they even know where the ground is and what their feet are for.
I liked that both Brrr (a Lion with a poor reputation) and Mother Yackle (a maunt--supposedly--who's got access to the future and an inability to die) have similar circumstances despite their differences. Neither knows their origin or their past. Neither knows what the purpose of their life is. And neither knows how to get there. Brrr just wants to find somewhere he belongs. Yackle just wants to figure out how to die. And both would like to know what they're for. What's interesting is that I felt compassion for both characters' inability to determine their purpose, but I didn't personally like either character. They were both kinda jerks. (And, to a lesser extent, another aimless wanderer--Ilianora--had the same issues but seemed more likable, if less concrete and constant of a character.) People who examine their purpose and develop a bit of jadedness when they don't find it are very interesting to me because they're realistic, even if they are a talking Lion and a lady who was born an old woman.
I was sad we didn't come back to Liir or Candle, the stars of the previous book Son of a Witch, but unlike a lot of people who found the meandering narration style boring, I found it quite juicy, and it was neat having the experience of watching characters have revelations even though the actual information they found out was known to the reader. I also liked the ending, and the fact that unlike most books, the author didn't feel the need to tie up every loose end in order to make a pretty package. In most books, if you make an enemy and leave on terrible terms, it bites you in the ass; in real life, sometimes you're lucky enough to leave your enemies behind forever, and I like that this book reflects that.
|"I don't like you."
That's not something you expect friends to say to each other, yet that's the phrase David says to his friend Primrose just about every day. And Primrose pretty much deserves it; the two of them are actually pretty nasty to each other for people who really do like each other so much. They do everything together and bicker like siblings, and even though neither of them is a substitute for what each other lacks, they ease each other's difficulties just by being there.
David's mom died because someone didn't follow a rule, and his overwhelmed traveling father and his grandmother with a distant, tentative parenting style don't really know what to do with him. Primrose's dad isn't in the picture and her mother is such a crackpot that she'd rather live in a van outside the house (and she does). Together, the two go on nighttime adventures, hang out with Refrigerator John, and share their skills and fears.
One thing I love immensely about Spinelli's portrayal of these children is that they are inventive and quirky the way children really are, not in a storybook cutout way. I loved how Primrose buried herself in leaves because she felt like it, and how David had so many invented superstitions about his departed mother that comforted him in her absence. I loved how David braided Primrose's hair even when they were screaming at each other, and I loved that her being a thirteen-year-old girl and his being a nine-year-old boy made them such an unlikely but perfectly matched couple. And, of course, I love their secret desires: David wanting to see the sun come up with his mother, and Primrose still wishing to be read to sleep.
Spinelli's a master of writing about children and the occasional special adult.
|Rantz A. Hoseley & Tori Amos
Comic Book Tattoo
|This is a multi-authored work featuring the comic stylings of various artists . . . and though the stories are unrelated in style and content, the one common thread is that they are all based, if loosely, on Tori Amos songs. I received this as a gift from my friend Mike because I am a Tori fan, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. What I liked best is that the comics inside were not just retellings of whatever the actual Tori song was about (though in some cases it seemed like they were similar); occasionally her lyrics would be quoted or maybe just one line would be the inspiration, but overall it just seemed like most of the contributors used one of her songs as a jump-off point and the rest might as well have been coincidence. I also love to "draw" music (and have done so), and I run a webcomic, so I kinda wish I could contribute to the next volume.
My two favorites in the book were "Little Amsterdam" by Leif Jones and "I can't see New York" by Adisakdi Tantimedh/Ken Meyer Jr. There were a couple I actually disliked but I won't name names; mainly I just don't like it that they let stuff get into the book when there were misspelled words and stuff, or stuff that was weird just to be weird (or seemed so).
How I Live Now
|This book features a main character who is transplanted from the States to live with her cousins in England during wartime. Because she's uprooted and replanted and the world goes mad pretty much around the same time, the feeling of surreality that floats around all these characters is very appropriate. In the center of the "surreal" quality is an unexpected reality--the momentary truth of how the world is despite its being very different from anything the main character has experienced in her life. Daisy is easily assimilated as one of the group amongst her cousins, but not only because she shares their blood; she is indisputably on their wavelength in more ways than one. She just goes with the flow when her extended family turns out to consist of people who understand the world (and each other) on a different (often deeper) level than most consider normal, and occasionally Daisy as the narrator points out that her cousins' various manifestations of unusual sensitivity might have seemed weird in another time and place, but ordinarily it's just shown to be everyday life for them. There is an awful lot of understanding-without-saying going on, and I think that effect is increased by the author's choice of almost never using traditional quotation marks to indicate speech, so you're never sure if someone actually said something or maybe the message got through without talking. I loved their interaction, especially (of course) Daisy with Edmond, though I'm kinda disappointed that I didn't get to know him very well except in the context of her. I also loved Daisy's relationship with her littlest cousin Piper. Daisy's narrative voice was also unusual enough to be refreshing without acting like it was TRYING to be. I liked how little we as the reader needed to know about the big picture to understand how Daisy and her cousins fit into it, and the picture of how modern war might affect isolated civilians was very, very convincing.
|Diana Wynne Jones
Howl's Moving Castle
|In this one, I liked how the characters were very distinct, had definite personalities and made them known in different ways depending on who else they were interacting with, and seemed to be well-rounded, imperfect people. The story was also well-told, with easy-to-read narration and a very appealing way of having each character wrestle with his or her own personal dilemma(s) even when considering the plight of the collective cast.
Boy Meets Boy
|At first glance, it seems unrealistic that this book features a largely utopian school and town, where gay people and straight people get along and don't bat an eyelash over a 6'4" mtf transsexual quarterback who's also the homecoming queen (and a lesbian). But the fact that there is plenty of prejudice outside the town--and sometimes in the heads of local students who should know better--lets me trust the author and just love what I'm seeing. The main character is a boy who's always known he's gay (ran for third grade class president with the slogan "Vote for me, I'm gay!"), and young Paul is very interesting. His relationships with others are distinct, realistic, and unusually felt; Paul seems aware of their emotions on an unusual level, though that certainly doesn't exempt him from having his share of romantic woes. On the contrary! (Duh.)
The main plot of the story involves high school sophomore Paul trying to get to know the new guy, Noah, and dealing with the fact that both of them have been hurt before in pretty serious ways that are still quite raw. Paul still has feelings of love--though not being IN love--for his previous boyfriend, and the previous boyfriend comes back into his life at an inconvenient time. And his desire to help his previous boyfriend find happiness does lead to some mistakes, which he has to undo to prove that he is worthy of Noah.
The way the high school runs is very unusual on some levels, but it is familiar to any one of us who's gone to public school--the drama, the note-passing between classes, the OMG HE'S GONNA THINK I DON'T LIKE HIM BECAUSE I DIDN'T MEET HIM AT HIS LOCKER, MY LIFE IS OVER! mentality. I was amazed at how well this came across and still held a riveting story of teen love and angst, and how great Paul as a character was. He knew who he was and never fretted over the whole gay phenomenon; he just was who he was, was almost always honest without seeming unrealistic, and again the portrayal of his sensitivity was really gorgeous.
Pirates of the Retail Wasteland
| I liked that Adam again nailed that whole "too smart for their own good" gifted pool culture (especially how the gym teacher was convinced it had to be one of them that was sending him depressing poetry), but even though I kinda thought the students were individually amusing, I didn't have much personal attachment to any of them. I was also kinda surprised that even the "BRING DOWN ALL THINGS CAPITALIST" Communist of the group didn't think it was a little tame to take over a...more I liked that Adam again nailed that whole "too smart for their own good" gifted pool culture (especially how the gym teacher was convinced it had to be one of them that was sending him depressing poetry), but even though I kinda thought the students were individually amusing, I didn't have much personal attachment to any of them. I was also kinda surprised that even the "BRING DOWN ALL THINGS CAPITALIST" Communist of the group didn't think it was a little tame to take over a coffeeshop with express permission and help from two of the workers. In the last book about Leon, his dad's wacky inventions somehow tied into the plot, whereas in this one Leon's dad kept up his harebrained ideas in such a way that it made me feel there wasn't much of a clearly-defined reason for him to be in the book as much as he was. I did chuckle at the literary references and I did appreciate that a lot of "bohemian" and "alternative" culture was given a nod in this book, but I often felt that these bits felt a little randomly inserted. Perhaps this was intentional since kids Leon's age often do sort of latch onto an aspect of culture and define themselves by it for a while as they learn to understand it. And finally, I was a little disappointed in Leon for having a main motivation of wanting to impress Anna. Sure he LIKED being a "pirate," but he committed to the idea when he felt it would make Anna think he was revolutionary enough. I would have liked some revelation of Leon's embracing of the cause for the cause's sake at some point. I'll wrap up by saying it held my attention and that the dialogue is well-written!
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