Archive for the '2006 Book Challenge' Category

Satellite Down by Rob Thomas

Wednesday, August 23rd, 2006

#49 in my book challenge for the year, and #25 in my summer reading challenge was the YA novel Satellite Down by Rob Thomas, the writer/creator of the shows Cupid and Veronica Mars. I didn’t expect to like this book, as I was feeling rather fatigued after my run of high school boy books. But when I started, I was immediately drawn to the character of Patrick and his sudden switch from a student in small town Texas to a reporter for a fictionalized Channel One. Patrick’s adventures in LA, and his changes and insights are engaging and sympathetic. But in the last 70 pages, the book takes a sudden turn, and winds down to an even more abrupt ending that feels either tacked on, or like the author or editor just decided to stop the book at a certain page number. I really enjoyed the first 230 pages of this book, but the last 70 left me surprised and disappointed.

We All Fall Down by Robert Cormier

Wednesday, August 23rd, 2006

#48 in my book challenge for the year, and #24 in my summer reading challenge was We All Fall Down by Robert Cormier, a recommendation from Michael Cart’s history of YA, From Romance to Realism. We All Fall Down is a tightly written, hard to put down novel about the effects of violence. A family’s house is trashed, and a daughter is left in a coma. The novel switches views among her sister, one of the trashers, and a witness to the event. Each character is troubled in realistic ways, and the ending manages to be both redemptive and dark. There was a surprise that I was expecting, though, so that wasn’t effective for me. The strong plot, writing and characters all contributed to a novel that I’d recommend for older audiences, not just for young adults.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Friday, August 18th, 2006

#47 in my reading challenge for the year, and #23 in my summer reading challenge by The Perks of Being a Wallflower. If I were in a different, more generous mood I might like this book more. But I’m not, and it struck me as precious. The main character, Charlie, is so stunted emotionally and socially that he reminded me strongly of the main character of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The ending, which purported to explain some of Charlie’s behaviors, felt contrived. Also annoying was the conceit for the structure, which is Charlie writing letters to a stranger, and supposedly hiding people’s identities. So is his real name Charlie? Do the other characters have different names, or details than what is included in the story? The idea of the anonymous letters is more than awkward; it defies belief. If you’re looking for a high-school-boy book, King Dork, Catcher in the Rye, and Black Swan Green are all more worthy of your time.

Monkey Island by Paula Fox

Friday, August 18th, 2006

#46 in my book challenge for the year, and #22 in my summer reading challenge, was Monkey Island by Paula Fox. It’s a short, spare novel about a young boy forced to live on his own. The prose, like the story, is simple and stark. The story doesn’t pull punches, and the ending is redemptive but not at all artificial. Like Baby by Patricia MacLachlan, Monkey Island is a book for kids that is well written enough for all ages. It deals with dark stuff, but in truthful ways that are never cheap or gratuitous. A lot of popular young adult novels or novels for older kids are poorly written. There’s a common, not undeserved, perception that children’s and YA novels are not good enough to be marketed to adults. Books like this show what a reductive understanding that is.

Intuition by Allegra Goodman

Sunday, August 13th, 2006

#45 in my book challenge for the year, and #21 in my summer book challenge, Intuition by Allegra Goodman, was recommended with reservations by a member of my writing group. Interestingly, she didn’t tell me what her reservations were, so I read with extra awareness to how it was written. I found it a good book, worth reading, but with some significant problems as well. I was also reminded that in nearly every book I read, there is some very small thing that I quibble over, even if I love the book, so I’ll leave that for the end.

What works: Intuition is the story of group of postdocs, once of whose work begins to show results. The positive results are a mixed blessing, though, as tensions begin to arise among the various strong personalities. Goodman has written a huge cast of characters, most of whom are complexly drawn, and all of whom interact in interesting and believable ways. Their various experiences and points of view give the reader multiple views into the plot, as in Rashomon. The plot clips along at a strong pace, as events seem to take on a life of their own. At the end, everyone is both better and worse off, and two of the main female characters are perhaps the only ones to gain significant self insight.

What didn’t work: The cast was so big that there was no way to adequately characterize all the characters, and some of them appeared conveniently, then disappeared. The omniscient point of view was sometimes dizzying and distracting, as the narrative would swoop among several characters within a chapter. Additionally, there was a great deal of narration of what each of the characters was feeling or thinking. Sometimes this felt like good characterization, other times it felt like “telling”. The characters and the story might better have been served with more narrative and less character description.

The tiny thing that annoyed me a lot: The font of the pages numbers was different from that of the text, and it was hard to read–a poor design choice.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Thursday, August 10th, 2006

#44 in my book challenge for the year, and #20 in my summer reading challenge, was Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Since it’s been sitting on my shelf for about four years, it’s a good reminder that I should not buy books on impulse. It is appropriately epic in scope, for a sprawling tale of Calliope/Cal Stephanides, a genetic boy raised as a girl. (Calliope is the muse of epic poetry.) It is touching, frequently funny, and crowded with memorable characters. It’s a family history as well as an investigation into identity, sex, gender, and history. There’s much to enjoy while reading, and much to ruminate on once it’s done. The non-linear narrative helped make the long book go quickly, though a few times it made me wonder at things that didn’t quite match up.

Movie and Book Challenges, mid-year

Friday, August 4th, 2006

I’m likely to hit my minimum yearly book and movie goals of fifty, perhaps for books even by the end of August. After we had our first son, Drake, I found I was reading less often, and seeing movies hardly at all. Both reading and movies felt too important to become casualties (even temporarily) of parenthood, so last year and this I set movie and book challenges, with a hope that, at minimum, I’d be reading one book and seeing one movie a week. These challenges are reminders to myself (and perhaps to readers) that there IS time to read and to see movies. I make time for these things by not doing other things, like housecleaning and yard work, or doing them less often. Mental Multivitamin re-posted this entry on how she makes time to read/write/live/learn. Her post is a good reminder: time is limited and distractions many. My challenges help me focus on my priorities. My summer reading challenge has helped me focus on the reading list I set, rather than haring off whenever something new catches my eye, or comes in at the library. I’ve still departed from the list, but much less frequently, and with more deliberation, than I would if I had not set a reading list.

Baby by Patricia MacLachlan

Thursday, August 3rd, 2006

#43 in my reading challenge for the year, and #19 in my summer reading challenge, was Baby by Patricia MacLachlan, a recommendation from Michael Cart’s interesting history of YA literature, From Romance to Realism. Baby is a bittersweet, spare story of a vacation island family that takes in a child left at their door at the end of the season. As the story unfolds, we learn the sadness that lurks for each of the family members. This has beautiful prose, memorable characters, and challenging ruminations on loss and memory. Short, powerful, and emotional.

Magic Lessons by Justine Larbalestier

Thursday, August 3rd, 2006

#42 in my book challenge for the year, and #18 in my summer reading challenge, was Magic Lessons, the second book in Larbalestier’s Magic or Madness trilogy. After re-reading, and again loving, Magic or Madness, I was disappointed in the sequel. It didn’t feel as tight, either in editing (there were many extraneous and unnecessarily repeated sentences) or in plot. Reason Cansino, the 15 year old protagonist, goes back and forth between New York and Sydney and tries to avoid Jason Blake, just as she did in the first. But the introduction of a new character creates more questions than it answers, and I’m not sure that was intended, even while there is more than a little deus ex machina element to him. Some of my dissatisfaction may be unfair–this may be a typical second book in a trilogy, that begins to answer some of the intruguing questions raised in the first part, but doesn’t finish the story. I will certainly read the next book in the series, but I may get it from the library rather than purchasing it, as I did this book, based on the strength of the first.

Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier

Sunday, July 30th, 2006

#41 in my book challenge for the year, and #17 in my summer reading challenge was Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier, which I re-read as preparation for the more recently published second book in this trilogy. Reason Cansino, a fifteen-year-old Australian girl, has been on the run for all her life with her mother, from her grandmother. When her mother is institutionalized, Reason is returned to the grandmother, who Reason’s mother has warned her is an evil person who believes in magic. In a more conventional novel, Reason would come to terms with her grandmother, and discover that magic isn’t evil and neither is the grandmother. This book, though, takes a darker, more complicated route, and is hugely entertaining because of it. Reason discovers that magic is real, but using and not using magic both have terrible consequences. As Reason struggles to learn more, she must determine who to trust, since most of what she’s been told all her life has been a lie. I raced through this book, and am eager to begin the sequel, Magic Lessons.

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

Friday, July 28th, 2006

#40 in my book challenge for the year, and #16 in my summer reading challenge, was The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo. Kate gave a reading last weekend, which prompted me to re-read her previous books before picking up her newest one. The Tale of Despereaux won the Newbery award, and it’s a sad, lovely story with beautiful pencil illustrations. Despereaux is a tiny but large-eared mouse, who is exiled from the mice because he won’t conform. He goes on to endure many difficulties as he struggles not only to survive, but to restore both soup and the princess to the kingdom. The book is not only sad, but frequently delves into disturbing portraits of perfidy (which the author exhorts the reader to look up) and evil. One character, Miggery Sow, endures so much that no happy ending can really redeem all that she has suffered. Throughout, the author addresses the reader in the same manner as Charlotte Bronte did in Jane Eyre. I felt this was a way to remind the reader that while dark things are happening, the reader is not alone in the darkness. The contrast of light and dark, and its reflections both in character and in events, is present throughout, as are reminders that this is a story. Despereaux is longer and more complex than DiCamillo’s previous books, Because of Winn Dixie and The Tiger Rising. I don’t think it’s as charming as the former, or as moving as the latter, but it is a compelling story, well told.

The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo

Friday, July 28th, 2006

#39 in my book challenge for the year, and #15 in my summer reading challenge, was The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo. Rob is a young boy whose mother has died, and who has trouble with bullies at school. After he finds a caged tiger in the woods, and befriends Sistine Bailey, he has to decide if his previous coping mechanisms can still work for him. There is a great deal of sadness in the book, for Rob and for other characters as well. Additionally, unlike DiCamillo’s Because of Winn Dixie, the book goes beyond sadness and portrays glimpses into evil–cruelty for its own sake–as well. This is a sad, but ultimately rewarding book, with good emotional insight into difficult circumstances.

Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

Wednesday, July 26th, 2006

#38 in my book challenge for the year, and #14 in my summer reading challenge, though it wasn’t on my list, was Because of Winn Dixie by Twin Cities author and transplanted southerner Kate DiCamillo. Kate read for a community event over the weekend from this book, and did an extended Q & A for her audience, mostly kids and their parents. Because of Winn Dixie bucks convention because its the story of a _girl_ and her dog. Like the Littmus Lozenges of the story, Because of Winn Dixie is a mix of elements both sweet and sad. It includes some tragic stuff, like an alcholic absentee mom and a drowned child. Yet the main character, India Opal Buloni, and the reader are able to bear these because the story and its cast of characters are so strongly woven and supportive.

Jane Eyre

Sunday, July 23rd, 2006

#37 in my book challenge for the year, and #13 in my book challenge for the summer, was Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. This was my second reading, and I felt again disappointed that I came to this book so late in life. I wish I would have grown up with it. I find it a fascinating book to compare and contrast with Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Both have social commentary, and charismatic, passionate couples. Yet where Austen focuses much on the comedy of manners and witty repartee, Bronte is crammed with literary references and a deeper exploration of emotions and sexuality. Jane Eyre was one of the first books written in part from the perspective of a child. Told in first person, with frequent addresses to the reader, it fits comfortably into the conventions of modern young-adult literature. It birthed the trope of the madwoman in the attic, deployed in modified form in DuMaurier’s Rebecca. I was reminded somewhat of the plot of Susan Howatch’s Glittering Images, a book (and consequent series) with interesting religion, but very problematic treatment of women. Additionally, I was put in mind of the myth of Adam’s first wife, Lilith, though neither of my editions mentioned this connection. I looked up Lilith on Wikipedia (see the section”Lilith as Adam’s first wife” about 2/3 of the way down). Lilith is also mentioned on the Bronteblog as part of a scholarly precis, which notes that Charlotte Bronte referred to Lilith in her later novel, Shirley.

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Thursday, July 13th, 2006

#36 in my book challenge for the year, and #12 in my summer reading challenge was Tam Lin by Pamela Dean. I started it once before, but had to put it down because some other book had to play through for a book group. Tam Lin is worth reading and I’m glad I did, but I think its problematic parts outweigh its praiseworthy ones.

What’s Good: This is an engaging girl’s college novel about Janet, the daughter of an English prof and an English major at Blackstock College, based on Minnesota’s Carleton College. My edition has a gorgeous cover, though the upcoming edition does not. The details of college life are well-drawn and frequently amusing. Janet’s insights into many and various works of English and classical literature are interesting, erudite, and might provoke me into expanding my reading list. Shakespeare fans especially will find much to savor. There are refreshingly realistic discussions of teen sexuality in several places that were not graphic. Also, the story of the campus ghost and the odd behavior of Classics majors and professors were intriguing, and kept me reading till the end to find out how the Tam Lin ballad would play out.

What’s Not So Good: This novel, at 468 pages, is about twice as long as it needs to be. Pacing and proportion are serious problems that negatively impacted the almost non-existent plot. Set from the fall of Janet’s first year to Halloween of her fourth, the book spends far too long on freshman year–sophomore year doesn’t start till page 318! The overlong descriptions and analyses of the plays Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and The Revenger’s Tragedy could have been cut with no deleterious effects. The latter especially, though it featured prominently in the story, was more annoying and unbelievable than not. Janet is the best-drawn character. While the others aren’t so flat to be two-dimensional, many don’t quite achieve a credible complexity. There are also rather too many significant looks and stifled comments since the reveal takes so long to arrive. While the threads of the Tam Lin story are spun from the beginning, they grow so thin from being drawn out that the end of the book is rushed, and most of the relevant, ballad-related action and information takes place in the last fifty pages. This made for a less than satisfying conclusion, and left me with many unanswered questions about this book’s take on the faerie folk and the humans who attend them.

The Finishing School by Muriel Spark

Wednesday, July 5th, 2006

#35 in my book challenge for the year, and #11 in my summer reading challenge was The Finishing School by Muriel Spark. Disappointing, and overlong even at just 180 some pages. I much preferred the other Spark books I’ve read. The Finishing School wasn’t quite funny or dark enough to be compelling. Instead, I found it boring.

I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier

Wednesday, July 5th, 2006

#34 in my book challenge for the year, and #10 in my summer reading challenge was I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier. One of the classics of the YA genre, this novel reminded me that really good YA should be a good read at any age. This was a great mystery novel, skillfully written. It had three main narrative threads: a story told in first person, present tense; transcripts of interviews from an unspecified time; and interspersed narratives to flesh out the interviews, told in third person past tense. These three weave together until they finally meet up (or do they?) at the end. The ending gives credit to the reader by leaving the interpretation open. My sister Sydney told me that when she read the book for a class in grade school, she’d called the phone number that’s listed toward the end of the book; it was Cormier’s own. She got to discuss the book and its ending with the author himself.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Wednesday, July 5th, 2006

#33 in my book challenge for the year, and #9 in my summer book challenge, was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, currently being discussed by the Slaves of Golconda at Metaxucafe. Like the other Spark novels I’ve read, The Driver’s Seat and The Abbess of Crewe, the story begins toward the end, loops back, then moves forward and back, until myriad facts accumulate that illuminate the entire story. It’s an impressive way to tell a story, and Spark once again does so flawlessly. The tale of a charismatic teacher and her select students, the novel is at times dark, funny, and poignant. Brodie is one of the more complex characters I’ve read.

The Prop by Pete Hautman

Wednesday, July 5th, 2006

#32 in my book challenge for the year, and #8 in my summer challenge, was The Prop by Pete Hautman. This is a rock solid mystery novel about poker. The plot, the characters, the setting, and the mystery all unfolded seamlessly. I attended a reading at which Hautman said he wrote the book to see if he could write from the point of view of a middle-aged woman. I found Peeky Kane not only believable, but utterly likeable. I stayed up way too late to finish it, and sleep is so precious of late that this is a high compliment.

The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark

Sunday, June 25th, 2006

#31 in my book challenge for the year, and #7 in my summer reading challenge was The Abbess of Crewe, a satire of Watergate. There will be an online discussion of Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and other works at the end of the month, at Metaxucafe.

Abbess is dated, both by its subject and the electronic equipment it references. Spark nevertheless makes her story timeless by setting the power struggle in the removed culture of an Abbey. It has snarky one liners, and a deluded Abbess who is so funny that she is hard to dislike, even as she runs roughshod over the rights of the rest of those poor nuns.

Such a scandal could never arise in the United States of America. They have a sense of proportion and they understand Human Nature over there; it’s the secret of their success. A realistic race, even if they do eat asparagus the wrong way.