Archive for January, 2008

Review of Enchantment, by Orson Scott Card

Friday, January 18th, 2008
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Enchantment
by Orson Scott Card

Reviewed January 10, 2008.
Del Rey Books (Random House), New York, 1999. 419 pages.
Starred Review.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2008: #1, Fantasy Fiction

I didn’t have to consider for a second how highly to rate this book. Enchantment was the best book I had read in a very long time.

What if Sleeping Beauty woke up today? Orson Scott Card gives a possible answer to that question. He weaves in Russian fairy tales, a Russian Jewish family coming to America, and ancient local gods of Russia. In the process, he crafts a beautiful love story which is at once thought-provoking, suspenseful, and utterly captivating.

The book opens when Ivan Smetski’s parents tell him that he is really a Jew named Itzak Shlomo. The time is right for the family to declare who they are and leave Russia. Before they leave, Ivan discovers a strange place in the woods. He thinks he sees the face of a beautiful woman, asleep, covered with leaves. Then something moves in the leaves near her and comes straight toward him. He runs in terror.

As an adult, Ivan goes back to Russia. He thinks that memory must have just been his vivid imagination. Nonetheless, he feels compelled to visit the place. When the monster moves in the leaves, this time he stands his ground.

The story that follows is as beautiful as the fairy tales it calls to mind, but gives us more details. He shows us that it’s not so easy to deal with a Princess when you’re only a common young man. He comes up against such formidable figures as Baba Yaga and the Bear god of Russia. I especially enjoy learning the reason why Baba Yaga has a house on chicken legs that can move around the country.

One reason I love this story is that I once tried to write a book based on the same idea—Sleeping Beauty waking up today. The idea seemed good, but the logistics bogged me down. How would she get papers to deal with the modern world? How would she cope with the sheer weight of all her family and friends being dead? How would she deal with modern life? How would she handle the language?

Orson Scott Card takes care of every obstacle I found and makes it look easy. Ivan is uniquely prepared to deal with a girl from old Russia. Like his father, he is a student of ancient Russian languages. Instead of treating this like a coincidence, we feel that Ivan was specially chosen for this task.

I won’t give away the other ways the author turns obstacles into features of the story. His love story is also wonderful. The two don’t like each other at first, but we can see their attitudes gradually changing, as each discovers the other’s true worth.

This is the sort of book I will want to read again every few years. A real treasure.

This review is posted on the main site at

www.sonderbooks.com/Fiction/enchantment.html

Review of The Magic and the Healing, by Nick O’Donohoe

Monday, January 14th, 2008

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The Magic and the Healing, by Nick O’Donohoe

Firebird, 2006.  First published in 1994.  324 pages.

Reviewed January 14, 2008.

BJ Vaughan is packing up her stuff, ready to leave vet school forever.  Her mother committed suicide before she could be overcome by the symptoms of a genetic disease she might have passed to BJ.  Unable to focus, BJ failed her small animal rotation, and figures she might as well call it quits.

Then Dr. Dobbs calls her into his office and asks her to work on a special rotation he’s supervising.  He shows her a horn.

She barely noticed; the horn had taken her over.  “A land animal.  Antelope have two like this, generally darker.  Goats have two, but they curve more in any of the goats I know–“

She had her first suspicion of what it was.  She shivered, and the shiver turned into cold certainty.  Of course.  She should have guessed it long ago.  It was obvious, except–

Except that there weren’t any.

BJ accepts Dr. Dobbs’ assignment and finds herself traveling with a group of veterinary students into Crossroads, a place between worlds, where impossible creatures exist and need their help.

Here’s a fantasy book with a twist of James Herriot.  There’s a dark side to this book, as someone has sinister plans for Crossroads, and the students get in the way.  You can’t help liking BJ and her companions– her consistent reaction is to help ease suffering, with no thought to her own safety.

This book has more of a feel of fantasy for adults, though it’s published by a Young Adult imprint.  This isn’t fairy tale fantasy, but a somewhat grittier look at what it would be like to practice veterinary medicine on creatures like griffins and werewolves.

An absorbing and intriguing story.

This review is posted on the main site at

http://www.sonderbooks.com/Teens/magic_and_the_healing.html

Review of Book of a Thousand Days, by Shannon Hale

Tuesday, January 8th, 2008
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Book of a Thousand Days
by Shannon Hale

Reviewed January 8, 2008.
Bloomsbury, New York, 2007. 306 pages.
Starred Review.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2008: #1, Teen Fiction

I picked up many Advanced Reading Copies of books at the ALA Conference last June, but the one I was by far the most excited about was Shannon Hale’s new book, Book of a Thousand Days.

Mucker maid Dashti lost everything when her mother died, so she went to the city to learn to be a lady’s maid. When she comes to the palace, the princess needs a maid–because her father is sealing her into a tower for a thousand days because she has refused to marry the powerful ruler of the neighboring land.

Dashti is willing to be shut up in the tower with the princess and food for a thousand days. But when rival suitors show up outside the tower, events don’t turn out as expected. Can Dashti help her lady survive?

In many ways, Book of a Thousand Days reminds me of The Goose Girl, the book that made me fall in love with Shannon’s writing. Both books are lovely retellings of Grimm fairy tales. Both are phenomenal–wonderfully romantic, with a touch of politics and intrigue. In both, the fantasy is done with a light touch.

Both books also involve a servant passing herself off as her Princess mistress. However, the two situations are complete opposites. In The Goose Girl, the lady-in-waiting usurps her mistress’s place. In Book of a Thousand Days, the humble servant only carries out the deception because of the orders of the fear-filled princess.

In both books, we see character growth that rings true, and beautifully blossoming love, along with the forming of deep friendships during adversity.

I’m afraid I’m starting to get skeptical about the romantic heroes in Shannon’s books. They are too wonderful! I’m starting to think they are a woman’s idea of the perfect man (They certainly fit my idea of the perfect man!), and a real living breathing man could never come close.

But so what?! The magic in the book is done with a light touch, so it doesn’t hurt a bit to add another element of fantasy!

This story is simple, and so beautifully told. Why does it strike me as one of the best books I’ve ever read? I don’t think I can put my finger on the external ingredients that make it so. All I know is that it touches my heart.

This review is posted on the main site at www.sonderbooks.com/Teens/book_of_a_thousand_days.html

 

Happy New Year!

Monday, January 7th, 2008

Happy 2008!  I’m starting off the year with a list of the books I most enjoyed in 2007, my list of 2008 Sonderbooks Stand-outs.

Since I spent 2007 studying for my Master’s in Library Science (and I finished it!), the reviews will take longer to post than this list. Don’t worry, they are on the way!

If only I didn’t read so many good books! As you can see, I have trouble narrowing down my choices. I do recommend every book on this list. They are books that stood out in my mind after a year of reading. For fun, I’ve listed them in the order I enjoyed them, which shouldn’t be construed as a ranking of their quality.

As always with the Stand-outs, I’ve categorized the books so so that I don’t have to make too many choices between wonderful but very different books. This year, I’ve added a category for audiobooks. Two of the audiobooks I listened to were the very best books I read in a previous year, so it didn’t seem fair to put them with the genre they are part of and have them top the list again. Instead, I ranked them according to my experience enjoying listening to them.

Happy Reading!

Review of I’m Proud of You, by Tim Madigan

Tuesday, January 1st, 2008
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I’m Proud of You 

My Friendship with Fred Rogers

by Tim Madigan

Reviewed June 18, 2007.
Gotham Books, New York, 2006. 196 pages.
Starred Review.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2007: #1, True Stories

What an amazing man Mr. Rogers was! This book tells how a newspaper interview led Tim Madigan to one of the deepest friendships of his life.

Mr. Rogers, famous to children for generations, is every bit as kind and loving a person as he appears on TV.  Tim Madigan says of him:

In my opinion, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood revealed only a fraction of his human greatness. Knowing him from television alone, it was tempting to see him as a man who might actually live in Neighborhood of Make-Believe. . . a person of epic goodness, no doubt, but also a man of innocence and naïveté, who, as a result, might be little acquainted with the grittier realities of life (though his program dealt unflinchingly with issues like divorce, death, and violence). . . . 

There was innocence about Fred in person, to be sure.  He could be quaint, such as when he referred to me as “my dear.” He was a vegetarian who would never eat “anything that had a mother.”  He wore a goofy-looking swimming cap and goggles for his daily morning swims.  He forever carried a camera, pulling it out with great delight to photograph people he had met for the first time.

But he was also a man fully of this world, deeply aware of and engaged in its difficulties, speaking often of death, disease, divorce, addiction, and cruelty and the agonies those things wrought on people he loved.  He worked very hard, a lifelong student of children and child development. . . .  An ordained Presbyterian minister, he devoured books by the great spiritual writers and was constantly preoccupied with spiritual questions himself.  He rose before six each morning to pray for dozens of people by name.  He was perhaps the most intelligent person I’ve ever known.

But in my mind, something else was at the heart of his greatness.  It was his unique capacity for relationship, what Esquire magazine writer Tom Junod once called “a fearlessness, an unashamed insistence on intimacy.”  That was true with almost every person he met, be it television’s Katie Couric or a New York City cabdriver; the Dalai Lama or the fellow handing out towels at the health club where Fred went to swim.  Fred wanted to know the truth of your life, the nature of your insides, and had room enough in his own spirit to embrace without judgment whatever that truth might be.

By the end of the book, the reader is also convinced.  Tim Madigan tells about some of the hardest years of his life, and how his friendship with Fred Rogers sustained him and his family through them.  His life was changed by being so freely and unconditionally loved, and reading this book has touched my life as well.

If you want to learn about a human example of unconditional love in action, I strongly recommend this book.

You can find this review on the main site at:

http://www.sonderbooks.com/Nonfiction/im_proud_of_you.html