Archive for September, 2009

Review of Four Seasons in Rome, by Anthony Doerr

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

four_seasons_in_romeFour Seasons in Rome

On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World

by Anthony Doerr

Scribner, New York, 2007. 210 pages.

Anthony Doerr won an award to come to Rome for a year to write. What a fabulous opportunity! The timing, however, was interesting — the fellowship began when his twin sons were six months old.

Four Seasons in Rome tells the story of that chaotic and amazing year when Anthony Doerr and his wife and infant sons got to live in the Eternal City. This wonderful book combines aspects of many types of memoir: the bemused blunderings and awe of a new parent, cross-cultural adventures and misadventures, musings about the writing process and the ways we avoid it, and the wonders of Rome.

I had an extra interest in the book, because the time our family visited Rome (our last family vacation as an intact family) was during the very year that Anthony Doerr was there — We were there after the Pope’s funeral, but before the next Pope was elected. So we saw a teeny tiny bit of what he mentions.

Here’s a little taste:

“Every few days there are moments of excruciating beauty. We are simultaneously more happy and more worn out than we have ever been in our lives. We communicate by grinning and pointing and waving food in the air. We don’t sleep as well as we used to. Our expectations (today I might take a shower; the #75 bus might actually show up) are routinely dashed. Just when we think we have a system (two naps a day; Shauna finds a rosticceria with chickens on spits that is open on Sundays), the system collapses. Just when we think we know our way around, we get lost. Just when we think we know what’s coming next, everything changes.”

It’s fun to vicariously share in Anthony Doerr’s experiences, not quite sure whether to envy him or to feel sorry for him — mostly glad I can enjoy it in nice comfortable book form.

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Review of Firebirds Soaring, edited by Sharyn November

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

firebirds_soaringFirebirds Soaring

An Anthology of Original Speculative Fiction

edited by Sharyn November

Firebird (Penguin), 2009. 568 pages.

Here’s another outstanding collection of stories by authors who are associated with the Firebird imprint. Looking at my review of the first anthology Sharyn November edited, Firebirds, I’m reminded that it was the collection that introduced me to Sherwood Smith’s writing, including Crown Duel, one of my all-time favorite books. I found that amusing, since my reaction to finishing Firebirds Soaring was to go on a Sherwood Smith spree, beginning with rereading Crown Duel and then several other Sherwood Smith books I have bought since then, but didn’t get read because they were not library books and didn’t have a due date. (There’s a similar problem with the second Firebirds anthology, Firebirds Rising. I liked Firebirds so much, I bought my own copy of Firebirds Rising as soon as it came out — and then didn’t get it read because it didn’t have a due date. I plan to remedy that soon!)

Yes, Firebirds Soaring had another Sherwood Smith story, which was what got me started on my Sherwood Smith spree. Another story I liked was the first story, “Kingmaker,” by Nancy Springer, about a girl who can tell when someone is lying and the fate of a kingdom. I’m afraid I especially liked it when I read the Author’s Note after the story:

“The story developed from a fortunate fusion of a daydream I’d been having ever since my divorce — a fantasy about magically knowing whether people are telling the truth or lying; gee, I wonder where that came from — and my long-time interest in legend and mythology, particularly Celtic.”

I hasten to add that the story resonates far beyond that germ of an idea.

Another story I enjoyed was the science fiction offering “Flatland,” by Kara Dalkey, where a young professional lives in a high-tech “cubio” owned by the corporation. Another favorite was “Egg Magic,” by Louise Marley, with magic showing up in the eggs of the grumpy chicken left to a girl by her mysterious mother. I liked the every-day-ness of that story, with the magic mixed in. Nina Kiriki Hoffman had a novella in the middle of the book, “The Ghosts of Strangers,” which was particularly good, with dragons and a girl who can see and talk with ghosts.

Elizabeth Wein’s story, “Something Worth Doing,” isn’t even fantasy (as her novels aren’t), but is a wonderful story about a girl taking her brother’s place and training as a pilot during World War II. Another one I particularly liked was “Three Twilight Tales,” by Jo Walton.

A few of the stories were on the dark side for my taste, but mostly I found this anthology a treat to dip into and enjoy. It’s also a great way to find new authors I’m sure to like. I will definitely have to look for more of these writers’ books.

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Review of When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

when_you_reach_meWhen You Reach Me

by Rebecca Stead

Wendy Lamb Books (Random House), 2009. 199 pages.
Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #1 Children’s Fantasy and Science Fiction

When You Reach Me is hard to categorize. Technically, you might call it Historical, since it is set in 1978 and 1979. But the focus is not the time period or issues of the time period, so I don’t think it really fits that category. There’s a touch of science fiction, a touch of mystery, and a touch of adventure. Mostly, I feel like this is a school story, a story of a sixth-grade girl who loses her best friend and must learn how to cope — while strange events are going on around her.

Also interesting, the day before I picked up this book, I read a chapter from Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose, on point of view. She talks about the rarity of good fiction written in the second person.

Francine Prose says,
“The truth is that marvelous fiction has been written in the second person, though in these cases, the ‘you’ is less likely to be the reader in general than someone in particular, an individual to whom the story (often metaphorically or imaginatively) is being addressed.”

In When You Reach Me, part of the puzzle is to whom exactly Miranda is telling her story. Who is the “you”?

She’s telling the story to someone, someone who has sent her mysterious letters that seem to be able to foretell the future. How did the letter writer know, for example, that Miranda’s Mom would appear on The 20,000 Pyramid on April 27?

They live in an apartment in New York City, and Miranda must walk past some alarming characters on her way home, but she has her friend Sal to walk with. Until the day that Sal got punched. That’s the day that Miranda thinks it all started.

I admit I can’t help but fall for a character who carries around Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time everywhere she goes. Miranda faces a lot in this book. Trouble with friends. Scary situations. A stressed-out mother. Things going missing.

Miranda comes through. She figures out how to be a better friend, navigates some tricky situations, and ultimately solves the mystery of the letters.

I like Miranda’s way of dealing with someone she’s afraid of:

“I have my own trick. If I’m afraid of someone on the street, I’ll turn to him (it’s always a boy) and say, ‘Excuse me, do you happen to know what time it is?’ This is my way of saying to the person, ‘I see you as a friend, and there is no need to hurt me or take my stuff. Also, I don’t even have a watch and I am probably not worth mugging.’

“So far, it’s worked like gangbusters, as Richard would say. And I’ve discovered that most people I’m afraid of are actually very friendly.”

This story is surprisingly simple for something with a complicated idea behind it. It will leave your mind spinning in a small, pleasant way, and your heart warmed.

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Review of Bubble Trouble, by Margaret Mahy and Polly Dunbar

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

bubble_troubleBubble Trouble

by Margaret Mahy

illustrated by Polly Dunbar

Clarion Books, New York, 2009. 37 pages.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #5 Picture Books

Here’s a silly story that’s simply good fun to read. It’s a mild tongue twister with a nice rhythm that makes a lovely read-aloud. In fact, the day after I first read it, I used the book as an opener for a baby program. I half-expected the babies to lose interest, since the words were mostly over their heads. However, the whole room — parents and babies — seemed to enjoy the book. The sounds of the words were enough for the babies, and the parents seemed to enjoy it, too. I’m going to use it again this week in a storytime for preschoolers.

The story is simple. Mabel blows a bubble, and her baby brother gets trapped inside and floats away. Various people with melodious names and activities see the bubble and follow, to the dramatic conclusion.

This book should not be read silently!

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Review of A Stranger to Command, by Sherwood Smith

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

stranger_to_commandA Stranger to Command

by Sherwood Smith

YA Angst (Norilana Books), 2008. 476 pages.
Starred Review

Recently, when I was feeling sick and without much energy, I decided to indulge myself by rereading Crown Duel, by Sherwood Smith. I didn’t realize it would blow the entire afternoon, since I wouldn’t be able to stop until I finished. In this case, knowing what is going to happen makes the story even more compelling as we watch the main character figuring things out and notice the hints the author placed along the way.

A Stranger to Command is the prequel to Crown Duel, but even though it describes events that take place before those in Crown Duel, you should NOT read the prequel until you have read Crown Duel. In the prequel, we learn how the love interest got so awesome. But since half the fun of Crown Duel is figuring out who the love interest is, if you have not read Crown Duel, please STOP reading this review and go place it on hold at your library or order it from Amazon!

I’m not sure if I would have liked A Stranger to Command so much if I hadn’t already loved Crown Duel, but as it was, it gives intriguing insights into court life under wicked king Galdran, and shows us how Vidanric learned to be so awesome. (I’ll call him that because that name doesn’t show up until much later in Crown Duel, so it’s not as bad a spoiler if someone disobeys me and reads this review without reading the first book.)

It turns out that Vidanric’s parents sent him to the academy at Marloven Hess to get him out of the way of the evil Galdran — the same school that Inda went to in the book Inda, though it sounds like that was hundreds of years earlier. The king of Marloven Hess is Senrid, so the next book I will be reading is Sherwood Smith’s Senrid, to find out more about him. She definitely needs to write a book about what takes place after Vidanric is king, since in this book he establishes a friendship with King Senric.

In fact, this book is where Vidanric absorbs the idea of being a king some day. He learns how to fight, he learns about strategy, and he learns to command. He also learns about love, and we can see how his painful first experience would make him particularly drawn to Meliara’s charms.

I’ve long thought that in all of her books, Sherwood Smith seems to have an excellent and almost overwhelming grasp of the politics of kingdoms. I don’t know too much about it myself, but she completely convinces me that the way she describes the politics is entirely realistic. In Crown Duel, Vidanric shows Meliara that she hadn’t considered the practicalities of her revolution, but in A Stranger to Command, we see how he himself first begins to consider political realities of ruling.

My one quibble with the book is that Vidanric leaves Marloven Hess very abruptly, as they are being attacked — and we never learn how that is resolved or how his friends fare. (She definitely needs to write another book!) In fact, I decided I had to read Crown Duel yet again to see if she had put in any information about their fate. Little did I realize that only a week after my last rereading it, the book would still captivate me enough to lose another entire afternoon because I couldn’t bring myself to stop! Of course, I suspect I may just be a sucker for books where a sinister tall handsome stranger carries off the heroine on a horse and it takes her the whole book to realize how awesome he is and that she loves him and he loves her back. Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword can also be described that way, and it’s another of my absolute favorite books.

Even though A Stranger to Command did not have the romance of Crown Duel, it pulled me back into that world, intrigued me, and let me enjoy the process of a future leader learning to command.

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Review of Project Sweet Life, by Brent Hartinger

Tuesday, September 1st, 2009

project_sweet_lifeProject Sweet Life

by Brent Hartinger

HarperTeen (HarperCollins), 2009. 282 pages.
Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #2 Other Teen Fiction

I first heard about Project Sweet Life after a girl patron at Herndon Fortnightly Library won the monthly prize drawing in Kay Cassidy’s Great Scavenger Hunt Contest. For registering the winner’s entries, the library won a choice of five books, and as soon as I read the description of this book, I not only chose it for the library, I also bought a copy to give to my son for his fifteenth birthday, which is in the middle of the summer. It seemed completely appropriate.

Dave and his two friends Victor and Curtis believe that the summer you are fifteen should be the year when a summer job is optional. “You can get one if you really want one, but it isn’t required. And I really, really didn’t want one.”

He explains his philosophy:

“I certainly understand that some people, even some fifteen-year-olds, need to work. They’re saving for college, or they have to help pay bills around the house. For them, a summer job at fifteen isn’t optional. But my dad makes a good living as a land surveyor. He wears silk ties! And my mom is stay-at-home. We aren’t poor.

“The adults won’t tell you this, but I absolutely knew it in my bones to be true: Once you take that first summer job, once you start working, you’re then expected to keep working. For the rest of your life! Once you start, you can’t stop, ever — not until you retire or you die.

“Sure, I knew I’d have to take a job next summer. But now, I had two uninterrupted months of absolute freedom ahead of me — two summer months of living life completely on my own terms. I knew they were probably my last two months of freedom for the next fifty years.”

Unfortunately, Dave’s dad has been discussing the situation with his own friends, the fathers of Victor and Curtis. On the first night of summer vacation, all three dads inform their sons that there will be no more allowance, and they need to get a summer job.

When the three friends meet that night after dinner, they discuss the situation and the incredible unfairness of it all. That’s when, together, they come up with the scheme for Project Sweet Life: Instead of slaving away at a minimum wage job all summer, they will fake the job, find a quicker way to make the same amount of money, and then loaf off all summer.

Brent Hartinger does a wonderful job showing us their schemes, which actually work — and then inevitably have bad luck snatch all the money out of their grasp. It adds up to a hilarious coming-of-age friends-forever adventure that is tremendous fun to read.

I got a piece of writing advice long ago that I have seen work many times: Never let your characters solve their problems by coincidence, or no one will believe it. Instead, have your characters get into trouble because of coincidence, and everyone will think how true to life that is.

In the case of this book, it seemed slightly unlikely that their schemes would work out so well, but then when bad luck snatched the profits from their grasp, it suddenly seemed true to life and also very funny. I think the unlikelihood of their success in the first place made their downfall that much funnier, though we definitely felt sorry for them. As the summer wears on and their bank balance gets lower, their plans get more and more desperate.

For the record, my now fifteen-year-old son did not have a job this summer. But I’m not worried that this book will give him the wrong idea. Although the book does not hold up the boys’ behavior as a good example, and does show that their choice ended up in more work than a job would have, it also has some great things to say about friendship and doing what’s right.

This book had me laughing out loud as I read it, and even as I’m writing the review, I can’t stop smiling. Most of all, it’s simply tremendous fun.

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