Review of His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik

his_majestys_dragonHis Majesty’s Dragon

by Naomi Novik

Read by Simon Vance

Books on Tape, Westminster, MD, 2007. 10 hours, 9 CDs.
Starred Review.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #5 Fiction

His Majesty’s Dragon reminds me of a Patrick O’Brian naval adventure story — with dragons!

Set in an alternate world where dragons are used for aerial combat, the book opens as Captain Will Lawrence discovers a ready-to-hatch dragon egg on the French ship he has just captured. He orders all the officers to draw straws to decide who will have to give up their life on the navy, harness the dragon, and switch to the lonely life of an aviator. They all know that the new aviator will henceforth have mainly the dragon for company.

However, the newly hatched dragon has his own plans and chooses Lawrence himself. Without having given it thought ahead of time, he names the dragon Temeraire, after a ship he once served on. Then he must leave the Navy to train with Temeraire for the expected imminent invasion by Napoleon’s forces.

The facts of dragon training are presented matter-of-factly, as we learn along with Lawrence how it’s done. It’s all taken as seriously as if these were sailing ships of the time, and you find yourself completely believing in this world and coming to understand the strategies of dragon combat.

As you might expect, despite his youth and inexperience, Temeraire and his captain are drawn into a great battle at the climax. It’s all exciting and fascinating.

I listened to this book on my way to work, and found myself quickly drawn in. Simon Vance presents the different voices so you can recognize who is speaking. I found life in His Majesty’s Aerial Corps to be so intriguing, I quickly forgot it had never really happened.

Yes, an aviator’s life is limited in human companionship, but Lawrence quickly finds that Temeraire’s companionship more than makes up for it.

This is a brilliant book, and I’m looking forward to listening to the rest of the series.

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Review of the Audiobook The King of Attolia, by Megan Whalen Turner

kingofattoliaThe King of Attolia

by Megan Whalen Turner

performed by Jeff Woodman

Recorded Books, 2006. 9 CDs, 10.5 hours.
Starred review.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: Wonderful Rereads

I’ve already raved about the three books about Eugenides by Megan Whalen Turner. As with The Thief and The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia gets better with each rereading.

In this case, I recently moved further from work, and have been listening to audiobooks on my commute. This is a wonderful way to force myself to savor The King of Attolia, as every other time I’ve read it, I wasn’t able to read it so slowly! I did find myself lingering in the car a few times, and was frustrated that my own copy of the book is in a box somewhere, so I couldn’t just read ahead.

Jeff Woodman does an excellent job reading, and you can easily follow the different characters.

I still don’t want to say much about the plot of any of these books. Megan Whalen Turner’s richly textured plots and subplots are what make these books better on every reading, as you notice details that escaped your attention the first time through.

The gods come into the story a little less obtrusively in this segment, urging Eugenides to face his destiny. The reader gets the sense that he will have an important role to play in political destinies of the entire continent.

I’ve started urging other adults to try this series. These books are among my all-time favorites, and go higher in my estimation with every rereading. Start with The Thief, and soon you’ll be eagerly waiting, like me, for a fourth book in the series. Don’t underestimate Eugenides!

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Review of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, by M. T. Anderson

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing
Traitor to the Nation
Volume I: The Pox Party

by M. T. Anderson
Read by Peter Francis James

Listening Library, 2007. Unabridged. 7 Compact Discs. 8 hours, 19 minutes.
National Book Award winner.
Starred Review.

I decided to listen to this book on CD so I would finally read it. I had given the book to my son the Christmas after it was first published and had been meaning to read it. Then the second volume recently did very well in School Library Journal’s Battle of the Books. So I decided to listen to the book on the way to work and back. (And now that I have a longer commute, this is a good way to get books “read.”)

Octavian Nothing is amazing in its scope. Beginning just before the start of the American Revolution, Octavian lives at the Novanglian College of Lucidity. His mother was once a princess in Africa, but now she and Octavian are the only inhabitants of the house who go by names instead of numbers.

Octavian is trained in music, science, philosophy, Latin, Greek, and French. But he comes to learn that this training is all part of an experiment — an experiment designed to show the mental capacities of people of African descent. He also learns that there are inconsistencies in the philosophy of men who are fighting for “freedom” while owning slaves.

This book is by no means cheery, light reading. But it is powerful and moving. M. T. Anderson beautifully writes the characters voices as they would have expressed themselves at that time. The narrator, Peter Francis James does a wonderful job of giving each character distinctive voices, so you can tell who is talking simply by listening. In Octavian’s mother’s voice, I heard someone regal and dignified. In Mr. Gitney, a precise scientist.

The story is truly astonishing. I will definitely be reading the next volume, and have only to decide whether to go with the print or audio version.

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Review of The Queen of Attolia audiobook, by Megan Whalen Turner


The Queen of Attolia

by Megan Whalen Turner

performed by Jeff Woodman

Recorded Books, 2007.  8 CDs.  9 hours.

Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: Wonderful Rereads

This is approximately the fourth time I’ve read The Queen of Attolia, and like the rest of the books in the series, I like it better every time.  With its beautifully orchestrated touch of romance, this is my favorite of Megan Whalen Turner’s books, and indeed one of my favorite books of all time.

Jeff Woodman does an excellent job of bringing the book to life.  The advantage to listening the book instead of reading it was that I was forced not to gobble the whole thing down in one night, and got to draw out the experience.  The disadvantage was that I was very unhappy to arrive at work each morning while I was listening to it.  Of course, this was the perfect audiobook to be listening to just after moving.  My new commute is quite a bit longer than I thought it was going to be — but because it gave me more time to spend with Eugenides, I was glad!

Megan Whalen Turner creates rich and complex characters.  This book more thoroughly explores the character and background of the Queen of Attolia, and we learn that her apparent ruthlessness has reasons behind it.  We find ourselves actually liking someone who seems capable of atrocities. — Is that not the work of a master author?

I also love the way Megan Whalen Turner explores the question of why God (only in the book it is gods she invented) allows bad things to happen.  Eugenides has a Job-like moment that gives Eugenides — and the reader — a perspective on how God transcends human comprehension, but also works for our good, even when we don’t understand.

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Review of The Thief audiobook, by Megan Whalen Turner


The Thief

by Megan Whalen Turner

Performed by Jeff Woodman

Recorded Books, 1997.  7 CDs, 7.25 hours.

Starred Review.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: Wonderful Rereads

(My library had this book on CD, but Amazon only lists the cassette version.  I recommend finding it from your library!)

This is now approximately the fifth time I’ve read The Thief, and I enjoy it more every time.  Listening to it on CD was a good excuse to review it again, since I’ve already reviewed the print version as an Old Favorite.

I remembered why the book was a little hard to read aloud — Gen is a bit whiny and sarcastic at the beginning, and it’s a challenge to keep it up in your voice.  Jeff Woodman rose to the challenge, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to it.

The Thief is a book where your perspective on everything changes toward the end of the book.  So it’s tremendous fun, on rereading, to see how the author planted all kinds of information all along the way, but you didn’t see any of it, because you were looking from a different viewpoint.

I really would like to see this fabulous book get checked out more often.  All year, I kept suggesting it as a selection for the Homeschoolers’ Book Club.  Well, May is our last meeting, so this time I didn’t suggest!  I simply informed them that we’d be reading The Thief.  The one who has already finished it was enthralled.  I will bring the two sequels, The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia to the meeting so they can check them out and read on.  Naturally, I am eagerly waiting to get a copy of The Queen of Attolia in audiobook form.  I definitely have to read the whole series again.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot, since I don’t want to give anything away.  Gen has boasted that he can steal anything, and it landed him in the king’s prison.  But now the king’s Magus has gotten him out of prison to take him on a mission to steal a long-lost, ancient treasure.

The book is set in a world very similar to ancient Greece, and along the journey the travelers tell tales of their world’s gods.  Technically, this book should probably be categorized as fantasy, but I put it under “historical,” because it gives such a feel of what it would have been like to live at that time, including political considerations.  No one does any magic, though they do encounter the work of the gods.

I have a hard time convincing people to read this book, because I don’t want to say too much.  So I end up simply raving about how clever the author is and how good the book is and begging you to try it!  I think with every rereading this book goes higher on my mental list of favorites.  Truly a magnificent book.

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Review of Bull Run, by Paul Fleischman


Bull Run

by Paul Fleischman

Various narrators

Recorded Books, 1995.  2 cassettes.  2 hours.

While I was toting carloads of my possessions to a new home just a few miles from Bull Run and Manassas Battlefield National Park, this book seemed an appropriate one to listen to.  Indeed, it was exceedingly strange to realize that these events happened only a few miles from where I was driving.

Paul Fleischman tells the story of the first battle of the Civil War by using monologues from all sorts of people somehow involved — some from the South, some from the North, men and women, white and black, young and old.  The Recorded Books version uses sixteen different narrators for the different characters who give their stories.

This book expressed so many aspects of the start of the war that I never thought about before.  All the points of view are so different.  Since it’s about war, naturally the story is not pleasant, but it is truly fascinating.

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Review of Miss Spitfire, by Sarah Miller


Miss Spitfire

Reaching Helen Keller

by Sarah Miller

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York, 2007.  208 pages.

Starred review.

Here’s the novelized story of Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher.  Sarah Miller does a magnificent job making us feel what it must have been like for a poor orphan to come miles to teach a spoiled, passionate blind and deaf child, who showed an ability for clever imitation, but didn’t show glimmers of understanding.

Annie taught Helen discipline, and then gave her the power of words.  But she might never have persevered if she hadn’t been a spitfire herself.

This book carries the reader into a compelling piece of history, and gives us a window into the mind of someone whose sheer stubbornness was responsible for a miracle.  But how amazing that she didn’t give up before that wonderful day came!

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Review of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows


The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Dial Press (Random House), New York, 2008.  278 pages.

Starred Review.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #1 Fiction

I heard about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society from library customers, and was completely delighted with it.

Initially, the book reminded me of 84 Charing Cross Road, since it was also a book of letters.  These letters, since fictional, had even more variety and spice.

Author Julia Ashton begins a correspondence with the people of the island of Guernsey (in the English Channel) when she receives a letter that begins like this:

Dear Miss Ashton,

My name is Dawsey Adams, and I live on my farm in St. Martin’s Parish on Guernsey.  I know of you because I have an old book that once belonged to you — the Selected Essays of Elia, by an author whose name in real life was Charles Lamb.  Your name and address were written inside the front cover.

I will speak plain — I love Charles Lamb.  My own book says Selected, so I wondered if that meant he had written other things to choose from?  These are the pieces I want to read, and though the Germans are gone now, there aren’t any bookshops left on Guernsey.

I want to ask a kindness of you.  Could you send me the name and address of a bookshop in London?  I would like to order more of Charles Lamb’s writings by post.  I would also like to ask if anyone has ever written his life story, and if they have, could a copy be found for me?  For all his bright and turning mind, I think Mr. Lamb must have had a great sadness in his life.

Charles Lamb made me laugh during the German Occupation, especially when he wrote about the roast pig.  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came into being because of a roast pig we had to keep secret from the German soldiers, so I feel a kinship to Mr. Lamb….

Who could resist answering such a letter?  Set shortly after World War II, as Julia inquires more about the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, she learns about their extraordinary lives during the German occupation of the island.  Since she was looking for a topic for her next book, she ends up visiting the island and the islanders quickly gain a place in her heart.

They will gain a place in the reader’s heart, too.

Yes, there are some awful stories from the war, but the overall tone of the book is uplifting, heartwarming, and delightful.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive — all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.

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Review of The Wednesday Wars, by Gary D. Schmidt


The Wednesday Wars

by Gary D. Schmidt

Review written February 23, 2008.
Clarion Books, New York, 2007.  264 pages.

Starred Review.

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2009: #2, Children’s Fiction

“Of all the kids in the seventh grade at Camillo Junior High, there was one kid that Mrs. Baker hated with heat whiter than the sun.


Holling Hoodhood knows that the teacher has it in for him because he’s the only kid in his class who doesn’t spend Wednesday afternoon either at Hebrew School or Catechism at the Catholic church.  Instead, Holling is stuck with Mrs. Baker, and Mrs. Baker is stuck with him.

This book reminds me of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  Both books look at the difficulties, dramas and dilemmas of student life with a large dose of humor.  Mind you, Holling’s difficulties are not as dire as those of Junior in the Absolutely True Diary.  However, he has some notable challenges, perhaps slightly on the bizarre side—involving rats, cream puffs, a fairy, baseballs, and William Shakespeare.

I love the scene where Holling meets the principal, because it sounds so true to what a principal would say:

I had to wait outside the door.  That was to make me nervous.
Mr. Guareschi’s long ambition had been to become dictator of a small country.  Danny Hupfer said that he had been waiting for the CIA to get rid of Fidel Castro and then send him down to Cuba, which Mr. Guareschi would then rename Guareschiland.  Meryl Lee said that he was probably holding out for something in Eastern Europe.  Maybe he was.  But while he waited for his promotion, he kept the job of principal at Camillo Junior High and tested out his dictator-of-a-small-country techniques on us.
He stayed sitting behind his desk in a chair a lot higher than mine when I was finally called in.
“Holling Hood,” he said.  His voice was high-pitched and a little bit shrill, like he had spent a lot of time standing on balconies screaming speeches through bad P.A. systems at the multitudes down below who feared him.
“Hoodhood,” I said.
“It says ‘Holling Hood’ on this form I’m holding.”
“It says ‘Holling Hoodhood’ on my birth certificate.”
Mr. Guareschi smiled his principal smile.  “Let’s not get off on the wrong foot here, Holling.  Forms are how we organize this school, and forms are never wrong, are they?”
That’s one of those dictator-of-a-small-country techniques at work, in case you missed it.
“Holling Hood,” I said.
“Thank you,” said Mr. Guareschi.

Set against the backdrop of the Sixties, this is an entertaining and touching story about being a kid and finding your way in life.

I like the way Mrs. Baker sums up Shakespeare:

“Shakespeare did not write for your ease of reading,” she said.
No kidding, I thought.
“He wrote to express something about what it means to be a human being in words more beautiful than had ever yet been written.”
“So in
Macbeth, when he wasn’t trying to find names that sound alike, what did he want to express in words more beautiful than had ever yet been written?”
Mrs. Baker looked at me for a long moment.  Then she went and sat back down at her desk.  “That we are made for more than power,” she said softly.  “That we are made for more than our desires.   That pride combined with stubbornness can be disaster.  And that compared with love, malice is a small and petty thing.”

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Review of The Handmaid and the Carpenter, by Elizabeth Berg


The Handmaid and the Carpenter

by Elizabeth Berg

Random House, New York, 2006.  153 pages.

I’ve been reading Christmas novels, so here’s a novel about the original Christmas.

There was a time when I couldn’t really enjoy novelizations of Bible stories — I would get upset over quibbles where they didn’t quite line it up with the Bible text, or the characters would not act as I had imagined them to act.  But perhaps I’ve outgrown that.  I’m quite sure this is not how I would imagine Mary and Joseph, but I did enjoy these characters.

What would it have been like to give birth to the Son of God?  And how would your betrothed react?  Elizabeth Berg does pull us into the story, in all its wonder, yet with a nod to the reality of dirty straw and a long journey and a village reacting to the story of an angel announcement.

This isn’t a dramatically in-depth novelization, but it gives you a taste of what that first Christmas might have been like.  Definitely good holiday reading.

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