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review 2014-12-10 23:50
Childish but entertaining
Archie Greene and the Magician's Secret ... Archie Greene and the Magician's Secret - D D Everest

***This review has also been posted on The Social Potato

Lately, I find myself being more and more drawn to middle grade books and I have this need to unearth all the jewels I can find. This book was one that I thought I would love. I was drawn in by the premise and was let down. What this book lacks is an execution of its premise that would blow the socks off of its readers. The premise is not the least bit lacking but the way things are built around it, those could definitely use a touch up so as to make this book the amazing thing it promises to be.

This problem is added to by the fact that this book reads like it’s aimed towards a younger audience. Some of the most obvious things to someone my age don’t seem to be obvious to Archie but I don’t know if it’s because kids in that age group are slower to make connections or if it’s just the author downsizing the book because kids are supposedly not so smart.

To me it felt like the latter. Which I don’t like. A book, no matter what age group it is aimed towards, should never feel like it’s undermining the reader’s intelligence. That’s the number one reason this book didn’t work for me. There were so many, ‘THIS IS SO OBVIOUS’ moments that just made me laugh at their obviousness and frustrated me when the characters couldn’t figure out what was going on.

Archie especially had a tendency to jump to conclusions. If this tendency were presented as a character fault instead of just something he did, I might have had a better time adjusting to it but he never seemed to realized that he had a tendency to jump to conclusions without thinking. He didn’t, in this case, learn from previous mistakes. So there wasn’t much development in his character. He was the same ‘special’ Archie he was at the beginning of the book but now he had cousins and family he was willing to be brave for.

That said, Archie was a good character. I admired his bravery, especially when he realized that being brave did not mean being fearless but rather being able to make decisions in spite of the fear. He is young and he seems to have all this responsibility thrown on him on top of the fact that he has just become aware of a whole other world. He takes this all in stride and attempts to adapt to the best of his ability. Sometimes the ease with which he adapts may seem a little far fetched but still, I cannot help but admire Archie. When he finds out that there have been secrets kept from him, he doesn’t go around demanding answers but instead seeks them himself. And he realizes when he is out of his depth and ASKS FOR HELP.

What also makes this book fun to read are the secondary characters. Old Zeb’s quirkiness never failed to put a smile to my face and I just adored how his cousins were so accepting of Archie. The relationship between the three was really fun to read about.

The best part of this book lies in the world building. I mean this is a book about people who take care of books. HOW COOL IS THAT? Throw in interesting concepts like the Great Library of Alexandria (!!!), magical books, and fantastical creatures and you have a book that could be a winner. In fact, this book would have been a winner for me if it weren’t so childish at times.

The plot also didn’t help matters. With all this awesomeness that could have been further developed, what happened instead was that everything happened in a rush. I tend to like it when my plots are well developed even if slow placed. The plot it in this book kind of just wooshed by you and you just stood there watching it fly past you wondering how you even got to this place. It's not that I didn't enjoy it, it's just that had it been slower, I would have been a much happier reader.

The thing about this book is that it would be a perfect read if you're not looking for something particularly detailed and fancy. Don't be fooled into thinking that this book is going to draw you into one of the best adventures of your life, it won't, but it'll keep you occupied for a while and you'll close the book with a smile on your face.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2014-05-01 02:23
Matched: A review
Matched - Ally Condie

Matched, first in the Matched trilogy by Ally Condie

 

In Cassia's world, everything you need is already decided for you by Society, in order to give you the safest, longest, healthiest, most peaceful life you can possibly have. No need for you to make any choices at all. Society will choose for you. Your mate, your job, your home, what art to view, what poems to read, what free time activities to participate in, what foods to eat, even what questions to ask, it's all taken care of for you. Any attempt to step outside of the boundaries placed on you (for your own good, of course) results in serious reprisals.

Sort of a grown up version of the classic children's novel, The Giver by Lois Lowry, this book asks many of the same questions.  At the start of the book, our heroine Cassia is a willing and happy participant in this Society. But as she gradually wakes up from her acceptance of this choice-less life, things get complicated. Are her parents truly happy? Does Society really know what is best for her? Why has she begun to develop feelings for a young man who is NOT going to be her mate in life?

Way better than a lot of what passes for YA fiction, largely due to two factors: realistically gradual paradigm shifts, and solidly strong writing. I love dystopian fiction in general because it allows us to ask hard questions: the one this book asks is an age-old one, well worth discussing late into the night over brandy or beers: Is safety and security worth giving up your freedom for? And if so, how much freedom, for how much security? It's the story of human history, the attempt to balance personal freedom against the common good. Sometimes we err on the side of freedom, sometimes we err on the side of order: but the balancing act goes on.

I appreciated the methodical (in the best sense, not in the sense of plodding) development of Cassia's very gradual intellectual awakening. From the start of the book to the end, she changes utterly, but none of it happens overnight. Often in YA fiction, the hero or heroine sees or hears one thing and suddenly their whole personality is altered, and EVERYTHING changes..... which irritates the bejezus out of me. People don't behave that way in real life.

This novel handles her transformation FAR more deftly and realistically. Cassia is given one piece of information, which causes her to question some things, but her behavior does NOT change, and her allegiance to her Society and its methods don't instantly crumble. She then learns another thing, and thinks of more questions, but again, continues to exist as she has before, while her internal monologue slowly alters. THIS is how things really usually happen, and the author captured that gradual life-shift so very very well. This is true both in the way Cassia views her Society and in the romantic love interest department.

Speaking of love interest, wouldn't it be wonderful to have just one popular YA novel WITHOUT a freaking love triangle? Sigh. That said, at least this one is not your normal absurd love triangle. There's Xander, the boy she grew up with and loves like a BFF, and with whom she is "Matched" by Society. Then there's Ky, the Aberrant boy who can never be matched with anyone, but with whom she gradually (there's that lovely word again) develops a relationship, which in turns gradually grows into a romance. The boys do not get into some ridiculous show down over who "gets" to get the girl, and she does not pit them against each other: in fact, she shows a tender concern for the feelings of both young men, and struggles to discern what she ought to do.  She shows honesty and she wants to treat them both as real human beings, with dignity and value, and she wants to be true. How can you not like that?

Several other things I liked very much about this book:
1. The forbidden poetry. In this dystopia, to "eliminate clutter", only 100 poems, "the very best", have been allowed to survive. (Also only 100 paintings and 100 pieces of music.... my heart is broken just pondering this) All copies of others have been destroyed... but Cassia accidentally finds a lost poem....and it tugs at her heart. Her relationship with Ky begins to grow around their sharing of forbidden poetry. The way that poetry in this world is literally a commodity, worth trading on an actual black market, delighted me. That said, I should reveal that I am a literature teacher, so of course I would find the idea of Dylan Thomas'  masterpiece "Do not go gentle into that good night" being more valuable than, say, gold, very very appealing.

2. Grandpa. I love the scenes with Grandpa before he dies. His way of saying more than he is saying. His refusal to play on Society's terms. I love the wayCassia remembers him after, and the effect he has on her choices.  I love the compact, with its beautiful secret. I love the way his memory drives her. I love his fieriness.

3. Subtlety. This book is rife with it. I know some reviewers have said that makes it slow or boring: I think it makes it delicious and far more fun to read than more obvious,  vulgar YA fiction that gives you all the secrets and answers right up front. You get hints here.... but not the full picture. As the book develops, it becomes clear that Society might not be as stable as they proclaim.... but you are not told that up front in chapter one, or in fact ever told it overtly anywhere. It comes in delicate bits of information, gleaned as you go. I deeply appreciate this more mature kind of writing. I can hardly wait to read the sequel.

4. Its lack of violence. I know, I know, some people found this book "boring". But I am relieved to find a dystopian fiction novel for youth that does not feature wholesale human slaughter. While I enjoyed the Hunger Games immensely and like the book Divergent, I was often distressed by the bloody mess going on almost constantly. This book is calmer, quieter, and in some ways made far  more sinister by the very lack of violence.

I liked Matched well enough that upon finishing it, I immediately went online and ordered the complete trilogy for my classroom. But I will read the sequels first.:>)

One complaint: the cover. I hate it. No boy in my classroom would be caught dead with a book with this cover on it.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2014-05-01 02:13
Ship Breaker: a review
Ship Breaker - Paolo Bacigalupi

Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi

 

Bacigalupi has written a complex, violent novel in a grimly plausible near-future, where our rape of the planet has altered not just the physical plane, but also the way we live. The coastlines are altered beyond recognition as the seas rise, and resources worldwide have failed. Massive destructive storms ("city killers") are now normal events. The gap between rich and poor is so enormous now that they hardly know about one another anymore. Our hero, Nailer, is a wiry youth living on the beaches of the southern coastline, on the fringes of becoming a member of a ruthless recycling gang. Day to day survival is iffy, and the chances of a better life to come are nearly zero. They live (barely) by stripping useable bits from wrecked oil tankers, sleeping at night in shanty huts on the sand, and noshing on roasted rats and bits of fruit.

I liked the first half of the novel better than the second. In the first half, we meet Nailer's "tribe": his fellow crew mates (who would all gladly kill him if it meant another meal for themselves), and his one friend Pima and her mother Sadna (my favorite person in the book), as well as his tormented and abusive father. I was intrigued with how well the author wrote about Nailer's attempts to sidetrack his vicious father (repeatedly described as feral: we need a synonym for that word) as he begins to get worked up into a kid-beating frenzy. It gave me some insight into abused children.

 

I was intrigued by the half-human "dog man"  character Tool, a genetically engineered bodyguard,  and would gladly read a whole book explaining where he came from and how he became what he is, which defies logic. And I want to know how Sadna managed to retain such humanity in the inhumane world in which she must live.

Bacigalupi is a talented writer, in places completely suspending my reality. When Nailer nearly dies by drowning alone in the dark in an oil tank, for instance, I was engulfed in fear. I also loved the scene in the city, when Nailer, seeing his father with some henchmen, hides under the floating sidewalk and follows them, trying to listen from beneath without being seen. I have actually experienced being hidden in the water, underneath people on a dock like that, low to the water, and I felt he really captured the experience.

I was frustrated by the "pretty" girl Nailer rescues, both because she is not well-fleshed out, even by the end of the novel, and because he had to make her pretty. Why pretty? Why not smart, or interesting, or even just exotic looking to Nailer? I was glad the romance between the two is kept to a minimum. I wish more details had emerged about (a) why so many people with means and money are so loyal to her, and (b) what her motivations are. Maybe in the sequel? I also wished there had been a bit less philosophizing by the young people. For example, just SHOW me that Nailer is beginning to develop compassion: don't tell me what he is thinking about whether or not he should show compassion.

On the whole I really liked the novel. His world building is detailed and wonderful. The fusion of religions, the harvesting of organs for profit, the lack of choices and mobility, the failure of resources, the bits of the old reality that survive (the name Lucky Strike, for instance, or the idea of calendar pictures hung on the wall, inspiring dreams) all rang true to me.

It's quite brutal to read: Nailer must kill several people, in one case by slashing a woman's throat as she lies sleeping, and (spoiler alert) he eventually must kill his own father. Several people die throughout the novel, others get maimed and cast away to be exiled and likely die, and suffer other horrors. Early on, for instance, we are told the tragic tale of a younger, smaller child who got lost in the bowels of the oil tankers while seeking cooper wire to scavenge, and he dies there, alone, his body eaten by rats. Such imagery makes this book for more suitable for older young adults, over 12 at least.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2014-05-01 02:06
"The Knife of Never Letting Go": a review, book one of Chaos Walking
The Knife of Never Letting Go - Patrick Ness

The Knife of Never Letting Go: Book one in the trilogy called Chaos Walking, by Patrick Ness.

 

Todd Hewitt, a teenager on the cusp of manhood, appears to live in a small town dominated by angry male religious nutcases. He's had an unusual upbringing, since all the women have died. All of them. In fact, he has never seen a woman at all. He's being raised by Ben and Cillian, life partners. And the men in town have all caught a germ that renders their thoughts-- all thoughts, all the time-- audible to others.

Now stop and think for a moment what your life would be life if every single thing you ever thought could be picked up by everyone around you, and vice versa. (Hence the title of the series, CHAOS WALKING.)

The constant barrage of thoughts is called The Noise, and learning to control your noise is problematic. Lying is of course virtually impossible. Yet everyone in his town is in fact lying to him. (I struggled a bit with how such a huge lie would be possible, but accepted it as part of the plot line.) As he and his faithful dog Manchee begin to discover, things in Prentisstown are not at all what they seem. The reader soon learns that Prentisstown is on an alien world, and was a colony-based settlement that has been cut off from all other settlements for decades now.

Why? What made them be cut off?  That question is central to the novel. What great and horrible secret are the men of Prentisstown hiding?

Todd discovers a new something in the swamp near the edge of town, a lack of noise, an empty silence, and sees his first ever female human person. Females apparently do not project their Noise like males do, Todd learns. But they do still HEAR the Noise of men. --- Now stop and think about THAT for a moment: men can hear all other men, and women can hear all men, but women get to keep their thoughts to themselves and choose what to share and say. Fascinating premise. Society would totally change, indeed.  Kudos to the author for this highly original premise.

In very short order, Todd and Manchee must flee Prentisstown, and the female (Viola) comes with them, literally running through the woods across this alien world to the next settlement, then the next, trying to find safety and answers. Todd is carrying a big ole knife from his father figure, and it is a large part of his story, hence the title of the novel. But they are being pursued. Relentlessly, in fact. Some of the long flight across the planet was dull, and some of it felt manipulative, but along the way facts are gained and things are --at least partially --explained.The ostacles they encountered felt realistic, as did the reactions of various townspeople to discovering "Prentisstowners" in their settlements. Todd begins to learn that whathe was raised to believe was mostly a lie, or at best a spin on the truth.

 

I found the book hard to put down, and filled with things to ponder. I liked Todd and wanted him to do well, wanted him to find what he was seeking and make good choices. Liking the hero/heroine is rather central to enjoying the story at hand. I liked Viola too but did not really connect with her in the first book.

I was broken-hearted at the choice Todd has to make in the river regarding Manchee, (Shades of "Where The Red Fern Grows", and "Old Yeller") and felt exploited by the return and then almost immediate disappearance of his mother-substitute, Ben. I was also irritated that The Book he carries did not get read along the way: Seems to me he would have been DYING to get it read.

However, I liked the way Todd was growing up: he is forced to make difficult choices when right and wrong are not so clear cut and clean. I liked the way the author avoided romance between Todd and Viola for the most part. No sex in this book, just a growing trust and friendship that may or may not blossom into more in book two. I personally really liked the vernacular way of speaking, though some reviewers found it annoying,  and the interesting font changes, especially early on when it represents The Noise. Todd has a great male voice/ presence. I did get quite sick of the word "effing" and wanted the kid to just go ahead and cuss already. Say the fucking word. Quit pretending not to cuss.

The novel appealed to me on many levels. It addresses some BIG questions, especially to those of us who grew up near repressive religious figures, controlling southern men who preach one thing and do another. Mayor Prentiss is a terrifyingly real figure to me. I knew men like him: I still do. But how do we respond to people like him without hurting others? Also the whole alien race question, which is brought up but not resolved in this first installment.  Who are the Spackle?  Not quite humanoid, but not terribly alien either, they seem to be sentient -- but since we cannot communicate with them, what DO we do? Leave the planet?  Force them off of it? Live side by side without communicating? What if they attack us first?

However, The book is pretty brutal and will sadly not be going into my 8th grade classroom, nor onto on my recommend-for-under-16-years-old list. LOTS of killing. People being slaughtered left and right.  Tough choices to be made by young people who should not yet be forced to make such terrible decisions. Manchee's final scene, where Todd makes the right choice but at a terrible cost. Repressive controlling authority figures who lie, cheat, steal, murder, and beat up children. A disturbing scene when Todd unnecessarily murders a Spackle, one of the alien natives. An entire town is wiped out and more are likely to be destroyed.  There's relentless violence. But, like The Hunger Games, the violence serves a purpose. 

By and large, I loved this novel and am eagerly devouring Book Two right now, The Ask and The Answer. This is book one of a series of three, and I am glad I did not find it until all three books were published, because (warning) book one ends on a HUGE cliffhanger that would have driven me nuts.

Looking forward to the rest of the series.

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review 2014-03-26 20:40
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children: a review
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children - Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

 

This novel is built around a collection of very strange vintage photographs.  Jacob, age 16, had an interesting Grandfather who filled his head with odd tales of monsters and powers, and showed him these remarkably creepy photos.  As a child, Jacob believed them to be true, but as he grows he begins to discount them. Then his grandfather is brutally murdered (this scene is pretty scary) by what appears to be a monster, and suddenly some of those tales don't seem so impossible anymore. Eventually he convinces his wealthy but largely distracted parents to take him go to Cairnholm island near Wales, where his grandfather was raised, to find answers.  What he finds there is in fact Miss Peregrine's Home for (Peculiar) Children. Still standing on an abandoned end of the barely-inhabited island.  Still filled with children.  In fact, the exact SAME children in his grandfather's photos from 60 years or more ago. And then we meet the monsters.

 

I do not think I am alone in stating that the photographs might be the best part of the book, and am intrigued by their very existence, from the dog-headed boy to the girl with the mouth on the back of her head.  However, some of the pictures are never used in the story (the clown twins?) and I am wondering why.  Perhaps a sequel?

 

Sadly, I am less thrilled with the story. The lead character, Jacob, is hard to like, and for me he seemed at times either way older than 16 or way younger.  His attitude towards his parents and psychiatrist -- and most adults, in fact-- are annoyingly self centered.  (Of course, he is a teen, and the adults in this book are pretty useless to him, but still.... this kid is a pain.)   I also did not feel he behaved consistently, and found it hard to believe that a boy that age would use the flowery language he does. 

 

Additionally, unanswered questions leave me feeling tricked: like why does the town keep experiencing the same day over and over?  How does the Loop work, exactly?  When did it start? Why don't the children act more like adults, given that most of them are well over 75?

 

I am also passionately violently uncomfortable with the romance, given the 80+ year age difference and the whole I loved your grandpa too thing.  Kinda creepy. That said, I DID enjoy the writing itself, and the very creative ideas, even if they were not all as fully developed as I would have liked, so I found this an easy to finish book. I hope the author keeps writing.  I would give the story a one star, and the writing a three point five:  I am settling for the midmark, a 2.

 

While advertised as a young teen / older children's book, I would not let anyone under 16 read this. While not really all that scary, it has some very adult things going on, including a deliberate killing.

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