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review SPOILER ALERT! 2015-11-18 04:13
Book Review: The Naming, first book of Pellinor, by Alison Croggon
The Naming - Alison Croggon

How did I not notice this novel until now? Shame on me! Go buy it, all of you! Go now and get the whole set! I'm in process of getting the rest of them into my hot little hands.

 

The book opens with a marvelous "Note on the text", explaining that these folk tales from the Annaren society have not ever been translated into English before. The legends of the Edil-Amarandh people are therefore being here presented for the first time by the author. This intro lends a bit of historicity to the book. It is of course utterly fictional, but still, a delightful device.

 

Maerad, our heroine, is a lowly slave in her mid-teens, living in a pretty depressing mountain stronghold at the beginning of the book. She's considered a bit of a witch, and has only a few memories of her mother to console her in her lonely life. An accidental encounter in a barn changes everything: or was it accidental at all? Escaping her life of sorrow and drudgery with a strange man named Cadvan puts her on a road filled with danger and surprises, but also many delights.

 

They must first escape the evil that holds her in her mountainous prison. Along the way, Cadvan begins to suspect there is far more to Maerad than even she knows. He is a Bard, a musician and teacher. All Bards in the land of Annar are teachers of some kind, or makers, of everything from music and writing to swordplay and carpentry. The Barding schools, scattered across the country, have traditionally been places of learning, hope, and service.... but a darkness is spreading through the land, and Cadvan is out to find out where it comes from. As he begins to know more about Maered, he begins to suspect that she is of an ancient and important line, and may in fact be the Foretold, who will save the world from being engulfed in evil.  The two must travel across the land (well, not all of it yet, but I suspect that will come in the other books) to get assistance in getting Maerad instated as a Bard and to find out what is causing the growing Darkness.

 

SO much to like here.  The author is a gifted writer who bothers to craft marvelous sentences and meaningful dialogue.  The battle of Light against Darkness, obviously,  The stunning poetry of the lyrics. Vast and sweeping in scale like Tolkien (it even has an awesome hand drawn map at the front, so cool!,) I found it easier to read overall. There's considerable backstory added at the end, an explanation of the "Ages" of Annar. The charmingly imperfect female lead character of Maerad is easy to love, and she visibly grows in her maturity, self-knowledge, and confidence as the book progresses, and her slightly mysterious but likable male guide, Cadvan, has a back story that is only just getting revealed as the first novel ends. The good guys are complex, not flat, and just like in real life, often disagree about thing and even aggravate one another--  but they are connected and they know it, simply because they all love the good. The bad guys are not written as flat characters either.  In some cases, they even  appear to be good: "demons appearing as angels of light", if you are Scriptural. But the evil they do is centered on selfishness, and the darkness that grows from that is threatening the entire land.

 

I was utterly charmed by the beautiful lyrics to the songs in this book, and am dying to hear them sung aloud. (I had the same feeling about the songs from Anne McCaffrey's glorious Pern series, and finally managed to get my hands on a CD called MasterHarper of Pern.) If anyone knows whether or not the songs from this series have been scored and/or recorded, I would be eternally grateful.

 

I loved this. LOVED it. Read it in two days flat. Have already ordered the rest of the series. Ms. Croggon avoids cliches and heavy-handed foreshadowing, and (rare for me) I did not often know ahead of time what was going to happen. The bit with Hem was a great twist to the story and I hope we get to find out what develops with him as the series progresses. The characterizations are so wonderful, I feel like I know some of the people in this book as real persons.

 

Regarding this book for children: I highly recommend it. The book contains no sex and the only romance present is shown between married couples, with the exception of one poignant kiss for Maerad. Scary monsters/ evil creatures like weyrs and wights, do appear, and there are several instances which refer to bad guys doing terrible things to innocent people, especially towards the end as Maerad's memories return. But I would say, nothing a 6th grader (say age 11?) cannot handle, especially if they have already read anything by Tolkien, or The Hunger Games.

 

Put it in every school library and push it at your children. Make them listen to the audio CD in the car. This is a great book for young adults ... and for us regular ones, too.

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review 2015-03-28 21:04
Strikers, by Ann Christy
Strikers - Ann Christy

Book review for Strikers, by Ann Christy

What a joyous find, when I discovered this author quite accidentally via a free Kindle book. Ann Christy is a recently retired Naval officer and this book of her has me hunting down the rest of her work avidly. Strikers is the best kind of dystopian novel: strong central character, interesting ethical dilemmas, hints but not giveaways about the nature of the world and its collapse, thoughtful details, NO LOVE TRIANGLE (Thank you Ms. Christy for that), and an ending that, while satisfying, leaves me ready for book two. It is both a novel exploring the right role of government, a journey tale, and a coming of age story, all wrapped together.

Karras, 16, is our heroine, who lives alone with her abusive alcoholic mother, in a small Texas town in the Republic of Texas. Her father disappeared years ago across the border. The United States is apparently long gone, and several nations are now spread across the continent. They do not apparently get along very well at all. The state of things beyond the boundaries of the nation is reported to be quite terrible: but is that true? The event(s) leading to this state of affairs are not discussed in this first novel, but I wonder if they will come further in. Within Texas, society is pretty orderly, and the law is quite clear and firm: you are allowed four 'strikes" or crimes, and for each you are given a stripe tattoo on the neck, or a "strike". Earn five, and you are labeled a "habitual criminal" and executed, with alarming efficiency. Karras has two strikes already, for destruction of a neighbor's property (even though it was accidental). In Texas you have total freedom: but you also have to take total responsibility for all actions.

When Karras and her friend Connor attend the mandatory "parade of prisoners" in town, they make two startling discoveries: first they discover that Conner's brother, Maddix, who ran off a few years before to cross the border into the Wildlands, has been captured and returned, and will surely be killed for his crime of leaving. But they also discover that one of the other prisoners is Karras' father. He too is certain to be marked for execution: and Karras and Connor quickly decide they have to take action to rescue them. Things go badly: a clean get away becomes impossible.

Thus begins a headlong flight out of Texas, along with her friend Cassi, who is blessed with natural physical beauty and a cheerful, kind heart, and an old acquaintance, Jovan, who despite his wealth and family's elevated position turns out to have his own reasons for wanting out of Texas. Unfortunately, Jovan's father does not wish to let him go. The group is pursued with relentless intent by evil henchmen who were hired by Jovan's father, to return him, at all costs. As they travel, they must find food, shelter, and water, and learn the different cultural norms in each area they approach, but they also have to avoid the bad men chasing them.

There are so many things I appreciated about this novel. First off, strong female character who does not fall apart or cry all the freaking time, and does not need or pursue a romance. Second, relatedly, NO LOVE TRIANGLE. This is a HUGE plus for me, as it seems all dystopian novels lately must have this absurd gimmick, and she avoids it entirely, thank you Ms. Christy!! Third, realistic world: we are never really told entirely what happened to lead to the separation of the states into competing and often hostile nations with tightly closed borders, but hints are given, and the regional differences have, over time, developed into cultures that are different and have different concerns and priorities. Karras thinks Texas has the best of all things, but she begins to discover that perhaps what she has been told about life outside Texas is just propaganda after all. The reader gets to learn about things as the characters learn about things: slowly, bit by bit. I very much enjoyed watching Karras and her friends encounter and struggle to understand new things, like squirrels and the Gulf of Mexico.

I also got a real kick out of figuring out the map as she travels. Names have changed and some towns are gone while others remain, such as Houston. As a North Texan, I really enjoyed this: Wicha, for example, is surely Wichita Falls. Benton is most likely Denton. The sunken city of Nola must be New Orleans, and its plight a hint at what may have occurred to change he world so drastically. The Mighty Miss, clearly, is the Mississippi River, and so on.

The novels asks some pretty serious questions: What is freedom worth? Is total order and peace possible, and if so, what is the price we pay for that? Where should the balance between social order and personal liberty be drawn? In Karras' hometown, things are orderly, but not really fair: yet the people have agreed to live this way and now it has become institutionalized. Some families hold the vast majority of water and land: the rest make do. Wealthier families are far less likely to earn a strike for the same exact action that would earn a poor family a strike. This is known and simply accepted, with some frustration but no real sense that it can be changed. On the way they encounter places with a different set of balances.

There is romance in the book, but it is handled so softly that I will have no trouble putting this novel into my 8th grade classroom.  (basically two kisses, and a clear sense of attraction between two characters.) I am EAGER for the sequels to be released and in the meantime and buying other Ann Christy novels to read. I finished this one in two days.

Recommended.

 

 

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review 2015-03-09 00:48
Book Review: Naughts and Crosses, by Malorie Blackman

Book Review: Naughts and Crosses, by Malorie Blackman

 

Powerful and thought provoking book about prejudice. I found it disconcerting -- in the best possible way.

 

"Crosses" rule the country and are the only ones holding jobs in government and other higher-up well-educated careers, both economically and status-wise. Sephy, our heroine, is a Cross, and her father is powerfully high up.  Her mother, however, is a pretty miserable soul. Their money and social status cannot make her happy. (Lesson there!) 

Her love interest, Callum, is a Naught.  Romance between a Naught and a Cross is utterly unthinkable and unacceptable to everyone.  Naughts are not permitted higher education, but Callum really wants it: and suffers greatly when he gets a chance to go to school.  A few "Naughts" have gotten educated, but at great personal cost -- and with little to show for it, as Crosses simply won't hire them for jobs requiring educationed skills. Callum's family is struggling, both financially and emotionally, from the opening scene in the novel, despite being hard working and fairly loving individuals.  His sister is.... well, mentally unstable as a result of an "incident" which is never really fully revealed, but implications are clear.  His parents are exhausted, grief stricken, and worried.  His brother is just pissed off.  

 

For the first third or so of the book, it is unclear to the reader what exactly separates the Naughts from the Crosses.....and when you discover it, you will be startled and hopefully uncomfortable.  The book raises some powerful questions. For example, what if we are prejudiced and we do not even know it or see it in ourselves?   How do you change the mind of a prejudiced person? And a burning issue: what are the ethical limits of revolt when you are being grossly oppressed?  Is militant violence acceptable?  Necessary?  Even noble and understandable? 

 

As both Sephy and Callum wrestle with this situation, the tension seeps into their own relationship. Things become messay and complicated, just like in real life, and they struggle to discern what is the right thing to do in the face of rising violence and opposition to their relationship. 

 

This may be the best novel for youth on racism that I have ever read. 

Not appropriate for younger students, say beneath high school age,  as there is considerable adult drunkenness, some very nasty racially motivated bullying, a handful of kidnappings and beatings, one instance of premarital sex and an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. But a powerful read for older students, say 15 and up,  or those concerned with racism and other social justice issues.

Kudos to the author,  I look forward to reading her other novels. 

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review 2015-03-09 00:30
Book Review: Shamer's Daughter, by Lene Kaaberbol
The Shamer's Daughter - Lene Kaaberbøl

Book Review:  Shamer's Daughter, by Lene Kaaberbol

How did this book get past me when it was first published? The premise is described in the trailer for the novel: Dina is the daughter of the Village Shamer, a woman who can read the truth in people through looking at their eyes, and the daughter has inherited the gift herself, though at the beginning of the novel it sure does not FEEL like a gift to her.

This book has many things I liked: a realistic setting (medieval-ish, and maybe somewhere rather like northern England or Scotland in, say, the 1100s or so?) and a likable heroine who is NOT perfect. Then there's mystery, and people striving for power, and real dragons who are nasty and relentlessly awful, and a hero boy (Nico) who is also likable and flawed and who (for once) does NOT save the day for the girl. A little politics, some nasty fighting, a close-to-dying experience or two, and a bit of female friendship, and this book has everything a middle school kid, (male or female) might want.

Loved that this did not end on a rosey happy syrupy sweet note. Was amazed to find that this was originally written in Danish, and translated into English: nicely done! It flows beautifully. Note to parents: there are a handful of words that some might find offensive, such as slut and whore. They are used by nasty people behaving in mean ways, and are clearly not encouraged to be used by the readers. But they are in there. Also, the villain is a true sociopath and his mother, Lady Death, creeped me out. But their motivation for what they do in the book is utterly realistic and believable.

I found the mother to be a character truly worth emulating: honest even when it may cost not only her own life but her child's as well, and truly not interested in what other people think of her. Dina begins to see this as the book progresses, and also finds that the burdonsome gift she has inherited might also be a blessing as well. The Widow Petri is much the same way: good to the core, and mature.

I'm just amazed I did not brush up against this series before now, as it was published in 2002. Looking forward to finding the sequels.

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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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