Monday, September 17, 2012

Educate Emma: Books: Inkheart by Cornelia Funke

Dust Jacket Description:

"One cruel night, Meggie's father reads aloud from Inkheart, an an evil ruler named Capricorn escapes the boundaries of the book, landing in their living room. Suddenly, Meggie's in the middle of the kind of adventure she thought only took place in fairy tales. Somehow she must master the magic that has conjured up this nightmare. Can she change the course of the story that has changed her life forever?"

Characters: I adored Meggie's strong personality. She was determined to do whatever she could to save her father and the people around her, and I loved that. She's clever and fiery, which are two traits I love in my MG fiction. Her relationship with Mo, her father, was loving and imaginative. Elinor, Meggie's mother's aunt, even grew on me after she realized the importance of things besides books. Capricorn was properly evil and callus, while Basta was the perfect sidekick for the antagonist. I felt sorry for Dustfinger, one of Inkheart's characters, through out the majority of the book, but there were times where I was incredibly angry with his lack of empathy towards Mo and Meggie.

The cast of characters is not unusual, but they're pitch perfect renditions of the archetypes we're well acquainted with. They never feel boring or tired, because they transcend their lack of originality with realism. 5 flowers. 

Writing: This is a brilliant translation, because the prose feels so thoughtful and creative. There's something about Funke's writing style that makes it seem like it belongs in a children's classic. The way it describes feelings and scenery is perfect for the genre and tone. I have no problems with it. 5 flowers.

Plot: While the book is fairly big, it's perfectly paced. The plot is logical and compelling, and information is introduced at the right times. My only qualm is one key part of the story logic, which I hesitate to believe. It felt far too convenient after the knowledge established hundreds of pages before. It's also fairly predictable, but I didn't find that to be a big detriment to the story. 4 flowers.

End: Everyone says the sequels aren't as good, but I'm very excited to read more. 4 and a half flowers.

Dust Jacket Description: It's engaging and accurate, except for how it screws up the timeline of the book. I'd make it clear that Capricorn was summoned when Meggie was a child, or rewrite it to suit the time period where Meggie learns about Inkheart. 4 flowers.

Cover: I love this cover, but I'm a little confused by the dark hand. It makes one think that Capricorn is the person who is emerging from the cover, but Capricorn is white. Why the decision to give a darker skin pigment to the antagonist? Seems strange to me. 3 and a half flowers.

Overall: Sure, it's not a new story, but it's one of the best of its kind. A well crafted children's story that rings true with emotion. Recommend this to anyone you know who likes good children's fantasy. 4 and a half flowers. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Educate Emma: Books: The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

Dust Jacket Description:

"Stunned by his mother's recent death and appalled by the way his father sleepwalks through life, Jerry Renault, a New England high school student, ponders the poster in his locker-Do I dare disturb the universe?
Part of his universe is Archie Costello, leader of a secret school society-the Vigils-and master of intimidation.  Archie himself is intimidated by a cool, ambitious teacher into having the Vigils spearhead the annual fund-raising event-a chocolate sale.  When Jerry refuses to be bullied into selling chocolates, he becomes a hero, but his defiance is a threat to Archie, the Vigils, and the school.  In the inevitable showdown, Archie's skill at intimidation turns Jerry from hero to outcast, to victim, leaving him alone and terribly vulnerable."

Characters: I'd heard of The Chocolate War in passing a couple of times, and when I saw it at a library sale, I figured it was time to read it. The book's character were a bit of a hit and miss for me. The main focuses of Archie and Jerry were brilliantly crafted. Jerry's sadness and defiance were justified in equal measures, and he just felt incredibly realistic. I loved how Cormier played with Archie as a villain, and made the point that not all horrible people are punished for their deeds. Both were multi-layered and interesting. Other characters fell short. I thought a lot more could have been done with Obie and Brother Leon never truly became sinister to me. While I understand that the book was published in the seventies, the cliched use of Janza as the gay bully-monster made me roll my eyes.  I also was a little peeved by the depiction of girls in the novel. It may be set in a boys-only school, but I found it bizarre for a whole novel to be devoid of any important female characters, or at least, any female character with a voice.  3 and a half flowers.

Writing: The voice of this novel seems very teenage-boy, and in a way that we don't see often in current YA. Male protagonists in current YA are most often depicted as awkward, overly intellectual and generally inept at social situations. I can't say that a few of the boys in The Chocolate War are any different, but the varied ensemble of characters gave a more diverse spectrum of male personalities. I liked that. 4 and a half flowers. 

Plot: With such a great build-up of tension, I was a little disappointed by the bizarre nature of the third act. If there had been more hints to the resolution, I could have handled its realism, but it just felt like awkward without any clues beforehand. Besides that, I did enjoy the politics of the Vigils and the conflict between the school officials and the boys. 3 flowers.

End: I loved how the book circled back to the beginning, and how Cormier insists on being honest about how our society works. It's a difficult ending to deal with, and that's why it's thought provoking. 5 flowers.

Dust Jacket Description: It's a great set-up, but it needs one more paragraph to actually hook in readers. The last component just makes it sound like we've already been told how it ends. 3 and a half flowers.

Overall: After reading The Candy Darlings, it was interesting to see the male side of the teen bullying phenomena. It has a strong voice and interesting thesis, but the jarring climax, lack of female characters and depiction of gay people made this book feel off to me. However, don't just take my word for it, because the book does have great writing and main characters. It may suit you better. 3 and a half flowers. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Educate Emma: Books: The Candy Darlings by Christine Walde

Dust Jacket Description:

"The candy became an obsession between two outcasts—one who only wanted to fit in, the other who knew she never would.
Urban legends, rumors, lies, myths, mysteries, fairy tales. Stories, in all their magical forms, bound them together. 

"Satin Chocolate Covered Chicken Bones,” Astro Pop,” Fun Dip,” "Thrills.” 
 The candy stories—outrageous, twisted, hysterical— were an escape from a harsh reality and revealed a startling truth.

Darkly lyrical, sensual, suspenseful, and disturbing, The Candy Darlings is a celebration of friendship, story, and the power of each to help you define yourself—or simply survive."

Characters:  Megan is your typical, fiery manic pixie dream girl of a best friend. She's nothing unusual. Neither is the unnamed protagonist. The characters are quite realistic in The Candy Darlings, but they're not particularly multi-faceted. Of course, the real strong point of the book is its premise and writing style, so I found the characters to be forgivable. There's nothing new or memorable about the personalities in The Candy Darlings, but this might be the only time I can say that it was okay with me. 3 flowers. 

Writing: Within the first few pages of the novel, I was stunned by how gorgeous Walde's prose is. It's so lush and detailed, and the use of candy is highly original. Her dialogue reflects the most accurate portrayal of female bullying I've seen in YA literature. The writing is high quality, and it helps add more depth to the basic plot. The Candy Darlings is worth reading for the writing style alone. 5 flowers. 

Plot: The mystery of Megan's history is kind of original, but the rest of the book has familiar elements. The resolution to the climax also feels a bit rushed and inaccurate. However, I can forgive this a bit, just because of how brilliant the candy premise is for writing and characterization. 3 and a half flowers. 

End: One component of the ending made the book fall into the trope category. The other component was kind of unsatisfying, but realistic for the exact same reason it's unsatisfying. So, I'm unsure about this one. 4 flowers. 

Dust Jacket Description: I would have talked about the relevance of candy to both the protagonist and Megan's lives and interwoven the two. Mostly because I didn't find the candy stories all that engaging. Ultimately, the dust jacket description is intriguing, but too vague to capture my full interest. 3 and a half flowers. 

Overall: The Candy Darlings has fantastic writing and a decent world, but the prose is only thing that makes it stand out from the rest. I'll warn that it has mature language and events in it, but anyone over 14 has probably been acquainted with similar brutality. If you like great prose and can handle generic plots, try this one. 3 and a half flowers. 


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Educate Emma: Books: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

Dust Jacket Description:

"In the summer of 1953, two eleven-year-old boys—best friends—are playing in a Little League baseball game in Gravesend, New Hampshire. One of the boys hits a foul ball that kills the other boy’s mother. The boy who hits the ball doesn’t believe in accidents; Owen Meany believes he is God’s instrument. What happens to Owen, after that 1953 foul ball, is extraordinary and terrifying."

Characters: Owen Meany is quite the character, and that's an understatement. From his unflinching approach to faith to the way he calls people on their crap, Owen is one of the most memorable characters I've seen in a long time. His perspective on God and sacrifice leads to his martyrdom, but despite this fact, he's certainly not lacking personality. Sometimes, the amount of personality he has makes him seem insufferable and obnoxious. Owen is unconventionally likable - he isn't always someone you route for, but you acknowledge that he represents all the potential good humanity can do. He's fascinating to watch, even though he remains a static character through out the piece.

John Wheelwright, Owen's best friend and the narrator of the story, is an interesting choice for the story's point of view. John is your average, boring kid, but the way his history plays out through flashbacks and flash forwards shows that extent that Owen affected him. And John is the character easiest to relate to - he acknowledges the strange nature of the events that occurred in the past, and he's neutral in personality. It's through his eyes that readers get to see how intertwined he and Owen are.

As for side characters, each one is memorable and contributes to the experiences of the two boys. Everything is convincing - whether it be dully or remarkably real in nature. 5 flowers.

Writing: I've heard both my mother and Libba Bray rave about John Irving, which gave me high expectations. I'll have to read more of his work in the near future, because the way he crafts stories is engrossing. Structurally, the novel can be a bit confusing, but it's important to the tricky narrative of the book. Owen Meany took me a few weeks to read, but I want more of his winding writing style and tone. 4 and a half flowers.

Plot: The entire book, I was waiting in dread for this big climax to define Owen's life and explain all the later experiences John had. It's a small seed that continues to grow as Irving slowly builds the world surrounding Owen Meany. By the time the ending hits, it's rather spectacular. 4 and a half flowers. 

End: It proves the whole point of the novel, but it was still shocking in some way. I really love all the points Irving addresses regarding sacrifice, childhood, and religion. 5 flowers. 

Dust Jacket Description: Super vague, and maybe not enough to pull in a reader. But, I think it works without seeming too trope-infested. 3 and a half flowers. 

Cover: Relevant to the story and incredibly appropriate. 5 flowers. 

Overall: A really interesting argument for religion and a great character study, I plan on reading Irving very soon. 5 flowers.


Top Ten Books That Make Me Think

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish

 I love thought-provoking books. Some people decide a book is great from their inability to put it down. I know I'm reading a favourite book when every chapter forces me to stop and think hard about what I'm reading. This made choosing my favourites both very easy and very difficult.

10. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

I'll be honest with you: Mockingjay is my least favourite book in The Hunger Games trilogy, and quite possibly the most disappointing book I've ever read. But the one thing Mockingjay did right was its discussion the trauma and aftermath of war. The real, honest portrayal of Katniss' world after revolution showed the true scars of battle. After Harry Potter's cheery epilogue and Twilight's non-existent climax, Collins gets points for focusing on how violence permanently alters people.

                       9. Coming of Age on Zoloft by Katherine Sharpe

 Coming of Age made me stop and think about how much I relate to the mentally ill narrative, and how much it's a part of our society. It forced me to see how I equate negative feelings with being depressed, ill, or wrong. That paradigm isn't discussed on a regular basis, and learning more about it was fascinating for me.

8. Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Like Mockingjay, Little Brother focused on revolution. Unlike Mockingjay, I left Little Brother empowered, inspired and restless. It made me ponder over what the dominant culture, narrative and authority really are in North America, and how we can change it.

                                                                                                                                                                       7. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Reading Lolita required me to see the humanity in villains - the underlying and universal struggles Humbert Humbert faces are what make the book disturbing, not his pedophilia or manipulative nature. It also had a lot of interesting themes regarding enigmas, projecting personalities onto children, and timing.

 6.  Life of Pi by Yann Martel

I read this one earlier this year, and I loved how it shaped my perspective of religion and survival. The way the entire moral shifts in the third act was also spectacular. I can't recommend this one enough.

5. A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

Mattie Gokey is the only character who is at all close to Gemma Doyle in my book. But she didn't just speak to my emotions. She also made me think about sacrifice and personal freedom in a complex way. She's a character that would make me so confused and angry that I'd have to step away from the book every chapter. I read A Northern Light three years ago, but even now, I can go back to my internal debate about responsibility vs. opportunity.

4. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Dorian Gray is such a strange Victorian trip of a book, and I love it for that reason. It has some radically different ideas about hedonism and youth that were fun to watch play out. And Wilde's prose is really the cherry on top.

3. Going Bovine by Libba Bray

If there's one book that's challenged my perception of reality and its importance, it's Going Bovine. Not to mention how it talks about death, cults, and art. It's a bizarre experience of a book, but it's very thought-provoking in its craziness.

2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
One of the best commentaries on the American Dream, and recreating the people around us to fit our own needs, The Great Gatsby is quite the masterpiece. I love everything about this novel. It's not an overrated classic by any means.

                                             1. The Sweet Far Thing by Libba Bray

It's no surprise, but the last book of The Gemma Doyle Trilogy challenges me every time I read it. How it tackles sexuality, relationships, coming of age, heroism, responsibility, power, war and religion make me think hard every time I reread it.

What books have challenged you intellectually?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Educate Emma: Books: Forget-Her-Nots by Amy Brecount White

Dust Jacket Description:

"When someone leaves three mystery flowers outside her dorm door, Laurel thinks that maybe the Avondale School isn’t so awful after all — until her own body starts to freak out.  In the middle of her English presentation on the Victorian Language of Flowers, strange words pop into her head, and her body seems to tingle and hum.  Impulsively, Laurel gives the love bouquet she made to demonstrate the language to her spinster English teacher.  When that teacher unexpectedly and immediately finds romance, Laurel suspects that something — something magical — is up. With her new friend, Kate, she sets out to discover the origins and breadth of her powers by experimenting on herself and others.  But she can’t seem to find any living experts in the field of flower powers to guide her.  And her bouquets don’t always do her bidding, especially when it comes to her own crush, Justin.  Rumors about Laurel and her flowers fly across campus, and she’s soon besieged by requests from girls — both friends and enemies — who want their lives magically transformed — just in time for prom.

Characters: I tried really hard to like Laurel. She has a cool talent and a great history, but she's just not a likable character. She wants to use her powers to be special rather than to do good. There's nothing about her personality that's endearing or admirable. If she was written differently, I think I would have had a significantly more favorable opinion of the novel, but Laurel is simply unlikable.

The other characters, such as Katie and Laurel's cousin, are great. But they don't do enough to make up for Laurel's characterization. Laurel's borderline-creepy obsession with Justin didn't help matters either, especially since she only interacted with him once before starting to think about him excessively.  3 flowers. 

Writing: White writes about scenery and flowers in a beautiful and vivid way, even if it feels cheesy sometimes. The dialogue was awkward sometimes, but for the majority of the time, it felt age appropriate. 3 and a half flowers. 

Plot: The concept of this book is very original, and it had a lot of great Victorian roots. However, Laurel's character was just too off-putting for me to truly appreciate all the premise had to offer. Pacing was great, but the story logic was lacking on several occasions. Alongside the whiny main character, it was difficult to fall in love with the new magical world. 3 and a half flowers. 

End: A sweet and happy ending. 4 flowers. 

Dust Jacket Description: I still don't buy the "words pop into her head" business, and there are an excessive amount of dashes. It sums up the story within a hook, but I'd argue that it gives too much away. 2 and a half flowers. 

Cover: I love the pretty simplicity of this cover. I don't think it fits the audience it's trying to appeal to, though. 4 flowers. 

Overall: A great premise, but the main character thoroughly ruined my enjoyment of it. If you love flowers and original concepts, this one might be worth reading. Before you pick it up, though, make sure you view it as more of a MG than a YA. 3 flowers. 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Educate Emma: Books: Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell

Dust Jacket Description:

"Beautiful sixteen-year-old Elaine has a temperament as fiery as her long red hair. The daughter of a solider in young Arthur's army, Elaine is the sole girl in militaristic world of men. Often slipping into daydreams, she wishes that the handsome Lancelot would see her more than a tomboy. Then a new girl arrives, and Elaine is thrilled-until Gwynivere proves to be cold and cruel. But when Elaine and Gwynivere are thrown into a situation of gravest danger, the girls must band together in order to survive. Can Elaine find the strength to fight for the kingdom she has always believed in? Acclaimed author Lisa Ann Sandell brings a haunting lyricism and epic sweep to this tale of love, betrayal, and war. Heartbreaking, eloquent, and gripping, this novel is a striking addition to the canon of Camelot mythology."

Characters: I've had this book on my shelf for the past four years, and I've never gotten around to reading it. I fell in love with Arthurian legend once I read the Magic Tree House books as Tiny!Emma, but I've never read the canon or any of the feminist revisions to the original. I'm glad I read Song of the Sparrow, because it's definitely a good place to start to learn more about the world of King Arthur.

I learned about Lady of Shalot from A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, and have been intrigued by the character ever since. Meeting Elaine was both exciting and disappointing because of my fascination with the classic Tennyson poem. Elaine is a powerful, well-rounded heroine who is respected by her male peers, and seeing her character reclaimed was wonderful. However, without the tragedy of Lady of Shalot, it felt like there was a vital part of the story missing. 

Despite my own bias, I really liked Elaine's character and the evolution of her relationship with Gwynivere. The dynamic between Elaine and the men of her camp was wonderful to see, and I loved the formation of both Arthur's and Lancelot's personalities. Elaine starts as a strong but insecure girl and ends as a strong and wise woman. That progression was delightful to see. 4 flowers. 

Writing: I was a bit skeptical of the verse at the beginning of the novel. It felt like an excuse to be lyrical and vague rather than the best narrative for Elaine's story. However, once I became absorbed in the book, verse became a vital part of seeing the world. 5 flowers. 

Plot: I loved how Elaine's decisions showed her true character, and how she progressed as a person over the events of the story. The real meat of the plot appears late in the story, but the ethereal prose and strong characterization made up for a lack of action. 4 flowers. 

End: I found it to be a little too cheerful, but again, I wanted the Lady of Shalot version of Elaine through out the whole story. Elaine changed so much in such a short period of time, and the conclusion proves that. 4 flowers. 

Overall: If you have a 11 - 15 year old girl in your life with a love for King Arthur, this is a fun and empowering book for her to read. It's a clever and brighter spin on the world of Camelot. 4 flowers - but it's 4 and a half if you ignore my desire for a murkier ending. 


Saturday, September 8, 2012

Educate Emma: Books: Going Underground by Susan Vaught

Dust Jacket Description:

"Meet Del.
He’s a good guy.
He has a great parrot.
He has a decent (okay, weird) job, a lot of dreams–and absolutely no future at all. At seventeen, he’s a felon without many options, and he’s almost okay with it. Almost. Until he meets Livia and wants much, much more of what life has to offer. Del must face his past and his fears to move forward, even though a sea of complications threatens to bring the world crashing down around him again."

Characters: If I have any excuse to hate a protagonist, I usually will. So I don't often get along with main characters who angst about how horrible they are, even when they haven't done anything wrong. Their false insecurities grate on my nerves and make me want to throw the book across the room. However, Del made me like and relate to him. He felt real, and his concerns about who he was as a person were valid. I wanted him to come out of his adolescence with hope and a future. With a story like Going Underground, it was very important for readers to pull for Del, and Vaught manages it well. It didn't hurt that he also had Beth Hart in one of his music playlists, whose album Screaming for My Supper is one of those pieces of music that defined my childhood. She's so unknown that it made me squee when I saw her name in the novel.

My only real complaint about characterization came in the form of Livia. She felt like a manic pixie dream girl within the story, and I wished that she could have become more fully formed over the course of the novel. If she gotten a bit more page time, I think she could been a memorable personality. 4 flowers. 

Writing: Del's voice was natural, and the way Vaught explained social expectations really demonstrated the sad bitterness that Del had after his conviction. 4 and a half flowers. 

Plot: I'm so surprised that I haven't seen more YA books cover this teenage problem. I applaud Vaught for seizing hold of an important subject. As for the pacing, I've seen it in contemporary novels quite frequently - slow, self involving pace and then BAM, the climax jolts the reader into remembering all the story's risks. When I have no emotional investment in the book, this pacing reminds me of bad indie movies. But again, Going Underground pulled it off, although I'm a little confused about why the trigger moment occurred in the first place.  4 flowers. 

End: I really love the hopeful-yet-real tone of the ending. What can I say, I'm a sucker for the underdog. 5 flowers. 

Dust Jacket Description: They don't go into any detail about Del's job digging graves, which doesn't make much sense in conjunction with the cover. I preferred the description on the back of my advanced reader's copy. 3 flowers.

Cover: It captures the tone of the book and possesses enough story details for me to be happy with it. The feet still bug me, though. 4 flowers. 

Overall:  A formulaic, but quality contemporary YA novel that covers a very relevant topic. It's definitely worth a read. 4 flowers.