Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Dark is Rising...

When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back;
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone;
Five will return, and one go alone.

I am finally ready to talk about The Dark is Rising.

Book 1: Over Sea, Under Stone

The most youthful in character of all the books, this is something of a romp through Cornwall with three meddlesome, determined children. It's enjoyable, and the sense of place, the way Cornwall is written, I felt as if I knew it intimately. Seeing pictures, like this one, affirmed what I suspected: Susan Cooper can write locations tremendously well. It looks just as I imagined.

The three Drew children are all quite believable, and I absolutely loved the sweetness and introspectiveness of the youngest, Barney. Not all of the characters are quite fleshed out enough, and the mysterious Great-Uncle Merry held my suspicion throughout the book. I was sure I knew who and what he was, and I was wrong. So, good and evil blurred a bit. And the ending was too convenient, too neat.

Book 2: The Dark is Rising

There is a reason this book has won awards. Nearly a complete departure from the previous book, it is different in tone and writing style. It follows Will Stanton, a boy turning 11, as he discovers that he is the last of the Old Ones. He is to fight against the Dark, destined to find and bring together items of power to enable the Light to win the battle.

What I loved about it is terribly hard to put into words. There is a real sense of nobility and wisdom in Will and the others of the Light. It is difficult to explain, but it is one of the main reasons these books captivated me. Something about having to face and overcome great challenges, and finding in oneself the latent ability to do it. Will's departure from his family, from his childhood, is striking and sympathetic, and his growth into an Old One is astonishing.

Book 3: Greenwitch

The Drew children return, on a short vacation to Cornwall. They meet up with Will Stanton, and since this story is primarily told from the perspective of the Drews, their unfavorable impression of Will, as they were unaware of his being an Old One, was quite funny. Of all of the books, this one was the hardest for me to visualize.

The events, particularly surrounding the Greenwitch itself, were so abstract and mystical that I could not picture most of it. My memory of it is confused. But the end, with the three Old Ones memorizing a very important series of phrases, carried that unnameable quality I tried (unsuccessfully) to describe above.

Book 4: The Grey King

This was the beginning of the end for me. The point of no return. This book secured my attachment to the series.

Set in Wales, so vividly portrayed that when I saw this picture of Craig yr Aderyn (Bird Rock), it was quite familiar. It even has sheep grazing below. You can practically see Cafall running through the field.

But the landscape was only part of the charm.

Will is recovering from an illness, and he is sent to his uncle in Wales to recover. There, he meets

You can do this, Jenn.

Yes. I'll explain that later.

He meets Bran Davies, a very unusual boy. He is an albino with golden eyes, a lonely and vulnerable boy who has suffered great losses. Bran is among my favorite fictional characters, ever. I have never felt so endeared to a character.

Whereas the second book was largely fantasy, so much of what happens here is rooted in human experience, it hardly seems like fantasy at all. Much of the book is about loss, unraveling secrets, and the nature of the Dark, how it may work through people without their knowledge. The pain and the struggles are vividly, achingly portrayed.

The Dyfi Valley

I want badly to learn Welsh and to visit Wales. I found out that Robert does, too, because of this book. I read it and listened to the audiobook as well just to see how well the words were formed in my head. From Tywyn to Llyn Mwyngil, I was too far off the mark to confess. I don't know why the Welsh even use the same letters if they aren't going to pronounce them the same way. It sounds absolutely lovely, though it looks on paper nothing like the way it sounds.

This book is also deservedly medaled.

Book 5: Silver on the Tree

The last and the hardest to read. It is the most complex, following the Drew children, Bran, and the Old Ones as they prepare for the final confrontation with the Dark. Again, some parts are so abstract that they're hard to visualize. But at its core it is a deeply human and lovely book, and that is ultimately what made it hard to read.

That picture is the Bearded Lake, where one of my favorite parts is set. Susan, the middle Drew, finds herself completing an arc begun in Greenwitch, meeting a fierce challenge by the end of it. Each character is individually confronted by the Dark, and each discovers something of themselves through it.

I'm going to skip to the end, because I'm impatient. I won't give anything away, though. I believe it's crucial not to know exactly what will happen.

What is revealed throughout this book is the nature of the Dark and the Light, and how humans fit into all of it. And at the end Bran makes a devastating choice. Not devastating because it's negative -- here is where I will fail in trying to explain -- but because it is right, so correct and good that it is actually painful. Impossible to describe. All of it, all of what happens in all five of the books, each quest and magic object and mystical location, every revelation and loss and betrayal and success, all of it culminates in, and is surpassed by, that moment.

After I finished it, I felt rent apart. I carried it for several days, and I could not think about the ending, about Bran or the Light without feeling the pain of it. I definitely could not talk about it.

I often use the word 'edifying' to describe books that tell something of what it means to be human and end up favorable on the balance, that pass on a recognition of the beauty and worth of people. This book is something more than that, and I can't say what it is. It transcends 'edifying.'

If it seems like I'm speaking excessively, it's because I'm hoping that what I lack in eloquence will somehow find expression through tautology. (Some things are easier to describe than others, I guess. There's a word like 'tautology' but not one that explains what I felt at the end of a book.)

I cannot think of any other work of fiction that has had such an impact on me. To say that I loved it is probably redundant at this point.

Ond rwy'n ei wneud, yr wyf yn eu caru ddwfn.

"The Maze Runner" Review

Book 6 of 20 for the Dystopian Challenge

A teenage boy wakes up in the middle of a giant maze. He has no memory of anything other than his name. The center of the maze is a walled respite called the Glade, and it is run by several other boys, none of whom can recall anything that happened before their own arrival. Some have lived there for as long as 2 years. Every night the walls to the Maze close, a defense against the scary half-machine, half-slug creatures that patrol the Maze at night.

It's a brilliant and creative setup.

The dystopian factor is that the enemy (apart from the slugs), being whoever created this environment and controls the Maze and sends supplies and one more kid every month into the Glade, is unknown. The rules are enigmatic. They're trying to escape, but they don't know what they're going to find at the end of the Maze if they ever manage to make their way out. What they know of their enemies is that they're sadistic, since only a pretty evil person or organization would subject kids to the horrors they live through in the Maze and the Glade.

Comparisons to the Hunger Games are inevitable. The Hunger Games with amnesia. And they're not supposed to kill one another, just survive from day to day.

I loved this book...until the last 10 pages. What is it with endings?? They must be quite difficult to write. It felt far too hasty and far too much happened to make it either believable or effective. Stuff happened, but it was rushed through. Nothing had enough time to sink in with any kind of impact, not like the first 360 pages, which were very well written. Environments and characters were beautifully and realistically described. The politics of the society the boys established were well depicted. If only all that had held true for the last few chapters, it would have been fantastic.

The first 36/37ths of the book were very compelling. Riveting, even. But there was a point where the action should have stopped and the falling action allowed to begin. Multiple crescendos followed by a sudden halt do not make a satisfying ending.
I have the feeling that if I do find a book with a decent ending, I will be shouting from the rooftops. Fingers crossed that it will happen.

The best library book ever

Angela found this little gem at the library:

Look at the title!

"You've been warned, Clawman..."

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"The Adoration of Jenna Fox" Review

Book 5 of 20 for the Dystopian Challenge

The very most frustrating thing about writing book reviews is not being able to talk about the ending except in vague enough terms that I won't spoil it. It nearly always renders what I say meaningless.

Well, first let me say that I'm not sure that this book really belongs in the dystopian genre, either. There are hints that the government at large doesn't handle the new technologies in quite the right way, nothing more. The major conflict is within a family, a maladjusted, rather scary family.

A girl wakes up from a coma with no memory of who she is. She was involved in some kind of accident that no one will talk about. Her family is behaving strangely. And the things she does remember, don't match what she is being told by her very protective parents.

I thought I knew where this book was headed. Several times I could see it play out in my mind, the next several plot twists. Each time, I was wrong. The author is far more imaginative than I am.

So many questions are raised about identity, about what constitutes a person. I wished for a deeper exploration of these things than the book allows, but the way it addressed the questions was very endearing, even if it was incomplete. I felt a measure of sympathy for every character, even the scary ones, by the end.

Ah, the end. How much will I allow myself to say? The end felt like the author was tired of writing and cobbled together some kind of reasonable conclusion. It was a bit unsatisfactory. I wish she had spent more time and care; I wasn't really ready to leave the characters that soon and with so many of my own questions unanswered.

But I could have lived with it, except for the tiny epilogue at the end.

The ghosts of all my disappointment about the epilogue at the end of Deathly Hallows were resurrected by those two and a quarter pages. I cannot fathom the decision to include those paragraphs at the end of this book. I suppose the author was intending for some kind of closure, but it was the wrong kind entirely. It skipped over too much and still left me with all of my questions. The epilogue should not have been published.

Unsatisfying, ultimately, but not a waste of time. And now I HAVE to read more books, just to get my fill of true dystopia.

Monday, February 22, 2010

"Life As We Knew It" Review

Book 4 of 20 for the Dystopian Challenge

If there is a better motivation for getting your food storage in order than this book, I don't know it.

Reading this book makes me grateful for the electricity that enables me to write this post. I am warm and have food in my cupboards and a way to communicate with the outside world.

Taking place in a world thrown into upheaval after a natural catastrophic event, it follows a teenage girl and her family and their struggles to survive. It's harrowing but compelling. If you had no electricity and no way to get food other than what you already had, how would you get through it?

The pacing was perfect. Beginning in a normal world full of schoolwork and petty high school problems, and then descending slowly into a pared-down closed-off survival world where priorities have been entirely changed, people are starving and dying, and yet the transition from the first to the final is as steady as if you were experiencing it yourself.

Given that the book is written as a series of journal entries, you are as close to the events and people as you can get without actually living through it. It is written in an entirely believable, realistic way. (Except perhaps for the ending, but that's not surprising coming from me, considering I loved "The Road.")

I'm excited to read the companion book, "The Dead and the Gone." But first I think I'm going to head upstairs and do some extra laundry...

* Also, I'm wondering how well this novel fits in with the dystopian genre. It's more atopian than dystopian, since there is no oppressive governing force, no government at all. But I'm likely to read more than the necessary 20 books for the challenge anyway, so I'm counting it regardless.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

I love deviations of THIS kind...

So, a post unrelated to books! I can't talk about books right now anyway.

From tonight:

Elizabeth, reading her fortune from a fortune cookie:
"'There are big changes ahead for you.' Aw, that's true all the time."

Conversation with Angela:
Me: "Thanks for helping me make dinner, honey."
Angela: "I'm made for helping! I'm like a maid, only I'm not old enough to be a maid yet."

And, while I was working on my Statistics homework, creating endless graphs and charts and finding all kinds of standard deviations, Elizabeth was quietly working on this:

It shows the order in which she ate some M&Ms, and...

...this shows the frequency of each color.

I had no idea what she was doing. It was completely independent on her part. (Note the legend!!)

I could tell you the standard deviation, but...I think I'll wait for Elizabeth to tell you herself. In a year, when she starts studying it.

Friday, February 19, 2010

"The Dark is Rising" Review (sort of)

You'll have to forgive me for this post. I'm a bit of a wreck.

I just finished reading The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper. There are five books in the series.

I was nearly done, only eight pages left, when I absolutely could not postpone picking up my daughter at school any longer. So I fetched her and we headed for the library. I finished the last eight pages in the library. I passed by a shelf, saw the books there, and picked up the final installment, and read through the last few pages.

It was not the right place for it. I need more time and space to mourn the end of this series. I wonder what the people who walked by thought of the woman standing in the "C" section, crying over the end of a book.

I fell hard for it, from the beginning.

The first book, "Over Sea, Under Stone," was alright, really. It was a fun, rather light read. And then the second came along, "The Dark is Rising," so different, so much stronger and more fascinating, and I was enthralled. It might be my favorite, either that one or the fourth, "The Grey King." I loved spending time with these characters. I loved reading about the battle between the Dark and the Light, the mysterious wisdom of the Old Ones, the shifting through time and the gorgeous, ethereal landscapes, and the rampant Welsh.

I can't say enough good about it. I loved these books.

And I found this:

A gorgeous, hardbound, autographed set of the books, for $69. Then I looked closer and saw that that's five payments of $69.

Robert frequently asks me what I would do if we suddenly win millions of dollars, and I usually don't have much to say.

Well, now I have.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"Gone" Review

Book 3 of 20 for the Dystopian Challenge

If it was a contest between cover art alone, this one would have won Worst Cover Design, hands down. When I was able to put it down, it was always with the cover obscured so I would not have to look at it.

Good and bad with this one. The ideas were very interesting. At the beginning of the book, all people age 15 and older disappear suddenly. Then the remaining children, all 14 and younger, discover that there's a barrier between their town and the rest of the world. And then very strange things start happening.

It's part "Lord of the Flies", part Heroes. Except that all of the main characters are 10-14 years old.

And they talk like they're 14. It gets a little annoying. I suppose it's true to the age, but it's clich├ęd and shallow. No one wants to remember being that age, do they? I certainly don't. To compound the horror of teenspeak, the story is set in a California beach town. Full of surfers. Gah.

I liked some of the themes explored here, the nature of good and evil, a bit of Cain and Abel, and the ways that lies and manipulation are well or poorly done. Integrity becomes an important part of the story by the end, and not all of the characters see the complete development of their arcs. At least one stands in need of some considerable redemption by the end, and he knows it, too.

The dystopian aspect was well explored. Plenty of room for things to go badly quickly in a world run by children. It becomes a different world, based on the one we know, and I thought the transition into the fantasy world was very well done. I kept thinking, though, would a 14-year-old really be this heroic? Do children have this degree of sophistication in them? I'm still unsure.

Being one of the very worst prognosticators in the world, I was a little dismayed that I correctly predicted several plot twists. It was alright, though. I was still curious about where the story was headed, what strange things were on the next page. And the author's creativity is boundless. By the end, though, so many things were unresolved, so many questions lingered.

I found out after I finished reading this monstrous book (just over 560 pages) that it's the first of six planned books. Six! The second is "Hunger" and the rest haven't been published yet. Right now, I'm undecided about continuing on in the series. I have the feeling that many of my questions won't be conveniently answered in Book 2.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"The Declaration" Review

Book 2 of 20 for the Dystopian Challenge

I finished this book a few days ago and I have been letting it settle in my mind, hoping my thoughts and feelings would sort themselves out.

They haven't. I'm still emotionally entangled with "The Declaration."

It begins in a society where the technology to prevent aging has been discovered -- 'longevity drugs.' The people no longer suffer from illness or die from old age. They realize they must control their population size, since the births of children who also will not die will quickly overpopulate the world, depleting resources and making everyone miserable. And so all members of the society must sign a declaration that, so long as they take longevity drugs, they will not reproduce.

Some people still do, illegally. And if they're caught, their children (called 'surpluses') are put in an institution that trains them to be servants to the legal, legitimate members of society. Surpluses cannot take longevity drugs and are taught to take up as little room, resources, etc., in the society as possible, and to hate their parents for their selfishness.

It's a lovely setup, isn't it? Well, it gets better from there. Our main character is a surplus named Anna who finds out that her parents are searching for her and want her back. Only Anna is thoroughly convinced that, as a surplus, she must learn her place and disassociate herself from anything wrong or illegal, as a penance for her existence.

The book is oppressive and creepy. It's solid. It shifts in point of view, revealing character motivations and actions that add a perfect amount of tension to the story. The depiction of this kind of future is fascinating, and the economies and emotional effects are very believably handled.

Happily, there's a sequel, which already won my affection for being titled "The Resistance." I can hardly wait to sit in this world with these characters a little longer.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

"The Forest of Hands and Teeth" Review

If zombies (the Unconsecrated, here) were rampant, separated from you and your isolated village by only a fence, what would life be like? Throw in a government mixed with religious fanaticism (a mysterious group called the Sisters) and a breach of the fence, and you have the basic plot of this book.

I am quite capable of suspending my disbelief. The terribly unlikely scenario did not bother me.

What bothered me were two elements of this YA book: the first was the writing, and the second was the ending.

Now, before I launch into the criticisms, let me say that there were things about it that I really enjoyed. The characters were generally well depicted. Some PG-13 parts were strikingly written (this is a PG blog, sorry; no further details). And the bleakness of the plot greatly appealed to me and my enjoyment of dark, dark stories. Be careful if you're easily disturbed, because there is rampant zombie violence.

The writing was uneven. Much of it was good, though in several places it slipped into melodrama or was clumsily executed. Dialog was often clunky.

And these thoughts kept recurring to me:
  • "Stop having the characters make declarations about their thoughts and feelings!"
  • "Show, don't tell!"
  • "Why does everyone sigh so much?"
  • "Show, don't tell!!!"
I wish I could go into detail about my complaints about the ending. My anti-spoiler resolve prevents me from saying too much about it, and it's frustrating. Let me just say that an author who sets up a situation should have the courage to see it through honestly. The story should play out logically, without convenient, magical shortcuts taken only because the author is feeling protective. You set up the stakes, and you should be true to those stakes.

I'll stop there. I'm tempted to say too much.

Also, it addresses the notion of selfishness, but unsatisfactorily. I don't think it was ever once used well, true to what I think is the definition of being selfish, and always as an accusation against the same character, who I don't believe acted selfishly. Those who used the word always did so unfairly. It happened often enough that it ended up being irritating.

Overall, though, I enjoyed it. It wasn't perfect, but it was a lot of fun. I even would recommend it to the right audience. It didn't give me nightmares, but it's been more than a day, and I'm still thinking about it.

As a part of the dystopian challenge, I think it qualifies, but only barely. The societal control was not the crucial part of the plot. I wish there was more exploration of, and defiance against, the governing bodies.

But in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, maybe there just wasn't enough room to address it...

Friday, February 12, 2010

My bookshelf

I was looking at all of the books stacked on my nightstand. I put them in one large pile and snapped a picture.

I am in the midst of reading each of these, even if I am only a few pages in:

Eleven books. Two dystopian. Six non-fiction. Two fantasy. One, um, unclassifiable.

It's an odd and entirely lovable collection.

Update: Finished The Forest of Hands and Teeth today. Now only ten books left!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

My book messenger

I've been thoroughly enjoying The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper. Some of the books have been less than simple to track down, and I did some fancy maneuvering to get a hold of the third book, Greenwitch. It took a little time.

It looked like I was facing the same problem with the fourth book. I was growing impatient.

Elizabeth was taking an armful of books back to her school library, and in passing, I said, "See if you can snag The Grey King by Susan Cooper."

Guess what she came home with?

What a dear! I honestly didn't expect her to remember...I only mentioned it briefly.

I've already started the book, and I love it. But I wish I was fluent in Welsh.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Dystopian Challenge

Ohh, this challenge is a dream come true. A reason to gather in all of the post-apocalypse, chaos, and social disorder fiction I have been intending to read...

To participate, you must read 5, 10, or, for the total disaster junkie, 20 titles fitting this category before August 24th. This contest is in anticipation of the third Hunger Games book. Click on the image for more details.

My list:

  1. Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
  2. In the Country of Last Things by Paul Aster (completed)
  3. Sea of Glass by Barry B. Longyear (completed)
  4. The Children of Men by P. D. James (completed)
  5. Blindness by Jose Saramago (completed)
  6. The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan (completed)
  7. The Maze Runner by James Dashner (completed)
  8. Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut (completed)
  9. Incarceron by Catherine Fisher (completed)
  10. Gone by Michael Grant (completed)
  11. Hunger by Michael Grant (completed)
  12. The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson (completed)
  13. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (completed)
  14. Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer (completed)
  15. The Dead and the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer (completed)
  16. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff (completed)
  17. The Dead-Tossed Waves by Carrie Ryan (completed)
  18. The Declaration by Gemma Malley (completed)
  19. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Philip K. Dick
  20. Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith (completed)
  21. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (completed)
  22. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (completed)
  23. The Resistance by Gemma Malley (completed)
  24. The Forever Formula by Frank Bonham (completed)
  25. The Iron Heel by Jack London
  26. Anthem by Ayn Rand (completed)
It is subject to change, based on availability of the titles. Also, several of these are parts of a series, and I may or may not read the next installment. The list may grow or change completely before I'm finished with it.

Any books I finish will be linked to their reviews through this list.

Bring it on!!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Pure Evil

An ad that popped up on my sidebar in Facebook this morning:

They're trying so many angles with this one. I don't even know where to begin.

It's a scam, though, right? It has to be a scam. They've just become very, very clever.

Don't click, Jenn.

Walk away.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Birthday party!!

A group of princesses:

Silly faces:



It finally broke, and the princesses swarmed:



More presents!

Uncertain about this Sacto Kings stuff:

Drumming on the basketball:

Happy Birthday, love!

Monday, February 1, 2010


Happy birthday, sweet Elizabeth!!

My new favorite book

I found this little treasure in a used book store:

Do you see the title? Your eyes are not deceiving you:

Here is a sample page:

*sigh* Love at first sight...