Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Review: The One and Only Ivan

I don't read many middle grade books, but when my coworker handed me a copy of The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate and showed me the first few pages, I fell in love. Specifically, these few lines grabbed me: "People call me the Freeway Gorilla. The Ape at Exit 8. The One and Only Ivan, Mighty Silverback. The names are mine, but they're not me. I am Ivan, just Ivan, only Ivan. Humans waste words. They toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot. Everyone knows the peels are the best part." I mean, how could you not love Ivan?!

The book is narrated by Ivan himself, and he describes the shopping mall (yes, shopping mall) where he lives and the other animals around him in just-awkward-enough English that you could believe these were the thoughts of our great ape cousin. His closest friends are Stella the elephant and Bob the dog. When a new elephant named Ruby shows up, he becomes very protective of her and wants to see the humans do right by her. From my adult perspective, the story was a bit contrived (even though much of it is true). However, for kids, it offers a unique perspective onto the concept that humans often mistreat their charges.

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Review: Cinder

How many YA books have done the retelling of a fairy tale thing before? And how many times has it actually worked? Happily (but maybe not happily ever after), Cinder is a rare exception to the cut-and-paste story retelling formula.

In this book, Meyer takes the well-worn story of Cinderella and places it in a future filled with robots and cyborgs, a very nasty plague, and a cold and menacing queen from the Moon. My first response on hearing the premise was that this was absurd and would surely be a flop. Man, was I wrong! All of these elements add enough of a new twist so that I wasn't concerned about waiting for the moment when this or that might happen.

Cinder, our half-human, half-robot protagonist, is more than you would expect from a story like this (where the original material often gets muted to bare, meaningless bones). She's not just a servant girl to an ungrateful woman - she's smart and strong and can keep her wits about her, even when she's meeting the prince, and yet she's vulnerable and uncertain about what is happening to her. The truth about exactly who Cinder is becomes glaringly obvious well before she figures it out instead, but instead of this annoying me, it left me cheering Cinder on, wanting her to move on until she could figure it out herself.

While Cinder is clearly being marketed as Book One of the Lunar Chronicles (giving a little away there, no?), it would be obvious even without that information that this is just the first step in a series of novels. The story follows the Cinderella tale very closely, but it makes enough jumps and breaks to be its own thing. But the way the story ends leaves me unclear of where it's going to go next (and I'm actually happy about this). I've chatted with a few people, and the obvious thought is that Meyer will tackle a different fairy tale the next time through, but however she presents the story, I'll be there to read it.

Buy Cinder on Amazon
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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Review: After the Apocalypse

After reading an intensely positive review of this short story collection on i09, I was intrigued enough to order a copy. There are so many post-apocalyptic stories out there, and After the Apocalypse sounded right up my alley.

In fact, the first story of the bunch, The Naturalist, hooked me right away. It takes place in a zombie preserve, where felons are sent to serve out their sentences (as long as they can survive the zombies that wander around the area). However, the big questions of why the zombies were kept in the preserve and why the prisoners were sent there were never answered, leaving me feeling a bit dissatisfied at the end.

My dissatisfaction continued with the rest of the stories in the book. Some had hooks as strong as the first (a huge Chinese corporation that could change the world but basically works on a feudal system, a woman who volunteers for medical testing, people who can inexplicably fly and all want to go to France), while others left me with no desire to continue after only a few paragraphs. In fact, there wasn't all that much apocalypse to speak of either. Maybe I would have been happier if the collection had had a different name?

That being said, I really like Maureen McHugh's writing, just not her stories. She has an eloquent way of describing these screwed-up worlds without using exposition. Instead, details are peppered here and there throughout the story that build the world brick by brick. I would get a little bored, and then there would be only a sentence or two that intrigued me enough to continue. I may seek out more of McHugh's work in the future to see if I enjoy it without the expectations put upon it by such a positive review.

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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Review: The Ruby in the Smoke

My very first book of 2012 was not one I chose for myself. Instead, I started off the year with the January title for the Forever Young Adult book club. I'm a member of the Thursday night Boston group, which is filled with awesome ladies who love YA as much as I do. I'm always sad when I have to miss a meeting.

The Ruby in the Smoke, the first of the Sally Lockhart mysteries, by Philip Pullman is not a book I would ever have picked up if not for the book club. I have walked by it millions of times in the store, and even recommended it a few times to girls who wanted mysteries and historical fiction combined. I don't think I was wrong to walk by it. Not that it's a bad book - in fact, as far as Victorian mysteries aimed towards the teen set go, I think it's quite good. It's just not my cup of tea (insert bad Victorian London joke here).

Sally Lockhart, who was recently orphaned when her father sank along with his merchant ship off China, is a strong character whom I actually liked. She's determined to figure out what's happening, even when it takes her to the seedier side of London or has her experimenting with drugs. She's able to turn a photography business around with practically a single idea. She doesn't let the fact that she's an orphan with no home of her own get her down.

And yet, it takes another character (completely out of the blue, I might add) to solve the mystery of where this ruby is hiding. Really, Pullman, after all these pages of Sally being kick-ass and smart, you leave the actual mystery solving to a boy?!

Like I said, I just don't like mysteries (in the typical sense of the word). I especially don't like Victorian mysteries (although I don't mind other books that take place in Victorian times). My other book club read The Moonstone (the first British mystery novel) last year, and this reminded me of it very much - plodding and slow, and then everything happens at once. I hated every minute of The Moonstone.

And yes, I did watch the BBC movie version of this book as well. I couldn't help it - it stars Billie Piper and Matt Smith. It was cute, but it dumbed down some of the more interesting aspects of the story. I'd rather read the book than watch the movie again.

Buy The Ruby in the Smoke on Amazon
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