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Monday, June 08, 2009

Battle Royale

Battle RoyaleAuthor: Koushun Takami
Rating:
Reading Level: Young Adult/Adult

Pages: 624
Publisher: VIZ
Edition:2003, Paperback

Finally. Read and finished this one. Ever since I heard about it (and watched the movie on youtube ;p) I had the book set aside to read but so many other things came along the way... it was WORTH my own wait and I wish that I had read it earlier in the school year so I could have recommended it to more readers.

It's an interesting way to tell a story -- there is an over arching plot, a simple one, an explosive one, a thoughtful one, but there are basically a series of character sketches as well. You meet some of the minor characters along the path, you know something about them, and they you see them being killed (mostly brutally, with graphic details -- not for the faint of heart!) It's an examination of human nature - the good, the bad, and the in between; the kind, the evil, and the confused. I actually shed tears at 4 different points -- some for characters I learned to love; some for "throw-away" characters whose stories happen to touch my heart.

It seems to be a long book, but it's such a fast and easy read. The alternative history aspect and the social criticism aspect are slightly didactic, but still work well with the narrative flow. Lots of action and "fun" -- if one can define reading about 15-year-olds forced into killing each other as a fun experience.

My last words of wisdom? DO NOT WATCH THE MOVIE before reading the book; after reading the book, you will be disappointed by the movie. So, if you plan on reading the book, basically, just let the notion of watching the movie go!

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Feminist or Anti-such?

I, along with my students and thousands of fans, have fallen in love with recent books by Tamora Pierce and Kristin Cashore. (Terrier, Bloodhound, Graceling, and Fire.) These fantasy books all feature incredibly attractive and strong teen females. They fight crimes, they battle monsters, they fall in love but seem to be totally in control of their relationships! They, not the male partners, are the ones who are empowered to choose and make their destinies.

So, when you have these young women, each (Beka, Katsa, and Fire) is taking one or multiple partners to bed, some details have to be attached. Beka got a charm, Katsa and Fire both used an herb -- these supposedly will prevent pregnancy -- the messy aftermath of their amorous acts.

On the one hand, I am happy that they are "getting it" and having a great time with it. On the other hand, my 21st century, teacher of teens and mother of a pre-teen daughter, mind keeps wondering: What are the BOYS/MEN doing to prevent the communication of the "other" kind of mess? The mess that hangs over millions of modern men, women, and children. Yes, these are Fantasy stories -- but since the idea of birth-control are included, what's to prevent our wonderful writers to also come up with some clever ways so that at least the young people in the stories (and the young people reading the stories) are careful about diseases. (In both Beka Cooper and Fire's cases, they are sleeping with men who have multitudes of partners before and after themselves.)

Just wondering... Why in these quite feminist slanted stories, men and boys are still not held "accountable" for their actions?

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Tiny Tyrant: Vol. 1 - The Ethelbertosaurus

Tiny Tyrant: Volume One: The EthelbertosaurusAuthor: Lewis Trondheim; illus. by Fabrice Parme
Rating:
Reading Level: 3rd to 5th grade

Pages: 62
Publisher: Frist Second
Edition:Paperback, 2009


Most excellent and fun short skit-like tales. This volume contains six stories. King Ethelbert is extremely spoiled and self-centered and yet one simply can't help but adoring him (probably because more often than not, he gets his just-desserts: a spanking, or being blown out of the palace window!) A French import.

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The Burning Bridge

The Burning Bridge (Ranger's Apprentice, Book 2)Author: Flanagan, John
Rating:
Reading Level: 4th to 7th

Pages: 262
Publisher: Philomel
Edition: Hardcover, 2006



A solid follow-up to the really fun first Ranger's Apprentice title. Although the world is quite fantastic with monsters and some magical elements, most of the plot evolves around military tactics and your basic adventures (sword fights, archery, etc.) The main characters do not possess magical abilities. The pacing is tight and there are some surprises that will keep even a seasoned fantasy reader focused.

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Last Olympian

The Last Olympian (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 5)Author: Rick Riordan
Rating:
Reading Level: 3rd to 7th

Pages: 381
Publisher: Hyperion
Edition:Hardcover, 2009

Pure adrenaline inducing 381 pages of fun. I'm so glad that the level of action and humor is maintained throughout the entire series -- that the last book did not suddenly become some deep philosophical revelation. (I definitely did not get into these books for their messages or meanings.) It's been quite a craze here at the school and the waiting list of eager readers is mighty long, deservingly so.

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Scat

ScatAuthor: Carl Hiaasen
Rating:
Reading Level:

Pages: 304
Publisher: Knopf (Random House)
Edition: Hardcover, 2009


This is definitely a fun book and many of my young readers already told me that they enjoyed reading the third offering from Hiaasen. Everything does hang together nicely and the punishment of the evil doers satisfying. Hiaasen did not shy away from super contemporary things: facebook, CNN/Anderson Cooper, and of course, the father who is injured in Iraq. This makes the volume a "timely" book for current readers and only time will tell if in a decade or two, young readers still will appreciate the story, despite the references to matters that can easily date the book.

Scat, however, does not offer much more than either Hoot, or Flush -- much of the same thing to young readers who like mysteries, who like to read stories about older kids (High School students as protagonists) but who do not necessarily wish to decipher complex sentence structures or figures of speech and who still enjoy jokes on fairly basic/bodily function levels.


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Friday, April 10, 2009

Bloodhound: Beka Cooper II

Bloodhound (Beka Cooper, Book 2)Author: Tamora Pierce
Rating:
Reading Level: 6th grade and up

Publisher: Random House
Edition: Galley, 2009



I really liked the first one and have been waiting for the second installment for a long long time. The second book still works. My initial quibble of not believing Beka able to write all of the stuff down in her journal still stands -- even with the explanation of ciphers and reports and how events are chopped down into several installments. Still seems a bit far-fetched. However, I guess if one believes in ghost-carrying pigeons and a young woman talking to street dust winds, one has to somewhat allow her to be able to write dialogs and descriptions in such minute details when recording her own exploits.

That's another thing: the pacing is a bit draggy at moments because it seems a bit too much of JUST Beka -- just her thoughts, just her experiences, and just her achievements. All the secondary characters (POUNCE, for example, who is absent for most of the story) take a real Secondary position here. Achoo the hound, although very important to the plot, is not satisfying as a strong supporting character because she is too much of a hound, no human traits at all. I love her, but she cannot replace Pounce whose wry humor adds so much to the flavor of the story.

Dale, as a secondary character at the beginning of the story, never got his chance to even remain in that position. By mid-book, he's already just a bit of thoughts in Beka's mind. This shows Beka's dedication to her work and how incredibly sensible she is, but I feel slightly let down by Dale's demotion. He definitely could have played a larger part in the story (either helping or hindering Beka's tasks) because he was positioned to do so from the get go (but peters out...)

Having Hanse explain all the rhymes and reasons seems a bit of an easy and very basic mystery device (for that is what this series is... Law and Order meets Tortall Fantasy.) I was hoping for huge surprises and unexpected villains and deeper plots.

Oh, I sound too critical, I do believe. Going to end by saying that I definitely enjoyed following Beka through the streets, watching her eat sea food, seeing her fight various villains -- above ground and underground. It's great to be back in the land of such cool magic. Am I now again eagerly waiting for the next book? You betcha!






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Friday, April 03, 2009

Ranger's Apprentice: The Ruins of Gorlan

Author: John Flannagan
Rating:
Reading Level: 4th to 6th grade

Pages: 249
Publisher: HarperCollins
Edition: Hardcover, 2006


The Ruins of Gorlan (Ranger's Apprentice, Book 1) I finally got around to read this first book in the ever-more popular series that my students have loved for the last few years. I know now why they like the stories and characters so much. The world is easy to understand -- since in this first book, the young people are "in schools." They are being trained in their various trades with cool skills like tracking, archery, sword play, and cooking. One of the main characters gets bullied and eventually those bullies get their just deserts! I can hear the cheering from the young readers! I will from now on describe the book (or the series) as Fantasy Spy Story, a blend of Alex Rider and Lord of the Rings. (Prob. a bit exaggerated but I think that will help interest the next reader!)

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Friday, March 20, 2009

The Bartimaeus Trilogy

Author: Jonathan Stroud

Reading Level: 6th grade and up

This is a guest blogger post. Josh is 16 years old and just finished the trilogy. (I feel remiss here -- since I neglected to recommend this series to him when he was in middle school!) He sent me a long email with his reviews of the three books and we subsequently exchanged a couple more emails, especially about the endings of this trilogy and the His Dark Materials trilogy. There are plot spoilers.



ABOUT The Amulet of Samarkand

Bartimaeus is hilarious. I simply love the djinn. Nathaniel is interesting to follow as well, a fun character with a couple flaws. There really isn't much to speak of in this book other than plot: it's fun, but Bartimaeus is the real winner of this one.

ABOUT The Golem's Eye

Here we see Nathaniel turn into the pompous, arrogant named John Mandrake. He falls into the very trap Bartimaeus told him to avoid: letting the corrupting influence of magicians twist him into something horrible. The things he does and says are unbelievable, and the effect is doubled by how he behaved in the 1st book. We get introduced to Kitty, who's a good person at heart, and then gets caught up in the whole Honorius affair. Mandrake shows his bastardness with his perpetual breaking of vows, many only hours or less after having made them. Bartimaeus is fun as ever: was sad about Queezle, that she got introduced and then snuffed out, but oh well. So goes the storyline.

ABOUT Ptolemy's Gate

By far the most interesting, most powerful, most moving, most climactic of the three (well, for that last one I suppose there's a reason, being the end and all). We see Mandrake turn from arrogant into the marginally better (or worse, depending on your POV) "top magician". Bartimaeus evokes a lot of sympathy with his sorry state, and Kitty becomes my favorite character for the majority of the book.

And then Mandrake slowly crumbles, leaving a mature Nathaniel. He still has flaws, but then, so does everyone but Bartimaeus. As Kitty and Nathaniel work together, with each other (and slowly begin to admire each other: my guess is given a couple years, they'd end up as very good friends or more, provided Nathaniel doesn't relapse, which I don't think he would), it's my favorite part. To see Kitty put the same trust in Bartimaeus that Ptolemy did, showing greater understanding of him than perhaps even the Egyptian boy (though Ptolemy did not have someone's notes or previous history as guides, admittedly).

And then, when Nathaniel accepts Bartimaeus into his own body...this is where N/B takes over as my favorite character(s). The fact that, working together, they manage to destroy far more powerful spirits than they. The fact that, working together, they are the culmination of Ptolemy's hopes and dreams, the ultimate climax of Nathaniel and Bartimaeus' relationship, the fulfilling of the purpose of Kitty's visit to the Other Place...once they become both two souls and one, a single 2-part mind in a single body, I could not put it down even for work. I was breathless as they turned the staff on Nouda...

AM. Nathaniel hit by the Detonation. Coming from Barti's POV, it is even more effective. And then when Nathaniel realizes the seriousness of the wound, his acceptance of his fate and determination to do selfless good is such strong writing. The last meeting with Kitty, where N/B both know what has to be done, and the whole concealing it from K thing...I really felt it. Comparable, at least for me in my after-reading-state, to when Lyra and Will realize they must separate in Amber Spyglass.

True to form, he breaks his final promise, having finally made one beyond his power to keep. This was where I was sad that the "item" could never happen (Kitty's picking through the wreckage at the end made me think she was feeling the loss of a possible future, one containing more happiness, or at least more possibility, than her current one, a future with a united djinn/human in it).

I thought that writing N and B's end at the very end was the best move of the whole trilogy. We already know what happens: we know that the great evil is destroyed by the heroic death of N/B. Now we get to see the heart of darkness, the center of the inferno, as N/B march to their death. The connection between them in this scene is so powerful I thought they might actually survive. This isn't the usual master-servant relationship; this isn't even Ptolemy's relationship. Ptolemy was a trusting, kind, benevolent, freedom-giving master, yes, but he was a master, as evidenced by his final dismissal of Barti. N and B banter as friends, they speak as equals, as 2 halves of the whole. Nathaniel's character at the end here practically radiates goodness off the page. And then, the way he dismisses Bartimaeus, I feel, is from an equal to an equal. The delivery of the dismissal is not that of a master dismissing a slave, but of a friend releasing a friend.

My throat was seized up the whole final scene, but it was the 2nd-to-last paragraph, where the Staff breaks, that the tears almost fell (almost, because I usually manage to keep them in while reading, though I failed during Amber Spyglass several years ago). The simplicity of the writing there - "Nouda did this. Nathaniel finished the Dismissal. I went. The Staff broke." had so much raw POWER in the way it was written. Stroud simply couldn't have written that end any better (except maybe Nathaniel surviving: just as he turns good, he turns so good that he must make up for the magicians' sins and evildoing. He dies for a better world, and I do rather prefer when they get to actually see that world).

I'd discuss the last paragraph but I need breakfast. Barti's final words in the trilogy, starting with "typical master", given that Nathaniel was anything but, either give the paragraph a tone of affection or a tone of disgust. Choice of the reader, so I chose affection :)

*** (Another email discussing the endings of Amber Spyglass and Ptolemy's Gate is omitted.) ***

Amber Spyglass had a Tough ending...but I think that, for me, Ptolemy's Gate takes the cake. To see what Nathaniel becomes by the end of the trilogy...in book 1 he was bumbling but likable, in book 2 I nearly burned the pages with him, in book 3 first couple parts I was a little put out with him (especially given his treatment of Barti), in last 150ish pages I thought, "This is what he should have become from book 1." The opposition of him + Barti and him from the previous books was so pronounced, and the tentative friendship springing up between him and K...it all made his death doubly sad and twice as noble.

Still tugs at the hearstrings, reading it. It's his Redemption, and yet he goes so much farther than he "needed" to, to redeem himself. For once, a magician of the old generation does what people of such power are supposed to do (at least in our society): use it for the people, sacrifice himself for the commoners.

FAIRROSA:

I cannot really honestly say which one affected me more at the moment of reading -- but I do think that Lyra and Will's final parting has a much stronger lingering effect. I read that scene, what, 8 - 9 years ago and I can still feel the sorrow now; whereas I do recall Nathaniel's final sacrifice (and you described it so well below) and how much I sobbed over it, it does not give my heart a blow whenever I think of it.

JOSH:

It's something about the way the two are written, I think. Something about them makes Bartimaeus stronger than HDM for me. I can't place it...my first guess would be that in Barti, the whole experience comes from 1st person, and their unity is such a 180 from everything before it, but I'm not sure if that's it.

Maybe it's the fact that N/B was 4 days ago, and L/W was 4 years ago...but there's no way to either prove or disprove that.

Argh.

Given the time difference between reading the two (not too much for an adult, but for me it's my entire emotional maturation to date), I don't think I can honestly say either one. L/W affected me more, but I hadn't read many books before then in which the heroes either die or must sacrifice something HUGE to win. I'm more used to it by now, and being a fan of happy endings, anything with such sacrifice will .

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Monday, March 16, 2009

Watchmen

WatchmenAuthor: Alan Moore, illus. by Dave Gibbons
Rating:
Reading Level: YA, Adult

Publisher: DC Comic
Edition:
Paperback, 1987

It took me a long time to finish this seemingly slim volume. I took in every word, every image, and every reference as slowly as I could manage. Not that the story is too complex, but its form does demand some attention and appreciation: the interwoven stories of the masked vigilantes and the embedded graphic novel of the Black Freighter (or the Pirate story as my students refer to it) and the various texts of the story-within-the story by one of the side characters and all the other para-"documents."

I enjoyed all the double-descriptors: words and phrases that convey the meaning for one scene but also aptly describe the situations of another scene. Moore employed this technique through out the novel -- it did not get tired for me, just amusing.

The final two "chapters," however, seem to rely too much on Adrian's explanation of his whole back story and his reasons behind all the plans and schemes, slowing down the momentum and diminishing the thrilling mystery part of the whole tale. I wish Moore had figured out a more active and exciting way for the exposing of Adrian and his plot.

I also must say that I think the filmmakers did a fantastic job translating the novel into the movie. The only real gripe I have is in the odd casting of Adrian's role -- instead of an athletic superhero, the actor seems fragile and without the kind of commanding presence that this role demands. The movie ends differently from the book -- having gotten rid of the entire side story of the vanishing artists, novelists, and scientists with their creation of the "alien being" that devastates half of New York City -- but by putting the blame on Dr. Manhattan, the film has added another layer of emotional burden onto a major character and I have to applaud that particular line of changes. And, may I say that I absolutely ADORE Rorschach in the movie -- his scenes are most memorable and the actor's skillful portrayal of this tragic hero is impeccable!

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