Friday, December 21, 2012

What is the best literary award for literature for young people?

First, head over to the booksluts to see my comic and post for the month of December.

Second, I forgot to include it in my review of The Hobbit last week, but it was nominated for the Carnegie Medal, and it won an award from the New York Herald Tribune for "best juvenile fiction." Both awards sound like well-respected literary awards for children's fiction, with the Carnegie medal described as "the UK's oldest and most prestigious book award for children's writing," and the New York Herald Tribune's award vying with the Newbery Medal as the most prestigious award for children's writing in the United States. With how popular Tolkien's novel was, you'd have expected it to win for something, right?

The thing is, not all awards are created equal. And an award for "popularity" is very different than an award for literary distinction. Twilight, for instance, was named by Publisher's Weekly as one of the Best Children's Books of 2005. The Hunger Games won the same distinction in 2008, as well as the California Young Reader Medal (voted on by students).

Now, I'll be up front about the fact that I am not an expert on these kinds of awards. Sometimes it's hard to find a description of an award that doesn't sound like the over-excited publisher's blurb on the back of a novel. So, suffice it to say that you'll want to make your own decisions about whether an award is as impressive as it appears from its Wikipedia article.

But I've spent a little time looking around different awards lists, and I've come up with a few that seem like good places to go if you're actually interested in finding great literature within the realm of novels written for young people. (Hint: Anything that included Twilight was a pretty quick cut).

None of the awards solely honor sff stuff, but there's still plenty to be found there. I've put the awards in a very rough order of most prestigious/coolest near the top, and less established or useful ones at the bottom. Do you have any awards worth adding? Any thoughts about the ones listed here?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Book Review: The Hobbit

File:TheHobbit FirstEdition.jpg

The Hobbit (1937), J. R. R. Tolkien. Paperback, 320 pages.

Summary: An unassuming hobbit finds himself swept up in a fantastic adventure that tests his loyalty, courage, and ingenuity. This is the one that kick-started the fantasy genre, and that presented a lot of the characters and archetypes that would be copied in later literature. For a more detailed summary, click here.

First Sentences: 
     In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or eat: it was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort.

This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays kings, ruins town,
And beats high mountains down.
     Poor Bilbo sat in the dark thinking of all the horrible names of all the giants and ogres he had ever heard told of in tales, but not one of them had done all these things. He had a feeling that the answer was quite different and that he ought to know it, but he could not think of it. He began to get frightened, and that is bad for thinking. Gollum began to get out of his boat. He flapped into the water and paddled to the bank; Bilbo could see his eyes coming towards him. His tongue seemed to stick in his mouth; he wanted to shout out: "Give me more time! Give me more time!" But all that came out with a sudden squeal was:
Time! Time!
Bilbo was saved by pure luck. For that of course was the answer. Gollum was disappointed once more; and now he was getting angry, and also tired of the game. It had made him very hungry indeed. This time he did not go back to the boat. He sat down in the dark by Bilbo. That made the hobbit most dreadfully uncomfortable and scattered his wits.
     "It's got to ask uss a question, my preciouss, yes, yess, yesss. Jusst one more question to guess, yes, yess," said Gollum.


Writing Quality: 6/10

Depth of Concept: 6/10

Rounded Characters: 5/10

Well-Developed World: 8/10

Page Turner: 9/10

Kept Me Thinking: 5/10

Overall Recommendation: 7/10

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Reader poll: How do you define "YA"?

I mentioned a few weeks back that I'm spending some time thinking about literature for young people. At first I called it "YA" literature, but I'll be honest that I don't really have a solid handle on what to call the stuff I'm referring to. It's bigger than "YA." It may at one time have been merely labeled "children's literature," referring to anything not written specifically for adults. "YA" as a label is not necessarily inclusive of all of the great stuff that's been written for younger audiences, and I was really intending to be more inclusive. The Graveyard Book, for instance, is marketed for younger-than YA audiences, even though it's significantly more sophisticated and well-written than, say, Twilight. Here's a snippet of what Wikipedia has to say about the "YA" designation:

The term "YA" obviously gets fuzzy at the edges. But to be clear: YA is a marketing term, perhaps more now than it ever has been. It's used by booksellers and librarians as a crude way to offer a space between things for children and things for adults. It can be a pretty arbitrary division. By it's basic criteria, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird could have been called "YA" novels. But I don't think anyone would argue that those two are in a different league from, say, The Hunger Games or Twilight, both novels that have inspired a slew of copycat teen romance novels that have sort of hijacked the label.

For the moment, I'm going to side-step the tricky and baggage-laden term "YA," and just say that I'm interested in things that are either written for young people, or that hold appeal for them. That includes The Hobbit (review forthcoming!), which includes no characters between the ages of 12-18, but which is beloved by many pre-teen children as well as many adults; it includes Watership Down, which hasn't any human characters at all, much less adolescent ones; it includes The Lord of the Flies, which hits teenage protagonists dead on but which was written for adults, and it includes Never Let Me Go, a novel with characters that start as children and end as adults, but which beautifully details a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and which is as subtle and captivating (and critically acclaimed) as anything else written for anyone. There are obviously a lot of bases to cover. And this doesn't even touch the classic canonical works that teenagers are required to read in school. If a young adult reads them, and identifies with them, can an argument be made that they are "young adult" books?

Having said all this, I've still got to reiterate that I'm no expert on literature written for young people; I've only read a lot of it. This isn't an essay, it's a conversation starter. There are plenty of other essays out there, and a lot of interesting research. I'm just interested to hear y'all's ruminations on how things written for young people can or should be different than stuff written for adults. Why do some people never graduate from young adult literature? Why do others refuse to touch the stuff? And why (if you agree with me) are both cases so unfortunate?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

In which I start thinking about YA books . . .

For the next few weeks I'm going to be putting down some of my thoughts about children's and young adult literature. If I had more time, these thoughts would be crafted and researched like an essay; I usually feel uncomfortable about making literary arguments without having spent the time and energy to place my own thoughts within the context of current scholarship on the topic. But, you know, LIFE. Also, STAY-AT-HOME-PARENT. So, whatever, I'm not going to worry about crafting this so much as try to clutch together a few threads that might crudely articulate my thoughts on the subject. Maybe I'll just call it "brainstorming" and if y'all want to jump in, feel free.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Book Review: Perdido Street Station

Perdido Street Station (2003), China Mieville. Paperback, 640 pages.

Awards: Nominated for the World Fantasy Award, the Locus Award, the British Science Fiction Award, and the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best novel; won the 2001 Arthur C. Clarke Award and the 2001 British Fantasy Award.

Summary: A rogue scientist unleashes a terrible monster on the city of New Crobuzon, and is aided by a motley group of companions in vanquishing the invading brood. For a more detailed summary, click here.

First Sentences: 
Veldt to scrub to farms to these first tumbling houses that rise from the earth. It has been night for a long time. The hovels that encrust the river's edge have grown like mushrooms around me in the dark.

     The river twists and turns to face the city. It looms suddenly, massive, stamped on the landscape. Its light wells up around the surrounds, the rock hills, like bruise-blood. Its dirty towers glow. I am debased. I am compelled to worship this extraordinary presence that has silted into existence at the conjunction of two rivers. It is a vast pollutant, a stench, a klaxon sounding. Fat chimneys retch dirt into the sky even now in the deep night. It is not the current which pulls us but the city itself, its weight sucks us in. Faint shouts, here and there the calls of beasts, the obscene clash and pounding from the factories as huge machines rut. Railways trace urban anatomy like protruding veins. Red brick and dark walls, squat churches like trogolodytic things, ragged awnings flickering, cobbled mazes in the old town, culs-de-sac, sewers riddling the earth like secular sepulchres, a new landscape of wasteground, crushed stone, libraries fat with forgotten volumes, old hospitals, towerblocks, ships and metal claws that lift cargoes from the water.  

     How could we not see this approaching? What trick of topography is this, that lets the sprawling monster hide behind corners to leap out at the traveller?  
     It is too late to flee.


Writing Quality: 7/10

Depth of Concept: 7/10

Rounded Characters: 6/10

Well-Developed World: 9/10

Page Turner: 7/10

Kept Me Thinking: 8/10

Overall Recommendation: 7/10

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Halloween post, excerpted from my dad blog

Someday I'm gonna write sff for a living. For now I'm mostly living it with my two-year-old. Here's a Halloween post to tide you over until I review Perdido Street Station tomorrow.

Light seeps in through the slivered gaps between the window shades, dripping little splashes of obnoxious sunshine right onto your eyelids. You strain to listen, but hear no sounds from the munchkin's room, so you stretch and turn over. Just for a few more minutes.

But despite the cheery transition from sleep to wakefulness, from shadowy night to revealing day, something unsettling tickles the edges of your awareness. You turn again. And then again. Is that a cry you hear? A faint, almost feline sound, too far away to be your daughter. Or is it? It sounds again, seeming to echo forlornly on another plane, a reality just barely touching your own.

Sighing, you haul yourself out of bed. Your wife slumbers still, turned away from you, a pillow shielding her face from the light. You rub your eyes, faint recollections from the night seeping slowly through your consciousness. Something about being chased, and running in slow motion, and then a creature with teeth and claws . . .

You stand outside of the munchkin's door for a minute, head resting on the door jamb. No sound. No faint cries. No whines. You crack the door, just a little bit. It takes a moment for your eyes to adjust to the dimness of the room, and it seems you can just barely make out something glowing, hovering just above her bed. You squint, and crack the door a little further. And then you realize that it is her eyes glinting in the darkness, reflecting back the light in the hallway. She stands in her crib, motionless. Just watching you. Her eyes never seem to blink.

If you'd like to read more, you can read the rest of it at my dad blog, Raised by my daughter. Have a happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Mountains of Madness

Just a quick post to point you to my comic over at the insatiable booksluts! It involves book stacking, which is like the literary version of Jenga.

And a teaser question, before you go: how tall is your current tallest stack of books?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Shaking out the filler

I'm halfway through China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, and while it's not the worst offender I've ever encountered, I find myself just wishing things would go a little quicker, and not spend a whole 'nother page describing the filth and squalor in a whole new part of town. Otherwise, it's a pretty interesting read, and I look forward to finishing and writing its review.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Best books to curl up with in front of a fire

On October 1st, it hit 103 degrees where we live in California. Ridiculous, I know.

But things have gotten a little more reasonable since then. Today, the high is only supposed to reach 70 degrees, which suits me much better. I actually put on two layers this morning.

I don't have a fireplace at the moment, and frankly it would be ridiculous to have one in a place that never drops below 50 degrees . . . but with the change in the weather, I've been sort of day-dreaming about cold weather and the kinds of books that are best read lounging near the hearth.

Now, any good book is suitable to be read at just about any time, but I'd offer that books incline towards the seasonal. I'd suggest that beach vacations are ideal for something fast-paced, light, or consistently and immediately gripping. Reading in front of the fire, by contrast, is particularly great for books that you'd have a hard time getting through at other times. It's a time for plunging deep into a book, savoring it, and even enjoying the languid or desultory qualities that make it harder to fit in during the normal pace of life. I'm thinking that poetry probably fits best here, too.

To start with, here are the books I've reviewed so far that I think might be especially suited for cold-weather, hunker-down sorts of reading. You'll note that I'm not discriminating based on their recommendation score (Except for Wizard's First Rule and Eragon; I just. couldn't. do it.):

The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks. 
The Eye of the World, Robert Jordan
The Fellowship of the Ring, J. R. R. Tolkien
A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin
Moby Dick, Herman Melville
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
Twilight, Stephenie Meyer

You'll note that these are heavily weighted towards epic fantasy novels; there's just something about magic and castles and dragons that fits when you've got a fire blazing in front of you and snow blowing past the windows outside. 

Never Let Me Go is hardly a hefty tome, but there's just something about it that evokes something chilly, whether it's the subject matter or the English setting. And while Twilight is not one of my favorite novels, I'd say it also benefits from reasonably descriptive prose regarding the cold, rainy Washington weather.

I almost suggested Red Mars and 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson for the list, since they're such beasts to get through, but ultimately decided that they aren't actually all that suited (in my opinion) for multi-hundred page reading chunks. They're fascinating and intelligent, but I don't think they require the sort of immersive, forget-about-the-world quality that these others have.

I'd also suggest A. S. Byatt's Possession, Milton's Paradise Lost, Beowulf, Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence, Asimov's Foundation series, Richard Adam's Watership Down or Shardik, and Frank Herbert's Dune. Dune might seem a funny choice, but it certainly takes some effort to get through, and I think there can be something interesting about trying the contrast of a desert world with cold-weather reading.

Do you think there are books best suited for certain seasons? Which ones would you choose to fit the dropping temperature?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Book Review: Carrie

Carrie (1974), Stephen King. Paperback, 208 pages.

Summary: A bullied teen discovers an outlet for her anger after harnessing telekinetic powers. It does not end well. For a more detailed summary, click here.

First Sentences: 
Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not at the subconscious level where savage things grow. On the surface, all of the girls in the shower room were shocked, thrilled, ashamed, or simply glad that the White bitch had taken it in the mouth again.

     When the girls were gone to their Period Two classes and the bell had been silenced (several of them had slipped quietly out the back door before Miss Desjardin could begin to take names), Miss Desjardin employed the standard tactic for hysterics: She slapped Carrie smartly across the face. She hardly would have admitted to the pleasure the act gave her, and she certainly would have denied that she regarded Carrie as a fat, whiny bag of lard. A first-year teacher, she still believed that she thought all children were good.

     Carrie looked up at her dumbly, face still contorted and working, "M-M-Miss D-D-Des-D-"

     "Get up," Miss Desjardin said dispassionately. "Get up and tend to yourself."
     "I'm bleeding to death!" Carrie screamed, and one blind, searching hand came up and clutched Miss Desjardin's white shorts. It left a bloody handprint.
     "I . . . you . . . " The gym teacher's face contorted into a pucker of disgust, and she suddenly hurled Carrie, stumbling, to her feet. "Get over there!"
     Carrie stood swaying between the showers and the wall with its dime sanitary-napkin dispenser, slumped over, breasts pointing at the floor, her arms dangling limply. She looked like an ape. Her eyes were shiny and blank.
     "Now," Miss Desjardin said with hissing, deadly emphasis, "you take one of those napkins out . . . no, never mind the coin slot, it's broken anyway . . . take one and . . . damn it, will you do it! You act as if you've never had a period before!"


Writing Quality: 6/10

Depth of Concept: 6/10

Rounded Characters: 6/10

Well-Developed World: 6/10

Page Turner: 8/10

Kept Me Thinking: 7/10

Overall Recommendation: 7/10

Sunday, September 30, 2012

On Comfort Objects

As a kid, my comfort objects were a herd of mismatched stuffed animals, threadbare and gnawed on from years of love. The stuffed animals are gone now, but I still have comfort objects. They're books. And I wrote about it over at the insatiable booksluts.

Check it out and tell me what you think! This is the first of my regular book-comic posts over there.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

New to Stephen King? Here's where to start

I was on solo-parenting duty for a lot of the past week, so my detailed review of Carrie is going to have to wait until next week. In the meantime, here's an infographic that Susie over at the insatiable booksluts created. With only Carrie under my belt, it gives me a good sense of where I might want to go next. Which categories are your favorite Stephen King categories, and what do you think his "best" book or type of book is? Why?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Is Stephen King a modern Nostradamus?

What!? Posting more than once in a week? Did I just travel though a worm hole and find a secret stash of time at the end of the wormhole rainbow?

Anyway, this is just to let you know that I've just posted a piece about Stephen King's Carrie over at the booksluts. Among other things, I suggest that King is a prophet. Check it out and heckle me! I love heckling!

I'll have a more nit-picky review up here in a week or two . . . but this is the one for you if you want to know how Carrie made me feel.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Stephen King Week

Just wanted to spread the word about Stephen King week over at the insatiable booksluts. A lot of good essays about his work, maybe even one of my own if I can finish it on time. Six days ago, I'd never read anything by Stephen King. I've now read Carrie, King's first published novel, and it's given a me a taste for King that I'm still thinking about and enjoying.

I'll be putting up reviews of Carrie, and Sphere in the near future, and Perdido Street Station and Divergent are also in the works.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Hugo Endurance Project

I'm in-between reviews right now, so I thought I'd take a moment and just give a shout-out to a blog I just found, The Hugo Endurance Project. While the Hugo Award does not only highlight literary achievement, the winners are a pretty great place to start when looking for quality writing and concepts.

Jeremy, who runs the site, made it his goal to read 64 Hugo winners in 64 weeks. He's also prepping for a marathon at the same time, which is also cool. I like layers of meaning to the idea of "endurance."

I haven't explored Jeremy's archives exhaustively yet, but I can say a few things:
1. Jeremy's a smart dude. He doesn't let enthusiasm blind him to weaknesses in even his favorite stories. And he has a well-thought out and multi-part grading system that makes for interesting comparisons between books. I have some minor reservations about the system, but I'm sure a lot of my readers have reservations about my system as well. That's okay. And if you  happen to like my meticulous (over-the-top?) breakdown of strengths and weaknesses in a book, you'll find plenty to intrigue you in what Jeremy does. 
2. I don't agree with all of Jeremy's reviews (I felt Larry Niven's Ringworld, for instance, was a real let-down, but Jeremy scores it pretty high). But this just means I look forward to having some intelligent arguments with him as he continues his project. 
3. Reading a book per week is gonna be a seriously grueling effort, when you've got stuff like C.J. Cherryh's Cyteen or Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell to get through. It's interesting to read about the difficulties Jeremy has as he tries to pack in the pages, and what it does to his reading experience.
Basically, what Jeremy's doing is what I thought I might try to do when I first started my blog, but then I kind of chickened out and just started reading books semi-haphazardly, and without a rigorous deadline. But a thoughtful and thorough look at Hugo winners is exactly up my alley, and I look forward to seeing how the project goes.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Book Review: 2312

2312 (2012), Kim Stanley Robinson. Hardcover, 576 pages.

Summary: In the year 2312, humanity's diaspora into the far reaches of the solar system culminates in a period of turmoil and change in which planetary powers and evolving life-forms jockey for supremacy and for survival. For a more detailed summary, click here.

First Sentences: 
The sun is always just about to rise. Mercury rotates so slowly that you can walk fast enough over its rocky surface to stay ahead of the dawn; and so many people do. Many have made this a way of life. They walk roughly westward, staying always ahead of the stupendous day.
     Maybe to say that someone was "like this" or "like that" was just an attempt to stick a memory to a board where you organized memories, like butterflies in a lepidopterist's collection. Not really the generalization it seemed, but just a stab at understanding. Was Wahram anything like what she might say about him, if she tried to say anything? He was like this, he was like that -- she didn't really know. One had the impressions of other people, nothing more. Never to hear them think, only to hear what they said; it was a drop in an ocean, a touch across the abyss. A hand holding your hand as you float in the black of space. It wasn't much. They couldn't really know each other very well. So they said he is like this, or she is like that, and called that the person. Presumed to make a judgement. It was such a guess. You would have to talk with someone for years to give the guess any kind of validity.
     When I'm with you, she said to Wahram in her mind as they floated there together, waiting, holding hands -- when I'm with you I feel faintly anxious; judged; inadequate. Not the kind of person you like, which I find offensive, and thus behave more like that part of me than ever. Though I want your good opinion too. But that desire I find irritating, and so contradict it in myself. Why should I care? You don't care.


Writing Quality: 7/10

Depth of Concept: 8/10

Rounded Characters: 6/10

Well-Developed World: 8/10

Page Turner: 7/10

Kept Me Thinking: 7/10

Overall Recommendation: 7/10

Thursday, August 30, 2012

My new gig

So, I've recently been taken on as a contributor to the Insatiable Booksluts, a forum for all indie and literary booky things. And classics reviews. And literary playlists. And angry rants about literature. And, courtesy of yours-truly, bookish comics.

If you're not familiar with the Booksluts, go check them out! I only came across them myself a couple of months ago, but I'm pretty jazzed by the humor and intelligence to be found there. If you are familiar with the Booksluts, you can clap your hands for joy now that you have the opportunity to be subjected to my incredibly artistic comics in not one, but TWO places.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Ever wanted to take a *FREE* class in sci-fi/fantasy literature ?

My sister is awesome, and pointed me to this online class through coursera that is:

1. Free
2. Conducted by a seriously talented professor at the University of Michigan
3. Totally awesome

The course is 10 weeks long, and started on the 23rd of July, which means you might have to do a little catch-up work...but I bet it would be totally worth it.

I've read some of the great stuff covered in the course, like Frankenstein, everything by Hawthorne and Poe, The Invisible ManHerland, and the Martian Chronicles, but that still leaves a lot I have yet to discover. I'm seriously intrigued.

I'd like to be a writer of fantasy or science fiction when I grow up, and the fact that I haven't read even half of the units in this course reminds me that I'm hardly the sci-fi/fantasy guru that people sometimes accuse me of being (being this type of guru is almost pejorative as far as my wife is concerned).

Below is the bio pic of the course instructor, the honorable Erik S. Rabkin. Now, isn't that the face of someone you'd want to have marking your homework with a red pen? FYI his office hours are TWTh 3:10-4:00, if you ever happen to be stopping through Ann Arbor.

On a more general note, is the idea of free online classes taught by experts in their field totally amazing and cool to anyone else? This had better still be happening when Addison starts school, because that's probably the next time I'll have enough free time for this sort of awesomeness.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Book Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (2004), Susanna Clarke. Paperback, 782 pages. 

Awards: Hugo Award, World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, Locus Award for Best First Novel, The Mythopoeic Award for Adult Literature, Galaxy National Book Award, Long List for Mann Booker Prize

Summary: Two magicians with very different methods vie for best way to bring magic back to England. For a more detailed summary, click here.

First Sentences: 
Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.


    It has been remarked (by a lady infinitely cleverer than the present author) how kindly disposed the world in general feels to young people who either die or marry. Imagine then the interest that surrounded Miss Wintertowne! No young lady ever had such advantages before: for she died upon the Tuesday, was raised to life in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and was married upon the Thursday; which some people thought too much excitement for one week.

     The desire to see her was quite universal. The full stretch of most people's information was that she had lost a finger in her passage from one world to the next and back again. This was most tantalizing; was she changed in any other way? No one knew.


Writing Quality: 8/10

Depth of Concept: 6/10

Rounded Characters: 6/10

Well-Developed World: 9/10

Page Turner: 6/10

Kept Me Thinking: 6/10

Overall Recommendation: 7/10

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Too many good books

We're at another reunion this week, so here's another short post. But just to give you a peek behind the curtains, I'm currently making my way through 1. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (I started it a long time ago, but got bogged down and moved on to quicker-paced fare) 2. Perdido Street Station 3. 2312

So, I've got some good stuff I'm working on for the next couple of weeks. See you on the other side...

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Dystopia and the post-apocalypse

We're roadtripping through Zion National Park today, and won't be back to California until the weekend, so this is just a quick post to let you know we're still alive. It's a great region of the country to imagine the apocalypse. For some schlocky post-apocalypse movie fun set in the no-man's land middle of the country, check out A Boy and His Dog or Idaho Transfer.

Also, in honor of dystopian/post-apocalyptic literature, and my finally getting through the last of the Hunger Games trilogy, here's a great infographic I came across that gives some interesting historical comparison points for the genre.


Thursday, July 26, 2012

Book Review: Mockingjay (Book 3 of The Hunger Games)

Mockingjay (2010), Suzanne Collins. Hardcover, 400 pages.

Summary: Katniss, the "girl on fire," becomes the conflicted figurehead of a revolution, and finds that it puts all of her loved ones at risk. For a more detailed summary, click here.

First Sentences: 
I stare down at my shoes, watching as a fine layer of ash settles on the worn leather. This is where the bed I shared with my sister, Prim, stood. Over there was the kitchen table. The bricks of the chimney, which collapsed in a charred heap, provide a point of reference for the rest of the house. How else could I orient myself in this sea of gray?
     Finnick and I try to station ourselves in Command, where surely first word of the rescue will come, but we are barred because serious war business is being carried out. We refuse to leave Special Defense and end up waiting in the hummingbird room for news.

     Making knots. Making knots. No word. Making knots. Tick-tock. This is a clock. Do not think of Gale. Do not think of Peeta. Making knots. We do not want dinner. Fingers raw and bleeding. Finnick finally gives up and assumes the hunched position he took in the arena when the jabberjays attacked. I perfect my miniature noose. The words of the "The Hanging Tree" replay in my head. Gale and Peeta. Peeta and Gale.

     "Did you love Annie right away, Finnick?" I ask.

     "No." A long time passes before he adds, "she crept up on me."

     I search my heart, but at the moment the only person I can feel creeping up on me is Snow.
     It must be midnight, it must be tomorrow when Haymitch pushes open the door. "They're back. We're wanted in the hospital." My mouth opens with a flood of questions that he cuts off with "That's all I know."


Writing Quality: 4/10

Depth of Concept: 5/10

Rounded Characters: 5/10

Well-Developed World: 4/10

Page Turner: 6/10

Kept Me Thinking: 5/10

Overall Recommendation: 5/10

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Book Review: Catching Fire (Book 2 of The Hunger Games)

Catching Fire (2009), Suzanne Collins. Hardcover, 391 pages.

Summary:  Katniss, having survived one brutal gladiator-style competition, finds that she is no more free of the clutches of the oppressive Capitol than she was before. For a more detailed summary, click here.

First Sentences:
     I clasp the flask between my hands even though the warmth from the tea has long since leached into the frozen air. My muscles are clenched tight against the cold. If a pack of wild dogs were to appear at this moment, the odds of scaling a tree before they attacked are not in my favor.
     "I'd like to go to the Cornucopia and watch. Just to make sure we're right about the clock," says Finnick. It seems as good a plan as any. Besides, I wouldn't mind the chance of going over the weapons again. And there are six of us now. even if you count Beetee and Wiress out, we've got four good fighters. It's so different from where I was last year at this point, doing everything on my own. Yes, it's great to have allies as long as you can ignore the thought that you'll have to kill them.

     Beetee and Wiress will probably find some way to die on their own. If we have to run from something, how far would they get? Johanna, frankly, I could easily kill if it came down to protecting Peeta. Or maybe even just to shut her up. What I really need is for someone to take out Finnick for me, since I don't think I can do it personally. Not after all he's done for Peeta. I think about maneuvering him into some kind of encounter with the Careers. It's cold, I know. But what are my options? Now that we know about the clock, he probably won't die in the jungle, so someone's going to have to kill him in battle.

     Because this is so repellent to think about, my mind frantically tries to change topics. But the only thing that distracts me from my current situation is fantasizing about killing President Snow. Not very pretty daydreams for a seventeen-year-old girl, I guess, but very satisfying.

Writing Quality: 4/10

Depth of Concept: 4/10

Rounded Characters: 4/10

Well-Developed World: 4/10

Page Turner: 6/10

Kept Me Thinking: 4/10

Overall Recommendation: 4/10

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Which Books Should You Read This Summer?

So, this is a really great graphic from and I thought I'd share it. Not all of the choices are what I think of as the best example in a category, but there are still a heck of a lot of good ones here, including genre stuff, some of which I've reviewed here. After taking a gander, feel free to share whether you have any good alternative choices for some of these categories:

Summer Reading Flowchart

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Updated Review List and Stats Comparisons Page

So, a week ago, I had just a brief list of all of the books I've reviewed. I've expanded that page, and for now it's titled "Book Reviews: Main List and Stats Comparisons." It's got a list of all of the books I've reviewed in alphabetical order by title, and then by author. That's the easy part.

The more controversial part follows it, in which I place the scores I've given each book side by side. I think it's a lot of fun and also very revealing to try something like this, but I have little doubt that people are going to quibble with some of the placements. That's okay. I quibble with some of them myself. Quibble away. If you're quibbling, it means you're thinking and making me think.

I've got some predictions about the comparisons that will bother people the most, but I'm going to keep them to myself until readers have had a chance to voice their thoughts. And I'm very curious to know whether you think the comparisons are a worthwhile endeavor, regardless of how right or wrong I may seem to be in specific instances.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Book Review: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go (2005), Kazuo Ishiguro. Paperback, 304 pages.

Awards: Short list for Booker Prize, The Alex Award.

Summary: Students at a special boarding school gradually discover what sets them apart from the rest of humanity. For a more detailed summary, click here.

First Sentences: 
My name is Kathy H. I'm thirty-one years old, and I've been a carer for over eleven years. that sounds long enough, I know, but actually they want me to go on for another eight months, until the end of this year.
     Maybe the volume had been turned up by whoever had been using it last, I don't know. But it was much louder than I usually had it and that was probably why I didn't hear her before I did. Or maybe I'd just got complacent by then. Anyway, what I was doing was swaying about slowly in time to the song, holding an imaginary baby to my breast. In fact, to make it all the more embarrassing, it was one of those times I'd grabbed a pillow to stand in for the baby, and I was doing this slow dance, my eyes closed, singing along softly each time those lines came around again:

     "Oh baby, baby, never let me go . . ."

     The song was almost over when something made me realise I wasn't alone, and I opened my eyes to find myself staring at Madame framed in the doorway.

     I froze in shock. Then within a second or two, I began to feel a new kind of alarm, because I could see there was something strange about the situation. The door was almost half open -- it was a sort of rule we couldn't close dorm doors completely except for when we were sleeping -- but Madame hadn't nearly come up to the threshold. She was out in the corridor, standing very still, her head angled to one side to give her a view of what I was doing inside. And the odd thing was she was crying. It might even have been one of her sobs that had come through the song to jerk me out of my dream.


Writing Quality: 7/10

Depth of Concept: 9/10

Rounded Characters: 8/10

Well-Developed World: 7/10

Page Turner: 7/10

Kept Me Thinking: 9/10

Overall Recommendation: 9/10

Friday, June 22, 2012

On being slightly more helpful than unhelpful: An Amazon reviews update

So, it's been just a little over a month since the post in which I listed my stats for my reviews on Amazon. Since some people seem to find stats interesting (I do myself) I decided I'd follow up and let y'all know how things look now.

I currently have 42 out of 77 helpful votes, which puts my "helpful" percentage at about 55 %. This is about two percentage points higher than it was a month ago, when I had 29/54 helpful votes. So, that means either that people find my reviews very mediocre, and so I'm getting a score right in the middle, or that my reviews are polarizing, and that there's a very slim majority who like my reviews, and a very large minority who kind of want to kick my butt. But I'm growing more helpful with time, which is a good thing, right?

On an even more positive note, my review for Harry Potter gained one positive vote! 1 out of 9 people found that review helpful, which puts those who think the review was a bit of a waste at only about 90 %. I'm working my way up, baby!

So, let me just be clear that I'm in no way offended by a poor percentage on Amazon, or generally by people who disagree with me. I just think it's kind of interesting to follow the stats, and consider what that means about the people who come across my reviews, and what that might say about the larger population. Also, I especially enjoy detailed criticisms of my reviews, as those really get me thinking about whether I can justify them, or whether I need to revise them. Thanks to all of you who offer qualifications to some of my more outlandish assertions!

Anyway, here are the stats as they stand now. The title links to the review on this blog. The "votes" link goes to its page on Amazon, where you can sometimes find entertaining and disgruntled comments:

Eragon: 2/2 helpful votes

Moby Dick: 1/1 helpful votes

Twilight: 3/4 helpful votes

The Hunger Games: 5/7 helpful votes

Wizard's First Rule: 12/17 helpful votes

Ender's Game: 2/3 helpful votes

Red Mars: 2/3 helpful votes

A Game of Thrones: 6/10 helpful votes

The Fellowship of the Ring: 3/7 helpful votes

The Eye of the World: 3/8 helpful votes

The Graveyard Book: 1/3 helpful votes

The Road: 1/3 helpful votes

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: 1/9 helpful votes

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter: No votes yet

Heavy Time and Hellburner (Also printed together as Devil to the Belt): No votes yet

Night Watch: No votes yet

The Sword of Shannara: No votes yet

The Once and Future King: No votes yet

The Mote in God's Eye: No votes yet

In addition to my faintly increasing helpfulness, you may be interested to know that my post on 1001 Books to Read Before You Die is almost twice as visited as any other review. Other posts rounding out my top 5 popular posts are: The Hunger Games, On offending fans and being wrong, A Game of Thrones, and Ender's Game.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Book Review: Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2011), Seth Grahame-Smith. Paperback, 352 pages.

Summary: Abraham Lincoln's secret history as a vampire hunter is revealed in a series of personal journals. For a more detailed summary, click here.

First Sentences:
I was still bleeding . . . my hands shaking. As far as I knew, he was still here -- watching me. Somewhere, across a vast gulf of space, a television was on. A man was speaking about unity.
     By sunrise, Crowley had dragged most of his fellow settlers into the woods. He'd been left no alternative. Explaining a plague was easy. Almost as easy as explaining a man falling from a crow's nest, or a girl jumping overboard, or a fisherman being attacked by savages. But screams in the night, followed by the disappearance of four men, a woman, and an infant? That he couldn't explain. They would question him. Discover him. And that, he couldn't have. One by one, he dragged their battered bodies away. Of his 112 fellow settlers, only one had been spared his wrath.

     Crowley had hesitated to kill Virginia Dare. A baby that he had personally delivered? The first English soul born in the New world? These things had sentimental value. Besides, she would have no memory of what had happened here, and a young female companion might prove useful in the lonely years to come.

     "He returned from the woods with the baby in his arms. I daresay he was surprised to see me alive -- though barely so -- struggling to keep my feet while I carved the letters 'CRO' into a tree with a knife. My dying effort to expose the identity of my murderer. Of my wife and child's murderer. His shock subsided, Crowley could not help his laughter, for I had unwittingly given him a brilliant idea. Setting the baby down and taking my knife, he carved the word 'Croatoan' onto a nearby post, all the while smiling at the thought of John White massacring scores of unsuspecting natives in retaliation."

Writing Quality: 5/10

Depth of Concept: 5/10

Rounded Characters: 6/10

Well-Developed World: 6/10

Page Turner: 7/10

Kept Me Thinking: 5/10

Overall Recommendation: 5/10

Monday, June 11, 2012

Book Review: The Mote in God's Eye

The Mote in God's Eye (1974), Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Paperback, 592 pages.

Summary: A human civilization that spans many worlds and star systems discovers an artifact leading to a mysterious alien society. First contact ensues. For a more detailed summary, click here.

First Sentence:
"Admiral's compliments, and you're to come to his office right away," Midshipman Staley announced.
     "There's air," Whitbread reported. He watched the tell-tales that showed in a mirror just above his eye level. "Did I mention that? I wouldn't want to try breathing it. Normal pressure, oxygen around 18 percent, CO2 about 2 percent, enough helium to register, and --"
     "Helium? That's odd. Just how much?"
     Whitbread switched over to a more sensitive scale and waited for the analyzer to work. "Around 1 percent. Just under."
     "Anything else?"
     "Poisons. SO2, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, ketones, alcohols, and some other stuff that doesn't read out with this suit. The light blinks yellow."
     "Wouldn't kill you fast, then. You could breathe it a while and still get help in time to save your lungs."
     "That's what I thought," Whitbread said uneasily. He began loosening the dogs holding down his faceplate.
     "What does that mean, Whitbread?"
     "Nothing, sir." Jonathan had been doubled over far too long. Every joint and muscle screamed for surcease. He had run out of things to describe in the alien cabin. And the thrice-damned Motie just stood there in its sandals and its faint smile, watching, watching . . .
     Whitbread took a deep breath and held it. He lifted the faceplate against slight pressure, looked the alien in the eye, and screamed all in one breath, "Will you for God's sake turn off that damned force field!" and snapped the faceplate down.


Writing Quality: 6

Depth of Concept: 6

Rounded Characters: 5

Well-Developed World: 7

Page Turner: 8

Kept Me Thinking: 7

Overall Recommendation: 7