Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J. K. Rowling

This collection of five fairy tales from J.K. Rowling's fictional wizarding world is a charming addition to the Harry Potter canon. It continues the whimsical feeling found in the early Harry Potter volumes; a feeling readers may begin to connect with childhood in the wizarding community. It's easy to imagine Mrs. Weasley reciting the stories to her children at bedtime.

Albus Dumbledore's commentary on the stories is almost better than the stories themselves. Dumbledore's trademark humor is evident in nearly every paragraph. There are any number of books on Muggle shelves in which scholars attempt to analyze the themes of fairy tales and fantasy stories, and it only seems fitting that the same sort of book should be found on Wizard shelves as well.

This book was an excellent foray into Harry Potter's world. I can only hope that Ms. Rowling will choose to write another such addition at some point in the future.

What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell

Fifteen-year-old Evie thinks she's got the perfect life. Her mother is as beautiful and charming as a movie star. Her stepfather, Joe, is home from World War II and is running several successful stores. Her best friend always stands up for her, no matter what. To top it all off, Joe is taking the family on a vacation to Palm Beach! Not long after they arrive in Florida, a handsome young man who served with Joe in the army appears and joins their circle of friends, instantly capturing Evie's heart. The only trouble is that as Evie gets closer to Peter, she begins to realize that her family is not what she thinks it is. When Peter disappears under circumstances that appear to incriminate Evie's parents, Evie must unravel all the secrets and get down to the truth.

This story reads like a 1940's mystery film. Evie mentions Lana Turner and Barbara Stanwyck, and either actress would be a good fit to play a role in this story. The language use is dead on for the period, and Evie's naivete is just about right for a sheltered teenage girl of the 40's. I found myself able to predict most of the story's big points, but I didn't find that to be a drawback, since I was dreading the moment Evie would realize those things. The tension in this story remains tightly wound until the last, and Evie's final decision, while surprising in some ways, makes perfect sense in others.

Savvy by Ingrid Law

The Beaumonts are not like other families. Each member of the Beaumont family has a Savvy, or a special ability, which appears on a child's thirteenth birthday. Rocket Beaumont can produce electricity. Fish Beaumont can control water. Momma Beaumont does everything perfectly. As Mississippi Beaumont, called Mibs, approaches her thirteenth birthday, an accident changes the Beaumont family, possibly forever. Now, Mibs has a new purpose. She has to find out what her Savvy is, and she has to figure out how she can use it to save her Poppa.

I'm a fan of comic books and superhero stories, but I tend to get bored when the same superpowers are used again and again. This is not the case with Savvy. The special abilities Law gives her characters are abilities I've not seen before, like the ability to catch radio waves in a jar, or to hear tattoos talking about their wearers. Also different is how the special abilities are portrayed. It can take years to master a Savvy, and in the meantime, they seem to be more trouble than they're worth. When Rocket's feeling particularly emotional, he accidentally blacks out the power for miles around; Fish has been known to cause accidental hurricanes; even Momma, whose Savvy is perfection, can mess things up perfectly.

The charm of this story lies in the folksy language used by Mibs as the narrator. The book really feels like an old-fashioned folk tale, and it's almost like being removed from our own time to visit another place. Mibs is an easy character to love, as are her brothers and her friends. It's easy to care about their predicament, and the ending is a satisfying one. All around, a great book.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Katsa is the niece of King Randa of the Middluns. She is also graced with the ability to kill. She works day after day to control her grace, rather than allowing it to control her, but her uncle is all too eager to use her abilities to suit his nefarious purposes. Katsa allows herself to be used, but she also uses her position with her uncle to found a council that works to help the oppressed in all of the seven kingdoms. When the father of a nearby king is kidnapped, Katsa and her council plot to recapture him. Their investigation into who orchestrated the kidnapping and why leads to more questions than answers, and prompts the discovery of a treachery more heinous than Katsa could possibly have imagined.

The story starts slow, but as the readers begin to make discoveries along with Katsa, the pace begins to quicken. Katsa's connection to Po, another royal graced with incredible abilities, keeps the story strong. The evil they fight against is truly appalling, and the desperation with which Katsa must fight made me root for her with all my might. This was an excellent piece of storytelling, and I can't wait to read more of Cashore's work.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

It's been a very long time since I've been absorbed into a book as completely as I was with The Hunger Games. From beginning to end, this was a difficult book to put down. For two days, I carried it with me wherever I went, just in case I happened to have a few minutes to spend reading. It was past midnight when I reached the end, and for my family's sake, I supressed the urge to shout when I reached the words, "End of Book One." I so, so want to have more of this story.

Katniss lives in a version of North America that has survived another civil war. The rebellion has failed, and as punishment, each of the twelve remaining territories must give up two of its teenagers for a gladiator-style fight to the death. Katniss, a hunter who has been providing for her family since her father's death several years earlier, is stunned when her fragile younger sister is chosen as this year's tribute, and she immediately offers herself in Prim's place.

Katniss is not a particularly sympathetic character, but she's not entirely hardened, either. She's something of an unreliable narrator, but all of her flaws and failings only make the reader identify with her more firmly. Katniss's eventual act of rebellion at the close of the Games is unsurprising, and I wanted to cheer when the idea occurred to her. 

Katniss is wonderfully complex, and utterly devoted to the people she loves. She's a character that we could probably spend several books on and still not fully understand. I sincerely cannot wait until I can read more of this story.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

"They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." -Benjamin Franklin

Marcus Yallow can get past any security system. His school uses gait recognition cameras and snooping laptops, but none of that can keep Marcus and his best friend Darryl from sneaking out to find the next clue in their online multiplayer scavenger hunt. They meet up with the other two members of their team to work out the clue, and the unthinkable happens. The ground under Marcus's feet shakes with the force of the explosion as the nearby San Francisco Bay Bridge is demolished. In the midst of the smoke and screaming crowds, Darryl is injured. Frightened and alone, the three other teenagers attempt to save his life, but his injury is beyond their ability to treat. In desperation, Marcus attempts to flag down a passing car, unaware that this act will change his life forever. The occupants of the car take Marcus and his friends hostage, and he is certain that these are the same terrorists who caused the explosion.

It's worse than Marcus thinks. He has been taken into custody by the Department of Homeland Security. He and his friends are separated and locked up in a secret government facility. Marcus is questioned daily, and when his answers are unsatisfactory, he is deprived of basic necessities, like food and toilet privileges.  Finally, Marcus is released along with two of his friends. Darryl, however, is gone.

Now, Marcus faces a world on lock down. His entire city has submitted to the restrictions of the Department of Homeland Security. Nothing is private, and everyone is a suspect. Marcus can't take it lying down, but what can a 17 year old under government surveillance do to put the government right again?

Little Brother deals with the most difficult questions of our time. Should we be willing to give up our civil liberties in exchange for national security? Will giving up those liberties make us less vulnerable to terrorist attack? Is it worth living in safety if you must always be able to explain your every action to police? Marcus's decision is thought provoking, and it's something that everyone should consider in our day and age.