Monday, July 25, 2011

The Magician's Elephant

What if? Why not? Could it be?

When a fortuneteller's tent appears in the market square of the city of Baltese, orphan Peter Augustus Duchene knows the questions that he needs to ask: Does his sister still live? And if so, how can he find her? The fortuneteller's mysterious answer (an elephant! An elephant will lead him there!) sets off a chain of events so remarkable, so impossible, that you will hardly dare to believe it’s true. With atmospheric illustrations by fine artist Yoko Tanaka, here is a dreamlike and captivating tale that could only be narrated by Newbery Medalist Kate DiCamillo. In this timeless fable, she evokes the largest of themes — hope and belonging, desire and compassion — with the lightness of a magician’s touch.

I read this back to back with Water for Elephants because I figured if I was going to read a book with "Elephant" in the title, I may as well read two. :D And let me just say, that this book is infinitely the superior.

Tiger Rising was a little disappointing, but The Magician's Elephant has that same Kate DiCamillo style that I loved so much in The Tale of Despereaux. Simple and beautiful and a masterful weaving together of multiple plot elements and characters. This book is very short too, and I think that children will love it. I've added it to my list of books to buy for my home library. I thought it was brilliant, though still not quite as good as Despereaux. Her writer's voice is similar, but without directly addressing her audience, which is what I think is so fun about Despereaux.  

Water for Elephants

Though he may not speak of them, the memories still dwell inside Jacob Jankowski's ninety-something-year-old mind. Memories of himself as a young man, tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Memories of a world filled with freaks and clowns, with wonder and pain and anger and passion; a world with its own narrow, irrational rules, its own way of life, and its own way of death. The world of the circus: to Jacob it was both salvation and a living hell.

Jacob was there because his luck had run out - orphaned and penniless, he had no direction until he landed on this locomotive 'ship of fools'. It was the early part of the Great Depression, and everyone in this third-rate circus was lucky to have any job at all. Marlena, the star of the equestrian act, was there because she fell in love with the wrong man, a handsome circus boss with a wide mean streak. And Rosie the elephant was there because she was the great gray hope, the new act that was going to be the salvation of the circus; the only problem was, Rosie didn't have an act - in fact, she couldn't even follow instructions. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.

More evidence that just because a book is popular doesn't make it good (or worth reading). Ok, that's a bit harsh but I have to say straight up that Water for Elephants has some seriously inappropriate content. Two, maybe three scenes that very sexually explicit, plus a host of swearing (plenty of "f" words included). This kind of content is not really my style (and the reason why I usually stick to children's and YA lit). I honestly think the story could have been just as compelling, interesting, and historical without including all the rubbishy bits.

I feel like my brain could use a good scrubbing.

Despite that, I did like the story and even the characters. I knew I was going to like Jacob Jankowski right away because he was seriously funny in the intro given by his 90 year-old self (or 93; he can't quite remember which). The story moves right along and the setting is interesting - taking place during the Depression. All the details about circus life were fascinating, even though they occasionally showed the darker side of things. I loved the way the book ended. But I think I could have done without reading this book. I wouldn't say that it has added anything worthwhile to my life.

Anyone seen the movie? Thoughts?


This is the sequel to Hex Hall and though it's rare to feel this way about sequels, I enjoyed Demonglass much more than Hex Hall. There was so much more depth to the story and the characters. I'd post the summary if it didn't contain spoilers for the first book, but if you're interested, check it out here on goodreads. I was completely wrapped up in this book. I can't wait to read the next part of this series! My one complaint is that one character that I mentioned in my review of the first book still gets a lot of face time (along with her significant other making an appearance too). I wish that was not a part of this book! I'd recommend it to all of my friends if it weren't.



When Addy is swept back in time, she couldn't be happier to leave her miserable life behind. Now she's mistaken for Lady Matilda, the pampered ward of the king. If Addy can play her part, she'll have glorious gowns, jewels, and something she's always longed for—the respect and admiration of others. But then she meets Will, the falconer's son with sky blue eyes, who unsettles all her plans. 

From shipwrecks to castle dungeons, from betrothals to hidden conspiracies, Addy finds herself in a world where she's not the only one with a dangerous secret. When she discovers the truth, Addy must take matters into her own hands. The stakes? Her chance at true love . . . and the life she's meant to live.

I picked this one up because of the time travel aspect and was hoping to be wowed, but ended up feeling underwhelmed. It sounded interesting, and certainly had interesting elements. Addy is a servant in the early 1900s when she's swept back in time, so this story is a historical fiction within a historical fiction. We get background and details on both time periods and I enjoyed that. However, the believability factor was an issue for me. I had a really hard time suspending disbelief, so I couldn't get sucked into the story like I wanted. Plus, I thought the writing left a lot to be desired. I wanted it to be rich and detailed and it just... wasn't. I will admit to really enjoying all the falconry details, though.

Emily Whitman also recently published another book - a Persephone retelling called Radiant Darkness. Usually I read every greek mythology-based YA fiction book I hear of, but since Wildwing was so disappointing I don't think I'll be in a hurry to check it out.

The Icebound Land

This is the third book in the Ranger's Apprentice series and while I thought the first two were very action-packed and stand-alone good, I thought this third book was very much a bridge book. Not that it was uninteresting. Actually, I thought Flanagan used some surprising and very effective elements for developing his characters, even if they were more psychological than action-oriented. This book is slower and feels like it's not complete without the next in the series, which is frustrating because I've been having a hard time getting the fourth book from the library! Hopefully soon.

This is going to be a hard series to review because I don't feel like I can give any plot details without spoilers, so I guess I'll be dealing with a lot of vague generalities... :D Sorry!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

I know I've reviewed and/or talked about Harry Potter multiple times on this blog, but after I finished reading this today, I just felt the need to write about it. I love this series so much and I think this final book is one of the finest pieces of literature to ever grace the planet. It's the culmination of 7 books worth of plot layers and character development and emotion and fighting against evil and I just don't know how any other book will ever top it. I know I will be rereading this book (and the entire series) many times over the rest of my life. Each time I've read it I've spotted something new or found a particular spot that I especially enjoyed. I find the whole experience cathartic. I can't wait to see the final movie (which was my whole purpose in rereading this anyway)!!!!!!!

I've come to connect Harry Potter with my birthday - being in the middle of July - because I've seen so many of the movies or read so many of the books right after they've come out either on or directly around my birthday. This will never happen again and it makes me a little sad. Will there ever be anything else like this again? Another series that spans all ages of readers and makes us all appreciate the beauty of a well-told story? Will there be any other book series worth going to a midnight release party for? I just don't know. I hope so, but it's hard to imagine loving anything as much as I love this series. It feels like it's been a bit part of my life for so many years. And now I think I've waxed nostalgic long enough, don't you?

Blood Red Road

Summary: Saba has spent her whole life in Silverlake, a dried-up wasteland ravaged by constant sandstorms. The Wrecker civilization has long been destroyed, leaving only landfills for Saba and her family to scavenge from. That's fine by her, as long as her beloved twin brother Lugh is around. But when a monster sandstorm arrives, along with four cloaked horsemen, Saba's world is shattered. Lugh is captured, and Saba embarks on an epic quest to get him back.

Suddenly thrown into the lawless, ugly reality of the world outside of desolate Silverlake, Saba is lost without Lugh to guide her. So perhaps the most surprising thing of all is what Saba learns about herself: she's a fierce fighter, an unbeatable survivor, and a cunning opponent. And she has the power to take down a corrupt society from the inside. Teamed up with a handsome daredevil named Jack and a gang of girl revolutionaries called the Free Hawks, Saba stages a showdown that will change the course of her own civilization.

Blood Red Road has a searing pace, a poetically minimal writing style, violent action, and an epic love story. Moira Young is one of the most promising and startling new voices in teen fiction.

Wohoo! Move over all my recent favorite books. This one has just taken the top spot. And if it's not blasphemous to say it, I think I might just add that I liked it even more than I liked The Hunger Games.


It's that good.

One of the first things you'll notice when you read any review of this book is that either people hated the fact that the entire book is written in Saba's uneducated dialect (horrible spelling/grammar, no quotation marks) or they loved it. I loved it. This may come as a shock to those of you who know what a grammar stickler I am. It took me a couple pages to get into it, but after that, I don't think I even noticed it any more. If anything, it sucked me into the book more fully than it would have without the dialect. It felt very realistic to me too. How would language on our planet change if the events in Saba's world actually took place? I can see how it would become like this, and that idea fascinates me.

I loved the characters. I loved Saba. Loved Jack. Loved that the story was about more than just a love story, but was so much about family ties and trust and friends and so many other good things. The action was amazingly well-written and I loved that this book ended without a cliffhanger so I don't feel like I'm being manipulated into the reading the second book. Which I will be reading as soon as it comes out because I can't wait to see what more Moira Young has in store for me.


Summary: This classic romance novel tells the true story of the love affair that changed history-that of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the ancestors of most of the British royal family. Set in the vibrant 14th century of Chaucer and the Black Death, the story features knights fighting in battle, serfs struggling in poverty, and the magnificent Plantagenets-Edward III, the Black Prince, and Richard II-who ruled despotically over a court rotten with intrigue. Within this era of danger and romance, John of Gaunt, the king's son, falls passionately in love with the already married Katherine. Their well-documented affair and love persist through decades of war, adultery, murder, loneliness, and redemption. This epic novel of conflict, cruelty, and untamable love has become a classic since its first publication in 1954.

I enjoyed this so much! It came recommended by a friend (thanks Cretia!) and was worth every word. This book took me a little longer to read, but it's fascinating. Aside from the brilliant and compelling love story, what really sucked me into this book is the history. This is technically historical fiction, but the setting and most of the characters are as accurately portrayed as research allows. I loved the politics and the social struggles going on. Characters like Chaucer and John Wyclif make big cameos and I thought all the info in the changing religious scene was incredibly well done. Also, I loved the details on pilgrimages and the effects of the plague. Wow! This book is just sooo interesting! Plus, it's emotional. The characters are so real and their suffering is so compelling. I totally teared up at the end (I won't tell you what happens, even though it's widely-known history - just in case you don't know). Boy, am I ever glad that I wasn't born in medieval times.

The only disclaimer I have to make about this book is that, being medieval, there were some rather bawdy and lewd bits of humor. Aside from that, the whole fact that Katherine was John deGaunt's mistress is actually treated very tastefully - if you can believe it. Anyway, I recommend Katherine to all fans of historical fiction.

Jane Austen Ruined My Life

Summary: English professor Emma Grant has always done everything just the way her minister father told her she should -- a respectable marriage, a teaching job at a good college, and plans for the requisite two children. Life was prodigiously good, as her favorite author Jane Austen might say, until the day Emma finds her husband in bed with another woman. Suddenly, all her romantic notions a la Austen are exposed for the foolish dreams they are.

Denied tenure in the wake of the scandal and left penniless by the ensuing divorce, Emma packs up what few worldly possessions she has left and heads to England on a quest to find the missing letters of Jane Austen. Locating the elusive letters, however, isn't as straightforward as Emma hoped. The owner of the letters proves coy about her prize possessions, sending Emma on a series of Austen-related tasks that bring her closer and closer to the truth, but the sudden reappearance of Emma's first love makes everything more complicated.

In the end, Emma learns that doing the right thing has very little to do with other people's expectations and everything to do with her own beliefs. Laced with fictional excerpts from the missing letters, Jane Austen Ruined My Life is the story of a woman betrayed who uncovers the deeper meaning of loyalty.

I don't read a lot of Austen sequels or Austen based books, but I'm beginning to wonder why not, because every one that I've tried I've enjoyed. This book surprised me! It looks like a light bit of chick lit, but I found the emotions very real and relatable. That, and I just loved the whole subplot about the missing Austen letters. And while Pattilo takes some artistic license with Austen's life, she creates a story so real and so convincing that it makes perfect sense of the missing puzzle pieces in Austen's life. Frankly - loved it! That and a not perfectly wrapped happy ending made me respect this book more than I expected to. There's a moral and a message, but it's not hitting you over the head with it. I like that.

Oh, and my favorite part? The setting. Hands down. Emma, our main character, visits every important Austen site in England and I felt like I was able to visit them too - which I plan on doing someday in real life. In fact, I have my England trip all planned, and it includes tons of literary sites - particularly the Austen ones. It'll happen someday! But until then, I can reread Jane Austen Ruined My Life.

(And since this is adult romance chick lit, I just want to reassure those of you who might be wondering that this book is perfectly clean. Maybe one kiss. Nice of Pattillo, isn't it?)

The Tiger Rising

Summary: From the best-selling author of Because of Winn-Dixie comes the moving story of an eleven-year-old-boy, Rob Horton, who finds a caged tiger in the woods behind the hotel where he lives with his father. With the help of his new friend, Sistine Bailey, Rob must decide what to do with his discovery and at the same time come to terms with his past.

This is just a little bite of a read. It only took me half an hour on the treadmill to complete. Despite its length, though, I don't feel like this is a good children's book. Scratch that - I think it's a wonderful children's book, but I don't know if kids would like it. It's very heavy emotionally and while I admire Kate DiCamillo for not avoiding serious subjects I still don't feel like this is as enjoyable or uplifting as The Tale of Despereaux (which I absolute adored). As an adult, I didn't feel like it was long enough or fleshed out enough to be really enjoyable to me and I don't think kids will love it and treasure it like DiCamillo's other books, so I guess my response to The Tiger Rising is just somewhere in the middle. Neutral. Beautifully written, but not handsome enough to tempt me. :D 

But bittersweet and emotionally deep all the same. I don't know. I guess I'm just conflicted over this one!

Esperanza Rising

Summary: Esperanza Ortega possesses all the treasures a young girl could want: fancy dresses; a beautiful home filled with servants in the bountiful region of Aguascalientes, Mexico; and the promise of one day rising to Mama’s position and presiding over all of El Rancho de las Rosas. 

But a sudden tragedy shatters that dream, forcing Esperanza and Mama to flee to California and settle in a Mexican farm labor camp. There they confront the challenges of hard work, acceptance by their own people, and economic difficulties brought on by the Great Depression.  When Mama falls ill from Valley Fever and a strike for better working conditions threatens to uproot their new life, Esperanza must relinquish her hold on the past and learn to embrace a future ripe with the riches of family and community.

I thought this was a beautiful book! It's a sweet story about accepting what life throws at you without complaining and I loved all the historical elements. This is also based on the true story of the author's own grandmother. I thought the characters were all well-drawn, which made the story even more compelling. I wish it had been longer, actually, because I really enjoyed the whole reading experience. It's gone on my to-buy list (which, *sigh* is getting so long I've begun filling up an entire notebook with it, organized by genre).

Hex Hall

Summary: Three years ago, Sophie Mercer discovered that she was a witch. It's gotten her into a few scrapes. Her non-gifted mother has been as supportive as possible, consulting Sophie's estranged father--an elusive European warlock--only when necessary. But when Sophie attracts too much human attention for a prom-night spell gone horribly wrong, it's her dad who decides her punishment: exile to Hex Hall, an isolated reform school for wayward Prodigium, a.k.a. witches, faeries, and shapeshifters.

By the end of her first day among fellow freak-teens, Sophie has quite a scorecard: three powerful enemies who look like supermodels, a futile crush on a gorgeous warlock, a creepy tagalong ghost, and a new roommate who happens to be the most hated person and only vampire student on campus. Worse, Sophie soon learns that a mysterious predator has been attacking students, and her only friend is the number-one suspect.

As a series of blood-curdling mysteries starts to converge, Sophie prepares for the biggest threat of all: an ancient secret society determined to destroy all Prodigium, especially her.

I think the reason this book is successful and has such good reviews on amazon and goodreads and such is because it's much more complicated than the blurb up there would lead you to believe. It sounds like just a teenage story - with a little magic thrown in - but the plot ended up having some very interesting and subtle layers. I enjoyed peeling them back bit by bit and found myself completely engrossed in this book. I liked the characters, particularly Sophie. And HOLY COW!!! There is a twist that really threw me. Completely unexpected. Such a shock. I'm an expert at predicting books, so when this happens I really love the feeling.

This book is also very clean, but I have to add the disclaimer that one of the main characters is gay. I was really disappointed in that, because being a Disney-Hyperion book, I thought it would be perfectly clean. It bothered me a bit, but it wasn't a huge part of the book. I plan on reading the sequel because, really, the story is so interesting!