Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Winter Road Review (Terry Hokenson)

School and life have been hard for seventeen-year-old Willa Raedl since her brother Ray died. Jean is never around and Bud ignores her whenever he shows up; they were better parents when Ray was alive. When Uncle Jordy's drinking threatens the delivery of important cargo, Willa decides to fly her uncle's cold, Canadian route alone. A storm hits Willa's solo flight and she crash-lands in the wintry wilderness. This visceral survival story pits Willa against both arctic temperatures and her own self-doubt. She can't decide: It is the cold, the hunger, or the wolves that will kill her? In the end, she'll need more than snow boots and her pilot's training to live through this winter.

I love survival stories - they can be exciting and make the reader squirm in their seat during certain situations. But this one was . . . well, boring. Willa could have been a whole lot stupider in her situation, but the areas in which she was stupid were just irritating. Her plane is full of medical supplies and she doesn't take any of them with her when she decides to hike out!! None of them! That's downright stupidity. I don't care if you are able to make snowshoes, a toboggan, or a fish trap. If you are stranded with medical supplies and don't take them with you, you're just plain stupid. I was just hoping she would get injured bad so I could smugly taunt "Told you so!" at the pages.

However, that was the least annoying element in this book. Willa herself is just an aggravating girl in every respect. On top of that, is dialogue - this story takes place in Canada, therefore the characters are Canadian. I have read other books that take place in Canada with Canadian characters. Never has the author - thank God - found it necessary to put "eh" at the end or beginning of dialogue. Well, Terry Hokenson did find it necessary. Thankfully there isn't actually much dialogue because, well, Willa is stranded alone and the story doesn't deviate from her situation at all to say what's going on elsewhere. But Terry Hokenson made it up by putting "eh" in regular sentences! Plus there were Willa's thought processes, which ended or began with "eh." It drove me up a wall! One should never be accurate about how Canadians talk, unless you're making fun of them. Aside from the "eh" problem, the dialogue in general was random, annoying, and unnecessary. Willa would just all of a sudden say something for no particular reason at all.

The Winter Road by Terry Hokenson won't end up on my shelf.

Star Rating: 1/5 (didn't like it)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Walk Across the Sea Review (Susan Fletcher)

The first time Eliza sees Wah Chung, he is hunkering beside some rocks on the pathway to her island. Eliza's island is the one on which the lighthouse - operated and maintained by her father - stands, sending its beacon of safety to ships at sea. The pathway to the island is a treacherous one, engulfed by water when the tide is high, passable only when the tide is low and reveals the secret life of the sea on the rocks and in the pools that remain.

Although Eliza is careful to avoid Wah Chung as he paints among the rocks (after all, he is a Chinaman), when a "sneaker wave" approaches the passage, it is Wah Chung who warns her and then rescues Eliza's goat, Parthenia, before both are swept away.

It is a simple act of kindness, but one that causes Eliza to doubt many things. Are the Celestials, as the Chinese immigrants are called, such a threat to their small town? Are they really heathens, as her father claims? And what should she do when the townspeople conspire to expel these people forcibly? How will Eliza act, in the face of her father's strong beliefs and his duties as the lighthouse keeper, when Wah Chung comes to her for help in return?

I like a lot of Susan Fletcher's books, but this wasn't one of my favorites. The first-person narrative was annoying in its choppiness and the story itself was not all that engaging. It didn't have a definite storyline - things occurred that were mostly not connected. The issue of Wah Chung does not come back up until the end of the book. Eliza is a strong-willed girl, but she doesn't know how to control her words in a way that makes her stand her own in an argument, which gets really annoying after a while. After the fifth or sixth chapter, the story just seems to drag and go nowhere. The end feels pretty much the same.

I won't be adding Walk Across the Sea to my library.
Star Rating: 2/5 (it was ok)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

Rated: PG
Nineteen-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is attending a party at a lavish country estate when she sees a white rabbit with a pocket watch dart into the bushes. Curious, she follows the rabbit to an enormous tree, and tumbles down a hole that takes her to Underland, a strange world inhabited by anthropomorphic creatures in search of someone to save them from the dreaded Red Queen (Helena Bonham-Carter), who has assumed control of the kingdom by decapitating anyone who dares disagree with her. According to a scroll detailing a historical timeline of Underland -- including events that have not yet taken place -- it is Alice who will set the kingdom free by defeating the Jabberwocky, a powerful dragon-like creature under the control of the Red Queen. But is this Alice the same Alice who appears in the scroll? While some of the creatures of Underland have their doubts, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) and his friends are certain she's the same girl who previously visited them years ago. When the Red Queen kidnaps the Mad Hatter, Alice attempts to free her friend and locate the one weapon with the power to slay the Jabberwocky, thereby restoring the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) to the throne, and bringing peace back to Underland.

I really liked this Alice in Wonderland. I confess that I have yet to read the books, but I know enough about them that I was able to appreciate everything the movie played off of. Some people apparently didn't like the fact that Tim Burton wrote a sort of sequel rather than the same old Lewis Carroll story, but I'm glad he didn't. Practically everyone knows the story of Alice in Wonderland; to turn it into a movie would have been dull, because - let us face it, - while it is an entertaining read, it really has no storyline. It's a journey story, with no clear goal in the end. While I like these sorts of stories, it can make a movie drag and feel pointless. Tim Burton did a good job with "rewriting" it. He didn't really toy with the original story, but rather just extended it. And yet this movie did not feel like a sequel.

The cast was brilliant. When I found out that they were making Alice in Wonderland, I bet my friend $10 that Johnny Depp would play the Mad Hatter. And he was a brilliant Mad Hatter, though I do have to complain that sometimes he spoke so quietly and quickly that it was difficult to understand what he was saying. Even when I read sections of the book Alice in Wonderland, I always did find the Mad Hatter a pitiable character - not entirely certain why, - and I'm glad Tim Burton played upon that. Still, the Cheshire Cat was my favorite - always has been, always will. He reminds me of Mr. Bunbury, my cat, except he's more polite and helpful. They could not have done the Cheshire Cat any better in this. Helena Bonham-Carter was a very good Red Queen - I thought she was hilarious, - and Anne Hathaway made a good White Queen.

I know one of my friends didn't like that the CG wasn't so pristine that everything looked real. You could tell that things were CGd. But I really liked that! It gave the movie a more dreamlike quality, more nightmarish; something that would clearly be in a person's mind. If the CG had been so good that everything looked real, it would not have worked.

Alice in Wonderland was a very enjoyable, entertaining movie, with just the right quality of darkness that it needed. No one else but Tim Burton probably could have done it. I had very strange dreams after watching it, but I was impressed. It was good.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Castle in the Air Review (Diana Wynne Jones)

Synopsis: Young merchant Abdullah leads a humble life. Or he did until a stranger sold him a threadbare - and disagreeable - magic carpet. Now Abdullah is caught in the middle of his grand daydreams. Walking one night in a luxurious garden, he meets and falls instantly in love with the beautiful and clever Flower-in-the-Night. But a wicked djinn sweeps the princess away right before Abdullah's eyes, leaving the young man no choice but to follow. This is no ordinary quest, however, for Flower-in-the-Night isn't all the djinn had stolen. Abdullah will have the so-called help of the cantankerous carpet, a cranky genie in a bottle, a dishonest soldier, and a very opinionated black cat. Will this motley crew be able to find the djinn's mysterious dwelling and rescue a castle full of princesses?

Review: One should definitely read Howl's Moving Castle before you read this one. I admit, I was disappointed that Howl, Calcifer, and Sophie were not much in this book. But the genie easily replaces Howl in every respect, as does the black cat Sophie. And while the carpet never speaks, its attitude is strikingly like Calcifer's - sulky if it doesn't receive praise (rather reminds me of the old copier at the library, which I had to constantly wheedle before it printed). These, along with a few new characters, make Castle in the Air as fun and entertaining as Howl's Moving Castle and House of Many Ways. Abdullah can be slightly annoying, but overall he's likable and I always felt sorry when something bad happened to him. The soldier is likable also.

Diana Wynne Jones's talent for good characters also extends with the djinns - Hasruel is the type of character that I absolutely love putting in my own stories: overall he's good, but he will often stand in the background to observe the occurring events with great interest and not very interested in preventing anything. They always add a little extra to stories. Dalzel I felt sorry for.

I wish there was another book with these characters - I've fallen in love with Diana Wynne Jones's characters more than I thought I would. I'm no fan of fantasy, but the particular fantasy in these books pokes fun of itself. It's very funny. And as soon as I can find hardcover copies of Castle in the Air, Howl's Moving Castle, and House of Many Ways I'm going to add them to my collection.

Overall Rating: {{{{

Others in This Trilogy:
1)Howl's Moving Castle
2)Castle in the Air
3)House of Many Ways

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Dragonfly Pool Review (Eva Ibbotson)

At first Tally doesn't want to go to the boarding school called Delderton. But she soon discovers that it is a wonderful place where freedom and self-expression are valued. After seeing a travelogue about Bergania, Tally wants nothing more than to visit this peaceful and serene European country and catch a glimpse of the noble King Johannes, who bravely refuses to bend to the Nazis' demands. When Tally finds out that the 1939 international folk dancing festival will be held in Bergania, she organizes a ragtag dance troupe so that the school can participate.

It is there that she befriends Karil, the crown prince, who would love nothing more than to have ordinary friends and attend a school like Delderton. When Karil's father is assassinated, it is up to Tally and her friends to help Karil escape the Nazis and save him from the bleak future that he has inherited.

Eva Ibbotson is one of my favorite Authors - her stories have always been interesting and deal greatly with WWII. Her writing style is also very enjoyable and not overly modern. The style of this particular book was fun. It was slightly light-hearted and comical, but serious when it needed to be.

Tally is yet another female protagonist that I have grown to like. Her stubbornness does not get in the way of anything or cause problems like most stubborn heroines. And she adapts to situations quickly. All of the other characters are just as likable - or irritating, according to how the Reader is supposed to react to them. Carlotta put me on edge, just as she is supposed to.

I must confess, though, that Kevin Hawkes's illustrations do not go with this particular story. They give it a childish feel, taking away from some of the more serious situations. Just as Eva Ibbotson's descriptions of the two hit men that the Gestapo hire to capture Karil. They add a flavor of silliness and childishness that is out of place for both the subject and the storyline.

Despite these minor complaints, I loved The Dragonfly Pool, and will definitely be adding it to my collection.
Star Rating: 4/5 (really liked it)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Dancing At the Odinochka Review (Kirkpatrick Hill)

Nearly 150 years ago, when Alaska belonged to Russia and was called Russian America, Erinia Pavaloff lived at the Nulato odinochka on the banks of the Yukon River. Owned by the Russian American Company, an odinochka was a trading post where native people traded their furs for precious Russian supplies.

Then men from the American Western Union Telegraph show up to lay telegraph line. This marks a changing point in Erinia's life. . .

This is a book that I call a "lifetime story" - a book that doesn't particularly have one important plotline, but rather describes certain points in the life a person from when they are very little to some later point in their older life. So if you're looking for a "plotline" book, this will disappoint you.

Me, personally - I sometimes like "lifetime stories." They often give very interesting insight into different cultures and ways of living; the backbreaking work that accompanies such rugged life that is not advanced in its "technology." As a person who finds different cultures fascinating, these sorts of reads can keep me engaged for hours.

But this one didn't. The age range for this book is 9-14, but the writing style seems very childish even for 9-year-olds. I constantly felt that there ought to be little pencil drawings like in a child's picture book to accompany many of the passages. It annoyed me and detracted from what could have been very engaging descriptions of Russian, Indian, and some Eskimo traditions and beliefs.

This is based off a true story, but on top of the writing style was the fact that all of the characters (except maybe one or two) are good people. It made it feel even more as a work of fiction and less as if it were based off a true story. There is also a prevailing air of political correctness to the entire narration; this constant feeling of "oh, it's their culture, so it is okay, and in no way did Alaska benefit from becoming an American State." Perhaps it would have been different had it been written in first person - no doubt there were some people who did feel like that. But written as a third-person narration, it felt as if the Author were giving more of a lecture; like it was a belief that was shared by everyone.

I was disappointed with Dancing At the Odinochka. By Chapter Two, I was having a hard time becoming attached to any of the characters and engaged in what was happening - mostly because of how it was written. I do not think that I will add it to my collection.
Star Rating: 2/5 (it was ok)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Howl's Moving Castle Review (Diana Wynne Jones)

Sophie has the great misfortune of being the eldest of three daughters, destined to fail miserably should she ever leave home to seek her fate. But when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie finds herself under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady. Her only chance at breaking it lies in the ever-moving castle in the hills: the Wizard Howl's castle. To untangle the enchantment, Sophie must handle the heartless Howl, strike a bargain with a fire demon, and meet the Witch of the Waste head-on. Along the way, she discovers that there's far more to Howl - and herself - than first meets the eye.

In many ways, I'm glad I read House of Many Ways before I read Howl's Moving Castle. It gave me an opportunity to decide which characters I really wanted to get to know in this one. Who wins? Well, Calcifer is still my favorite. He's even more adorable (as adorable as a fire demon can be, and he really is quite an adorable one) and hilarious than in House of Many Ways. Yes, Calcifer will always be my favorite.

But I love the other characters almost as much as he. Howl is one of the funniest "cowards" I've ever known in the Literary World. I'm not one for dashing, roguish characters - it is my sound opinion that they ought to have a firm grandmother always watching their every action. Apparently, Sophie shared my exact opinion, and it made me bear Howl better because he spent more time being pathetic (the episode with the cold had me laughing very hard) than roguish and dashing due to the fact that Sophie wouldn't put up with it. And Howl really isn't all that roguish and dashing - he's brave and honorable, even if he denies it.

Sophie is a wonderful character! Never have I been so fond of a main female character. She spends none of her time bemoaning her fate, or really even complaining. She gets down to business and won't hear any lip from anyone else about it. Even her nosiness - which usually irritates me in a character because it brings them into stupid situations - didn't bother me. When her curiosity does bring her into a bad situation, she admits that it was her fault and deals with it. Sophie is a very practical person; I rather wish I could be like her, save for, maybe, the temper.

Which brings me to another point: normally the whole scenario of two people arguing who really love each other, but argue and pick because they don't want to admit that they love each other, really, really irritates me. It's not funny; it's just annoying, and makes both characters pretty irksome. Even unlikeable. But Sophie and Howl's bickerings were somehow different. Maybe because the whole "I-love-you-but-won't-admit-it" theme was pretty much missing. No surprise, Sophie and Howl do end up marrying, but their bickerings are part of their character - not something that started happening just because they were denying their own feelings. And also, both handle the other's bad tempers pretty well! Sophie chides Howl or ignores him (the latter mostly) when he starts pouting, and Howl just gently teases Sophie or leaves her alone when she is angry. Howl is also a "slitherer-outer" - as Sophie calls him, - so he doesn't seem to pursue an argument for very long.

I really did enjoy this book. Like House of Many Ways, it has a lot of the same Victorian-ish humor; poking fun at itself and taking cliche myths and housewife sayings and turning them real, making for very hilarious situations. As I said in my review for House of Many Ways, any story that can make an inanimate object a lovable character (in this case, a skull and a scarecrow) is definitely worth reading.
There's apparently a third book - Castle in the Air - and I'm going to read it. But like House of Many Ways, Howl's Moving Castle can also work as a stand-alone book. But I guarantee you that after reading it, you'll want to read the others.
Star Rating: 4/5 (really liked it)

Others in This Trilogy:
1)Howl's Moving Castle
2)Castle in the Air
3)House of Many Ways

Saturday, June 12, 2010

House of Many Ways Review (Diana Wynne Jones)

Charmain Baker is in over her head. Looking after Great-Uncle William's tiny cottage while he's ill should have been easy. But Great-Uncle William is better known as the Royal Wizard of Norland, and his house bends space and time. Its single door leads to any number of places - the bedrooms, the kitchen, the caves under the mountains, the past, and the Royal Mansion, to name just a few. By opening that door, Charmain has become responsible for not only the house, but for an extremely magical stray dog, a muddled young apprentice wizard, and a box of the king's most treasured documents. She has encountered a terrifying beast called a lubbock, irritated a clan of small blue creatures, and wound up smack in the middle of an urgent search. The king and his daughter are desperate to find the lost, fabled Elfgift - so desperate that they've even called in an intimidating sorceress named Sophie to help. And where Sophie is, can the Wizard Howl and fire demon Calcifer be far behind? Of course, with that magical family involved, there's bound to be chaos - and unexpected revelations. No one will be more surprised than Charmain by what Howl and Sophie discover.

This, apparently, is the sequel to Howl's Moving Castle. I didn't read Howl's Moving Castle first (though now I certainly intend to), and it seems that House of Many Ways can act as a good stand-alone book. That said, time to move on to my review.

First point: it's funny. I would venture to say that there is even a bit of an early-Victorian flair in its style and humor. Especially with Charmain's Aunt Sempronia and the various tea parties that Charmain inadvertently disrupts. Diana Wynne Jones also throws in various humorous spins on famous myths - the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, dirty laundry breeds (which is a fact that my mom will testify to), etc. The chaotic scenes are not slapstick chaotic - they are very funny and rather ordered in their chaoticness.

Second point: the characters. Charmain can grate upon the Reader's nerves - thankfully, this book in not written in first person, so her irritatingly-quick temper does not get overly annoying. To her credit, Charmain does attempt to be kinder to people, and she cannot entirely help the fact that she doesn't know how to do any household chores - that would be her mother's fault. But in short order, you get used to Charmain and don't mind her too much. Peter is more annoying that her, because he thinks he knows how to do everything, but really doesn't. He bungles his spells all the time, causing more problems. But there's something endearing about him in his know-it-allness. But my favorite character (aside from Waif the dog and The Boke of Palimpsest; it's always a good sign when a story can make a book a funny character!) was Calcifer. There was something about the fire demon - who is nothing more than a blue flame with red eyes who sleeps in fireplaces - that I really liked. Howl was not in the story enough as himself for me to fully enjoy him, but what short time he was, I liked him as well. Still, Calcifer stands out as my favorite.

The one complaint I have is a very small one - that being the Author constantly inserted the utterance of "Er" in dialogue. To me, that's a sign of weak dialogue writing and it gets on my nerves. But my overall enjoyment of the comical story and likable characters overshadowed this minor annoyance. I'm not a fan of fantasy, but comical fantasy like this - fantasy that pokes fun at itself - I like. The slight Victorian flavor made it even more enjoyable. I'm going to read Howl's Moving Castle as soon as I can and I'll probably end up buying at least House of Many Ways.

If you're looking for a relaxing, amusing read, House of Many Ways is definitely a good pick.

Star Rating: 4/5 (really liked it)

Others in This Trilogy:
1)Howl's Moving Castle
2)Castle in the Air
3)House of Many Ways

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Snow Falling in Spring Review (Moying Li)

Moying Li is twelve years old when the Cultural Revolution sweeps across China. Studying at a prestigious language school in Beijing, she seems destined for a promising future. But everything changes when student Red Guards orchestrate brutal assaults, public humiliations, and forced confessions throughout the country. After watching her headmasters beaten in public, Moying flees school for the safety of home, only to find her beloved grandmother denounced, her house ransacked, and her baba taken away - along with his precious books. Struggling to make sense of her crumbling world, she finds sanctuary in literature. But with many schools shut down and most books forbidden, how can she keep her passion for learning alive? 

This book really makes you appreciate living in a country where you still have freedom. Again, this isn't a made-up story; it's a biography written by Moying Li. Her precise writing and insight into China - along with the blend of various Chinese words (and there is an index in the back for easy lookup) - make it a very interesting and easy read.

But it is also a hard read - especially for those who love books. Since it is during the Cultural Revolution, plenty of books are destroyed in the story, and those are very hard passages for any book-lover to read. The crimes committed by the Red Guard are horrendous; it left me staring in shock that they could get by with such monstrosities. It's not surprising, but every time I read a true account about such things, it always has the shocking effect on me. It left me feeling a little scared. My worst nightmare is to have my freedom taken away.

I don't really have anything negative to say about Snow Falling in Spring. It is very well-written, very engaging, very informative, and a strong recommendation from myself. I certainly intend to buy it.
Star Rating: 5/5 (this book was amazing)

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Disguised Review (Rita la Fontaine de Clercq Zubli)

With the Japanese army poised to invade their Indonesian island in 1942, Rita la Fontaine's family knew that they would soon become prisoners of war. One of their greatest fears was that 12-year-old Rita - their only daughter - would be forced to act as a "comfort woman" for the Japanese soldiers, so they launched a daring and desperate plan to turn Rita into "Rick." Rita's long dark hair was cut short, and she was dressed in boys' clothes. For the next three years, she carried out a dangerous charade.

This isn't a made-up story. It's true, and this book is written by Rita la Fontaine herself. It reads as both a biography and a novel, and the fact that every word of it is true makes it an even more engaging story than if it were a mere wartime novel. From the moment I started reading Disguised: A Wartime Memoir, I was enthralled and deeply interested in what happened to Rita. I was curious to see how she continued to maintain her disguise as she grew from a 12-year-old girl to a 14-year-old. It's really amazing how she pulled it off!

What most impressed me with Rita la Fontaine's writing was how she dealt with delicate scenes. There are plenty of them, but Rita never finds it necessary to go into detail. She gives a clear picture of what is going on in as few words as possible, while also giving insight into how a 12-year-old girl perceives such situations. There is one part in particular, when Rita is attacked by a Japanese soldier, that the author handles particularly well in its telling. Again, the fewest words are used to explain what is going on, but the Reader gets a clear - but not overly explicit - picture of the situation.

The book also gives an interesting insight into the Japanese who occupied the Indonesian islands. Through the years of occupation, Rita encounters soldiers who are brutal, but she also encounters just as many - if not more - who do as much as they can for the prisoners of war and even go against their orders to burn the camps and prisoners within when Japan surrenders. It just goes to illustrate once more that people are people; you'll encounter the bad and the good in any place, and even during the time of war, Rita was able to consider many Japanese as her friends.

Disguised: A Wartime Memoir by Rita la Fontaine de Clercq Zubli is going on my Books to Buy list.

Star Review: 5/5 (this book was amazing)