Friday, August 31, 2012

Rereading The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey by Trenton Lee Stewart

On a bright September morning, when most children his age were in school fretting over fractions and decimal points, a boy named Reynie Muldoon was walking down a dusty road. He was an average-looking boy- with average brown hair and eyes, legs of average length, nose an average distance from his ears, and so on- and he was entirely alone. Other than a falcon soaring high over the road and a few meadowlarks keeping a low profile in the fields on either side, Reynie was the only living creature around.

In the second book of The Mysterious Benedict Society series, Mr. Benedict arranges a special surprise for the anniversary of the children's meeting, but is kidnapped along with Number Two by Mr. Curtain. And no one knows his location because it was supposed to be a surprise. So the children set off by themselves to try and locate Mr. Benedict and Number Two and rescue them. Unlike many series, I think the second book was just as good (though not any better) than the first one. And that holds true for the third one too. (But I'll get to that later.) Reynie, Sticky, Kate, and Constance have to solve a lot of puzzles to find out how to get to where Mr. Benedict is, an opportunity for Trenton Lee Stewart to come up with new mind-benders for the children (mostly Reynie) to solve. That, and the element of suspense, is probably my favorite part of the series. Hmm, what else to say? Well, this one has the element of travelling too. They're not just secret agents at L.I.V.E. It was a whole different type of story, following in the tracks of Mr. Benedict. And we meet the other characters from The Mysterious Benedict Society again: Jackson, Jillson, Martina Crowe, S.Q, and the vicious "Ten Men." And Mr. Curtain obviously.

Anyway, this is a great sequel, and I would recommend it if you loved (or even liked) The Mysterious Benedict Society.

Read The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey:
  • if you liked the first book
  • if you like mysteries with mind-bending puzzles (though you really have to read the first book)
  • if you like books with smart children outwitting evil adults
440 pages.
Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Rereading The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

In a city called Stonetown, near a port called Stonetown Harbor, a boy named Reynie Muldoon was preparing to take an important test. It was the second test of the day- the first had been in an office across town. After that one he was told to come here, to the Monk Building on Third Street, and to bring nothing but a single pencil and a single rubber eraser, and to arrive no later than one o'clock. If he happened to be late, or bring two pencils, or forget his eraser, or in any other way deviate from the instructions, he would not be allowed to take the test, and that would be that. 

Four children, Kate, Sticky, Reynie, and Constance, are drawn together from an ad in the paper looking for "gifted children." They meet Mr. Benedict, who tells them of secret messages that are being broadcasted into people's heads for a dire purpose. And it's up to them to stop it. They must go to the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, LIVE, which incidentally, spelled backwards is EVIL, to try and foil Mr. Curtain's plan. At least, that's the basic story. It doesn't that great. But it really is. This was Trenton Lee Stewart's first novel, and there are three more in the series, all equally good. Also, The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict, a prequel. This is one of those books about smart children having to save the world and defeat evil adults. Similar to Roald Dahl, but more complicated. The puzzles within the book are quite interesting, and I really like the characters. Reynie is good at puzzles and logic, Kate has amazing athletic skills, Sticky knows basically everything and Constance- well, we're not sure about Constance (though we later find out that she is younger than one would expect.) Mr. Benedict is quite a good character, and I had more background knowledge about him now that I'd read The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict. The book is suspenseful as well.

Read The Mysterious Benedict Society
  • if you like mystery
  • if you like semi-fantasy fiction
  • if you like books about kids saving the world/defeating adults (think Roald Dahl more complicated)
485 pages.
Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Travels With My Aunt, Graham Greene

I met my Aunt Augusta for the first time in more than half a century at my mother's funeral. My mother was approaching eighty-six when she died, and my aunt was some eleven or twelve years younger. I had retired from the bank two years before with an adequate pension and a silver handshake. There had been a take-over by the Westminster and my branch was considered redundant. Everyone thought me lucky, but I found it difficult to occupy my time. I have never married, I have always lived quietly, and, apart from my interest in dahlias, I have no hobby. For those reasons I found myself agreeably excited by my mother's funeral. 

I wasn't sure what to expect of Graham Greene, whether I would find him dull or interesting. And I heartily enjoyed Travels With My Aunt. Apparently, Graham Greene described it as "the only book I have written for the fun of it" (which doesn't speak so well for his other novels), and it was quite amusing, but also somehow serious at the same time (in a way.) The narrator of the book is Henry Pulling, a retired bank manager with nothing much to do. He meets his Aunt Augusta at what he believes to be his mother's funeral. She may be seventy-five, but she still travels and convinces Henry to come with her to travel the globe. Their first trip? Istanbul, via the Orient Express. Aunt Agatha also has many tales of her various adventures in various places, with various men. She was quite comic, especially the way that she talked about things. And Henry, who has never done anything dangerous in his life, finds himself mixing with all sorts of not-so-respectable company.

I was pleasantly surprised by this one, though I have a feeling that not all of Graham Greene's works are so humorous and light. But it was a good place to start, and perhaps will help me enjoy other novels of his. Also, I got the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, which was quite beautiful designed, with a nice cover image (a dahlia, I believe.) I would definitely recommend that edition (I'm not sure if there are many others available anyway.)

Read Travels With My Aunt:
  • if you like Graham Greene
  • if you like British literature
  • if you are looking for a funny novel
254 pages.
Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook For Visitors to the Fourteenth Century, Ian Mortimer

From Chapter 1: It is the cathedral that you will see first. As you journey along the road you come to a break in the trees and there it is, massive and magnificent, cresting the hilltop in the morning sun. Despite the wooden scaffolding at its west end, the long eighty-foot-high pointed lead roof and the flying buttresses and colossal towers is simply the wonder of the region. It is hundreds of times bigger than every other building around it and dwarfs the stone walls surrounding the city. The hundreds of houses appear tiny, all at chaotic angles, and of different shades and hues, as if they were so many stones at the bottom of a stream flowing around the great boulder of the cathedral. The thirty churches- though their low stumpy towers stand out from the mass of roofs- seem humble by comparison.

The title of this one is pretty self explanatory. The book is that; a guide to a virtual time traveler in 14th century England. Ian Mortimer explains in his introduction that rather than looking on history as something that happened, he will tell it as something that's happening, as if you were in the time period, breathing the sights (and often unpleasant smells). In this book, he discusses many aspects of what life was like for the various classes during the period, and also the various structures and laws in place. It is all very well to read a dry history book, but something like this is my favorite kind of nonfiction-history. He takes you there himself. There also 16 pages of color paintings from the time to illustrate various elements of life, and various charts and statistics, though some weren't that interesting.

This was quite a fascinating book, and the period itself is very complicated. On the one hand, there are lavish meals at lords' houses, and beautiful cities, but on the other hand, in other parts of the cities, there are just cesspools of debris and garbage, and harsh laws and punishments. And of course, the Black Death- the plague. Mortimer really breaths life into the period; I could almost imagine myself there. Some of the sections were more interesting than others (for example, I wasn't so interested in the one on clothing), some of my favorites being those on the people, the laws, entertainment, and the food. But all of them were written very well. A lot of things were introduced in this century, such as buttons, pockets, and differentiated shoes. And of course, from the beginning to the end of the 14th century, much changed. I was also struck by the mention of the "misericord" on pages 186-187, a dining room outside of the refectory where monks can eat the meat of four-legged animals (which is against the rules, but they found a loophole.) If you will remember, this term is used in Grave Mercy, which is set in the 15th century, to describe a weapon used by Ismae that can kill a person with one scratch. I'm not sure how these two uses related, but it was interesting.

I got this one from Touchstone (a division of Simon & Schuster), and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I would recommend it to anyone who's looking for a new take on interpreting and telling history, or particularly interested in the medieval era.

Read The Time Traveler's Guide to the 14th Century:
  • if you like history
  • if you are interested in the 14th century (medieval era)
292 pages.
Very Good! I would recommend this book!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Rereading Dealing With Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

Linderwall was a large kingdom, just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable. The climate was unremarkable. The knights kept their armor brightly polished mainly for show- it had been centuries since a dragon had come east. There were the usual periodic problems with royal children and uninvited fairy godmothers, but they were always the sort of thing that could be cleared up by finding the proper prince or princess to marry the unfortunate child a few years later. All in all, Linderwall was a very prosperous and pleasant place.

Cimorene hated it.

Cimorene is the youngest daughter of the king of Linderwall, very different from her six older sisters. She likes to learn magic and fencing, Latin, philosophy, and cooking. So when her parents try to force her to marry the rather dim-witted Prince Therandil, she runs away and becomes the dragon Kazul's princess. But the wizards are causing trouble with the dragons, and something's going on. It's up to Cimorene and her friends to find out.

This is one of my favorite middle-grade fantasies. Yes, it's easy, but it has a matter-of-fact and humorous way about that makes me reread it again and again. I love the character of Cimorene; she's untraditional, but really wonderful. Morwen the witch is also amusing, as is Kazul. Cimorene is a princess who doesn't hesitate to take her fate into her own hands. Dealing With the Dragons is the first of a series of four books, and while the other three are good too, it's definitely my favorite.

Read Dealing With Dragons:
  • if you like fantasy, particularly with good dragons
  • if you like stories with determined female protagonists
  • if you're looking for an easy but entertaining read
212 pages.
Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Fire, Kristin Cashore

From the prologue: Larch often thought that if it had not been for his newborn son, he never would have survived his wife Mikra's death. It was half that the infant boy needed a breathing, functioning father who got out of bed in the mornings and slogged through the day; and it was half the child himself. Such a good-natured baby, so calm. His gurgles and coos so musical, and his eyes deep brown like the eyes of his dead mother. 

Fire is Kristin Cashore's second book, but it is set thirty-five years before Graceling. Fire is set in the Dells, a land over the mountains from Monsea. It is mentioned briefly in Graceling, and this is because King Leck told tales of the Dells to the people of Monsea. And that is because Leck had visited Monsea. And he is the baby in the opening paragraph of the prologue. He is the only character from Graceling also in Fire. But the main character is Fire herself a "monster", a beautiful human with the ability to get inside people's minds and control them (there are also animal monsters too.) There is turmoil in the Dells: King Nash's father and Fire's father ruined the kingdom. Chaos reigns. And then Fire meets Prince Brigan, the younger brother of Nash. She can't get inside his mind, and is somehow drawn to him. It gets complicated.

Anyway, I wouldn't say I liked Fire as much as Graceling, but I still loved it a lot, in its own way. It was nice to read about another world over the mountains from the seven kingdoms. But I thought it was kind of strange that they hadn't had much contact before; surely at least someone from one of the kingdoms would  want to explore over the mountains? But that's really irrelevant to this story. I liked Fire and Brigan a lot, but certainly not as much as Katsa and Po. Fire was an entertaining read, and I would recommend to anyone who loved or liked Graceling, and wants more Kristin Cashore. It really was a good book, gripping, and just as suspenseful as Graceling. So I'm not sure why exactly I liked a bit less. Probably the characters. But it's still a 5 star for me...

Read Fire:
  • if you like fantasy
  • if you liked Graceling
461 pages.
Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Rereading Mary Poppins Comes Back by P.L. Travers

It was one of those mornings when everything looks very neat and bright and shiny, as though the world had been tidied up overnight. In Cherry-Tree Lane the houses blinked as their blinds went up, and the thin shadows of the cherry-trees fell in dark stripes across the sunlight. But there was no sound anywhere, except for the tingling of the Ice Cream Man's bell as he wheeled his cart up and down.

Mary Poppins Comes Back is the second book about Mary Poppins. I wouldn't say it is quite as good as the first one; it lacks some of the newness and shine and surprise, but it is still enjoyable. Mary Poppins finally returns to Cherry-Tree Lane and everything is right again. She and Jane and Michael and the twins have more wild adventures, with a lot of quirky new characters introduced, such as Mr. Turvy, her cousin who does the opposite of what he wants to do on every Second Monday. Travers painted the world of Mary Poppins just as well, and I think the only reason that I like Mary Poppins better is (as I said), because it is more surprising (since it's the first book about her.) What is kind of odd though is that Jane and Michael are always vaguely surprised when Mary Poppins does something astonishing, like when she shows up at the gathering of Constellations, even though they've seen her do such things before. But I suppose you can never get used to something like that.

Read Mary Poppins Comes Back:
  • if you liked Mary Poppins (you really have to read Mary Poppins first to get this one)
312 pages.
Very Good! I would recommend this book!

Friday, August 24, 2012

New Acquisitions

Gifts: Thanks!


Rereading Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers

If you want to find Cherry-Tree Lane all you have to do is ask the Policeman at the cross-roads. He will push his helmet slightly to one side, scratch his head thoughtfully, and then he will point his huge white-gloved finger and say: "First to your right, second to your left, sharp right again, and you're there. Good-morning."

Ah, Mary Poppins. Definitely one of those children's books that I love to reread again and again. Just like Roald Dahl. When Mary Poppins arrives at Number Seventeen Cherry-Tree Lane, she changes the lives of the Banks children (Jane, Michael, and the twins) forever, taking them on all sorts of adventures, and then pretending they never happened. I enjoyed reading about everything that the children do with her. One of the great things about it is that Mary Poppins is set in the real world, but all these strange and seemingly impossible things happen. But Marry Poppins is also a no-nonsense nanny as well, keeping the children in line. And the characters are quite wonderful, from the ever-laughing Mr. Wigg to Miss Lark's Andrew, to Bert the Match-Man. All of the books are pretty good, but Mary Poppins (the first one) is by far the best. It's a great read for all ages.

Read Mary Poppins:
  • if you like Roald Dahl
  • if you like whimsical books
  • if you're looking for an easy but wonderful read
  • if you enjoyed the musical
  • if you like British fiction
209 pages.
Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

In the Shadow of the Banyan, Vaddey Ratner

War entered my childhood world not with the blast of rockets and bombs but with the my father's footsteps as he walked through the hallway, passing my bedroom toward his.

In the Shadow of the Banyan is set between the years of 1975-1979 in Cambodia, when the Khmer Rouge regime took power, as "Revolutionaries" who would change the country for good. Instead, they killed about two million people and probably ruined the whole country. In the Shadow of the Banyan is about seven-year old Raami, one of the many inhabitants of Phnom Penh who is taken out of the city and into the countryside, with her mother, father, and younger sister. Gradually, only herself and one of her family members are left, as the others are taken by the "Organization" or by malaria. Raami takes courage and holds on to who she is by remembering the stories that her father told her, while meanwhile the Khmer Rouge discourages people from remembering the past. The Khmer Rouge are obviously Communists, and this is one of the many instances in which Communism went terribly wrong, and resulted in disaster. Throughout the book, the Khmer Rouge tortures and shifts people around indiscriminately, but also, in trying to boost rice production, they cause a famine. Basically, the bureaucrats are trying to tell the rice farmers how to farm, when they obviously have no idea how to do it.

The book itself was really moving; it focused on one (royal) family's exile, but also the atrocities committed against everyone. Raami is only seven years old when it starts, and her childhood is left behind forever. Just like in Journey Into the Whirlwind (a memoir) or 1984, a faceless government (Big Brother, The Organization), controls people's lives, and no one knows who or what it is. I understand the Communist ideal of everyone being equal, but what's the point of that when everyone has absolutely nothing: no food, poor shelter, and unsanitary conditions? And I'm sure there were some rich leaders sitting in giant mansions feasting themselves in the capital. I'm also rather ashamed that the developed countries like the US or the United Kingdom didn't do much (well, perhaps they did, but not enough to affect the people for four long years.)

I seem to be focusing more on the issue in general (incidentally, I had never heard of it before I read this book), but really, I think In the Shadow of the Banyan was probably a very accurate portrayal, even though it is fiction. The author herself was five years old in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took power. I received this one from Simon & Schuster and really enjoyed it, though it could be practically heartbreaking at times.

Read In the Shadow of the Banyan:
  • if you are interested in Cambodia
  • if you enjoy (that's not really the right word is it?) fiction about Communist, or other government, oppression
  • if you are interested in the Khmer Rouge regime
  • if you are interested in southeast Asian conflict
315 pages.
Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Pretty Monsters, Kelly Link

From The Wrong Grave: All of this happened because a boy I once knew named Miles Sperry decided to go into the resurrectionist business and dig up the grave of his girlfriend, Bethany Baldwin, who had been dead for not quite a year. Miles planned to do this in order to recover the sheaf of poems he had, in what he'd felt was a beautiful and romantic gesture, put into her casket. Or possibly it had just been a really dumb thing to do. He hadn't made copies. Miles had always been impulsive. I think you should know that right up front.

Pretty Monsters is a book of short stories by Kelly Link. Some of them are very grim, and others darkly humorous. The first one, for example. It's about grave-digging, but actually it is funny in a grim sort of way (at least, I thought the ending was.) The second story, The Wizards of Perfil was one I quite enjoyed, about a boy named Onion and distinctly unhelpful wizards. Really, all of the stories have a humorous side to them, but definitely not light humor. Magic for Beginners tells of this group of teenagers who are obsessed with a certain TV show, The Library. The Faery Handbag is about a girl whose grandmother has a handbag in which a whole village of people live. The Specialist's Hat is about a mysterious house called Eight Chimneys, once inhabited by a strange poet (but now by a pair of twins and their father) and an undead babysitter. Monster tells of a camp in North Carolina...and a monster. There are three other stories, including the title story, Pretty Monsters, but I won't go into their plots. You want to be surprised a little, right? I think my favorite story was The Faery Handbag; it was really beautiful in a way. My least favorite story was The Surfer, a story about aliens and the flu. It wasn't funny at all, and very, very grim and scary. Too scary. But that's just me. The Surfer is probably the most chilling of them.

I really loved Pretty Monsters. All of the stories were entertaining. I had never read anything of Kelly Link's before, except one short story in her anthology Steampunk. Apparently, she has two other short story collections, which I would love to read. I feel like I'm not doing justice to the mood and quality of her short stories. Whether they're set in the real world, or an imaginary world, there's always something fantastical and also off-kilter about them. That's why I liked them. They also all end without a real-wrap or conclusion, which can be annoying at times, but it was effective, and I think Link succeeded very well in the feeling she was attempting to create. The title pretty much sums it up. Um, hello, they're monsters (or something else equally strange)?! But they're also pretty...somehow. Pretty Monsters is also, of course, one of the short stories, but I think it was the best one to choose for a title.

Read Pretty Monsters:
  • if you like short stories
  • if you liked Steampunk
  • if you like dark but funny stories
389 pages.
Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!

On an unrelated note, sorry for the posts that may or may not have appeared on your dashboard that don't actually exist. That was just me, accidentally publishing reviews (Control P) as I was writing them. Rest assured, the full reviews of those books will be posted all in good time. 

What's On My Bookshelf: 15

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Le Grand Meaulnes, Henri Alain-Fournier

He came to our place one Sunday in November 189-. I still say 'our place', even though the house no longer belongs to us. It will soon be fifteen years since we left the neighborhood, and we shall certainly never go back. 

I was really looking forward to this one and...I was disappointed. It was almost boring, but not quite. There was something of the French charm and "fantasie" about it. Hold on. Let me backtrack. What is Le Grand Meaulnes  about? Well, it's about this boy named Auguste Meaulnes who arrives at the small village of Sologne, and captivates everyone. But he vanishes for a few days and comes back with stories of a strange party in a mysterious house and a beautiful girl that met there. "....Meaulnes has been changed forever. In his restless search for his Lost Estate and the happiness he found there, Meaulnes, observed by his loyal friend Francois, may risk losing everything he ever had. poised between youthful admiration and adult resignation, Alain-Fournier's compelling narrator carries the reader through this evocative and often unbearably moving portrayal of desperate friendship and vanished adolescence."  Interesting sounding story, right? Penguin Classics translates (or rather, calls it) The Lost Estate (which is obviously not a literal translation of the original French title.) I did not find myself caring about the characters that much though, so it wasn't "deeply moving" at all. Some of the descriptions were vaguely interesting, but I didn't find it such a great book.

Also, from Alain-Fournier's description of the "lost estate", it doesn't sound so wonderful. I mean, if I was Meaulnes, I would want to find out more about the mysterious house, but "the happiness he found there?" To me (from the description of it), the house just sounded like a nice place where Meaulnes spent a few nights. To be sure, there is an air of the mysterious about it, but why should it have the potential to ruin his life? How can he have fallen in love with the girl after talking to her once?

In the end, I guess I just didn't find Le Grand Meaulnes that compelling. I understand that Meaulnes is in that state between childhood and adulthood...but really, who cares? Not me. I don't mean to say that I hated this one, just that it was missing something (for me.) I will admit though, that the second part of the book was much, much better than the first. I actually enjoyed the last fifty pages or so.  Le Grand Meaulnes is an essential part of French literature though, and I'm glad that I had the experience of reading it.

Read Le Grand Meaulnes:
  • if you like French twentieth century literature
  • if you like "magic realism"
223 pages, 3.5 stars.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Rag Nymph, Catherine Cookson

The road was narrow. It could be measured by the width of a coach with a man walking at each side, but even so it was wider than the streets and alleys leading off from both sides of it.

The Rag Nymph is a historical novel set in the 1840s and 50s in England. Millie is the daughter of two shady people: her mother was forced to turn to prostitution, and her father murdered somebody (he claims in her mother's defense, which is revealed to be a falsehood.) She is adopted by Aggie, the rag woman and grows up with her and Ben, a friend of Aggie's. This is her story. Millie loves Aggie a lot, but unfortunately for her, Millie is very pretty. Too pretty. And a lot of people are interested in her. Aggie and Ben are trying to protect her. They send her to a Catholic school at one point, and then she becomes a nursemaid to a family of six children.

I learned a lot about this period in England, and the way that the middle and lower class fared. This portrayal seemed pretty realistic to me, and I didn't know that all these shady things went on, even though there were (some) laws against it. But there were always plenty of loopholes too. I enjoyed all the characters too; from Aggie to Ben to the not-so-nice characters; they were portrayed pretty well. I must say, however, that The Rag Nymph started out kind of slowly; I wasn't really that interested until perhaps fifty pages in. Still, I'm glad I stuck with it, as it was a fairly rewarding read. I got this one from Simon & Schuster, and even though it wasn't published recently, they still graciously provided it. I would recommend this one to anyone who enjoys historical fiction set in Britain.

Read The Rag Nymph:
  • if you like historical fiction
  • if you like books set in Britain
  • if you like books set in the mid nineteenth century
  • if you like books that deal with lower and middle class people and social issues
351 pages.
Very Good! I would recommend this book!

What's On My Bookshelf: 14