Wednesday, September 29, 2010


In 1799, 25-year-old Jacob de Zoet takes a position as ship clerk on a Dutch East India Company ship headed for Dejima, the man-made island of the coast of Nagasaki on the southern shore of Japan's main island. Japan, which has now been completely closed to foreigners for two centuries to resist the corrupting influences of Westernization and Christianity, only allows the Dutch to trade via this quirky, sinful island of expatriots. Jacob is a righteous and honest man, and a painstaking clerk; he intends to do his job well so that he can return home after seven years to his fiancee in Holland. Of course, his good intentions are upset by corruption among the higher-ups, incendiary conflict over international trade, and a disturbing love obsession with an entirely inaccessible Japanese woman.

Before I go further with this review, I just want to leave my succinct net-net, which is that this book is STUNNING. It took me two weeks to read, since I had to spend so much time absorbing it, and for me every minute was worth it. If you stop reading the review here, at least take that home with you!

I generally try to sum up the plot of a book in a paragraph, but my paragraph above only sums up the first forty pages or so of this book. The story Mitchell tells is rather too grand and complex to capture neatly, and his famously experimental narrative voice doesn't make summing it up any easier. There are so many lush characters--some of them only around for a page or two--that the experience of Dejima is thoroughly multifaceted. One charming, and often sad, aspect of the novel is the collection of crew stories Jacob hears over the course of the novel--the impressed soldier who lost his bride, the half-breed bastard who escaped slavery in Indonesia by taking to the sea, the runaway Irish convict who joined up via a prison colony in Australia, one of the several nameless slaves in the background of the Dutch colonial machine. The minor stories may only last a page or two, but each one zings.

Since I'm a sucker for anything Japanese-themed, I probably would have enjoyed this book even if the writing hadn't been as good as it is (it's very, very good) or the story as vivid and original. But the Japanese portion of the book--the novel falls in discreet sections of Dutch and Japanese stories--struck me as very well done. The adventure at the heart of the novel is very fresh and original, and in the course of reading I found myself looking up real pieces of history I had never encountered before (for example, the Kirishitan, or hidden Christians, who persevered throughout Honshu in secret for two hundred fifty years after their religion was banned--a fascinating story of a long-lived subversive religion).

I'm not doing a very good job of summing up my many thoughts on this book, but I would certainly recommend it to any fans of literary historical fiction. I had some quibbles with it, but nothing about the narrative was so disruptive that it could make me stop reading (I'm honestly not sure anything could have made me stop reading). I finished the book in that rare mood where I was intensely grateful to the author for having conceived of and written it--a feeling I wish I had more often.

Monday, September 27, 2010

THE IRON KING by Julie Kagawa

The Iron King by Julie Kagawa
Harlequin Teen, 2010
Young Adult Fantasy

Can someone answer for me why I read this book, like, months ago and never put up a review? If I'd hated it, that would be a good reason, but I TOTALLY LOVED THIS BOOK. In fact, I voted for it on GoodReads as one of the best 2010 YA debut novels.

Yeah. It's *that* freaking amazing.

This is the first of the Iron Fey series, starring Meghan Chase, a half-human daughter of Oberon, King of the Seelie Court (the Summer fey). The story starts out with her humdrum life in high school, on the brink of her sixteenth birthday. Then all these weird things start happening. And I mean WEIRD. Like, a goblin thing appears on top her computer monitor and makes things flash on her screen. Stuff like that.

She thinks she's hallucinating (obvs), but we know better.

So does Robbie, her neighbor and friend, who is actually Robin Goodfellow (aka Puck) from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Meghan discovers the truth when she comes home on the eve of her birthday to find that her younger brother has been kidnapped and a changeling has been left in his place. And then it, you know, tries to eat her?

Yeah. I'd want some answers, too. Fortunately, Puck is there to fill in the gaps. Meghan decides she must save her brother and Puck takes her to the Nevernever, and that's when she learns who her true father is, among other things.

You'd think that all this old hat fantasy stuff (Seelie and Unseelie courts, fey, goblins, bogeys, changelings, and whatnot) would be boring and turn you off, but no. The authors descriptions are magical, the pacing always high, the characters and the fantasy world dangerously alive.

Aside from dodging constant threats on her life, Meghan also meets Prince Ash (youngest son of Mab, the Winter Queen) and tries to hate him despite his unearthly good looks. Again, it screams cliche' teen romance, but the way it's written keeps you on edge, not really knowing which way the story will go.

Oh yeah, and there's this thing about iron being deadly to all fey. Except Meghan because she's half-human. And the advent of modern technology in the human world has created a new fey--the iron fey--led by the Iron King, and the spread of his realm is killing the Nevernever. That's a problem for both Summer and Winter courts, and not only that, but it turns out Meghan's brother is being held hostage in the Iron realm. So now she is enlisting the help of Puck (Seelie/summer fey) and Ash (Unseelie/winter fey) to save her brother from the Iron King. But they're sworn enemies. Yeah, baby. Let the games begin.

It's a mess, to put it simply. A big beautiful mess.

This book is the reason Julie Kagawa is now one of my favorite authors. It's classic fantasy with a modern twist. Anyone who loves fantasy, or loves YA, will absolutely LOVE this series. I'm currently reading the second book, THE IRON DAUGHTER, and man oh man, it is just as good! I'm devouring it, so a review for book two should be up soon (not today, but soon).


A SEPARATE PEACE by John Knowles

 A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Scribner trade paperback edition, 2003
(first published 1959)
Young Adult

At its heart, this is a story of friendship, and how much tension the cord of friendship can take before it snaps. During the summer of 1942, Gene and Phineas (Finny) are roommates at a New Hampshire boarding school. You immediately get the sense of how ever-present Word War II was in the lives of every American, but especially teenage boys who pretty much had only one choice after graduation: to enlist. Even part of their senior year curriculum included military preparedness, which was mostly just hard labor in the name of supporting the war efforts.

The friendship between Gene (the narrator) and Finny is strong from the start. Gene obviously idolized Finny's natural athletic abilities, his carefree positive attitude, his charismatic charm. The boy could talk his way out of anything, which makes for some humorous scenes throughout the book. During the summer before their senior year, even though Gene battles a short bout of jealousy over Finny, it seems the lives of these two young men will be nothing but pleasant no matter what they encounter in the future.

Then there's an incident in the tree...

This is an old book--a bestseller, a classic--so I'm sure many people know why this tree is so important. But it seemed quite innocent at first mention. There are rungs built into its trunk and the main limbs hang over a deep river. The senior boys use this tree as a way of preparing for the military. They climb it, venture out on the branch, then jump into the river.

Simple, right?

For most of the summer, it is, even though these boys are technically not seniors yet and therefore shouldn't be doing any tree jumps. Then, in a split second of--of who knows what?--Gene gently bounces the limb while he and Finny are about to do a double jump (how fun! a double jump!), Finny loses his balance (which neither of them expected because he's so freaking athletic), and he falls.

Onto the ground, not in the river. The bone in one of his legs shatters.

This is the beginning of the end for Finny and for Gene. Finny doesn't know that Gene bounced the limb--he has a feeling, but would never attribute such an act to his best friend. Guilt ensues, and mayhem follows, all the while there's this war going on...

I can't say anymore of what happens in case you haven't read it yet. The way this is written has a way of sucking you in like WWII is being fought right outside your window, right now, today, and it's something you have to worry about. It feels that real.

My favorite example of this, which is too long to quote in its entirety, is found on pages 40-42, starting with this paragraph "Everyone has a moment in his history which belongs particularly to him," and ending with this paragraph "It is this special America, a very untypical one I guess, an unfamiliar transitional blur in the memories of most people, which is the real America for me."

And the characterization of not only Gene and Finny, but also the other boys at the school--because all are affected by this war and this tree incident--is outstanding. This is one of those books that makes you laugh out loud on one page and want to burst into tears at the very next. And then all over again. It is magnificent storytelling.


Saturday, September 18, 2010

House Rules by Jodi Picoult

Jacob is 18, has Asperger's (high-functioning autism) and is passionately interested in crime investigation. When his social skills tutor is apparently murdered, Jacob is accused of the crime and dragged from a world that revolves around his disability into the criminal justice environment, where people don't understand autism and are often hostile to Jacob's untypical behaviors. His brother Theo and his mother Emma, already suffering from a family dynamic where Jacob's needs overwhelm all others, have to find a way to cope with their own feelings while ensuring that Jacob gets a fair hearing.

Have I ever read any Jodi Picoult before? I'm not sure. House Rules could be the first. But having stayed up till the wee hours yesterday because I absolutely had to know how the novel ended, I think it may not be the last.

Picoult writes a great story. In House Rules she alternates between the point of view of the different characters in short chapters, but while I don't always find this method works for me, in this case it did. Some readers might find that there's too much explanation: of autism, of the legal system and so on, but I suppose the alternative is to leave the non-expert reader puzzled, and that would also be unsatisfactory.

As the parent of a developmentally disabled child I was particularly impressed by the family dynamic in the book, which is absolutely spot on. We get to see not only Jacob's take on his life, but learn how his condition has affected every area of Theo and Emma's lives, which is rarer in fiction.

The novel is fast-paced and compelling, a most satisfying choice for a long journey or a relaxing weekend. The book's cover is, as often happens, totally misleading: it promises something a whole lot weepier and somehow cuter, whereas what you get is sometimes abrasive, quite hard-hitting, and totally unsentimental. Thank goodness.

Perfect Reader by Maggie Pouncey

Flora returns to the small college town of Darwin after the sudden death of her father, the college's former president and a renowned academic. Finding that she's her father's literary executor poses the problem of what to do with the poems he gave her before he died--poems she hasn't even read.

Perfect Reader is début literary fiction, and it's a promising beginning to Maggie Pouncey's career. It's a thoughtful, slow revealing of layers of the past, both Flora's childhood and her father's recent past, about aspects of which Flora realizes she knew nothing.

Flora needs to confront her past in order to move on with her present, which has been going nowhere. It's a familiar story arc in many ways, right down to the inevitable love affair which moves Flora onwards but doesn't really come to anything in itself. But it's well written and nicely structured, and will appeal to fans of books that don't rush from one incident to another but linger over a place, a time, a mood.

I enjoyed reading this novel and will look out for more from this author.


Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels (2008) confidently, easily swept from my head three-fourths of the fiction I've read for years. And it stomped the bejeezus out of any preconceptions I might have had about YA fiction in particular.

The short form: Tender Morsels retells and expands upon the Grimm fairy tale of "Snow-White and Rose-Red." Two beautiful and very different sisters grow up in what seems to be an enchanted forest. They encounter magical creatures both wonderful and fearsome. Eventually they (and their mother) encounter and must come to grips with the most wonderful, fearsome creature of all: the real world and all its thorny, sorrowful, and unavoidable but (in its own way) wonderful thereness.

That paragraph discharges one of my jobs in this review, telling you what happens without exactly, y'know, telling you what happens. If you bring to the book the eyes and instincts of someone who loves conventional fairy tales, you're already carrying fifty percent of the luggage you'll need for the trip.

Yet you should also come braced, with your mind open; come ready to be shaken. For this tale is not just illuminated by sunlight and magic, but shaded, disturbingly, by the terrors which humans -- by design and through ignorance -- can inflict on one another's bodies and souls.

Remember when J.K. Rowling announced, almost as an aside in an interview, that Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore was gay, however repressed? You could think back to all the Harry Potter books you'd read and, yes, by golly, you could see the markers she'd put in place. But nowhere in any of the books did Rowling say anything unambiguous about this surprise hiding in Dumbledore's character. You had to be looking.

When Margo Lanagan wants to tackle a "controversial" scene, boy, she lays it right out there. Forget hinted-at incest, implied rape, rumored miscarriages: there's no ducking any of it, from the very first chapter. She does not describe these scenes clinically; she does not spell out and-then-he-did-this-followed-by-that. But while skirting all the hows, she leaves no doubt about the whats. (She also does not flinch in depicting them as horrors rather than "dark mysteries." She clothes none of it in the bogus garb of romance or eroticism.)

And yet, and yet... this remains, stubbornly, a fairy tale. People take comfort in kindness, tenderness, and love. They weep with happiness as well as misery. Magic both undoes and redeems them. Not every good character lives happily ever after, but nor do they come to unsatisfying ends. It's impossible, ultimately, to read the book as anything but optimistic and -- despite the many inarguable horrors encountered on the way -- sweet.

I want to point out two other things about Tender Morsels which I really admired: the world in which it takes place, and the style in which it's told.

Lanagan immerses us in the time and setting of the book. The setting seems to be something like England. The names of towns have English-style names, ending in -by and -ton and -shire. From the rhythms of the characters' lives, we can guess that these events take place in perhaps the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century. Magic and superstition still have a place at the table; anything more mechanical than a wheeled carriage or a grain mill is nowhere in sight. Early each spring, young men dress up as bears and chase young women -- screaming with feigned fright -- through the streets, acting out both the awakening of nature from winter and the awakening of boys and girls into adulthood.

All this is made real by the diction and rhythm of the language. Reading it is like chewing on granola as opposed to cornflakes: you can do the latter absently, while reading a newspaper or zoning out before a TV, but the former reminds you, split-second by split-second, I am eating, by God. It has texture, a mouthfeel, not just a flavor, from the names of the characters -- Liga, Branza, Urdda, Ramstrong, Collaby -- through lyrical expository passages, to the ways in which characters speak.

What's more, Tender Morsels is told from the distinct points of view of numerous characters: sometimes first- and sometimes third-person, and ranging from human to animal, women and girls to men and boys.

Selecting a perfect example is difficult without revealing too much of what's going on at a particular plot point. But maybe this will suffice, because it's how the Prologue opens:
There are plenty would call her a slut for it. Me, I was just glad she had shown me. Now I could get this embarrassment off me. Now I knew what to do when it stuck out its dim one-eyed head.

She were a revelation, Hotty Annie. I had not known a girl could feel this too. Lucky girls; they can feel it and feel it and nothing need show on the outside; they have to act all hot like Annie did, talk smut and offer herself to the lads, before anyone can tell.

Well, we lay there in the remains of the hay cave, that we had collapsed around us with our energetics. We looked both of us like an unholy marriage of hedgehogs and goldilockses. I laughed and laughed with the relief of it, and she laughed at me and my laughter.

"By the Leddy," she said, "you have the kitment of a full man, you have, however short a stump you are the rest of you."

That "unholy marriage of hedgehogs and goldilockses" made me grin. (I'm grinning at it now.) But notice how from the very first sentence of the book, through the last of that passage, Lanagan puts us on notice: If you think you're entering a Disney tale, dear reader, please think again.

I'm astonished by what Margo Lanagan has wrought in Tender Morsels. And I very much regret it was tagged with the YA label -- not because it shouldn't be read by young adults, but because the label may keep it hidden from adults of an older stripe.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

WHEN ROSE WAKES/Christopher Golden

I’m a Fairy Tale addict, so when I first heard about WHEN ROSE WAKES, I contacted him for an interview. Mr. Golden was fantastically awesome and gave me a chance to read an ARC (Advance Reader Copy).

First, here’s the cover blurb:

Ever since sixteen-year-old Rose DuBois woke up from months in a coma with absolutely no memories, she's had to start from scratch. She knows she loves her two aunts who take care of her, and that they all used to live in France, but everything else from her life before is a blank.

Rose tries to push through the memory gaps and start her new life, attending high school and living in Boston with her aunts, who have seriously old world ideas. Especially when it comes to boys.

But then Rose starts to have eerie dreams, vivid nightmares that she comes to realize are strangely like the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty. The evil witch, the friendly fairies, a curse that puts an entire town to sleep - Rose relives the frightening story every night. And when a mysterious raven-haired woman starts following her, Rose begins to wonder if she is the dormant princess. And now that she's awake, she's in terrible, terrible danger. . . .

I’m going to go ahead and get the one thing I didn’t like out of the way. The book dragged a little in the middle for me. I think it’s partially because we already know that she’s got some connection with Sleeping Beauty long before Rose does. But that’s a marketing issue, really.

That said, I loved it. As I told you, I’m a fairy tale-aholic, and I love fairy tale retellings. It was great to see a story other than Cinderella being rehashed. I also liked the fact that it’s a contemporary story. Rose is going to a regular high school and trying to fit in. She struggles as she tries to deal with the popular (and mean) girls and as she tries to figure out friendships and relationships. Her two aunts bounce along the spectrum from overprotective to hilarious. And there’s action like you wouldn’t believe.

A good read for anyone who likes YA or Fairy Tales!

WHEN ROSE WAKES will be released on September 28.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

GOOD GRIEF by Lolly Winston

Good Grief by Lolly Winston
Warner Books, 2004

This book reaffirmed why Lolly Winston is one of my favorite authors. I read her second book first (Happiness Sold Separately, my review is here). And read this one, her debut, second. In both books her writing style takes center stage, and her storytelling gets fumbled up at the end. But it's not done so poorly as to take away from your joy of the overall reading experience. Both books are kind of inconclusive at the end, meaning, they don't feel like endings. The story just... ceases, mid-thought.

As I said, however, Winston's writing style is what shines. The wording, the comparisons, the deep reflection, the unique view of the main character... it all tugs you along until suddenly you realize you're nearing the final page. I could read her fiction forever.

But the book has no plot to speak of. The story is all about Sophie's changes and progress through the trials of being a young, childless widow. She goes through the normal phases, starting with denial. Then eats her way through depression, loses her job, relocates, joins the Big Brothers & Sisters program and gets a motherly attachment to her assigned "Little Sister", goes from a stumbling waitress to nearly head chef at a restaurant then risks everything to start her own bakery, etc, etc, etc. And at some point she finds love, loses it, finds it again, but still isn't quite sure how she feels about the new guy at the end.

So the reader simply follows Sophie on this wayward journey, hoping she's somehow better off when it's all said and done. I'm not sure she is, though. But that didn't really bother me because that's how life is, so it seemed realistic in its portrayal.

The strong points of this novel are most certainly in the details. I gave it 5 out of 5 stars. And it's no wonder it was a NYT bestseller and a #1 BookSense pick in March/April 2004 (the copy I read includes a reading group guide). I would definitely read this again.


Friday, September 10, 2010

SIMPLY FROM SCRATCH by Alicia Bessette

Simply From Scratch by Alicia Bessette
Dutton, 2010

I am extremely biased toward widow stories, but I actually picked this one up for a different reason: the cover. Is it not awesome? I didn't even realize this was a widow story until I read the first paragraph, which is (if you can believe it) even more awesome than the cover:

I knot Nick's camouflage apron under my boobs, unable to remember the last time I wore a bra, or preheated the oven. That's my widow style.

Yep. It was love at first read for me. I knew at that moment--before even finishing the first page--that I would finish this book.

Rose-Ellen (Zell) Roy has been a widow for nearly a year when we meet her. All we know of Nick, her late husband, at the start of the story is that he died while in New Orleans photographing relief work. We learn more and more about what happened on his trip, and eventually, how he died, as the story moves along. But that's not even really the main point, or, as Nick would say, "that's neither here nor there..."

(I caught myself using that phrase today. It grows on you.)

Zell decides to enter a baking contest where the grand prize is 20 thousand dollars, which just happens to be how much her dead husband had wanted to donate to the people of New Orleans for rebuilding. Problem is, she can't cook. At all.

Enter her 9 year-old next door neighbor, Ingrid Knox, who is convinced that Polly Pinch--host of the show Pinch of Love Live and the Desserts That Warm the Soul Baking Contest--is her mother. Aside from the prize money, the contest winner will be a guest on Polly Pinch's show. Ingrid sees this as the perfect chance to get her estranged mother back in her life. When Zell and Ingrid agree to team up and enter the contest together, things get very messy along the way. And delicious.

This is an adorable story that warms the heart. I ate it right up.


Thursday, September 9, 2010


It's Shanghai in 1937, and Pearl and her sister, May, are at the top of the world. For the cultured daughters of a wealthy Shanghai bourgeois family, Shanghai is an amusement park of fancy restaurants and clubs, chatty artists and philosophers, classy expats, and endless fun. Or at least, it seems to be--as the Japanese threat looms, the facade of Shanghai glamour begins to crumble. Pearl learns that her father has gambled away the family fortune, and that she and her sister are about to be sold into marriage to two brothers who live in California.

I'm a devoted fan of Lisa See's, and have trouble deciding whether to recommend Snow Flower and the Secret Fan or Peony in Love first to people who've never read her (in fact, I've gushingly reviewed both here). So when I say I was disappointed by Shanghai Girls, I suppose I must also say that my expectations were very high. Much of the story felt familiar to me--in the sense that I have read many stories set in this time and place before, and I felt more echoes to other books than I was expecting to based on how original I found See's other two books--but really what bothered me most of all was that this book was written in the present tense, which I found a constant minor irritation.

Those small qualms aside, I am still glad I read the book. As always, See's historical detail is impeccable, and I came out of reading with new and interesting knowledge about Angel Island, Chinese immigration to the United States, and life in US Chinatowns during the middle years of the 20th century. The latter half of the book contained the kind of freshness I had been hoping for in the first half. I should also mention that at least one of my friends felt the opposite, and this was her favorite of See's books.

Anyone else read it?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Monique Truong/THE BOOK OF SALT

In the late 1920s, a young Vietnamese man finds himself in Paris, working as the family chef for "the Steins": Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. This is a story about food and love and love for food, told by a man who experiences and describes the world, from French-colonized Vietnam to Golden Age Paris, by its flavors. "Binh" (we never learn his true name, since everyone mispronounces it) narrates snatches of his five years with the Steins, overlaying his, well, knife-sharp observations with his own story: his obscure and lowly birth and upbringing; his first job in the kitchens of a French-owned plantation house; the tragedies and frustrations that took him to Paris; his day-to-day life observing two of the most famously colorful figures of the 20th century.

For me, this book was a great success of fiction. Truong deftly weaves a net of tastes, smells, cultural observations, and subtle but embracing historical details and uses it to capture a story of intense and understated human drama. I am a little mind-boggled at how cleverly Truong tackled issues like colonial oppression, sexuality, and alcohol abuse in a book that is a total joy to read--lush, absorbing, simultaneously sad and curious. The Book of Salt does not even need a plot (it doesn't really have one, as you might have guessed from my inability to succinctly pin one down). But this book is my idea of evidence for why we should support literary fiction: it is meaningful, accessible, beautiful, and unlike any other novel you've read.

INTO THE WILD/Jon Krakauer

When I read Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, as I have twice now, I find myself criticizing the subject rather than the writer. The book is the story of Chris McCandless, a twenty-four year old man from a well-to-do family who hitchhiked to Alaska to live in the bush. He died there, leaving behind a family he hadn't spoken to in more than two years and bewildered friends and acquaintances he met along his travels.

The book chronicles his approximately two-year hike across the United States. He hitchhiked, tented, slept in the desert, and somehow settled on the idea that a summer in the Alaska bush would—if not change it—give his life a deeper meaning. In his mind, he was following the path of the writers he loved, most notably Jack London. But he also emulated Tolstoy in his lofty ideals: McCandless was one who seemed to believe, as his father put it, “that you should own nothing but what you can carry on your back at a dead run.” Chris reveled in scrounging for the next meal.

To me, as someone who has been poor and will be poor for the foreseeable future, McCandless's endless romanticization of the hobo lifestyle smacked of unbelievable self-absorption and hypocrisy. Here was the son of a man who had top-secret security clearance and a mother who worked alongside her husband to create a successful business. He had excelled academically all through school and could have the job of his choice or create his own business fairly easily. Only someone as well-to-do with such an easy path paved before him could believe he was a better person than the “plastic people” with whom he was forced to share breathing space (such as the people with whom he briefly worked at McDonald's—many who were not financially much above poverty) by hoboing around the country.

But perhaps I am being harsh; McCandless was young and no less hypocritical than I was at his age. And Krakauer, by telling his own story of his relationship with his father, which led to his harrowing climb of Alaska's Devil's Thumb, brings the reader to a more compassionate view of McCandless: he was young and brash and ill-prepared and perhaps even foolish, but he was not stupid, and his death was the result not of his dramatically heeding a “call of the wild,” but of two small errors that turned out to be pivotal and irreversible.

At any rate, Krakauer is a fine, fine writer, and he tells McCandless's story as only a young man who had a similar relationship with his father as Chris did to his can. Yet in the book he is gentle with Chris's parents, writing about them as non-judgmentally as he does about Chris. It's clear that the wisdom he came to in his own life somewhere along the line parallels that of Chris's, only there's a point where Chris's line stops and Krakauer's keeps going. Krakauer was lucky to have survived his own brush with death and not only live to tell the tale, but forgive his father—something McCandless will now never have the opportunity to do.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows

One of the nice things about publishing reviews is occasionally getting ARCs like Dreaming in Chinese in your mail. It made me go OOoooo, because it is a book about learning about Chinese language and culture, written by a British author-linguist who had the good fortune to live in China for a few years.

I am about to make myself sound impossibly nerdy by announcing that I study Chinese for fun. Look, it takes all sorts, OK? And since I subscribed to ChinesePod I have learned that I'm by no means alone in just wanting to study Chinese because it's there, and because it's incredibly difficult.

And yet you really don't have to be a language buff to enjoy reading this little (188-page) book. If you like to take mental vacations to exotic places; if you want or need to learn more about Chinese culture, perhaps to make it easier to work with Chinese colleagues; or if you simply like well written nonfiction, Dreaming in Chinese will entertain and educate you. It focuses on Mandarin, the main language of China (what we usually mean when we say "Chinese") but touches on the bewildering variety of languages, cultures and dialects in the country.

The language, culture and personal experience topics are arranged into short chapters that each loosely deal with one aspect of Chinese life and language, and are associated with a Chinese word or phrase. The writing is excellent; the style is relaxed and chatty, accompanied by illustrations, Chinese characters and photographs. Pinyin (the romanized version of Chinese, which is much more accessible to English speakers than the characters) is used throughout, and there is a pronunciation guide at the end so if you've never encountered Mandarin before, you won't be overwhelmed.

The whole book was an easy, entertaining read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. My one warning is that if you're not already studying Chinese, you will probably want to by the time you reach the end of Dreaming in Chinese.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
HarperCollins, 2010

This is one of those books that you fall asleep reading because you can't put it down until your body forces you to. Not because it's boring. Far from it. I'm usually a slow reader so I was a little hesitant to get started on this nearly 500 page monster. It's heavy and intimidating. But once I got started I just. Couldn't. Stop. I finished it in less than two days. For me, that's saying something.

High school senior Sam Kingston is going to die today. We as the readers know this because her thoughts during her final moments are detailed in the prologue. Oh, you don't read prologues? Well, maybe you should. The prologue in this book is everything a prologue should be: short, tense, and raises the good kind of questions that keep you reading.

There are only seven chapters that follow, so if you're a math wiz you've already put two and two together. These are LONG chapters. I think the first one clocked in somewhere around page 80 (feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, I don't have the book in front of me right now). But seriously, you barely notice the length. For a piece that has such a literary feel to it the story reads surprisingly quick. Each chapter is the last day of Sam's life, beginning with when she first wakes up and ending when she dies that night. You'd think starting with the "wake up" would be another no-no, but again, the execution here is superb.

In chapter one, Sam doesn't know what's coming... but we do. So we keep reading (Even though she and her friends could be described as typical "mean girls." I hated them all in the beginning). In chapter two, Sam is justifiably confused when she feels she's having a severe case of déjà vu but can still remember everything that happened the night before. (but the real mystery is how she remembers *anything* with how much drinking there was at that party. yowza) As the repeated days continue, Sam goes through differing reactions and emotions until she figures out what she has to do to stop this madness. Which is expected.

What I didn't expect was the ending. I'm still not sure whether I liked it or not, and unfortunately I can't discuss that here without ruining it for anyone who hasn't read it yet. Overall, this was EXCELLENT and I highly recommend it. If you shy away from books like this simply because they are labeled "YA" then you're seriously missing out.