Friday, July 26, 2013

Review of Linda Buckley-Archer's "Gideon" Trilogy


 


This is the story of a boy named Peter Schock who is sent back in time to 18th-century England along with a girl named Kate Dyer. 

Sounds like a science fiction book, right?  Right.  And yet also, in a way, wrong. 

Because this series is just as much about the history as it is about the science of time travel.  Peter and Kate are forced to acclimate to live in the 18th century among friends (usually historical characters, but also the Gideon Seymour who lends his name to the trilogy’s title) and enemies (mostly the fictional Lord Luxon and his murderous henchman the Tar Man).  The more you know about your British 1700’s history, the more you’ll enjoy these books. 


That is not to say, however, you can’t enjoy them without being a history buff.  That’s where the science fiction comes in.  Back in the future, Peter and Kate’s parents are distraught and a team of scientists is trying to get them back.  Author Linda Buckley-Archer is very good with coming up with a logical method of time travel that doesn’t involve solar flares or flying counterclockwise around the globe, and she makes some good choices about the toll traveling back and forth through time takes on her characters. 

It’s the characters, though, and not the history trivia or the glitzy science fiction, that makes these books worth a read.  Our heroes: Peter, Kate, and Gideon, are all flawed, realistically drawn personalities with goals, motivations, fears, and backstories.  The villains are evil, but their motives are rational and their goals are far from the cheesy, “Time to take over the world!” clichĂ©.  To prove that these characters are all individuals and multidimensional, each one responds to the idea of time travel differently.  Some think of it as a tool to learn about our past or change things for the better.  Others aren’t so noble, and would use it as a weapon.
 



RECOMMENDED READING AGE: 13+

PARENTAL NOTES: Although not described in much detail or glorified, there is violence in the book relating mostly to the more gritty time period (hangings, tarring, stabbings; the worst example is a teenage boy dies after a fall on the stairs).
 
AVAILABILITY: This series was released under a different title in the UK (Gideon the Cutpurse, The Tar Man, Lord Luxon), but can be purchased in the US under the (more generic, in my opinion) titles The Time Travelers, The Time Thief, and The Time Quake (if they had tried to keep the reference to Lord Luxon in that last book it would be The Time Lord and would require the time machine in the book to be blue and bigger on the inside).

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Fairy Tale YA

Retelling fairy tales is in vogue now.  We have TV series like Grimm and Once Upon a Time, movies like Jack the Giant Killer or Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters and so many Snow Whites it’s a wonder the Evil Queen had enough poisoned apples for all of ‘em.  And where television and movies are trendy, the books are sure to follow…or lead.  Today instead of reviewing one book I’m going to review three:

Enchanted by Alethea Kontis
 

Not to be confused with Ella Enchanted (which in turn is not to be confused with the Anne Hathaway adaptation which is nothing like Gail Carson Levine’s book) or the Disney movie starring Amy Adams, this novel by Alethea Kontis is a mishmash of fairy tales and Mother Goose rhymes centering on the Frog Prince story.  Sunday is the seventh daughter of a magical family (all her other sisters correlate to fairy tales like Cinderella, and altogether they are almost-twelve dancing princesses).  One day Sunday meets a frog and befriends it, but it turns out this frog is a prince.  Awesome, right?  Except maybe the prince is possibly to blame for Saturday’s older brother Jack going missing. 

 I liked how this book intertwined all sorts of storybook concepts (Sunday and her sister’s names are from this poem, among other things).  There was a lot going on (which was good), but all the names ending in “–day” confused me (which was bad), and then at the end I had so many questions.  Honestly this is one YA book that could have been made into a series, each one focusing on a sister, perhaps.  According to the Amazon description, Enchanted is part of a series called “The Woodcutter’s Daughters”  so hopefully my main bone to pick with this book will be nullified soon.

The Lunar Chronicles: Cinder and Scarlet by Marissa Meier 

 
This series retells the Cinderella and Red Riding Hood stories in a science fiction setting.  Opening in a future earth where there are identity chips and androids and hovercrafts and space ships, humans live in fear of the looming threat by the Lunars, humanoid aliens who not only can read minds but manipulate willpower.  Add to that an plague outbreak, and you’ve almost got a dystopia going on in this first book.  Enter Cinder, a teenage cyborg mechanic who by chance befriends the dreamy Prince Kai.  He asks her to this ball…not knowing that one of her legs is, well, detachable.  Shenanigans ensue.


Fast forward to Scarlet, which adds the titular character (a feisty redhead in search of her kidnapped grandma) as well as follows Cinder on her further shenanigans.*  Scarlet is joined in her search—which becomes increasingly dangerous and violent—by a street-fighter named Wolf who has been genetically altered for strength, agility, and to have big teeth, my dear. 

There are two more books scheduled to come out for The Lunar Chronicles, but I enjoyed both the first ones enough to recommend the first two for fans of the TV show Firefly as well as fans of science fiction, Steampunk, and fantasy.  I look forward to reading the other two.


*Which I can’t describe for spoiler reasons since I don’t want to ruin the first book.
 

RECOMMENDED READING AGE: 13+

PARENTAL NOTES: Not much to worry about for any of these books.  As with many YA books, there are a few swear words (usually religious words used in a nonreligious way).  The Lunar Chronicles, particularly Scarlet, got a little “boy-crazy” talking about how dreamy Kai was or Wolf’s tight black T-shirts.  It was unintentionally hilarious. 

AVAILABILITY: You can get Enchanted here although as it is a relatively recent publication it should be available in larger bookstores.   As for The Lunar Chronicles, they are also new publications, and you can even preview the first five chapters of both Cinder and Scarlet for free on Kindle.  They are also new publications, so in addition to local large bookstores you can also buy them here and here via Amazon.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Review of Scott Westerfeld's "Leviathan" Trilogy


This is the original, superior cover
Source: http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1275694232l/6050678.jpg
Let’s cut to the chase.  I don’t like Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy.  Despite knowing that TONS of people LOVE this series and consider it the QUINTESSENTIAL read for STEAMPUNKERS…I didn’t like it.  Don’t reach for your tomatoes (and perhaps sharper objects) to throw at me quite yet.  It is rare that I actually read a book I dislike—usually it’s apathy at worst—so please just hear me out. 

Don’t get me wrong.  There are specific things I liked about the series:

-          The Steampunk.  To give this multifaceted subculture a crude definition, is basically Victorian Sci-Fi.  Think awesomely anachronistic technology made up of clockwork and powered by steam, and you’re getting close to understanding what it is.  The reason I like steampunk is because I love Victorian fiction, including H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and Steampunk is a hearkening back to that kind of literature.  

-          The German characters.  I like Alek (the main boy protagonist, son of the recently-assassinated Franz Ferdinand) and his bodyguard/mentor, Count Volger. 

-          The alternate history.  This partly goes along with the Steampunk element, but I always like historical novels that also ask, “What if?”  I like contemplating the various directions events could have gone in if a mere element was out of place or altered. 

-          In Behemoth I like the setting of the Ottoman Empire and the character Lilit.

-          Nikola.  Tesla.

“A-HA!” shout the Westerfans.  “So you admit you like pretty much everything about the books!  What’s not to like?”  To which I reply, “Not so fast!”  I admit I like stuff in the series.  Unfortunately this is all the stuff that Westerfeld proceeds to destroy in one way or another.

-          Westerfeld creates a world with AWESOME technology…and then pretty much stereotypes everyone who uses that technology as evil protonazis?

-          The German characters are all evil or weak.  The awesome Count Volger never is an actual villain, but he’s treated like an uneasy alliance.  And Alek!  Well, I’ll talk about that a little later.

-          Again, really?  Westerfeld starts out strong with a fixed historical event (the start of WWI), and I was really interested in what would happen to a fictional heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.  Not that any of the myriad of consequences that came to mind ever paid off, however. 

-          Another thing that didn’t really pay off was Lilit, whose character I expected to be more prominent in the climactic book Goliath. 

-          Tesla we’ll save for later because I won’t finish this post if I get worked up in the middle of it.

 What did I NOT like about it?  DERYN.

DERYN DERYN DERYN.  Here’s a girl whose father died in the British Air Service who decides to compound her family’s grief by running away and trying to get herself killed, too.  She poses as a boy named “Dylan” (as if that were actually a common name at the time…and for that matter who named at girl Deryn in this time period?).  We are told over and over she is very awesome.  If she’s so awesome, I kept thinking, stop telling me one thing while all she does is smirk and be smug about how she’s gotten out from under the thumb of her Oppressive Relatives Who Want Her To Be A Lady. 

Because Westerfeld wants us to think that Deryn is awesome, he ruins the Alek character.  This opens up a whole can of gender-role worms for me, because much as I like to see Strong Female Characters in fiction, I hate to see Weakling Male Characters juxtaposed with them.  Especially in such cases as Deryn/Alek, in which they fall in love and I have no idea why Deryn (if she’s so AWESOME) would fall for Alek (who seems to be made useless in order to have Deryn be cooler than him at everything) in the first place.  THEN there’s the clumsy handling of Deryn’s dilemma: She’s a girl, pretending to be a boy, but now she’s in love.  The way it is handled is for her to be “Oh dear I’m in love whatever shall I do how can I bear hiding my love from my love aaaaagh.”

That’s the main thing I dislike about the book.  There’s three.  The second is: The Darwinists are good.  See, the entire series hinges (when it’s not mooning about Daryn and her personal issues) on the conflict between the Awesome Steampunk Technology Germans (AKA “Clankers”) and the Darwinists, who are the British people who use natural science to breed mutant animals which they use instead of technology.  And they’re supposed to be the good guys.  Sorry, but that just seems WRONG to me.  Where was the WWI PETA to shut these mad scientists down?  I mean, a talking Loris is cool—creepy, but cool—and all, but how many other lorises had to suffer for such a result? 

(It also makes me uncomfortable that Westerfeld (and the Darwinists) idolize evolution so much, knowing that in REAL history, Social Darwinism was a huge factor in the Holocaust and several other ethnic purges.) 

The personification of the Darwinists is Dr. Barlow, a relative of Charles Darwin and a lady scientist who is completely obnoxious, self-satisfied, and one-dimensional.  I felt like Westerfeld was telling me throughout this book “Look!  I’m not a misogynist!  I have strong female characters!”  yet neither Deryn nor Dr. Barlow are emotionally relatable to me.  A strong character doesn’t have to be invulnerable (or melt into a puddle o’ loooove when they are vulnerable) in order to be well-rounded, realistic, or heroic.  I could literally talk for hours about this, comparing other female characters and what makes them “empowered,” but this is about one book series so I’ll stop here for now.

LASTLY, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, is how Westerfeld treated the great Nikola Tesla, innovator in electricity, radio, and all around awesomeness.  Spoiler ahead for the last book:  Tesla is the main villain and Alek electrocutes him.  My reaction was one of shock: “Did you just kill Nikola Tesla!?”  Westerfeld did.  In a Steampunk novel, he killed the one person that almost all Steampunk fans agree PERSONIFIED Steampunk. 

I could go on.  But frankly I’m exhausted by this rant.  You can go ahead and reach for your tomatoes now if you like.

 

RECOMMENDED READING AGE: If you must, 13+

PARENTAL NOTES: Aside from teaching us that Darwinism is Always Right even though it may be cruelty to animals and lead to the Holocaust, and aside from me taking issue with how gender roles are fleshed out, there’s also the whole gender-bending Deryn/Dylan thing.
 
AVAILABILITY: Fine.  You really want to own these?  Here, have the new covers.  I don’t even care if they’re in hardcover.  Do your own research! 

Friday, July 19, 2013

You Can't Tell Me What To Do



Source:
Phooey!  As if I NEED your permission!  I read picture books, and you think I’m gonna be scared of reading something only a little under my reading age?!
And now I will sing to the tune of Firefly’s theme song:
 
 
I don’t care, I still read,

You can’t take YA from me!
 
 
 

Except maybe Eragon.  I'm okay if you take that.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

"The Boneshaker": A Review


Source: http://www.atomicbooks.com/media/catalog/product/cache/1/image/9df78eab33525d08d6e5fb8d27136e95/b/o/boneshaker.jpg
 
Before I start this review, it might be helpful to define a genre that not every reader, particularly a casual one, is familiar with: Magic Realism.  It’s not realistic literature.  It’s not fantasy or science fiction.  It’s…both.  Kind of.  If you look it up in a dictionary (or search the term online), you’re going to get a lot of Salvador Dali paintings and some paragraphs about Latin literature such as the works of Gabriel Marcia Garcia or Isabel Allende.  But what exactly is Magic Realism?  Let me use an example that anyone who has seen Reading Rainbow should find comprehensible.  Remember Imogene’s Antlers?  That picture book where the girl inexplicably (or…magically?) wakes up with antlers and then has to learn to cope with this weirdness in her normal life? 

A page from Imogene's Antlers by David Small
Source: http://www.buildingalibrary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Imogene.jpg
 That’s pretty much Magic Realism.  Something magical happens, but instead of the characters reacting as they would in a fantasy novel (i.e. breaking a curse with a magic object) they react to it using every day means.  In many ways it resembles old folk tales or even some of the works of Mark Twain (such as The Mysterious Stranger).   

Now that we’ve gotten our literary trivia learned for today, let’s move on to the actual review.  The Boneshaker by Kate Milford is not to be confused with the similarly titled Boneshaker by Cherie Priest.  This latter is a steampunk novel with science fiction and zombies.  The former is about a young girl matching wits with automatons, marionettes, and other creepy circus things that just scare the breath out of coulrophobes* like me.     

Natalie Minks is a young girl living in a small Missouri town in 1913.  Of course in stories whenever there’s a small Southern town that seems like it’s a quiet, normal town, you know it’s not all that it seems.  Take Natalie’s mother, who seems to be wasting away from a mysterious non-illness.  Or Old Tom, the colored man with an amazing talent for banjo-playing.  And if that weren’t enough, in comes a mysterious, ominous carnival run by the crafty Dr. Jake Limberleg.  A carnival filled with automatons and other mechanisms that seem to have a will of their own.

The expert artistry of The Boneshaker's prose is gorgeously accented with eerie line drawings by Andrea Offerman, but good luck solving the mystery of what is going on by inspecting the illustrations.  I tried.  You’re not going to get any spoilers out of me, either.  I may not be a small Southern town, but I have secrets, too.
 

*That is, have a phobia of clowns.
 
RECOMMENDED READING AGE: I read this when I was 24 and it still scared me (though I am not one to read many books with scary themes).  To be save I’d say at least 15 for mature teens. 

PARENTAL NOTES: Alright I’ll give some spoilers here, but no fair reading them if you’re not a concerned parent!  The main villain is the Devil.  This is presented as a spiritual and moral battle between good and evil.  It gets pretty scary at times, and for good reason.  The Devil is not a person we should take lightly.  Tonally this book can be eerie and uncomfortable, so readers who are sensitive to this kind of writing take warning.

AVAILABILITY: You can get this book in hardcover at abebooksAmazon, or in paperback at Barnes and Noble.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

YA Fiction Trends

Trends in publishing are not confined to YA books.  Diary of a Wimpy Kid comes out and suddenly the shelves are deluged with copycat books with doodly illustrations.  But in no other section are trends more evident than the teen shelf.


Source: http://emcastellan.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/ya-genres1.jpg
 
You know you’re in the YA section (even if it’s not labeled as such), whether it be library or bookstore or just perusing* a friend’s shelves, when the spine colors are predominantly black.


Before, when Harry Potter was the mainstay of YA, hand-drawn covers like the ones from A Series of Unfortunate Events was the main cover art.  Now, thanks to Twilight and The Hunger Games, black is the new black.

But that’s not all!  When Harry Potter was the “thing” (and it’s still going strong), you were hard-pressed to find ANY book that was NOT about an apprentice magician. (I remember looking at the shelves and seeing things like “The Magician’s Apprentice” “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” “The Witch’s Apprentice”….)  Now, of course, you’re hard-pressed to find a book NOT about an emo vampire, alternately having boyfriend issues and cravings for B- blood. 


This is not to say that trends are a bad thing.  It depends on whether you’re a hardcore fan of what happens to be “in” at a certain time.  For instance, I’m NOT a paranormal/wizardry book fan, so all those Rowling and Meyer knockoffs have zero appeal to me.  People who love vampires not being soulless demons but rather hot sparkly guys were having a field day while I was off quietly reading Dostoyevsky.  A new trend, I hope, is the recent influx of “Steampunk” novels (when they’re NOT about emo vampires IN Victorian England!) and retellings of fairy tales. These are two trend bandwagons I could jump on. 


*That is, snooping.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

"Inkheart": A Review


The original cover for Inkheart/Tintenherz.
Source http://kalafudra.files.wordpress.com/2008/12/funke_tintenherz_gr.jpg
“Her curiosity was too much for her. She felt almost as if she could hear the books whispering on the other side of the half-open door. They were promising her a thousand unknown stories, a thousand doors into worlds she had never seen before.”
Cornelia Funke, Inkheart

As part of this week’s theme of YA fiction, I’m going to start by reviewing some “stand-alone” novels.  This is because there are few YA novels I’ve read that are truly stand-alone; either they are part of a series, or they are so similar to another novel that the two beg to be reviewed and compared together.

Now you probably are wondering, “Hey, I’ve read the title of this post.  And I know that Inkheart is the first in a series.”  This is true.  Inkheart (Tintenherz in its original German) is the first of a trilogy, followed by Inkspell and Inkdeath (Tintenblut and Tintentod) that chronicles the adventures of a young girl, Meggie, and her various relatives and friends. 

The reason I’m going to break protocol and NOT review the second two books is that when I was reading them I had the distinct feeling that Funke had planned for Inkheart to be stand-alone, but after she’d finished she decided to add on to the story.  I have several reasons to suspect this, but first let me give a short synopsis of the first book so we’re both on the same page…er…so to speak.

Inkheart opens with Meggie traveling around Europe with her father, whom she calls Mo because it makes her sound like a hippie child.  Her father is a mild-mannered bookbinder who nevertheless has a tragic past and a powerful secret.  This secret is not so much a spoiler for anyone who hasn’t read the book, since we’re tipped off in the dust jacket blurb: Mo is a “Silvertongue” which is a person who can read aloud so fluently that the things in the book are transported to our world.  Unfortunately whatever “magic” this is caused by has rules, and something from our world goes into the book. 

The story is written from Meggie’s point of view, and so she and the reader both slowly come to discover the tragic past that comes along with this powerful secret.  When Meggie was little her father accidentally read out two characters from the book Inkheart and the Random Magic Russian Roulette picks Meggie’s mother to go into the book.  The two characters that are read into reality are Dustfinger, a shifty and selfish fire-eater, and Capricorn, one of the side-villains in the novel.  While Capricorn sees his chance to get Main Villain Status in this world, going around destroying copies of Inkheart so no one can ever read him back into it, kidnapping other Silvertongues to read out treasures and slaves from other books, and generally having a field day, Dustfinger thinks only of getting back…for some reason.  So as Meggie comes to realize, Mo continues traveling not because he’s a nomadic spirit, but because he’s on the run from these two characters who want him to use his Silvertongue-ness for their own purposes.

Whew. I’m going to leave the synopsis at that.  Because this book is heavy.  Not only long, but it has so many references to other books that you would soon be confused—if you aren’t already—by my trying to explain it. 

Alright, so as promised let me just give you my reasons why I think this was stand-alone. 

First: I loved the first book, but Inkspell immediately changed in tone and seemed to alter the characters’ personalities and motivations so drastically it was almost as if Funke was writing a different series altogether. 

Second: If Funke had always meant for this to be a trilogy, I think she would have developed one Big Bad character to be the villain throughout the series, which instead she split between Capricorn and the Adderhead…and frankly I was never afraid of the Adderhead because of his goofy name and ineffectual evilness. 

Third: The theme of Inkheart is books.  Their physical forms, the stories they contain, their characters, the “relationship” between the reader and the writing, writing books and storytelling, and so on.  Inkspell and Inkdeath transport some of the Real World characters (such as Meggie and her family) into Inkheart where the theme is much more about fate and determinism.  

Maybe these reasons are way off the mark, and Cornelia Funke always intended for this to be a trilogy. Maybe my objections are just my personal opinion.  Well, here is another opinion of mine: at least read the first book.  Especially if you are a book-lover.  And if you’re brave, you might try reading it out loud.

 
RECOMMENDED READING AGE: 12+

PARENTAL NOTES: This book was originally written in German, and German children’s books are a bit less strict including swear words such as the D-word.

AVAILABILITY: Get it in hardcover either at abebooks or Amazon.  If you disagree with my review and want the whole trilogy, far be it from me to keep you from getting this nice box set.  And when I say “get it in hardcover,” I’m not just being my normal hardcover-hardcore-booksnob self (although that does come into play).  Books this thick are simply not capable of standing up to wear and tear in paperback form. 

ADAPTATIONS: Although it makes some drastic departures from the book, the adaptation starring Brendan Fraser is pretty good.  I particularly appreciate the portrayal of my favorite character, the horned marten Gwin as well as Paul Bettany's portrayal of Dustfinger who is my second favorite character--probably on account of him getting to carry around a marten in his satchel.  If anything this film is worth watching to finally find out what Andy Serkis looks like when not covered in CGI.  I think the moviemakers might have agreed with me that Inkheart is a standalone, though, since there are no adaptations planned (that I know of, anyway) for the two sequels.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Back to the Classics Reading Challenge 2013



Source: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-JoJBYzTc6kk/UMUxqV0JkuI/AAAAAAAAA54/UvunvZGHQZg/s1600/classics2013.jpg
After weeks of procrastination, I have finished the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge hosted by Sarah Reads Too Much!  This is my second completed reading challenge after the European Reading Challenge that I did back in May.  According to the instructions for the wrap-up post, I'm supposed to note that I finished one "Entry" for completing all the required category reads as well as two "Entries" for completing all the optional categories. 

Total Entries (unless I counted wrong, which would not be unheard of because math is evil and I hate it): 3
 
The Required Categories:

1.      A 19th Century Classic - Adventures of a Special Correspondent by Jules Verne

Verne’s novels are hard for me to “get into” as a reader because he usually writes from first person, but the narrators all have the same voice.  I spent several chapters on this novel before I was able to rule out the option that this was actually Verne narrating: actually the Special Correspondent is named Claudius Bombarnac.  This novel is a mostly episodic story of this special correspondent traveling by train through Asia.  Bombarnac is supposed to write about the places he visits, but the journey proves uneventful and he gets distracted a lot by his various fellow-travelers (of diverse nationalities, personalities, and motives).  The most important plot thread of the entire novel is the problem of a stowaway who is trying to reach Kyrgyzstan and be reunited with his love.  My favorite part of this novel, however, is the chapter or two where absolutely nothing is happening worth writing about, and Bombarnac starts bemoaning the fact that he’s not on an American train where there might be a threat of Indians attacking and scalping people.

2.      A 20th Century Classic - The Once and Future King by T.H. White

I listened to this one on audiobook.  An entire month, one disk (sometimes two or three) a day.  5 "books" retelling more than 25 years of King Arthur and the history of his reign.  Wow.  I'm gonna have to read that one again.  I've always loved Arthurian Romance (and I'll have to talk more in-depth about that in another entry, because believe ME, I can talk about it IN DEPTH.  Heheh.), but I never would have imagined that its stories could be written like this.  It had such a sense of humor, and also portrayed the tragic events with sympathy and poignance.*  I laughed.  I cried.  I had vocal, one-sided disputes with T.H. White for how he portrayed Gawain.  (Seriously!  He said that GARETH was the one with Green Knight adventure?  GARETH?  That meathead?!). 

3.      A Pre-18th or 18th Century Classic - Richard II by William Shakespeare

This was one of my least enjoyable Shakespeare experiences.  This is the story of a king who loses his throne just because he breaks up an awesome joust right before it begins.  I actually got a movie version from the library in order to watch the play, in case I missed anything when I read it (which is pretty common for me and reading dramas), but in this case, nope.  Just one conversation after another.  It didn't help that the actor portraying Richard made the artistic choice to talk in really slow monotone whenever Richard was sad (which is pretty much all the time) even during passages which I would have interpreted as speaking fast and frenetic. 

4.      A Classic that relates to the African-American Experience - This can be an African-American author, or a book relating to slavery, civil rights, or African-American culture. - Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington

I knew I was going to like this memoir.  I've always admired Booker T. Washington and his "hard work" philosophy on success.  In college, instead of reading Up From Slavery, we read W.E.B. DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk and then the professor went into detail criticizing how Washington was almost a traitor to the rights of his race because of his stance on "compromise" with white segregation movements.  We didn't read anything by Washington himself to counterbalance that argument or inform us students about the accuracy of my professor's claims.  Now that I have finally read it, I feel that my professor (and DuBois) were a bit harsh, seeing only Washington's weaker points rather than his many strengths.  In fact, the characteristic I admire most about Booker T. Washington is his ability to forgive.  When we forgive the people who have horribly wronged us (even if they deserve to be punished), we free ourselves from the less-visible slavery of bitterness. I'm much more likely to hold a grudge, but after reading this memoir, I'm inspired to forgive, work hard, and move forward.

5.      A Classic Adventure - The Laughing Cavalier by Emmuska Orczy

Ahh, The Laughing Cavalier.  This is where The Scarlet Pimpernel Story begins, chronologically.  It's about an irreverent Englishman living in Holland during a time of political unrest, who agrees to kidnap a beautiful young lady who knows about an upcoming assassination attempt.  The villain is in love with this young lady and has no desire for her to be harmed...just...kept out of the way until his evil plot is successful. 

These novels are great swashbuckling fun.  Orczy gives her male characters most of the action, but she allows the female characters room for growth and influence over the plot, which is a bit of a novelty in these sorts of "romantic adventure" books from the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

6.      A Classic that prominently features an Animal - This can feature animal characters or animals in the title (real or imagined) - Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (reread)

I actually read and reviewed it this year BEFORE signing up for this challenge.  How's that for planning?

 

Optional Categories:

 A.   Re-read a Classic – The Little Prince by Antoine d Saint-ExupĂ©ry

No matter how many times I’ve read this book, it always makes me feel the same.  It’s always this subtle, elusive feeling of happiness and sadness, like when you wake up from a dream that leaves you feeling the emotions of that dream, even though you can’t quite remember what the dream was.  Of course you could read this book as a comedy—there are several humorous parts in it—or as a tragedy, or as a book filled with proverbs and allegory.  In a way it’s all these things, all at once.  Often I’ll read a line and not be able to decide whether to laugh, nod at its profundity, or cry.


B.   A Russian Classic - Great Russian Short Stories by various

 This was a good way of gaining exposure to several diverse Russian classic writers.  The style of writing varied, as did how much I enjoyed each individual story.  As always Dostoyevsky was depressingly delightful in White Nights, but by far my favorite of this collection was Tolstoy’s How Much Land Does a Man Need?  which read like a fairy tale or ancient myth.


C.   A Classic Non-Fiction title - Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain

This is the first nonfiction book I’ve read of Twain’s, and I must say it surprised me.  The opening is literally a history and geographical description of the Mississippi River, which scared me because I had expected Tom Sawyer and I was getting gallons per mile instead.  But I should not have worried so much.  The title should have been a clue that Twain not only was going to talk about the Mississippi itself, but also LIFE on it.  He describes his career on a riverboat, the various stations and towns along the banks of the river which he saw, of the life of the people in those towns, and in the end it’s like he starts with the muddy water and then expands the description of the land, the people, their livelihoods, and how times have changed even in the twenty years since he first dreamed of being a cabin boy.  Some parts I found boring, but they were countered by some really interesting descriptions—in Twain’s usual black sardonic humor, for the most part, such as the account of how undertakers would wring every penny from poor-but-proud widows. 

D.   A Classic Children's/Young Adult title – The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

“A-A-R-G-H, numbers!  Never mention numbers here.  Only use them when we absolutely have to.” ~ Chapter 7: The Royal Banquet, page 86

This is the story of an extremely bored and apathetic boy named Milo who receives a mysterious phantom toothbrush—er, I mean, Tollbooth—in the mail.  Because he fortunately owns a toy car (that is large enough and sophisticated enough for him to actually drive), he goes through the toothbr—tollbooth and enters the Land of Wisdom.  Which, because its two ruling princesses Rhyme and Reason have been banished, is not very wise at all.  Milo makes it his quest to bring the princesses back, and along the way he meets a lot of personified puns, two of which (a Watchdog and a Humbug) join him on this quest.

Some things are delightful whether one reads it as a child or first discovers it as an adult.  For me, this book was not such a discovery.  From all the glowing reviews and recommendations, I am aware that I’m voicing a minority opinion here.  I had never read it when I was younger, but kept hearing from others that it was their favorite childhood novel.  Maybe I approached The Phantom Tollbooth with my expectations too high; maybe I missed the magical moment of experiencing a thing in childhood which would have endeared it at least for nostalgia’s sake. 

But frankly I didn’t care for it.  And I am willing to dodge all the rotten produce that will likely be thrown at me for saying so.  It’s not that The Phantom Tollbooth was poorly written, or had a bad message, or anything.  In fact I don’t quite understand what’s lacking, since it’s very much like Alice in Wonderland (which I love…although I read that when I was a child so maybe if I’d read it as an adult I would have been similarly unimpressed) and other childhood books that have a central character traveling from place to place and encountering all manner of fantastic adventures. 

Here are my objections: first, that Milo is not a very active character, aside from going on this quest.  Of course this is the climax his character must overcome: his flaw is that he is passive and apathetic, and throughout the book he becomes more and more active.  Another, possibly petty, problem I have with the book is that I am frustrated by the title.  Not only do I consistently call it The Phantom Toothbrush, but I’m also disappointed that the titular Tollbooth is not more of a central object in the story.  (I guess I should have noticed that operative word, phantom, meant that the tollbooth would be a fleeting thing.)

 
   E.  Classic Short Stories - collection must include at least 3 short stories by the same author, or at least 3 stories collected together by genre, time period, etc. - The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories by Washington Irving

 
I had read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle in high school, and after reading about a dozen more of Irving’s short stories I think it’s safe to say that these are his best two.  I’m not a huge fan of short stories in general because I liked to have longer exposure to characters in order to “root” for them and understand their personalities.  This, then, might have affected how much (or little) I enjoyed Irving’s stories.  At first I enjoyed how he would start a story, draw me in and get me to wondering “what’s going to happen next?!” only to end prematurely with “And they never did find out.”  But after a while it got infuriating.  The Stout Gentleman is entirely about a narrator character who sits in this wayside inn wondering as to the identity of “the stout gentleman” who is hiding in his room…and he never DOES find out who the guy is!  Annette Delarbre is about a lover’s spat which almost ends tragically but then pretty much concludes with them living happily ever after as if the spat hadn’t happened in the first place.  In conclusion I think that I prefer other “folktale short stories” by such authors as Mark Twain and Nathaniel Hawthorne, although I can see Irving’s influence in their writing styles.