Thursday, August 28, 2014

"The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom" by Christopher Healy

I picked up this title because my 10-year-old daughter insisted I must read it. She tore through this book and was hungry for more (famished, I should say). I did some sleuthing and learned that the second and third books were already published, and what's more, a movie is in the works (according to the author's website, BlueSky, the folks who delighted viewers with Rio and Rio2, are spear-heading the project). 

She actually found this title on accident--our library has "mystery" books for readers to check out. A small pile of books, each wrapped in brown paper (seriously, so charming), was sitting in the YA section and my 8-year-old son, who is venturing more into this kind of literature, picked up this gem. He's not quite the bibliophile his sister and I are, and after he unwrapped it he left it in the van (typical Isaac--wonder where he inherited that behavior from? ...innocent whistling...). Anyway, for some reason the kids and I were stuck in the van a while ago and Alayna was just bored out of her mind, so I told her to peruse through Isaac's book. Hook, line, and sinker.

We discovered the second and third installments were available, but our library was not in possession of copies. Another really awesome thing about my library is they have fulfilled nearly every purchase request I've made in my five-plus years here, and before we knew it I was getting emails notifying me that "The Hero's Guide to Storming the Castle" and "The Hero's Guide to Being an Outlaw" were waiting patiently on the shelves for Alayna to devour. (Since we requested the books, we got first dibs to read 'em.)

Anyway, what's the book about that Alayna and I are making such a fuss about it?? It's a delightful re-telling of four quintessential fairy tales, but what I adore is how "Hero's Guide" focuses on the princes. Frederic (Cinderella) is a dandy, Gustav (Rapunzel) is a brute, Liam (Sleeping Beauty) is your achetypical and heroic Prince Charming, and Duncan (Snow White) is a quirky and distracted dreamer. Even though they are all as different as can be, they all share one thing in common: they are all known by the bards and minstrels of their kingdoms simply as Prince Charming and the musical story-tellers often get the story wrong about the princes. 

The adventure starts off with Frederic, whose father has scared him as a child into avoiding dangerous and heroic feats. After he and Cinderella are betrothed and they get to know each other better post-ball, she realizes she wants someone more rugged and daring. So she leaves seeking adventure. 

Frederic goes after her, and, in his pursuit of his bride-to-be, runs into Gustav. Gustav is very busy trying to redeem himself from the humiliation inflicted by the bards' telling of his "rescue" of Rapunzel (he's also the youngest and most teased of 17 brothers and is desperate to perform an act of heroism that will get his brothers to stop nagging and mocking him). Even though they are polar opposites, Gustav and Frederic set out to find Cinderella. Of course they encounter Liam (who had just broken his engagement with Briar Rose because she's simply an awful spoiled brat) and Duncan, whose own wife, Snow White, decided she needed a break from him (because he is quite eccentric).

The four princes learn of the evil plans of a vengeful witch, and they set off to foil her grandiose endeavors to get her own name to live on through the ages. 

And that's all I'm going to say, because first, frankly, I think I've given away more than I usually do, and second, it's midnight and I'm suffering from a nasty cold. I'm tired.

Originally I started reading this book because Alayna had begged me to, but after finishing it tonight, I'm actually anxious to see where the story continues in the next books. 

Kudos to Healy for a wonderful story, and on Amy's SOP (Scale of Prudishness), I'm happy to report "Hero's Guide" is perfectly suitable and appropriate for its intended audience (younger YA readers). It really focuses on the wholesome elements of the story and imaginative entertainment. Parents can happily encourage their young readers (or any-aged reader) to explore this story without worrying about "grown up" questions or issues cropping up in the pages. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

"Cinder," "Scarlet," and "Cress" by Marissa Meyers

The Lunar Chronicles
"Cinder," "Scarlet," and "Cress" by Marissa Meyer

These books were recommended by a dear friend, who actually bought me a copy of "Cinder" for my birthday. And of course, I was hooked. Warning, there are two more books slated to be published in this series, "Winter" and "Fairest." I believe they're not scheduled for release until 2015. So if you hate starting a new series before all the books are out, keep this one on the back burner until late next year.

I think the best way to describe The Lunar Chronicles is fairy tales marry sci-fi. Cinder, for example, is a cyborg, her body comprised of synthetic tissues and wiring and artificial limbs and appendages. As a result of her upscale hard-wiring, she's a gifted mechanic. Because she's a cyborg, she's the 'property' of the Linh family, a woman and her two daughters (one of which is actually sweet and friendly with Cinder). The story takes place a few hundred years in the future, after World War 4, in New Beijing. 

All of the nations on the planet are unified in the Earthen Union (EU). The moon is populated with people called Lunars, who have evolved the capacity to alter their bioelectric energy to mess with the minds of others, making them see what they want them to see, or to even control their actions. Lunars are not permitted to live on Earth, and are highly distrusted by Earthen citizens. 

There is a plague, letumosis, that has killed hundreds of thousands of people across the planet. Even the emperor of the Eastern Commonwealth has died from it, leaving his young son Kaito to rule the Eastern Commonwealth from the palace in New Beijing. 

So, since you know the story of Cinderella, you'll enjoy the sci-fi twists Meyer weaves into the story of the cyborg Cinder.

"Scarlet" is the next installment in The Lunar Chronicles. Scarlet lives with her grandmother on her farm in France and delivers the produce grown on the farm to local buyers in the village. Her grandmother disappears suddenly, and Scarlet encounters a mysterious stranger, dubbed Wolf, who volunteers to help Scarlet find her. Meanwhile, Cinder has become the most wanted criminal on Earth. Cinder's and Scarlet's stories gradually intertwine at the end of the story. And just so you know, I have a lit-crush on Wolf.

"Cress" is a spin-off of Rapunzel. Instead of a tower, she's lived the last seven years of her life imprisoned in a satellite orbiting Earth, forced by a Lunar official to hack networks and spy on the Earthen leaders. She encounters Cinder, Scarlet, and other characters who have gained significance in the story. 

I really can't give you more details than that, because I want you to enjoy the stories for yourself!!! No spoilers here!

The magical way Meyer modernizes fairy-tales, thrusting them into the future, is deeply compelling and clever. We all know these stories, but Meyer's version modernizes and twists them into something new and riveting.

While the stories themselves are refreshing and addictive, I must confess Meyer's writing style often falls short of what her story deserves. Sometimes it's just plain choppy with poor transitions. Some ideas are rushed into and not as developed as they ought to be. Sometimes I had to reread passages because I wasn't sure what was going on or who was involved. I wish she'd had an editor with higher expectations to make the story more whole and more smoothly polished. 

But aside from all that, I highly recommend this book. On the SOP (Scale of Prudishness) these books rank very high for appropriateness. I'm even letting my 10-year-old read "Cinder" right now and she's simply devouring it. I of course encourage parents to become familiar with the materials their children read, so don't just take my word for it that it's child appropriate. You have to determine what's right for your own young readers. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"Fangirl" by Rainbow Rowell

I took a gamble on this one. As I've mentioned in previous posts, I am a bit of a prude when it comes to what I read, and there are LOTS of YA books out there that are chock-full of content that I find go against my reading standards. I typically only read YA that trusted friends have recommended to me. But something pulled me to this book, and I was excited to try out a new author. Plus, a friend bought this for me for my birthday. That alone makes this book special!

"Fangirl" is about Cath, a college freshman in Nebraska. She and her twin, Wren, leave home to attend school, but for the first time in their 18 years, they won't be living together. Cath is definitely the more conservative twin, very shy and practical. It even takes her a few weeks living in the dorms before she ventures a conversation with her roommate, Reagan. Cath's sister, Wren, on the other  hand, is a little edgier and can't wait to meet new people and opportunities to party at the frat houses. 

Cath writes fanfiction. In "Fangirl," there's a book series about a magical boy named Simon Snow, which is more or less a Harry Potter version of fiction created for this story. Each chapter in "Fangirl" begins with an excerpt from a "real" Simon Snow book or a bit of fanfic Cath has posted on a popular fanfic site. She has thousands of readers who follow the adventures Cath writes for the characters Simon, Baz, and Penelope. So, first off the bat, props to Rowell, who really had to write three stories instead of one when she created "Fangirl." That's pretty creative and shows a fortitude of talent. Also, each of the these excerpts is a prelude of sorts, foreshadowing what'll happen in that chapter. Something that happened with the "real" or fanfic Simon Snow characters correlates with something that happens in Cath's life. I loved it. 

I also loved Cath herself. She likes to read and write. I relate to that. She's typically shy and nervous about meeting new people. I relate to that. I love that while she encounters several college lifestyle opportunities (drinking, sex, drugs, partying) she steers clear of things that she interprets as bad choices. She doesn't have any real moral grounds for doing so (what her parents did/did not teach her, religious affiliations, etc.) She just recognizes self-destructive or damaging behaviors and avoids it. I greatly appreciated that about our heroine. 

The other thing I loved about "Fangirl" was the subtle lessons on writing that are strewn through the book. Because Cath has so much writing experience, she get special permission to take upperclassmen courses on writing. She really excels in the course until one assignment set her in a tailspin. She used the Simon Snow characters and wrote the assignment like a piece of fanfic, and the professor was highly disappointed that she didn't use original characters. Cath only has experience writing using the Simon Snow characters and she says she cannot come up with her own unique story to write. 

I resonated with this so deeply. I've been trying my hand at my own writing in recent years, mostly in the realm of historical fiction, using people and events that already exist. I felt much like brain feels like a barren desert when I try to conjure up my own characters and their exploits. She has several conversations with her creative writing professor where these little bits of gems about writing are sprinkled through the book. And I felt like they were written for me. I genuinely found them motivational and inspiring. For example:

"But I don't want to write my own fiction," Cath said, as emphatically as she could. " I don't want to write my own characters or my own words--I don't care about them." She clenched her fists in her lap. "I care about Simon Snow. And I know he's not mine, but that doesn't matter to me. I'd rather pour myself into a world I love and understand than try to make something up out of nothing."

The professor leaned forward, "But there's nothing more profound that creating something out of nothing." Her lovely face turned fierce. "Think about it, Cath. That's what makes a god--or a mother. There's nothing more intoxicating than creating something from nothing. Creating something from yourself."

"It just feels like nothing to me," Cath said.

"You'd rather take--or borrow--someone else's creation?"

"I know Simon and Baz. I know how they think, what they feel. When I'm writing them, I get lost in them completely, and I'm happy. When I'm writing my own stuff, it's like swimming upstream. Or...falling down a cliff and grabbing at branches, trying to invent the branches as I fall."

"Yes," the professor said, reaching out and grasping the air in front of Cath, like she was catching a fly. "That's how it's supposed to feel" (261-62).

Have you have had a book speak to you? Cath's lessons on finding her own voice spoke to me. They're precious to me. I'm reading "Fangirl" again to mark these tidbits and passages that I may not have been looking for the first time I went through it. The professor's advice to Cath have sparked courage in my own personal writings that I've not dared venture to explore yet. And I'm grateful for the nudge.

Besides all that, I really liked Rowell's tone and how she tells the story. It's developed thoroughly and she's a fantastic story-teller. I loved the characters and their predicaments. There's a love story in there, as well as some tense family drama that made me tear up. 

Because I have friends who read this blog, friends who are just a prude-ish as I am, I must include the following. On my scale-of-prudeness (SOP, hah!), the worst offense this book was the language. I quickly found a black Sharpie and scribbled out the offending words (should've used white-out tape, but I was too busy reading and loving this story to run and buy one--my kids ruined the old one). And yes, this was my own copy so inking it up was totally legit. Lots of f-bombs and other language my fellow prudes wouldn't appreciate. If you want to borrow my 'edited' copy, you're more than welcome to. 

Also on my SOP were all the college life stuff Cath encounters, even though she doesn't usually participate. So there's dialogue about sex and drinking and partying, and I couldn't very well ink out entire sections. But I can overlook most of that stuff because it's not the essence of the book; it's just what's happening in Cath's peripheral. 

So, this is a tongue-in-cheek recommendation. For my friends who are less prudish than I am, you'll love it. For my prudish friends, you'll not appreciate the language and such worldly tidbits.

Regardless of my SOP, this book will always be dear to me!