The view from my reading pile.

Book Review: Little Blog on the Prairie, by Cathleen Davitt Bell January 20, 2010

Filed under: book review — stackscene @ 1:52 pm
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This past weekend was the American Library Association’s Annual Midwinter Conference, held this time around in Boston. Since it was local for me, I attended, and had a pretty fantastic time. I have some things to post about from the conference, but today you’re getting a book review, because one of the things about ALA is that publishers give you books. Lots of them. Um, kind of a ridiculous amount, actually. So consider this Standard Disclaimer 1 (am I weird that I am totally considering writing up my standard disclaimers and just linking to them as needed?), which is that the publisher provided this advanced copy free of charge for review. Also this is an uncorrected proof, so I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt on the typos.

Genevieve Welsh is convinced her summer has been ruined. The 14 year-old is being forced to go on a “Frontier Camp” vacation with her family, where they and several other families will spend the summer pretending to be in the year 1890, with no technology, no swimming pool, and no indoor plumbing. Gen manages to smuggle in a cell phone, and her texts to her friends back home are used as a blog, which turns the girl into a celebrity.

I have to admit, after the first couple of chapters I almost put this book down. I was a fan of the “Little House” books as a kid, but let’s face it: going back to that time would be very uncomfortable for more than just physical reasons. Reading the set up in the book, and the first few days at Frontier Camp just made me annoyed thinking about the realities of life in the 1890s for minorities and women. I did pick the book back up after a day or two, and I’m glad I did.

There’s really a lot going on here about parents and children, and about the choices that parents try to make for their children. Ron and Betsy, the couple that runs the camp, have raised their daughter almost entirely as though it really were 1890. Sure, there are communities that do this for various reasons, but a key word there is “community”. Ron and Betsy’s daughter Nora has grown up almost entirely isolated with her parents, except during the summer when campers come to the camp, hate it all summer, and then claim to be “transformed” at the end of the experience. At the end of the book Nora is chance to leave the frontier behind, and her parents are horrified that she might choose the modern world, when they’ve worked so hard to show her something better. The fact that they did not give her a choice, and have only let her tangentially experience modernity doesn’t seem to occur to her parents, and I thought it was a really interesting parallel with Gen’s conflicts with her own parents. Gen of course has been raised entirely in the modern world, but really wasn’t given a choice about going to the camp for the summer. Gen and her brother do find things they love about this life, and when Gen is offered fame and a book deal, she turns it down rather than hurt the people at the camp. This could have been an incredibly cheesy ending, or felt false, but the perspective from Gen’s narration does ring true with her motivations. The major difference between Gen and Nora is that Gen has been given choices, and Nora has been forced into something she never agreed to.

I said earlier that I the idea of the camp itself annoyed me, and I should also say that I think deals with most of these issues in a fairly satisfying way. A few of the women nearly lead a feminist uprising (which would have been AWESOME), and when there’s a medical crisis and the illusion of 1890 is broken, Ron is honest with the kids about how things would have gone differently if it were actually 1890.

I totally want to do a book club discussion of this someday, to talk about the good and bad aspects of life on the frontier as the characters are experiencing it, finding balance in life (is it ok that Ron and Betsy occasionally take breaks from 1890, even though they so desperately wanted to leave the modern world?), the decisions parents try to make for their kids and the ways that can go wrong, and some of the other issues the book raised.

Overall I would absolutely recommend this to teenage girls and boys, especially if they read the Little House books as younger kids.


Books: Uglies, by Scott Westerfield September 9, 2009

Filed under: book review — stackscene @ 4:32 pm
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I’d been hearing good things about this book for quite a while before I got around to reading it, but I hadn’t heard much about the plot, which was kind of nice, for a change. The thing that kicked me into finally reading it was the publisher (Pulse, the teen imprint from Simon & Schuster) doing a promotion allowing a free e-book download of the book, partly as publicity for Westerfeld’s next book, Leviathan, and probably also to keep people interested in this series. A note on e-books: I don’t actually have a Kindle or any of the other cute e-book readers, I read e-books on my computer (as God intended!), and don’t read them very often. I occasionally get into sort of an e-book jag though, because I love reading on my laptop and knitting away. So yes, I was pleased when there was a hand knit sweater in the book, presented as something nearly sacred in the world of easy and disposable things, and yes, the irony was not lost on me that I was reading it as an e-book on a screen.

ANYWAY. Now that I’ve said all that I should maybe fill you in on this book, so you’ll know if maybe you’d like to read it too (oh, and the free e-book download ended September 5, sorry. Thought I’d better say that before people go looking for it.)

In the not-too-distant future of Uglies, beauty has been perfected, and society has been segregated into three sections. Children live with their parents (Crumblies or Middle Pretties) until they turn 12, at which point they are moved into a town of their own. It’s a pretty sweet set-up in some aspects. The kids all live together in big dorms, and they still have to go to school and have electronic minders keeping tabs on them, but they’re afforded a lot of freedom too. Science has fixed a lot of the problems of our current world, with pollution being pretty much a thing of the past, and poverty and hunger are completely eradicated, thanks to some interesting tech, which is glossed over more than a hardcore science fiction fan might appreciate, but I was ok with it. Learning how the maker technology works isn’t really the point of the book, you really just have to understand enough about how this society works to contrast it with our current world, and with an outside world that comes along later in the book.

I said earlier that beauty has been perfected, and it’s a pretty interesting concept. When the kids turn 16, they’re taken away from the Uglyville, given extensive plastic surgery, and turned into a “Pretty,” then sent to live in New Pretty Town until they get a bit older, are given another surgery, and become Middle Pretties. Everyone looks pretty much the same, with giant anime eyes and the most symmetrical features possible, bones are smoothed and shaped, eye color is enhanced, hair is made as glossy and lovely as possible, etc. Creepy as hell, right? But here was where it really got interesting for me. When I started the book and began to understand the system Westerfeld has set up, I was a little bit bored. It feels like territory that’s been covered many times before, and I think even with our intensely appearance-based society most teens would still be pretty freaked out by the idea of looking like everyone else. So instead of hammering home why it’s bad to look like everyone else, Westerfeld gives us some pretty compelling reasons why it might be good to make everyone look the same. The children are taught from a pretty early age that only by having everyone be beautiful in the same way can society have true equality, and the idea is basically that because they’ve perfected these surgeries and now give them to everyone, society has moved forward and can stop worrying about appearance so much. It’s clearly a pretty false system, but through the eyes of our main character, Tally Youngblood, it’s easy to see why it’s such a seductive system as well. One sticking point I have with the book is that race really doesn’t come up. It’s briefly mentioned by Tally that people used to kill each other and go to war over differences in skin color, and her teachers have impressed on her that this is stupid and insane, but it’s not made clear whether those different skin tones still exist or if they’ve been eradicated as part of the surgery as well. There’s a fairly typical science fiction trope that in the future, there will be enough inter-racial marriage and breeding that we’ll all be sort of taupy-beige, and a lot of times that’s presented as an awesome way to get past racial inequality. In this book it’s pretty clear that if that is the case, it’s not necessarily a good thing.

Tally spends most of the part being very much a part of this system. It’s another thing Westerfeld does to make us uncomfortable with our assumptions about the system being bad, because Tally’s pretty likeable, and a good kid with a nice rebellious streak in her. As the book continues and Tally is given more reason to question the current system, and maybe even question whether or not she really wants to be pretty, I almost felt a sigh of relief. Of course the system is secretly evil, thank goodness it is! Even here though, the way the Westerfeld reveals the problems within the set up is done really nicely, and the way that Tally is forced to abandon her comfort zone is pretty believable. I don’t want to say too much beyond that for fear of spoilers.

One other issue I have with the book is the fact that it ends on a cliffhanger. Like really really, OMG WHAT HAPPENS NEXT kind of cliffhanger. I know there’s going to be a second book, and I almost can’t imagine any way around the cliffhanger, but if that sort of thing bugs you, be aware of it here. It bugs me, but that’s totally a personal preference, of course.

The bottom line here is that I really enjoyed this book. I like the way Westerfeld has set up his world, and I like the way that the outside comes in, subtly at first and then in a way that our protagonist can’t ignore anymore. I think it’s a pretty fantastic read and great for kids and teens, especially those going through their awkward phase and wishing they could just be pretty.


Desideria, by Nicole Kornher-Stace September 1, 2009

Filed under: book review — stackscene @ 8:30 pm
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**Disclaimer**: The author of the work being discussed today is a personal friend of mine. I like reading things my friends write, but can’t possibly pretend to be objective about the work. I do think, however, that I can give enough of an idea of the book that a reader should be able to make a decision as to whether or not they would like to read the book.

I met Nicole Kornher-Stace at Readercon this year, and almost immediately fell in love with her words. I say this because she is the featured poet in the Summer issue of the online poetry magazine Goblin Fruit, and I got to hear her read one of the poems from the feature, The Changeling Always Wins. I love poetry that has a sense of humor, and this piece in particular is dark and twisted and a little creepy, but also very, very funny. To cross-promote my own stuff for a second, if you’re interested in finding out more about Nicole’s poetry and Goblin Fruit, I just did an interview with the editors of the publication on my podcast, We Have Thumbs.

The upshot of all of this was that I liked Miss Kornher-Stace, I liked her work, and she had a new novel, her first, being sold in the dealer’s room at the con. So I grabbed a copy of Desideria (Amazon links for illustration, please support your local retailers when possible) and tossed it on one of the book stacks. I recently got around to reading it, and finished it last night, so I’m trying to get a review written before I lose any of the dreaminess of this book.

Dreaminess isn’t the right word. That implies something sort of soft and pretty, and this book is gorgeous, but not pretty. I’ve mentioned that Kornher-Stace is a poet, and that definitely comes across in her prose. The opening line of the prologue is such a well-turned, brain-snagging phrase that I literally read the line several times, savoring the imagery, before I could move on to the rest. “At first she does not know just how or why the lamp is in her hand, its glass and brass and fern-curled fire;” the sentence continues, but it takes a bit more time for the dream-like images to begin to resolve into a character and story. That story is about Ange St. Loup, the woman holding the lamp, who is an actress in a theatre. Ange is known as a brilliant actress, but what only her fellow actors know is that she’s prone to getting a little *too* into character. Think method acting taken to a dangerous extreme. (Note: the story-bits I’m about to divulge are found out fairly early on and thus I do not consider them to be spoilery) Somehow, Ange has fallen down into one of her characters, and accidentally starts a fire in the theatre, and is taken to an insane asylum after jumping out the window. The story that follows cuts between Ange’s surfacing memories of her time in the theatre and her present reality of the asylum of Amaranth. It’s often difficult to decide what is real, and that only gets harder as the book continues and the machinations of some of the supporting characters are made clear. On the subject of those characters, one of my very minor complaints about the book is that I felt like it took a really long time to get a good handle on the rather large cast. I admit however, that this is partially a personal failure, and possibly the result of reading when tired. After finished the book though, I thought about it some more and actually think it suits the structure of the book. After all, we’re meeting these characters through Ange’s memories, and the memories start out vague and become more focused as she regains her sense of self, so allowing the characters to sharpen in focus as the book progresses feels right to me.

Be warned, this is not a happy book, and has elements of abuse and other possibly triggering elements. The ending is good and solid, although disappointing in a very personal way that I’m not sure I can talk about without spoilers, but it all makes sense and does give resolution. I loved this book, but don’t go into it expecting anything light or sweet, or an ending that reinstates the status quo.

If you’re interested in trying out some of Kornher-Stace’s other works before committing to a novel, she has a short story up at Fantasy Magazine, as well as the poetry already mentioned at Goblin Fruit.

Spoilers and more discussion behind the jump. (more…)