Monthly Archives: March 2014

9) The Blue Sword

By: Robin McKinley

Re-read Finished: 03.19.14

by Robin McKinley

Jack thought, I am going to follow this child, to my death perhaps, but I am going to follow her, and be proud of the opportunity.

Recently orphaned, Harry comes to live at the edge of the desert where her brother is stationed at a military outpost.  The nearby hills are inhabited by the mysterious Damarians – a once mighty nation, now greatly diminished and scattered.  With threats pouring in from their enemies in the North, the Damarians are preparing to fight a war which they have no hope of winning.  Their king, Corlath, knows they need Harry even if he doesn’t know why and steals her away from her new home.  Given a place of honor among her captors, Harry finds a purpose for her life far beyond what she could have imagined.

I didn’t intend to read this book this year and certainly not at the time I did (in the middle of reading another book), but I picked it up at Half Price Books and couldn’t let it just sit on my shelf.  Over a decade ago when I first checked this book out of the library, I hadn’t read many of McKinley’s works, but I had read The Hero and the Crown.  Both are set in the same world, Damar, and even though I knew the stories would be completely separate, I was still disappointed in The Blue Sword.  It went back to the library after only a couple chapters.  The main character is from a completely different country and thus the opening chapters are not set in Damar.  I had already fallen head over heels for Damar, so I think the new setting was too much for me to accept.  There were a few other failed attempts to read it until I was finally able to pull myself further into the story.  Once Harry got into Damar, I loved the book.

The writing is majestic – in true McKinley fashion – and I am grateful that I kept giving it a chance.  My feelings toward the book are tainted by those initial failures, but with scattered re-reads I’ve been able to appreciate the book for its own merit.  Reading it now that I’m older, I found that I identify with Harry much more and that I rather like the opening.

Granted, the story is inherently problematic, given that the main character is abducted and remains mostly unruffled by the whole thing.  To give McKinley/Harry some credit, the Stockholm syndrome started taking effect a while before the kidnapping.  Harry had already fallen in love with the land and — though she didn’t know it — had a connection with the people.  Plus, she never quite felt like she belonged in the society she grew up in.  Stockholm syndrome aside, Harry is a very worthy heroine and I am glad that I became reacquainted with her.

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8) Holes

By: Louis Sachar

Re-read Finished: 02.24.14

By Louis Sachar

Stanley Yelants was given a choice.  The judge said, “You may go to jail, or you may go to Camp Green Lake.”  Stanley was from a poor family.  He had never been to camp before.

Stanley Yelnats is an unlucky kid who was sentenced for a crime he didn’t commit.  He ends up at Camp Green Lake where there is neither a lake nor anything that’s green.  There, the boys are forced to dig holes every day, on the pretense that it builds character.  Despite the unfairness of his situation, Stanley finds the courage to take charge of his life for the first time and along the way uncovers the secret of the holes.

I first read this book as part of my language arts class in seventh grade.  By this time, I had been drawn in by a persistent rumor that the books you read for class are always uninteresting.  Looking back, my experience had not yet substantiated that claim, but I still approached the book with low expectations.  Boy, was I blown away.

It’s not just a story of an outcast becoming a hero, like my short little description indicates.  There are two additional stories weaving through – the story of Stanley’s no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-grandfather and of the town of Greenlake when it was thriving around an actual lake.  All three stories have vibrant characters and a tongue in cheek explanation of serious situations.  The stories connect in many unexpected ways, wrapped up in a rather tidy, but well-earned bow.

It’s fun and slightly offbeat, a flawless example of magical realism.  While it was written for a young audience, it’s smart and holds up over the years.  As always, it was a blast to return to this world and I am immensely grateful to my seventh grade English teacher for putting this in the curriculum.

7) Unnatural Creatures

Stories Selected By: Neil Gaiman

Date Finished: 02.22.14

Edited By Neil Gaiman

For Bigfoot, for the time travelers, for the pirates, for the robots, for any boring people (who obviously aren’t actually secret agents in boring disguise), for people in space rockets, and for our mothers  –N.G.

First of all, buy this book.  And while I adore places like Half Price Books and encourage giving books a second life, buy this book at full retail.  I make this uncharacteristic and audacious command for one very simple reason: 826DC.  This is the Washington DC branch of a series of non-profits which help underprivileged children learn to write and open their imaginations.  Not only do the children receive individual tutoring on school projects and academic writing, but they are further encouraged and supported in creative writing and journalistic endeavors as well.  Sales of this book benefit the organization…plus, it’s a good read.

Gaiman has collected sixteen short stories as part of what he calls the Museum of Unnatural History.  Some stories feature standard mythical creatures – werewolf, phoenix, griffin– and some beasts are less conventional.  Many of the stories were previously published, covering a span of years from 1885 (“The Griffin and the Minor Canon” by Frank R. Stockton) to three that were published with this anthology in 2013.  The stories are set in all kinds of time periods and universes, yet they all feel like part of the same world.  With so many different authors, I expected it to feel like flipping through a handful of Kindle samples.  Instead, the stories feel perfectly comfortable around each other, a similar flavor running through them all that’s just, well, Gaiman-y.

I particularly enjoyed E. Lily Yu’s “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” (despite developing a potentially painful fascination with wasps nests), Samuel R. Delany’s “Prismatica” (despite a questionable unnatural creature), and Gaiman’s own “Sunbird” (despite developing a desire to run off to Africa in search of a mythical bird).  There were several others that I had a lot of fun with and will return to again and again.  A few will be skipped over on the re-read, but overall, it’s an excellent collection with a smart and often sideways way of looking at these fantastical creatures.

At the end of the day: Really, really for me

6) The Death of Bees

By: Lisa O’Donnell

Date Finished: 02.20.14

By Lisa O'Donnell

Their parents are dead, which doesn’t really change the quality of life for Marnie and Nelly.  It might even be a relief but for the secret they have to keep.  In a year, Marnie can take legal custody of her sister so long as they can hide the truth about their missing parents.  During their struggle, the girls find a refuge with their aging neighbor, Lennie.  Together, the three become a strange little family, more real and far more functional than the family their parents embodied.

This is the third of my Book Club reads and I have to say, it was a rough start.  At first, I thought I was going to hate it.  I thought I did hate it.  Without the impetus of Book Club, I probably would have abandoned ship around page twenty-four.  But I persevered, and after a while discovered I did care about the characters (the ones you were supposed to care about at least) and was even rooting for them.  And I owe it all to the magnificent writing.

This book has three first person narrators.  Marnie is a tough fifteen year old, street smart (book smart, too, but without making the effort), vulgar, and fiercely protective of her younger sister.  Nelly is socially impaired, probably autistic to a degree, a musical prodigy, and desperate for stability.  Lennie is a lonely old man haunted by his past and longing to care for someone.  Together, they tell the story in short, largely stream of consciousness chapters.

Since the three storytellers have such diverse perspectives, the reader will often get vastly different accounts of the same event.  It is fascinating from a literary perspective and remarkable writing on O’Donnell’s part.  The voices are distinct, passionate, and genuine.  I honestly don’t know how I would have pulled myself through the book if there was a single narrator.  Marnie is too crude, it would become exhausting.  Lennie is too regretful, it would become arduous.  After a while, it would be difficult to sympathize with either one of them.  Nelly could’ve maintained interest and sympathy with her special needs, but her limited perspective would omit vital portions of the story.  This book works because you come at it from three completely different angles.

If you’d like to give this book a try, please be aware that it has R-rated content.  Most of what I endorse falls in the PG, occasionally PG-13 category (because I happen to like YA books), so I don’t want you to be surprised by the grittiness.  If you do take the risk though, I think you’ll find it’s masterfully composed.

At the end of the day: Probably a one-time read.