Posts Tagged ‘reviews’

ad-boxersboxBoxers and Saints may be the first book on this blog to get double reviews from Jen and me. Here’s her take, and mine is below. Major spoilers ahead!

Two weeks ago I wrote about book hype and how it can raise or lower your expectations for a book. Since September, the most-hyped book on my radar has been Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang. It took months for my request to arrive at the library, so in the meantime I read a ton of reviews and grew increasingly psyched. It had everything going for it: starry-eyed praise, a chilling trailer, a historical setting I knew nothing about, and an ingenious setup–telling both sides of a conflict through a two-volume set.

Luckily, it lived up to the hype. I loved the characters, the humor (Yang gets bonus points for putting humor in a book about a bloody revolution), the art. He also avoids one of my pet peeves: too often, stories set in other countries star characters who speak broken English, which is idiotic, since they’re obviously speaking their native language even if the book is written in English. Thankfully, everyone in Boxers & Saints speaks naturally, and it’s the missionaries who butcher the grammar as they attempt to speak Mandarin to the villagers. Also, whenever we see foreign soldiers talking in their own language (French, English or German), their words look like gibberish, or drunken attempts at drawing Chinese characters (if you squint, you’ll notice how each character corresponds to a letter of the alphabet. With enough patience, you could decode what they’re saying. I managed to find “e” and “a” before my eyes crossed in dizziness).

Most importantly, Yang tells a complicated saga through compelling characters, and the story has enough complexity for me to appreciate the shades of gray. As Jen said, there are no winners in Boxers & Saints. Everybody loses. Under different circumstances, Vibiana and Little Bao might have been friends, but the pull of history–and Yang’s masterful storytelling–was too much. While each volume stands on its own, they’re infinitely better when read together (it makes the most sense to start with Boxers)–hence my insistence on calling the series a book instead of books. Yang kept the surprises coming, and I didn’t even know what I was missing until the last page of Saints. (more…)

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boxers saintsIt’s been over two months since I finished reading Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang, and I’m still thinking about it. Told in graphic novel format from the perspectives of two Chinese teens on opposite sides of the conflict known as the Boxer Rebellion, Volume One follows Little Bao, while Volume Two tells Four-Girl’s story. Their narratives intersect briefly as children growing up in rural China during hard times, and then dramatically in a clash of allegiances as the Boxers, a pro-nationalist movement, march towards Peking in an effort to dispel the foreign powers–and their foreign religion–from China by force.

Yang sets the scene with ease, using Little Bao’s passion for folk opera, Four-Girl’s home life, and a host of mortal and supernatural characters, to give us insight into the cultural, social, and political situation influencing China as the 19th century drew to a close. Yang also portrays Chinese culture–even its more outlandish superstitions–with sensitivity and skill. Having read other books about China, I appreciate that his characters are influenced by, but don’t embody these superstitions. Rather, they come across as fully fleshed individuals with human motivations. (more…)

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The-True-Blue-Scouts-of-Sugar-Man-Swamp-2821158Jen was right–Kathi Appelt’s True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp is a book that should be read aloud, not read from the page. The cadence of the text drew me in from the first sentence of the audiobook, narrated by Lyle Lovett. It took me awhile to get used to Lovett’s voice, mostly because I’d always imagined a female narrator (my mind must be stuck on Keeper, narrated by Appelt herself). His narration initially sounded too detached for the humorous, warm atmosphere. But after awhile, Lovett won me over. Perhaps it’s because he relished the intrusive narrator moments (“You heard me. The DeSoto.”), and pulled them off so smoothly I barely noticed the intrusion.* I also appreciated the sly, matter-of-fact tone used for the raccoon brothers’ silly antics (“Blinkle,” Bingo’s dewberry guilt, their POUFing near Gertrude).

Speaking of Gertrude, Lovett has a particular talent for sound effects, including the all-important snip-snap-zip-zap! and the Farrow Gang’s ecstatic squeals. As for Coyote Jim’s howl, it was so loud I had to rip the headphones from my ears. Arrroooooooo, indeed.

*For a true test of Lovett’s skills, I suggest asking Charlotte of Charlotte’s Library if she can stomach the intrusive narrator when read by his voice.

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oceanAlthough Neil Gaiman’s latest book is steeped in myth like The Graveyard Book and as creepy as Coraline, unlike its predecessors, childhood in The Ocean at the End of the Lane is anything but safe. In perhaps his most reflective novel yet, Gaiman broods with melancholy and memory as his unnamed narrator returns to Sussex as an adult for a family funeral, and finds himself inexplicably drawn to the Hempstock farm at the end of the lane.

There, in front of the duck pond his childhood friend Lettie liked to call her ocean, he begins to remember how the Hempstock property was a place of solace for him, how he turned to Lettie for protection when he awoke from a nightmare choking on a silver shilling, how this sends them into the woods in pursuit of an ancient creature that takes the shape of rotten rags flapping in the wind–a creature that worms its way into the narrator’s life in the shape of a sadistic nanny who then wreaks havoc by turning all his family members against him. (more…)

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knifeIn many ways Hayley Rose Kincain is like the rest of her peers–the ones that inhabit YA books about high school. She starts off as the typical new kid, unused to the social pecking order after years of homeschooling on the road with her dad. A self-imposed loner, she is readily armed with a snarky response to everything high school throws at her. And just by being herself, she catches the attention of Finn, a “swoon-worthy” jockey nerd/nerdy jock who pursues her in his quest to find writers for the school paper, whom she promptly declines.

But Hayley also has an exhausting secret she is trying to keep. Everyday after school, she monitors the odometer on her father’s truck to see if he actually went to work that day. She checks the contents of the fridge to see if her father’s been eating (good) or drinking (bad). And she does her absolute best to keep everyone else in her life at arms length, lest they realize how poorly her father is coping with civilian life after the trauma of serving tours in Iraq–and take her away from him.

In Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory, it’s clear that as Hayley’s dad teeters on the brink of despair and destruction, Hayley is trapped just as trapped there beside him, even if she didn’t physically go to war. (more…)

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true blueTrust me when I say, don’t read Kathi Appelt’s latest book, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp. Books like hers deserve to be heard. So do whatever it takes to optimize your experience. Find an elementary school teacher or librarian who does story-time, coerce your parents/child/sibling/spouse/kindly neighbor into reading to you, or listen to the audio recording. But don’t just read it–unless you’re reading it aloud.

True Blue Scouts flows as languidly as a long summer’s day on the porch with a glass of cool lemonade and a chatty relative. Equally whimsical but less melancholy or heart-wrenching than the The Underneath or Keeper, it’s adorably simple, silly, and sweet.

The tale opens with scouts Bingo and J’miah, who monitor Sugar Man Swamp–home of the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker (IBWP), incomparable local canebrake sugar, mouthwatering fried sugar pies, and legendary Sugar Man–from the headquarters of a vintage 1949 DeSoto. When Bingo and J’maih, who are racoons by the way, notice an ominous rumble-rumble-rumble-rumble headed in their direction, they have no choice but to rouse the Sugar Man to protect the swamp. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to them, humans Mr. Sonny Boy Beaucoup and Ms. Jaegar Stitch are scheming to evict twelve-year-old Chap and his mom from their house-cum-cafe (home of the world’s best sugar pies) so they can build an alligator wrestling arena and theme park over the swamp. The only things stopping Sonny–a boatload of cash or proof of the Sugar Man’s existence. And the only thing that will wake the Sugar Man from his slumber? A snip-snap-zip-zap from Gertrude, his serpentine companion, or the aroma of fresh canebrake sugar. (more…)

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bull runBull Run, by Paul Fleischman, has an ingenious setup: each chapter is a monologue told from the point of view of a different character, 16 in total. There are soldiers and doctors, artists and mothers, children, slaves, Union and Confederate generals. It reminds me of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, only more depressing, because with every chapter you know you’re getting closer to the actual battle itself.

It’s amazing how quickly Fleischman manages to convey what’s going on. Each chapter is just two pages long, yet somehow we get a sense of the character’s identity, conflicts, motivations, and the political situation around them. Some of the portraits are archetypes–like the woman who sees multiple family members off to war, or the boy who dreams of glory in battle and manages to tag along as part of the band. But the best characters are full of surprises: the photographer who exploits the soldiers’ fear of death to turn a profit, a black man who “passes” as white so he can join the Union troops, and the newspaper sketch artist who selectively draws certain scenes to maintain morale. My favorite, by far, is the cab driver who had to shuttle D.C. socialites to a grassy area overlooking the battle–because they wanted to eat a fancy picnic while ogling the action through binoculars. Yes, this kind of thing really happened. Bull Run was the first major battle of the war, and civilians on both sides were so sure of an easy victory that they treated it like a sporting match.

Fleischman goes out of his way to include details like that–odd and subtle facts that get left out of the sweeping Civil War narrative I remember learning in school. I had no idea that lots of soldiers tried to desert when their contracts expired, or that thousands died of disease in the camps before the battles began. The novel sometimes felt like great nonfiction in the style of Bomb–teaching history without feeling didactic. I suppose my biggest complaint is that even though each character was unique, 16 is just too many. I would’ve preferred 12 or 14 to cut down on the confusion, especially when some characters get more chapters than others and when their plotlines start to intersect. So, even though the book is quite good on its own, it would be even better to find some friends and stage it as a play.

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Review: Better to Wish

better_to_wishBetter to Wish is the first book of Ann M. Martin’s Family Tree series, which includes four books about four girls in successive generations of the same family. It’s an intriguing premise that falls short. For the first third of the book, I was hooked. The story starts in 1930 with Abby Nichols, a young girl living in rural Maine. It moves quickly, with each chapter taking place over a single day of Abby’s life. We first see eight-year old Abby and her sister Rose sneaking out to pick blueberries with a forbidden friend. The next chapter opens months later during Thanksgiving. Pretty soon Abby is ten, then twelve. She gets new siblings, the family moves to a new home, and Abby develops a crush on the boy next door.

While Abby is young, the slice-of-life approach works well. Each snapshot tells us more about the family: Abby, the quiet, budding writer; rebellious Rose; their sad, haunted mother; and Mr. Nichols, a hard worker who lifts the family fortunes while becoming increasingly controlling and abusive. Martin also adds a lot of historical details–including the prevailing attitudes towards women, immigrants and mental illness—without being preachy or judgmental.

But as Abby gets older, the vignettes lose their focus. There are too many threads in Abby’s life, and I wanted more from each day. We get tantalizing glimpses of Abby’s friendship with Orrin, a boy her father has forbidden her to see, but there’s no meaningful trajectory to their friendship since all we see are disjointed moments. There’s also a death that comes out of nowhere and little closure or reflection on Mr. Nichols’ behavior—not even when Abby graduates from high school and finally gains her independence. By the end, I felt like I’d read a book with missing pages. And that disappointing experience means I’ll probably miss out on the rest of the series.

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grimIt’s with a grimmace that I admit I didn’t enjoy Adam Gidwitz’s The Grimm Conclusion, the third installment of the Grimm books, as much as I had expected to. The fairy tales were as outrageous and un-Disneyfied as before. The narrator was even chattier than I’d remembered. And we the readers were frequently warned to put the book down, lest we encounter upcoming unpleasant gruesomeness. Nevertheless, The Grimm Conclusion read like a pale reflection of its predecessors, as if it were told through a glass grimmly.

See what I did there?

After being reminded by the chatty narrator that these ain’t your grandma’s fairy tales, but the “grimmest, Grimmest tale” of them all, we meet twins Jorinda and Joringel, whose mother may have been impregnated with the help of a juniper tree. When their parents prove inadequate (one dies of happiness the day they were born, the other locks herself away out of fear and illogical psychology), Jorinda and Joringel promise to cling to each other for ever and ever, until their step father decapitates Joringel with a trunk lid and tricks Jorinda into thinking his death was her fault.

Although Joringel is eventually restored to himself, their mother’s shoddy advice informs how they make sense of this and future traumas: bury the stone that represents pain under mattresses until you don’t feel it anymore, and stamp out the weed that is anger until it never comes back.


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IMAG0923When moving from book medium to play medium, a good adaptation is just as important as good source material. Sadly, this was not the case for Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. Based on Gary D. Schmidt’s depressing Newbery honor-winning book of the same name and adapted by Cheryl L. West, Emerson Stage’s production more often than not goes through the motions of playing Lizzie Bright without actually capturing the spirit of Lizzie Bright.

As in the book, young Turner Ernest Buckminster the Third, the preacher’s boy, feels like a fish out of water when his family moves against his will from Boston to Phippsburg, Maine. Unlike the book, his family consists of just him and his strict father, a widowed minister, since Turner’s mother was written out of existence. Unable to make friends with any of the Phippsburg boys, to the town and his father’s disapproval, Turner ends up befriending Lizzie Bright, a black girl his age who can throw and hit a baseball like no other. She lives on Malaga Island, just across the bay. Unfortunately, the town leaders see Malaga as an eyesore, especially if their plans to turn Phippsburg into a vacation resort are to move ahead.

Along the way, Turner bleeds all over his starched white shirts, looks into the eye of a whale, and is drafted as punishment into reading poetry and playing hymns for Mrs. Cobb–a crotchety old woman obsessed with documenting her last words. This leads up to a scene that’s as hilarious in person as it is on the page. If only the rest of the book’s nuance was retained as well. (more…)

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