Thursday, September 24, 2009

Banned Books Week

Banned Books Week

Today starts Banned Books Week in the USA. For those who don't know, Banned Books Week celebrates freedom of speech by encouraging people to read books that have been banned in schools, removed from libraries, and in some cases, even taken to court to be banned in entire towns.

Now don't misunderstand: these aren't books that are illegal to own (at least, not in the US), they are books that some people have simply tried to make harder to obtain. Many of these books have been banned for sexual content, others for antireligions or pro "magic" sentiments. Recently, many children's books (particularly picture books) have come under attack for showing gay relationships, even in cases where the main characters are all animals.

I'm going to try not to make this post a into a rant; censorship is something that really makes me mad. In my opinion, if we try and cover up the truth (or even the "maybe" truth), we only risk making the mistakes of the past. In any case, I wanted to write this entry to inform, not intimidate.

It is unfortunate that throughout history, even recently, many classic books have been banned. These books include: To Kill A Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, Native Son, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Fin, even Little Red Riding Hood. Also stunning are some of the recent books (many bestsellers) that have been banned or challenged: The Kite Runner, The Giver, The Freedom Writers' Diary, The Lovely Bones, His Dark Materials trilogy, and of course, Harry Potter. Every book on that list has either been made into a movie, or is in production. The most surprising to me is the inclusion of children's picture books on banned book lists. Both Uncle Bobby's Wedding (about the marriage of two gay gerbils) and And Tango Makes Three (about two male penguins in a zoo who form a relationship and adopt a chick; it is nonfiction) were children's picture books that have been banned and challenged in various places across the country.

So please, I urge you: celebrate Banned Books Week. Take a banned book to school or work. When someone asks what you're reading, inform them about book banning and Banned Books Week. A friend of mine did a high school research paper on censorship last year; she found that an alarming number of students didn't even know that books could be banned or challenged. Imagine if people started removing books from shelves and no one knew. If students are unaware, they can do nothing to change it. Celebrate your freedom to read what you want! Happy Banned Books Week!

The Prophecy of the Sisters by Michelle Zink

The Prophecy of the Sisters by Michelle Zink

Rating: PG-13; 4 stars

Summary: The Prophecy of the Sisters tells the story of two sisters who, after their father dies, find out that they are part of an ancient prophecy that could bring about the end of the world. Each sister bears an opposing part in this prophecy, and one of the main issues is that the sisters feel that they were each given the wrong role. The "good" sister, from whose perspective the story is told, is thrust much more fully into danger since her sister refuses to help her change the ending of the prophecy.

Lia, the POV-character, spends the majority of the book learning about the prophecy. Towards the end of the book, she begins searching for the "keys" that will help end the prophecy in her favor (and in the favor of the rest of the world). The book has an open ending; I'm sure there will be a sequel (in fact, a little digging on Amazon reveals that it is the first book in a trilogy).

Opinions: This book took me a little by surprise. There was nothing I gleaned from the book jacket that pointed me towards the fact that it takes place in the Victorian Era. It was a very nice surprise. I love historical fiction, and have been waiting for another dark fantasy/historical novel since the Gemma Doyle Trilogy ended. This granted my wish.

This novel had me hooked to the unable-to-put-down point from about the middle onwards. Lia's quest for answers was very well-written. There weren't too many times when I figured things out before Lia did (an unfortunate side-effect of being a voracious reader). I felt like the characters were realistic and believable. This was definitely, IMO, a plot-based novel, as opposed to a character-based story. Even so, the characters were written just as well as the plot. The fact that it was the action and not the characters that moved the story forward was made irrelevant because both components were so well-written.

Now, the reasoning for my ratings. I wasn't sure if I should rate this PG or PG-13. There's virtually no swearing, no sex or nudity, but the story itself is inherently dark. I decided that were this a movie, it would probably be PG-13, even if it was a very mild PG-13. I also felt that 4 stars was a very good rating for this book. It was a very enjoyable read; there's nothing I can really complain about. But still, it didn't contain that "wow-factor" I'm looking for in a 4 1/2 or 5 star book. Still, it was a great book that I wholeheartedly recommend.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Castle Corona by Sharon Creech

The Castle Corona by Sharon Creech
Rating: G; 4 stars
Summary: The Castle Corona is a lively tale about a royal family (king, queen, princess, and two princes) and two orphan peasants. The king loves sleeping and hates his itchy robes. The queen hates always being less than the king. One prince is a poet, the other, a warrior. The princess is spoiled and rude, but doesn't seem to enjoy being this way. The two orphan siblings work hard for a mean master, just as many fairytale characters do. The book starts out with the peace in the kingdom being disturbed by a thief, the first in its history. As the book goes on, certain circumstances bring the royal family and the two orphans together. They all grow to love each other and...well that would be giving away the ending.
Opinions: This book wasn't at all what I expected. It was shelved in my library with teen books, when it probably really belonged with independent reader books, such as The Tale of Despereaux (more on that comparison will follow). However, despite it being a children's book, it was an excellent read. It reminded me a lot of Despereaux, which I absolutely devoured when it was released, and still find occasion to read at least once a year. It seems to me that they have the same target audience in mind: same genre, vocabulary level, themes and morals, etc. They were both printed not only with reading in mind, but also with sharing: each chapter of Corona is headed by a full-color illustration. And though the illustrations didn't appeal to me as much as Despereaux's (after all, who can resist a cute and cuddly mouse?), the fact that they were there was a delight. The book may have been told simply, but I feel that it is an excellent book for all ages nonetheless. It is a perfect "bedtime story" type of book: read a chapter or two a night, perhaps even alternate the parent and the child reading.
Now as for the 4-star rating, there was nothing in particular I didn't like about it, there just wasn't that "wow" that expect from a 5-star book. It is an excellent book, and I think readers of all ages and types will enjoy it to some degree.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

General Winston's Daughter by Sharon Shinn

General Winston's Daughter by Sharon Shinn
Rating: PG; 3 1/2 stars
Summary: Averie Winston is a rebellious, reluctant heiress in the manner of all rebellious ladies of privilege in the literary world (only one that comes to mind at the moment is Gemma Doyle and co.). She may live in an invented world, but her character and customs calls to mind the past when girls had to have a waist as big around as their age in years and (God forbid!) if they showed the world an ankle whilst crossing the street, they were ruined.
Averie's country is an imperial giant, and the beginning of the book sees her travelling overseas to the colony where her father and fiance are stationed. When she arrives in the new land, Averie is eager to see it from the citizen's perspective, if only her father and chaperone would let her! Not to worry though, for they soon relent. On Averie's travels through the city, she meets a merchant girl named Jalessa. When a rebel bomb goes off and Jalessa's wares are ruined, Averie generously offers for the woman to be her maid.
Opinions: I thought the idea behind this book was wonderful. It shows imperialism in a non-blaming point of view (after all, the countries present are fictitious). Through the different characters, the readers get ideas from both sides of imperialism (those that benefit, those that are overcome). I thought that idea, as well as Averie's gradual realization that imperialism isn't a one-sided, all-benefit situation was really well presented to the reader. I enjoy studying history, and I appreciate how a book like this can maybe make those who aren't history buffs aware of a critical issue from world history.
On another note, the book was marketed as a romance (at least in the jacket flap), but I really didn't see that as much. I didn't even mention it in my summary. I enjoyed the romance, but I thought it was much more of a subplot that the jacket blurb made it out to be. To me it was far more of a social commentary than a romance. That being said, the romance aspect was well-written and not at all forced, even if it did take a back seat to the action.
Now, as to why I gave this book 3 1/2 stars, the ending was a bit disappointing to me, particularly where a certain character was concerned (you'll have to read it to see what I mean). It was a very enjoyable book, but I have read better. I have a habit of over-rating things, so when I read a book that's really a 5 and I see how much better it is than those I rated 4 1/2, I'm kind of stuck. So, I figured 3 1/2 was a safe rating. It probably would have been a 4 if it had ended the way I wanted (where certain characters are concerned), but then again it may have been disappointing for that very reason. Like I said before, this is a very enjoyable book. If you enjoy fantasy that is heavier on culture than magic or historical fiction, I think you would enjoy this book, as it is essentially (IMO) a delightful fusion of the two genres.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Bizenghast 6 by M. Alice LeGrow

Bizenghast 6 by M. Alice LeGrow

Rating: PG-13; 4 1/2 stars

Summary: I don't read a lot of manga. I figured I'd make that clear from the start. I'm not a Naruto fan (sorry to those who are); I wasn't into Sailor Moon back in the 90s. There have only been a few manga series I've really gotten into; Bizenghast is one of them.

Bizenghast 6 is, quite obviously, the 6th book in a 7 book series. The series follows the protagonist, Dinah, as she helps traps spirits move onto the Afterlife. Along the way she encounters many helpers, including the outrageously funny Edaniel. By the time book six rolls around, Dinah has developed from a troubled and frightened girl to a confident young woman who will no longer let the ghosts of her past keep her in a life of fear. As this is the penultimate book in the series, I won't say much more, lest I give anything away. And perhaps this review is a bit biased; I've been following the series since it first came out. Still, I don't think too many non-manga readers even know of its existence. Score one for the shameless plug department.

Opinions: For starters, this book was definitely a page-turner. This is unsurprising, considering (in my mind anyway) the vast majority of this book was the climax of the whole series. There was plenty of action to satisfy me, without the sacrifice of witty dialogue that is part of what makes Bizenghast so memorable.

One of the things that drew me to Bizenghast in the first place was the elegant costuming LeGrow has always incorporated into her work. This volume was no exception. The front cover features Dinah in a rather steam-punkish dress. Her clothing in the book is no less fabulous. I will note that this is the first book in which I noticed Dinah had only one hairstyle (this may have been present in other books; I just noticed it in this book).

Bizenghast isn't for everyone. While I wouldn't classify it as a horror series per se, the style the series is drawn in can include some frightening and/or grotesque images. There is also mild language (PG rating where language is concerned). I based my PG-13 rating on the whole series, not just this one book. Book 6 was actually a bit milder for the series.

I gave this book a 4 1/2 star rating as opposed to a five star rating mostly because of the hanging ending. I realize it's a marketing technique to keep people reading and blah blah blah. I don't care. It always bugs the crap out of me, especially when there's no word on when the next book is coming out. Still, aside from that one flaw, I would recommend this book (really, the whole series) to anyone who likes dark fantasy books, manga fan or not. I'm really looking forward to the final book in this series.