Serena’s Review: “Princess Academy”

85990 Book: “Princess Academy” by Shannon Hale

Publishing Info: Bloomsbury, April 2007

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Miri lives on a mountain where, for generations, her ancestors have quarried stone and lived a simple life. Then word comes that the king’s priests have divined her small village the home of the future princess. In a year’s time, the prince himself will come and choose his bride from among the girls of the village. The king’s ministers set up an academy on the mountain, and every teenage girl must attend and learn how to become a princess.

Miri soon finds herself confronted with a harsh academy mistress, bitter competition among the girls, and her own conflicting desires to be chosen and win the heart of her childhood best friend. But when bandits seek out the academy to kidnap the future princess, Miri must rally the girls together and use a power unique to the mountain dwellers to save herself and her classmates.

Review: I was trained as a public librarian with an emphasis on young adult and children’s services. Bizarrely, this resulted in a high exposure to young adult titles, children’s stories, and pictures books with only a few books scattered in between that could be rightly categorized as “middle grade.” My definition for this group is books that are enjoyed by readers aged 10-13. Therefore, in an attempt to self-educate myself and to stay up to date with this segment of readers, I’ve been slowly working my way through Shannon Hale’s collection of works. She’s a well-known and respected middle grade author and I’ve enjoyed her other titles. “Princess Academy” is also a Newbery Honor Book, which further speaks to her prowess in this genre, and all in all, I can see why its praises have been so loudly sung.

Right off the bat, I was skeptical of this book’s premises. The title alone seems to imply that what we have here is a story about a bunch of girls vying for a prince’s attention and I’ve been burned by this before (side-eyeing “The Selection”). But I was relieved and surprised to discover that “Princess Academy” was so much more than that!

One of the most important aspects of this book, for me, was its depictions of friendship and family. The set-up is primed for catty-girl-drama, and while Miri does struggle with her relationship with some of the girls, the reader is presented with honest depictions of fully fleshed out teenage girls. Personalities may clash, but it is never reduced to silliness. If anything, it is depicted as the typical growing-up process that all children face. Lessons like diplomacy, sensitivity, and empathy are all in play.

Another of my favorite themes of this book was its emphasis on learning. Miri and her fellow academy girls come from a very poor village where education is completely lacking. In this way, the princess academy is presented as important in the most basic way: it is not only a tool by which to prepare a princess, but a unique opportunity to be taken advantage of by a group of girls who otherwise would have had very few options. Miri’s growing realization of the size of the world and all of the knowledge that exists is wonderful to follow. And, while the book does use this gained education as a plot tool, there is a clear emphasis on the fact that Miri realizes her own love of learning purely for its own merit. This is a great message for a middle grade novel.

There were also some fun elements of mystery within the story, including Miri’s friend Britta’s hidden past and the slow reveal of powers of her humble home. All of this is tied up neatly in simple, yet lovely, language. And, while the story does have sequels, it can also be read as a stand-alone book. All of this said, the book is firmly set in the category of middle grade. The writing style and language use is simple and the story is straightforward. However, if you enjoy middle grade novels, this book is definitely worth checking out!

Rating 8: Very strong middle grade novel highlighting great themes of friendship and learning!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Princess Academy” is included on this Goodreads list: “Best Princess Tales” and “Newbery Medal Honor Books.”

Find “Princess Academy” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “Unspoken”

10866624Book: “Unspoken” by Sarah Rees Brennan

Publishing Info: Random House, September 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Kami Glass loves someone she’s never met . . . a boy she’s talked to in her head ever since she was born. She wasn’t silent about her imaginary friend during her childhood, and is thus a bit of an outsider in her sleepy English town of Sorry-in-the-Vale. Still, Kami hasn’t suffered too much from not fitting in. She has a best friend, runs the school newspaper, and is only occasionally caught talking to herself. Her life is in order, just the way she likes it, despite the voice in her head.

But all that changes when the Lynburns return.

The Lynburn family has owned the spectacular and sinister manor that overlooks Sorry-in-the-Vale for centuries. The mysterious twin sisters who abandoned their ancestral home a generation ago are back, along with their teenage sons, Jared and Ash, one of whom is eerily familiar to Kami. Kami is not one to shy away from the unknown—in fact, she’s determined to find answers for all the questions Sorry-in-the-Vale is suddenly posing. Who is responsible for the bloody deeds in the depths of the woods? What is her own mother hiding? And now that her imaginary friend has become a real boy, does she still love him? Does she hate him? Can she trust him?

Review: I’m not sure how this book ended up on my TBR pile. I’ve read some Sarah Rees Brennan in the past, but it has been a while since I picked up one of her books. So, it was a pleasant surprise when I was browsing the library shelves (Goodreads app in hand to check against my to-read lists) and found this book right there waiting for me and didn’t have a lot of pre-existing expectations set in place going in. And it was good! Brennan manages to balance many classic YA tropes with a fresh voice and perspective that allows them to grow past their typical, clumsy restraints.

From the get go, I liked Kami Glass. She’s pretty much a half-Japanese, British born, Lois-Lane-in-the-making. And we all know how much I love Lois Lane. Full of spunk, wit, and drive, Kami pursues her goals with an energy that can’t help but draw in those around her. And in a testament to the author’s creative ability, the cast of characters who surround Kami are as diverse as they are typical, without falling over the stumbling block stereotypes often found in young adult literature. Kami has a female best friend, Angela, who is very clearly her strongest support system (stereotype avoided: lack of female friends for the female protagonist so as to cement her “difference” from “other girls”). There is even a third female friend, Holly, one of the more popular girls at school (stereotype avoided: “mean girls”). Angela has an older brother who is a healthy, non-romantic male friend of Kami’s (stereotype avoided: meet-cute with the boy-next-door who is a love interest). Kami has a very stable, loving family complete with two parents and two younger brothers (stereotype avoided: nonexistent/absent parents, lack of siblings or poor relationship with a distasteful, often older, sibling).

And, while there are the makings of a love triangle, this too is waded through carefully and with respect to the emotional struggles that would exist due to the situation. In fact, the way the relationship between Kami and Jared was portrayed was one of my favorite aspects of the story. Each honestly believed the other was a made-up character in their own head. Discovering at age 16 that your imaginary friend is not only real, but here in your own town, going to your own school, would have dramatic affects. This is not a romantic, blissful situation. Suddenly the closeness and emotional vulnerability becomes real and, perhaps, invasive. Kami begins to question where she leaves off and Jared begins. Physical contact is uncomfortable to the extreme.

I can’t say how much I appreciated the author’s handling of this situation. What could have so easily been twisted into a silly, romantic plot device is instead highlighted as intensely unhealthy, especially when Kami and Jared attempt to build a real friendship/relationship with their fully existing selves. In a book notable for its witty dialogue and punchy descriptions, Kami spends a significant amount of time analyzing independence, a sense of self, and what a healthy relationship should look like.

The mystery and fantasy elements of the story were also strong. The history of the Lynburn family and this small, British town was chilling and the book does a good job setting up this conflict for the remaining two books in the series. My one point of real criticism is the location for the book. It is set in England, however, the language felt very Americanized. Not being natively British, I’m not sure if maybe my expectations are out of sorts or whether this is an actual failing. But I routinely forgot that this was set in England at all. The lack of British terms and turns of phrase in the dialogue felt odd. Other than creating a “manor family” legacy for the Lynburns and the town of Sorry-in-the-Vale, this setting felt underutilized and perhaps even disingenuous with regards to the other narrative decisions.

Overall, I enjoyed this book and have already placed a request at the library for the second one!

Rating 7: Very good, though a few questionable decisions with regards to underutilizing its setting.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Unspoken” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best YA Books with Non-White Protagonists” and “Strong Womances In YA.”

Find “Unspoken” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two”

17261183Book: “The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two” by Catherynne M. Valente

Publishing Info: Feiwel & Friends, October 2013

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: September misses Fairyland and her friends Ell, the Wyverary, and the boy Saturday. She longs to leave the routines of home, and embark on a new adventure. Little does she know that this time, she will be spirited away to the moon, reunited with her friends, and find herself faced with saving Fairyland from a moon-Yeti with great and mysterious powers.

Review: Can my whole review just be this gif?:

cumberbatch-feelings

No? Ok, fine, but I have to say, with this, the third installment in Valente’s “Fairyland” series, my love of these books has only continued to grow and my coherence for a reviewing them continues to deteriorate. But onwards we go in my now usual fashion for this series: blatant and unapologetic quoting!

September is growing up. We spend the longest portion yet in this series with September home in the “real world” waiting, wondering, and, now as an older girl, preparing for her trip to Fairyland. And with this growing up comes feelings, so many feelings! Fear, sadness, worry, and, suddenly, the thought that one must hide all of these feelings away. September has been practicing her “stern” face.

“It is such hard work to keep your heart hidden! And worse, by the time you find it easy, it will be harder still to show it. It is a terrible magic in this world to ask for exactly the thing you want. Not least because to know exactly the thing you want and look it in the eye is a long, long labor.”

But finally her traveling companion and escort to Fairyland arrives in the form of a very grumpy Blue Wind and she’s away! In the previous story, with September’s adventures in Fairyland Below, we spent a lot of time with the shadow versions of her companions, the wyverary A-Through-L, and the madrid Saturday, who were not quite the same as the true versions of themselves. So, as a reader, I could sympathize with September’s reflections on missing friends and loved ones and the complex feelings that arise from being reunited with those we care about after years of grieving their absence (though I am a spoiled reader who only had to wait until the next book to find my beloved characters again).

“September laughed a little. She tried to make it sound light and happy, as though it were all over now and how funny it was, when you think about it, that simply not having another person by you could hurt so. But it did not come out quite right; there was a heaviness in her laughing like ice at the bottom of a glass. She still missed Saturday, yet he was standing right beside her! Missing him had become a part of her, like a hard, dark bone, and she needed so much more than a few words to let it go. In all this while, she had spent more time missing Saturday than seeing him.”

The breadcrumbs that had been laid out in past books regarding the slow build relationship between September and Saturday come to a head in this story. Fully ensconced in “teenagedom,” September and Saturday struggle with the everyday challenges of first love while also dealing with the very-not-everyday-challenges of dating a madrid whose experiences with time as a river that can be traveled up and down with ease puts uncomfortable truths in the forefront. September had a glance of what could be her and Saturday’s daughter in the very first book, and a few run-ins with an adult Saturday in this story just further highlights her discomfort with fate, love, and choosing.

“But the trouble is, I do want to be surprised. I want to choose. I broke the heart of my fate so that I could choose. I never chose; I only saw a little girl who looked like me standing on a gear at the end of the world and laughing, and that’s not choosing, not really. Wouldn’t you rather I chose you? Wouldn’t you rather I picked our future out of all the others anyone could have?”

And per what is typical of these books, September’s adventures through bizarre and magical lands, meeting nonsensical and wonderful creatures, is all peppered with philosophical ponderings that speak to deeper truths. A few of my favorites include:

“Marriage is a wrestling match where you hold on tight while your mate changes into a hundred different things. The trick is that you’re changing into a hundred other things, but you can’t let go. You can only try to match up and never turn into a wolf while he’s a rabbit, or a mouse while he’s still busy being an owl, a brawny black bull while he’s a little blue crab scuttling for shelter. It’s harder than it sounds.”

and

“It’s Latin, which is an excellent language for mischief-making, which is why governments are so fond of it.”

and, of course,

“All Librarians are Secret Masters of Severe Magic. Goes with the territory.

I don’t think I have mentioned it in past reviews, but these books come with beautiful illustrations by Ana Juan. I listened to this book on audiobook (read by the author herself, and she was very good), so I missed the illustrations here. I nabbed a copy of the printed version to peruse them and they are beautiful, as they were in the previous books. Yet another plus to the series as a whole!

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by Ana Juan

Rating 10: The perfect balance of beautiful and poignant.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two” is included on this Goodreads list: “Books You Wish More People Knew About” and Beautifully Written Books

Find “The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two” at your library using Worldcat!

Previous Reviews: “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making” and “The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There.”

 

Serena’s Review: “The Keeper of the Mist”

25739099Book: “The Keeper of the Mist”

Publishing Info: Knopf, March 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Keri has been struggling to run her family bakery since her mother passed away.  Now the father she barely knew—the Lord of Nimmira—has died, and ancient magic has decreed that she will take his place as the new Lady. The position has never been so dangerous: the mists that hide Nimmira from its vicious, land-hungry neighbors have failed, and Keri’s people are visible to strangers for the first time since the mists were put in place generations ago.

At the same time, three half-brothers with their own eyes on the crown make life within the House just as dangerous as the world outside. But Keri has three people to guide her: her mysterious Timekeeper, clever Bookkeeper, and steadfast Doorkeeper. Together they must find a way to repair the boundary before her neighbors realize just how vulnerable Nimmira is.

Review: I have read a few other titles by Rachel Neumeier, and I’m beginning to come to a bit of a conclusion about her work. She has great ideas and the book summary is always amazing, but the actual execution somehow makes even the most thrilling concept seem tedious.

Everything about this book description is right up my alley. Features a strong leading lady, set in a unique fantasy setting, aided by her friends with a dash of romance, and out to save a kingdom. And it all started out well. Keri, an outcast in her own town given the questionable nature of her birth, is attempting to run her recently deceased mother’s bakery on her own when her life is turned upside down. She is suddenly the new heir to the small, but economically wealthy, country of Nimmira and the invisibility spells that have protected it for so long from its vicious and greedy neighbors are failing. With the help of her childhood friends, Tassel and Cort, she must set out to right what is wrong before her country falls.

Unfortunately, for what sounds like an action-packed start, the story quickly falls into several pitfalls right off the bat. Firstly, Tassel and Cort, for as little page time as they get in the beginning of the story, are each intriguing characters. Keri’s character is itself rather bland, but when played against the more flamboyant Tassel or the stern, responsible Cort, her character is seen in the best light. Unfortunately, both characters, especially Cort, are absent for large chunks of the story, leaving us with Keri at her most pale.

Further, with magical protections failing, a new kingdom to run, and the arrival of questionable neighbors with perhaps evil intentions, you would think there would be a lot of room for the story to move. Instead, we spend pages and pages with characters just talking and planning on what to talk about next, and who should talk to who, and on and on. And look, I’m all for detailed storytelling and character building, but when huge portions of the book are simply characters rehashing the exact same subject over and over again I lose my patience. There was one line about a neighboring country perhaps not realizing that Nimmira was vulnerable that was repeated at least 5-6 times throughout the book. It would have been laughable, if it wasn’t frustrating.

What makes many of these factors all the more irritating is the strong premises, like I mentioned. The author has created a unique magic system, but then fails to explain how it works. With almost any fantasy novel, there is a level of basic acceptance that readers are expected to go in with, but unfortunately this story pushed past this point. Keri, Tassel, and Cort all come into their new roles and discover their own specific brand of magic. However, the limits, boundaries, or rules of each of their abilities is never explored. There were several points where one or another character would conveniently discover just the right ability at just the right time to get them out of whatever scenario they were stuck in. This is not a magic system, this is a plot magic.

And sadly, the romance was not what I had hoped for either. It’s odd that I’m usually complaining about instalove relationships in  young adult books, and while this was definitely not that, it was equally unsatisfying. Cort is absent for large portions of the book, which means that any progression of feelings (Keri starts off respecting Cort but very definitely not interested) isn’t based on any interactions between the characters, but more a “realization” towards the end of the story that she had always felt that way. Similar to the sudden magical abilities that were never hinted at before, this was sudden love feelings that we are shown no examples of, just merely told are suddenly there, on both characters’ part. It was very disappointing.

All in all, while there were strengths to this story (a creative world, an interesting idea for a magical system, and the beginnings of good characters), none of these strengths were ever fully realized, and it was ultimately a frustrating and disappointing read.

Rating 5: For having such a strong premises, the story and characters never felt fully fleshed out or sure of themselves.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Keeper of the Mist” is included on this Goodreads list: “Upcoming 2016 sci-fi/fantasy novels with female leads or co-leads.” 

Find “The Keeper of the Mist” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There”

13538708Book: “The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There” by Catherynne M. Valente

Publishing Info: Feiwel & Friends, October 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: September has longed to return to Fairyland after her first adventure there. And when she finally does, she learns that its inhabitants have been losing their shadows—and their magic—to the world of Fairyland Below. This underworld has a new ruler: Halloween, the Hollow Queen, who is September’s shadow. And Halloween does not want to give Fairyland’s shadows back.

Review: It’s another home run, folks! And, since I am not one for changing routine, I’m going to conduct this review in the same manner as I did the last: Insert beautiful quotes and weep at the author’s literary majesty. Here we go!

“A book is a door, you know. Always and forever. A book is a door into another place and another heart and another world.”

September is waiting anxiously to return to Fairyland and continue her adventures. But this time around, her return is marked not with the exultation of a savior, but the practical results of her previous actions. Her shadow, lost in exchange for aide the last go around, is loose and making trouble in Fairyland-Below and it is up to Septmeber, as the owner of said shadow and therefore responsible, to set things straight (or as straight as they can get in such a nonsense world).

“You know, in Fairyland-Above they said that the underworld was full of devils and dragons. But it isn’t so at all! Folk are just folk, wherever you go, and it’s only a nasty sort of person who thinks a body’s a devil just because they come from another country and have different notions. It’s wild and quick and bold down here, but I like wild things and quick things and bold things, too.”

September is also growing up, much to her own dismay. She is no longer a Heartless Child and her new, untried heart proves to be quite a struggle in this book. She must bargain away a first kiss as well as time itself, an even more precious and unknowable currency.

“For though, as we have said, all children are heartless, this is not precisely true of teenagers. Teenage hearts are raw and new, fast and fierce, and they do not know their own strength. Neither do they know reason or restraint, and if you want to know the truth, a goodly number of grown-up hearts never learn it.”

This new heart proves troublesome with her friends as well, new and old. The realization that friends are different, individual people with their own thoughts, feelings, and priorities challenges September’s perception of herself and the world. But A-Through-L and the Madrid, Saturday, are as wonderful as ever. Her relationship with Saturday grows deeper and even more confusing for poor child-on-the-verge-of-adulthood hearts.

“And then she felt her Ell’s great strong presence beside her, and Saturday slipped his hand in hers. Oh. Oh. They would not abandon her. Of course, they would not. How silly she had been. They were her friends—they had always been. Friends can go odd on you and do things you don’t like, but that doesn’t make them strangers.”
 Valente continues her unique writing style of beautiful lyricism, grammatical twists, and deep truths masked in narrative gymnastics. I continue to enjoy her insertions of the narrator’s own voice on the story.

“Oh, September! It is so soon for you to lose your friends to good work and strange loves and high ambitions. The sadness of that is too grown-up for you. Like whiskey and voting, it is a dangerous and heady business, as heavy as years. If I could keep your little tribe together forever, I would. I do so want to be generous. But some stories sprout bright vines that tendril off beyond our sight, carrying the folk we love best with them, and if I knew how to accept that with grace, I would share the secret.”

As I’ve mentioned, the real joy of these books lies in the combination of nonsensical world building and creativity alongside very deep, and often sad, thoughts on life and living. This book, specifically, deals a lot with September’s father, his absence while fighting in a war in Europe, and the effects that war  itself has on a person.

“Her father’s shadow looked sadly down at her. “You can never forget what you do in a war, September my love. No one can. You won’t forget your war either.”

September learns several lessons regarding grief, friendship, love, betrayal and forgiveness all while cavorting in an underworld ruled by her own capricious shadow.  The shadow-selves in this story are a fascinating look at the unknown self, the better and worse aspects of each being that lie out of our own sight and awareness.

“For there are two kinds of forgiveness in the world: the one you practice because everything really is all right, and what went before is mended. The other kind of forgiveness you practice because someone needs desperately to be forgiven, or because you need just as badly to forgive them, for a heart can grab hold of old wounds and go sour as milk over them.”

All around, another amazing story featuring September and Fairyland. I loved this book almost as much as the first, the only detraction being my own rush to want to return to the beloved Fairyland characters from the first story, which is a hard thing to hold against a series that is themed around creative new ideas and worlds. Again, I will be rushing on to the third book and am pretty sure that this series will end up being purchased and added to my own personal library.

“A library is never complete. That’s the joy of it. We are always seeking one more book to add to our collection.”

Rating 9: Very excellent indeed!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There” is included on these Goodreads lists: “The Best Fairytales and Retellings” and “Children’s Books I’ll Re-Read No Matter How Old I Am.”

Find “The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There” at your library using Worldcat!

Previous Review of “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.”

 

Serena’s Review: “Oryx and Crake”

46756Book: “Oryx and Crake” by Margaret Atwood

Publishing Info: Anchor, March 2004

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Snowman, known as Jimmy before mankind was overwhelmed by a plague, is struggling to survive in a world where he may be the last human, and mourning the loss of his best friend, Crake, and the beautiful and elusive Oryx whom they both loved. In search of answers, Snowman embarks on a journey–with the help of the green-eyed Children of Crake–through the lush wilderness that was so recently a great city, until powerful corporations took mankind on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride.

Review: Margaret Atwood is a master of dystopian fiction. And that is why I read her books rarely. Want to sink deeply into existential malaise? Wallow in the realization that many of these “dystonian” constructs seem frighteningly close to the truth? Oh boy, get ready! And while this is a glum start to a review, the fact that she is able to tap so directly into these dark themes is simply an example of her expertise in action.

“Oryx and Crake” drops readers off right in the middle of the action…er…inaction. A man who calls himself “Snowman” is seemingly the last human alive on a very clearly climate-impacted earth. Surrounded by bizarre hybrids species such as Rachunks (raccoon/skunks) and Wolvogs (wolf/dogs), he spends his days sleeping in a tree, scrounging for food, and acting as a sort of prophet to the “Children of Crake” a humanoid species that he shares his beach with.

A beginning like this is definitely challenging. Atwood starts her story in the middle and leaves readers to trust that the answer to an overwhelming number of initial questions will come. The story does become clear slowly throughout the book using extended flashback as Snowman thinks of his life before when he was known as Jimmy and had a brilliant friend named Crake and a mysterious lover named Oryx. Through these flashbacks and what seems like the slow decay of Snowman’s sanity given his isolation, important facts and connections can be gleaned and fit together forming a complex puzzle that is incredible once you reach the end. However, while I loved this tactic, some readers may be frustrated with the amount of trust and patience that is required early on in the story.

The main focus of the story is the life of Jimmy/Snowman. Knowing the end result, it is fascinating reading about his life unfolding and spotting the signs that things would not end well. And right here is what I’m talking about! The mad science of this society that comes across as horrific to an omniscient reader who knows the outcome can also be easily seen as a natural progression of a society gone wild with its own power of creation. What’s more, in the moment, lacking this foreknowledge, these advancements would seem as nothing more than the logical next step in society. And it’s terrifying, the ease with which one can imagine these things as all too plausible in the near future! Atwood pulls no punches in her critiques of society, science, and the pitfalls of humanity’s relationship with nature, science, and, perhaps most importantly, with itself.

As a character, Jimmy is the everyman of the story. As the son of two scientists, Jimmy’s life is one of privilege given the state of society. He grows up in a “compound,” one of the elaborate campuses that private companies create to house their most prized goods: the brilliant scientists they hire. Outside these communities lie the “Pleblands” where the average members of society make their living. I wish we had heard more about this outside world. As I said, Jimmy starts life in a very privileged position and this start is enough to successfully carry him through a life inside the more cozy world of these compounds, even though he doesn’t possess the brilliance of his parents or genius best friend, Crake. That being the case, we see very little of this outside world. It seems to still run like current society, with a hierarchy of wealth within its boundaries as well, though more plagued by crime, disease, and, obviously, poverty, than the compounds.

The second member of the three main characters is Oryx, the love interest for Jimmy and Crake, though this is a very small part of the story, as far as I could tell. The book description plays  it up in a way that I don’t think rings true at all. Of the three characters, her life story is the most tragic and she is the most ambiguous. It is clear that Jimmy never fully understands her, so we as readers glimpsing her only through Jimmy’s own perceptions never see a clear picture either. While I enjoyed hearing her story and seeing different aspects of society through her life, as a character she was probably the weakest. Her storyline did not seem as integral to the plot overall.

And Crake. Jimmy has a better understanding of him, but an understanding that is constantly distorted through rose colored glasses of childhood friendship. Again, knowing the outcome and in combination with Snowman’s more cynical thought process in the present, the story of Crake is one of simmering horror.

“Oryx and Crake” is the first in a trilogy, however, it reads well as a stand alone novel. I will most likely continue the series (again, once I’ve given myself a rest from the dread that Atwood so effortlessly dredges up), but I am satisfied with the story as it stands now, as well. Her writing is strong, the characters intricate, and, as always, this book definitely reads as a cautionary tale for humanity.

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Agent Smith had it right, according to this book!

Rating 8: Dark, but great.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Oryx and Crake” is included on the Goodreads list “Smart Apocalyptic and Dystopian Fiction” and “Science Fiction Books by Female Authors”.

Find “Oryx and Crake” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making”

9591398 Book: “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making” by Catherynne M. Valente

Publishing Info: Feiwel & Friends, May 2011

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Twelve-year-old September lives in Omaha, and used to have an ordinary life, until her father went to war and her mother went to work. One day, September is met at her kitchen window by a Green Wind (taking the form of a gentleman in a green jacket), who invites her on an adventure, implying that her help is needed in Fairyland. The new Marquess is unpredictable and fickle, and also not much older than September. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn’t . . . then the Marquess will make life impossible for the inhabitants of Fairyland. September is already making new friends, including a book-loving Wyvern and a mysterious boy named Saturday.

Book: It’s going to be so hard to talk about this book without gushing. Or crying. Or gushing. Or crying/gushing. (Gushily crying?)

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But remember how I listed the “Oz” books as one of the formative series of my childhood? Along side a similar love for the “Narnia” series and a brief stint as Alice in a children’s theater production of “Alice in Wonderland,” I have a special fondness in my heart for books about children traveling to fantastic and nonsensical worlds. But the true joy of this book was its heart, the deeper meanings, feelings, and yes, tragedies, that could be seen sparkling through the ridiculous trappings of a crazy Fairyland world. And I loved every minute of it.

Beyond the gushing, it’s also going to be hard to write about this book given what it is. While there is a plot, and there are great characters, its all wrapped up in the trappings of madness. And the language itself is what makes the story great. How do I really capture that in a review? So, I might try something different here, and pull out some of my favorite quotes and use those to frame my thoughts.

“Stories have a way of changing faces. They are unruly things, undisciplined, given to delinquency and the throwing of erasers. This is why we must close them up into thick, solid books, so they cannot get out and cause trouble.”

September, our 12 year old heroine, is ready for an adventure. As a child who loves to read, she is well accustomed to what it would take to be a great traveler and is only waiting for her invitation.

“One ought not to judge her: all children are Heartless. They have not grown a heart yet, which is why they can climb high trees and say shocking things and leap so very high grown-up hearts flutter in terror. Hearts weigh quite a lot. That is why it takes so long to grow one. But, as in their reading and arithmetic and drawing, different children proceed at different speeds. (It is well known that reading quickens the growth of a heart like nothing else.) Some small ones are terrible and fey, Utterly Heartless. Some are dear and sweet and Hardly Heartless At All. September stood very generally in the middle on the day the Green Wind took her, Somewhat Heartless, and Somewhat Grown.”

And one day it comes in the form of a Green Wind riding a leopard ready to whisk her away to Fairyland where she will get in an awful lot of trouble, meet some great friends like a Wyverary (a wyvern/library definitely NOT dragon) and a mysterious boy names Saturday, and be called upon to de-throne a monarch.

“Such lonely, lost things you find on your way. It would be easier, if you were the only one lost. But lost children always find each other, in the dark, in the cold. It is as though they are magnetized and can only attract their like. How I would like to lead you to brave, stalwart friends who would protect you and play games with dice and teach you delightful songs that have no sad endings. If you would only leave cages locked and turn away from unloved Wyverns, you could stay Heartless.”

The beautiful language in this book can not be praised enough. It is difficult enough to write a nice, straight forward story. But to write nonsense, and nonsense that hides deep, dark truths while also just being simply beautiful to read and repeat aloud, that is a unique and rare talent.

“… but as has been said, September read often, and liked it best when words did not pretend to be simple, but put on their full armor and rode out with colors flying.”

Valente also employs another tricky technique, that of inserting her own authorial voice into the story. I’ve seen this ploy used all too often to super-cheesy effect. But here, like with everything else, Valente captures the perfect balance of whimsy and wit, so instead of being read as intrusive or tonally jarring, these insertions only add depth and further insight to the story.

“It is true that novelists are shameless and obey no decent law, and they are not to be trusted on any account, but some Mysteries even they must honor.”

So, I have successfully reviewed this book while mostly relying on the author’s own work to speak for itself and done very little myself. But, that too, is a praise of the book and of the author herself. I am proceeding straight to the next book and, if it is as amazing as this one, will likely be equally incoherent in my next review.

“All stories must end so, with the next tale winking out of the corners of the last pages, promising more, promising moonlight and dancing and revels, if only you will come back when spring comes again.”

Rating 10: Could have gotten this rating for this quote alone, but the book also completely earned it.

“She sounds like someone who spends a lot of time in libraries, which are the best sorts of people.”

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Books that Love Words” and “Girls with Dragons” (but A-Through-L is NOT a dragon!!)

Find “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making” at your library using Worldcat!