Monthly Archives: August 2013

Out of Sight, Out of Time

Out_of_sight_out_of_timeI’m a huge fan of Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series.  Like, I own all of them in hardcover.  But when the fifth book came out, I decided I was too involved with intellectual books for classes.  With the sixth book coming out September 17th, I decided it was about time for me to read number five.  This was assuming that I would read a few chapters a night and just take my time with it.

Considering I started it at about 5:30 and it’s now finished at 8:45, and there was a dinner break in between, we see how that went.

Out of Sight, Out of Time is quite possibly the most brilliant of the entire series thus far.  What has been so wonderful with the Gallagher Girls books is that they’re about real teenage girls who happen to be attending a school for spies.  There’s romance, there’s adventure, there’s a seriously awesome mom, and there’s the super cool teacher who reminds me of Professor Lupin every time he enters a scene (here’s looking at you, Joe Solomon!).  In this fifth installment, everything changes.

You know the ante has been well and truly upped when the book opens with Cammie unable to remember what’s happened to her – she’s been somewhere doing something with some people for four months.  And then, of course, there’s the implication of her being tortured for information she can’t remember.  And, most heartbreaking, her reunion with her worried-sick mother and best friends.

And this is all within just the first few chapters.

I think what really makes me amazed at this book is how well Carter captures the confusion of a girl who has lost time, quite literally.  The title didn’t quite work for me until I’d finished the book (the other books are amusing nods to spy culture – I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You, Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy, etc.) and then it totally made sense.

In fact, I’d say it was the most brilliant title I’ve seen on a teen book in a good long time.

As is the case with most teen books, I wasn’t necessarily surprised by the important twists, but there are so many other little details that shocked me that I can forgive the rather predictable connection with the evil Cammie-hunting group, the Circle.  And probably I’ve just watched too many spy movies, so it might not have been that obvious.

And speaking of movies, let me just take a minute to applaud the amazingly cinematic action (or sleepwalking) sequences throughout the book.  WOW.

Let me reiterate: WOW.

I actually felt like I was running for my life, like I’d forgotten everything about myself, like I lost time.  It was incredible, and since it’s pretty hard to pull off, here’s to Ms. Carter and her brilliance.

I’m also still impressed by Cammie’s internal dialogue.  She has a knack for getting just the right words and expressing herself so that you totally relate.  For example:

But then a chair squeaked, and Madame Dabney asked, “How are you, Cameron?” and I had to remember that when you go to a spy school, some questions are way more complicated than they appear.

Say “I’m okay,” and you might sound like an idiot who doesn’t care she has amnesia.

Say “I’m terrified,” and risk looking like a wimp or a coward.

“My head hurts” sounds like a whiner.

“I just want to go to bed” sounds like someone too foolish or lazy to care about the truth.

But saying nothing to the faculty of the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women wasn’t exactly an option either, so I took the seat at the opposite end of the table, looked my teachers squarely in the eyes, and told them, “I’m feeling better, thank you.”

Okay, so maybe this book isn’t as funny or light as the others in the series, but that’s it’s gift.  Cammie still has a sense of, not so much humor, but the necessity of humor during tense moments.  She can see things for what they are, laugh a little, and still have something meaningful to say.  I mean, she’s really developed into a bright young character over the course of five books.

The only thought I’d like to leave you with is a reminder that the sixth and final book in the Gallagher Girls series, United We Spy, is coming out SEPTEMBER 17TH (which also happens to be the day The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater comes out – WHOOOO!).  If you haven’t started this series, you should; if you haven’t read this particular book, you must; and if you’re ridiculously excited for the last one, we should probably start a club…

Want to know more about United We Spy?  Click here!

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Quick Pics

I’m currently in the middle of about a million different books, but I thought to myself, “Self, why don’t you review a couple of children’s books?  Like, picture books?”

And then I said to myself, “Self, that’s a good idea.”

Now, there is a catch.  Namely that it’s very difficult to review a picture book without giving up vital plot points and potentially ruining the experience.  So I’m going to do my best to keep it a little vague.  Unless there’s something just so wonderful I have to share it…

In any case, here are three of my favorite children’s picture storybooks.

The Dark; by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jo...

3. The Dark, written by Lemony Snicket and illustrated by Jon Klassen (book trailer here)

Let me first say that I was never all that impressed by A Series of Unfortunate Events, but I respect any author who is able to maintain a high readership with fairly formulaic books.  And let me follow that up by saying I just adored this picture book.  At the very beginning, I was reading and wondering how this could possibly be a good children’s book.  After all, it’s about the scary dark.  But as the story develops, The Dark (because it certainly does deserve to be a proper noun) is much more than just a lack of light, and the ending is simply delightful.

The story itself is worth the read, but the illustrations are the best.  They’re simple, but so hauntingly beautiful and charming.  And that’s really the best way to describe them: charming.  You’ve got to read it.

2. The Duchess of Whimsy, written by Randall de Seve and illustrated by Peter de SeveDuchessofWhimsy-jackt

The Duchess of Whimsy is known for being rather unconventional and over-the-top, but everyone who comes to her parties shares her love of the whimsical.  Except for the Earl of Norm.  Who happens to be tragically (and almost boringly) normal.  But when crisis strikes the party, it’s the Earl who helps save the day and when the Duchess and the Earl finally start to understand each other, they realize that it’s really all about moderation.  Because it’s okay to sometimes be so normal and sometimes to be wildly whimsical.

While the story is a little long, I love the illustrations and the sweetness of the story so much that I’m willing to spend a little more time reading.  My niece, maybe not, but I’m older and more worldly and more patient.  I particularly love the quiet romance between the Duchess and the Earl (which is so obviously going to happen that for most of the first time I read it I was just waiting for that moment when they realize they’re great together) because they balance each other so well.

If The Dark is haunting and beautiful and charming, The Duchess of Whimsy is delightful, sweet, charming, and just so much fun.

blueberry_excerpt1. Blueberry Girl, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess

Without a doubt, this is my favorite non-classic children’s picture book.  I loved it first because it was Gaiman, and who doesn’t love anything he does?  But I loved it second (and mostly) because it is the most beautiful book for girls in the world.  And I mean girls of all ages.

The entire poem is an inspirational prayer for “unconventional” girls.  And I cry every time I read it.  I’m not kidding.

Words can be worrisome, people complex;

Motives and manners unclear.

Grant her the wisdom to choose her path right,

Free from unkindness and fear.

 

Let her tell stories, and dance in the rain,

Somersaults, tumble and run;

Her joys must be high as her sorrows are deep,

Let her grow like a weed in the sun.

And maybe it’s unfair to say this is the one you absolutely must read.  But if you’re a woman, or if you have a daughter or niece or granddaughter or wife or any significant female in your life, you should read it.

And as if the words aren’t enough to make you weep, the illustrations are beautiful and magical and just perfection.  I’m tearing up just thinking about this book.

If you have any doubts, try this: the most beautiful thing you’ll ever hear.

I promise I’ll review another “grown up” book soon, but I think it’s only fair to give some time to all kinds of books, even picture books.  Because even (and sometimes especially) picture books can teach adults a thing or two.

For more on Lemony Snicket’s The Dark click here

For more on Randall and Peter de Seve’s The Duchess of Whimsy, tap your magic wand here.

And for Neil Gaiman’s young reader books, click here.

As always, be sure to check out your local independent bookstores for these and other recommendations!

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The Testing

The TestingThe condensed review: HOLYMOTHEROFPEARLTHISISJUSTWOW!!!!!!!

With school starting back up, it seems only right to go into the world of The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau, which has become one of my favorite teen books in recent years.  The first thing to know (and for me to acknowledge) is that, yes, it’s very similar to The Hunger Games, but there is so much more to the story than a cheap knockoff that I just can’t praise it enough.

The novel starts out with Malencia (Cia) Vale’s graduation day.  Each year, graduates from the United Commonwealth are chosen to compete in The Testing, which chooses the best to take a place at University, where they will work toward revitalizing the world ravaged by wars and ecological destruction.  Initially, it does not appear that Cia will be chosen (it’s been years since a student from Five Lakes has been) but then she and three fellow graduates are informed that they will be leaving to join other candidates for University.

There is, of course, a love interest from her home colony (Tomas) but, unlike most teen novels, there’s no real love triangle.  Cia is down-to-earth enough to recognize that she is attracted to him, he is attracted to her, and that they can’t really allow their love to go unchecked in The Testing’s environment.  And, even more surprising, they actually work together pretty well, there’s little angst, and I actually really liked him.  This is the kind of character development that gives me hope for young adult literature.  Seriously.

Anyway, Cia’s father tells her to trust no one before she goes off to what she imagines is going to be a great experience.  She doesn’t understand why he’d say that, but of course, Dad knows best.

What’s really fascinating about the set-up of The Testing is that there are four stages to the whole thing.  The first stage is the “paper” test – anyone who remembers (or has tried to forget) standardized testing or AP tests or the SAT/ACT/GRE, you know exactly what’s going on.  This is also one of my favorite parts of the whole book because the instructor/moderator must repeat every instruction just the same so as to keep the test fair for every candidate.  And you can’t help but laugh because you remember sitting there listening to the same things every time, like “if you need to use the bathroom, raise your hand; if you need to get a drink, raise your hand; if you need to go out into the hall and cry your eyes out, raise your hand.”

The second stage is a “practical” test, including tests on machinery and knowledge of deadly plant life.  And this is another reason I love this book – even though The Testing is all about who can move on to University, Cia is knowledgeable about lots of practical things, too.  Her father (and brothers) work on revitalization efforts in Five Lakes, so she understands engines or what plants not to eat – you know, things that might be useful in a life or death situation.

Stage three of The Testing is the dreaded “group” test.  And seriously, group projects happen just like the test happens.  Maybe not the same results, but definitely the overwhelming feelings of “Should I trust this person in my group?” and “If only I could do this all by myself, I’d be just fine.”  This was one of the most intense parts of the book because it’s a lot of internal struggles about trust and honesty.  I mean, brilliantly written.

For the final stage, the parallels to The Hunger Games is pretty obvious: those candidates who have survived to this stage are put into the wilderness and must survive a journey back to civilization.  What’s different about The Testing, though, is that up to 20 candidates who make it to the end can go to University.  There’s no out and out fight to the death because only one can make it, and that makes a big difference.

And that brings me to reason #1,000,002 why I love this book: it’s not all about the horrors of killing.  It’s way more than that.  It’s about having academic smarts and practical skills and somehow managing to balance the two while still maintaining an element of humanity.  It also quietly questions the tests students experience and how the education system works – there’s a revolution that will probably happen, and probably someone’s going to say, “Hey, wait, The Testing isn’t all that great,” but it’s not the only focus of the book.

What I continue to marvel at (and I’m sure this sounds old because I’m probably just repeating myself as I keep saying I LOVE THIS BOOK) is how capably Charbonneau handles delicate subjects surrounding the testing, like the stresses of studying and the need to succeed to help your community.  One of the most haunting scenes in the entire book is when one candidate commits suicide, having crumbled under the pressure of The Testing.  It’s disturbing, that’s for sure, but it’s also painfully realistic.  Academics and the pressure to succeed in school cause all manner of stresses in life (trust me, as a recent college grad, I know), and sometimes it’s too much.  It’s the only situation in the book that makes me wonder if it’s more emotionally difficult than The Hunger Games or not, simply because it’s a much more (in my opinion) realistic.  But ultimately, I walk away enjoying this much more.

Of course, I have to put in the disclaimer that I’m more academically driven in general (come on, I’m writing book reviews for fun/stress relief), so I relate more with The Testing‘s world than that of The Hunger Games.  But, very seriously, I think the terrifying future portrayed in Charbonneau’s novel is frighteningly close to what could happen in the relatively near future.

I’m not even going to go back and re-read this review to make sure it sounds coherent (it doesn’t) or that it’s convincingly positive (it must be – every other sentence is I LOVE THIS BOOK).  Seriously, read it.  You deserve to treat yourself to something incredible.  And I promise you’ll read it voraciously.  And that, my friends, is your SAT word for the week.

For more on The Testing, check out the official website or visit your local independent bookstore for more info.

 

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The Cuckoo’s Calling

Galbraith_TheCuckoosCalling_HC-1Let me begin by saying that J.K. Rowling’s second foray into the world of adult literature is significantly more developed and pleasing than her first.  The Casual Vacancy, which was promoted as “a big novel about a small town,” was disappointingly adult.  Characters had little or no redeeming qualities, the socio-political messages were overwhelming, and expletives ruled the day, which detracted from the significance of their use.  What I anticipated from Rowling in TCV was, in fact, a novel closer to Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which I rank as one of the top five contemporary novels I’ve ever read.  Instead, I was disappointed.  And so, upon hearing that her new book was a mystery written under a pseudonym, I wondered if this was going to be another TCV situation.

I am happy to say that this particular novel was exponentially more enjoyable than TCV.

What made me give Rowling another chance was the fact that The Cuckoo’s Calling is a mystery.  And let me tell you, after the magic of Harry Potter’s world and the sheer awfulness of TCV, giving her another chance was a risk.  In this case, it paid off.

The main character, Cormoran Strike, is a private detective, which eases the complications of writing about the inner workings of the Metropolitan Police.  He is also recently separated from a long-time (and rather emotionally abusive) girlfriend and he has a prosthetic leg.  So far, he’s a pretty interesting chap but, were it only Strike on the case of the supermodel’s suicide, I would probably have been less impressed.

The saving grace of Cuckoo is Strike’s temp-turned-amateurdetective-and-secretary Robin.  From the very first, Robin was my favorite character.  She sparkles like her new engagement ring and, in true romantic fashion, sees only beauty in London.  Until she meets Strike, at which point reality seemingly crashes back on her.

What I adore about Robin, however, is the way Rowling (I mean, Robert Galbraith) develops her throughout the novel.  Initially, you can feel the tension between the jaded Strike and his beautiful, excited, naive temp, but as the plot thickens, Robin develops several more dimensions.  Her new fiancé doesn’t like her working with Strike.  She doesn’t seem to agree with him.  They may or may not be having more arguments about her career choices.  And yet she chooses to remain with Strike longer than she was supposed to.  The subtlety of Robin’s development really makes the piece.

The weakness of Cuckoo for this reader was the same trap TCV fell into early on: overuse of expletives.  I do not like to think of myself as a prude, and I can appreciate a few good curses now and again.  In fact, sometimes I like a character or two who’s entire existence is based on their ability to swear at appropriate moments.  What I do not understand or appreciate is overuse of cursing, especially when it’s f***ing.  And this is one of the same problems she got me with the first time.

Here’s the dilemma as I see it.  When a character swears, it should be used to emphasize an emotional response.  Occasionally, it might be a character who swears whenever (s)he feels like it.  But it’s very difficult for me to read a character who uses obscenities as a verbal crutch.  While the profanities were initially used to great effect (it’s a crime story, so I do expect some rough characters/language/situations), after about the halfway point, it started to get a little grating.  I don’t need dialogue to be filled with repetitions of a word that I personally find offensive.  The occasional use?  Sure.  A moment when Strike is really upset and starts yelling at someone?  I’d be surprised if he didn’t have some choice language.  But overusing it as nearly every other word was a little tiring.

But there is a plus side to this book: it’s actually a lot of fun.  For the amount of complaining I’m sure you’re taking away from this review, I had a pretty good time with it.  I’ll admit that I did predict the killer, but there were still some fun twists and turns, and I enjoyed the characters of Cuckoo far more than any characters in TCV.  An Agatha Christie-esque style of giving the readers clues also helped intensify the complex search for truth.  Strike is better about explaining what he finds than Poirot ever was, though, so you can still have a chance at solving the case.

And let me just say that the ending of Cuckoo was possibly my favorite part.  For the sake of anyone who wants to read it, I’m not going to spoil it, but it made me really like Strike and Robin.  And I can honestly say that when the second Strike mystery comes out, I’d like to read it.  Really.

And on a final note, here’s one of the lines that made me laugh out loud:

“Why do women do it?  Cuckoo, too… she wasn’t stupid – actually, she was razor-sharp – so what did she see in Evan Duffield?  I’ll tell you,” he said, without pausing for an answer.  “It’s that wounded-poet crap, that soul-pain shit, that too-much-of-a-tormented-genius-to-wash bollocks.  Brush your teeth, you little bastard.  You’re not f***ing Byron.”

For more information on Cuckoo or to find a local independent bookstore near you, check out IndieBound.

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