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Archive for the ‘October 2009’ Category

THE LIGHTNING THIEF

by Rick Riordan

Author’s Website: http://www.rickriordan.com/

 

Some stories are powerful, and others are beautiful and haunting. Still others delight you with their wordplay or their humor, or their daring subject matter. The best part of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, however, is the snarky voice of the twelve-year old narrator and the whizzing plot that leaves you breathless and dying to read another chapter. I read this book aloud to my little sister, and both of us had the hardest time finding a good stopping place because the story is just So. Darn. Exciting. If you happen to be looking for a book to get a reluctant reader interested in YA literature, a good read-aloud book, or a “can’t-put-it-down” reading experience for yourself—check it out!

Summary:

Percy Jackson is a “problem child”, and has a history of being kicked out of boarding schools simply because strange, inexplicable things keep happening around him. But even with a history like his, Percy thinks he might finally be going crazy when his math teacher turns into a monster and tries to kill him on a school field-trip. As it turns out, there’s a lot more to the situation than Percy could ever have believed possible; for one thing, the gods of Greek mythology are alive and well and living 600 stories above Manhattan. For another thing, Percy may be the half-mortal son of one of them. Worst of all, Zeus’s most powerful weapon—the Master Bolt—has been stolen, and Percy is the suspected culprit. Now he and his friends have just over a week to prove Percy’s innocence and find the real thief before the gods move from squabbling to all-out war. 

Heros in literature have to have a weakness: Indiana Jones hates snakes, Superman weakens in the presence of kryptonite, etc. Like the best of all heros, Percy Jackson is saddled with a number of disadvantages right from the get-go: he has an awful stepfather who makes his home-life miserable; he struggles with ADHD and dyslexia; he is unmotivated in school and has almost no friends, making the story all that more enjoyable because we get to watch Percy overcome his handicaps and succeed anyways. One quick recommendation, though: a film version of The Lightning Thief is due to be released sometime early next year, and as a firm believer in the aphorism that “The book is always better than the movie,” I strongly suggest that you read this book sooner rather than later. There are a number of things about the trailer that I find disappointing (they changed the age of the characters to about 16, for one thing!), and while it might still end up being an entertaining film, I still think everyone ought to read the book first.

Kids as young as 10 years old could easily read and enjoy this book, but generally, I’d set the age range somewhere between 11 and 15. And as always, I would heartily encourage anyone to read this book to older/adult readers. It’s a rip-roaring story, and who doesn’t enjoy one of those?

Apologies for the delay on this one—I got a bit swamped with other work, but I’ll do my best to catch up and add some more reviews! Until next time…

Best wishes,

-Madeline

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Banned Books Week review of:

BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA

by Katherine Patterson

Author’s Website: http://www.terabithia.com/

Once again, today’s review comes from the ranks of the Newbery Award-winners. Katherine Paterson’s wonderfully-crafted Bridge to Terabithia was (like so many YA books of late) recently made into a film version, which, rather surprisingly, was quite a faithful adaptation of the book. Nevertheless, I stand by my firm belief that, 99.9% of the time, the book is better than the movie, and this is no exception. Paterson’s story is thoughtfully and poignantly told, and the digital fantasy animation of the film just doesn’t do justice to the nuance of Leslie and Jess’s imaginations….

Summary:

Growing up in rural Virginia, Jess Aarons’ greatest ambition is to be the fastest kid in the 5th grade. Jess’s life is not a happy one—he is mostly ignored at home, is bullied regularly at school, has few friends, and carefully conceals the fact that he loves art because of his reputation as “that crazy little kid that draws all the time”. All of this changes, however, when Leslie Burke comes to town. Leslie is unlike anybody else who has ever attended Lark Creek Elementary; she is tomboyish, talented, creative, and wise beyond her years. She is also faster than Jess, and beats him and every other boy in a playground foot-race on the first day of school. In spite of this inauspicious beginning to their relationship, the Leslie and Jess gradually become close friends, creating (with the aid of Leslie’s powerful imagination) the magical kingdom of Terabithia in the woods, where they reign as king and queen. One day, however, a terrible tragedy strikes out of the blue, and Jess must use everything he has learned from Leslie and Terabithia to come to terms with it.

I’m going to say it: this is the kind of book that can easily make you cry. This is not simply due to the aforementioned tragedy, but also because the entire story rings so true, and the ending of the book leaves you with a beautiful ringing that lingers long after you’ve closed it. I love this kind of resonance—it’s the feeling you get when you finish a book and know for sure that the author has done her job extremely well. The characters are wonderful, finely-wrought, and oh-so believable; trust me when I say that it is worth your time to read this book.

The main reasons this book has been banned so frequently are the use of “coarse language” by some characters and the devastating event that shapes the book’s ending so perfectly. Author Katherine Paterson explains the former thus:

“Jess and his father talk like the people I knew who lived in that area. I believe it is my responsibility to create characters who are real, not models of good behavior. If Jess and his dad are to be real, they must speak and act like real people. I have a lot of respect for my readers. I do not expect them to imitate my characters, [but] simply to care about them and understand them.”

Parents argued that the topic of death was inappropriate for middle-grade readers because it was not a topic kids should have to deal with. I could not disagree more—Jess’s experience, while hopefully one we would never wish on ourselves or our families, is as real as it is heart-achingly painful, and Jess’s reaction is utterly convincing (the story is actually based on the childhood of the author’s son, who, not coincidentally, wrote the screenplay). For kids who have experienced the tragedy of loss, this book is a confirmation that they are not alone in their feelings; for kids who have not, it is a window into that world. Finally, I have to emphasize that the book does have a positive ending, as the characters struggle and eventually come to terms with the event that has shaken their lives so deeply. Although Bridge to Terabithia is without doubt a sad book, it also offers the reader the gifts of courage, friendship, love, and hope.

I would recommend this book for ages 10 and up (but older readers and adults shouldn’t be put-off by the recommended age range or the age of the protagonists).

That’s it for Banned Books Week! I’ll be back soon to review some more great novels…in the meantime, happy reading!

Best wishes,

-Madeline

“If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”

-Noam Chomsky

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Banned Books Week review of:

THE GOLDEN COMPASS (or, NORTHERN LIGHTS)

by Philip Pullman

Author’s Website: http://www.philip-pullman.com/

 

This is one of my favorite books. Ever. I’m just putting that out there before I do this review, because I don’t want anyone to get ridiculously high expectations about this book (only to be disappointed later). But I hope you’re not disappointed, because I think this is a truly spectacular piece of literature…

My first experience with this book was when I received it as a Christmas present from my aunt and uncle—I was twelve at the time. I had never heard of it, and was consequently a bit dubious about reading it. But several days after Christmas, when all of my other gifts had lost their novelty, I was bored. I wandered into my room and, seeing The Golden Compass lying on the floor just inside the door, sat down right then and there on the floor (in the doorway to my bedroom) and began to read. I wish I could say that I remembered more about that initial reading experience, but instead, I only seem to remember what I did after the first chapter—I walked into the dining room to eat dinner and gushed to my parents about this fascinating story of a girl who was sneaking around where she wasn’t supposed to with this shape-shifter called a “daymeon” (it’s “daemon”, and is pronounced like “demon”, but I didn’t know that at the time). It was completely and utterly unlike what I had expected, which turned out to basically be my experience of the entire book—it was never what I expected it to be, and every time I thought I had it pinned down, it took some twist or turn that made me completely reconsider what the story was actually about. I was hooked. 

Summary:

Eleven-year old Lyra Belacqua may be of noble birth and a resident of the prestigious Jordan College, but she is far happier running wild in the streets in the company of her daemon, Pantalaimon, tormenting scholars and waging war with the children of Oxford. But Lyra’s carefree life changes forever when she witnesses an assassination attempt against her uncle, the intimidating Lord Asriel, and in the process, overhears a discussion of something called “Dust”. Before they know it, Lyra and Pan are embroiled in an adventure beyond their wildest dreams, involving stolen children, benevolent witches, armored bears, and a rescue mission to the far north, all with the help of the Oxford gyptians and an alethiometer (a golden compass whose hands point not to north, but to truth itself). But the reality of what they face is far bigger than Lyra and Pan’s understanding of it, and the consequences far more devastating than they could ever imagine…

The Golden Compass has made the list of the top-ten most banned books in the US for several years now, due to its so-called “anti-religious” message, but it remains immensely popular nevertheless. While Philip Pullman has certainly declared himself an atheist and publicly stated his dislike of organized religion, those who criticize the books on these grounds obviously haven’t read them, or else read them looking for “anti-religious” stuff to point out. A quote from Pullman himself on the subject: 

“I think what I would say to the people who criticise me for besmirching their religion and telling children that they should all go out and be Satanists is simply this: what qualities in human beings does the story celebrate and what qualities does it condemn? And an honest reading of the story would have to admit that the qualities that the story celebrates and praises are love, kindness, tolerance, courage, open-heartedness; and the qualities that the story condemns are cruelty, intolerance, zealotry, fanaticism. Well, who could quarrel with that?”

Yes, the Church in Pullman’s world is definitely a negative force, but a lot of people are missing the point that this is fiction. Does Philip Pullman actually believe that the modern Catholic Church is committing the kind of atrocities we read about in Lyra’s world? No, of course not. If you remain unconvinced, go here to read a very thoughtful review of the book (and the rest of the trilogy). There are some other specific religious “sticky points” mentioned by the book’s opponents, but I don’t really want to talk about them because a) they give away critical plot elements, and b) they take place later in the trilogy.

For my part, I completely, passionately, and unreservedly recommend this book. Pullman’s writing is graceful, but still occasionally surprising, and there are passages of text in this book that—as a writer—I find simply beautiful. Better yet, the plot and characters are fresh and gripping, and the settings, while fantastic, never lose the nitty-gritty realism that Pullman employs to keep us grounded. In spite of the protagonist’s age, this book is more than sophisticated enough to entertain a serious adult readership (and in fact, adults may even get more out of it than younger readers). Although there is some violence, none of it is particularly graphic, and language and sexual matters don’t really feature prominently. Generally, I would recommend this book for ages 10 and up. The trilogy as a whole is called, His Dark Materials (a quote from John Milton), and the other two books are The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Pullman has also written two companion books to the series: Once Upon a Time in the North, and Lyra’s Oxford. The former fills in some backstory from the trilogy, and the latter is a bridge between the trilogy and the book he is currently working on, The Book of Dust.

Oh, and one final note: the audiobook versions of these books are WITHOUT DOUBT the best audiobooks I have ever heard. No joke. A full cast recording brings the characters to life, and Philip Pullman is a fabulous narrator—I can’t recommend it enough.

Last day of Banned Books week! I’ll have to get at least one more review in before it’s over…happy reading!

Best wishes,

-Madeline

 

“Did you ever hear anyone say, ‘That work had better be banned because I might read it and it might be very damaging to me?'”

-Joseph Henry Jackson

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