Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Burning Sky by Sherry Thomas

Sherry Thomas, author of The Burning Sky (first book in the Elemental Trilogy), is not the next J.K. Rowling. Of course, there IS no next J.K. Rowling, but that doesn’t stop publishers from comparing new authors to her.

The most recent author to be compared to Rowling ad nauseum is Samantha Shannon, author of The Bone Season. I bring this up because if I WERE to compare a new YA author to Rowling, it would be Sherry Thomas, not Samantha Shannon. I am a public librarian, and if a Harry Potter fan asked me for a new book they might like, I’d recommend The Burning Sky (and not The Bone Season). Like the Harry Potter series and unlike The Bone Season, it has moments of true warmth and levity.

The Burning Sky is similar to the world of Harry Potter in many ways. Attendance at a boarding school, check, although in this case it is a decidedly unmagical Eton College. Spells based on latin, check. Prophecies and seers, check.

But the author paints her own magical world in The Burning Sky. The magical domain and the nonmagical realm co-exist. The greatest elemental mage of a generation has been prophesied. This person, able to manipulate earth, air, water and fire, will face the Bane, the powerful mage and tyrant of Atlantis. Prince Titus, the teenaged figurehead Master of the Domain, has known since a young age that he is destined to assist the mage and die in the process.

Then, through a careless bit of magic, Iolanthe Seabourne reveals herself to be the prophesied elemental mage. Atlantis and the Bane want to use her. Prince Titus does too – he wants to use her to bring down Atlantis and the Bane.  The Prince gets to her first, and puts into action a plan he has worked on for almost his whole life.

Iolanthe and Titus have a distrustful but dependent relationship. Iolanthe, disguised as a boy, attends Eton with the young Prince, and there are moments of joy and humor in their day-to-day interactions with fellow students. One plot device I enjoyed was the Crucible, a magical training tool that Titus and Iolanthe virtually disappear into to prepare for the challenges that await them.

I won’t reveal anymore, but The Burning Sky is a fun, suspenseful, and yes, magical read. I definitely recommend it to anyone who is a fan of Harry Potter or similar series.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Second Suns by David Oloiver Relin

Think about being only able to see shadows. Not even bright sun can make the shadows clear.
Now imagine yourself living in the Himalayan Mountains, using that "sight" to walk along narrow ledges daily just to get water.

This book is about two Doctors who decided to end preventable blindness starting in Nepal and moving out into African, and South east Asian countries. It shows that the world can be changed with dedication and much hard work.

I enjoyed reading this! It left me thinking what am I doing to make my world a better place? 

Love in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block

Submitted by Stephen, teen reviewer:

Penelope, or “Pen,” is a 17-year-old heroine who has lost everything important in her life, including her family and her home in the devastating earthquake and tsunami. The only thing she has left is her favorite book The Odyssey. And like the Odysseus in the epic poem, Pen has to go out on epic journey in search for a home. During her journey she has to face her greatest fears and her strongest loves. Francesca Lia Block makes this beautiful tale come alive with her fantastic writing style, as she takes across the post-apocalyptic wasteland of what is left of Los Angeles through the eyes of the brave young Penelope. While the plot may not be entirely realistic, it does make for a compulsive reading. The book is a page turner and will have you enthralled with the dystopian world the author has written for you. The author has a special style of writing all her own. Her writing has an almost dream-like feel and while it is far from realism it still grabs you and takes hold through the pages. This is a great book for anyone looking for an epic adventure or any fans of The Odyssey.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Longbourn by Jo Baker

In this 200th anniversary year of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a new book by Jo Baker called Longbourn is getting a lot of attention. Longbourn is the Bennet family estate, home to Elizabeth, the future Mrs. Darcy.

Longbourn takes place at the same time as the events of Pride & Prejudice, only the focus is on the Bennet family servants. Mrs. Hill is the housekeeper, Mr. Hill the butler, and Sarah and Polly the two maids. The point is made that Polly is really named Mary, but since there is a Bennet daughter named Mary, the maid must be called by another name. The book stresses how different life is for the servants than it is for the family. In Pride & Prejudice, we are made keenly aware that the Bennets do not have a lot of extra money to maintain their estate, but in Longbourn we see how much more work this means for the family servants.
Elizabeth’s youthful high spirits and hardiness are demonstrated by her walk to Netherfield from Longbourn without any regard for her petticoats; in Longbourn we understand the extra work those high spirits cause for the maids who must clean the petticoats. The author does not hold back regarding any of the unpleasant tasks of the day, whether emptying chamber pots or washing the “monthly napkins.”
Longbourn does not read like a Jane Austen novel, although the details about dress and manners are there. It reads like a modern novel written about that time period, rather than a book written at that time. Things happen and are described that would never be present in an Austen novel. I found Longbourn very slow starting; it did not really catch my attention until well into the book. I kept at it because the book is getting so much buzz and because of my affection for Pride & Prejudice.
In addition to the many historical details about what it was like to be a servant during the time of Pride & Prejudice, the plot revolves around Sarah, the housemaid. She is interested in Ptolemy, a footman for the Bingleys, but also shares a high level of awareness with the Bennet family’s mysterious new manservant James.  Towards the end, there is a plot development that I found highly unbelievable, which undermined my investment in the book.
I understand a movie is already in the works, and I think Longbourn could be a terrific movie, condensed and focused on the most interesting parts. It’s not a bad book, but in the end, my favorite parts were the times we got to see glimpses of the beloved characters from Pride & Prejudice. I might have enjoyed rereading P&P a lot more. Still, many Jane Austen fans will enjoy reading Longbourn.
I read an advanced reader copy of Longbourn. It is scheduled to be published in October 2013.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Alex & Me by Irene Pepperberg

I have an African Grey Parrot, so I'm a little biased toward liking Alex & Me. This is my second time reading it, as I chose it a discussion title for the library's book clubs. I have also read and enjoyed Dr. Irene Pepperberg's more scientific book The Alex Studies.

Alex & Me tells the story of Dr. Pepperberg's personal relationship with an African Grey Parrot named Alex (for Avian Language Experiment). She bought him from a pet shop and spent 30 years working with him, disproving assumptions about animal intelligence and behavior.

I am fascinated by Alex and how he changed the way humans view animal intelligence and learning. It's very sad that he died so young (for a parrot), and also that Pepperberg has to constantly scramble for funds to continue her work. This book is filled with sweet, funny, and astounding anecdotes about Alex that don't "prove" anything scientifically but are nonetheless fascinating and thought provoking.

As the owner of an African Grey Parrot, a couple of things she said surprised me. On page 63, she writes “It turned out that beginning training with ‘paper’ was an extremely bad choice, because it is very hard to make a ‘puh’ sound if you don’t have lips.” My parrot Ascar’s favorite word is “popcorn” and he also says “pretty” and parrot”. I don't know how he does it, but evidently the p sound was harder for Alex.

On page 156, she talks about taking Alex home, where he saw an owl and became terrified. My parrot once sat about five feet from a Cooper’s Hawk on a fence in our backyard and he couldn’t have been less interested, although they made eye contact.

In any event, if you are interested in parrots or bird or other animal intelligence, I recommend both Alex & Me and The Alex Studies.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell

I always read Daniel Woodrell’s books with a good deal of interest, since my grandmother was from the Missouri Ozark area, and visiting her was a yearly event of my childhood.  This slim book was of particular interest, since it was based on a very specific historical incident, the tragic dance hall fire that occurred in 1928 in West Plains, Mo. (West Table in the book).   What (or who) caused the fire is still unclear.  Woodrell doesn’t care.  He takes this straw of confusion and spins, if not gold, at least silver in his wholly fictional rendering of the event. 

The narrator is the grandson of the maid of all work of the title, and the story moves between her version of what happened and the intersecting lives of other town folk who died in or were otherwise affected by the fire. Her backstory is the real event of the book.  The characters are fully realized and for the most part realistic, although Woodrell is never above a certain amount of novelistic exaggeration when it comes to characters.  And yes, Woodrell presents us with a fictional perpetrator, so no annoying unsolved ending.

As always, his writing is top-notch, but, oddly, in spite of being based on an actual event, this story is not as gripping and realistic as his excellent Winter’s Bone.  Nevertheless, it’s definitely worth the couple of evenings that you will spend reading it!  Recommended.